Musical Magic



F. Richard Moore



                        Music is devilishly difficult to define.  Despite the best efforts of many twentieth century musicians, most people still would not say music is just any sound.  But if it's not any sound what is it?  Whatever else it may be, music is a fundamental property of human beings (and maybe, the like of whales and wolves).  No human culture has ever existed without music - al least none important enough to exist in the historical record.  So music and people are something like chickens and eggs, and we have to wonder which exists to create the other.


                        Things get even more complicated when the non-sonic components of music are taken into account.  Music is only principally fashioned with sound.  It also has tactile components (who hasn't physically felt music?) and almost always, visual components.  It's not even hard to imagine music without sound altogether (such as an orchestra of squads marching contrapuntally to multiple, silent drummers).  For the most part, though, we associate visual and tactile components of music with the act of music making, as with a singer's breath or a guitarist's plucking.  That is what we're used to.


                        We're also used to hearing music that has been worked out in advance either by a composer (who writes it down), or one or more performers (who practice it until it becomes reliable).  But what if someone turned this paradigm inside out?  What if performers played from a score being created by its own sound as it was played?  Is such a thing even possible?


                        Apparently it is.  Recursively defined audiovisual music was demonstrated before an audience in an April 10, 2001 performance of Kaleidoscope 3 by UCSD violinists János Négyesy and Päivikki Nykter working with computer artist Adam Findley and French painter Felix Rozen.  In their previous encounters - typically at the UCSD Center for Research in Computing and the Arts - Rozen would paint in front of an audience and  Négyesy would play according to what Rozen painted.  It was clear - back then - who was doing what.  But in Kaleidoscope 3, a computer projected a "score" on a screen in front of an audience (the score patterns were based on Rozen's paintings), the two violinists played according to what they saw, the sounds they produced were detected and processed by the computer, which altered the projected image according to the sound, causing the violinists to play differently, resulting in different alterations by the computer, resulting in ...,  well, you get the idea:  the sound reflected the image, and the image reflected the sound simultaneously.


                        Where is the music in this case?  Is it the sound? Is it the image?  Is it what is going on in the  minds of the performers?  The audience?  Is it what's happening inside the computer?  The answer is - at the very least - all of the above.  Take away any of the components and the music is significantly changed or stops altogether.  Even the audience affects the sound, which affects the image, which affects the performers, which affects the computer, etc.


                        This is computer music at its best.  What computer music?  One could change the other features, but the piece would have been utterly impossible without a computer.  Yet the computer was in no way evident in the music.  Négyesy and his friends proved that we have reached a level of technological sophistication where the technology no longer shows, musically demonstrating Sir Arthur Clarke's  visionary maxim  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (Profiles of the Future).


                        The future has arrived.