2nd Royal Musical Association, Music and Philosophy Study Group’s Workshop on The Philosophy of Human+Computer Music

Held in the Department of Music, University of Sheffield on 27th May 2015

Report by Tom Hewitt
PhD Student and CHASE Scholar, Department of Music, The Open University


In our report on last year’s workshop we stated that the day ‘was a success, as much for what it did not achieve as for what it did.’ The feeling being that there was any number of burning musico-philosophical issues relating to human+computer music which simply could not be given an airing within the limited confines of a single day’s workshop. With these thoughts in mind, our call for papers for this second workshop stressed the importance of considering aspects other than the technical mechanics of human+computer music’s inception, composition and performance (conferences on such topics being legion) in favour of a debate about the aesthetics (broadly construed) of these musics. We invited contributors to consider the philosophical aspects of musics outwith the conventional work structure paradigm of Western Art Music. And we were not disappointed.

The first part of the workshop was structured conventionally, with two sessions of paper presentations, but the day was rounded-off with a live musical performance by Pete Furniss, a clarinettist, followed by a discussion, chaired by Dr David Roden, of the philosophical issues raised by the performance. The programme for the day and the paper abstracts can be found here.

My paper, Entangled Network Space – The Fuzzy Space Where Music Is, started proceedings. Taking a view on the metaphysical possibility spaces described by writers including Deleuze, Guattari, Latour, Hodder, Vitale and De Landa, and invoking the ‘fuzzy logic’ of Kosko, I questioned whether the ‘assemblages’ which we usually describe as ‘persons’, ‘minds’, ‘computers’, ‘musical works’, and so on, are really quite as discrete as ordinarily supposed. My conclusion is that they are not discrete and that the dynamic, diachronic activities within the possibility space mean that they are ontologically fuzzy and entangled. The script and slides for the talk can be found here.

Robert Bentall’s paper Imagined performances in electroacoustic music examined aspects of ‘virtuosity’ as between musicians using ‘conventional’ instruments and those using ‘technology-mediated’ instruments. In using technologies which allow, for example, the sounding of a hexachord on what would conventionally be a four-stringed instrument or the creation of infeasible ensembles, are we listening to a ‘disembodied extension of human capabilities’? He introduced Climent’s notion of ‘de-hyper-instrumentalisation’; the thought that the sounds produced within an electroacoustic performance ought to be, in principle, performable, even though they are technologically mediated. I was struck by his use of the term ‘unimprovisation’, the practice of musicians using improvised samples as part of the palette of sounds in further composition. This question of normativity raises many issues concerning the path of current and future performance practice and organological ontologies.

Owen Green gave us Surfaces, systems, senses, social circumstances. His contention was that there is no ‘waiting set of lingual and conceptual tools’ to enable us to discuss ‘the music’ simpliciter, given the ‘plurality of disciplinary and musical commitments at work in the current milieu’. There is a real difficulty (or impossibility?) in developing an adequate discourse of the praxis of improvised electronic musicking (in Small’s terminology) by relying on a consideration of the musical surface alone. Owen acknowledged the relevance of the assemblages described in my paper when discussing the importance of ‘the concrete social and material circumstances of production / reception’ of these musics; such assemblages, he said, ‘Enlarge the frame of what we consider to be technology.’  He suggested that the work of philosophers such as that of Richard Shusterman’s bridging of the pragmatic / continental divide might help us here.

There was a great deal of heated debate and conversation over a splendid (and most un-conference-like) lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant. All of the delegates expressed their satisfaction.

The afternoon paper session began with Amy Beeston’s Do we need robust audio interfacing based on psychoacoustic principles of hearing? Amy began by pointing out that the human ear/mind is able to compensate for the surroundings in which a sound source is produced in under a second (probably in virtue of our brains’ massive parallel processing capacities) whereas even the best current technology cannot ‘learn’ to do this in under several hours. If we are ever to use the microphone (or other sound input mechanism) to control the dynamics of the mediated electronic performance of musical outputs, then ought we to consider the application of the processes of our biological psychoacoustic principles to these technological tools? My question would be, would the development of these ‘intelli-mics’ have relevance to the issue of agency in musical performance (more of which below in the discussion of Pete Furniss’s performance)?

