Tuesday, December 7, 2010

what is music? a debate sparked by emily howell

Over the past year or so a performer-turned-scholar musician friend and I have debated on and off about our various philosophies regarding what we call "art music" or "classical music." I think I've written a little bit about the matter at hand a few times before, but given his conversion to scholar, I can no longer shrug off his ideas. Here is my initial attempt to organize my own thoughts thoughts, with the ultimate goal of perhaps putting them in some more tangible form, as a rebuttal to my friend's crackpot theories (don't worry, the mutual respect runs deep).

Emily Howell, for those who don't know, is a computer program created by computer scientist and composer David Cope. David Cope's previous program, Emi, analyzed music in a given style and was then able to compose music in the same style. Emily, however, purports to write music in her own style.

The reason Emily Howell is such a controversial figure--well, at least in the world of art music--is that she (it?) makes us question what music is, why it's important, and ultimately, why we value it.

To cut to the chase and lay down the gauntlet, I believe that music is--or rather, should be (more on that below)--perception, while many people would argue that music is something much more complicated than that (be it communication, intentionality, emotion, or whatever). What ultimately matters about music is how it sounds and nothing more. That's not to say that the sounds of music themselves don't create emotion in the listener or communicate emotion between performer and listener, or between composer and listener. The critical point is that they do so through a medium--ie, sound.

Most people will say that music--and indeed all art--has a lot to do with the intention of its creator, that its creator endows it with essential properties that are somehow mysteriously imparted to it and communicated to its audience. For this reason people are so concerned with authenticity in art, whether it has to do with faithfulness to a composer in music, or to forgery in painting.

People's essentialism rather complicates my thesis, because no matter what I think, most people are, on some level, essentialists, and perceive art through its lens. People generally don't judge a piece of music merely by how it sounds.

My point, then, is that music is perception at its core, and that it cannot escape this basic reality, despite all the essentialist notions that people throw into it. I believe we would enjoy music a lot more, and it would be more meaningful for us, if we could listen to it without being affected by everything that surrounds it, because essentialism doesn't make any sense.

Clearly, I have to explain what I mean by essentialism, and why it's both innate and non-sensical. There's a whole psychological literature on that that I'll get into soon (yup, school ended today, so I can hopefully not be lazy about it). Then on to Emily Howell, whose music I haven't actually listened to yet, but just purchased on iTunes. Yay for the instant gratification of technology.

1 comment:

  1. So why does it bother me that as long as Emily Howell SOUNDS great then she/it is making great music? Does that make me an essentialist? I look forward to your definition of that. . . . Human-made music will be different in every rendition -- will Emily Howell?