Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ChordEase and cybernetics

Collaboration between computers and people is the essence of the ChordEase project. The idea is to create a cybernetic organism, in which a performer cooperates with a machine in order to acquire new degrees of freedom that would otherwise be inaccessible. In this narrow sense, a person driving a car also constitutes a cybernetic organism. The car and the person cooperate to achieve a new degree of freedom, i.e. the person can now move around at 60 MPH. All tools have an element of cybernetics, but especially tools that embed information, control systems, sensors, feedback etc. By enabling a person to extend his or her power, tools create a new more powerful organism, a kind of meta-human or cyborg. So in the same way that a person using a portable vacuum becomes a vacuuming cyborg, a person using ChordEase becomes an improvising cyborg.

ChordEase is actually a very specific cybernetic experiment, organized around a simple hypothesis, which is that computers excel at rapid calculations, whereas people excel at rhythm, feel, and aesthetics. Rapid music theory calculations are a crucial component of improvising, and they're exactly the type of rule-based deterministic work that computers are optimized for. So the work of improvising should ideally be divided up between the person and the machine in such a way as to maximize the capabilities of each. The computer handles the brute-force music theory calculations, and the person handles everything else. In particular the person should avoid delegating anything related to rhythm and feel, because these qualities are fundamentally cultural and biological, and therefore very difficult to reduce to simple rules that a computer can follow. Rhythm originates in aspects of our nervous system that we share in common with most other animals, and is therefore inextricably entwined with our most basic drives, such as predation and procreation.

More generally it could be argued that machines will never make truly convincing aesthetic choices autonomously, simply because machines don't suffer, but let's leave that for next time...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why ChordEase is a tough sell

ChordEase is much more difficult to market than most products. Most products address an already existing need, and consequently have plenty of competition, but also an obvious built-in market. By comparison ChordEase is a new invention, and thus has no competition, but no easily accessible market either. The hardest problem in marketing is creating new needs, i.e. persuading people that they should try something that they never wanted or even imagined. This is harder still when the new thing is complex and takes effort to understand.

ChordEase is effectively a new kind of instrument, but it's not a physical instrument; instead it uses artificial intelligence to enhance ordinary MIDI instruments, so that they can be approached in a radically new way. It's also a meta-instrument, in the sense that it offers the same capabilities to every musician, regardless of what instrument they play. It's especially useful to people who approach music rhythmically, because it can translate rhythmic input into harmonic and melodic output.

The main goals of ChordEase are 1) to facilitate the performance of harmonically challenging music, and 2) to enable the performance of music that would otherwise be physically impossible. Like any new instrument, ChordEase has many subtleties and mastery of it requires practice, but it has the potential to be a game-changer and open up new aesthetic vistas. My hope is that people will eventually take interest in ChordEase, use it to create their own art, and support its further development in whatever way they can.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Awesome or evil? See for yourself

ChordEase elicits a wide range of reactions. It's fair to say that people are sometimes horribly offended by it: I narrowly avoided getting beaten up after a jazz show a few months ago, just for talking about ChordEase. In general the people most upset by ChordEase are professional musicians, and in my experience they usually make one or more of the following points:

  1. ChordEase could put them out of work
  2. ChordEase is cheating and/or laziness
  3. ChordEase isn't an instrument because it eliminates choice

ChordEase is not likely to replace any musicians any time soon. In fact it's likely to increase the number of musicians, in the same way that electronic music has, by opening up new vistas of aesthetic freedom. Music has always co-evolved with technology. A piano is certainly a machine, as anyone who has looked inside one can recognize. Modern brass instruments require sophisticated metallurgy and couldn't have been built before the industrial revolution. Even the equal-tempered chromatic scale was revolutionary in its day and doubtless had its detractors. Yet today baroque music, and even renaissance music harmlessly coexist with jazz, rock and techno. What's really at stake here is purity, a notion that there's a "right" way to make music.

New degrees of freedom don't necessarily reduce our existing freedoms. Everyone is 100% free to not use ChordEase, or any other music technology. Cybernetics has had a huge impact on manufacturing, and doubtless made many jobs obsolete, but no one seriously equates musical performance with assembly line work. Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions" notwithstanding, musicians will be some of the last people to be replaced by machines. Electronic musicians routinely use drum machines, synthesizers, etc. Does this make them lazy cheaters? Speaking as a professional electronic musician, I can say that my motivation to use technology definitely isn't laziness, in fact mastering new technology is hard work. My motivation is that it allows me to realize my dreams, i.e. accomplish things that would otherwise be impossible.

ChordEase definitely does eliminate choices, in fact that's its purpose, but choice isn't black and white, it's a continuum. In music technology, choice equates with control. How much control do you want over the process of creating music? Singing is total control: no technology is required. At the other extreme is a CD player. Many musicians like it somewhere in the middle, e.g. a synthesizer might be fun, and an electric guitar at least has frets. The widespread acceptance of the equal-tempered chromatic scale also eliminated choices, but you're still free to not use it, and define your own intervals. ChordEase is a tradeoff, in which a performer willingly sacrifices some control over which pitches will be played, in exchange for the ability to improvise over harmonically challenging music with a degree of proficiency that would otherwise be unattainable. The tradeoff has many nuances, but it's still a tradeoff. If you're unwilling to cede any control, ChordEase isn't for you. Like synthesizers or electro music, artificial intelligence is an acquired taste.

I created ChordEase and use it every day, not because I'm lazy or prone to cheating, but because it solves my artistic problems. I like to improvise over jazz chords at fast tempos. ChordEase lets me do that. I'm quite happy to delegate some of the work to my computer. I retain complete control over the rhythm, timing, and dynamics, and in many cases over the sequence of pitches too. ChordEase still takes a lot of practice, because it's a new instrument with complex capabilities that present unique challenges, but it works for me. Maybe it will work for others too. We'll see.