Next was Valerio Velardo with his paper Are computational composers really creative? He pricked up our ears with the fairly bold claim that a computer (Iamus) is a better composer than Mozart! Iamus, Valerio says, is an autonomous compositional system. The notion of autonomy in this context certainly needs further exploration. Valerio asks whether such systems (autonomy aside) can be considered to be creative. He proposes the concept of General Creativity to explore the ontologies of human / human-machinic hybrid / machinic creativity. He gave us a schematic nested ontology space, in which musica humana is a subset of musica mechanica, which itself is a subset of musica mundana. I took these categories to represent the possibility spaces of, respectively, all possible human-composed musics, the much larger (but machine-tractable) space of machine-composed musics and, finally the intractable, but possible space of all musics. This latter space, at least in its outer fringes, must (of computational necessity) be some transcendent Platonic realm which need not concern us. Valerio considered the corpus of machine-only musics, i.e., musical artefacts composed by machines and only understood by machines. Whilst these entities might have a bearing on the aesthetics and politics of posthuman possibility space, I am left wondering in what sense they might be properly called ‘music’. Valerio’s paper received animated response from the audience throughout, such that there was no time for questions at the end.

Our final paper was Textility of live code by Alex McLean. He described the production of music from the changes written in real time to computer code. Such code is, according to Alex, a meta-order object, where individual components of the code (unlike, e.g., a crotchet in a conventional score) might trigger a number of lower-order musical events. In this sense, the code is a ‘live material’ and part of a feedback assemblage of an iterative process of musical activity. Apart from the constraining nature of the real time decision-making processes, Alex points out that these changes to digital inputs in order to vary the outputs are nothing new. He gave us the example of weaving patterns on looms from the Neolithic to the present day.

Our final session was a musical performance / discussion session. We were lucky to hear two pieces/systems played by the clarinettist Pete Furniss: Ripped up maps by Andrew May and gruntCount by Martin Parker, the first on clarinet and the second on bass clarinet. Since the aim of this workshop was to eschew technical descriptions and commentary, I will do so. Suffice to say that Pete improvises his clarinet output, which, via microphone input, is mediated, moderated and mashed around by a computational process involving manipulation of his input signal with the addition of synthesized elements and output as sounds through loudspeakers which complement his playing. These speaker sounds provide material for feedback which further influences his improvisatory playing. And the effect on the uninitiated auditor such as myself? It is the fascinating effect of a musical duet between the observed clarinettist and some acousmatic partner.

The discussion session following Pete’s performance was co-ordinated by David Roden, who, in his introductory remarks, tied some of the phenomenology of Pete’s performance into aspects of the day’s previous papers, particularly the topics of assemblages and of agency in human+computer performance. Pete said that it definitely feels to him that he is collaborating in a co-performance with another live agent. Whilst he knows that the sounds the system is generating are not the result of action by an intelligent agent (in the AI sense), nonetheless, it seems like an improvisatory duet that is being performed. Certainly, that is the effect which I perceived as a lay listener.   Pete has installed a ‘cut-out’ pedal into the system so that he can occasionally mute the system-produced sound in order to take back an element of control. He says that he is very aware, during performance, of being part of a performer-clarinet-software-hardware assemblage. There was a discussion about what it would mean for a machinic ‘collaborator’ to possess real agency and about what criteria would need to be applied in order to tell – a kind of musical Turing test. David asked Pete about these dynamic interactions between him as performer and the system. Pete is very aware of them. Certainly as an observer/auditor it was possible to see the haptic effects that certain system sounds seemed to induce in Pete (from hunched shoulders to smiles). There is much further work to be done in this area, not least in terms of the epistemology and ontology of such ‘works’ and of performance philosophy more generally.

The day was rounded-off with a cocktail session and snacks in the foyer of the Jessop Building.

IMG_0916Pre-gin evaluation

We are in discussions with an academic publisher about producing a volume of the proceedings of the workshop. We also hope to set up a page on our website of suggested reading on these topics, such an online resource being singularly lacking at present. There are plans to run a further workshop next year.

The organizers would like very much to thank Tom McAuley, the chair of the RMA’s Music and Philosophy Study Group and the committee for allowing us to run the workshop under the aegis of the MPSG. Thanks also go to the MPSG’s Golan Gur for his work in updating the webpages on our behalf.

We were grateful for financial support from CHASE, one of the new AHRC doctoral training partnerships and also from the University of Sheffield Arts and Humanities PGR Forum.

And finally, many thanks to the co-organizers, Mark Summers for his impeccable management of the day, Adam Stansbie and David Roden.