Thursday, October 19, 2017

Warning - you are leaving the classical music comfort zone

My post Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares has attracted an astonishing amount of attention. Among those who responded is Douglas Eck who works at Google researching in the fields of music search and recommendation, and generating music using machine intelligence. He posted the following comment about the post on the Facebook page of a member of the Computational Music Analysis forum.
It would be nice to have some data to support this claim. (Maybe there already is). That's a great research focus for MIR. My very real sense is that overall my 14 year old has a much more diverse selection of music thanks to Play Music and Spotify than I had in the vinyl era. Both products use recommendation systems heavily. My son for example is really into old-school hip-hop* and is able to explore that area deeply. He uses recommendation features like "Similar Artists" to find new music. The question for me is whether this enablement of exploration balances out the "head-heavy" recommendations of collaborative filters. Consider also features like Discover Weekly from Spotify. I've nothing to add about classical music except that I highly suspect that it's popularity was waning before the arrival of recommender systems in music. (None of this is meant to excuse us from our overall responsibility to understand the side effects of our work e.g. amplification of fake news, filter bubbles, etc.)
Please spend a little time browsing the papers cited on Douglas Eck's Google CV. It is not the technology professionals who have caused the current problems in classical music. It is the so-called marketing experts who have misapplied the new technology that are the culprits. Whether we agree with them or not, we must take the views of technology professionals very seriously. In his CV Douglas Eck explains that:
Aside from audio signal processing and machine learning, I worked on music performance modeling. What exactly does a good music performer add to what is already in the score? I treated this as a machine learning question: Hypothetically, if we showed a piano-playing robot a huge collection of Chopin performances--- from the best in the world all the way down to that of a struggling teenage pianist---could it learn to play well by analyzing all of these examples? If so, what’s the right way to perform that analysis? In the end I learned a lot about the complexity and beauty of human music performance, and how performance relates to and extends composition.
As Tim Wu tells us in his book about the hidden commercial agendas that lurk online The Attention Merchants: "Ultimately, it is not our nation and culture but the very nature of our lives that are at stake". Douglas Eck says that we must understand the side effects of filter bubbles. Yes indeed, and it is not just the Internet corporations that are guilty of using collaborative filtering to create comfort zones. Communities of common interest also create their own artificial comfort zones, and none more so than the classical music industry.

The observation from someone deeply involved in the future of future music technology that "I've nothing to add about classical music except that I highly suspect that it's popularity was waning before the arrival of recommender systems" deserves serious consideration by anyone claiming to care about the future of classical music. As do the following statistics. As I write, page views for my post challenging classical music's comfort zones are now approaching 100,000. To put that 100k into perspective, the classical music industry's comfort zone of choice the Gramophone currently has 6890 digital subscriptions and a print copy circulation of 16,272.

* For those who like me are not up on the hip-hop scene the header graphic is The Low End Theory, the second album by the legendary group A Tribe Called Quest. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jordi Savall talks about Catalan independence

That interview with Jordi Savall about the Catalan independence movement appeared on France24. There have been many posts On An Overgrown Path celebrating Catalonia and one back in 2011 featured the album Songs from the Thousand-Year-Old Land of Catalonia sung by the much-missed Montserrat Figueras with La Capell Reial de Catalunya directed by Jordi. But, as with Brexit, we must not forget that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

I like all the sounds that upset people

I was wrung-out: Sun Ra's music is pagan, religious, simple, complex and almost everything else at the same time. There is no pigeon-hole for it. It is ugly and beautiful and terribly interesting. It's new music, but I have been hearing it for ages.
That is from a 1967 Village Voice review by Michael Zwerin. Danny Goldberg's In Search of the Lost Chord tells how Sun Ra and his Arkestra were a fixture at rock shows, countercultural benefits and outdoor celebrations on the East Coast in the 1960s, with the Arkestra's flamboyant performances and mystical intensity complementing the zeitgeist. Elsewhere Barry Miles explains that Sun Ra was on Paul McCartney's stoned playlist in the 60s alongside John Cage and Luciano Berio. The loose Fluxus grouping included Sun Ra and John Cage, and they performed together at the Coney Island Museum in June 1984. There is a commercial recording of the collaboration; but as Cage's contribution was cursory this archive document has little more than curiosity value.

