Keynote address presented at the
conference Improvisation Across Borders at UCSD April 11, 1999
Dedicated to the memory of Robert Erickson who encouraged us all
According to Ray Kurzweil in his
new book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed
"In a hundred years there may
be no clear distinction between humans and computers.
There will be enormous augmentation of human perceptual
and cognitive abilities through neural implant technology.
Humans who do not use such implants are unable to participate
in meaningful dialogue with those who do - knowledge is
understood instantaneously through assimilated knowledge
protocols. The goal of education and intelligent beings
is discovering new knowledge to learn."
The speculations for the future in the Kurzweil book and others
concerning self aware machines with the ability to reproduce into
future generations with patterns of matter and energy that can
perpetuate themselves and survive set me wondering. It's already
evident that computers and human intelligence are merging. What
would I want on a musician chip if I were to receive the benefit
of neural implant technology? What kind of a 21st Century musician
could I be? Humans with the aid of technology already see and
hear far beyond the capability of the unaided senses. It's not
long according to Kurzweil when such aids will be available at
the personal level as implants like personal computers or digital
assistants. All of us improvisers could have new input from this
and new challenges. I'll return to the question of my musician
chip after looking back a hundred years for some reminders and
The first magnetic recording came
in 1899. One hundred years ago - Sound is recorded magnetically
on wire and a thin metal strip.
By 1900 The Gramophone Company advertised a choice of 5000 recordings.
The human desire to record - to replicate and preserve resulted
in 52,000 CD Titles produced in 1998!
Early Jazz Improvisation emerged
after the civil war and emancipation. Improvisation developed
in parallel with radio broadcast and recording technology.
It is not surprising that all styles and forms of improvisation
from historical to free have been empowered by recording. Recording
is the memory and documentation of improvisation and testifies
to an enormous creative effort by innumerable musicians. Musicianship
for written forms of music has been empowered by recording as
The African aesthetic imposed on
American and European dance music leads to the decade of the birth
of the Blues and blues influenced jazz - 1920-30. Ma Rainey and
Bessie Smith mothered this music and rose to short lived stardom
as Blues queens during the migrations from the South to Northern
metropolitan centers. Horn players of innumerable bands followed
the lead of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and other singers in a tremendous
era of creativity and enterprise by people of African descent.
By 1930 60% of all American households
have radios. Improvised music spreads out from recordings and
radio broadcasts. Music by Americans of African descent is heard
throughout the land and influences all of American music. This
enormous creativity is recognized and appropriated by the white
entertainment establishment. The black white exchange and interaction
continues throughout the century and grows into the billion
dollar music industry which exists today.
In 1953 the first consumer model
tape recorders are available. This meant that musicians could
record themselves at home or in their studios - a sound mirror
is available to use anytime.
Musicianship escalated with the
aid of technology. Today's musicians are phenomenal in their performance
skills in all styles of music improvised and written.
Currently another wave of creativity
originating from 1970's Hip Hop sweeps world youth culture - influencing
the whole world. All recordings are sources for improvisation.
Rather than frozen historical objects recordings become live material
through DJ scratching and re-mixing.
Classical music as taught in American
establishment institutions and conservatories regards improvisation
as a kind of craft, subordinate to the more prestigious art of
composition. It's well known that Mozart as well as Beethoven
improvised on their tours. Improvisation as a lost art was excluded
from the curriculum and all but disappeared in America except
for church organists and occasional cadenzas in concertos. The
denial of the validity of improvisation has a racist tinge and
origin. In America in the first half of this century improvisation
grew mostly from Jazz and Blues - heart music of Americans
of African descent - the disenfranchised. After1950 improvisation
appears in white avant garde music through the influence of marginalized
indeterminate or aleatoric procedures, exposure to Jazz and Blues
and to recordings and live imports of non-Western music
- also disenfranchised music.
What's the purpose of creating music
in performance without reference to memory or written form - improvisation?
The purpose varies according to the function of the music.
One purpose is to enter into direct dialogue through sound with
oneself and others. If the improvisation is creative then new
mental and physical patterns could be born such as happened with
Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor breaking away from Jazz traditions
in the 50s and later Musica Electronica Viva, San Francisco Tape
Music Center and AMN breaking away from classical music restrictions
with improvisation. If the improvisation is historical such as
replicating Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or the legacies of other
great improvisers with no new elements then the purpose is to
affirm a tradition.
The improvising musician has to
let go of each moment and also simultaneously understand the implications
of any moment of the music in progress as it emerges into being
- In historical improvisation the course is charted or set by
the conventions and codifications of the style - the Classicism
of the music - In so called free improvisation nothing is known
about the music before it happens - this edge is the challenge
for human and for machine intelligence. Unless the styles of the
musicians improvising were already absorbed by the machine then
what information would there be to calculate a response? If the
outcome is known in advance it is not free improvisation, it is
What in fact does happen when a
creative musician makes new music? How can it be new or free?
