Monday, January 31, 2011

Innovation or Stagnation?

Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowan has a nice post connecting some threads (including Paul Krugman) about stagnation in technical innovation, with the example of the kitchen, which has seen surprisingly little fundamental innovation since the microwave was introduced (a device whose application still remains controversial; but then again, I can recall, as a kid in SoCal the '60s that there were still a couple of houses that took ice deliveries for their wooden ice boxes, so even electrical refrigeration had its (non-Amish) detractors in recent memory. (And don't tell me about those fancy sous-vide machines; it's not a big deal to hot-wire your crock pot into a working sous-vide cooker.)

How about technical innovation in new music? While we once could have taken a David Foster Wallace turn and sold off each musical year to the highest bidding sponsor (1961: Year of the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, 1967 Year of the Time Point, 1969 Year of the Moog, 1975 Year of the REMO Roto Tom, 1977 Year of Overtone Singing, 1979 Year of the Eventide Harmonizer, 1985 Year of Midi (or was it kelp trumpets or long string instruments or the virgin sample?), 'til somewhere in the 1990's we entered the era of Laptop Gazing, with which the pace of technical innovation seems to have become incremental rather than eventful, and even when eventful (like last summer's fit of stretching) it fatigues quickly. Has anyone noticed any innovation per se of late, or have we fallen into the routines of repertoire niches? If you've noticed innovation, what examples? What are the trends and tendencies? Or have composers simply become comfortable cooking in their old fashioned kitchens? If so, is this for better or worse?

In short, what's novel, lately, about The New Music?


mrG said...

(sigh) 2009, the year of the AutoTune followed inevitably by 2010, the year of the Vocaloid.

By way of some reassurance, I asked John Cage if modern music and modern dance was, as Milton Babbitt seemed to suggest, a new more efficient means come to replace the old with the bright shiny new. John reminded me of a church in the St Boniface district of Winnipeg where the old pioneer structure still stands, surrounded by the new modern architecture. "There is plenty of room for both," he said.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Oh no, I'm months behind the curve, just finishing a stretching piece.

More kitchen gadgets don't make people better cooks and more exotic tools won't make people better composers. That said, there are some new synthesis tools kicking around that have not yet caught, like somebody who is doing all his synthesis with spline curves and some wavelet thing may replace FFT. Apparently, analog gear has also gone out in odd directions in the last 10 years.

My prediction for 2011 is that noisy drone music takes off in a big way. I hope.

Anonymous said...

There are some folks programming 8-bit game machines and producing some interesting results.

IMHO, the most important long term trend is the creation music comprised of sounds that lie beyond the familiar acoustic orchestral instruments. New music has such a slim chance of live performance - and such a huge potential audience via ear buds on-line - that it would seem inevitable for composers to gravitate towards the largest available audience and bypass the difficult and frustrating process of getting a work performed in the concert hall.

Anonymous said...

I think there are some interesting developments in algorithmic composition.

Here is my "Depression" for Piano and Strings, op.2:

The initial material for this was generated by a small piece of code I wrote in Rick Taube's Common Music (GRACE).

People have realized that the early claims of artificial intelligence have been vastly exaggerated, have been too ambitious.

People thought that "the essential aspects of thought can be captured in a formal symbolic representation", as one researcher put it.

That may or may not be true.

In any event, the paradigm has been steadily shifting to interaction with machines, as opposed to artificial intelligence per se.

In the realm of music it is computer-assisted composition.

My intuition tells me, and I may be wrong, that the most appropriate programming medium for algorithmic composition at the meta-level (the level of form) is LISP, which I'm struggling with now.

Music structure is a abstract, so is LISP.

There's grammar, there's combinatorics, there's syntax, and other things in music, which probably enable you to write a coherent piece, from, say, two or three separate algorithmic blocs.

I'm not very impressed by MAX/MSP, OpenMusic, the OMax improvisor and other things of that nature.

As I alluded to earlier, music structure is an abstract thing.

When you look at endless patches and microchip-like wires in these object-oriented languages, you lose that valuable abstractness feature that you otherwise get in a plain-vanilla (but by no means easy !!!!) language such as LISP.

The endless connections are confusing, and, IMHO, undermine the artistic effort itself.

These things are probably good for creating instruments and sound design, which is great.

But I have not yet heard any impressive piece which come out of MAX/MSP or, say, OpenMusic.

There are tons and tons of truly interesting synthesized sounds, "raw material", that have been created.

So, in a funny way, I think the role of the composer, who could bring some structure to all this chaos, should be increasing.