Yeah, but does it sound any good

Having participated in several computer music conferences, it has been bothering me how the majority of work presented is sonically un-interesting. It appears as though the work is not motivated by the resultant sound, but rather by what is possible with technology.

Photo by Giant Ginkgo

Unfortunately, it does not follow that what is technologically sophisticated is sonically interesting. I think this is one of the ‘gotchas’ of the collaboration between art and technology. I’d even go so far as to state that there are artists of reputable expressive intent who get sucked into this gotcha… so strong is the creative potential of technology.

I collapsed with relief when I finally found an artist, quoting an other artist, who put his finger on the donkey. It was Lansky, paraphrasing Babbitt:

… Babbitt’s point was simple and elegant, our ability to hear and perceive complex structures is not necessarily correlated with our ability to perform them, and the electronic medium is a vehicle to explore this dichotomy.

Lansky’s keynote address at ICMC 2009

Technology allows us to explore certain complexities and relationships which may not necessarily be perceived by the listener. Bang!

And so the artist needs to be painstakingly careful to step back from the canvas, forget the how, and perceive the result in the eyes of the audience. This is difficult, but crucial.

Here’s the same point made by someone who doesn’t understand technology. This time WRT digital video art. His name is John McDonald and he is a somewhat cynical art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald:

In less civilized times, groups of flagellants roamed the countryside doing penance for their sins. Nowadays, groups of aesthetes and yuppies stand in darkened rooms, prevented from talking on their phones. They wait for a moment of revelation that rarely, if ever, arrives.

The revelation is contained within the experience of wasting time. If we believe that time is money, it is an unusually frivolous exercise to stand around watching dumb videos. It is hard to learn to relax and enjoy it. Especially when the production values are so down-market and the images so ordinary. But if one wishes to be acquainted with the latest developments in contemporary art, this is the price one must pay. Once it was artists who suffered for their art, now it is the audience. Most of the Biennale works must have been more fun to make then they are to watch.

Article from SMH several years ago.

I’m going to hypothesise that the first symptom of the ‘gotcha’ I’m describing is that a work comes across as having been more fun to create, than to consume.

The ‘gotcha’ isn’t a clearly demarcated line. Certain audiences will have greater understanding of technology and will therefore perceive works with an eye better aligned with that of the artist. They will see the creativity in the use of technology, if not in the result.

I’m trying to make this point not so much to comment on the work of others as much as to attempt to impress into my own psyche the importance of drawing a distinction between creativity in the technological domain, and creative expression.

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