Month: April 2007

Signal to noise

The Joshua Bell as subway musician story has made its way around most of the musical blogs already, but I’ll join the fun and link to it as a service to those readers who don’t always frequent other sites (like, say, my mom).

Personal analogue: my college roommate Mark used to have a gig playing lounge piano in the lobby of a fancy-schmancy apartment building in Chicago, and I would sub for him every now and again. How little attention was being paid? I could leaven my directionless Dukelsky-esque noodlings with entire pieces by Schoenberg and Feldman with nary a raised eyebrow from the residents. Ignoration has its perks.

(Actually, there was one guy living there who did pay attention. Whenever Michael Morgan walked through the lobby, Mark would segue into the most incongruous bit of operatic repertoire he could think of. There’s a certain unique fun in pitching your act to the farthest corner of the room.)

The merry-go-round, broke down

Stephen Thaler is a computer scientist whose St. Louis-based Imagination Engines, Inc. builds electronic neural networks that are designed to generate new ideas based on pre-existing parameters. He’s been training his Creativity Machine network to write music. Thaler feeds a bunch of music into the network, then perturbs the electronic neurons so they start reassembling the material into new combinations.

Basically one neural network, called the imagitron, is bathed in simulated heat. It generates new ideas. The other, called the perceptron, monitors the first. It has opinions and governs the amount of heat stimulating the imagitron…. I would smile or frown as the machine generated sound and the perceptron could see my reactions. If I liked something, it would remember that and map a pattern of how I would rate a song, freezing in memories of likable tunes.

Thaler plans to release an album of machine-created music on iTunes in the near future.

This isn’t Thaler’s first foray into composition. In 1994, he claimed U.S. Copyright no. PAu-1-920-845 on 11,000 “musical hooks” generated by the Creativity Machine. From the company’s history:

October, 1995 [sic], Most Prolific Musician of All Time. A Creativity Machine, trained on top-ten melodies over the preceding 30 years proceeds to invent 11,000 new musical hooks that are promptly copyrighted. Interestingly enough human musical artists disdain the copyright, protesting that “only human minds can conceive music!” Thaler holds back on a million song database generated via Creativity Machine in view of the spirited response from human artists. …On the flip side, computational musicians don’t get it either, feeling that they can do the same thing, spending months or years concocting new works of art via computer. What they don’t realize was that only a few hours had been spent by Thaler in translating sheet music to a representation more conducive to neural nets. Beyond that, Creativity Machine function was spontaneous and voluminous.

Just in case you weren’t sure that Thaler was prone to confuse quality with quantity, he’s also copyrighted (no. TX-5-725-954) a million new machine-generated English words.

Let’s leave aside the absolute inanity of the Copyright office on this. (Every time I write a new phrase, I’m supposed to check and make sure I’m not infringing on 11,000 randomly-generated variations? Please.) If you get the sense that Thaler has a tendency to indiscriminately anthropomorphize the output of these neural networks, you’re right. From the article:

Q. And music from your computers is different?

A. It’s filled with feeling. It’s generated much the same as music from the mind of a human composer. It is spontaneously and autonomously generated by machines, using only raw emotional response from a human being. There are no explicit rules, no databases of prior music and no templates of any kind.

No database of prior music—that is, except the examples that Thaler’s fed into the machine as raw materials. It’s not filled with feeling, it’s filled with processes gradually filtered out by a feedback loop. The filtering itself, in its speed and efficiency, may be impressive, but all it’s doing is throwing sonic spaghetti against the refrigerator door of Thaler’s ear and noting which strands stick.

No doubt Thaler would claim that’s all human composers do, and we’re just arrogantly attributing it inspiration or whatever because we don’t consider the process. The machine, though, doesn’t imagine the intended emotional state and then try to realize that state in sound. It’s doing what Thaler has programmed it to do, methodically trying permutations until the desired feedback goal—Thaler smiling—is consistently attained. It’s the ultimate pop music dispenser: it gives you what you like, and only what you like, all the time. Does Thaler really think this is what composers try to do? (In his patent for the machine, Thaler theorizes that ideas are noting more than “degraded memories,” which makes me wonder just what it was, say, Harry Partch was trying to recall.) And note that the computer is beholden to whatever styles are used as examples. As Thaler says: “We put in a wide spectrum—classical, rock, hip-hop.” The prospect of an experimental aesthetic only arises if the listener providing feedback has formulated that aesthetic already.

