May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
George E. Lewis, Columbia University


In Voyager, the improvised musical encounter is modeled as a negotiation between improvising musicians, some of whom are people, others not; the program does not need to have real-time human input to generate music. In this kind of live-algorithmic model of music-making, decisions taken by the computer have consequences for the music that must be taken into account by the human improvisors, an aesthetic of variation and difference that is clearly at variance with the information retrieval and control paradigm that late capitalism has found useful in the encounter with interactive multimedia and hypertext discourses.14

Crucially informing this work, as well as the LAM orientation more generally, is the important British strain in post-1965 improvised music. One of the most influential exponents of this experimental musical practice, the late British guitarist Derek Bailey, produced the most frequently cited book on improvisation (regardless of field), Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. First published in 1978, Bailey’s book presented a forceful, historically and ethnographically supported case for the centrality of improvisation to musical practice. For Bailey, and for many others, improvisation persists as a primary means for the articulation of artmaking, and in this light, the study of improvisation becomes crucial to the understanding of the expressive culture of our time.15

As with Bailey’s music and that of his fellow first-generation free improvisors, this book directly challenges Western art music’s anti-improvisation orthodoxies. In fact, such challenges have proved to be particularly necessary to clear away some of the cultural presuppositions that informed much prior research into the practice. Sociologist Alfred Schutz, in his 1964 meditation on “Making Music Together,” already saw that “the system of musical notation is…accidental to the social relationship prevailing among the performers. This social relationship is founded upon the partaking in common of different dimensions of time simultaneously lived through by the participants.”16

Here, Schutz performs a critical shift in disconnecting improvisation from a mystificatory, Romantic connection with artmaking. Rather, the clear implication is that improvisation engages agency, history, memory, identity, and embodiment. In this way, we can recognize that these purely musical questions have their analogues in similar issues surrounding the practice of everyday life itself. When Blackwell and Young insist that free improvisation “rejects top-down organisation (a priori agreements, explicit or tacit) in favour of open, developing patterns of behaviour,” we are in the presence of a musical and interactional aesthetic that has become enlisted as a metaphor for larger social and political questions of identity and social organization.

In this respect, LAM participants might make common cause with Schutz’s observation that “a study of the social relationships connected with the musical process may lead to some insights valid for many other forms of social intercourse.” Here, the combination of technology with the arts and humanities may become a trenchant site for the exploration of these critically important issues. At the same time, technologically imbued music making itself becomes a critical tool with which to analyze contemporary critical, cultural, historical, and social issues whose importance cuts across fields. Thus, the centrality of music study to contemporary public intellectual discourse is powerfully reasserted.

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Reference this article
Lewis, G. E. "Live Algorithms and The Future of Music," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/live-algorithms-and-the-future-of-music/

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