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.

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