Emergent Music

Chapter 1 of
Emergent Music And Visual Music: Inside Studies
Ronald A. Pellegrino

Emergent music is based on one of the key evolutionary imperatives, the creative principle that, through the process of procreation, leads to the generation of occasional variations rather than always exact replications. In lieu of the mechanics of natural selection, the composer, the person responsible for emergent music and visual music must play the roles of decision maker and guide—deciding which forms that emerge from compositional algorithms or systems are sufficiently significant, and then judiciously guiding those algorithms or systems that best tend toward self-organization to generate the most desirable forms.

Engaging in the process of creating emergent music has value beyond the music itself. It's a method for breaking free of the chains of memories that represent the web of all your neural programs put into place long before the culture released you and before you decided that you wanted to be free of its chains. We are who we are because of our memories and all the associations connected to those memories. The trick for any artist wanting to sample what it means to be original is to break free of those memories and associations. Designing compositional algorithms or systems for creating emergent music is one path to that freedom.

The process requires working a fine floating line between functioning as a creative artist or being a slave to the syndrome linked to being a victim of comfort and security. In most cases relying on memory leads to the comfort and security of predictability because memory will lead you to do what's easiest, what's already been done in the past. Long-term memory forms through repetition, shock, or inspiration. It takes considerable effort to make new memories, and, beyond childhood, the older one gets, the more difficult it is to do so. Furthermore, cultural programming is so insistent and so effective today that even our youngsters are set in their ways earlier and earlier in life. We live in a global economy that's designed to get you to trade your life for some trinkets, bonbons, Madison Avenue dreams, and perpetuation, and for the most part, that economic mindset also rules the arts. As a counterweight to the aforesaid, any process that creates a sense of freedom, however fleeting, is worthy of consideration; exploring compositional algorithms for creating emergent music is a leading candidate in the creative arts.

Typically, in the initial stages, the output of compositional algorithms is difficult to predict. Thus the composer of emergent music is required intuitively to make aesthetic judgments about the expressive value of the initial output and whether, with sculpting, it has the potential to inspire the sort of depth and breadth of feeling that will move human beings. When working with emergent music it’s not uncommon to get the sense that you don’t really own it. But rather that it’s just yours to pass along for others to consider. And that’s why I refer to my work in this book and the DVDs as studies.

Everything you see and hear in Emergent Music and Visual Music: Inside Studies is based on the following principles for composing emergent music:

1. Compose systems (sets of internally related parts) designed to evolve over time. The parts of those systems could include artists of all inclinations, electronic instruments, electronic functions, energy systems, previously composed systems, or anything capable of relational interactions.
2. Set a system in motion multiple times with as many different internal and external triggers, feedback loops, and influences as can be imagined.
3. Experiment with different configurations of the same set of parts, compare the outputs, and develop a language for articulating, notating, and recording what works best.
4. When a system begins to generate what you sense as desirable (your personal aesthetic judgments), fine-tune the variables so as to emphasize what you deem most desirable.
5. If you want to function as a composer beyond the original design of the system you must make aesthetic judgments even with systems that are eventually expected to make their own decisions (either by internal logic, by way of external influences, or a combination of the two). Assume authorship and whatever that may bring.
6. Accept the system's output as final, or collect a number of viable outputs and then work to combine or sequence them by traditional or invented means.
7. There is considerable value in studying complexity theory, although it isn't necessary for practicing artists to be seduced by its minutiae and to be drawn into the vortex of complexity theory as it's viewed by mathematicians and computer scientists.
8. Contemplate the notion of interacting multidimensional matrices and the myriad ways they can generate scenarios for emergence. See Chapter 12 on Matrix Alignment.
9. Invent or discover exercises that draw you away from the everyday world. For
example, just pretend for the sake of adding extra spice to your existence:

a) that you are more of a mystic than a mathematician. (Mystics have been among us at least as long as mathematicians, and perhaps you can say that historically mathematics is an outgrowth of mysticism, so in pretending to tap into your mystical roots you might actually open a floodgate that will enrich your life.)
b) that as a privileged life form you're occupying a choice place in the womb of creation.
c) that you're endowed with the power to sense possibilities becoming realities all around you.
d) that you can choose to direct your energies to support emerging realities that contribute to the prime evolutionary imperative of ever more refined, ever more powerful, ever more aware and intelligent (thus beautiful) forms.

Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musings Flight Patterns is a title for concerts I used many times during the mid to late 1970s with a group I organized called The Real* Electric Symphony. This was a group that only worked in the realtime composition mode, a subset of Emergent Music. It involves solo or group on-the-fly decision-making based on bringing the histories of the participants to the leading edge of the evolving moment with the object of integrating those histories so what was unanticipated but still worthy becomes realized in sound and light. Our performance art forms emerged from flights of fancy—collaborative musings. To create emergent forms of value we worked to enter a compositional mode of thought that went far beyond the "anything goes, la-di-da" world of typical improvisation. The person-nel in the group ranged from 3 to 50 in number and included electronic and acoustic musi-cians of all stripes, dancers, filmmakers, video artists, light sculptors, laser animators, poets, theater folks, and others who chose to come along for the ride.

