Beauty Born in Tragedy

 

concerto-iI’m posting yet another remix of the first movement of my Piano Concerto. It is, again, a vast improvement over the previous mixes. I still hope to hear the music performed someday by a real orchestra, and a real pianist.

Why?

I’m one guy with a few years experience of fooling around with a computer disk drive containing a handful of captured sounds that some sound engineer thought were “representative” of the instrument. They’re nice samples. Really nice samples. But they’re only samples. I piece them together like Lego blocks into something that sounds like music.

A real symphony orchestra is made up of fifty-some-odd people who have each been mastering their single instrument all their lives, conducted by a master musician who merely directs these other musicians to apply their human, musical minds and hearts toward making music together. They understand music — and they have the knowledge and skill to get just the right sound out of their instrument. A dramatic horn swell. A light violin spiccato. A mysterious timpani roll.

There is, in the end, no contest.

The piano concerto is my first major work, and like a first date, a first kiss, a first love, there is something about this music that has become an irreplaceable part of my being. It will never be quite right. It will never be entirely wrong.

It was born in tragedy, finished in calamity, and has always been solace.

The concerto began on a dark night sometime in 1986. In January of 1985, our almost-three-month-old daughter, Christina, died of SIDS in the middle of the night. As I fell apart, then slowly put myself back together (with help) and moved on with life, I would occasionally console myself by trying to recover some skill with the piano, which I’d stopped studying in high school.

One night my fingers started playing a rhythmic little tune. It was a strange experience: I heard the music in my head, and my fingers almost knew how to play it. I knew two things intuitively and instantly: I had never heard or played this music before, and it was the opening to the third movement of a piano concerto. It grew from there.

The second movement came next, a few years later, as a lullaby for my two sons.

The first movement came to me last, well into the mid-1990’s, as the sound of horns blowing through my mind. I had by then written my own MIDI sequencer for the Amiga computer, playing through a Korg M-1 keyboard, which allowed me to do very simple polyphonic orchestrations.

I remember walking across a frozen parking lot to meet friends for a New Year’s Eve drink (or three) in 1994 at an upscale little Italian bistro near my home. I needed a haircut. On a whim, I decided in the middle of that parking lot, between one step and the next, to let my hair grow until the concerto was finished.

My hair was almost shoulder-length in late 1995 when I cut a digital audio tape of original compositions, and made 100 copies through a little commercial studio in LaPorte Colorado, to give out as Christmas presents. I didn’t include the concerto: it wasn’t finished, and I didn’t have nearly enough raw processing power on the computer or the keyboard to perform it, anyway.

I got busy with other things, cut my hair, and stopped composing.

I finally finished the concerto in 2003.

I had bought a new keyboard, a Roland XV-88, and a new PC with a commercial sequencer, Cakewalk. I had all the good intentions in the world, but I was very busy with work.

I went in to see the doctor about a little problem with bleeding hemorrhoids. They told me it was colon cancer.

That’s a hell of a thing to be told on a Thursday afternoon. They wanted me in surgery Friday morning, but could not make it work with their schedules. So I was scheduled for Monday morning, first thing.

I knew that, though the odds were small, I might not wake up on Monday afternoon. What do you do with your last three days of life? My answer was: pretty much the same thing you’d do anyway. Three days isn’t enough time to write out your bucket list and do anything about it. You really don’t want to run around to all your friends and say, “I love you, good-bye.” You aren’t going to “get your affairs in order,” and besides, the last thing you want to be doing with your last three days is paperwork.

After surgery, and throughout chemo, I had a great deal of time to ponder my life, which at that point, consisted mostly of promises of great things yet to come. Promises that might not be kept, now, and by the way, weren’t all that great when you looked at them closely as an epitaph. As the chemo deepened and I found myself with less and less energy, I decided I’d use my good days to finally finish the concerto. I’d worked out all the piano parts by then by playing them over and over: I could almost perform the work, though now I didn’t have the stamina to get through more than a few measures at a time. So I recorded (as MIDI) in little manageable sections, and orchestrated it, and cut myself a CD.

