Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Music by Machine

There was an interesting article in the weekend Wall Street Journal about computer software that is getting good enough at replacing the sound of a full symphonic orchestra to be used for performances, or more often for "realizations" of new compositions or music scores that might otherwise be difficult to put on without great cost.
Paul Henry Smith, a conductor who studied as a teen under Leonard Bernstein, hopes to pull off an ambitious performance next year: conducting three Beethoven symphonies back-to-back in a live concert. "Doing Beethoven's symphonies is how you prove your mettle," he says.

But Mr. Smith's proof comes with the help of a computerized baton. He will use it to lead an "orchestra" with no musicians -- the product of a computer program designed by a former Vienna Philharmonic cellist and comprised of over a million recorded notes played by top musicians.

Amid all the troubles facing the classical music world in recent years -- from declining attendance to budget cuts -- none has mobilized musicians more than the emergence of computers that can stand in for performers. Musicians have battled with mixed success to keep them out of orchestra pits in theaters, ballets and opera houses. Now, a new alliance of conductors, musicians and engineers is taking a counterintuitive stance: that embracing the science is actually the best hope for keeping the art form vital and relevant. They say recent technological advances mean the music now sounds good enough to be played outside the touring musicals and Cirque du Soleil shows it is typically associated with.

Among their arguments: Aspiring composers who couldn't otherwise afford to have their creations performed by an orchestra can now commission a high-quality computer-generated recording for a fraction of the price. For communities facing the loss of their orchestra, it could be a way to keep performances in town -- even if it means a computer stands in for half the players.
You can test your ear by listening four samples, three of which are real orchestra, and one of which is entirely computerized.

This has, of course, resulted in no small amount of controversy in the classical music world. It cetainly seems like it would be a shame if this became a replacement for performances by live musicians with real instruments, but as a tool for allowing a composer to show what his music sounds like without spending the 50k+ to have a full size orchestra rehearse and perform the piece, it certainly seems to make a lot of sense.


Anonymous said...

I once had a music teacher who said that music is the combination of sound, time, and emotion.

As technically as a coputer could be with sound and time, it can never capture the emotion that makes live music so appealing. Even if the sound and rythms are replicated exactly, there is something intangibly and humanly awe inspiring about music created by human beings.

Praying Twice said...

I feel pretty weird about this. I think the negatives far outweigh the positives. Will people really want to pay good money for a performance of Beethoven's Third Symphony performed by a computer? Just go buy a recording . . .

And as a musician who regularly sings in an ensemble setting, I just can't see this working out well. Thomas Day remarked that there was a movement a while back that pushed for organists to be replaced by organs that could play recordings to lead congregational singing. He said that Catholics were excited about it while Protestants scoffed. They recognized that music-making is a living experience that must have that human element or it just comes off as . . . well, mechanical.

Anonymous said...

This kind of thing is inevitable, I think. If nothing else, it will force conductors to take a second look at their technique. ;-)

The catch is, when we get something emotional from a recording, we are listening not to the original sounds, but to 1s and 0s, which themselves are the product of some manipulation of the original sound. I get as emotional about music as anyone, but I think there is some romanticizing going on when people invoke the “machines-never-get-the-emotion” part. Machines can, and every day do, duplicate “emotion” whenever we play a CD, an MP3, or what not. And that “emotion” is contained in the 1s and 0s that get recorded.

HilbertAstronaut said...

In a way, a full Berlioz-sized symphony is a huge extravagance (though it pains me to think that those in charge of art budgets might think the same thing). I've always thought the best way to get emotional expression is in a small ensemble. Symphonies always seemed to me to be a mass of faceless interpreters of the conductor's every whim, whereas in small ensembles, there is a real sense of the tension between unity and individuality.

Anonymous said...


I don't think it is romanticizing to say machines can't have emotion. When we play recorded music the emotion doesn't come from the ones and zeros. The ones and zeros merely capture the emotion created by a human being.

I don't believe that my computer has feelings because somebody sent me an e-card...

Bernard Brandt said...

I am of two minds as regards the use of computers in music.

On the one hand, I would be opposed to the use of computers in live performance. We already have far too few performers available to permit the above tendency undermine performance art to the point where we would have no performers left.

On the other hand, for the past ten or so years, I have been using computer notation programs to improve my sight reading, theory and compositional skills to the point where I have been able both to compose my own music, and to hear it for myself.

I applaud the use of computers, particularly for providing the means by which anyone can do a competent job of engraving music, reading it, composing it, and hearing the results.

Just not in the performance hall.

Anonymous said...

In the end, it will be audiences who will decide. If they are OK with the sounds of computer music, then it will be used more widely. I can just not imagine (and I have a decent imagination) that anyone would pay to see some guy wave a stick and create sounds from a speaker. One goes to a concert for more than just the sound. The interaction between performers and audience is what gets them to turn off the stereo, hire a babysitter, fight traffic, look for parking spots and pay admission.

In church, music is made for a completely different reason. It is a way to pray in a "heightened" manner. Some use of electronics may aid this in pop style music, and I would be willing try out a good machine when my parish cannot cough up the several hundred bucks for live instrumentalists. Never for vocal music though. If the machine was good enough, it would open a million possibilities for music that we could not do now due to cost.

Anonymous said...

All of the posts I have read on this topic have focused strictly on the objective aspect of musicianship - will the quality and expression of computers be as good? Will the output be as good? An element that is missed is whether the musician will be as good. JPII made the claim that the subjective of element of work is far more important than the objective. That is, how work forms the worker is more important than what is produced. The development of musical talent makes musicians better people, generally speaking. If computers replace musicians, there will be many musicians who never get a chance to develop their talents, and that would be the greatest tragedy in this whole question.