Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Machines, Music and Meaning

Machines, Music and Meaning:
From orchestral cannonfire to the Countdown clock

[First published by SEMIONAUT†, March 13, 2012.]
From rail rhythms in rock, to drill bits in glitch hop and dub step, the use of machines to make music is not a new idea, although their influence may not always be apparent to our ears. 

In one very clear link, music refers to the sound-making device itself, as when Tchaikovsky employed cannon fire in his 1812 Overture. Certainly, cannon fire can be said to be dramatic, and because of its powerful effect, it signifies a warning to potential invaders, as much as it should also produce feelings of patriotism in a loyal nationalist, as was the composer’s intent.

Tchaikovsky also chose to use an actual cannon for the sound of the cannon’s roar, rather than engage traditional instruments to mimic explosive blasts. That is to say, as with words or images, sometimes the power of abstracted sounds lies with their direct or common associations. Likewise, sometimes a sign only points in one direction. However, also like language and imagery, and depending on context, abstracted sounds lend themselves to a variety of uses, which resonate well beyond literal interpretation.

For instance, the clock at your bedside simply indicates the time of day. But when embedded within the score for a game show, such as Jeopardy or Countdown, we do not so much as note the time as we become aware of its passage, and all that such passage implies. We may thus find ourselves empathizing with an indecisive contestant when a looming deadline must be beat. In the case of Countdown, if we remove the clock from the main theme, all we have is an exciting musical prelude, but otherwise lacking any real sense of urgency.

For another example, trains have long had an influence on modern music, either as a literal effect, or as a source for a powerful rhythm. However, in ‘This City Never Sleeps’, the band The Eurythmics employ the sound of London’s underground towards another interesting result. For whether we notice it or not, the lack of crowd murmur within the sound sample imparts upon us a feeling of loneliness. So that no matter where or when we listen to this song we are transported to a particularly empty place in both our hearts and the middle of the night.

In the same way, consider the Cha-Ching opening of a cash register in Pink Floyd's ‘Money’. The register alone might set the physical scene of a shop, but it’s the incessant looping of the sound that produces a feeling of obsession, and thus, before a single word is uttered or sung, the music is instantly framed as a missive on consumerism or greed.

Even if we dismiss mechanical rhythms as primary influencers, industrial products have been responsible for not simply contributing novel sounds to music, but for seeding several modern genres. One needn’t even point to electronically powered music for an obvious example. What would calypso be, for instance, but for the empty steel oil drum?

Generally speaking, the use of machines in music have historically suggested that we are collectively more modern than we were yesterday. But since mankind’s most recent mechanical fascination is with an otherwise silent device –the computer – one wonders what impact it will have on music of the 21st Century? Will silence become the new indicator of modernism? Or will this silence force us to reconsider our own biological rhythms and usher in a new bio-musical age? Or will the computer’s easy capacity for copying and combining thrust us towards an ever increasingly paste modern future?

Of course, any answer would only be guesswork, but we can be certain that otherwise reticent machines will continue to find new ways to speak to their human designers through the language music.

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Semionaut is an online magazine & knowledge resource offering insight into culture, media, creative industries, and brand strategy. Its publishers, editors, and contributors are professionally involved in the application of semiotic and cultural analysis to brand communication and design issues.

A Rube Goldberg Machine of Vast Scale

Is it just me or has any one else noticed that we seem to have rather oddly arrived at moment in our information dense and digitally democratic western culture that we are collectively more interested in decoding our selves than coding ourselves, than we ever have been. Does this sort of thing happen with ever major change in information distribution channels?

Either way, we see how some things which are designed may not be received as their designer/s intended. Some things are simply created for the pleasure of the designer, or for the amusement of audiences. And some things which are not designed appear as though they are. And you and I looking at the same thing might not see the same thing at all, or agree to its meaning, even if we did.


Cultural movements throughout history, and all the way up to the 20th Century, were usually driven by artists and their patrons. But we now live in the age of the mash up, and this form of expression is a curatorial art form. Nobody really wants to be an artist anymore; more often than not, most people are finding great satisfaction mining, deconstructing and re-contextualizing prior art into comparative expressions. One might argue that this is the basis of all genre, but convention has never before been mistaken with wholesale sampling on such a wide scale.

This begs another question: Can natural objects formed by purely physical processes of natural phenomena ever be considered art? It's easy to think so when we use an Amethyst Geode for a centerpiece. But I think 'Art' is a human construct, and therefore such things as rocks and natural tree formations are not in an of themselves art, until they are framed as such.

That is, natural objects only become art once we frame them within a construct. So, the tree which no one hears when it falls in the forest is neither heard nor is it art, but its recorded sound is, and certainly, if we take that tree and preserve it in a specific identifiable space, as we might do in designing a landscape, it is.


