2013 – Toward a Contemporary Musical Consciousness


As a prolific composer and published theorist in the field of computer generated music, I have extensive experience in many topics related to this paper. It has been my extreme good fortune in finding two long-term mentors in Dr. Otto Laske and Dr. Sylvia Pengilly, both of whom are well-documented pioneers in these areas. In addition to being extremely well read on related subjects, my participation in numerous conferences, workshops, and lectures, as well as serving on the board of directors for the Society of Electroacoustic Music in the United States, has served as first hand education and invaluable exposure in the pedagogy of the subject matter. Extensive conversations with innumerable academic experts in the field have further provided well-grounded experiential understandings. Therefore, much of the evidence in the paper to follow comes from knowledge gained by the aforementioned, and highly credible, personal experience in addition to the sources explicitly cited.

As the technology of the digital age becomes increasingly pervasive in every aspect of our lives, our cognitive, problem solving, and creative potentials are expanding at an exponential rate. This increased capacity parallels an unprecedented technological growth that is emerging very rapidly when viewed in terms of the broad span of human history. (Kurzweil) We are on the verge of a dynamic paradigm shift in the way we experience our lives and our environments. Among their many effects, the catalysts of this increase in potential are bringing into actuation a new level of musical consciousness and powerfully affecting the way we compose, listen to, and perform sound based art. Further, this new musical consciousness is one of a multitude of driving forces behind this evolutionary leap thus continuing the age-old question; does art reflect life or does life reflect art?

Computer-generated art, and specifically computer generated music, is a leading edge and technologically based pursuit that is little known and even less understood by the general public. Through the use of generative and data driven algorithms, we are able to create musical complexity on a level that has been impossible to achieve until recent years. With this complexity comes a new aesthetic; one that can perhaps be most easily apprehended by a new era of composers, performers, and listeners who are aided by technologically assisted minds.

Historically speaking, new approaches to art in various forms are often not initially appreciated by audiences. Such changes require the passage of time in order for people to become acclimated to them. A public that is primarily conditioned to understand that which already exists often overlooks aesthetic beauty that is readily apparent to the artist. Art, by its very nature, goes beyond the limitations of the existing repertoire or it cannot be considered to be creative. Yet, with each new generation, young people, who are not yet tied to the past, are open to new art forms and so provide an avenue for new paradigms. A perfect example of this, that we can see happening today, is the “digital natives” who have been born into a world in which smart phones, tablets, computers, and etc. are all commonplace. (Firat) These digital natives are in an ideal position to create, perform, and appreciate music born of this new potential, which is truly an evolution in human consciousness.

The human mind is constantly evolving in three major ways: physiologically, psychologically, and sociologically. This evolution can happen very rapidly or it can happen over the course of millions of years. For instance, it is generally agreed upon by anthropological researchers that Australopithecines was the first of our hominid forefathers. They lived over four million years ago and had a brain capacity of approximately 450cc, or about 11/2 cups. Modern human beings, Homo sapiens, have brains that are approximately three times this size. (Franks) A major paradigm shift that occurred in the far-reaching developmental timeline of the contemporary brain was the pre-frontal cortex. It is the language and reasoning center that accounts for much of the increase in today’s brain size. It is thought that the reason the pre-frontal cortex became an aspect of the human brain is that, in order to survive, pre-historic people needed to become social and therefore to communicate. Obviously, intellectual development was also a necessity for continued survival as well. (Franks) Ironically, it is this very ability to reason and to intellectualize that is now causing great problems in our world and is perhaps even threatening our survival. (Tolle) So we see evolution as a result of environmental stimuli. From this we can deduce that evolution can take place on a physiological level as the need arises, even if it takes thousands of generations to do so.

Currently, a dynamic psychological evolution is taking place; one which is being catalyzed, at least in part, by recent discoveries in the area of quantum physics. These discoveries are drastically challenging the very core of our view of the universe and the way our environment works. One such discovery is the phenomena called quantum entanglement, which describes the effect of two or more particles moving in direct concordance though being separated by time and/or space. Another example is the phenomena whereby quantum physicists have discovered that photons appear to exist in every possible position in space until they are observed and then they appear to have been in a static state all along. (Kurzweil) Views that time is sequential and space is contiguous, previously unchallenged by any sane human being, are coming into question at a very basic level. Perspectives that have long been construed as being rock solid and immutable aspects of reality are no longer certainties and may in fact be based upon a subconscious human conditioning that has been passed down through countless generations.

