Judgement Day

Brad Garton

Three items during the past several months:

Item 1 -- Mara Helmuth sent me the following e-mail:

"What are means of evaluating the work of a computer music composer?  Since
traditional performance situations are often less available or sometimes
even inappropriate, how can one justify what one does?  Obviously, publishing
recordings and articles etc., looks good.   But it seems difficult to
measure something as amorphous as people's interest in your work.  I don't
see the traditional measures of a composer as really appropriate for my work
(commissions for some performing group, performances by big orchestras, and
quantity of music written).  I'm certainly willing to disseminate my music
(I'd like to be on CD) but it's clearly not the whole story."

Item 2 -- Perry Cook was offered (and has accepted) a position at Princeton
University.  The appointment is unique for Princeton, as it spans several
departments (partly in Computer Science, partly in Music).  As I understand
it, the folks at Stanford University attempted to counter the offer from
Princeton by putting together an appointment that would also bridge standard
departmental boundaries (Linguistics, Computer Science and Music in this

Item 3 -- I am coming up for review this year at Columbia University.  While
beginning to gather materials for my review, one of our senior faculty said
that they weren't quite sure what criteria to use for my evaluation, it
being obvious that my skills didn't quite fit the traditional music faculty

And indeed these three items point out what is obvious to many of us -- that
we as computer musicians inhabit a multi-faceted, cross-disciplinary
academic niche.  To do our work we draw upon a diverse array of
capabilities, simultaneously scientific and artistic.  We can't be easily

People still persist in attempts to pigeonhole us according to archaic
classification schemes, however.  Categorical perception of one form or
another seems deeply ingrained in the human cognitive apparatus.  The
ramifications of this aren't so pleasant, either.  I'll bet each of us has
heard at least one of the following criticisms:

	-  Those are nice sounds, but it's not Real Music.
	-  Interesting research, but it's not really Computer 
		Science/Engineering/Physics/[fill in your favorite "objective"
		 discipline here].
	-  Actually, it's not even Real Research.

(or my personal favorite:)

	-  Person X is No Composer!

In a rather esoteric field this is almost to be expected from those on the
"outside". When confronted with something new or unexplained, people map it
onto their existing experience.  Understanding is grounded upon a set of
categories learned through living.  What bothers me (besides the obvious
negativity and close-mindedness of these particular reactions) is that I
hear many of the above criticisms originating from inside our small world of
academic computer music.  In fact, our insular peer-bashing has become so
much a part of our community that I now often hear the full-circle inverse
comment: "that isn't REAL Computer Music".

Of course, being inside a particular field or being a member of a certain
scientific/artistic community doesn't stop us from being human.  Besides
being rooted in our innate desire to classify the world, many of the snide
comments are by-products of our individual aesthetic judgements.  We hear --
we judge; we are professionally trained to discern, to ascertain the best.
The fruit of this aesthetic labor surrounds us.  The impulse to judge
underlies much of our public computer music activity, from the acceptance or
rejection of works by various conference panels and the implicit hierarchy
of concert venues to the more explicit discussions such as the recent "Good
vs. Bad Electroacoustic Music" series of letters in the *Computer* *Music*
*Journal* and the plethora of competitions open to those of us producing new

So we embrace our humanity, we affirm our individual tastes and desires.  I
know what I like (and I know what I dislike!).  The problem is that we don't
stop at the individual level.  We think ourselves universal:  the only model
I have for other people is myself, so naturally everyone thinks and feels as
I do.  It seems that most people certainly believe in an objective,
positivist world.  Look at The Facts marshalled to support Newt Gingrich's
"social programs" here in the United States, or the silly *Bell* *Curve*
approach to measuring intelligence/economic viability, or the hard
*scientific* DNA evidence used to get at The Truth in the O. J. Simpson
theater of the absurd.  In every sphere of endeavor our goal is to nail down
a solid, immutable reality, to define a common metric that can be used to
define and indeed to judge.

Is this a problem?  To some extent it has to be true that people have
certain perceptual similarities, otherwise most of our social and nearly all
of our research activities would be impossible.  But this species-similarity
doesn't necessarily spill into the aesthetic realm.  I am constantly
surprised by what others hear as "good" and by the diverse array of sounds
that disparate peoples count as valuable music.  There are probably at least
as many reasons for this state of affairs as there are sociocultural
theories, but I bet much of it has to do with the infinite fluidity of
musical sound.  Being non-functional in a real physical sense (music doesn't
have to support the weight of trucks over a river) frees music from adhering
to physically-constrained forms.  This gives us the ability to create and
define *for* *ourselves* how we want our music to go.

