80% listening, 20% improvisation. A Modern Composer?

I just watched a Norwegian documentary about noise music from 2001 (ubuweb). It featured mostly Norwegian and Japanese artists, and it struck me how different they talked about music. While the norwegians got tangled into complex and opposing ideas about concepts, tools and artistic freedom, the Japanese gave shorter answers with more clarity. Straight to the point.

It made me wonder (again) how human-machine relationships are thought of in Japan. Over here, it’s very controversial to say that the machine does the work. Deadmau5 did that, in a way, and I doubt he will do it again.

In the documentary, the Japanese artists said things like “When I am on stage I spend 80% of the time listening, and 20% improvising”. A very refreshing statement, and electronic musicians can learn a lot from it. Shut up and listen to what the surroundings have to offer!

There are many similar ideas in the West, especially after cybernetics and John Cage. The sound tech and the author melting together in a system of feedback. Machines are extensions of man (á la McLuhan) and we can exist together in harmony.

In the documentary, one Japanese artist turns against this idea. He doesn’t believe that the sounds and the author work closely together at all. For him, they are separated, with only occassional feedback between the two. Hmmm!

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It’s an intriguing idea. When I first started reading about cybernetics, it was in the context of the dead author. Negative feedback loops that take away power from the human. I felt that my musical ideas were heavily conditioned by the tools that I used, and there was something annoying about that. How could there be harmony from that?

Maybe it’s better to think of it as a conflict. The computer is trying to steer your work in a certain way. And you want to do it another way. Like two monologues at the same time. It’s a reasonable idea, especially if you consider computers to be essentially non-graspable for humans – worthy of our respect.

However, that’s not how we think of computers. We’ve come to know them as our friends and slaves at the same time. Fun and productive! Neutral tools that can fulfill our fantasies. As long as the user is in control, it’s all good. No conflict. Just democracy and entertainment, hehe.

As much criticism as this anti-historical approach has received over the years, I think it’s still alive and kicking. Maybe especially so in the West. Computer musicians want to work in harmony with their tools. Not a conflict. “I just have to buy [some bullshit] and then I’ll finally have the perfect studio”. You heard that before? The dream lives on, right?

It’s  almost like 1990’s virtual reality talk. Humans setting themselves free in an immaterial world where “only your imagination is the limit”. Seems like a pretty christian idea, when you think of it. I doubt that it’s popular in Japan, anyway.

To conclude – it’s of course silly to generalize about Japan, judging only from a few dudes in a documentary. But I think there is still something important going on here. If anyone has reading suggestins about authorship/technology in Japan, please comment.

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2 Responses to “80% listening, 20% improvisation. A Modern Composer?”

  1. Linda Says:

    I got 75% into the noise documentary just after you posted it and didn’t get to watch the last 30 minutes yet. but very interesting to see :-) No real questions or comments on your thoughts, just thank you for posting stuff like this and trying to give new views on existing concepts.

  2. chunter Says:

    Virtual Reality (and artificial intelligence) was and is big in Japan, though it can express itself in a different way. Remember, these are the people who bury Tamagotchi in pet cemeteries and sell out Hatsune Miku concerts, and develop robots to assist the elderly and teach preschoolers. (Similarly, broadly generalized to make a point.)

    Some of the terseness perceived in Japanese people is an effect of the language and culture, though it depends very much on the individual.

    As for the 80% listening, or the element of human interpretation and improvisation, that exists in all music too. It becomes a more important principle to remember when you play an instrument that reproduces your work in the exact same way every single time.

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