In 1970 Sun Ra and the Arkestra played at the prestigious Donaueschingen Festival of new music; this was the year that Stockhausen's Mantra was premiered at the Festival. Sun Ra's visionary belief in the power of technology meant that many of his performances were recorded and issued on limited edition albums, including his Donaueschingen gig. Between 1978 and 1980 director Robert Mugge filmed Sun Ra and the Arkestra in performance and during downtime. The resulting 60 minute documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise can be viewed below in full. In his highly recommended biography of the interplanetary enfant terrible titled Space is the Place John F. Szwed quotes Sun Ra as expounding his artistic philosophy in the following words:

I like all the sounds that upset people, because they're too complacent, and there are some sounds that really upset them, and man, you need to shock them out of their complacency, 'cause it's a very bad world in a lot of aspects. They need to wake to how bad it is: then maybe they'll do something about it. It is really a far chance to take. but I think they should take it.
Comfort zones anyone?

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Playlist without algorithms

Remembered Music: Abdulmalik Dyck, Alki Keeler, Daud Khan, Sheikh Hassan Dyck
In the Light of Air by Anna Thorvaldsdottir: International Contemporary Ensemble
Ravi Shankar: The Living Room Sessions: Ravi Shankar, Tannoy Bose, Kenji Ota, Barry Philips
The Beauty of Disaster: J. Peter Schwalm
If Man But Knew: The Habibiyya
Jonathan Harvey String Quartets and String Trio: Arditti Quartet
Synaygia: Ross Daly, Rufus Cappadocia, Girogos Symeonidis, Chemirani Trio
Edmund Rubbra Symphonies 6 & 8: Norman del Mar, Philharmonia Orchestra
Songs and Guitar Pieces by Theodorakis: Maria Farandouri and John Williams
Jetsun Mila: Eliane Radique
That is just some of the music I listened to recently on my iPod when visiting the remote Greek island of Gavdos. By choice during three weeks of travelling I did not have access to email, Facebook, Twitter or other online services. That experience reinforced my concerns about our 'always connected' existence and prompted my recent article deploring the online controls exercised over musical life and, indeed, over the whole of our lives.

It is a bitter irony that my rant against algorithms and free content reached a spectacularly large audience - see sidebars - largely due to being picked up by the algorithms of Flipboard and other free content aggregators. Mea culpa; but this massive readership, by far the largest in the blog's thirteen year history, and an overwhelmingly positive response prove that my concerns about algorithmically defined comfort zone are shared by a very large number of people. The network has failed us. Or more accurately we have encouraged the network to fail us by allowing Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al to control our lives. This was brought home to me at the end of my recent off-grid travels. Also staying in our quirky little hotel in Chania favoured by independent travellers were a young Canadian couple. Each morning they appeared for breakfast with their heads buried in their smartphones, and that is how they stayed throughout the meal with not so much as a word being exchanged between them. In fact I believe they were communicating with each other by sending emails across the table.

The Internet originated as a transactional tool and it still has huge value as such. But today it has also become a social tool, or more accurately a social crutch and social drug. Addiction to the social media drug is used by online gatekeepers to generate obscene levels of tax-free profits by selling personal data. Please remember when watching the 'free' YouTube video of Simon Rattle conducting an exquisite performance of the Damnation of Faust that there is no such thing as 'free' content. You are paying dearly for your classical music fix by allowing Google, which owns YouTube, to sell your intimate personal data to the highest bidder. When sharing the next selfie on Facebook please remember Whole Earth Catalog publisher Kevin Kelly's observation that on social media "vanity trumps privacy". And that is not an exaggeration: the celebrated Max Schrems case uncovered that Facebook retained for algorithmic profiling 1200 pages of data in 57 categories on just one person. Among the data was deleted content including photos, and email addresses culled from the address books of Max Schrems' friends.

Wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Sufism and esotericists such as Gurdjieff all stress the importance of direct experience; that is experience without intermediation. When asked if he was a god Gautama Buddha replied no he was not a god, he was simply a man who had awakened. But humankind is becoming a race of zombies who spend their lives sleepwalking under the control of their online masters. As William James explained, our brain and indeed our souls are hardwired to seek direct experience of higher levels of consciousness. This need transcends any religious beliefs, and is the reason why art in general and music in particular are so important. All forms of intermediation such as selective algorithms and filter bubbles short-circuit the neural circuits that enable this vital direct experience. The very wise Jiddu Krishnamurti told us: "You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary". Thank you for being receptive to my views, stay awake and do enjoy exploring my serendipitous playlist without algorithms.

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares

These photos were taken by me in 2008 at independent record retailer Prelude Records in Norwich. Jordi Savall's impromptu viol recital and signing session preceeded two performances at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. One was a solo recital by Jordi in Peter Mancroft Church; the other was an immensely moving performance of his visionary Jerusalem multicultural project at the Theatre Royal*. As reported here Prelude Records closed earlier this year; it was a victim of predatory online retailing, and today its premises stand empty awaiting occupation by a mobile phone or E-cigarette retailer. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been the victim of savage funding cuts, but continues in a more modest form due to the dedicated work of its small management team.

A few days ago I wrote about a two-thirds empty Snape Maltings concert and proposed that classical music's heartland is facing a perfect storm caused by the convergence of the shifts in consumer tastes and the rapidly increasing availability of free online content. Elsewhere Craig Havighurst has written about the same problem in a perceptive article titled The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think which lists the death of context, commercial radio, the media, conflation, anti-intellectualism, movies and games and the demise of music in schools as reasons for the sorry state of music today.

All the explanations propounded by Craig Havighurst and me are valid and important. But I suggest that there is another more important reason why music in particular and the arts in general are floundering. That reason is that, with a very few exceptions, no one cares any more. Much has been made of the transition from an analogue to a binary age. Not so much has been made of the even more insidious transition from a binary to an algorithmic age. There is a limited understanding of the algorithms used by Google, Amazon, Facebook and other social media platforms to create content filter bubbles which ensure that we stay in our self-defined comfort zones. Even less attention has been paid to how the algorithms virus has expanded beyond online platforms.

For example the Guardian uses editorial algorithms to unashamedly slant its journalism towards the prejudices of its readership, and concert promoters use subjective algorithms to present concerts of familiar and non-challenging repertoire. The problem is that no one cares that this is happening. In fact everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone with ever faster broadband, ever cheaper streamed content, ever more friends and followers, ever more selfie opportunities and - most importantly - ever fewer challenges to their prejudices. And the media - particularly the classical music media - is quite happy to play along; because keeping your readers in their comfort zone means keeping your readers.

Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison had a clear view on our responsibility to the arts:

The history of art, whether its music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists, they're the ones that sing the truth, and that is something that society has got to protect.
Those are stirring words. But the insurmountable problem is that today the vast majority no longer care about protecting the arts. And we are all to blame. This article is being written on a free blogging platform provided by Google, the pioneer of algorithmic determination. If it reaches any audience at all it will be because it is favoured by the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. However, it is unlikely to reach any significant social media audience because my views are not favoured by the online vigilantes who police the borders of classical music's comfort zones. And for the same reason the dissenting views expressed here and elsewhere are unlikely to find their way into the Guardian or Spectator or to be aired on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters. But why should any of this matter? Why should people care when they can watch safe within the comfort zone of their own home an outstanding performance lasting 2 hours 44 minutes of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust by the world-class forces of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded in high quality video and audio for free on YouTube?

There is no viable solution because we are all part of the problem. Classical music's biggest challenge is not ageing audiences, disruptive business models, institutionalised discrimination, unsatisfactory concert halls etc etc. The biggest challenge facing classical music is adapting to a society in which no one cares about anything except staying firmly within their own algorithmically defined comfort zone.

~ Now explore my playlist without algorithms ~

* A transcript of my radio interview with Jordi Savall recorded in the 2008 Norwich & Norfolk Festival can be read via this link. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.