Surfing on Entropy

March 21, 2019 at 10:28 am (art, computers, music) (, , , )

I was passed a link to this interesting comment from Brian Eno: “There is not enough Africa in computers” (thanks Richard).

I’ve now read this a couple of times and was still left wondering quite what lay behind the comment.  So I tried to find the original interview between Kevin Kelly (then editor of Wired I believe) and Brian Eno so I could read it in full.  Unfortunately it isn’t on the same link anymore, but with some googling, you can find it in the Wired archive here.

There are a number of really fascinating discussion points – I really recommend reading the whole article – and it provides the context for that isolated quote. I did find some of the answers a little contradictory at times though.

A disclaimer, to date the music and views of Brian Eno seems to have passed me by, so these comments start with this interview in isolation. I look forward to seeing what he would say now and finding more about his ideas of generative music.

On the one hand I believe he is saying he doesn’t like the “set it in motion and it will perform predictably” aspect of computers – he likes the idea of providing inspiration and guiding principles that may or may not produce something depending on the live inputs of the viewer/reader/listener – he appears to like the serendipity of it all … but later on he talks of “black boxes for music” where he has set the rules and the box produces the music according to those rules, with some input from the listener depending on their mood.  The box become some combination of player and instrument if I understand his view correctly.

Right near the start of the interview, he suggests that the orchestral tradition is too constraining, but I see it as a (more limited admittedly) set of programmable components ready to do the composer’s bidding.

When you look at how the orchestra developed from Mozart’s time through the Romantic period, contrasting those early Classical period works with Beethoven, Brahms and then the later large scale deployments of Mahler, there is quite a lot of scope for variability there and the basic “machine” evolved enormously through that time. Then when you look at what Stravinsky did in his ballet music or what Debussy did with his completely alternative view of harmony through to the likes of Messiaen recreating birdsong in his Turangalia symphony (including incorporating the electronic Ondes Martinot), then as a “programmable box” an orchestra is actually quite a versatile person/machine system in action.

I guess he doesn’t like the idea that a composer sets the rules and the orchestra is then condemned to just reproduce them.  But I wonder what he thinks about jazz and improvisation? Good jazz still follows rules, but every performance is different. But it isn’t random. Is a jazz ensemble “more Africa” than an orchestra?  Or maybe it is a matter of the illusion on unpredictability.  When I look at something like the Long Player – that is a key set of rules, and you exactly determine what the music will be at any point – but the cycle is so long (designed to last a thousand years) that every time you dip into it, you don’t really know what you will hear.  Or at the other end, is John Cage’s As Slow as Possible where you can go back after several months and the music is still exactly the same.

I guess some of this relates to the difference between analogue and digital.  Digital is obsessed with chopping up the analogue reality into small measurable chunks – be that discrete frequencies that we call semitones in Western music, pixels on a computer screen, or even the digitising of the end results as a digital bit stream to be played back via audio hardware off a CD or MP3.  But even when digital and in theory part of a finite space, that space is so vast as to approximate to the entire musical repertoire or pictorial output of any artist, composer or musician (as least as far as human senses are concerned).

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of the computer screen representing an unimaginably large single number and that counting through them all would show every possible image that screen could display.

In theory the digitisation of music could be represented the same way – if every note on the piano keyboard had a number 1 to 88, then a piece of music (forgetting rhythm for the moment) is essentially one very long base 88 number.  That’s not too dissimilar to how a pianola worked, although physical layout of the cut-outs are key here, or even MIDI in today’s world, when linked with a sense of the flow of time of course.  I remember my school having a dictionary of musical themes and it basically worked on those lines (although it only worried about a single octave, so it was essentially a 5-10 digit “base 7” number).  I’ve always wanted that book, but so far have never seen one since.

So just because things can be reduced to number and handled by computer, is that any less “Africa” than a free-flowing analogue equivalent?  I guess a key distinction is not necessarily digital vs analogue, but more pre-determined vs unpredictable.

In a weird way, fast forward these last 20 years and computers have become so complex as to be largely unpredictable to many.  Now that these already complex machines are hooked up to the even more complex global machine that is “the Internet” (by whichever definition to choose to use – remember it is just a series of tubes), then most of us would be hard pushed to be convinced by the argument that computers are things that always behave the same way based on the same inputs.

I am reminded here of Bjarne Stroustrup when he said (I believe): “I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone.”

I’m also reminded of the fact that computers may soon be able to pass the Turing Test, not because they’ve become as smart as humans, but possible because there is a real possibility that humans are becoming as dumb as computers…

Back to Brian Eno:

“What people are going to be selling more of in the future is not pieces of music, but systems by which people can customize listening experiences for themselves.  Change some of the parameters and see what you get.”

He was after unfinished pieces of musical ideas to be combined in a new form as the listener experiments.  Of course, in a sense he was overestimating the listeners – today listeners want “customized listening experiences” but at the granularity of the song, the tune, not the musical extract or idea or concept.  And they don’t really want the effort of having to produce it themselves.  Of course they have it in droves with on-demand streaming where algorithms are “changing the parameters” on your behalf.

His ideas for evolutionary music and art may still come about, but again probably more by presaging the idea of algorithms creating music and art. But does that make the algorithms the composers and painters?  The jury is still out on that one, but he may well get his “furniture music” this way – his “ubiquitous 24 hours a day” music “infiltrating every waking moment of our lives”.

It is interesting his view on the use of machines.  He suggest we all need to be “surfing on entropy” – to be able to ride the wave of unpredictability and complexity becoming apparent.  I think that is very, very apt today, but the huge irony here being that this unpredictability and complexity has come about by the very components he considered too constrained, “not enough Africa”, now being let loose as they’ve grown more powerful and complex, on the world.

Machines are no longer doing “predictable, boring and repetitive things” – they are the very instruments of uncertainty.  We can still exert influence – by surfing the wave of complexity:

“When you surf, there is a powerful complicated system, but you’re riding on it, you’re going somewhere on it, and you can make some choices about it.”  You either ride it an use it with skill to get your own direction, or you give up and go with the flow.

There is an interesting section discussing the difference between art and science.  Art “doesn’t make a difference” – in that he means that whilst art will stimulate emotions, create large emotional experiences (e.g. watching a film) then end when the experience ends.  Of course, with today’s blended and mixed reality, is that still the case?

A fascinating read, especially with the benefit of 20 years passing in the mean time. The context might be slightly different, but many of the thoughts are still amazingly apt for today.  I’d love to know what he thinks about these thoughts again today.




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Rain on the Choir …

July 2, 2009 at 8:40 pm (music) (, , , , )

This choir are just fantastic.   They are performing ‘Africa’ (the Toto hit), but at the start, they use their hands and jumping to simulate the sound of rain and thunder.  Any it is amazingly well done.

The performance of the song is very good too – don’t think there is any accompaniment – sounds a capella to me – but the tuning is very good.

All in all, a very good performance, and a joy to watch.


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