Success in realtime composition is based on faith in your ability to recognize significant forms as they emerge during your explorations, to discern whether they're worth developing, and to remember them for future reference and application when suitable occasions arise. What makes forms significant is that they embody or reflect authentic feelings or perspectives and that these feelings or perspectives communicate to, connect with, and grow out of the fundamental human drive to promote the evolution of the senses and the higher levels of consciousness. Therefore, repeating what someone else has already done is wasteful unless it's an exercise to gain insight into their character and lay the groundwork for a deeper connection to their work. Sensing what to avoid is just as important as sensing what to include. Best avoided as waste are structures that result from formulas or comfortable schools of thought as well as those that have been drained of their affective power by overexposure.

The realtime compositional process is a continuing exercise in applying the principles of creative freedom. Exercising creative freedom presupposes the discipline to develop an awareness of and an ability to apply principles of composition that are part of the valued heritage of the human race. Finding a source for those principles requires more effort than many are willing to expend and requires some good luck to boot. Access via the expected sources is very difficult because our educational systems, even in the arts, tend to be mostly mechanical and materialistic in the sense that the practitioners trade in matter purposely designed to prepare people to be economic cogs in the societal system as either consumers or perpetuators of the system (unfortunately most teachers at all levels).

The individual who wants to explore the principles of creative freedom must commit to discovering them wherever possible and gravitating toward those practitioners who hold them in high esteem. If fortune smiles, one can choose to learn from those who value the integration of principles along with the technical side of the business of the arts. Again, luck always helps.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s I just happened to be there at the same time as two musical giants and good friends in the very much inspirational latter stages of their careers, Rudolf Kolisch and René Leibowitz. Kolisch was a violinist with a long history of organizing string quartets that presented premieres of leading 20th century composers, including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Béla Bartók. Leibowitz, who studied with both Ravel and Webern, practiced music as a composer, conductor, and theorist and was the teacher of Pierre Boulez among others.

Both Kolisch and Leibowitz functioned as advocates of the new music of their day by performing, conducting, teaching, and writing about their deeply held musical passions. The graduate seminars that they team-taught at the University of Wisconsin zoomed in and out of the music in ways that examined every note for its relationships to its immediate surroundings as well as to the whole. They managed to make musical ideas palpable by giving them meaning and life in ways that those being initiated could comprehend. I still clearly remember a stunningly moving concert of music by composers of the Second Viennese School that they co-produced using members of The University of Wisconsin student orchestra, most of them absolutely new to the music and depending completely on Kolisch and Leibowitz for their guidance. The UW students were taken by their ears to the very core of the music and managed to recreate it with beauty and conviction.

In their joint approach, Kolisch and Leibowitz, in addition to leading those of us in their seminars through a microanalysis of every musical detail, always managed to highlight all levels of structural principles, just the sort of ideas that any composer could assimilate and use as points of departure in his own work. Their analytical and theoretical approach underscored metatheoretical principles such as the functional relationships of individual voices, parts, and sections; independence; pivoting on shared attributes; counterpoint; texture; the dramatic; the lyrical; repetition schemes; multiple modes of variation; contrast; voicing; and many others.

Of course, just because they were supremely adept at leading us through the analysis of form and structural detail, that doesn't mean that everyone left their seminars with the desire to exercise musical freedom with what they had experienced. Kolisch and Leibowitz didn't preach freedom; instead they were living examples of what could be achieved by practicing it. Their lives demonstrated that to embrace and develop the principles of creative freedom requires a willingness to learn by doing, to leave the safety of the ground and risk some potentially embarrassing crashes, especially when you're not always among friendly fellow explorers. The artistic and intellectual richness of their lives and their work clearly showed that the return on the risk is worth the effort.

The key to working in the realm of emergent art forms is to cultivate a life dedicated to exploring what is known about past art forms, to participating in the realization of present art forms, and to engage in creating scenarios for realizing future art forms. When experienced inspirational practitioners are not available, the heavy digging needs to be done on your own. The study of any field that inquires into the evolution of form is fair game and that's just as true of the biological sciences as it is of astronomy, chemistry, physics, and any other field that analyzes the influences that give rise to shape and form over time. Learning to recognize emergent forms of communicative value is exactly the same as learning a new language—the more you practice and use it, the better you'll be at it.

For more information see Chapter 11 on Compositional Algorithms as Cyberspirit Attractors.

©1996-2010 Ron Pellegrino and Electronic Arts Productions. All rights reserved.

Since 1967 most of my compositions (both sound and light) have grown out of the principles of emergent music to a greater or lesser degree.

To view selected sections of Emergent Music And Visual Music: Inside Studies, Part 1: The Book, click on one of the following:
Chapter 15, Visual Music Flavors

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