Tag: science

DarwinTunes and Cultural Reductionism

In 2012, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper with the thought-provoking title “Evolution of music by public choice.”[1] The research, led by Robert M. MacCallum, presented an environment—cleverly entitled DarwinTunes—in which a variety of short, looped sounds were capable of reproducibility, thus generating newer sounds based on certain qualities of the offspring’s progenitors. This so-called evolution was possible with help from almost 7,000 people who, on a five-point scale (“I can’t stand it” to “I love it”), had the fate of the sound loops in their hands. The samples that were most liked survived and had offspring, while the others died and had no further evolutional impact.[2] While MacCallum’s research might lead to an array of interesting implications from a scientific standpoint, it neglects a number of issues that I find significant if we wish to ponder the necessity for such a connection between music and evolution.

The DarwinTunes research claims that “a simple Darwinian process can produce music.”[3] However, it is quite difficult to say which specific samples have evolved more than others when all of them (older and newer generations) are in 4/4 and have the same tempo as well as the same pitch center for the most part—most perceivable changes are both textural and timbral in nature, while some also show a few melodic changes. In other words, if someone were to ask me whether a sound loop is more evolved than another one from the study’s pool of thousands of samples, I would not find myself capable of responding correctly. That is not to say, according to the experiment, that there was not indeed sonic change—undeniably, metamorphosis took place and produced different objective results over time.

In part, biological evolution precisely consists in the ability of a living entity to survive in an unfriendly context. In the case of DarwinTunes, those samples learned to pull through in a situation in which consumer choice set the rules for adaptability. In other words, we may speak of evolution solely within this experiment because the environment where the samples struggled was clearly defined. Music, nonetheless, is a complex cultural product that cannot be treated only as an art of sound organization—many other disciplines of human knowledge contribute a more satisfactory definition to music. Stating that DarwinTunes proves that “selection rapidly evolves music from noise,”[4] among other dubious claims, is problematic to say the least. Therefore, evolution via sexual intercourse might have influenced the development of the sound samples at stake, but such a conclusion cannot be extrapolated to the general evolution—for lack of a better term—of music.

On the other hand, media coverage of the DarwinTunes research may be perceived as a mirror of how our society generally interprets music. Rachel Ehrenberg from Science News writes: “Evolution makes noise into music […] Inspired in part by long-running experiments probing the evolution of bacteria, computational biologist Bob MacCallum and colleagues decided to see if pleasant music could evolve from a cacophonous mess when human listeners acted as the force of natural selection.”[5] Science also presents the study with the headline “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music from Noise.”[6] The Los Angeles Times introduces the topic from a slightly different perspective: “DarwinTunes software ‘evolves’ music without composers.” Later on, it goes into saying: “Composers, look to your laurels: A mere computer program can transform a racket of clangs, hums and beeps into a pleasing melody.”[7] Along the same lines, the BBC News headline says: “Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?”[8] Moreover, the headline of The Sydney Morning Herald ironically claims “With DarwinTunes, who needs composers?” and ends up stating that “pleasant enough music had evolved out of the original noise, […] with chords, rhythms and rather repetitive tunes that would not be out of place in a modern pop song.”[9] mood:blog also announces that “starting with sine waves, MacCallum and Leroi used audience participation (a rating system) to shift the sounds until [they created] more pleasing rhythms and melodies.”[10] Even MacCallum and his colleagues ask themselves in the paper: “What makes the loops of later generations so much more pleasing? The aesthetic value of a given piece of music depends on many different features, such as consonance, rhythm, and melody.”[11]
Media coverage of DarwinTunes
A recurring idea that appears in the vast majority of such media coverage is pleasantness. The only piece of information I have been able to pinpoint that finds the results of the study a little odd is by Michael Scott Cuthbert, a professor at MIT. Cuthbert argues that “[the research] doesn’t give any information about why music sounded differently in the past, why people like different things today, or how music might evolve in the future.”[12] Indeed, it is quite fascinating that this generalized, implicit discourse about the pleasantness of music leads to the unquestioned belief that real musical evolution does exist beyond the study. One of the most explicit examples of this conviction comes from Mark Pagel, a professor of biology at the University of Reading:

We often think that the classic songs are the best and nothing can improve on them. This just shows you the outcome of this great, sorting power of cultural evolution because the Radio 2 listeners are listening to songs that are the survivors of an earlier era; they were the best of their generation and they get played over and over and over again because they were the forms that were the best at competing for our attention. When those songs that we listen to on Radio 2 were first produced in the 70s or in the 60s, there were tens of thousands of other songs at the same time that weren’t as good and we’ve forgotten about them.[13]

The level of blatant reductionism is alarming. I do not have the space to delve deeply into the many issues that Pagel raises, but we certainly should not forget that things are not this simple: Adorno, Benjamin, Finkielkraut, Flotzinger, Harvey, Luhmann, and even Marx (among many others!) have seriously studied music and other artistic disciplines from a variety of perspectives in order to shed some light on whether some aesthetic patterns are more culturally relevant than others. Perhaps one should be more careful before publicly sharing certain views.