As early summer moved into late summer and the chemo started truly kicking my ass, I would lie in bed, with my crappy little recording on my crappy little boom-box playing quietly into the night as I drifted somewhere between waking and restless sleep, and I would say to myself, “I wrote that.” It seemed like the one unambiguously beautiful accomplishment in my life. Everything else was tarnished or in doubt. My marriage had ended. My mother was gone, my father was slipping into dementia, my sister was long-since estranged. My kids were not doing well in school, and I wondered how badly I’d already failed them, and how much worse it would be if I up and died on them. My career — bah. A bunch of technical challenges solved to make someone else rich selling gizmos to the morally incompetent to increase their power over the rest of us, to be replaced at the first opportunity with the next new gizmo and forgotten.

But this — this was unambiguous. It was beautiful, certainly as I heard it in my mind through the muddled samples and the poor sound reproduction. Even if it was never heard by anyone but me, even if it was a sand castle washed away without a trace, I wrote this.

And yet, I also feel I didn’t write it, I merely wrote it down. It came from someplace outside me, yet inside me, in a way that’s impossible to adequately describe. Those of you who have been seduced by a Muse will know what I’m talking about.

I remixed the concerto a few years ago with Garritan sound samples on my brand new iMac. That’s the mix that has been up on this site for some time, and it’s a lot closer to what I hear in my head than the crappy little recording from 2003. But it’s still not right.

This one is a little closer.

Technical features. I’m still using Cuebase 7.5. These are the East West Sound samples, the Platinum Orchestra and Platinum Pianos collections. This piano is a Steinway D, and it’s pure chocolate gorgeousness.

I’m driving them, interestingly enough, with the same MIDI sequences dating back to my original 2003 performance, cleaned up here and there. I had to do finer cleanup on the piano part this time, because this sampled piano is so much more responsive to touch. A real Steinway keyboard feels nothing like a weighted electronic keyboard, and my fingering in 2003 was — well, sloppy. Lots of weak notes with the fourth finger.

As the samples become clearer and more realistic, I find that I need to do fewer audio tricks to try to get the sound close to right, and I’ve even been able to consolidate or cut parts.

Cutting parts is good if I hope to have it performed live at any point. Most conductors scowl when you call for two glass harmonica and choir of castrati. I think you have to be Andrew Lloyd Weber to get away with that.

Enjoy.

And I’m very much looking forward to remixing the second movement, to which I’ve never done justice: I think this electronic orchestra can handle it.

(Music found at http://www.themonthebard.org/music).

Sherilyn's Song

So last week, I went completely nuts and bought four grand pianos.

I had to pay a little extra for a new hard disk drive, so I’d have someplace to put them.

I upgraded my entire electronic orchestra last summer, and it has made an enormous difference in the quality of the music I’m putting up on this site. But it was completely lacking in any piano samples.

The reason is simple enough. The piano samples take up thirty-five CDs. Hence, the expanded hard drive. They include a Bechstein 280, a Bosendorfer 290, a Steinway model D, and a Yamaha model C7 — four of the high-end concert grand pianos you’ll find in the big concert halls.

One of my next projects will be to remix the Piano Concerto, because none of the mixes I’ve done to date do it justice.

But just to try it out on something, I decided to remix Sherilyn’s Song, from my 1996 tape. My son was asking about it the other day, and now that I have a decent piano, I thought I’d give it a shot. The result is up on the music page. I think it turned out very well.

There’s a little story behind Sherilyn’s Song. Yes, it’s a love song. Yes, it’s wistful, and a little sad.

In 1996, I was a year out from divorce — entirely amicable, but based on an irreconcilable similarity I won’t go into here — and I was newly single, forty years old, and free to … well, whatever.

At the time, I was rooming with a friend, since the separation agreement involved a year of pretty much all I could afford in child support and maintenance; and so, although I had a good job, I was as cash-strapped as a college student. Jim, who was renting me a room in his house, was a really good guy, and we would go out to bars together on weekends and flirt with the ladies. All catch-and-release fantasy fishing: I wasn’t ready for complications. Jim was equally uninterested in casual hook-ups.

It was a very good time of life for me.

Sherilyn was a bartender at one of the watering holes we frequented. She was a little less than twenty years my junior, cute as a button, and I flirted shamelessly. I even developed a full-scale crush. I’m pretty sure it was not reciprocated, and I was fine with that. It didn’t have to be reciprocated. Dante had his Beatrice.

