The impact of Computer Technology on the Artistic Process

Talk given at the Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy, March 10, 1993, San Francisco.

There has been alot of discussion recently of negative, and potentially negative, impacts of advanced computer technologies on a variety of human concerns. However there has not been much discussion of how current technologies may have affected the arts in a negative way. In this paper I intend to discuss some aspects of this problem. In addition I hope to show how my own computer basic music has been shaped as an attempt to counteract some of these negative trends.

*The role of artists in the technological world.

For reasons I will discuss later, it seems artists have been almost entirely uncritical in their acceptance of new technology as a positive boon to their art. Or, perhaps more accurately, those who have decided to use new technologies have been uncritical; those traditionalists who have not gotten involved with new technologies and new media have seldom made technology itself a subject for their art. This seems like a natural split: those that are interested in technology embrace it, those that aren't ignore it.  But it is strange that while social, political and cultural criticism has been the hallmark of the avant-garde throughout the century, somehow computer technology has escaped this kind of criticism. Of couse, early in the century, technology was seen as an ally in the destruction of the "old order" by avant-garde artists, and more than a little of this utopian thinking about technology remains. People eager for change in the current situation can still fantasize that a new technology will offer the social, personal or spiritual transformation they seek. Whatever is new, after all, always offers some possibility of hope. 

But in fact, I would argue, artists who embrace complex technologies have largely abandoned their critical function and have been co-opted, becoming unwitting (or witting) servants of other social and commercial projects that have little to do with art. As a result in music, there has been a shift in emphasis away from the development of a personal spiritual power, and away from the inherently social aspect of music making.

*Artists become consumers.

The modern electronic musician is in a relatively "high-capitalization" business. Whereas traditionally a musician would buy an expensive instrument once early in his career,  the electronic musician is typically constantly buying and selling equipment, and wishing for more. The traditional musician is a poor consumer: a reed player may buy some reeds occasionally, but his life is focused on a practice which has nothing to do with buying and selling; he is engaged in an essentially spiritual discipline of perfecting his art. But the electronic musician is always adjusting to new equipment, and needing more toİkeep up with current developments.  This is an essential re-definition of what it means to be a musician. 

There is a similar state of affairs among visual artists and graphic designers. The graphic designer at one time was someone with an art and a pencil: now color desktop design systems are de rigeur,  costing many thousands of dollars with nearly no upper limit to what can be spent. 

There are severe distorting effects on the work of an artist who succumbs to an equipment addiction of this kind. There is less slack: with the high overhead, work must pay for itself. As a consequence, there are fewer opportunities to do work in experimental, potentially unpopular styles. Some small design firms, for example, eventually transform themselves into service bureaus to pay for the equipment thatİthey originally bought for their own use.

*Artists become marketers of equipment.

Of course, in this paradigm, the successful artist becomes the one with the most gear. As such, the successful musician is serving to market music equipment, sometimes explicitly throught endorsements  of particular products,  sometimes  only by example as a conspicuous consumer. Magazines like "Electronic Musician", "Keyboard" etc, serve in music the same role as computer magazines serve to a general computer users community: they contain ads and product reviews. But,  being concentrated on the arts they are providing another "service": a model of what art-making is about, and what the concerns of the artist are and should be. It's not a pretty picture: its a world where technical concerns are paramount.

*Artists become researchers for industry.

The more technically oriented artists of course, can sometimes move beyond marketing and become involved in research and development for technology firms.  This is explicitly the case at some of the larger institutes, such as IRCAM in Paris and CNMAT (Center for New Music and Audio Technologies) and Stanford, where technologies are licensed and contract research is done. But the same dynamic can work implicitly in a community where artists often are employed as technologists for their "day jobs", and a common world view is shared between the communities.

At a recent conference of the International Computer Music Association,  I heard a paper presented by David Zicarelli, an accomplished musician and musical technologist, which likened the computer to a parasite on the body of musical practice. The paper was very interesting, and mind-opening, but upon reflection what was even more amazing was that in 10 years of ICMC conferences there had never been anything like this paper presented. Industry shapes the discourse in ways that may not be obvious, and there is little interest in spiritual or social analysis in this field. 

It may seem I'm mixing the influence of technology on music with the influence of commercialism on music. But the mixture is intentional, the two are inseparable.

**My art and the issues shaping it.**

Obviously,  underlying all that I am saying here there is an idea about what art should be. I'm heavily involved in using technology in my art, so I'm obviously not opposed to the entire idea of technological art. But I'm interested in it in the sense of finding a way to resist  or counteract some of the influences of techno-capitalist civilization, not by rejecting the whole technological world, but by finding a new individual and community relation with it. 
My work has broken into two strands, really organized around the two strands I have alluded to above, the problem of community, and the problem of personal spiritual development.

*Music is social.

Much of the emphasis on current computer technology has been on building powerful "one-man-band" systems, which allow one composer/musician, working alone, to create and realize works on synthetic orchestras of any description. These programs propose a vision of music as a process of creating perfect "sound-objects", polished and perfected. No troublesome musicians are needed, no strings to break, reeds to squawk, or drummers to show up late and drunk.  But music is in its essence a social process, and I have wanted to find a way to use the new musical resources offered by computer technology to express and reinforce this fact.

As a consequence, in 1986 fellow composer John Bischoff and I began a group called "The Hub", a computer network band. The idea was to find a way for composers working in the computer-controlled electronic music medium to play together. Each composer has a computer controlled synthesizer system which is connected to the others on a local area network system of our own design. Composers designing pieces for this band generally only specify the data which is to be shared between players on the net. The result is a sort of enhanced musical improvisation, wherein the computers and players are all continually making musical decisions based upon what the others are doing.

The nature of the collaboration between Hub composers is unusual. There are many meetings where data exchange formats are ironed out. Composers then go home, write some code, come together and try it out, and make adjustments. Often group discussions take place over e-mail. At performance time, the computers are making most of the note-to-note decisions, and the composer/performers are left to make global adjustments. The result is a really new kind of collective composition, a new social way of making music that didn't exist before. We have a good time.

*Instruments are personal.

Another strain of my work has been in the development of new computer software instruments for use in the context of playing improvised music. Generally, current commercial musical instruments are based on MIDI, an industry standard for musical data transfer. But built into the midi specification are assumptions about what constitutes interesting musical parameters, and a piano-keyboard oriented paradigm. Using a combination of homebuilt and commercial hardware and homebuilt software, I have created a series of  virtual instruments that I use in performance with another ensemble. In this ensemble, called ROTODOTI, I am the only electronic player: the other instruments are percussion instruments, cello and trombone. I have found that two of my software  instruments, which I call "the mouse guitar" and "touch typing", are actually rich enough to be used without modifications for many years. Rather than concentrating on a technological process of constant instrumental refinement, I have instead opted for relatively stable instruments, more along the lines of a traditional musical instrument, on which I need to practice and develop my personal ability.  There is in fact no substitute for practice, and I've found it important to build instruments rich and stable enough that I have the time to master them.


I think that in a techno-capitalist world, where all community and spiritual needs are supposed to be taken care of as a "side-effect" of market forces, it isn't surprising that art would eventually share the same off-center emphasis, marginalizing spirituality and community in the pursuit of technical wizardry.   But rather than becoming a cheerleader for industrial technology, the artist has a duty to try to define another way of seeing the world. I'm trying to hold to what may be an old-fashioned view of art: that the artist's job is to be directly involved in developing the spiritual power of individuals, and the power of our communities to deal with what we must: in this case, rapid technological change.