A first, dual conclusion could be drawn from both the original paper and its press coverage: (1) more evolved music (I am not sure what this means yet) is more pleasant and (2) music and noise are clearly opposed entities—we might want to ask Hijokaidan, Borbetomagus, or Phil Julian what they think about this dichotomy.[14] To the researchers’ credit, it does seem though that humans have a tendency to search for a certain degree of pleasantness while listening to music, whether the music is noisy or not. When asked why he makes noise music, Lasse Marhaug responded: “Because I like it. I enjoy the sound of dense electronic overload, feedback, and distortion. I like how noise both offers a space to move around freely within, and a feeling that engulfs you. It pleases me both emotionally and intellectually.”[15] Kasper Toeplitz was asked the same question and wrote back: “Then into my life came Japanoise, and noise in general, and music was exciting again! The long developments (more architecture than ‘proper music’), the pure physicality of the sounds (and not their ‘function,’ as you have in rock, jazz, etc.), and the passion. […] It is also good to add that it is one of the purest expressions of beauty, this music. Or pure ugliness, maybe, which makes it beautiful.”[16] I suspect that when the DarwinTunes researchers claim to be able to evolve pleasing loops from noise, they are basing their use of the word “pleasing” on a very particular tradition that by no means is shared by the entirety of humanity. The lack of acknowledgement of their own cultural bias is highly problematic and may lead some readers to question the role of musical evolution even within the framework of the study.

Another shaky issue that MacCallum et al. attempt to answer is whether composers are needed in order to make music. They conclude that “the ability to download, manipulate, and distribute music via social-networking sites has democratized the production of music and may change the balance of [the specialist guilds of composers and performers]. In partitioning these selective forces, our analysis points the way to the future evolutionary dynamics of digital culture.”[17] If we were to understand the figure of the composer as a Romantic, subjective creative force, perhaps it would make sense to claim that the DarwinTunes samples evolved without the need of an independent mind at work deliberately trying to achieve a specific sounding goal. However, composition has changed tremendously since the times of Beethoven. John Cage had already introduced chance operations in the 1950s, thus removing himself from the final audible result. A close collaborator of Cage, David Tudor created his own homemade, complex electronic circuits in order to generate unpredictable sonic outcomes. Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise is arguably one of the most interpretable scores that has been written. Back in the 1990s, Jeremy Leach and John Fitch worked together on XComposer, an intelligent composition software that was capable of generating its own melodic lines. Peter Ablinger, with help from Winfried Ritsch and Thomas Musil, designed Deus Cantando, an installation piece in which a computer-controlled piano generates purely acoustical sounds that resemble a human voice speaking. What I mean to show with these examples is that highly processed compositional procedures—in which the final outcome is not necessarily known by the composer—have been common for decades. As a matter of fact, as long as we understand current compositional practices through the lens of contemporaneity, it would be quite easy to argue that MacCallum and his colleagues were the actual composers of DarwinTunes.

At least for now, I do not think composers are going anywhere.


1. Robert M. MacCallum et al., “Evolution of music by public choice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 30 (2012): 12081–12086.

2 A compilation of these samples may be listened to on DarwinTunes’ Soundcloud site: https://soundcloud.com/uncoolbob/sets/darwintunes

3 MacCallum et al., 12085.

4 Ibid., 12081.

5 Rachel Ehrenberg, “Evolution makes noise into music,” Science News 182, 2 (July 2012): 12.

6 “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music From Noise,” Science, accessed September 3, 2014, http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/06/computer-program-evolves-music-noise

7 “DarwinTunes software ‘evolves’ music without composers,” Los Angeles Times, accessed September 3, 2014, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/19/science/la-sci-music-evolution-20120619

8 “Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?,” BBC News, accessed September 3, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-18449939

9 “With DarwinTunes, who needs composers?,” The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed September 3, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/with-darwintunes-who-needs-composers-20120619-20lch.html

10 “The Goods: DarwinTunes,” mood:blog, accessed September 3, 2014, http://blog.moodmedia.com/2012/07/the-goods-darwintunes/

11 MacCallum et al., 12082.

12 “Tunes without composers: music naturally evolves on DarwinTunes,” Discover, accessed September 3, 2014, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/06/18/tunes-without-composers-music-naturally-evolves- on-darwintunes/

13 Armand Leroi, Darwin’s Tunes, podcast audio, August 8, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ljk56

14 These artists are known for their noisy, loud music.

15 Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond, edit., Noise In And As Music (Huddersfield, United Kingdom: The University of Huddersfield Press, 2013): 129.