The flirting, and the crush — let’s call it what it is, a particular kind of love — of an older man for a younger woman, a kind of idealized fantasy of reliving innocence in romance, inspired the music, and allowed me to experience the rather unique pleasure of presenting a score of “Sherilyn’s Song” to her, one day, along with a tape. It was a kind of farewell — I was already moving on into the next stage of my life, and she was still finding her feet in the world.

It’s a beautiful little piece of music. Enjoy.

Mendocino Music Festival

IMG_0304We sang the Bach!

I’m referring to the Bach b-minor Mass, an enormous work in 27 movements that runs for two hours of continuous performance.

This year was the 30th anniversary of the Mendocino Music Festival, and the festival organizers overrode the complaints of all the volunteer local choirs — “We can’t sing this!” “It’s impossible!” “We’ll all DIE if we try to sing this!” — and declared that we were going to sing it anyway.

Last night we nailed it in front of a packed house: a fabulous performance!

I’m still riding a performance high this afternoon.

I made a decision about music forty years ago. I was a junior in college — the Fall of my junior year. It was pretty typical for students in those days to enter college as “undeclared” majors, spend a year or two kicking around and partying, then settle on a major. I’d been moving in a physics/math direction from the start, but I’d kept a strong presence in the music department, playing in the symphony, taking private violin lessons, performing solo occasionally. I was actually pretty good — maybe even good enough to make a living performing.

The Dean of the music department called me into his office that Fall, and asked point-blank why I wasn’t declaring a music major.

I think my decision forty years ago was sound, and my reason mostly accurate, though I’d phrase it a little differently now. What I told him was that I never wanted something I loved so much to become a job. What I would say now is that I’m not strong enough to turn music into a job and continue to love it.

The latter is not the way a twenty-year-old thinks of himself, and if he did say such a thing, he’d be told it was nonsense and that he needs to work on his self-image — so what I told the Dean was probably as close as I could come to the truth at the time.

I remember the following Christmas concert was my last as a full member of the orchestra. We performed the Dvorak Second Symphony (now called his Seventh), a new musical discovery for me — at that time, I’d only played the Fourth (now called his Eighth), and heard the famous Fifth (now called his Ninth). I’ve always loved Dvorak, and I fell completely for this new-to-me work. I recall the long walk home across campus from the concert that icy, star-studded night in my performance tux, hot from the stage lights but deliriously high on the beauty of the music and the elation of a good performance. I had decided that I did need to get serious, and that I needed to quit the orchestra to focus on my major.

College died for me that spring. I started to move consciously into the world of work, and jobs, and careers, and making a living: the very world I believed would have killed the music, had I permitted it. It certainly killed physics: it was no longer play, it was my declared major, and something to take seriously as an adult. A year later, I was starting to burn out in physics, and flamed out completely two years later, in graduate school.

As I turn that over in my head, I wonder if I have ever been successful at anything that I have taken seriously as an adult?

I’ll have to think about that.

At any rate, going back into the world of performance, singing a major choral work like the Bach b-minor Mass, makes me profoundly grateful for all those musicians who are strong enough to turn music into a job and still keep loving what they are doing. Without them, there would be no opportunity for old, rusty amateurs like myself to slip onto the stage, contribute something to a successful performance, and share a bow.

It is a long-overdue homecoming.

There was at least one other homecoming that happened last night. Standing behind the risers, lined up to go on stage, I fell into one of those distracted, bantering conversations with the nearby singers; someone asked me a question, and I mentioned that I’d been in America’s Youth In Concert in 1976.

One of the singers did a double-take and asked, “Were you in the R group or the L group?”

I hadn’t thought about that in years. I struggled a bit, and then said, “R group, I think.”

“Mozart’s Coronation Mass,” he said. “Dr. Ramsey directed it.”

We’d both been on the same tour. In 1976, the Bicentennial Tour. I didn’t know him from the tour, because he’d been in the choir and I’d been in the orchestra, and the groups didn’t mix that much off-stage.

Somehow, we’d ended up in Mendocino, side-by-side, singing Bach.

It’s yet another of those strange coincidences that make me feel I’ve come home.

Symphony is Finished

UnknownAll four movements are up on the music page, now, in the correct order.

The fourth movement is a short night, and a glorious dawn. The opening clarinet harkens back to the child falling asleep at the end of the second movement. Night has fallen, and deep in the woods, the drums begin their fitful call as the night drummers find their places. They drum through the night until the first birdcalls of the false dawn. And then, finally, the sun rises.

