Monthly Archives: June 2016

A friend of mine shared with me an article by Brianna Wellen about underground comedy in Chicago. It is a fantastic read in full (here). Here are some passages that struck a nerve with me:

“‘We’re not called the fucking Comedy Castle’, Bartz explains. ‘With Shithole you’re absolved of all expectation’. It gave them total freedom and a sense of gratification they weren’t finding from performing in bars and clubs such as the Comedy Bar and Second City”.

“‘We’re doing a show, and it’s under our rules'”, Bartz says. ‘If we can’t be happy doing this at the Shithole, then we’ll never be happy doing it. So here we just have to do it—not for an audience, not for a resumé, not to succeed, but to make it work'”.

“What most sets the Shithole apart from other comedy shows is that it isn’t just a comedy show; it’s evolved over the last two years into an artistic collective, with each of the founding members also working in mediums outside of comedy. For instance, Egeland, originally the Shithole member doing the most in the realm of visual art, bought the quartet matching sketchbooks to encourage everyone to explore drawing as a creative outlet”.

“The Shithole also serves as an incubator. Stand-up Cleveland Anderson says he owes his comedy career to the Shithole. Rooming with Bartz, Gerrity, and Wilcop at the house where the first Shithole performances took place, he was hesitant to get onstage after a few unpleasant open mic experiences. Eventually he began cutting his teeth in the more convivial environment of the apartment shows, and now he hosts the Pilsen stand-up showcase “Hooray for Me'”.

“‘I tell Zach all the time, Thanks for doing the Shithole, because if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have gotten back into [comedy]’,  Anderson says. ‘You can just be yourself and be weird, and that’s punk'”.

What is unique about what The Shithole is doing is its situation between an open mic and a venue. They are serving as a safe space for artists to push themselves, trying new things and perhaps failing in the process. Although with a supporting audience, failure is not frowned upon. The only thing that they provide is encouragement.

These kind of safe space groups can benefit music in so many ways. Imagine, for instance, classical and folk punk musicians playing together in the same night, learning and communicating with each other and those in attendance. Barriers could be broken and possibilities could be realized.

What is reassuring about the problems Music faces today is that all of the arts are going through them too.

Many in Fine Arts, Theater, and Dance are taking their own paths to how to stay relevant with the world and to compliment its advances.

It would not hurt to not only learn from these other arts but to approach collaboration and thinking together about these issues.

David Cope’s EMI, discussed in the previous post, is illustrative of a compositional program within a vacuum. It is functional with utmost precision that goes off without a hitch. Computer programs nevertheless do not deal with the variables we do. Even the ivory tower of composition is a part of the world, it is not up in the clouds. There is corrosion, a canon ball might level it, and the tower could be sold with one’s knowledge (most likely because composition did not pay that month’s rent). So many factors are out of our control that in turn affect the factors of the compositional program within a musician’s head.

Beethoven stands out as such an example. Alexander von Oulibichoff noted that, later in his life,”Beethoven took a living to uneuphonious dissonances because his hearing was limited and confused. Accumulations of notes of the most monstrous kind sounded in his head as acceptable and well-balanced combinations”. What we have here is something beyond feeding the machine with more music. These are bugs and glitches within the system.

If Beethoven was EMI, who knows if the notes he chose for the Grosse Fugue would have been the same had variables like loss of hearing not come into the fold. For that matter, we do not know if the Grosse Fugue would have been written at all.

Not all of these glitches are terrible either. Some glitches, especially in video games, can make one achieve things unexpected previously. Tia DeNora writes about how the music world Beethoven found himself in with Vienna lead to avenues and works that were not possible without, say, wealthy patrons or pianofortes that could take the heft Beethoven needed. All of that and more Beethoven bumped into and all of that and more turned the gears of the compositional program in his own head.

So, if music making was not complicated enough, interruptions enter the fold. Daniel C. Dennett, whose own work lead me on to Cope’s EMI, references Douglas Hofstadter when writing about these sort of interruptions within evolution. One of the words he uses is Hofstadter’s: spontaneous intrusions.