Don’t get me wrong—the technology certainly sounds cool. It’s just that Thaler’s reading into it something that’s just not there. In between programming machines to design warheads or toothbrushes, Thaler has started In Its Image, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to “Raising awareness, through public seminars, of the artificial intelligence technology that promises to be the computational vehicle for immortality.” The idea is that we’ll all upload our meat-based, decrepit neural networks onto robust Creativity Machines and thus maintain our own unique consciousness indefinitely.

This sounds suspiciously like a humble cousin to a scenario laid out by physicist Frank Tipler in his book The Physics of Immortality, which proposes the universe evolving into an all-powerful quantum computer that will simultaneously recreate every possible state of consciousness in a perpetual virtual reality. If that sounds fishy to you, well, you’re not alone. Thaler doesn’t go nearly that far, but reducing human experience to mere neural interaction implicitly devalues the powerful artistic spur of human fallibility, decay, imperfection—the magical, cascadingly fruitful effort of pushing up against the boundaries of time, understanding, and physical ability. I admit, this might just be my own post-Romantic bias against crude 17th-century body vs. soul dualism—an analysis of this blog’s archive would no doubt reveal a standing prejudice against the immutably unbreakable. The cultural expressions I treasure are the products of imaginations inseperably bound up with the frustration, desperation, and exhilaration of corporeal existence.

Besides, the proof is in the pudding, right? Well, if this brief, Mannheim-Steamroller-worthy MP3 sample of Thaler’s handiwork is really the music of an immortal future, I have to admit, a mortal opt-out is looking better and better.

Object lesson

Two of my greatest music score bargain finds have been Richard Strauss. Back in my Tanglewood days, a field trip to a used book store in northern Connecticut yielded a four-dollar Boosey vocal score of Salome. And a few years back, I rescued this two-dollar treasure from a discard sale at the Boston Conservatory library.

That’s an original Fürstner piano-vocal score of Die Frau ohne Schatten. I can see why the library was getting rid of it, as it’s rather beat up: the spine is falling apart, the pages are brittle, most of the corners are cracked and disintegrating. For cheap score study, though, it’s perfectly serviceable.

Actually, I’m not sure this particular copy ever any shelf time at all. Imagine my surprise when I opened it up at home and this came tumbling out:

The Staatsoper Berlin performed Die Frau on June 22, 1940, and the previous owner of the score, a man named Gustav Grossmann, saw fit to hang on to the program. I’m not sure why—he doesn’t appear among the personnel:

(Click on the image to enlarge. The only names I knew are Torsten Kalf and Walter Grossmann; no doubt opera buffs will recognize many more.) Grossmann did work for the Staatsoper, however. He stamped the score with his address:

Based on the markings in the score I’d guess he was either an assistant conductor or a répétiteur. The only thing I’ve been able to learn about him is that he conducted the German premiere of Zemlinsky’s opera Der Kreidekreis in 1934, shortly before Zemlinsky left Germany forever. (The performance was repeatedly disrupted by a claque of brownshirts.) No reference books, English or German, mention him. He must have survived the war—the score has pencilled notes regarding either a performance or a broadcast of the opera in 1959, conducted by Karl Böhm. (The singers mentioned seem to be the same as those on Böhm’s 1955 Decca recording.)

I could probably find out more about him if I really tried; maybe someday I will. Right now, though, I don’t want to know more about him. For me, the power of this particular artifact lies in its mystery. I don’t know what Grossmann’s personal or professional connection with this particular piece was. I don’t know what he did or didn’t do during the war. I don’t know why he kept the program—an innocent souvenir? A rueful reminder? Secret pride?

