Frankenstein's Piano

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The following essay comes from the program notes to the premiere of Einheitszeit, concerto for electronic piano and twenty virtual pianos, given on May 30 2002 at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne Australia. Michael Kieran Harvey was the soloist.

 

Composers have long been interested in the sonic potential of machines. After all, most musical instruments are machines, at least in part. But it was not until the late nineteenth century that non-musical machines started to find their way into the composer’s instrumentarium.

Since the early experiments of Australian composer Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961), American George Antheil (1900 – 1959) and others, the machine has found a permanent place in the arts of composition and performance. So pervasive is the computer in music nowadays that anxiety surrounds the very viability of the human performer. Perhaps such anxiety is symptomatic of an emerging rift in human consciousness. Humans design powerful technologies, then demonstrate an unwillingness to accept responsibility for them. But Dr Frankenstein’s creature did not come into being by accident.

The summoning of Mary Shelley’s monster is timely. The lightspeed evolution of reproductive technologies is rapidly overtaking science fiction. Shelley’s monster is often seen as the Enlightenment ego unleashed, the price paid for tinkering with the electrical secrets of heaven. But problems of a less metaphysical nature loomed in the English countryside; the Luddites were not only responding to the dark satanic aspects of the cotton mills, but also expressing simple (and well-founded) fears about job security. Machines could replace human workers, thereby putting the entire guild system at risk.

To me the piano has always seemed a very special sort of loom, an offspring of the industrial revolution that found its way into the concert hall and the drawing room. Although the piano in its acoustic form does not take part in tonight’s performance, it is the ancestor of all of the present works. The works on tonight’s program utilise the electronic piano, in association with computer and CD technology.

The computer I (still) use is obsolete, as is its operating system. I am indebted to Melbourne software author Ross Bencina for his wonderful shareware Audiomulch, which I am using for the first time tonight. Audiomulch is a real-time processor that works even on my ancient P1 computer. However, due to the processing limitations of my PC, digital errors might occur. Rather than exclude the possibility of error, I am interested in what happens at the edge of machine performance, and I welcome the unpredictable element this introduces.

Many composers who use much more powerful machines and programs than I do, speak often about stochastic processes (pertaining to probabilities, chance). I regard the pianist performing a Beethoven sonata to be a far more complex stochastic system than a computer expressing an algorithm. This belief is not borne out of a disdain for computers or their programmers, but out of technical and cultural considerations: salient subjects that I cannot explore here include information theory, algorithmic information content, the parameters of gestural meaning in human performance, and formal specification in computing. Will computers one day replace human performers?

I enjoy using technology in my music where I think it might be appropriate, but I regard the technology as an extension of the process, not as a replacement for people. Much of the discussion regarding the potential obsolescence of the human performer seems to me to be completely misguided. The reason we value paintings above reproductions is because they are unique, unrepeatable. The same applies to a human performance. A recording of a human performance is a replayable artefact expressing unrepeatability. One could argue that on the microcosmic scale, there is no such thing as an exact reproduction. But this line of reasoning misses the point – that human performers respond, and that they respond in a cultural setting. Advocates of artificial intelligence say very little about the cultural nature of intelligence. Brains are certainly complex, but cultures, the interactions of many of these messy grey things, will probably never be understood in any algorithmic way. If machines do one day mimic culture, it will be human culture they strive to reproduce. One human dream is to become a machine; the only dream of the machine is to become human.

Acknowledgments

My thanks go to Michael Kieran Harvey, Henry Gaughan, Vanessa Meckes, University House, The Ian Potter Museum, Rachael Pierce, Peter Kennedy, Arts Victoria, Fiona Beckwith, ABC Classic FM, Nic Mierisch and Sharon Bennetts.

Shaun Rigney, May 2002 

 

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