Flesh, Blood, and Silicon (Part One of Two)

Not very long after the advent of PCs, computer programmers made extravagant predictions of computer-created music. Recently, while surfing online, I happened to see many websites that were described as sources for computer-generated musical composition. Flashing back decades to my first encounter with claims that computers would eventually create music, I remembered assuming that those predictions referred to music “as we know it.” At least, that’s how the predictions were presented to us.

I didn’t need a crystal ball then to know that the predictions had no chance of fulfillment. Apparently, in their excitement for the obviously spectacular potential of computers, the prophets had no understanding of a fundamental difference between the animate and the inanimate. Thunder and lightning happen, a function of nature; music is created, a function exclusive to humans. The minimum requirements for the creation of music are a human brain and “a genius to transmit human experience through sound.” (see: my article, The Human Factor, September 4, 2011).

Defining art in terms of a rigid set of rules and measurements is at best superficial, a point eloquently made in the film, Dead Poet’s Society. However, when computer- generated music requires explanations that include the concepts of determinism, randomness, the uncertainty principle, and chaotic behavior, we are not talking about the arts. True, the arts blend science and creativity in many ways (e.g., perspective in many painting, sculpture, and theater styles), and there are a number of parallel principles among all the arts, but the core of art is directed to feeling, definitely not an attribute of computers.

I could not find an example of computer-generated music online. But I came across an  article in which its author claimed that a selected audience could not tell the difference between music “created” by computers and that of human composers. Surely, he could not have meant aleatoric sounds compared to those of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. He claims that in order to appreciate computer-generated music, we need to change our perspectives. To support that notion, he provides an example for us wherein spilt motor oil on a pavement is beautiful if we can disregard our perceptions of art as we know it and focus instead on the fantastic colors that spilt oil displays.

I too, see the beauty of spilt oil. I also see beauty in shards of glass spilled onto the street, in piles of rubbish carelessly scattered on the pavement, in reflected sunlight from just about anything. But, here again, I refer to my article, The Human Factor. In it, I posit that a beautiful sunset is not a work of art. It is, rather, the result of chance. Art is the result of pre-meditated design, if you will. It is also anything but a matter of chance.

Appreciation of art is also not a matter of chance. There is something ineffable about the   response to art. There are those who perceive no difference between operatic singing and screaming; between poetry and gibberish; between chance and art. I expect that many of them are excited about predictions that hybrid humans are on the way.

If you are still with me, please stay tuned for Part Two of this article.

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