Most importantly, I don’t know by what path this score, with its potent accessory, ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. And because I don’t know, I’m forced to imagine, which inevitably leads to a consideration of what I would have done had I been in Grossmann’s place, in any of the numerous scenarios, charged or benign, that could have transpired. It brings up the very real possibility that, in certain situations, I may not have been as heroic or courageous as I would like to imagine.

I’ve been revisiting the life and music of Anton Webern over the past few months. Webern’s relationship to the Nazis was, to put it mildly, an unfortunate combination of naïveté, patriotism, and opportunism. He deplored the anti-Semitism, but was entranced by the strong German nationalism, the prospect of German culture once again taking the lead after the disaster of World War I. As his Jewish friends were forced into leave, Webern never could bring himself to denounce the Nazis. Maybe he thought that Kristallnacht and the like was just a phase, that cooler heads would prevail, and everyone would come back. They never did, and the break with his former colleagues (particularly Schoenberg, who had been like a father) must have been distressing. One of the sadder episodes in Webern’s life involves the solo piano Variations, written in 1936: Webern dedicated the piece to the Jewish pianist Edward Steuermann as a token of friendship. Steuermann, shortly to flee Europe, never acknowledged the gift, disgusted by Webern’s refusal to speak out.

Of course, Webern’s pain is trivial compared with those who were exiled or who perished in the camps. But still, I get the sense that I would have rather liked Webern as a person, and I want to go back in time, shake him by the shoulders, and tell him, convince him, that these people aren’t who he thinks they are, that they’re not going to change, and that he has to take a stand, that even remaining silent is a stain that he’ll never be able to wash away. And then I wonder what someone from fifty years in the future would be shaking my shoulders about. One of the most amazing things about that 1940 program is that it contains absolutely no hint that there’s a war on. In the face of even that epochal conflagration, the urge to maintain the façade of a normal, everyday life must have kept many people from refusing to recognize what was going on until it was too late. That’s why I hang on to the program, to remind myself that the right thing to do isn’t usually the convenient thing, that a path through life that avoids unpleasant obstacles is liable to lead one down dark, dead-end streets. Sunlight can burn, but the alternative is living in perpetual shadow.


The Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra has announced that they’re changing their name . (Article via ArtsJournal.) The new name, created in consultation with HCD Advertising and Public Relations, is “Symphonicity.” Yes, that’s the whole thing. Symphonicity.

“It’s a $50 word, that’s for sure,” said Dan Downing, executive vice president at HCD. “But it’s something that you see it, you don’t forget it.”

Kind of like a car crash, I suppose. Fifty bucks, eh? One wonders what the going rate is for “Orchestrexcellent” or “Philharmarvelous.”

Now, I really shouldn’t make fun of efforts by smaller, regional orchestras to expand their name recognition or media presence—they’re feeling the economic squeeze far more than their big-city counterparts. I’m going to make fun of this, though, because that might just be the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.

HCD’s relationship with the English language does seem to be more that of a distant cousin than a beloved sibling. From their website:

If marketing is not relevant, it has no purpose. If it is not original, it will attract no attention. If it is not impactful, it will make no lasting impression.

If it is not a double negative, it will be no harder to read. And there’s a circle of hell reserved for non-facetious users of words like “impactful.”

The orchestra announced the change on April 1st. I hope they take the implied out, and say the whole thing was a joke.

Rewards that will be great somewhere

It’s Holy Week, the most important hebdomad in the Christian calendar. Since I’m a church musician, this means that my week has essentially been vacuumed up and pulverized into a fine, delicate powder. Music ministers may vary in piety and theological aptitude, but I’ll tell you this much: we all have an appreciation of Ordinary Time that far surpasses those in the pews. (Another church musician I know once referred to the day after Easter as “Good Monday.”)

I chalk this up as another occupational hazard—the fact that performing musicians don’t get to enjoy the experience the way audiences do. For example: if we wallow in the sadness of a sad piece, or the exultation of an exultant piece, it’s liable to distract us from the things we have to concentrate on in order to communicate that sadness or exultation to the listener. On the other hand, we get the intellectual and kinesthetic satisfaction of building the edifice, rather than just apprehending it. It’s more than a fair trade; but it means that we can’t share certain, crucial parts of the audience’s experience.

