[Smt-talk] Aesthetics of Computer-Generated Music

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Sun Apr 24 06:48:39 PDT 2011

As always, Martin Braun gives us much to explore and think about!

> In philosophy it is today common to examine concepts like "conscience",
> "self", and "free will" using data from neurophysiology.
> This would suggest that one day also the field of music theory will discuss
> issues around its central concepts of "tonicality" and "modality" using data
> from neurophysiology.
> Martin

  Although the computer music skeptics in the discussion may seem to have assumed it, it is interesting that no one here has insisted much on an essential, in all the resonances of that word, distinction between man and machine. This may be in part due to post-modern assaults on the notion of the human. And perhaps we all know too many machines too well to buy a grand or quasi-theological contradistinction any more. That said, from what I have seen so far, the hoary positivist assumption that data is data, language is language, regardless of the medium, has also been advanced with a bit more diffidence than once upon a time. 

  It may be that the most besetting misconception of philosophical humanism was the mind-body split so virtuosically pilloried by Gilbert Ryle, Martin Heidegger, P.F. Strawson, and more. The abrupt philosophical incompatibility of the various mind-body critics' doctrines is itself a symptom of sorts that modern thought took a large scale wrong turn in positing the split in the first place. Ironically, that wrong turn may not be too grandiose an insistence on a sweeping and abstract notion called "the human," but an underestimation of the complexity of human beings as complete systems. To the list of philosophers who dispute mind and body as separate systems, one could and should add social theorists such as Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann, who do not so much treat society as a super-organic totality as they insist that its systematicity is imminent in every individual, and in no wise external. There is no more a contradistinction between individual and society than there is between mind and body--and for the same reasons.

  If I understand Martin's comments here, a neurophysiological approach to the elements of musical meaning should not, even cannot opposed to what may be the core claim of humanists, particularly once purged of theological oversimplification: human beings are a system, and language in all its dazzling variety is integral to that system. Bluntly, Aristotle got it entirely right: we are zoon logon ekhon, the word-bearing animal. The crucial term here turns out to be "ekhon," "bearing," rather than either of the first two. What makes human beings human is their bearing of the logos, in other words the process of embracing meaningful symbols, a process that composes us--as opposed to bats, sharks, dolphins, and lawyers--as a system. The stark implications of that consideration are that separating out the physiology of meaning from its metaphysics is ruinously misguided, and mistakes the correct concept and definition of 'human' from the start.

  Thus there is some profundity to such facile comments as computers can speak, once they can tell a joke"; the difference between a joke and a mathematical formula or statement of fact--or even, perhaps, a competent, simulated string quartet in the style of Sammartini--is that the joke depends semantically far more obviously and integrally on the contextual system called 'human'... and, absent that dependence, the results are simulation, regardless of how convincing.

MW Morse
Trent University

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