The Illusion of Free Will

We like to think that we have something called “free will.” But do we? I don’t think the term can even be defined in a way that makes sense.

The subject came up in conversation today, so I figured I’d better lay out my thoughts in an orderly way. Not that I expect to change many minds. This is a subject that arouses deep feelings.

That’s an interesting fact in itself. I suspect that many people confuse free will with personal responsibility. The idea being, if you aren’t free to choose whether to do or not do certain things (perhaps praiseworthy things, perhaps despicable things), then there’s no point in holding you accountable. There is no way to exercise any moral judgment. Everyone gets to engage in any sort of naughty behavior that their impulses may suggest, because, “Hey, I couldn’t help it.”

Well, okay, you couldn’t help it. But we’re still going to lock you up for a while. First, so that maybe next time you’ll think twice before you Read more

Reason 5 Sneak Preview

Right now I’m working on a review of Propellerhead Reason 5/Record 1.5 for Keyboard magazine. I’m certainly not going to rip the lid off the review prematurely. After all, Keyboard will be paying me! So you’ll have to buy the magazine (probably the October issue) to get the details.

All I’m going to say now is … verrrry interesting. A couple of new modules, plus a new sequencer mode (Blocks) with which you can lay out the sections of a song in an efficient yet flexible way. The Kong percussion module is amazingly powerful, I’ll say that much.

Tomorrow or Sunday I’m going to lay down some cello tracks in Record and try fixing my occasionally dodgy intonation using the new Neptune pitch correction module. This is a sorely needed addition, because of the closed nature of Reason/Record. The program won’t host plug-ins (a situation that I don’t expect will ever change), so neither Auto-Tune nor Melodyne is available for pitch processing. I’m real curious to see how Neptune stacks up.

Book Report

Details coming soon. Right now we’re nailing down a few details in the contract, but it appears this fall I’ll be writing a book on cello technique. For beginners. To be brought out by a major publisher of instructional books.

I’m certainly not the World’s Foremost Authority on cello playing, although I did have good teachers (notably Laszlo Varga). Mostly, I was in the right place at the right time. The idea came from the publisher’s acquisitions editor, in fact, and I had sense enough to say, “Yes, please.” They were swayed by the fact that I’m a writer, and that I have plenty of practical experience from teaching beginners.

It’s an interesting project. I’ll need to take lots of photos. (Taking photos of your own hands … there’s a challenge.) Also shoot video for the DVD. The inclusion of a DVD with the book is going to be a huge plus. There are many aspects of cello technique Read more

Talking about Music

Tonight’s email brought a bulletin from Electronic Musician. These emails are just junk, and I mostly just delete them, but this one caught my eye. The bulk of each eMusician XTRA email is, frankly, repackaged press releases from manufacturers. This is fairly depressing, though not surprising. What little remains of what was once a respected journalistic undertaking is no more than a bundle of manufacturer press releases. Gotta stroke those advertisers, dude! Nothing else matters.

But the decline of the magazine publishing industry is not what I wanted to talk about. No, I have a bigger bee in my bonnet.

Headlining the email was a link to a video clip on the EM website. The clip is called “When Classical And Electronica Collide: Inside TechnoClassica 2.0.” The clip, prepared by EM editor Mike Levine, is about a project at Penn State University in which a classical ensemble (including string players and flutists) is combined with a computer rig, synthesizers, drums, and a rather large and fast-moving rear-screen video animation. The video clip is mostly an interview with developer Max Fomitchev, who teaches computer science at Penn State, but there’s also a little footage of the music being played onstage.

The sad and aggravating thing about the clip is that there’s not a word in it, not a single solitary word, about the music. The idea that there might actually be Read more

So You Want to Compose…

One of my projects for this fall is to do more composing. On finding myself at the local library last night, I thought to check their catalog for books that might give me inspiration or fresh insight.

There was nothing in the catalog that would be even faintly useful to me.

They have both Music Composition for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition, but since I’m neither a dummy nor an idiot, those titles don’t sound promising. They have an online copy of Composition for Computer Musicians, so this morning I glanced at that. It’s an introduction to using the technology to write pop music. Trouble is, I already know the technology, and I don’t need an introductory text of any kind. What I need is the real skinny.

If I were a painter, I’d have a lot more books to choose from — three on using water colors, three on using pastels, and so on. I’m not saying any of these is a great book; I wouldn’t be qualified to judge. But none of them is for dummies or complete idiots.

I’m not planning to complain about this to the librarian. For one thing, the reason I was at the library last night was to attend a meeting. The head librarian was also at the meeting, and she shared some discouraging news Read more

QuteCsound 0.6.0 Released

Good news — Andres Cabrera has officially released version 0.6.0 of QuteCsound. It’s available for download at SourceForge. If you’ve never used Csound, this won’t mean anything to you … unless you’re tempted to try it.