Along with these and many other recent scientific discoveries, many new theories have been posited as well. String theory, for example, speculates that the universe is really a multiverse, a multi-dimensional universe, which requires there be at least 10 dimensions. Other theories propose that we may in fact be creating our own reality in every moment of our lives. Our linear experiential perspectives of time and space may soon become a thing of the past as we move into this new world, which may be a non-linear reality where causality itself requires an entirely new understanding.

We are also experiencing a dynamic sociological evolution with regard to the effects of relatively recent technological advancements. According to Ray Kurzweil, an internationally acclaimed inventor, writer, and futurist, our technological growth has been increasing on an exponential curve throughout human history. Kurzweil’s research shows that we are currently at the knee bend of this curve, which he describes as a “singularity.” He shows that during the years where nothing much was happening in the area of technological advancement, for instance the time between the invention of the wheel and Guttenberg’s printing press, it appeared that human technological development was occurring in a linear manner. However, when looked at from the vantage point several millennia, Kurzweil demonstrates that we can easily see our technological growth has been occurring in an exponential manner. Today, we are experiencing technological advancement at a point on this timeline where it is beginning to move in a nearly vertical manner at an ever-increasing rate. We can easily attest to the fact that in the past ten years alone the increase in technological advancement has been nothing short of astonishing, which supports Kurzweil’s theories.

In the past 60 years we have seen such advancements as the television, the cell phone, and the computer to name a few. People who were born thirty to forty years ago have grown up with these devices and probably cannot imagine a world without them. The computers in today’s wristwatches contain many times the processing power than the computers that NASA used to put a man on the moon in 1969. In 1966, when the first Star Trek episode aired, people were amazed by the fact that Captain Kirk, standing on an alien planet, could flip open a small device and communicate with the Enterprise in outer space. Just a few short years later, cell phones connect a huge majority of the population to each other via orbital satellites, thus creating the current “communications revolution” (Stephens, 12).

In the more immediate past we have seen the advent of the smart phone and the tablet. Both of which provide instant access to the sum of human knowledge at nearly any time and any place. Many people speculate that as these devices become smaller and smaller they will eventually be implanted in our bodies. (Kurzweil) Additionally, machine learning systems are silently working behind much of our daily lives controlling such important aspects of them as traffic patterns, the stock market, spam filters, the local grocery store’s ordering systems, and much more. The potential for these and other types of artificial intelligence is only beginning to be realized and will in the next few years become prevalent as a basis for many more areas of human endeavor including the realization of art.

It is obvious that we are experiencing dynamic advancements, which are taking place at a rapidly increasing pace within our society. These advancements are causing evolution on technological, psychological, sociological, and perhaps even on physiological levels. So it is interesting, and somewhat baffling, to observe that the majority of the music that is currently being composed, performed and listened to is primarily based upon techniques and theories that have changed comparatively minimally over the past two to three hundred years. It is arguable that they have change little over the past two to three thousand years. From ancient Greece to the medieval period, from Gregorian Chants to the music of Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven to today’s jazz, rock and orchestral music, very little has changed with regard to perspectives of how it is created and therefore how it is performed and experienced. Some might argue that there is a great deal of difference in the techniques used to create and perform a Bach fugue as opposed to those used to create a contemporary Danny Elfman movie score. Surely, when considered from a perspective that is working from within the traditional musicological frame of reference this is true. Yet, as seen from a perspective that includes an entirely new paradigm of computer-generated and data driven music, we can see that the commonalities between the music of Bach and that of Elfman are obvious. This ”traditional” music is based upon such notions as scales, harmonies, key signatures, and time signatures. The idea of beats per minute, an extremely arbitrary and stilted determination that dictates a certain pre-determined perspective, is a commonality between these archaic and contemporary methodologies. The new contemporary music being proposed in this paper is based upon events rather than notes; algorithmically generated events to be specific. These algorithms are complex in many dimensions. One of them is the very broad domain of frequency relationships that encompasses not only what are traditionally known as pitch and melodic structures but also what is commonly thought of as rhythmic structures. (Stockhausen) In traditional music, counterpoint is primarily concerned with melodic and counter-melodic relationships and their integral rhythmic structures. In this new paradigm, counterpoint refers to parametric counter point, which is the interaction of parametric relationships that stipulate an interaction of the overall aspects of a given event. As we can begin to see from this brief overview, the difference between the computer-generated music and music that is based upon a distant past are quite vast compared to the more subtle differences between genres of music that originate from this ancient paradigm.