I also sometimes think of ART as that which is created for the pleasure of the designer, and which by happenstance may win a larger audience. And I sometimes think of ENTERTAINMENT as that which is created for the pleasure of an audience, and which by happenstance might eventually inure pride from its creator.

So, some observe the world, for instance, and see intentional design; others observe and see it as the product of random choices. But whether we are living on a planet with purpose or a Rube Goldberg machine of vast scale, 'the world' and the objects in it convey only that meaning which is read into it, and that which is read into is always the result of a common cultural agreement, whether by pilgrims or physicists, each party agreeing to a different set of commonly accepted conventions.

Which is to say, the mind attempts to make sense out of things, even when there is no connection. And it is this capacity that insures when no connection exists, we will always make one.

And since their are billions of us, each with his or her own opinion, a variety of meanings will necessarily overlap, and the parties to those meanings will occasionally rise to conflict in order to defend an idea or an ideal.

This might create a bitter divide between Evolutionists and Evangelicals, but as it happens, it also makes for inspired Art.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Thing Plus Time and Voilà!

Maya Funerary Urn
I'm by turns amused and but also intrigued how an abandoned doll or some utilitarian thing, even a broken fragment of clay, pulled from millenniums old mud is hailed hundreds or thousands of years later as an object of art. Because, it seems to me, by this measure, the answer to the age old question 'What is Art' is pretty simple:

Art = Thing + Time

Notwithstanding a previously mentioned idea on this site that music be defined as an applied theory of patterning (Beauty, Chaos, Design and Musicology), we might equally suggest that Art, in general, presents a relationship between a Construction and a Construct.

So, equally:

Art = Construction + Construct

Construction might be anything, whether man made or not. Whereas Construct indicates the framing device, which may be a literal frame, a proscenium arch or gallery space; or Construct may indicate a conceptual framework, such as an idea, or time. Indeed, in the case of artifacts recovered as a result of archaeological exploration, and which find themselves eventually sitting on a mantle in a museum, we might equally state:

• Art = Object + Frame

• Art =  Idea + Organization

Obviously, if our intent is to communicate a specific message with the expectation or reciprocal understanding, then creator and congregation, designer and devotee, musician and season ticket holders, –then all parties to the signification must share fluency in the same code.

That this doesn't happen all the time, and that some find enjoyment in things they don't understand, doesn't negate this premise. There is great enjoyment to be had, for instance, in the attempt to understand. What is and isn't jazz, for instance, is an argument that not even the musicians who play the music can seem to agree on. Not to mention that most people can be observed to watch a musical performance, but much fewer actually listen, and even less understand. And yet, (hopefully) all return home suitably entertained or enlightened.

So, it's not so much that we enjoy an evening spent in an ignorant disposition, but that we enjoy the cognitive activity of decoding art, assuming that at the same time we are possessed of this experience, the designer or a curator also provides us with the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone by which we might arrive at some understanding of the artist's intent.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Listening to Be Bop: Staring at an Eclipse of the Sun

Photo Credit Luc Viatour
In the same way the performance of a score is different from an improvisation, I like to consider books, scripts and prepared presentations designed, but conversation as impromptu speech and therefore an unadorned chassis of thought, –engine, transmission and framework inclusive.

That's why we might take offense if someone stops us mid sentence to correct our use of a certain word, and we in turn them accuse them of being pedantic. Because perhaps the graver error is not the so-called mistake, but that the listener has given themselves away as being tone deaf to nuance.

Yes, a shared agreement on the meanings of certain words might make a given case better, but perfect usage, syntax or pronunciation does not always produce the most efficient means of conveying an idea or delivering a message. Sometimes the most engaging delivery requires one to take artistic liberties, to stretch the boundaries of language to its breaking point; but in order for such transmissions to be successful, we require an audience that can decipher new codes as they are being invented, that will forgive us errors in flow, and that might even find beauty in the way that we stumble.

Otherwise, what use poetry?


We are human, after all, and as such we frequently 'color' our codes with nuance or variation, or we deviate altogether, and beg our listeners to follow us down some slippery linguistic slope, and hopefully the challenge is worth it. Indeed, we often employ nuance and other such tactics to embed meaning into an otherwise incomplete statement. That is, we force micro expressions, not to mention body language, to do the heavy lifting when words fail us.

And indeed, a smile is very different from a smile and a wink. A wink can change everything. A wink can transform whatever has been said into it's complete opposite. Similarly, there are winks in music, too, if you can hear them. Although, sometimes you need to watch the performer to catch them as they sail by the senses into the last passing moment.

Not to mention that you can't convey emotion in music if you stay perfectly in tune. You can, however, express the absence of emotion, which often seems an art unto itself in modern music.


