Question of the Quarter: Justification

Brad Garton
Summer, 1990

I think this article was written in response to a 'question' posed in ARRAY about why we do what we do... or maybe Robert Rowe and I had posed the question and I wrote this article to "goose" things a little and my date above is incorrect. Whatever the circumstances, here is the original article:

Do you ever feel the need to "justify" what you do? This must be an artifact of my midwestern upbringing, but somehow the idea of making only strange noises for a living doesn't quite hold up in the face of daily human tragedy, imminent economic collapse, inhumane political regimes, or any of the stories behind today's headlines. When the person asking me: "what do you do?" is a doctor, and environmental scientist, or even a carpenter, I become a bit tongue-tied in my response. I mean, these guys are doing work essential to basic human survival -- what do I do?

Two episodes happened to me recently which caused me to think hard about this question. The first occurred as I was driving home from the studio. New Jersey Governor Jim Florio had just announced his proposal for a new State budget. I was dismayed to hear on the radio that the Arts budget had been slashed by nearly 50%. Plans for political activism began to form in my mind. I would organize artistic protests, write several letters a day to our legislators, anything to prevent this proposed cut from becoming reality. Moments later, however, the radio announcer continued with the news that all New Jersey programs had proposed cuts of 20% or more. My would-be activism faded when I began to consider items such as decreased environmental and education funding. How could I justify spending money for "culture" while toxins invaded our water and our schools crumbled?

The second episode was the odd juxtaposition of two events. Through the good graces of a Wall Street law firm, our studio was given a large number of used (but still usable) computer peripherals. As I made the ten-block walk from the main Columbia campus to the Electronic Music Center to meet the truck delivering the equipment, I was besieged by the usual collection of street people asking for spare change. Of course the inequity of the situation struck me: here I was going to collect thousands of dollars of equipment that would otherwise have been consigned to the trash heap, while thousands of people in New York wandered the streets with no home, no future, no hope.

To be sure, the problems of the environment, eduction, and the homeless are complex and cannot be solved by simply changing the flow of money in our society. But the basic issue [for those of us in computer music] remains -- we use very expensive means to produce our art. Can contemporary society afford us? And more personally, what am I doing to help solve these problems? "I gave at the office" is not an adequate answer.

The explanation that enables me to answer these questions and reconcile my work in an increasingly pragmatic world engages some interesting issues we must grapple with as computer musicians. Specifically, we are involved in fundamental aspects of human communication; whether it be the design of new musical interfaces for composition or performance, or consideration of new paradigms for the presentation and distribution of our work. Music is infinitely malleable information. New strategies for the creation and communication of this information is a major part of what we do. Music, and computer music in particular, acts as an intellectual proving ground for the management of communication. In a society which is placing more and more value on innovative solutions to problems posed by the "information explosion", then computer music is certainly an affordable pursuit.

But the purpose of a musical life must run deeper than this to satisfy my personal sense of justification. "Communications research" is a fine way to earn a living, but I need to feel I am engaged in an activity which is central to the shaping of society in order to address many of our contemporary social ills. Music does give me this ability. The key to ascertaining the shaping force of music on social evolution lies in seeing how music goes beyond mere communication. Besides whatever communicative function it serves, music can act as a catalyst to show us new ways of being human -- new modes of interaction, new models of social structure, new methods for constructing relations with each other.

Computer music is particularly well-situated to act as this social catalyst. Because computer music is a hybrid field which has grown only in the last several decades, we have an opportunity to experiment with social norms without constantly running into boundaries and limitations placed by a "tradition". When we design and implement a new interface, we are changing the terms of our work. We have no established performance tradition -- we have to invent new social forums for our music. More importantly, because our profession has not yet been cemented too solidly into the current social hierarchy, and because music is not a commodity with an 'objective' measure of worth, we have the freedom to redefine concepts such as "success" and "value". Finally, we work to create music as the end product. This ephemeral mind-stuff is not bound by physical rules of production that most other human endeavors (such as building a bridge, flying a plane, etc.) are. We can decide how we want to approach our work; we choose our means, our methods, our goals. The choices we make today can become templates for the social conventions of tomorrow.

Most probably this is all just the rationalization of an insecure musician reared in a society rooted in the Calvinist/Puritan ethos. It does allow me, however, to look in the mirror, or look at my three-year-old daughter, and answer "what do I do?" Plus I do believe -- I have to believe -- that each of us has the power to change society. How we choose to utilize that power is up to us. One thing is for sure, though: even if I were to get a Real Job, I would still come home at night and make strange noises.