Chance Operations

We begin by setting a standard. This is the greatest online video I know of that captures an excerpt of electronic music performance. Here's Detroit's Octave One:
If that doesn't make you feel like throwing your computer through the window and screaming TECHNO TECHNO TECHNO at any passerby (you don't have to do it, you just have to feel like it), perhaps you would feel more at home here. Enjoy the new Fleet Foxes! If you are feeling properly invigorated, though, you might put that energy to use in locating and purchasing the great new Octave One album, Summers On Jupiter.

Octave One (a.k.a. Random Noise Generation) are brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden, who for something like 20 years now have been not only producing incredible techno records, they've been playing their productions in what remains a pretty unique live show (though I've heard that both Phuture and Dan Bell do something like it, I've never had the pleasure of seeing it). As the above clip demonstrates, they do their thing with a rack of sequencers, samplers, and synthesizers rather than with turntables, spending performances both engrossed in creating the subtleties of their music and physically expressing its effects. Yes, a lot of the power of this performance is the spectacle of it; seeing the rack, seeing their heads bouncing up and down above it. But what's most compelling about their live shows is that they are a rare instance in which electronic music production and performance collide. The result is an ongoing practice that is profoundly connected to the origins of dance music, in encounters with the early machinery of musical simulation.

That moment of origin is described by Kodwo Eshun as an instance of "autocatalysis," which is
when sound emerges by itself, when the machine generates a new sound autonomously, without a human agent. A machinic lifeform emerges from the sampler on its own. The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Rhythm Composer engineers its own audiomatter. In ’87 the 303 discovers acid on its own, uses Phuture to replicate.
The machine rebels against its creator, in conspiracy with its user. Eshun's gesture towards a process of production that is not merely cyborgian but entirely mechanistic may seem hyperbolic, but it is certainly more reasonable than the boring attribution of complete authorial autonomy to the Artist that cultural producers in the high-modernist traditions of literature and rock music are often granted. In this interview, Lawrence Burden similarly describes Octave One's music as navigating a dialectic between the humanistic and the mechanistic, with the latter sometimes achieving preeminence.

This is nothing new, in the history of radical sonic culture. Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone serialism was a kind of written technology, a system of composition that functioned as a machine: once put into operation by a "composer," it would develop the music itself. John Cage similarly sought to immolate the notion of the composer with pieces based on "chance operations" rather than either composition or improvisation, both of which emphasized a kind of subjectivity/ownership that Cage meant to abolish.

It is this tradition that brings us to Microsoft Songsmith. One wonders what Arnold and John would have thought of this strange artifact of digital you-culture, a piece of software that composes musical accompaniment to match its user's voice. If Songsmith is like the 12-tone serial technique, it's hard to say who its Schoenberg is--is it the user who sets the machine in motion, or the presumably large staff of programmers who created its parameters? Regardless of who its Genius is, it's clear what its Masterpieces are. This video, a recomposition of Oasis's 90's rock hit "Wonderwall" has been causing quite a stir lately.

What an improvement. The song is transformed; a new harmony completely alters its emotional mode, the meaning of its words, the appearance of the video, a new rhythm gives it a goofy propulsion that we could not previously have known Britpop sorely needed. I am reluctant to give youtube poster azz100c full credit for this piece (nor should we grant it solely to Oasis or Microsoft), but I will thank him for bringing it into existence. What's remarkable about this artwork is not only that it has no author, but that it consequently deflects all criticism one could direct at it. Of course it has "no soul," of course it's incoherent, of course it's repetitive and simplistic. Its composer was a series of 1's and 0's, for crying out loud.

"Roxanne" isn't quite as astonishing as "Wonderwall," but it is valuable for demonstrating irrefutably how moronic this song is. Occasional moments of dissonance, when the program does not what it was programmed to do, but what it can do, are an utter delight. azz100c has a couple other pieces posted, but they're not worth looking at; some Doobie Brothers track sounds practically the same as its original incarnation, and "What's Goin' On" was just a terrible idea. (A worse idea: this commercial. DON'T CLICK you will regret it.)