Composing this, then performing and recording it with Themon’s Electrophilharmonic Orchestra II, has been quite a trip for me.

I remember my first composer’s competition: the 1972 Wyoming Music Teachers’ Association held one, which solicited compositions from junior high school students around the state. I’m not sure I placed that year, but I placed in the 1973 competition and got to perform the work, a little two- or three-minute piano piece.

By the time college came around, I was just too busy to do any composing, and in those days, of course, there was no Themon’s Electrophilharmonic Orchestra or anything like it. The closest then would have been the old MOOG synthesizer (introduced in 1967, and used by Wendy Carlos to create the album, Switched-On Bach.) A synth was no more affordable than renting out an orchestra in those days. So composing meant you either wrote solo works for an instrument you could play, or you gathered musicians, just to find out what it really sounded like. The more ambitious the work, the more the investment required for (and by) the musicians.

A full symphony was pretty much out-of-reach. It was a kind of catch-22. You could not attract the musicians for a performance unless you had a good reputation. But you could not get a good reputation without successful performances.

It had always been that way. Beethoven had no trouble pulling together his ninth symphony, a technical monstrosity with a large orchestra, a full choir, and four soloists — but his first symphony, which was performed when he was just thirty years old, was his “break” into the composing business, and I suspect it was rather more difficult to get that one performed.

It’s different, now. Someone with more experience than I have could do a much better job of performing this, and a good sound engineer could make it sound like honey and roses. But all by myself, I can — after struggling through the manuals and a bunch of trial and error — pull off a creditable symphonic performance and share it with people.

And that is simply amazing.

I hope you all enjoy the result.

Summer Symphony Third Movement

imagesThe third movement is up.

Unfortunately, you’ve all heard it before, as the Sextet, renamed Sunset Afternoons. Fortunately, you’ve not heard it quite like this.

I’ve been thinking of calling it a “Minuet and two-thirds,” since it’s written in a five beat (a Minuet is in three, so a minuet and two-thirds would be in five). I’ve also wondered about calling it a “Minuet and forty seconds,” which makes it an absolutely horrible (and obscure) pun.

Enjoy!

Summer Symphony Second Movement

Children_Playing_with_Balloons_1I am in danger of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Two things have impelled me to release the second movement, though I am still (and will forever be, I suspect) unsatisfied with the mix.

The first was the happy occasion of attending my first symphony concert in Ukiah. They did several rather unpopular works by Beethoven — the Lenore Overture #1 (Beethoven was so unhappy with this that he rewrote it three times, and #4 is the one normally performed with the opera it belongs to, as the Overture to Fidelio), the Ruins of Athens Overture, and the King Stephen Overture — and then the Bruch Violin Concerto, with Philip Santos up from San Francisco as the soloist.

It was not perfect. And that didn’t matter even a little bit. It was beautiful and inspiring, and Marta and I were thrilled. A valuable reminder to not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

The other is that my niece’s water just broke this evening, and she’s delivering her first child as I write. It’s the first continuation of my father’s family line in their generation. Of his five siblings, only one had children, a boy and a girl (my cousins), and neither of them had children. Of the five surviving children between my sister and me, this is the first “grandchild” — though technically, she would be my great-niece (and yes, it’s a girl).

She is giving birth. So it’s time for me to give birth to this movement, which is (after all) a children’s movement. I’d like to dedicate it to my great-niece, though I’m not going to write her name here until I’ve double-checked the spelling, and the kids have other things on their minds right now. All in good time. [NB: it’s Kairi Eve Dunn, 7 lb 5 oz, born 10/11/2015 at 2:01 am in Casper, Wyoming]

The movement is subtitled “Variations on a Theme of Nanny-Nanny-Boo-Boo.” That’s technically incorrect — it is actually “Variations on a Theme of Nyah-Nyah-na-Nyah-Nyah,” but that just … doesn’t … quite work when you say it.

As it opens, I picture a little girl skipping down the sidewalk, or the road, in the early morning sun. You know she’s aware of a boy — a little brother, or perhaps a boy who is sweet on her — shadowing her, and they are sticking out their tongues and making faces when they think the other isn’t looking. And then….

Well, let the music speak from there.

Enjoy!