16 Ibid., 145-146.

17 MacCallum et al., 12086.


Joan Arnau Pàmies

Joan Arnau Pàmies

The music of Joan Arnau Pàmies (IPA: [d͡ʒu’ɑnəɾ’nɑu’pɑmiəs]) emerges from underlying issues related to text, sonic outcome, and the distinction between composition and interpretation as categorically different activities. Pàmies explores unconventional notational strategies in order to develop intricate formal processes. He is currently pursuing a D.M.A. at Northwestern University with Hans Thomalla as his doctoral advisor.


I generally feel a sense of self-righteous satisfaction when scientific research (the kind with reproducible results) once again reveals evidence supporting my personal non-peer-reviewed theories and beliefs about music functioning as a fabric to weave and tailor the wardrobes of our lives with. So, I was happy to read about the research from Finland that proves that we are able to respond to music before we are born. Although the idea has been tossed around for quite a while, the study echoes one conducted in France nearly three years earlier that, while using different methods, came to the same conclusion: human beings are capable of apprehending and remembering music while in the womb. The concept that memories of our watery symbiotic prenatal sonic environment are transported into the world of air-breathing individuation lends support to a theory I have about the practice of regulating the temporal experience by dividing it into a series of motoric units. These units, be they global (hours, minutes, seconds) or local (whole note, half note, quarter note), are as arbitrary a way to measure time as equal temperament is to measure an octave.

Given that our gestational sonic environment is unarguably rich, the predominant sound heard is the uneven rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat with a ratio that approximates the Golden Mean. (The ratio varies, though, depending on one’s general health, state of mind, and level of physical activity.) The tempo of a heartbeat for an adult at rest ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute and, moreover, the volume levels of the two beats making up the rhythmic pattern are different. The heartbeat that an unborn human hears when its mother is healthy, relaxed, and in a good frame of mind sounds very similar to the drumming patterns that accompany Native American round or “friendship” dances. In Native American music, evenly spaced drum pulses are mostly used in competitive or “fancy” dances. They sound similar to the heartbeat of someone engaged in intense physical activity.

My theory goes that we unconsciously equate irregular rhythms with security, safety, and community, especially rhythms that resemble the human heartbeat, such as the Charleston rhythm of jazz or the bombo – ponche bass line heard in the tresillo-style tumbao of Latin music. These rhythms, I believe, were in common use in America before the arrival of European colonists. Modern American music, though, is primarily the result of Eurocentric philosophy, technology, and pedagogy, and its largely tacit hegemonic foundation of super-cultural fathers currently supports the idea that these rhythmic elements were imported to the New World as part of the African Diaspora. This would suggest that jazz, which is officially America’s indigenous art form and born out of a push for inclusion of African Americans in mainstream American culture, is non-inclusive of the indigenous New World cultures that predate by millennia the trans-Atlantic colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But the push has been an obvious success, despite the inability of so many melanin-challenged brothers and sisters to accept that white supremacy is very near the root of our nation’s woes, and there are many who believe that African-American inclusion will lead to an egalitarian culture recognizing a broader base of diversity. So hope stays alive while artists like Vijay Iyer, Fred Ho, Jennifer Leitham, Fred Hersch, Cynthia Hilts, Joris Teepe, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Sanabria, Joanne Brackeen, Arturo O’Farrill, and Wayne Wallace exemplify how, no matter how one negotiates the Great American Culture Machine, diversity is key.

As a side note, I would like to think that the Kaheri Quartet, who celebrated the release of their first CD last month, is part of this trend, especially since—along with guitarist Omar Tamez, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi—I’m a member of it and we plan to record our second CD in a few weeks. Kaheri’s music is about improvisation, both structured and not. While it’s not a new concept, what is unique to the group is the addition of non-African elements to the mix. While it is truthfully said that all human experience can be traced to Africa, its musicological influence in Kaheri is filtered through several layers of diasporic timelines that include the pre-European indigenous elements that inform Tamez’s playing. Sanchez is well-known on the new music scene, especially for her collaborations with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. Takeishi is from Mito, Japan, but spent years working in Columbia, South America, on projects that combined elements of folk, jazz, and classical music.

