Published in Ear Magazine, May-June 1984

A Preface

by Laurie Spiegel

The story of the use of computers in music is just a tiny part of one of the struggles which may most thoroughly characterize the uniqueness of our human species. This exotic struggle can be described in a lot of ways, though it is unfortunately most often referred to as "wasting time." In less critical terms, it can be variously referred to as the drive to communicate, to document, to record, to preserve transitory experience, to share what the intellect, imagination, senses, or emotions perceive, to be able to confirm our private experiences by finding their commonness with those of other people, or by communicating (making communal) what may never previously have been shared. It is a drive toward being able to design and replicate experience, to make it public, objective, modifiable, extendable, and to be able to control it, to come to terms with experience for oneself or create it for others. Whatever drive this is which rests so visibly among the distinguishing marks of humans among the animals, it leaves many artifacts behind. We are surrounded by its products. We know of no human culture without musical, verbal, and visual art. The same drives that led men to grind pigments for cave paintings now conscript the newest "high tech" to artistic ends.

To such aesthetic ends man has developed many technologies, some evolved within our own bodies (speech and language), some materially based (painting, writing), some using energy or forces (sound, light, electricity), and some using pure conceptual structure (mathematics, specialized languages, philosophy).

In all three of these major arenas of struggle - images, sounds, and ideas - there exists two chronically insoluble problems. One is the fact that our minds still work faster than any medium of expression we've ever invented. Some media seem to keep up better than others. For example, improvising on the piano can express a lot more in sonic experience per unit of time than writing notes down on paper for the same amount of time. But there are tradeoffs. Certain things may have to be left out. In order to be able to play all the notes "live," the pianist has had to reconcile himself to loss of the dimension of orchestration, which may have otherwise been an integral part of what he may have felt or envisioned.

The second problem is perhaps more difficult and challenging than that of the lag between the amounts of information turned over in the mind and the amount of descriptive information we have means of generating by known techniques. It results from the fact that the formats, structures, organizational principles, and media available to us have never been structurally adequate for the embodiment of experience in anything like the forms in which we consciously live it. For example, speech and writing are linear (sequential, one thing occurring after another in single-file fashion), as are the process of writing down music on paper and the movement of the paintbrush. Far from being "single file" experiences, though, hearing, seeing, and thought are highly parallelistic, multilevelled processes in which present, past, and future are heavily interlinked via memory and imagination.

Because music involves repetition and remembrance, anticipation, prediction, expectation, and the concurrencies of counterpoint and harmony, and may possibly resemble the structures and processes of the human mind as well or better than any other group of informational structures yet evolved, it poses a great test for the development of new (including computerized) informational structures.

The story of computers in music, then, is part of a larger story of trying to improve our ability to commonly contend with experience as it really is, to develop communicative media fast enough to keep up with the mind's creative processes, easy enough - transparent - to use so that we're not distracted from our expression's content by the tools themselves, and designed to fit the ranges and shapes of our cognitive processes and perceived experience better than previous media ever have. Music covers a spectrum of human activity from enjoyable play to a science of self-understanding, from solitude to shared sensuality.

We are now at an exciting and critical period in the history of human culture, in which new technologies may permit us to transcend the limits to which older expressive and communicative media have confined our past creations, concepts, and experience. To the degree that we can understand how we've been limited and unable to communicate and represent our perceptions up to now, how the experiences we create for each other differ from those which are locked up in our in our subjective isolated imaginative, emotional and intellectual worlds, we may be able to redefine the natures of the media through which we jointly attempt to deal with them, such that the complex and subtle experience of living, the subject of our arts, may be substantially improved.

On the darker side, we will have to be very careful and very aware if we are to avoid further limiting, rather than expanding, the ranges of expression and experience available to us through these new technologies. Human culture is on the brink of a new epoch, in all the arts and sciences, in philosophy. In many forms of communication and in the world views they imply. The natures of our interactions with each other and the ways that we will be able to interrelate ideas and experiences are all vulnerable to the natures and qualities of what we design. Any experiential which falls outside of the range that these new tools, languages, and media can accommodate may be lost from our experiential vocabulary or prevented from developing at all, and comprehension of experiences of such types may be impossible.

This period, in which we are developing the tools and modeling the languages which will embody so much of our culture for the foreseeable future, is one of the most exciting that our species has ever been through. It is also one of most challenging. These new media must allow new flexibility and accommodate additional possibilities beyond those which we're accustomed to already. They must be adaptable and contain room for further discovery and growth. They must do this with minimal sacrifice or inhibition of freedoms and modalities which we already possess.

Music may seem to be at first just a small and unimportant pastime, a minor limited form of expression or recreation. But as an embodiment (a model, an expression) of the pure structure or process of our thought, perception, and interaction, its treatment in the clutches of new technology has far wider implications. Music is an excellent microcosm in which to examine and experiment with the most profound questions and problems that our new technologies may help us solve or by which they may mire us down.

The "safe" and "miniature" subject of music may also provide a vital testground for learning enough about the new kind of world we're evolving, to help us be able to take full advantage of its potential while avoiding its pitfalls. It might be said of music (and of the rest of the "information revolution" in general) that the ultimate, the most important questions and challenges in the design of new technological means are not those of speed, memory, cost, efficiency, or "user interface" but those of the preservation and expansion of human abilities and freedoms. The freedoms of information, communication, and expression may soon be expanded more than we can now even dream possible. Conversely, they may be limited or taken away by simple lack of thought as to the designs of the systems of organization and mechanisms which we are now developing to serve as vessels for so much. In this, as in other things, music expresses its society's condition.

Copyright ©1982, 1984 Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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