What is it free of? What could be new about it? What is happening
with a solo improvising musician? a group? The soloist gives herself
feedback and enters a dialogue with herself and musical space
- the group stretches the possibilities for dialogue and new relationships
come about creating a myriad of new possibilities even though
the course of the music - new as it may be - will flow with ineluctable
inevitability. The recorded legacies of innumerable musicians
are waiting to answer these questions.
What happens when a new musician
chip is implanted in a human or a machine? All ranges are increased.
Processing is possible beyond known present human capabilities.
What could be heard? Could a new musical paradigm include a new
spatial domain? Moments of local sound - moments of moving sound
with the ability to detect locations from light years away - defining
new interdimensional spatiality? What would a spatial melody sound
like - a pitch beginning on Saturn moving to Aldeberon to Sirius
to Earth? Space related frequency and amplitude - multidimensional
melody - color/space/sound melody. Who would be playing this tune?
Who would be listening and where? Melody across space stretched
out and also happening everywhere simultaneously. Space
is the place - I hear you Sun Ra!
According to the current issue of
Scientific American in the article "Is Space Finite"
by Luminet, Starkman and Weeks, "The universe may look infinitely
large, but that could be an illusion. If space folds back
on itself like the braids of a pretzel, it might be boundless,
and light could spool around the cosmos endlessly. The usual assumption
is that the universe is, like a plane, simply connected, which
means there is only one direct path for light to travel from a
source to an observer. A simply connected Euclidean or hyperbolic
universe would indeed be infinite. But the universe might instead
be multiply connected, like a torus, in which case there are many
different such paths. An observer would see multiple images of
each galaxy and could easily misinterpret them as distinct galaxies
in an endless space, much as a visitor to a mirrored room has
the illusion of seeing a huge crowd."
What if we could sound out, hear
and perceive the shape of the universe by bouncing sound around
We don't have to be limited to the physical definitions of our
perceptual ranges. What about imagination? Here is the challenge
of the machine - the promise of hybrid human/machine forms through
implants - the challenge of new beings with formidable powers
of perception, memory, reasoning, and interpretation - non carbon
based beings created by humans to eventually replace humans. Are
we creating new beings to replace humans or are we expanding our
minds - making a quantum leap into the neo cortex to develop
our own potential power?
In 1948 -Norbert Weiner coined
the word "cybernetics" meaning the science of
control and communication in the animal and machine. The cybernetic
presence is definitely with us. Kurzweil says in his time line:
"10 years from now (2009)
human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians"
This is a shallow statement because there is no revelation concerning
style, complexity or form. In fact many musicians are already
improvising with machines programmed to respond to improvised
input. Will Kurzweil's cybernetic musicians be self determining
in 10 years?
In 1977 the first desktop computers
from Apple are available. Musicians and Hobbyists continue to
work out programs to make and play music now in their own studios
away from Bell Labs, Princeton, Stanford and other institutions
for computer music research.
Improvisation is also developing and merging with new forms of
interaction made possible by machine intelligence. Computers expand
the reach of solo as well as group improvisers. The work of Laurie
Spiegel, David Behrman, Warren Burt, Joel Chadabe, George Lewis,
Elliott Sharp, Jim Tenny, Deep Listening Band, Chris Brown, The
Hub and many others comes to mind.
By 1990 Computer hard disc recording
and editing is available. A powerful and revolutionary combination
- the merging of recording and computing. What a wonderful tool
for the creative musician.
"In 20 years virtual musicians
with their own reputations are emerging". We need to know
what constitutes a musician. How will humans with or without implants
compete or collaborate with the cybernetic presence? I don't feel
comfortable with the notion of surgical implants. I hope that
some non invasive reversible form may be available.
"30 years from now direct neural
pathways for high bandwidth connections to the human brain perfected.
There will be a range of neural implants to enhance auditory and
visual perception and interpretation, memory and reasoning".
What would be enhanced? What and how would such powers be measured
and valued and by whom? What about imagination? What kind of improvisation
could and inevitably will result?
Music and especially improvised
music is not a game of chess - Improvisation especially free improvisation
could definitely represent another challenge to machine intelligence.
It won't be the silicon linearity of intensive calculation that
makes improvisation wonderful. It is the non linear
carbon chaos, the unpredictable turns of chance permutation,
the meatiness, the warmth, the simple, profound, humanity
of beings that brings presence and wonder to music.
We have looked one hundred years
before and one hundred years ahead of this 1999 conference Improvisation
Now for what I would want on my Musician Chip - what skills should
the 21st Century musician have? What could she know?
