Thursday, November 10, 2011

the Cyborg composer, the laws of music, and the question of "soul"

What do people gain from all their labors
   at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
   but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
   and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
   and turns to the north;
   round and round it goes,
   ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
   yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
   there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
   more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
   nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
   what has been done will be done again;
   there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
   “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
   it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
   and even those yet to come
   will not be remembered
   by those who follow them.

Ecclesiastes 1:3-11

The subject of "soul" in music and musical composition is never really about music itself. Even those of us who do not, as a rule, officially go in for programmatic music, still bring programmatic conceits to our listening experience. Consider all the people who, if you ask them, will say point blank they don't enjoy instrumental music because they want to hear a fellow human singing.

I, however, love instrumental music and yet I think the question of "soul" does not go away when discussing instrumental music. Years ago I wrote about how instrumental rock is a niche market, it rarely takes off. A handful of instrumental pop hits have happened in the last few decades but these are instrumentals that, for want of a better word, sing. If you queue up "Tequila" and listen to that legendary solo you can find it easy to sing along with. Now by contrast try to sing anything by Yngwie Malmsteen. Try to sing guitar solos by Jimmy Page. Try to sing keyboard solos by McCoy Tyner. I'm not saying you CAN'T possibly do it but I'm pointing out that instrumental music comes with a different set of understandings about what constitutes "soul".

But whatever "soul" is, it is still there. Instrumental music frequently trades on the ideal and existence of the individual voice. Popular soloists become popular because they establish a unique musical voice. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Django Rheinhart, Thelonious Monk, these are all instrumentalists who developed an identifiable musical voice. Whether or not we can break down their complete discographies and figure out where and how they copied from everything before them won't change the uniqueness of their voice.

What Cope's sample fugue illustrates is that he may have taught Emmy a few things but he didn't teach Emmy how to keep fugue subjects short and within a relatively narrow range. Contrapunal art developed within the choral idiom before it developed in the instrumental idiom. Bach's legendary C major fugue for solo violin is based on a German language adaptation of the Latin hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus. In the case of emulating the work of a musician and a composer with a Christian faith as serious as Bach's was "soul" is not just a purely academic question about the notes. "soul" becomes a question of extramusical associations that are not only impossible to ignore but are also foundational to Bach's approach to important instrumental works.

Now Cope can make the case that humans are more robotic than machines but he may be making a category mistake here. That much of the human mind/brain reacts and makes decisions that are beyond purely rational observation in the moment of action does not make humans more robotic than robots. What it makes humans is less rational than humans like to tell themselves they are. We like to think a lot of our thinking is more conscious than it necessarily is. There are Spocks who think that they are who they are because of what they think. I tend to fall into this category most of the time. But I at length keep discovering there are deeply emotional and irrational aspects of myself that I'm not usually happy with.

Those at another pole may think they are flying by the seat of their pants and intuitively doing the stuff that "comes naturally". These people are more likely to avoid conceding that "what comes naturally" has some blunt pragmatism and logic to it that may not always be easily explained--or, perhaps more to a particular point, when "the heart wants what the heart wants" there may be reasons that are simple enough to explain but that still elicit the "ew" reaction. I knew a fellow who for years would say there are no aesthetic absolutes. None. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

Some guy may claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that there are no aesthetic absolutes but if he sees a woman who displays a higher than average level of body symmetry; has features that adhere more than usual to the golden proportion; who has what may be considered more hyper-feminine physiology; has large breasts; has "birthin' hips"; and even displays a dark and prominent limbal ring around the iris, what happens? This guy, who previously said there were no aesthetic absolutes and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, very frequently, says "Dude, that woman is hot!" Any woman who has found herself wanting by this aforementioned checklist could probably point out that while all the points in the checklist may "seem" irrational and maybe "are" irrational the foundational assessment and conclusion such a checklist plays in the mating game is bluntly and mercilessly logical and pragmatic. The more biology establishes what signals what in the mating game the less purely cultural and arbitrary male and female standards of beauty turn out to be.