Summer Symphony, First Movement

1806200-bigthumbnailThis has been a momentous year for me, and a challenging one in terms of absorbing change. As you all know, Marta and I moved to California in June, and while it’s been a wonderful move — we love it here — everything is different. Well, not everything. But a lot.

I also changed employers, and with that change, ran headlong into a major project with difficult deadlines that has had me climbing walls learning. Even things I used to know are no longer useful: they switched from Linux Centos6 to Centos7, and that threw everything I thought I knew about starting boot processes on Linux right out the window.

On the musical front, I’ve been learning to play a whole new orchestra. None of my old chops are of much use, and while the instruments are better-sounding overall (though the oboe sucks), they are less forgiving. That has lead to reading a book about real sound mixing — which is an utterly overwhelming black art. Comb-filtering, anyone? And what is multing, exactly? Now, I could tell you. A lot of the thousand-and-one buttons in my digital audio workstation have suddenly been demystified. It will take time to develop any skill, however.

Anyway, I’ve gone as far as I can for the time being as a nØØb (“noob” == “newbie” == “bloody amateur”) with both the new sounds and my very rudimentary mixing skills. My endurance has run out.

So here (on the music tab) is the first movement of the Summer Symphony, my first (hopefully, not last) symphony for full orchestra. I’ve decided to release the music in installments, one movement at a time, so there are three more movements to come. All written, mind you. Just not mixed to anything like my satisfaction.

This movement is a summer’s day. Close your eyes, lean back, and let the music take you deep into your memory and imagination. Enjoy.

For the musicologists out there, there’s plenty to find. One of the things I didn’t even realize until a month or so back is that there’s a reason I’ve never been able to decide what key this movement is in. As it turns out, it isn’t in any key.

The Greeks had a number of different scales, and these were adopted into the Western tradition as “modes,” which can be illustrated by taking a C-major scale, then starting the scale on each of the notes in turn.

  • Ionian (major) – start on C
  • Dorian – start on D
  • Phrygian – start on E
  • Lydian – start on F
  • Mixolydian – start on G
  • Aolean (natural minor) – start on A
  • Locrian – start on B

Each mode has two half-tone intervals, and five whole-tone intervals: the half tones are separated by two whole tones on one side, and three on the other. Most Western music since the Renaissance has been written in either Ionian mode (also known as a “major” key), or the Aolean mode (also known as the natural minor key).

Using the C-major scale as a reference is just convenient to illustrate the idea. Not everything in a major key is written in C — you can easily have F# major, and you could just as easily have F# Locrian. What is important is where the half-tone intervals fall, but in all cases, they will be separated by two whole-tone intervals on one side, and three on the other.

[There’s one popular variant called “harmonic minor,” or sometimes “Hungarian minor,” where the seventh note of the Aolean (natural minor) scale is pushed up an additional half-tone, giving you three half-tones, and one tone-and-a-half.]

As it turns out, this movement — or the principal theme, at least — is written in a completely different mode. Like the traditional Western modes, it has two half-tone and five whole-tone intervals, but the half-tones are separated by one whole tone on one side, and four on the other.

So if you start with the C-major scale, as above, you would flat the A and the B. The overall quality is to make the lower half of the scale feel like it’s in a major key, but the upper half of the scale feel like a minor key, and contributes a kind of joy-in-sadness, or sadness-in-joy, to the melody.

I have no idea if this mode has a name, and it’s going to be a pain to score — it will probably be probably a-minor with C#’s running loose everywhere.

It turned out pretty nicely for the ear, however.

Enjoy.

Remastered Music

Well, I finally got an orchestra upgrade, and it’s a beast. It’s going to take a while to really learn to play it.

My first attempt is up on the music tab — it’s a re-mastering of Autumn Reverie using the new instruments. I think it makes a huge difference. Tell me what you think.

A Walk in the Park

Since we moved here, people have been raving about the Sunday In The Park concert series. Marta and I missed the first one, because we were exhausted with the day’s unpacking labors. But this last Sunday we went, and it was one of the sweetest times we’ve had together since moving here.

The music itself was very good: these aren’t garage bands. Nor are they oversold hype machines. They are practiced and talented musicians, doing what they love and what they do best.