Dennett mentions that “[i]n the real world, almost everything that happens leaves a wake, makes shadows, has an aroma, makes noise, and this provides a bounty of opportunities for spontaneous intrustions…[E]volution by natural selection feeds on noise, turning fortuitously encountered noise into signal, junk into tools, bugs into features”.

All of the noise and junk and bugs, all of the spontaneous intrusions only make musical composition that more complicated. It also makes it that much more of a wonder that, out of the process, we are left with pieces like the Grosse Fugue to take in.

About thirty years ago, composer David Cope started to work out a music program called EMI (Experiments in Music Intelligence). Cope gives the general background of EMI on his site here. I just found out about it through further reading of Daniel C. Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Here is Dennett getting at the function of such a program:

“As EMI is fed music by Bach, it responds by generating musical compositions in the style of Bach. When given Mozart, or Schubert, or Puccini, or Scott Joplin, it readily analyzes their styles and then composes new music in those styles, better pastiches than Cope himself – or almost any human composer – can write”.

What particular music of a composer is EMI focusing on? Even if it were fed the entire corpus of a composer, is it just focusing on a sample group of pieces, taking the gathered “instructions” in composing a work similar to said composer? I wonder if this sample group changes each time EMI makes a piece or if EMI has a general list of “instructions” it uses after the compiling. These variables could lead to an umpteen amount of variations.

But wait, this can be compounded further:

“When fed music by two composers, EMI can promptly compose pieces that eerily unite their It could take specific styles, and when fed, all at once (with no claring of the palate, you might say) all these styles, it proceeds to write music based on the totality of its musical ‘experience’. The compositions that result can then also be fed back into it, over and over, along with whatever other music comes along in MIDI format, and the result is EMI’s own personal musical style, a style that candidly reveals its debts to the masters while being an unquestionably idiosyncratic integration of all this ‘experience'”.

This constant feed back leads to a number of possible pieces that reaches the sphere of what Dennett calls Vast numbers (explored here).

EMI could at the very least show us the Vast number of possibilities when writing music of any kind. And while EMI can probably take in a whole corpus, most of us might take in a select group of pieces as our sample of an artist to mash with other samples. Pieces and what “instructions” are garnered from them are going to vary from person to person as well (more variation upon the variations we have already).

We should also not forget of the complexity of then writing pieces off of one’s own style (like people asking a band to write another album like the last one). Who knows what “instructions” one focuses on, let alone the “instructions” that are further piled on (more variation upon the variations upon the variations we have already).

All of this racks my brain but in the sort of way that promotes wonder at the possibilities that are yet untapped.


“In order to know what literature is, I would not want to study its internal structures. I would rather grasp the movement, the little process, by which a type of non-literary discourse, neglected, forgotten as soon as it was made, enters the literary field. What happens? What is triggered off? How is this discourse modified in its efforts by the fact that it is recognized as literary”.

-Michel Foucault, “The Functions of Literature” (an interview)

Another interesting feature of the Ben Ratliff article about the Arthur Russell archive at the NYPL (here) is when Ratliff details the difficulty in the actual archiving:

“One of the library’s interesting challenges may be in how to catalog Russell’s work. For starters, neither the terms “popular” or “classical” really describe him. A group of his lyrics on a notebook page might apply to more than one known and recorded piece of work; a tape of a practice session might or might not be leading toward a finished take. (Mr. Hiam, the curator, said that this was the first time the library has had such a large number of recorded materials demonstrating a composer’s creative process.) He revised and rerecorded and wrote new material in old notebooks. Traditional modes of definition may only help to show the ways that Russell resisted them”.

This would have excited Foucalt. Here are neglected little features of Russell’s work: not exactly music in the sense of a finished product but facets of his creative process. What approach will the curator take in cataloguing such artifacts so that they are recognized as music?

It is a wonder whether some of said archive will be accessible from the internet, another non-music discourse. In its inception, the internet was probably not considered a tool to usurp record companies and standard means of music distribution. We are left as its beneficiaries, no one can deny that, yet it would be instructive to examine how it was and will be modified to be recognized as a music entity.

