Sunday, February 21, 2016

Brute Force and All That

This business with the FBI wanting Apple to create a tool to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorists has been fascinating to follow, not least because it appears that the method the FBI has settled on is brute force — in this case, systematically trying every PIN combination — but brute force is here limited by the iPhone which allows only 10 mistaken attempts and then erases the data on the phone (or bricks it altogether — I've heard competing accounts), so the Bureau wants Cupertino to give them a way to shut down this 10-strikes-and-you're-out security feature. (Apple is refusing, for all kinds of really good, sensible, reasons which others explain elsewhere with more detail and authority.)

Now, brute force is something that should be familiar to composers. For all of our plans and schemes and charts and systems, at some point there inevitably seem to be decisions to make that have to rely on brute force, rigorously trying out each solution on a list (whether formal or informal, in the head or on paper or screen) of possible solutions until one that works is found  (the sketches of Beethoven or Ives sometimes suggest such a procedure.)  If you're lucky, you stumble on a workable solution fast, but more often brute force gets refined as trial-and-error, optimally with successive error suggesting ways to sieve through the list to get more likely answers, but it can nevertheless be a damnably long process, and not a few composers find themselves bricking the work sometime along the way. (If you're really lucky, you get both the right answer and some insight into why it is the right answer along the way, an example of a piece revealing its own rules, or even "theory" in the course of composition.)

Last night, I went to a pretty good performance of The Makropulos Act (alternatively: Affair, Case, Matter, Secret, or Thing.)  Now, Janáček worked rather methodically with his vocal rhythms and contours based on spoken Czech musically heightened and he had a personal set of harmonic principles (not quite a system: categories and principles, somewhat along the lines of Hindemith.) But these together tend to function more as a spur to local invention than in any calculated continuity over greater distances (with two exceptions in Makropulos, in almost-arias given to the comic Count Hauk-Šendorf in the Second and E.M. herself in the Third Act) and his writing is ever being driven forward by a kind of brute force, a sustained intensity of imagination, or, as Morton Feldman, at times also a brute-forciste, put it: concentration.

Brute force works by trying out all of the possible combinations or possibilities, typically in some logical order, which certainly helps to keep track of things when the list is long.  And although I've been talking about going through lists while composing, in order to select an optimum item from the list for a finished score, this line of musing also invites some thought about the subject of exhausting such lists within works of music.  [Simple example: much 12-tone music (not all, but much) features a succession of exhaustions of the 12-pitch class collection, some music extends this exhaustion to other aspects or parameters of the music.]  Personally, I go back and forth on the issue.  I use lists of all possible combinations all the time in my music, I love Gray codes (and Beckett Gray Codes in particular) and have recently been working with all the possible relationships in abstract time (that is, ignoring the precise durations) two or three or more sounds might have to one another. But if, for example, a strict process has been initiated, while I understand the aesthetic of letting the process continue to completion,  to be perfectly honest, I'm not always on board with having to personally accompany it all the way to the end (to be honest, some health scares affected my attitude here, giving me some degree of seriousness to the question of how I spend my time that I didn't really have before.) Let me point to two very different recent articles on the topic: Dean Rosenthal, here, on "Approaching Completeness" and a recent dissertation, by Zachary Bernstein (Reconsidering Organicism in Milton Babbitt's Music and Thought (sorry I don't have a more precise reference at hand)) which, among other interesting things, digs into the lists that don't get exhausted in the subject composer's music.

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