So like Christmas, I’ll have my Easter holiday sometime after everyone else’s is over. (I wonder if my synagogal counterparts have the same feelings about Passover or High Holy Days. “Why is this night different from every other night?” Because there’s no extra rehearsal.) Anyhow, to expiate my sin of blasphemous complaining, you can now download the rest of the Easter introit up there for free—for free—at the Choral Public Domain Library. It’s on its third go-round with my choir, and it’s unusual in that they actually like it. Wonders never cease.

Update: The CPDL link has gone dead, so here’s the score:

Easter-Day (2005) (PDF, 2 pages, 115 Kb)

Back catalog

A man named George Hargreaves has, once again, decided to run for the Scottish Parliament. Hargreaves is an ordained Pentecostal minister and the founder of the Scottish Christian Party. Hargreaves is going after the Green Party MP Patrick Harvie, mainly on the grounds that Harvie is gay and campaigns for gay rights. As Hargreaves says, “Homosexuality is a sin. I am against Patrick Harvie because he campaigns against Christian teachings on the subject. We have to stop the moral slide turning into a moral avalanche.”

The punch line: Hargreaves has been able to fund his party out of the multiple millions of pounds he made co-writing (with American Idol‘s Simon Cowell) the 1980s Sinitta flip sides “So Macho” (video here) and “Cruising” (dance mix here), two of the biggest British gay pop anthems of the past quarter-century. Kind of like if Pete Seeger had taken all the royalties from “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy” and donated the money to, say, George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. I’ve said it before: I can’t make this stuff up.

Lieder mit Worte

I had a chance on Friday to go to a free lunch/press conference with James Levine at Symphony Hall, to coincide with the announcement of the Boston Symphony’s 2007-08 season. (Jeremy Eichler explains it all for you here.) Levine must be the easiest interviewee in the world: ask him a question, no matter how innocuous, and he’ll talk for fifteen minutes. (He spent five minutes explaining why he wouldn’t answer one question.) The big highlight: Berlioz’s Les Troyens, presented in two parts for two weekends in the spring—and both parts performed back-to-back on May 4, 2008. If you want to find my Berliozophile self on May 4th, you know where to look.

But here’s something interesting that I noticed later: two out of the four commissions being premiered are symphonies that involve voice, John Harbison’s Fifth (with mezzo-soprano and baritone), and William Bolcom’s Eighth (with chorus). Obviously the Harbison owes a debt to Das Lied von der Erde (which it’s being performed with), and the Bolcom puts one in mind of both Beethoven and Mahler. “Symphonies” that involve voices tend to come at transitional points in music history, but also have a tendency to take on political overtones, even if only by association: Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, right on the line between the Classical and Romantic eras, but also, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unofficial national anthem of anti-totalitarianism. Or think of Mahler’s huge vocal symphonies, humanistic paeans to God and nature in the midst of a decaying imperialist world—and the dissolution of Romanticism. Or Shostakovich’s Thirteenth and Fourteenth. Or Bernstein’s Third (the ultimate 60s happening). It’s as if history reaches a point where abstract music just isn’t enough, and composers feel the need to tell rather than imply.

So for fun, let’s take the position that the appearance of these two new entries at the same time isn’t a coincidence, that it’s indicative of some confluence of the zeitgeist that’s bubbled up to the surface. What’s the significance? Is it political—American artists finally absorbing a) the end of Western hegemony, b) rapidly fraying American imperialism, c) the latest upturn in the historical cycle of violence, d) a pivotal clash of incompatible cultures, or e) the current hell-in-a-handbasket of your choice? Or is it one of those final, grand pronouncements on a fading style? Which begs the question: which style? American academic composition? Eclecticism? The idea of a symphony itself?

I don’t know—maybe no significance at all. But I like to think this way every once in a while. What’s the big shift going on in the world right now that, looking back, will sum up the era a hundred years from now? Even better: what if it’s something that we don’t even notice? (Cue quietly dramatic music from basses and bassoons.)

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what they actually feed the press at a press lunch: sandwiches. Dressed with inordinate quantities of mayonnaise. Outstanding cookies, though.