The international aspect of Kaheri is one that mirrors how jazz studies has become international as well, and the publicly funded Jazzinstitut Darmstadt offers a service that scans through the headlines of leading newspapers for jazz-related news items. One story that caught my eye was an interview with saxophonist Dave Rempis. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Rempis has made Chicago, Illinois, his home for the last 15 years. Like Tamez, Rempis is an organizer as well as a performer and improviser. He performs as part of a group, The Vandermark 5, that takes a unique approach to alternative groove-based jazz. Rempis’s playing is high energy and steeped in the aesthetic of post-Albert Ayler avant-garde and free-jazz movements. In his interview, he is asked the question that I feel is at the heart of this post: “Do you ever think of social progress and playing music in the same breath?” His answer, although coming from the right place, reflects a problem with how jazz as an American art form is perceived and/or taught in America:

The history of jazz and social progress are deeply intertwined on every level, from the first racially mixed groups that Benny Goodman led and made no compromises with, to Max Roach’s groundbreaking Freedom Now Suite, and up through current times, whether it be in regards to the various wars this country has undertaken in recent years, or to social movements such as gay rights. On a less explicit level, jazz is inherently a music that allows for meaningful personal expression without necessarily sacrificing group integrity, and the balance of those things between the musicians offers a model for possibilities within the society at large.

As was mentioned in a previous post, the racially diverse groups led by Benny Goodman were formed at the behest of his agent, John Hammond; Goodman’s participation was a compromise. Besides, the push to include subaltern musicians in “mainstream” society went back at least to James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra playing at Carnegie Hall in 1912, twenty-six years before Goodman. (Notice that his first name is abbreviated to “Jas.” on the poster.) If one wants to suggest a “great white hope” for integration in the jazz age, probably credit should be given to Vernon and Irene Castle, the ballroom dancing stars who popularized the fox trot and employed Europe’s “Society Orchestra” to accompany them in the same year. Another problem is to use the We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) (Candid Records, 1960) as an endpoint for jazz as a force for social change. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” dedicated to the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, in 1963 and New Thing At Newport (Impulse!, 1965) mostly featured the politically outspoken music of Archie Shepp. Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Milestone release, If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, was recorded at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1970. Jim Pepper’s first recording as a leader, Pepper’s Pow Wow (Embryo, 1971), includes two Peter La Farge tunes, “Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)” and “Drums,” both about the mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as the traditional, “Nommie Nommie (When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder),” a tongue-in-cheek version of the Methodist spiritual. Mingus alumni and trumpet virtuoso Jack Walrath recorded his A Plea For Sanity in 1983 for Stash Records, and the work of Fred Ho (Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon!, Innova Records, 2010) has never been disassociated with his political activism. In short, jazz is still very much part of the push for social change.

The music/social commentary connection isn’t limited to contemporary African-American musical forms either. Part of the Mozart effect could be the inclusion of the political views suggested in The Magic Flute or Zaide. Of course Dimitri Shostakovich is another figure from European art music who managed to include social commentary in his music. In America, Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are and were individuals whose vision was tp use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new releases. My concern is that the new research mentioned earlier won’t lead to the creation of a consumer class via pre-natal indoctrination. While this suggestion might be nothing more than the result of a fatalistic imagination working overtime, there are social issues that need to be addressed with louder voices more now than ever.

To be continued…

Listening to the Unknown

A couple months ago I wrote about the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians organized by James Klopfleisch. I thoroughly enjoyed that event, so I was thrilled when James invited me to present my music at last Sunday’s meeting. It gave me the chance to try an experiment of my own that I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you may have noticed a common refrain of “context matters.” That is, the environment in which you hear a piece of music, and the background you bring going into it, can have as much or more impact on your listening experience than the music itself. I’ve been harping on this for a while, to the point where I wonder if it’s getting tiresome, but it’s been a big part of how I think about music and how I make music. So I decided I would test out this hypothesis in a live setting and see if my cherished beliefs would hold true.

So without telling anyone why, I split the audience into two groups and sent one group off to another room with Daniel Corral (composer, multi-instrumentalist, friend). Daniel gave a short lecture on a topic of his choosing while I talked about one of my compositions, a Steve Reich/Tay Zonday homage for accordion and electronics called Chocolate Phase. When we were finished with our lectures the groups reconvened to listen to the piece. Essentially, one half of the audience had inside information, while the other half went in cold. I was curious to find out if and how this would affect their appreciation and understanding of the piece (or lack thereof).