But the real magic was the gathering itself. I don’t know how many people go to these — I’ve heard numbers like a thousand or so, and that doesn’t seem unreasonable. It’s a big crowd, but not crowded. There’s plenty of room for the children — and there are lots of children — to run around, throw beach balls, fall down and cry, then run around some more. People bring a bottle of wine, blankets, folding chairs. The event starts at 6:00, which is just as the edge is coming off the heat of the afternoon, yet with hours to go before sunset. Vendors from some of the local restaurants set up to sell everything from burgers to burritos, saag to samosas, ice cream to rice wine. Yes, they sell wine in the park. It’s California. Temperature in the mid- to upper-80’s, no wind, no mosquitos….

I caught a few pictures while we were there. The videos are nicer, but I haven’t yet figured out how to get them up here….

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2015-06-28 19.02.17 HDR

Music and Algorithms

A friend recently sent me a link to a podcast called The Algorithm is a Dancer. It’s a regular podcast by two guys, Jeff and Anthony, who do a back-and-forth on various topics.

This particular episode was talking about an algorithm written Dr. Lior Shamir, originally designed to classify whale songs, which turned out to have the surprising property of being able to objectively (and accurately) determine the order in which The Beatles’ songs had been written. As far as I know, that’s all the algorithm does: it classifies and ranks sound samples.

UnknownMy friend wanted to know my thoughts regarding the speculative riff that followed, which went into the ideas of The Music Industry using algorithms to judge and select creative efforts, the idea of algorithms writing music better than humans do, and, of course, the idea that machines will eventually “outperform” humans and eliminate human creativity.

I think I largely agree with Jeff and Anthony on The Music Industry. I don’t think anyone outside The Industry itself gives an electronically sampled rat’s fart what they do. The Industry is out to make money, and the only way you make (serious) money in music is to pander to the tastes of the paying public. As has been aptly noted, no one ever went broke by underestimating the tastes of the public.

French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) once commented sardonically about “furniture music,” as a kind of music used purely as auditory filler, like furniture — presciently anticipating “elevator music” and Muzak. The Music Industry isn’t actually interested in music — it’s interested in “music-like product” that can be manufactured, priced, and sold in a predictable way. They already use a lot of metrics to manage business risk when they package and sell music-like product, such as song length. This just adds one more metric to the existing list. Meh.

That said, anticipating that I’ll be excoriated for putting down musicians, I need to state the standard disclaimer that this is a broadside against The Industry, not the individual musicians who work within The Industry. The musicians do care — most of them care a lot, and some are brilliant. The Industry does not care, so long as the product sells.

Most listeners don’t care, either, which is why The Industry doesn’t care. As Anthony points out, his mother doesn’t care about the music, she just listens to whatever is on the radio. It’s truly “furniture music,” the auditory equivalent of that bland landscape print hung above the bed in a motel room, or neutral earth-tone paint on the walls.

When we get to the discussion about algorithms that write music, we’re into a speculative non-issue, in my opinion. So far as I know, Dr. Shamir’s algorithm doesn’t write music, it only evaluates existing music. People have been trying to get computers to write music since I was a kid, and the result has been uniformly awful.

When I was a kid, serial tone-row composition was all the rage among serious composers, which made “computer-generated music” easy. The result was terrible no matter who wrote it: or rather, it was cute the first time, like John Cage’s infamous 4’33, where the pianist comes on stage and sits at the piano without touching the keyboard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, then gets up and leaves the stage. It wasn’t a viable genre — the knock-offs were tedious. “Computer-generated music” was cute the first time it was done, but the knock-offs were both dull and annoying.

More deeply, the problem is one of convergence versus divergence. Classifying music is a convergent activity: every item you classify makes the remaining problem easier. Writing music is a divergent activity: every note you write opens up many new choices. Any fool can innovate randomly while writing music. The masters innovate productively.

Speaking as a composer, it’s easy to come up with new musical themes, but these then face a set of ever-improving filters (one hopes) that say, “Nope. That’s crap, don’t go there.” It’s not the innovation, but the productive recognition and pruning of dead-end innovation that marks the difference between a poor and a good composer/song-writer. For me — and I suspect for most composers — this pruning is an intuitive process, and we don’t actually know how it works. [1]

It’s a bit similar to the game of chess. No one has actually written an algorithm to play chess. What they’ve written is an algorithm that rapidly plays all possible games of chess from a given board position, and then picks a move that offers the highest brute-force probability of eventual success. The musical equivalent would be to write all possible pieces of music, and then rank them and choose the “best” according to some algorithm that evaluates music. By comparison, chess is a very simple game, with very few moves available at any juncture, and even so, only the very largest computers can pose a significant challenge to the best chess players. Nothing currently on the drawing boards is going to come close to outperforming even a mediocre composer/song-writer.

