Ontology from epistemology?

Below is an extract from the rubric provided at the excellent Workshop on philosophy of human+computer music held in the music department at the University of Sheffield on 4 July 2014:

“… philosophical work on music is typically focused on acoustic instrumental/vocal works, and we feel that it has yet to engage with the challenges raised by current movements in computer music, especially where it does not conform to our established work-concept and/or pitch-based structures.

Music that mixes human acoustic sound with live computer processing (and sound generation) challenges many of the notions and values that music has traditionally supported.  That much of this music is driven by improvisation adds a further challenge.”

The first keynote of the day, by Professor Peter Nelson, was based on his paper The Musical Cyborg.  He asked whether labour (at least our perception of it) is not an integral part of music-making, making the point by emphasising the great performance effort which goes into the playing of an essentially ‘found’ instrument such as a didjeridu, contrasted with the (apparent) lack of effort evidenced by a ‘labour-saving’ device like a computer.  He also raised the issue of ‘agency’ in relation to music-making, asking, ‘Have computers become social creatures?’.  It was these two related notions of ‘effort’ and ‘agency’ which occupied my mind in relation to the discussion during the afternoon session of the two performances we were privileged to see and hear: ‘works’ by James Surgenor and by Dublin Sound Lab (in the persons of Michael Quinn and Fergal Dowling).

James gave us a piece called My Electronic Friend.  This particular performance was not videoed, but I have included a You Tube ‘version’.  I use the quotes around ‘version’ because there is a number of issues relating to the ontological status of the piece which render the term ‘version’ problematic.  It is worthwhile watching the video because points from it are germane to the discussion.



The discussion trod some well-worn ground, considering issues such as conformity to a score and reproducibility as necessary (if not sufficient) conditions of a musical work; in essence, our ‘established’ normative and regulative notions of canonical works.  Now James says in relation to his piece that he is ‘not lying, but performing’, which makes it difficult to evaluate the sincerity of his claim to ascribe agency to his computer co-improviser!  One thing is certain: (within the very broad bounds of the computer’s programmed responses) no two performances of My Electronic Friend ever result in the same acoustic entity being produced.  But, no two renditions of, say, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony ever produce exactly the same sonic entity.  James claims that the work consists in the totality of the performance itself – and if I have understood him correctly, that different renderings of My Electronic Friend, such as the one we heard in Sheffield and the You Tube example embedded in this post, are exemplars of the work.  Nelson Goodman would do his nut.

The piece for piano and computer which Michael and Fergal gave us seems less problematic to me.  In this instance the computer was being used as (‘simply’) another instrument.  The fact that the computer’s modification of the piano input has (again, within the parameters of its program) a kind of ersatz randomness, epistemologically puts it on a spectrum with a wonky trumpet valve or a slipping violin peg.

I suppose that the difference between the two pieces, for me, was that I was prepared to ascribe a greater degree of agency (and, therefore ‘work effort’) to James’s computer that I was to Dublin Sound Lab’s.  And so, pace Peter Nelson’s remarks, James’s computer seemed to me to be rather more of a ‘social creature’ than Michael’s, at least in terms of their respective parts in these performances.

If James is right about the ontological status of his performances, it raises interesting questions about whether our traditional notion of a musical work has any future relevance or utility.

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