QuteCsound is a very friendly, usable front end for Csound. Steven Yi’s program blue is also an excellent front end, but it’s deeper and not quite so transparent, especially if you’re not yet familiar with Csound programming.

QuteCsound gives you a code editor with auto-complete and syntax coloring, a pane that displays the Csound manual, mouse-controlled graphic widgets, tutorials, and other handy features. After creating a Csound file, just click on the Run button and you’ll hear your work — no command line interface to wrestle with, no hopping back and forth between apps.

Csound would perhaps not be a great choice for creating pop music. It’s free and has an amazingly clear sound quality, both of which are strong features, but to write music you have to type the event list yourself, note by note. For experimental music, though, it just about can’t be beat.

Angels Dancing

Medieval theologians, or so I’ve heard, engaged in vigorous debate on such subjects as how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. This sort of thing is what happens when humans develop an elaborate intellectual discipline that has no relation whatever to anything real.

Last night I stumbled on a dissertation written at CNMAT, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at UC Berkeley. The author is Psyche Loui. Having picked up an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at Berkeley, she is now an instructor in neurology at Harvard. I guess I’m impressed, but I’m not sure.

Her dissertation is an entirely serious, scholarly paper that documents her research on how people experience music. Playing long series of artificial melodies to hapless undergraduates wearing headphones, that type of thing. She used the Bohlen-Pierce scale quite extensively. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not missing much.

I forced myself to read large chunks of the dissertation. (Okay, I skipped the statistics and went straight to the conclusions.) Having fought my way to the bitter end, I no longer Read more

Danger! Old Fogey Alert!

When I was 20-something, the bitter, out-of-touch old fogeys who had grown up with Benny Goodman and other big jazz bands would listen to the Amazing, Wonderful pop music of the ’60s, growl dyspeptically, and say, “That’s not music! You call that music? They only know three chords!”

What goes around, comes around. This afternoon I checked out an assortment of tracks — some on SoundCloud, some on other websites — and I failed to find a single track that showed, in my quite well educated opinion, the slightest trace of musical talent.

Three chords would be a huge improvement. The music being promulgated by today’s swinging young people is flat-out garbage. (Just to be clear: I’m using the word “swinging” in an ironic sense here, to indicate that I myself am seriously out of touch.) There’s no melody at all. The obsessive repetition of ideas that were dull to begin with is beyond stultifying. It’s just noise. And that’s the part that isn’t just noise. There is also, by design, quite a lot of noise.

What’s to be done? Should I submit to a massive re-education effort? Download a bunch of dance mixes and rap and buy a subwoofer for my car? Or should I stroll quietly into the sunset humming the catchy, memorable melodies recorded so many years ago by Simon & Garfunkel?

I hope I have the good grace not to complain about it. (Oops … that’s exactly what I’m doing.) Nor would it be useful to try to educate these artists. They’re not going to pay any attention to me, that’s for sure. They know what they’re doing. Or at least, I’m guessing they must know what they’re doing. Whatever it is. If they didn’t know what they were doing, don’t you think at least some of them would have the honesty and humility to admit it? Maybe ask for lessons or something?

Listen, darling — they’re playing our song! Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa gxxxxpfflggqqxxxhgtttphhgxxx….

The Microtone Zone

Having nothing better to do tonight, I searched YouTube for “microtonal.” I had never heard anything in 26-tone or 7-tone equal temperament, so I learned something. They’re both wildly exotic temperaments, and that seems to be part of the point — to do music that’s entirely free of any sort of grounding in familiar harmonies.

Schoenberg had that impulse too, of course, but he didn’t really understand how to get there.

I can’t help wishing that the music in those videos was better developed, though. The timbres, the recording quality, and the compositional gestures Read more

Instead of Instead

Today the topic of optimizing your Inform 7 game code so that it will run faster came up on the newsgroup (, for those of you who just wandered in from the music industry). Ron Newcomb, who knows a whole lot more about Inform than I do, had several useful suggestions. The one that stunned me was this:

Don’t use Before, Instead, or After rules if you can help it. Use Check, Carry Out, and Report.

I don’t use After rules too often, but Before and Instead rules are the meat and potatoes of action processing as it’s presented in “Writing with Inform,” the built-in documentation in the IDE. Yet Ron suggested that Instead rules are sub-optimal from a performance standpoint. If you can write a Check rule instead of an Instead rule, he suggested, you’re well advised to do so.

Only here’s where the massive edit of yesterday’s blog entry hits the pixels. Turns out he was wrong. His take on it, based on inspecting the output when you run with the ‘rules all’ command in the IDE, was that when your game is running, Inform will Read more