Friday, February 01, 2008

A Most Modern Listening Machine

John Cage famously separated musical labours in composition, performance, and audition and then posed the question "what do they possibly have to do with one another?" When musicians get hooked up with electronics, our engagements typically reflect this division of labour: like many composers, computer-assisted composition has gotten more of my attention than computer-assisted performance, and even less, computer-assisted audition. Music Matters, a blog on music cognition that has passed under my radar until now, recently posed the very smart question: What should a listening machine be able to do? A listening machine is a marvelous and non-trivial idea. A "listening machine" of some sort has been the component of several online services designed to advise purchasers of recorded music that "if you like this, you'll like that". But such programs are usual just manipulating data bases constructed around the evaluations of real human listeners, and that's a very weak version of the idea, which is really about music cognition writ large. And that's something that should be very interesting to composers and performers, as listening is still filled with mysteries -- especially, methinks, regarding the extent and limits of our listening capacities and regarding the nature of musical time (especially regarding our conflicting perceptions of music as stretches of time and as moments -- "now"s -- in time, and how we reconcile the two).

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