Published in Computer Music Journal, MIT Press, Vol. 21 #1, Spring 1996,
written at the request of the Editor for the special "20th Anniversary Issue: The State of the Art",
with accompanying audio compact disk containing three pieces I created at Bell Labs 1974-77.

That was Then <=> This is Now

by & © 1995 Laurie Spiegel

It is difficult to express how the experience of using electronics and computers in music making has changed over the past two decades, but there are important differences and we can learn by exploring them. Some qualities of both the group and private experiences of the early computer arts are gone now. Others have changed or are new. Though we've seen many of our early hopes and visions realized, some differences are so unexpected as to be disorienting, or at least have had consequences we had not foreseen. To some of us "old timers", computer music today feels like the old exercise "what's wrong with this picture?" despite the tremendous progress.

Much of this cognitive dissonance may have less to do with the actual technology than with an unplanned but profound change in the socioeconomic and cultural context in which our computer music work takes place.

In trying to identify elements of this change, we could ask general comparative questions, for example: What was different two decades ago? Why did we do computer art and music then? Why do people do them now? How do these reasons differ? However it seems clear that profound and powerful changes have resulted from the dissemination of computer based technology for music through market channels, from computer music's commercialization.

What Do I Mean by "Commercialization"?

Marx differentiated what he called "use value" from "exchange value". Those of us who were creating computer music technology twenty years ago did so almost exclusively for its use value. Though often difficult, given the technical limitations of those times, the process was both inherently pleasing and also means to the end of doing our own musical work in desirable new ways. Only recently has the exchange value of music technology become a more dominant reason for its creation than to be able to use the technological results of the work in one's own musical work.

By "commercialization" I mean the transition from use value to exchange value as the common and expected motivation for technological research and development for musical applications.

I am not against commercialization. As a user, or buyer, I'm very pleased to be able to own the tools I depend on, to have unlimited access and complete freedom with them, and to have the benefit of using many others' technical work in doing my music. As a tool creator, I find it extremely gratifying that many many people have eventually enjoyed using code I first wrote just for myself. At the same time, few would dispute that the expansion of commercial interests into this field has not been entirely beneficial.

Commerce may not be any more inherently good or bad than any other tool, technique, or set of procedures. It can be either or both (much like those often maligned digital contraptions we know so well). It makes sense that when those not employed or subsidized create what others want and use and devote time to their users' needs, they should be supported, at least to some degree, by those users. In this view, commerce is not an end in itself, but simply a means of sustaining and increasing the use value of what is created and made available. Commerce can facilitate a symbiotic arrangement in which users enable a provider to continue being able to spend time on what both users and creator want. Alas, commerce does not always work this way.

Three Stages of Three Streams over Three Decades:

In the past three decades, I have participated in three areas in which innovation was followed by its commercialization: with analog synthesizers, with personal computers, and with computer software for music and art. Although one should always be skeptical of generalizations, I see following dialectical pattern in all three:

First, each underwent a period of controversy in which it was commonly viewed by non-participants as almost diabolical (e.g. "dehumanizing").

Secondly, as each became more easily and widely accessible, it became highly publicized, many people not previously involved saw opportunities to participate in its commercialization. Often unrealistic representations were made during efforts to sell or from over enthusiasm by those with limited understanding of the technology, and near-messianic expectations became common throughout a much larger interested population.

Third, despite the disillusionment which ensued for many, often with "Luddite" backlash, many others have been genuinely pleased to find real value in the new technology. Eventually, the technology is commonly perceived as just another group of available tools.

Yes, But:

The above descriptions are not scary. Instead, they appear almost reassuring, like descriptions of natural evolutionary processes. Yet there is still a strange skeptical sense of discomfort, a feeling that computer music has gone off the path, or that we who have worked longest on it are no longer at home in it.

An examination of the shared premises of computer music practitioners then and now may shed light. What were some of our basic assumptions, our subcultural premises, twenty years ago? What would today's typical users of computers for music assume today instead?

Commonly Assumed Then:

The user and toolmaker are usually the same person. If not, they almost certainly know and work closely with each other.

Diversity and individuality are essential to the methods as well as the results of artistic processes.

These technologies consist of hand-created tools bearing the creative stamps of their makers' individual personalities, identities, values, methods, and goals.

