The Improvising Algorithm

Jon Rose

For nearly ten years now I’ve been coming here, and as I sit with a needle stuck in my vein, I drift into the usual semiconscious yet lucid state. It is something of a physical and mental detachment, even though I’m clearly hooked up to a life prolonging apparatus. I’m aware of constant discrete movements in my blood stream, a process of change, incremental in character; the body is adjusting, making decisions. This is a transaction of trust. I really have little idea what complexities of chemical intrigue are being pumped into me; most likely it is the same formula that has kept me going all this time – could be an experiment that I never signed up for. We are intimate friends – me and the molecular stew invented by someone’s algorithm. Medical dependency for which I’m thankful.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” asks a nurse.

By now, just about everything to be said about improvised music has been fed into the veins of the Internet. It’s about the only growth industry in music I know. (Hell, forget just music – improvisation is marketed like self-help books are for businessmen these days). I’m guilty, too, by writing this rave. Normally, when a discourse on improvisation takes place, metaphors are set up which determine what improvisation is like – like eating, like gardening, like taking the dog for a walk, like language, like therapy, like sex, like stumbling through a dark forest with occasional off-putting or delightful apparitions. I’d like to reverse the metaphorical flow.

It strikes me that our hooked-up, online world of fast-moving, illusive moments is becoming exactly like improvisation – like improvisation has always been. We are all living and acting like improvisers, whether we have signed up for the deal or not. I’m not saying a world of improvisation is good or bad, freedom or bondage; it’s just how we have become, and to ignore this actuality is to dig a hole in the sand...

An improv session gets underway, and immediately we are on the end of a multitude of algorithms; we are aware of some of them, we ignore most for the sake of sanity. By an inadvertent or spontaneous click here and there, we contribute to the noise, too, and change it by that contribution, no matter how slight. Propositions jump up in front of us, we grab a few of them, most end up in the trash because we are in real time and there is no time to engage with the sheer amount of information coming our way. By now, most people are aware that every click on our range of mobile devices is sending a continual trackable metadata trail in the opposite direction, ending up in some algorithm somewhere and mostly owned, operated, and sold by some smiling shithead corporation. With every aspect of our lives going online, the ability to stay outside is being couched in pressurised marketing negatives of not being alive, not being in touch, not being involved, not up to speed, not there. Take a selfie to prove you exist. Bleep, bleep goes the machine; time to change the drip rate.

“More tea, dear?”

The skills of Improvisation have gone mainstream; as part of this unfathomable group improvisation, our abilities to filter the shear amount of crap endemic to the system contribute to the various flows of information, whether we are clicking like crazy or not. These propositions, transactions, and interactions are fast – very fast – and are not determined by the tempo or quality of debate – exactly like an improvisation in music. There is plentiful research to suggest that the motor movements, so critical in any physical relationship between instrument and musician, happen before we are aware of the moment. To this research about how musician and instrument function we can add data about the compulsive twitterer and every on-line junkie.

The state of improvisation is one of instability, and so is the Internet with a zillion algorithms running here and there. Improvisation can function by consensus and the setting of socially acceptable forms, or it can ably operate with neither (there are, however, always physical constraints, e.g. number of fingers, with which musical expression and comprehension coexist). I remember past decades of improvised music that were genuine in their experimentation, the ranks of improvisers filled with iconoclasts. Those days appear to be over and compliancy rules. But the Internet, unlike the history of improvisation, is still young. On May 6th, 2010, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 1,000 points in six minutes, and no one knew why. Gurus spoke about the “dictatorship of data.” Decisions were being made at speeds far too fast for us to accommodate. Well, that’s the kind of subconscious decision making that goes on in improvisation, between players and their instruments, between instruments and their players, between players and other players, between players and the sonic environment (including an audience or lack thereof) – it’s how the process works. High frequency trading in the financial markets, governance, police “crush” policies – all aspects of late capitalism including the consumption of music (as sound files) itself, are functioning at levels of speed barely comprehensible to us. Even if it were at speeds that we could consciously consider, we are now unable to undo the connectivity inherent in all our activities including classic deceits like “The Cloud” (corporations holding and trading our data in vast storage depots at global locations about which we haven’t a clue and over which we have no say). I met a guy last year who was there working at Wall Street when the Dow went down. When I asked him what it could mean, he just shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “Well, it corrected itself, didn’t it?”

This brings up the issue of trust – non-existent in capitalism because everything is for sale; however, it is almost impossible to improvise anything of worth in the moment and democratically without it. The improvising musician trusts the moment, or it is already too late and the moment is gone out the window. Of course, the millions of subconscious decisions being made by musicians in the connectivity of an improvisation are one thing, and data mining that collapses into an economic black hole another. Or is it? If an entire population spent their time playing improvised music, who knows what would happen?

“You are looking a little pale, would you like another cup of tea, dear?”

Out of the many meaningless platitudes trotted out about improvised music, the big one is “it’s all about listening.” Well yes, but there are so many ways to listen that the actual word ceases to have currency. I’m thinking of a drummer I worked with in the 1980s in Europe who didn’t listen to anyone; the music still turned out great, though.