Foucault’s examining literature through how the non-literature is assimilated into it is an adventurous mode of thought. How fascinating to take it into the realm of music. The problems and solutions that present themselves here will lead to insights into the nature of music: maybe some we were aware of and others we were not.

In The Jealous Potter, Claude Levi-Strauss tells of an account of the ovenbirds. He quotes one Ihering as follows:

“The male cries out and the female immediately answers half a tone lower; two sounds of equal length thus alternate with such speed, such rhythmical accuracy, that the listener is filled with admiration, especially on thinking how difficult it would be fore humans to practice this kind of musical exercise at prestissimo speed”.

“A professional musician listening to a pair of João de Barro with me particularly admired the perfect timing of the second voice, achieved with no prompt from the first singer. Human musicians need the cues the conductor gives them with his baton, whereas these birds, even at some distance from each other, seem to answer automatically and instantly”.

Ihering and his companion approach the pair of ovenbirds in musical language. The duo’s feat is one of that could be rarely matched by even the most virtuosic of players. This is the source of admiration; that the ovenbirds are highly tuned musicians in their own right.

Or are they?

Robert Beverley MacKenzie, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, wrote scathingly of Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is a particular passage that highlights its function well. And yes, these are MacKenzie’s capitalizations: “…so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT”.

I repeat (via Daniel C. Dennett), “…the organisms it designs get the benefits of all their exquisite equipment without needing to understand why or how they are so gifted”.

These organisms have competence but no comprehension of said competence. Our ovenbirds are not aware of their musicianship and yet their timing and phrasing is deemed a little musical miracle. Why, they did not even have a conductor giving cues!

Dennett implies that the ovenbirds “…are endowed with behaviors that are well designed by evolution, and they are the beneficiaries of these designs without needing to know about it. This feature is everywhere to be seen in nature, but it tends to be masked by our tendency…to interpret behavior as more mindful and rational than it really is”.

While this mask we wear obscures, it can in turn make the world beautiful. Birds like the ovenbird are musicians! Oliver Messiaen, for instance transcribed bird songs for his own work. We can even go as far as inanimate objects. A subway is unaware of its musicianship and yet we can interpret it as a cacophonous orchestra.

If we can “interpret behavior as more mindful and rational than it really is”, then the world we inhabit can create a symphony without knowing it.

Daniel C. Dennett takes from Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” to explain how human DNA contains both differences and similarities. There is a bit in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking where Dennett explores the variation within one book in said library:

Moby-Dick is in the Library of Babel, but so are 100,000,000 mutant impostors that differ from the canonical Moby-Dick by a single typographical error. That’s not yet a Vast number, but the total rises swiftly when we add the variants that differ by two or ten or a thousand typos. Even a volume with a thousand typos – two per page on average – would be unmistakably recognizable as Moby-Dick, and there are Vastly many of those volumes. It wouldn’t matter which of these volumes you found, if only you could find one of them! Almost all of them would be equally wonderful reading, and all tell the same story, except for truly negligible – almost indiscriminable – differences”.

Imagine if it was a score of Mozart’s instead of Melville. With the variations done to a piece fitting for such practice, there would be 100,000,000 mutant impostors that vary from the canonical movement of a Mozart symphony by one change of pitch. Like with the typos, this number will rise once variants differ from a couple to thousand of pitch changes (taking into account what parts of the orchestra are edited and the mind numbing variations derived from that).

The result is something that Dennett labels as a Vast number: finite but seemingly infinite enough to not be exhausted any time soon. What should be noted is that this thought experiment is done with one piece. Could one even imagine the Vast number of all of the mutant impostors of every piece of music known? Definite but sure as hell time consuming.

Sure, there will be some variations that are wonky, just as in the Library of Babel there are versions of Moby-Dick that are barely the original amongst the surge of typos. A certain set of variations could present a new piece in of itself (along with its variations!). This process can go on and on.

How optimistic this thought experiment is. What music creation can be done is a Vast number: there will be a time when we will run out of musical ideas but it will not be any time soon (or late).