Misunderstandings, however, are not always the fault of the listener; and in fact, any communicator must take responsibility for being understood, the same way a soldier has to take responsibility for discharging friendly fire. 'I didn't mean to do it' or 'I didn't mean to say that' or 'You don't understand me' can be seen as attempts to discharge blame for one's own actions on audience members. But the musician who strives for a blue note and doesn't quite bend far enough has only his or herself to blame, if later someone else interprets the action as an error or high brow attempt at chromaticism.

"Do you get the gist of what I'm saying/ playing?" We might ask when we realize that although our brains are on fire, ignited by the passion or inspiration of the moment, we've been talking too fast for our mouths to actually articulate properly.

That said, it may be that a performer plays perfectly (if we can ever use that phrase for art), but audiences perceive the result as noise. The interpolating harmonies of some Asiatic musics often strike western listeners as out of tune. So, it bears pointing out that the perceived organization of any given data set is not only or always the intention of a given organizer. Which is to say sometimes I look at something and you look at something and we see different things. Happens all the time. That's why even eyewitness accounts have to be corroborated by evidence.

Not to mention that sometimes a data set –what is observed– is often subject to an overlay of meaning by the observer, an overlay that may or may not be the intention of the designer, especially if the circumstances by which the data set arrives upon our senses are random in origin.


'What does it mean?' You may ask listening to either Stravinsky or Bebop.
'What does it mean?' You may ask staring at Jackson Pollack painting.
'What does it mean?' You may ask staring at the Grand Canyon, or an eclipse of the sun.

Whatever it is, it may mean something or nothing at all. But if it has any meaning at all, such meaning is either communicated by the creator, or projected by the congregation or consumer.

Likewise, it may mean one thing for the culture and another for the commuter; one thing for the civilization and another for the one who unearths it.

For instance, is that a Barbie Doll the little girl holds in her hands? Or a fertility goddess? I'm presently inclined to think that as the centuries advance, the phrase 'Barbie Doll' will become synonymous with fertility goddess.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Beauty, Chaos, Design and Musicology

 Lorenz attractor by Wikimol
From time to time I find myself returning to the same question: 'What is music?'

I keep returning to it because I remain fascinated how this one simple question begets so many different answers, and how each is supported by valid evidence and argument.

So, I'm increasingly inclined to think that the only way to define music in a way that includes all prospective definitions is to describe it as an applied theory of patterning, and one which is not even limited to sound, for as it happens, so is everything else, too! –Even in regards to those things and processes where patterns appear non-existent.


The results of improvisation, for instance, whether speaking of music or ideas, can sometimes feel random, even for the performers or actors themselves, who if they are fluent instrumentalists (or inspired thinkers), are attempting to follow a line of thought to its logical conclusion. And because they are feeling and not thinking, if we may draw such a distinction, they are not necessarily or always making purposeful decisions.

Can we say Improvisation is designed? I'm only certain that, again, we will produce a variety of answers regarding this question.

Design, in contrast to Art, suggests the necessity of specialized thinking by groups of specialists. It therefore requires Purpose, if we expect a group of people to work together as a team. A band of musicians playing improvised material is a team working in concert, but what is the Purpose? However welcome entertainment without necessity or utility, does the act of these creative works constitute Purpose?

At the same time, although the choices a given performer makes might seem random (to either the listener or the performer), the results are always based on an algorithm we call Theory (albeit, different musics, different theories).

And any theory however wide is also limited by its hypotheses, which we may think of in terms of music as an array of conventional choices. For instance, when a musician chooses a note, he or she doesn't conjure random frequencies from thin air. They limit themselves to a few specific and commonly accepted frequencies. At least in this respect, I think, we could argue that Improvisation is the product of Design.


We can also draw another parallel to speech, whereby we make all sorts of spontaneous utterances when we engage in conversation. The results are never random gibberish, and they often serve a function, but neither are they Designed. You say one thing, and I reply with something not just intelligible, but connected. I don't return with ixpit kadunga rius pox fo loka, unless A) I speak another code/ language/ theory; B) I'm mentally challenged; C) Alternately, I might possess an enhanced set of cognitive abilities; D) I'm attempting to position myself as an Absurdist, and therefore being intentionally discordant, which given some circumstances, it might serve to produce a mutually agreeable, entertaining or even (in the case of some Zen koans) enlightening experience.

But much better if we are both fluent in a given language (the same language), and we agree on the same meanings for words (or tones or signs) that belong to our respective 'corpus', and further, that we employ this corpus according to mutually acceptable grammatical rules, and otherwise trade in a culturally accepted set of linguistic and codes or definitions. Then we remain intelligible, and our conversation, however it meanders, never disintegrates but for lack of interest, and otherwise remains capable of conveying whatever we desire to share with one another.

That's the way it is with Bach; that's the way it is with Ballet; that's the way it is with Burmese; that's the way it is with Boogie woogie.