Cage-in-a-Box

Tonight I downloaded Richard Devine’s amazing GrainCube, which endlessly spews out a constantly changing stream of provocative, ear-catching noises. It’s the ne plus ultra of abstract, aleatoric electronic music. The connections among sonic events in the slipstream are entirely in your brain; GrainCube knows naught of semantics and even less of syntax; it just tweedles away, inviting you to become hypnotically enmeshed in the endless surprise of the unfolding moment.

For the technically minded, GrainCube is an ensemble (instrument) written for Native Instruments Reaktor, and you have to own Reaktor to experience it. If you do happen to have Reaktor 5, trot on over to http://www.devinesound.net/ and download GrainCube right now. If you also own a Lemur, I believe you can interact with it in real time, though why you would want to I’m not sure. Its hermetically sealed onanistic processes seem quite complete.

GrainCube is either the reductionist endpoint of improvised academic electronic music, or a clever satire of same. It’s John Cage in a box.

David Wessel, the director of CNMAT at Berkeley, has a couple of recent videos up in which he improvises on a multi-touchpad interface. The results are different in detail, certainly, from the output of GrainCube — but would listeners behind a curtain be able to tell which was a human performer improvising abstract curtains of sound, and which was the random number generators in GrainCube? I’m not at all sure … and the very fact that the question arises undermines the notion that David Wessel is doing anything of any lasting musical value.

David is a very bright guy, and I’m sure he believes in what he’s doing. He invited me up to CNMAT once and gave me a personal tour, so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m not going out of my way to insult him. But the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhwVYN6fnCE) in which he improvises with Miya Masaoka (she playing some sort of hammer dulcimer) is unintentionally hilarious. I found myself thinking, “My God — my tax money is paying this guy to develop this stuff?” It’s almost enough to turn me into a conservative.

But now that GrainCube has been released, all of the improvising electronic musicians at universities around the world can safely pack up their gear and go home. You’ve been replaced by a machine, folks. Its output is just as interesting and memorable as yours. You can safely go back to practicing Brahms now. Nobody will laugh at you.

In fact, they might be happy to see that you’ve come to your senses.

I’m not kidding, either. I was looking online at the music curricula for both UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. There’s this weird gap. You can learn species counterpoint (an 18th century composition and theory technique), or you can learn about the latest developments in the compositional use of spatialization, timbre, and computer-generated micro-polyrhythms (okay, I made that last one up, but I’m sure it will be on a syllabus next year). But can you learn how to write a good bass line or a memorable melody? As far as I can see, there seem to be no courses in that. You can learn about Beethoven’s compositional techniques as a historical topic, or if you’re a performance major and want to play Beethoven. But try going into a university music department today and saying, “You know, I think I’d like to learn to write like Beethoven. But modern, you know. Do you have any courses in that?” Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

I’m weird. I want to learn how to write good bass lines and memorable melodies. I’m not interested in playing music that sounds as if somebody brought down a big box of junk from Grandpa’s attic and dumped it out on the sidewalk.

Or … let me qualify that statement slightly. I might be interested, once in a while, in making music that had that kind of sonic vocabulary, if it were composed. If I were doing the music, I would want to sit and listen to the phrasing and the mix and think about them — think carefully, for days or weeks, before challenging my listeners. I would want the listeners to be able, if they’re paying attention, to perceive that someone cared about the music. And if I’m listening to a piece by someone else who uses that kind of sonic vocabulary, I want to know that the person who created the music cared enough to want to perfect it and present a thoughtful, polished recording or performance.

Dumping out junk? Hey, we’ve got a brilliantly engineered computer program that can do that for you.

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