Arts and Entertainment | Music

Of Music and Men

As usual, the new year has put me in an introspective mood, and therefore I’d like to use this column to address something that brings my very relevance as a musician into question. Last week, I read multiple stories about Iamus, a computer that composes surprisingly “real”—sounding music using nothing more than a series of algorithms.

According to the Huffington Post, Iamus was created at the University of Málaga in Spain by scientist Francisco Vico and can compose music in every style. While I use computers for damn near everything, there’s something about this computer that I find deeply troubling. Digital production is the present and the future of the music industry—there’s no doubt about that—but the computer is merely a medium. As computers continue to dominate the process of music production, it is important to remember that the initial impetus for creation always comes from human experience.

I’m a fan of electronic music. Even as a jazz pianist, I think that the genre is responsible for some of the most innovative and uniquely textured music that’s out there today. But it’s important to remember that technology is a means to an end, rather than an end itself. As the world’s most important art form­—and I’m not at all biased—music has a responsibility to connect to that which makes us human. We don’t listen to music because it contains a certain note or rhythmic sequence—those are merely analytical constructs. We listen because it moves us, and links us, for a brief period of time, to its creator. Even if a song has hundreds of interpretations, it is the composer’s initial input of feeling which creates these possibilities. It is music’s humanity that gives it the ability to elicit deep nostalgia, romantic longing, and even tears. Without humanity, music is nothing but sonic manipulation—a cheap parlor trick that can momentarily entertain us, but never leave us feeling fulfilled.

I’m not a purist by any stretch. I hate overt music categorization, and I hate most debates about “real” versus “fake” art, but that’s not what this is about. This is about the very essence of humanity. Computers can compete and win at Jeopardy!, beat chess masters, and connect us with people on the other side of the world. When it comes to emotion, however, they lack much of the necessary equipment. We live everyday under the pretense that what we do carries a certain weight, partly due to the knowledge of our own mortality, and this always comes through in truly great music. Iamus has neither mortality nor the urgency that comes with it. It can create sounds—some of which may be pleasing—but it can never achieve the emotional complexity and creative innovation of a musician or a composer. One could say that Iamus could be an ideal tool for creating meaningless top-40 tracks, but for me, this too would be troubling. Even the most transient and superficial of pop tracks take root in the human experience, and I believe that even those are worth protecting from Iamus.

As classes come back into full swing and we all seek refuge in our favorite tunes, I hope we all take a minute to stop and think about the men and women behind them. Whether you’re all about a certain beat or you just can’t get that one synth line out of your head, it’s important to remember that a real live human being, somewhere, was responsible for that experience. I hate to get all “dystopian future” on you at the beginning of the new semester, but I just had to get that off my chest.

David Ecker is a sophomore in Columbia College. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.


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