[Smt-talk] Aesthetics of Computer-Generated Music

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Fri Apr 29 05:04:08 PDT 2011

Dear Linda,

> "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."
> Algorithmic music often deals with the organization of pitch, rhythm and
> timbre from the standpoint of coherence.
> Composition by a human involves other traits such as:
> -personality
> -gesture
> -mood, depth of feeling, changes of mood
> -association
> It would be interesting to see whether an algorithm could simulate a
> performance of a raga because the definition of a raga takes into account
> the ideas of gesture and emotion and prescribes the means (characteristic
> phrases, ornaments, playing techniques, microtonality) for achieving the
> specified moods, and the improvisations lean heavily on permutations and
> on giving higher weight to the important note (vadi).

Well asked. Let's adopt the engineer's positivism for a moment: a thing is what it is designed to be. By that standard, a mode is at base the same as a raga, embodying and including everything from definite affects to (Aristotle, Politics) socially specific tribal traits. That kind of perspective on mode continues well into the 20thc., e.g. in Deryck Cooke's Language of Music, which claims that even individual intervals are affectively particular. Arguably, the historically unusual or curious notion that a mode is collection of pitch classes, essentially independent of the affectivity that is stapled on after the fact, is an offshoot of the serial theory that so powerfully influenced music theory from mid-century on. In a sense, again arguably, the shotgun divorce this conception generated of mode and affect is the essential condition for talking about musical language in a way that even allows for the conversation we've been having here.

Can a computer create a raga performance/composition? [NB about that tradition that this distinction is fundamentally blurred in Indian music; can a computer perform music at all?] Or a dastgah, or a maqam? Truly, the answer is definitely not "no," but "of course not." Even if my potted hisoriography isn't accepted or acceptable, it is very much worth remembering here that the cleaving off of affection and modal structure is of recent vintage.

MW Morse
Trent University

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