Thomas Royal

Composer | Pianist | Technologist


Music, Computers, Performance, and Play

February 05, 2012

My Dissertation

As a Ph.D. student in Music Composition at the University of Florida, in addition to the significant work of music that even D.M.A.'s in composition have to write, I am required to write a dissertation about music composition. I experimented with different topics: from minimalist vocal music, to using computers to model the process of writing music à la David Cope. After several false starts, and much research, I finally decided to write about the performance of music using computers.

Is This a Valid Topic?

There are three conditions that make this a valid topic of discussion. First, this certainly would not be the first writing on this topic. Many books on the early history of electronic music discuss the history of performing with electronic instruments live, and the computer invariably enters the discussion. Further, since the 70's, there has been much research into the manipulation of musical sound using custom-designed peripherals and interfaces, much of the research being driven by Human-Computer Interaction research, or HCI. Much research has also been presented in a number of academic conferences including the NIME conference (New Interfaces for Musical Expression), and the ICMC (International Computer Music Conference). This topic is not at all esoteric.

Second, there has been relatively mainstream interest in computer music performance as practiced in academies. For example, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk, received a large amount of mainstream media attention at the time of inception a number of years ago, going so far as to help grant its founder, Dan Trueman, a MacArthur grant. (It should be noted that his exceptional work with Norwegian and electric fiddle helped). A similar level of attention has also been granted to Stanford's mutation, theMoPhO, the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra.

Third, over the past decade, the performance of popular music with computers has become mainstream. While controlling light shows and sound reinforcement settings with a computer has been done for a long time, bands have only begun to incorporate the laptop as a standard instrument in the last decade. Anyone who has seen a number of live performances recently can attest to this.Articles in popular music production magazines have even started to address this issue.

A Problem

There is a problem when combining computers and performers in musical contexts — one does not really need people present to present music when computers are involved. An audience member knows that a computer can make music by itself, or at least play music back. A computer doesn't need continuous intervention as do the piano or guitar. In fact, the computer's ability to make sound without continuous intervention makes an audience member suspicious about whether or not someone performing on a computer is really doing anything at all.


The answer, it think, lies is in the employment of a concept of play. The problem with doing this is that the word "play" is amorphous and multifaceted. Nevertheless, it fits with what I find to be the essence of the shared link between computers, music, and performance.

My definition arises from Gregory Bateson's discussion of play in "Steps to an Ecology of Mind". Bateson states that the messages comprising play are those that resemble other kids of messages, but also negate these messages through a metacommunicative layer transmitted with these messages. This metacommunicative aspect states: "this message is play". Bateson gives the example of animal play to illustrate this. He states that the playful nip does not denote the bite, though its essence is still bite.

What I find essential about play is not the messages that comprise play. Rather, at least in the group play contexts that comprise performance, these messages serve to create a shared, imaginary space in which multiple participants experience a sense of being that is removed from the current, real context. The nip does not denote a bite but, rather, denotes a bite in an imaginary dimension of which the nip provides a window.

The best examples of play (and by extension, the best performances), are those that give a convincing sense of shared, mutually experienced world. Often, rules (as in sports or games) or conventions (as in drama) facilitate the creation of a shared sense of imaginary being. Arguably, it is the imaginary sense of being that is important, not the rules. This is evidenced by the fact that the best performances are those in which the rules are transcended in some way, forcing a sense of causality that is more non-deterministic and surprising, like our own. These transgressions lend a sense of validity to otherwise imaginary contexts.

Play Applied to Performance, Music, and Computers

It is trivial to tie this conception of play to phenomena of performance. Performers try to predictably engender a response in audience members, and do so through conventions that define performance contexts (like the stage or theatre), performative roles (the actor, the musician), and even standardized clichés and tropes.

One can also argue that some kinds of music, at least, can also be regarded as play. If music were to be said to have a message, it would be in the sounds themselves of which music is comprised. I do not think that these sounds are interesting for what they are, generally. Rather, it is the way that sounds change and inter-relate that make them interesting enough to be considered musical. Either that, or it is their rarity, or put differently, their un-relation to the typical and even real, that makes them interesting. (Some sounds are so beautiful that we feel that they are imagined). What music does, maybe, is assert a being in sound that is not one that is concerned with the immediate ways that things are, but more so with a sense of being in sound that is imaginary.

(The way that music relates to play in my argument, admittedly, needs some woodshedding as it is a bit fluffy, and fails to consider a broad range of musical practices).

Finally, computers, as machines that facilitate and heighten shared senses of the imaginary, are machines that embody play. While a computer is, by itself, a machine that does little else than change its own electrical configuration in a patterned way, the computer in its use is one of the purest (as Marshall McLuhan might say) extensions of our nervous system. It is an extension of our brain and, thus, often an extension of the imaginary.

When utilizing a spreadsheet, for example, we are not seeking particularly to change something or do something in the "real world". Rather, we are seeking to abstract and understand something too complex to hold in our head and to reveal interrelationships too subtle to tease out quickly. Further, we often want to expose these interrelationships to other relevant parties; perhaps an employer.

A software designer creates a set of abstractions and rules when designing software. The software uses "rules" to convert inputs into meaningful outputs. The outputs can be considered windows, or messages, that indicate the seemingly internal state of the software. The user, utilizing his own mental model of the software, inputs data into the software and gets something that hopefully conforms to his own expectations provided by his mental model.

Computer interactions have too much in affinity to playful actions to be ignored. Computers deal with the imaginary and the virtual, as do games and performances. One's interaction with a computer is governed by rules, as with games. The sense of a sense of being that is imagined can be shared, as when multiple people deal with computer output or even when an interaction designer successfully portrays the a mental model for computer interaction.

(Much of my thinking on play in terms of the computer is influenced by Winograd and Flores's "Understanding Computers and Cognition" and Brenda Laurel's"Computers as Theatre").

"Computer Music Performance"

My dissertation, then, will seek to link these three areas — computers, music, and performance — through their common relationship to play. I will argue that the best uses of the computer are those that integrate the computer most fully into the imagined sense of being that is the music performance context. I will also argue for ways of programming the computer to more adequately reflect the shared sense of being sought through a musical performance. Hopefully, it will spark some discussion into ways of re-conceiving the computer as not just machine that crunches numbers, but also as a machine that communicates play.