Which is to say that Cope can say what he wants about humans being more robotic than robots. It's easy to say that we're biased as though that were bad. The conundrum of human experience is that our irrationalism can often turn out to be suffused with weirdly rational foundations if we step in close to examine their apparent irrationality. At the same time our rational powers and rationalism can derive from weirdly irrational impulses and concerns. In an epoch in which we learn more about the biological checklists of the mating game and how much is geared toward the mating dance (which evangelicals have essentially capitulated to without recognition), philosphers and neuroscientists have started to kick around the idea that we evolved logic not to actually discover the truth but to win arguments in social settings to work toward this or that policy decision. If our irrationality is more rational on sex than we sometimes like to concede, and if our rationality is not even as rational as we have assumed it ought to be then where is the substance of Cope's reaction to the "no soul" objection? Where, too, is the substance of seeing music written by the cyborg composer as having "no soul"?

The music that moved Cope and was "the orgasm of his life" was Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet. There we already have a musical work that is programmatic and has music with meaning grounded in extra-musical association. When Cope says that if you have to promote your own music to get people to like it what have you really achieved? Well, uh, for one thing, if you promote your music so that people will like it and they like it then that's a self-explanatory answer, isn't it? If a person likes your music they are more likely to love it and music is never merely music.

Music may be individual and yet Cope seems to miss that music is communal, music is shared. Couples have "our song", the song that distills a moment in their relationship or how they feel about each other even if the song itself may have virtually nothing to do with what really happened in their relationship if you looked through the words and music and the sounds themselves. I'm friends with a couple who have been married for years and the personally significant song for them is Portishead's "Glory Box". I've been friends with them a long time so I know the story about how and why the song is significant for them. For another friend of mine, who introduced me to the band Portishead, it was all about "spy-junk guitars" and "this is the soundtrack to a James Bond movie that is so cool no one could possibly make it." And so far my friend has been absolutely right about that! Here a single song by a single band takes on two different meanings through extra-musical association.

Cope says at the end of the article:

“I want that little boy or girl to have access to my music so they can play it and get the same thrill I got when I was a kid,” he says. “And if that isn’t gonna happen, then I’ve completely failed.”

What was that thrill? The thrill of discovering something sublime? The thrill of discovery? The joy of discovering something that was new and yet emotionally engaging and familiar? Of rediscovering an emotional state called home yet finding it in a musical moment for the first time? There are some film critics who have written that there is only one time you can experience the joyful surprise of Singin' in the Rain for the first time. As with so many human experiences, but perhaps most legendarily with sex, there's that one "first time". Many tedious and needless memoirs have apparently been written about first sexual encounters. A sexual encounter with another person is considered powerfully formative. An encounter with a musical work can be similarly formative, indeed, to go by the accounts of musicians who lived fast and free that first life-changing musical encounter is frequently more profound and truly life-changing than the line of abandoned lovers.

If music, as so often seems to be true, is never merely about music but about sharing in the joys and sorrows and desires of life then perhaps the reason Cope hasn't heard that he's touched anyone at a life-changing level is in part because he's so eager to ignore what "soul" in music might be and so focused on the music as music he forgets that's never just the song, there's also usually a dance. If Cope can find a way to assimilate extra-musical, literary, and visual symbolic considerations into his program he might have a better opportunity to create a music that takes on a sublime meaning for a listener out there somewhere. It would also help if he told his programs to do a better job of outlining contrast between a subject and constituent countersubjects (assuming the program puts real countersubjects in there). If he's already got all those Bach chorales entered in as music then maybe he could just expand the project to incorporate all aspects of text-setting for the chorales, if he hasn't done that already.

Epiphany through music is the shock or joy of discovery and if "soul" is what is missing from Cope's, er, programmatic music for a lot of people it may not merely be because a program is creating music. Let me put it this way, the program may create the music based on Cope's discoveries about patterns but perhaps the flaw with Emmy or Emily Howell does reflect back on Cope's observation that humans are more robotic than robots. Or, at least, Cope may himself see himself as more robotic than a robot in some way. As a composer, and as a Christian who has read Ecclesiastes more than a few times, I have no problem with the idea that there is nothing truly original, that no one can create any music in a vacuum, and that ultimately everything that seems new has turned out to be indebted to the old. In the book of Revelation we can read that Christ promises "Behold I make all things new."

