Mad music machines

There aren’t many things that machines do better than human beings. ’Many’ is a loose term, but I use it relatively, and in that sense, if you think of the many millions of extraordinary things that humans do, it’s true.

Almost everything we do and certainly all of the important ones aren’t enhanced by mechanics or electronics, and I don’t believe they ever will be. Machines are useful at large-scale repetitive tasks that must be done accurately and quickly – such as computing numbers, decrypting enciphered text, searching databases, brute-force chess and relaying messages across the globe. They’re not good at writing novels, or poetry, or acting, or singing, or playing the piano. In these cases the possibilities for invention or expression are infinite and the starting point unclear.

Player Piano

But there’s one interesting exception to the last case. Combining original musical composition and a mechanical piano, the American-born, Mexico-living Communist composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) devised (and punched onto a player piano roll) some studies for piano that can ONLY be played by a machine (though, some technical wizards of the keyboard have attempted them with human hands). They are too fast, rhythmically too complex, or involve more notes being played than ten digits can manage. The result is rather exciting, if not always pleasant (and why should it be that?).

Take this piece, for example, Study for Player Piano No. 21, which combines an accelerating ‘left hand’ with a decelerating ‘right hand’. No real hands of course. Whilst musical performance usually combines is compositional inspiration and a performer’s interpretative skills. In Nancarrow’s case, no interpretation, nothing between his inspiration and the listener. Pure.

What if the roles were reversed – music composed by machine, played by flesh and blood? Surely not half as much fun. Compositional inspiration can’t be programmed.

(Incidentally, someone has rather unflatteringly, but amusingly, used this very serious but mad music as an accompaniment to a washing machine spinning itself to death:

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