In 1937 the Church-Turing Thesis stated that "All problems
that humans can solve can be reduced to a set of algorithms, supporting
the idea that machine intelligence and human intelligence are
Returning to the future Star Date
2336 we find a machine intelligence - minus human emotions that
evidently don't reduce to a set of algorithms until lately - at
work on the Star Ship Enterprise. Star Trek's android Lt. Commander
Data is an imagining of the future predicted by the Church-Turing
theory. Data solves problems and is a sentient life form with
the same rights as other life forms. His ultimate storage capacity
is 800 quadrillion bits and his total linear computation speed
is 60 trillion operations per second. Data can remember every
fact he is exposed to and can imitate voices so perfectly that
he can even fool the computer of the Enterprise into thinking
he is someone else. Star Trek's Data has performed as a classical
musician on several episodes. His classical musician chip allows
him to perform any music superbly having absorbed all known styles
and all available recorded interpretations of written music. The
musician who learns to perform classic forms and idioms is a conservative
who affirms and preserves tradition. All of known music could
be listened to, absorbed analyzed and interpreted by machine intelligence
and be contained on a chip.
The composer is an organizer who
designs and formalizes music prior to performance through notation.
Computers already aid a variety of composer's design calculations.
Computers can engage in rule based composition, calculate
and realize musical forms.
Experiments in Musical Intelligence
by David Cope describes the basic principles of analysis,
pattern matching, object orientation and natural language
processing. This system makes it possible to generate new compositions
in the styles of various composers, from Bach and Mozart to Prokofiev
and Scott Joplin. The program SARA (Simple Analytic Recombinant
Algorithm) produces new compositions in the style of the music
in its database. Already audiences are hard put to tell what music
is composed by a human and what is composed by a machine All known
styles of composition could be contained on the composer chip.
Data could certainly handle all
known styles of composition and historical improvisation.
Improvisor: is a computer program that creates original music,
written by Paul Hodgson, a British Jazz saxophone player. Improvisor
can emulate styles ranging from Bach to Jazz greats Louis Armstrong
and Charlie Parker - historical improvisation. What about the
improvising musician as an evolutionary? What would an improviser
chip have to include for Data as a machine intelligence to engage
in free improvisation? To boldly go where no musician has gone
before sounding through dimensions of space - of time? Finding
new sounds and new sound relationships?
Data could probably analyze all
known instruments for instrument makers, all performance abilities
for performers and all known musical forms for composers. The
edge though is the unknown of imagination for performers, improvisers,
composers and instrument makers and the unification of all these
On my musician chip I would like
Ability to recognize and identify
instantaneously any frequency or combination of frequencies in
any tuning, timbre in any tempo or rhythm, in any style of music
or sound in any space.
Ability to produce any frequency
or sound in any tuning, timing, timbre, dynamic and articulation
within the limits of the selected instruments or voices used.
Maybe I would also like to morph from any instrument to any other
instrument or voice. at will.
Ability to recognize, identify and
remember any music - its parts as well as the whole no matter
Ability to perceive and comprehend
Ability to understand the relational
wisdom that comprehends the nature of musical energy - it's form,
parts and underlying spirituality - as the music develops in performance.
Ability to perceive and comprehend
the spiritual connection and interdependence of all beings and
all creation as the basis and privilege of music making.
Ability to create community and
healing through music making.
Ability to sound and perceive the
far reaches of the universe much as whales sound and perceive
the vastness of the oceans. This could set the stage for interdimensional
galactic improvisations with yet unknown beings.
I suppose it would be great to be
able to print it all out as well in 3D color.
Are improvisers conscious? Do they
have self perception, self awareness the ability to feel. What
is conscious improvisation? For that matter what is unconscious
improvisation? The body knows what to do even if the small mind
does not comprehend. The body "dances" the music - the
nerves fire and the mind notices slightly after it happens. Conscious
improvisation involves strategy - responding strategically even
if the outcome is unknown. A strategy of conscious improvisation
might be - play only if you are listening - or trust the
body to respond. This melds of course the notion of conscious/unconscious
The capability of the human mind
is unplumbed. We have far more capacity than we currently use
in the neo cortex waiting for evolutionary expansion. Computers
may actually instruct us in this process as we continue to merge
with the machine intelligence that we are creating and improvisation
interaction. We must decide though what a 50 year old structure
of silicon is going to tell a five billion year old structure
of carbon before making irreversible changes physically.
Quantum computing is a revolutionary
method of computing based on quantum physics that uses the abilities
of particles such as electrons to exist in more than one state
at the same time. Quantum computation can operate simultaneously
on a combination of seemingly incompatible inputs.
By analogy or metaphor Quantum Improvisation
could mean a leap into new and ambiguous consciousness opening
a new variety of choices. Ambiguous consciousness would mean the
ability to perform in more than one mental state simultaneously
in order to reach or bridge past and future as an expanding present.