Fortunately, today’s young composers have a huge arsenal of computer applications available to them that provide a nearly infinite number of possible musical outcomes and allow for composing from this unique new perspective. Yet these options are, in large part, underutilized to say the least. Many composers opt to focus upon the sound design aspect of composing, utilizing simplistic approaches to score generation to create a layering or looping of the sounds. They often neglect or altogether ignore notions of a formal structure, which is how we make sense of the sounds we are producing. (Rhoades) This is in part due to the result of the other side of this digital age. Studies have shown that digital natives have two prominent tendencies; first that they constantly multi-task and second, that they have very short attention spans. (Firat) So one can see that, with few exceptions, though we have greatly expanded capabilities, we have not yet understood how to implement them in order to optimize our creative output. Thus they remain, for the most part, unrealized potential. These digital natives are being influenced by the power of the technologies that pervade our daily lives instead of using them to influence and create on a new level. This will change.

The assertion here is that we are capable of much more. Our minds are evolving on many levels and at varying rates of change. This evolution is being dynamically augmented, at an exponentially increasing rate, by the greatly extended capabilities afforded by the technology of the digital age. The computer can be looked upon as an extension of the human brain and therefore of the human mind. It is already much better at memory and calculative functions and soon will outpace the human brain in all areas. (Kurzweil) From this, we can gain a modicum of insight with regard to how our musical output might be greatly enhanced by this development. As a simplistic generalization, think of the amount of energy and attention the composer can now put towards the creative side of the compositional process due to being able to offload tasks involving memory and calculative functions of the process to a microprocessor.

As early as 1975, Dr. Otto Laske, a highly regarded musicologist, composer, author, and developmental psychologist, considered the role of the computer to be that of the composer’s alter ego. (Laske, 151) Clearly, Laske was foretelling a future in which the computer functions as an integral part of the human psyche and is used as an intimately interconnected aspect of it. There is much evidence regarding the potential that the computer adds to our capabilities in almost all aspects of our lives and certainly to an artist’s compositional process.

Composers, performers, and audiences that consist of digital natives are perfectly poised to make use of these dynamic new capabilities in ways that are as yet unrealized. From this perspective one can easily see that the future of music as an artistic expression is at the forefront of a wilderness that is wide open to exploration. There is much to be gained by prospecting and mapping this uncharted territory. Not only will it greatly extend our musical and overall creative capabilities but it will also enhance our humanity, which is a general function and result of art to begin with. With minds augmented by the technology of this new digital age and by using it to extend our capabilities, our imaginations, and our creativity, we are on the verge of an extremely exciting time in human history. This shift in musical consciousness will in the future be viewed as having occurred at a time of great human growth and development. Everyone alive now is positioned to witness, to embrace, and to take part in this unprecedented, and extremely exciting, revolution in human consciousness.

Sources Cited

Firat, Mehmet. “Multitasking Or Continuous Partial Attention: A Critical Bottleneck For Digital Natives.” Turkish Online Journal Of Distance Education 14.1 (2013): 266-272. ERIC. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Franks, D.D. “The Nexus Neuroscience and Social Psychology” 2010 ISBN: 978-1-4419-5530-2

Kurzweil, Ray. “The Age of the Spiritual Machine” eISBN: 978-1-101-07788-7

Laske, Otto E., and Jerry Tabor. Otto Laske: Navigating New Musical Horizons. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. Print

Rhoades, Michael. “Azimuth – Algorithmic Score Synthesis Techniques.” Journal SEAMUS 1st ser. 2005 (2005): 2-11.

Stephens, Mitchell. “Which Communications Revolution Is It, Anyway?.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 75.1 (1998): 9-13. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. “How Time Passes.” Die Reihe 3 (1956): 99-139.

Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Plume, 2006. Print.

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