Computers do the conducting as musicians explore a new frontier in how technology is intersecting with music
Alistair McLean loves the ephemeral and experimental nature of improvised music, though he knows it can be off-putting to people unfamiliar with it.
“I felt a lot of the time that when we were playing quite conceptual improvised music, we just rocked up to a jazz club and played it and expected everyone to understand it,” says Alistair, a musician and PhD candidate at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
He was inspired instead by the work of contemporary classical musicians, who made more of an effort to appeal to audiences.
“Their communication with their audience is really great,” he says.
There’s a lot of thought and attention put into how to present work, how to get audiences engaged with challenging music and things that might be quite conceptual.
That was the genesis for the Australian Creative Music Ensemble (ACME), a group of improvisational artists dedicated to exploring new ideas – but in a way that is approachable to both musicians and non-musicians alike.
Alistair applied for and received the Alan C Rose Memorial Trust Scholarship, which funds a musical project intended to provide benefit to the community.
He says he wanted ACME to work in a way that was similar to fine artists participating in a group exhibition.
“In a group exhibition, you might have a central theme or a central question, but you don’t ask everyone to respond in the same way.”
The scholarship went towards the creation of no new noise, a program of three new works, which asked composers to respond to a provocative central question: how long will it be before musicians are replaced by artificial intelligence?
“There’s a lot of talk around artificial intelligence replacing manual labour jobs, but there hasn’t been a lot of thought about how this might impact on creative jobs, or specifically on music,” says Alistair. “As musicians, I think we feel like there’s already been a lot of technical changes that have already changed the industry for us.”
He cites the advent of recorded music, which limited the demand for live performance, and computer programs that can mimic the sounds of live instruments.
Featuring compositions by Alistair and two of his ACME colleagues, Joe O’Connor and Reuben Lewis, no new noise debuted in October 2017 at the Melbourne Festival.
The performance featured eight ACME musicians, including a vocalist, in the repurposed Substation multi-arts building in Newport, Melbourne. They used visual elements, such as icons on a gaming board, and an explanatory program to make the central idea of the performance as explicit as possible.
In Alistair’s piece, electric sheep, audiences could watch as a customised computer program directed the ensemble through a series of commands, such as “play freely” or “rudely”. Playing at the whim of a computer-conductor made for a series of humorous non-sequiturs; tricky transitions from “obnoxious” to “dreamy”, for example.
A lot of the joy in that piece is where the computer intelligence fails. You’ve got musicians who need to find a way to play their way out of a very silly set of instructions.
“It’s often quite funny, but it still presents one way that this change could happen and we could be directly influenced by artificial intelligence as composers and musicians.”
Reuben’s piece, I know that I know, stemmed from his conversations with online chat bots, which helped him compose. Joe’s work, Partial Disclosure, examined the idea that music is usually already changed by its interaction with technology.
Alistair says he wanted audiences to think about the ways music has already been affected by technology, whether it has been recorded, processed, amplified or altered.
“When you capture a voice in a microphone, it gets turned into electrical energy, then you convert it into a digital signal and it’s ones and zeroes,” he says. “Already, there’s hundreds of processes going on that are changing things but we’re used to that and we don’t even notice it.
“We’d be much better off to approach it with an open mind rather than avoiding it and hoping it doesn’t happen.”
The granddaughter of the scholarship’s namesake attended the performance.
Alan Rose was the founder of Rose Music Pty Ltd and a great supporter of early career artists, particularly in helping to further their education through masterclasses. The Alan C Rose Memorial Fund was established in 1979 by public appeal in memory of his life and work.
“Obviously the funding is a huge gift,” says Alistair, “and for [the family] to attend the concert and engage was really appreciated.” He hopes that people who saw the performance would be inspired to reconsider improvised music as a form of art that can be dynamic, progressive and important.
There’s a lot of really exciting music that people would love and be interested in if there was an avenue to engage with it.