In the past, despite the politically-shaped concerts and conferences, I have
truly enjoyed the wide range of musics encountered in the world of computer
music.  As our field matures, however, I sense that this aesthetic openness
is beginning to close down.  Perhaps as we further define our particular
little society, we choose to gravitate towards a specific style of music to
act as *our* cultural token.  Whatever the reason, we are "settling in" with
our music; we are creating a hegemony of sorts.  We can now list what we
consider the Great Works (and Workers!) of computer music.

Thus the tradition is set, and it sustains itself through our pedagogy.
What we teach, how we teach it, the techniques we ask our students to
master, and the musical models we hold as examples will exert a profound
influence on the future evolution of our art and research.  Unfortunately,
the maturing of these methodologies all too often leads to a
self-reinforcing edifice that ossifies creativity and stifles real

Obviously from my pejorative description I'm not thrilled by this potential
eventuality.  Why would anyone want to participate in the creation of this
mausoleum of tradition?  In his DMA defense at Columbia University last May,
Sean Varah articulated one of the best reasons I've heard for desiring to
work within an established tradition.  He hopes to write for people with a
common cultural background, using a shared musical language as a foundation
for building an enhanced musical experience.  But I can't help but wonder if
it isn't possible to have our cultural cake and eat it, too.

I'd like to propose that we strive for a "common cultural background" for
computer music that has a broad aesthetic ecumenicalism as one of it's most
outstanding features.  Rather than fall into the Kuhnian oscillation of 'normal'
paradigmatic output punctuated by periodic 'revolutions', we could
work towards an alternative model where "the tradition" is in constant flux,
where departures from the norm are not just tolerated but are actively
encouraged in order to undermine any sense of "the norm" actually existing.
I want to point out, however, that the hackneyed ad-agency phrase "a
tradition of innovation" isn't exactly what I have in mind.  I'm not
promoting innovation for innovation's sake so much as I'm advocating
innovation in order to preserve a rich diversity of musical expression.
Just as the buzzword "biodiversity" is now used to mark an essential feature
of a robust and healthy biological ecosystem, we should maintain a strong
"musicodiversity" to maintain a growing and vital musical "ecosystem".

Is this just another worn-out "PC" plea for multiculturalism from an
academic ideologue?  Possibly, but in a dynamic musical culture, I would
think that multiculturalism would be a real -- not just political --
positive attribute.  Speaking from a selfish-composer perspective, a
variegated, multicultural sonic landscape gives me easy access to more
musical ideas.  I find it is often much easier to steal than to create!
From a somewhat loftier, more ideological perspective, I believe it is
important to take action to preserve the diversity of extant musical
traditions.  We can do this by promoting diversity in our own ranks, by
nurturing the seeds of difference.  Employing the biological metaphor again,
the musical rainforest is being flattened as communications media shrinks
the world.  What sounds will be lost in a homogenous, McDonaldland future?
What ranges of human expression will be bulldozed to make way for the
musical Disneyworld of tomorrow?

I also still hold the hope that music can change the world.  We can show
that it is possible for radically different world-views to coexist and
actually be mutually enhanced because of this coexistence.  Recent events in
the small town where I live have shown me quite dramatically how much we
need this perspective.  The specific local issue isn't really relevant for
my point here, but suffice it to say that it was quite divisive, involving
deeply-held beliefs about the world.  I have always felt that dialogue was
possible, even in the face of radically different viewpoints.  Several town
meetings rapidly convinced me that I was living in a fantasy world.  Never
have I encountered so much shared hatred in one room.  I began to understand
the reality of how past human atrocities could happen.  The truly
frightening aspect of the experience is that this collective antagonism
occurred among people who shared a "common cultural background" -- not among
strangers, but among friends.  It was a glimpse of a terrible future.

A recent *New* *York* *Times* interview with anthropologist Clifford Geertz
discussed how we all must now "confront the irreconcilable gap between 'Us'
and 'Them' -- in other words, what to do about people who can't see the
plain truths that you do."  Geertz commented that "People are going to have
to stand for a lot of things they don't like."  So it is in computer music.
I'm not advocating that we give up our own individual preferences -- judge
for yourself what you like and what you abhor.  However, we must be willing
to relax a little to enter into alternative worlds.  In fact, we must do
what we can to foster the creation of these alternative worlds, to make the
broadening of perspective part of our computer music heritage.  For better
or for worse, the way that we do our music can demonstrate how we might
exist.  I hope we can use our artistic power to beat down the hatred of
intolerance.  As maudlin as this may sound, I really do want a better world
for our kids.