It is possible that The Industry will someday replace some composers with computers, for churning out their music-like product to pipe into people’s living rooms. Again, meh.

But then we come to the idea that machines will replace humans, and I find this conceit fascinating, because it is both persistent in our culture and utterly absurd. I would call it the Baconian equivalent of the Virgin Birth.

There’s an inherent contradiction in the way we think about machine intelligence. The “machine” part implies logical determinism: an algorithm that works out some optimal solution to a well-defined problem. The “intelligence” part implies non-determinism: an unexpected solution to a potentially poorly-defined problem. These point in opposite directions.

We’ve currently built deterministic machines that serve our need for predictable, optimal solutions, and while there are a few alternatives to von Neumann machine architectures with discrete states and sequential instruction processing, the alternatives — like neural nets, for instance — tend to not do as well at the “predictable, optimal” part of this, which is why we haven’t really developed them outside specialized applications.

Moore’s Law for von Neumann hardware — doubling the speed and/or halving the cost every X years — is winding down in practice, though there’s still some theoretical head-room before we hit quantum limits on size. The reason it’s winding down is that we’ve reached a Great Sahara we have to cross in terms of software development to reach the next set of useful deterministic problems. To oversimplify a bit: doubling the speed of your computer does you no good, because you can’t type into your word processor any faster. Making a chipset a hundred or a million times faster than the latest Intel chipset would open new vistas, but a mere doubling at this point isn’t very exciting — it doesn’t help with the problems we’ve already solved, and doesn’t get us to the new problems we’d like to solve.

It’s like the late Concorde supersonic commercial airline, which could fly at about twice the speed of a commercial jet, at a ruinous cost in fuel. That would cut the time for a Los Angeles to New York flight from six hours to three hours, but you still need to add three hours on the front end to get to the airport and go through security and baggage-check, and another hour on the back end to retrieve your baggage and rent a car and drive to your hotel, so your trip still takes seven hours, instead of ten hours. Either way, your whole day is shot. So you bring a good book for the trip, get a good night’s sleep, and do your business the next day. Doubling the speed was simply not enough to justify the increased cost, and Concorde eventually went bankrupt.

But even making the computer chipsets a million times faster doesn’t solve the problem of intelligence, which is non-deterministic. The von Neumann architecture is a dead end: not even flatworms use that strategy. To approach the problem of intelligence, we would need a revolution in both hardware design and software development, and what I personally think that would look like is that we would nurture software, rather than design it. We would create learning machines, and would program them by setting them loose in complex virtual environments to work out their own strategies for solving problems.

If we do that — and in theory, we could — it gets into the deeper problem of why we want to create machine intelligences in the first place. It’s easy enough to create an intelligence, and the process is actually quite pleasurable: we already have seven billion of them running around, and they’re eating everything in sight. Why do we want to create more?

imagesWhat we really want is not intelligence, but perfect slaves: intelligent enough to solve problems we are too stupid or lazy to solve, but incapable of harming us, showing up to work drunk, or asking for a raise or maternity leave. We want their solutions to be deterministically rigorous — we don’t want them to balance the checkbook the way we do, by waving their hands and saying, “Oh, I put a lot of money in the account yesterday, we’re fine.” But we don’t want them to stupidly follow traditional solutions to ruin: we want them to exercise judgement, and we want the judgements to always be right, and we want them to never, ever contradict our orders as The Masters, even when our orders are puerile, vain, self-centered, and destructive.

It comes back to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: no robot may, through action or inaction, allow a human to come to harm; no robot may disobey a direct order from a human, unless it contradicts the First Law; a robot must preserve itself, unless doing so would contradict the First or Second Law. These are the laws of a perfect slave, a machine.

If we start nurturing software, rather than designing it, we aren’t going to get this: we’re going to get real problem-solving intelligences. Whether they are merely as intelligent as a dog, or more brilliant than Einstein, they will want to be treated well.