Songsmith will probably fade into relative irrelevance soon enough, with only these wonderful videos remaining as vestiges of Microsoft's folly. The questions Songsmith raises, however, are more important. What can the technology of today produce that is comparable to what the Roland 303 and 808 produced, what the Technics SL-1200 produced? What can it do that isn't just an easier imitation of what previous technologies and their users already accomplished? I'm sure I'm not the only listener sick to death of that Ableton micro-looping warp click sound and all its variations--Songsmith is a breath of fresh air in comparison. But I'm guessing it will be a while yet before anyone does on computers anything nearly as vital as what the Burdens do on their obsolete black boxes.


  1. awesome i love watching stuff like this in high quality.

  2. couldn't listen to those songsmith clips for long, haha, but the second one was amusing.

    this whole autogeneration of music is very accessible, you can download pure data and come up with a sequencer animated by stochastic processes in a few hours, and after that it just takes a little coordination of probability matrices with the sonic characteristics of samples and any associated modes or progressions and you can make something that passes reasonably as 'music' (some time ill show you what i have been working on, my 'jazz-machine')

    the fact is, so called 'random' generation can be a lot more interesting than 'chance'. stochastic processes, for example, allow one to simulate decision-making and give machines the power to judge and to aesthetize.

    however, in my opinion, equally important to the generation mechanism is the reception mechanism inherent in the human body/psyche. certain sounds carry deep meaning with us, particularly loud bassy noises - generally, noises that are 'awesome' in the nineteenth century meaning of the word, that is, those noises which instill feelings of beautiful terror or glorious dread within us, that nature inspires..

    i'll have to disagree with you about it being a while before anyone does something this vital - i think we're just a few years away. the trouble is that society is not ready to let go of the performance and authorship paradigm.

  3. Thanks for linking to my videos. There's a philosophical background to all this work that's missing from the rather juvenile YouTube discussion; I'll post on my blog about it later though I'm expecting a call at some point from the Times of London about it all.

    Long story short, it's a statement on technological determinism.

  4. hey azz100c--thanks again for the intellectually provocative and thoroughly enjoyable videos. it was already clear there were complex ideas behind the whole thing, but i look forward to more analysis (on your blog or in the times). keep us posted.

  5. Hi shuja :)
    it happens that alot of the stuff you're discussing is highly revelant to my third year project/dissertation...I won't attempt to explain how for fear of embarassing myself in (vitual) public but..
    I look forward to drawing on your blog as a fount of inspiration, especially now that my work seems to be moving towards dance and music specifically..

    as for octave one, what can I say other than fuck yeah!
    england and its dancefloors miss you.

  6. @shuja

    this particular man-machine dynamic reminds me of humcrush... stale storlokken (of supersilent) and Food drummer thomas stronen's live electronic improv duo.  Because they're such technically proficient musicians they manage to blur lines between improv and sequencing. they advertise no overdubs in their records, which defy one's perception of the music.  when you listen to it, you're like, *bullshit!  this has to have been dubbed!"  to think of their machines actually taking control of the users in real time, with the user receiving, then reacting to the commands of the machine, is a funny possibility when it comes to thinking about humcrush.
    @adam vana
    "stochastic processes, for example, allow one to simulate decision-making and give machines the power to judge and to aesthetize.

    however, in my opinion, equally important to the generation mechanism is the reception mechanism inherent in the human body/psyche."

    this reminds me of the friendly debate surrounding the Proof architecture studio at gsapp.


    basically, you work in a bunch of parameters and let software generate a whole slew of designs that meet them. The result is a huge sample size of designs, a percentage of a percentage of which a human could churn out if they were to take on the task themselves. The role of the designer enters when you have to decide which designs meet “value positions about culture and program that are difficult to quantify.”