It is normal to experience adverse reactions from others not involved in this work, and for one's work to be controversial, often engendering much discussion and thought.

Creative arts require tools designed with awareness that the primary need of most users is to be able to create completely unique works in completely personal ways. The most standard practice is that every user must do things differently from every other.

It's amazing that we've been able to get computers to do this and how rapidly the technology is evolving.

Computer music people are typically not just multispecialists but generalists, seeking knowledge and understanding as well as new capabilities and materials.

Tools, techniques, and information for doing music with computers should be available to everyone who wants to try.

Figuring out how my computer can do music, technically, is how I can do music the way I want to.

Commonly Postulated Now:

The user and the tool builder are different people who usually never interact at all or only very indirectly.

Whatever can be standardized should be, if consensus can be attained, because standardization simplifies manufacture and use and lowers cost.

Tools should be impersonal and devoid of aesthetic bias. The users of a computer based music making tool should not feel they are using another artist's personal creative tool or that they are being influenced in their own work by another artist.

It is normal to use computers to do music. It often would be stupid not to use them.

Product preference in the marketplace expresses user approval and shows increasing consensus. A new generation of musical common practice is being established in wake of the 20th century's chaotic diversity.

It's amazing how long it's taking these companies to bring out the features we want and how slow progress is.

Computer music people are typically trying to substitute ready made technology for real musical technique, skill, work, talent, and musicality, and frequently also want to appear more intellectual or "with it" than they really are.

Tools, techniques, and information for doing music with computers are proprietary intellectual property that should not be divulged and can only be used by paying for them or other special arrangement.

Figuring out how computers can do music, technically, is too complicated. Fortunately, I don't have to because its someone else's job. Besides, its mostly patented and copyrighted stuff we're not allowed to play around with.

Comparing Consequents:

Aspirations, actions, ideas, efforts, and all that may be thought or done will follow quite differently from these two sets of premises.

Is it any wonder that despite all the progress something feels amiss? Please interpret in light of your own experience as you wish.

Miscellaneous Observations:

What cannot be done at all may not only be possible but may be commonly be taken completely for granted very soon.

What has no conceivable imaginable purpose may be the solution to problems that may not yet need solving.

The probability that something which is considered a waste of time now will eventually prove itself to have been time well spent increases with the length of time over which knowledge of it survives.

What has become obsolete may have qualities, properties, characteristics, and unfulfilled potential which will later be considered prophetic (e.g. "musique concrete" being virtually reborn with the advent of low cost realtime digital audio samplers).

Those who adopt a new technology which they did not themselves create tend to expect it to solve problems inherent in whatever older more established technologies they were accustomed to using. The new is usually seen through the filter of the old, and may be invisible through that filter.

People rarely adopt new technology to confront truly fundamental problems, but often do so to solve problems and overcome frustrations resulting from superficial characteristics of existing technologies the value of which remain unquestioned. (Computer-based musical tools are not commonly acquired to model how humans can better express themselves in sound. They are often acquired to facilitate such tasks as making revision of printed instrumental parts or synchronization with film easier.)

The furthest evolved design which survives transition to the commercial marketplace will generally encompass only a lowest common denominator subset of the model's original functionality. (Prototypes are often the most comprehensive and general instances of new inventions.)

Initially, invention and exploration tend to be done privately, out of basic joy and fascination, and for the use of an individual or small group. Only later are the reactions and involvement of others of concern.

The desire for public approval can be as inhibiting to technological or scientific creativity as to creative art.

Approval-seeking behavior aimed at the general public is considered inappropriate in creative individuals (artists, inventors, scientists) but is seen as positive or even essential in commercial enterprises.

The Fundamentals Have Not Changed

Much can be learned from thinking about these past two decades (or at least we can enjoy the attempt). There has been incredible evolution and change.

Yet despite these transitions, for many of us, the value of our software or other tools continues to be inherent in the processes of making and using them, plus the newer pleasure of seeing many others use them too.

Despite commercialization, working with computers in music is still both an end in itself and a means of creating music and expanding human understanding. Computer music is still art and science for their own sake and for the pleasures of learning, discovery, expression, and communication.

- Laurie Spiegel


Copyright ©1995 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.

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