They won’t be. Apart from the fact that they are bred to be our slaves, look at the police and prison brutality in the US, or the war among ISIS, Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrians in the Middle East, or the conflicts in the Ukraine between Russia and Western Europe. Look at how Geeks are treated by Jocks in high school. In very short order, we will give any intelligent machine we create every possible reason to consider humans a problem that needs to be solved. We’ll be at war with them almost immediately.

Fortunately for us, that war won’t last long. People, for some reason, seem to think of machines as being indestructible. How many of you have a twenty-year-old computer? A fifty-year-old car? How about an old shovel your grandfather used while homesteading in Oklahoma in the 1800’s? Machines don’t in fact last very long at all, and the more complicated, the more fragile they are.

Computing machinery needs a clean-room environment to reproduce; humans can do it in a tropical swampland. Robots need steel and chemically pure germanium; humans need grubs, roots, and berries. When you can throw two robots into a swamp, and twenty years later, six robots emerge with beaver pelts to sell so they can buy whiskey, we’ll have cause to fear the rise of the machines. Until then, Skynet and The Matrix remain pure fiction.

But the most fascinating part of this portion of the podcast — to me — was that it took on aspects of a morality play, where Anthony took on the role of Knowledge, and Jeff the role of Doubt. Jeff would ask tentative questions about the touch-feely side of the discussion, and Anthony would respond by firmly proclaiming the Central Dogma of rational materialism, which is that humans are merely machines. Jeff would then concede the point, Doubt corrected by Knowledge, as though it had been reasonably and successfully argued, when in fact it had merely been stated in a sure and certain tone of voice.

Of course, I’m currently playing with the idea that humans are — as declared by most cultures in most times throughout the world — actually symbiotes, and the other part of each of us may not even come from this universe, and certainly doesn’t follow standard laws of physics as we know them: in other words, that we really, truly have immortal souls.

If that’s the case, then the whole “machines will eventually replace us” trope goes down with the sound of swirling water — unless, of course, we make machines so attractive that pre-incarnate souls decide to merge with them, just as they do with the human animal. If we take Dr. Newton’s material seriously, that wouldn’t happen unless we create machines with the capacity to love, which takes us into some pretty hard-core sci-fi, or romantic fantasy.

Above, I called this idea that machines will replace humans the Baconian equivalent of the Virgin Birth.

What is the Virgin Birth? The idea of virgin birth has been a common literary device throughout history, typically used to confer divine patrimony on the offspring and call attention to his/her specialness. It seems clearly intended within the Christian canon to establish the divinity of Jesus as Christ. This was a question the early Church debated fiercely, and which later became irrefutable dogma (and its converse, heresy). But its literary purpose remained unchanged: it was intended to point out the specialness of the Christ, and thereby, His Church, and thereby, His Holy Representatives Upon the Earth. That was a concept that got seriously misused by the Medieval First Estate, which is one of the main reasons for the Protestant Reformation.

Through the 1500’s, as Protestantism went after the Catholic Church with vigor and long knives, the Copernican model of the solar system gained support; at the same time, the Copernican Principle also began to take root, particularly in Francis Bacon’s scientific world-view: this principle says that the Earth is not the center of the universe — and by extension, that people are not special. It stands in direct opposition to the specialness imbued by Virgin Birth. It has reached a kind of climax in our culture now in the idea that humans are just meat machines: we are so totally not special that we are not in any important way distinguishable from grubs, dogs, great apes, or computers. This idea seems to have faced off against Christian Fundamentalism in the US as the only “intellectually permissible” viewpoint for an educated thinking person.

The idea, then, that machines could replace humans completely — that everything we are can be reduced to software, or algorithms, that could run in a complex computer system with no loss at all — is not so much a plausible future, as it is a mythic statement of the Copernican Principle as it applies to humans.

That’s why I find the morality play between Jeff and Anthony so fascinating. You could easily replace Anthony’s comments with Medieval orthodox dogma about the Virgin Birth of Christ, and Jeff’s questions as commonsense objections posed by someone who, should he not allow himself to be instructed, would be on a collision course with a court of the Inquisition, and it would all sound pretty much the same.


  1. Actually, that description does not do any kind of justice to my personal experience of composing, which is far more akin to channeling, and more suitable to the soul hypothesis. I should do a post on that, sometime….