Beauty Of The Interfaces

New Technologies in Music

By Google Arts & Culture

Text: Steven Walter, Julian Stahl

The #bebeethoven project was initiated by PODIUM Esslingen to mark the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth and is providing an opportunity for 12 musicians to follow Beethoven's example by engaging with the key issues influencing the future of art music. An important part of this involves engaging with the latest technologies.

After all, music, which frequently forms the final refuge of everything that is pure and exclusively human, has always been closely intertwined with technology. At the point of music making, every instrumentalist enters into a connection between themselves and a machine that gives forth a sound: A cellist, for example, seeks to create an extension of himself in the wolfram-coated steel strings and the highly crafted sound box of the instrument, while a pianist engages with a large sound machine known for its complex mechanics. Even virtualization, one of the megatrends of the past decade, is something that music discovered some time ago. As long ago as the 19th century, the first phonographs and gramophones were already enabling people to take part in a virtualized musical experience, regardless of their location. The machine, which was played by humans, opened up a new musical dimension. The connections that exist between music and technology are many and various and date back a long way. So it is hardly surprising that the digitization techniques developed during the past few years are also exerting a direct influence on music. The work by three of the fellows taking part in the #bebeethoven project at PODIUM Esslingen is making it possible to characterize some of the unconventional routes being taken by those who are experimenting with the latest technologies.

AI Ensemble—Holly Herndon & SPAWN

Holly Herndon, #bebeethoven (© Diego Castro)
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As long ago as 2012, the American composer Holly Herndon described her laptop as the “most personal instrument that the world has ever seen.” Since then, Herndon and her musical partner, Mat Dryhurst, have gone one step further. The computer is now more than just an instrument. It's a member of the ensemble. The AI baby known as SPAWN played an instrumental part in the realization of the pair's new album, PROTO. The voices of Herndon and Dryhurst as a starting point, combined with call and response sessions with the audience, were used to create a hybrid and astonishingly moving voice at which listeners can only marvel. The boundaries are blurring. Is SPAWN an instrument, an algorithm, or even a being? Herndon engages in a dialog with the AI and works with it to shape common visions of a musical future in this digital era.

Composition as Part of a Community Collective—Alexander Schubert

Despite the fact that her ensemble is enhanced through the use of technology, Herndon's authorship of her work still appears undisputed, since she herself remains its autonomous composer. On the other hand, the issue of authorship, which in the digital realm is becoming an increasingly open question, is something that the work of another #bebeethoven fellow, Alexander Schubert, is even turning into an artistic concept in its own right. Schubert's work, wiki-piano.net, for example, takes the form of a website, which, in line with the principle underlying a wiki, can be freely edited by the user community. The website itself operates as a freely editable score, in which the notes, text, and other media can be changed at will, as part of a predefined structure. The website therefore becomes a score that is played by a pianist during the concert, using the version that exists on the website on the day of the concert. Each performance of the work is therefore unique and requires the player to engage with the current version of the composition that can be found on the website. Thanks to the design of the interface and the overall rules of the website itself, the community is able to create a shared, interactive composition that impressively reflects both the digital poetry and the unabashed trollification of the Internet. In the case of wiki-piano.net, the act of composing music takes the form of masterfully designing a public interface that enables music to be created as the result of a shared effort.

Inspiration Within the Maker Space—Koka Nikoladze

A third way of interacting with the latest technologies can be found in the work of Koka Nikoladze. Nikoladze constructs fascinating beat machines, which he places in minimalist settings and publicizes via social media. These small sound machines are constructed from everyday objects, such as pins, cola bottles, and metal springs, and are entirely acoustic. The sound isn't actually generated by machine, only amplified, and can still be controlled from a laptop, allowing the analog and digital spheres to merge together in a number of different ways. Analog in their construction, controlled and amplified by technology, and already in the throes of becoming a viral phenomenon, these sound machines convey a sense of the seamless transitions that already exist between the analog and digital realms. It is important to recognize, however, that the process is every bit as interesting as the result. After all, the interaction between short feedback cycles and the joy in experimentation that forms one of the hallmarks of digital projects is what led to the creation of the beat machines in the first place. Nikoladze works on his machines in a maker space in Oslo, Norway, where he draws inspiration and technical guidance from other technical experts and inventors. Feedback from the online community also opens up an extensive pool of knowledge. Without all of this, says Nikoladze, doing justice to the complexity and unknown outcome of his works would be completely impossible.

On the Road towards the Post-Digital Future

Even if music and technology have been influencing one another for a long time now, the digital transformation is playing a special part all of its own. The digital and analog realms are becoming increasingly interfused and can no longer be separated, whether in our networked devices, clothing, or communication. One area in which Beethoven, as a visionary, may potentially form a major source of inspiration concerns one of the important issues of the post-digital era, namely, the question as to whether it will be possible, taking music as a starting point, to develop a positive, self-determined narrative as far as the digital realm is concerned and to secure space that offers the potential to realize creative developments in the future? #bebeethoven fellow Holly Herndon already expressed just that: "There's a pervasive narrative of technology as dehumanizing. We stand in contrast to that. It's not like we want to run away; we're very much running toward it, but on our terms. Choosing to work with an ensemble of humans is part of our protocol. I don’t want to live in a world in which humans are automated off stage. I want an AI to be raised to appreciate and interact with that beauty."

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