The only way all things can ultimately be made new or seem new is a divine grace. This may be what some people are grasping for when they try to explain how this or that music lacks "soul". The hope of accomplishment is not the same as the hope of discovery. As Bach put it, he could put the notes together but God made those notes music. A secular variation might be that you can map out all the right notes and chords but the "divine" moment of musical epiphany is never something you can control or try to control. Cope has no hope of creating a musical work that moves someone the way Romeo and Juliet moved him. It shouldn't even be a goal. What animates musicians and composers, I trust, is that in our work we have moments of joyful discovery that we share in musical form. If other people share in that moment of discovery we have found an audience. If not, well, we can keep making music and keep making discoveries.

If Cope's programs lack "soul" it may have little to do with the program and more to do with the discoveries Cope thought he made about Bach's music that he programmed into his programs. He may be closer to mining the laws and patterns of all music across the world and this is an amazing feat if true. Shouldn't he consider publishing the sum of the results illustrating how there may be fundamental patterns across all world music? Wouldn't such discoveries, if viable, be a great gift to tearing down barriers to musical appreciation and cross-cultural appreciation? I have been writing here at this little blog for years that fusion and synthesis seem to be the future of music. Where Western classical music seemed to be revolutionized by a cosmopolitan transnational style (18th century) that led to an explosion of nationalistic music (19th century) and to furher explosion with unexpected consolidation in pop music (20th century) through the mixing of white and black music, what if the future holds, as Toru Takemitsue predicted it probably would, a still further musical fusion of Asian and Western musical values? Cope's work as a composer hardly needs to be the single thing he should stake his life's work on.

Why, then, would he feel like a failure for not being able to create a sublime piece of music himself? Would it be because once the veil has been sundered the mystery is all gone? Is it like the woman of modernity that H. L. Mencken said would become less attractive because of demystifying sexuality and sex so much, that would cast out poets and painters in exchange for photographers and dermatologists?

The hope of creating a purely musical work that will affect and effect someone if you make it with the help of a computer is not quite the same as some young man nervously playing a song he's written for a young woman he likes in the hope that it will impress her. One of my friends labored for some time on a song that he hoped would please a woman he liked a great deal. The song fell flat. My brother-in-law created a song inspired by meeting my sister. That "might" tell you right there that his musical creation was more effective but my friend has been married for a decade to the woman who didn't care for his song! She discovered more about who he was and is than just that at that time he didn't write the kinds of songs that made a strong impression on her.

If Cope never manages to compose a piece of music that touches anyone it won't even be his fault. You can't control for that sort of thing. It shouldn't even be a goal for any musician. It can be a hope but should not be a goal. If he has discovered, as some have put it, the laws underlying all music, is he unhappy because he has discovered these laws? No, but he seems unhappy that along the way he hasn't managed to create music from these observable patterns that has grabbed someone. If he doesn't believe in such a thing as a soul then there's no trouble in failing to create a musical work that hits someone in the face with the force of a religious conversion experience. As a Lutheran might put it, Cope's work may have uncovered all the Law of music and even keep it perfectly ... but at this point there seems to have been little Gospel in his music.

Performers asking him to have Emily write something more "special" could pretty well spell it out.  Perfectly keeping the rules isn't the same as writing great music and great music is not what happens merely within the mind and experience of the one who makes it.  Back to Bach, as he put it, the composer can put the notes on the page and arrange the sounds but God makes the music.  For the secularist, you can make what you consider to be the best music on earth but if it doesn't touch anyone else then all you've done is please yourself.  In a strange irony Cope has spent time lambasting originality and "soul" and yet what he has failed to obtain is the transcendent moment of his music being accepted as sublime by another.
If the music of Emily Howell has no "soul" this isn't because of Emily Howell, which is just a computer program, it's all on Cope. It's Cope's music, not Emily's, that has no soul. If a man doesn't believe in such a thing as a soul why should he be surprised if people who believe in "soul" (whether they're truly religious or not) don't take to the music? If we don't have souls (or even if we do) why worry about not accomplishing something you can't possibly control for? If you're working toward an ideal I guess that's cool but Cope could provide us wonderful resources by publishing the patterns and analysis of centuries of music and this could be more valuable than him composing one piece of music that moves someone. As Mick Jagger put it in that song, "You can't always get what you want ... ."

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