Alien Music

In the course of my grand conference-laden tour of London this month, I attended the CHIPS Symposium last week, which explored the performance practices (and problems) of artificial performers in mixed human-computer ensembles. Too many fascinating ideas were presented to summarize here, but I’d like to zoom in on one provocative statement.

Most of the symposium was devoted to attempts to make artificial performers more closely approach human musicality, a certainly valuable endeavor (though not without certain controversies). Tim Blackwell of Goldsmiths University, however, proposed an alternative (though not mutually exclusive) goal: the creation of an “alien music” with rules and aesthetics separate and distinct from our own.

This statement immediately resonated with me, and seemed emblematic of the compositional endeavor as a whole. After all, isn’t anyone who writes music in search of something “alien,” or at least novel? Aren’t we driven to create because what we want to hear doesn’t exist yet? As a kid, this particular passage from the book My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville made a big impression on me:

I flinched as another burst of horrible squawking and growling sounded above me… I shivered. That noise was like a tiger running its claws down a blackboard; it felt like aluminum foil against my teeth. What could be making it? … I had noticed that the horrible noise was coming from a pair of flat pieces of plastic hanging on the wall. But it wasn’t until Mr. Smith started ‘singing’ along with the sound that I realized the plastic sheets were speakers. That hideous sound was music! Or at least what passed for music wherever my alien teacher had come from.

A few years later, I discovered Iannis Xenakis, and ever since I have always imagined “Mr. Smith” singing along to Mycenae-Alpha.

I hated the piece at first; I could not imagine why someone would willingly subject themselves to it. And yet, something kept me coming back to it. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I wanted to understand something that seemed senseless. Maybe I had something to prove. Either way, the abstract “score” included in the liner notes provided a key, a guide. Hearing the sonic shapes transmute and transform in concert with the lines on paper…well, it changed me. And I found, to my surprise and astonishment, that I liked the piece. Was my musical taste really so plastic?

But then Xenakis isn’t really “alien” after all; Mycenae-Alpha is still the product of a human mind, albeit with some computer assistance. What about something more artificial, or even accidental?

In this clip, taken from a playthrough of a corrupted Super Mario Bros. cartridge, something like music seems to emerge from the speakers. But here the music is a byproduct, an incomplete representation of the information contained on the cartridge. And yet I find it weirdly compelling in the same way Xenakis was to me on first listen. (Not everyone feels this way, as made clear by one YouTube commenter’s plea to “KILL IT WITH FIRE.”)

When I listen to this kind of music, I imagine I am like an animal listening to human music, perceiving some dim reflection off a distant surface. Currently, the cognitive mechanism that allows us to perceive beat patterns is thought to be unique to humans, and one cockatoo named Snowball:

But maybe we don’t need to go into the animal kingdom for an alien understanding of music. On MetaFilter, user KathrynT captures one child’s remarkable reaction to Penderecki:

Some years ago, I was listening to music with my friend Emma and our respective husbands while her 5-year-old autistic son played elsewhere in my house. Well, we were trying to listen to music; every time we’d put something on, Philip would come rocketing out from wherever he was playing and shut the music off before rocketing back to playing the Star Trek theme on the piano, or whatever it was he happened to be doing. (Avenue Q didn’t make it through the first bar.)

But when I put on the Threnody [for the Victims of Hiroshima] as an illustration of how complex Penderecki can be, and how music can be extremely unpleasant to listen to but still a powerful work of art, Philip came creeping into the room. He walked up to the stereo, but instead of turning it off, he reached out and put his hand on the speaker. Then he reached across and put his other hand on the other speaker. And he stood there, transfixed, absorbing the music with his body as well as his ears, for the entire duration of the piece.

When it ended, he turned around and shot back to the piano without a word or gesture and resumed his previous activities. But he was clearly experiencing that piece in a very different way than most people do; I wish I knew what it meant to him.

But is it so different, when musical taste varies so much from person to person? I wish I knew what it meant to you.

One thought on “Alien Music

  1. Thomas Patteson

    Great essay. I had a similar experience with my first exposure to experimental music. I think it was Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room. It made me so angry at first, but later I began to wonder why such a stupid piece of “music” should exist. With time and study, stupid became strange, and eventually strange became beautiful (while remaining strange, of course).

    The best music draws us out in this way. It takes nothing for granted. It poses (and perhaps answers)of what music is and could be.

    Morton Feldman wrote: “It is only noise which we secretly want, because the greatest truth usually lies behind the greatest resistance.”

    Reply

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