The results were surprising to me in a very interesting way. While many in the group that heard Daniel’s lecture didn’t know the reference points that the piece was based on, this didn’t seem to prevent them from enjoying it. In fact, it almost seemed like too much understanding might have been a limiting factor for people’s enjoyment. Those who didn’t hear me explain my piece talked about experiencing it in a visceral, physical way, while those who did hear my explanation were a little more circumspect and used more intellectual language in their descriptions.

In other words, context matters, but not necessarily in the way that I expected. I tend to assume that more knowledge allows you to get more out of a work of art, and it didn’t occur to me that this knowledge could actually be a barrier. In retrospect this should have been obvious–I think we’re all familiar with the experience of getting bored with a piece of music, perhaps because we know it too well. Mystery can be an important ingredient in conjuring up music’s more magical properties.

Granted, my experiment was very informal and the evidence extremely anecdotal. Many other factors could have affected the way the audience perceived the piece, like the content of Daniel’s lecture (which I’m told involved a recitation of a found text dealing with nuclear war and monkeys). Something else I didn’t account for is movement–for the half that left the room, the kinesthetic aspect of walking somewhere and back again may have influenced them physiologically in a way that changed their listening. Nonetheless, I’m excited by the content of these results, and eager to try an experiment like this again!

Between Sound and Science

The more I hang out with scientists and engineers—and this seems to happen more and more often these days—the more I feel like an incorrigible composer. No matter how much knowledge and lingo I absorb, it sometimes seems that our goals or areas of concern are fundamentally different. As a staunch proponent of collaboration between the arts and the sciences, this bothers me a great deal, and I’d like to get to the bottom of it if I can.

There are certainly artificial barriers between the two domains, built up over the years by mistakes and misconceptions. I’d like to place most of the blame for this on pop science journalism, usually created by people who seem to know little about science or music. For just a couple of recent examples, here’s one about pop music getting sadder and here’s one about the distribution of chords in more than 1300 popular songs. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to properly deconstruct these. Okay, fine, a couple prompts: 1) Are “Paperback Writer” and “Help!” really happy songs? 2) What kind of insights could be gained from an examination of the distribution of words in more than 1300 popular novels?

I’m being a little flippant here, but the point is that most musicians are probably less dogged and stubborn than me, and have better things to do than nitpick an argument, or look up primary sources to see how they’re misrepresented. So musicians tend to believe that this is representative of how scientists look at music, resulting in a great deal of skepticism and mistrust.

Conversely, researchers in music often ignore music theory on the grounds that it’s not rigorous or verifiable. But many of these researchers have not experienced firsthand the explanatory power of theory for all kinds of musical events, and spend much of their time developing sophisticated methods to reverse-engineer theoretical understanding, occasionally with very strange results. For example, automatic music genre classifiers that do well on certain data sets can be thrown off by small tweaks in equalization, suggesting that they are paying more attention to surface features like production or mastering, and not what we actually hear when we distinguish disco from country. A little music theory here could go a long way; just because it wasn’t created with scientific research in mind doesn’t mean it can’t be incorporated into a scientifically rigorous model or experiment.

Even if we bridged this gap, however, I’m still not sure musicians and researchers would see things the same way. Geraint Wiggins argues persuasively that scientists are in fact creative, but I wonder if they’re a different species of creativity. Put simply, scientists are interested in directed creativity that tackles a particular research problem or goal, whereas artists are interested in exploratory creativity where the destination is much less certain. These are not hard and fast categories, and there’s certainly some bleed-through; it sounds like Wiggins believes that scientists could stand to be a little more broadly imaginative, and artists would never finish anything if they weren’t narrowly focused at least part of the time. (This comes through in writing style, too; I can never seem to get into the idea of stating my thesis up front, preferring for it to develop gradually over the course of several paragraphs.)

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to be had from collaboration between scientists and artists, this productive clash of perspectives. Even now, though, it’s hard to imagine what this collaboration should ideally look like. Should scientists be technicians, making cool stuff to artists’ specifications? Should artists be subjects, providing data for scientists’ publications? Both of these approaches are valuable and valid, but neither of them builds respect and trust. Should scientists and artists educate each other until we’re all comfortable in both domains? If so, are the end products of these collaborations still research projects and/or works of art? If they are something else instead, what are they? I’d be curious to find out.