There could be new sound combinations anchored by increasing order
even though choices might seem incompatible. Such a quantum leap
could mean the utilization of more of the neo cortex the seat
of creativity and problem solving. The newest part of the brain
that is waiting to evolve in association with the limbic system
- the amygdala - old brain and seat of the emotions. Quantum
Improvisation could find new ways to express and understand the
relationships between mind and matter.
Ordinarily we use only a relatively
small percentage of the neo cortex - this reflects the style of
most content oriented education in institutions, which limits
or suppresses rather than encourages creative problem solving.
After enormous growth spurts in the brain by age 16 many people
are no longer interested in creativity. Education - content
oriented education particularly - does not necessarily access
the neo cortex - Rather there is the classic learning of forms
- cortical learning - recognizable forms with no encouragement
or support for innovation, which requires creative problem solving.
This situation is particularly true of music. Performance of traditional
music is rewarded and encouraged rather than acts of creation.
Performance and creativity both could be rewarded and encouraged.
What is needed now is a complete program - an Improvatory of Music
for pre K through Post Doc in aural music including all forms
of improvisation and aural traditions to complement conservatories.
As soon as possible young children could be encouraged to improvise
and create their own music. They could be introduced to sound
gathering and listening strategies. This program would not replace
traditional music learning but would complement, enhance and make
it possible for all people to participate in creative music making.
An Improvatory would necessarily be interdisciplinary and include
all the arts and technology.
There exists now 100 years of recordings
of the complete range of improvisation from historical to free.
This is an ample documentation, that could yield many fruitful
studies for advanced degrees. Improvisational strategies could
be introduced early and advance through graduate levels.
Here is one example of an improvisational strategy: "Only
sound what has not been sounded before".
Once an improvisation has happened is recorded and studied it
becomes historical. Too much replication can be destructive of
creativity. Replication guarantees survival and perpetuation
of form but It would be critical to hold the space for creative
problem solving - An advanced problem to solve would be how to
Music teachers could encourage playing
by ear as well as reading and writing music. The use of recording
and computing could accelerate the learning of reading and writing
music through intelligent courseware.
What would one learn at an Improvatory
Basic listening skills including
the listening effect. Music only happens with conscious listening.-
Maybe quantum listening - Listening in more than one state simultaneously.
If you are not listening the music is not happening. A conscious
observer is necessary. Conscious observation affects sound.
Ways of sounding and listening -
Starting from scratch - Music by
any means possible (i.e. bottle caps, found objects)
Sound ecology - what happens in
Sound gathering through recording
Sound provision with live feeds
from sonically stimulating environments such as ponds, oceans,
natural soundscapes , the weather and many other sources including
industrial and urban sites.
Sound as intelligence
Relational techniques or relationality
Evolving open form processes
Computing - Computers may push us
or teach us about the mind and facilitate a quantum leap into
unity of consciousness.
Technology especially tools for
expanding the mind through listening
Instrumental research and development
The place for an Improvatory requires
an architecture that is supportive of the process - ideally.
Chaos is a key resource in pushing evolution.- Meeting places
might provide an appropriately chaotic environment with reconfigurable
levels, color, textures. sonorous objects, acoustics, recording
opportunities and open spaces. There could be many choices to
This conference - Improvising Across
Borders - brings a new dignity to a creative activity, which has
been marginalized by the Western, established musical order. It
is time now for an inclusive curriculum where improvised music
is no longer ignored or denigrated. Borders should not only be
crossed, but should dissolve. Degrees in both aural and written
musics should be available equally. Aural music informs
written music and vice versa. Improvisation is a key process for
creative problem solving and the expansion of mind that is needed
to meet the challenge of the machine intelligence that we are
creating. Improvisation is creative problem solving and is a portal
to quantum thinking - thinking in more than one state simultaneously.
What is free improvisation? - nothing
is known in advance of making the music. What's the algorithm
for that condition? It may or may not be free of historical patterns
or it may use historical patterns in new ways. Theoretically
free improvisation is totally spontaneous like the big bang of
creation. Maybe the big bang was the first and only free improvisation.
Algorithms anyone? How about holding the possibility of the first
unknown sound to begin an improvisation at an unknown time in
a group of players who are all new to one another?
Imagine then a crowd of creative people improvising together.
I thank the organizers for their
courage and imagination.
April 6 1999
Special thanks for reading my paper and offering comments
Ka sha Unger
This paper appears in Sounding The Margins:
Collected Writings 1992-2009, Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening
Publications 2010. It is also included in Sound Unbound: Sampling
Digital Music and Culture, Edited by Paul D. Miller aka DJ
Spooky that Subliminal Kid, MIT Press 2008. Reprint permission
by Pauline Oliveros.