Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence


Pauline Oliveros


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 to improvise.


According to Ray Kurzweil in his new book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence:

"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 highlights:

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 well.

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 historical improvisation.

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 the torus?
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 Across Borders.
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 essentially equivalent".

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 roles.

On my musician chip I would like the:

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 the complexity.

Ability to perceive and comprehend interdimensional spatiality.

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 improvisation.

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 do this.

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 of Music?

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 - strategies.

Starting from scratch - Music by any means possible (i.e. bottle caps, found objects)

Sound ecology - what happens in the environment?

Sound gathering through recording

Sound  sensitivity

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

Relational organization


Egalitarian ethics

Political structures

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



Organizational strategy

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 make.

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.

Pauline Oliveros
April 6 1999
Oberlin OH

Special thanks for reading my paper and offering comments

Monique Buzzarte
Stuart Dempster
Norman Lowrey
Richard Povall
William Osbourne
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.


Kurzweil, Ray, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Viking Adult, 1999
Floyd Jr., Samuel A. , The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa To The United States, Oxford University Press 1995
Prevost, Edwin, No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self Invention - Meta-musical Narratives  - Essays  Copula 1995
Luminet, Jean-Pierre, Starkman, Glenn D. and Weeks, Jeffrey R. "Is Space Finite?" in Scientific American April 1999
Gershenfeld, Neil and Chuang, Isaac L. "Quantum Computing with Molecules" in Scientific American http://www.sciam.com/1998/0698gershenfeld.html
"Spot, Data's Creation" http://www.nd.edu/ljordan/data.text/creation.html



Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) is an American accordionist and composer who is a central figure in the development of post-war electronic art music. She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, and served as its director. She has taught music at Mills College, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros has written books, formulated new music theories and investigated new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of "Deep Listening" and "sonic awareness". (from wikipedia)











- 2011 all rights reserved -