The cut and thrust of dealing with the Internet and avoiding compliancy in corporate and governmental data collection can take some conscious effort, like structural decisions in an improvisation – decisions that are determined by social or economic norms. Keep awake or the algorithm will find you and pose: “If you liked this particular piece of popular music, we are sure you’ll want to buy this piece of dross as well.” How far can this model go? Given Edward Snowdon’s revelations, it is clear that it will go very far indeed. As he says: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”

This opens up those areas of music that, although not uniquely attainable through improvisation, are probably the main reasons why improvisation attracts its practitioners. It is the irrational connection, the psycho-acoustic phenomena that arrive in an improvisationary moment that – if you try to grab and formalize it – disappears. The personal awareness and recognition of that moment in which music lives is never to be replicated. It is an instant that defies analysis and cannot be fully realized on recordings, a dilemma for improvisers who wish to prove such moments exist (hence the volume of recordings by improvisers, myself included).

I hear the objections to this set of drip-induced observations. And the analogy, I confess, does fall down badly in places. Improvisation in music at its best takes a lifetime of commitment; it’s not something you can just add to your shtick as a commercial lever to the greater career (plenty are trying, and you can hear the results plain as day). Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours creed on attainment of complex skills may have detractors who point out that if you play badly for 10,000 hours, the situation is not going to improve; but time spent is probably the only way to master an improvisational language(s) that can deal with any sonic situation thrown at the practitioner. All that the Internet asks you is to remember some passwords (mind you, I’m having trouble with that these days). But since our entire lifetimes could soon be lived, hooked-up, embedded, monitored, analyzed, and sold digitally, existence without the Internet becomes unsupportable.

Another objection: the Internet is not an organic being, and improvisation requires living beings. Naturally, tech nerds, geeks, trolls, sci-fi writers, and the rest are convinced by now that the Internet is just that: a large autonomous blob of binary switches with earthlings all attached, or should we say stitched up, as we kid ourselves and are promptly seduced with all this free and convenient technology. Any thinking musician knows there is no such thing as a free lunch.

In terms of my own approach to digital technology, I’ve always thought that whatever cultural milieu we live in, there must the violin also be – and a fully developed set of improvisatory languages is the most useful way of dealing with any sonic situation that might be encountered. The promise of binary back in the 1980s seemed an obvious liberation and a new set of options I wished to explore firsthand. An interactive violin bow (the first of four prototypes) was hacked, software (Steim) conjured up, and off I went. With that went the naivety of a novice, not really considering (outside of science fiction) what the types who run this planet would do with cyberspace.

I was brought up sharp with this cold reality while on tour in the USA around 1996. The then head of Computer Music at Carnegie Mellon University invited me over to his department the day after a concert in the grubby end of town (I think he was one of ten in the audience studying the rodents scurrying about). He showed me some smart interactive educational packages and a few other bits of software under development. “Of course, you realize,” he said “that 75% of the time we are not working on this stuff – we are working for the military.” Nothing new historically; Leonardo worked for the military too. But what is new is the scale and the speed of the subterfuge.

Another colleague of mine, Bob Ostertag, lectures at UC Davis. For one of his projects, he set his students the task of writing a paper on any subject but with the proviso that every single sentence must be plagiarized from the web. Not a single original thought or line must enter the discourse – quite difficult to do actually (all the while making grammatical sense of a developing argument and delivering full citations). We here in Australia, of course, have some excellent recent examples of plagiarism by ruling academics, but Bob is pointing to a new kind of Youtopia, where everything is available but the room for the individual to improvise his way around restricted – blinkered by the flashing lights of sexy algorithms and over-abundant information. This is an odd distortion of rhetoric – the digital commons becomes some sort of totalitarian code of smiling conduct or at least code of common thought – an orthodoxy without which the citizen can’t function within the social system, the set of compliant choices all revolving around one technology and representing a lack of any choice except by total disengagement. I note that in Facebook you can click on “like” but there is no “unlike” to click, or something more appropriate than delete – like send this crap back to the originator and make it explode in their face.

From a tool of freedom to corporate control in thirty years, how the hell did we manage this? As Bruce Scheier notes, we have created a global technological feudal state. Archetypical control freak Joseph Goebbels, referring to an earlier media revolution, famously said, “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” As Australian Broadcast Corporation management continues to reap copycat destruction on its own organization with regular persistence, it’s hard to think of radio, TV, or the Internet as liberating vessels of inquiry and expression – but they all were in their initial experimental states.

“Another cuppa, dear?”

Apple is the happy contemporary face of this enforced autism, their slogan used to be “Think different” (which should be an improviser’s modus operandi, I guess). Steve Jobs dropped that line a while back; they now straightjacket us to compute and behave the same way – as anyone who has been using Mac for over twenty-five years knows. I am currently in the ridiculous state of having to keep all my old Macs because any custom-made software that used to function fine on these machines cannot be endlessly upgraded as Mac forces the user into a new Operating System – it’s just too expensive and difficult to rewrite code for every new OS – an OS that not one person on the planet totally understands. The interactive K-bow I was committed to and using comprehensively a few years ago is now also obsolete technology – obsolete within five years – before it could be fully developed and utilized. Computer technology has become the antithesis of original thought and action. It’s all blind faith. No wonder vinyl albums, analogue electronic hacking, and unamplified music performance are back like the last fifty years never happened.

The “these are just platforms” argument is an avoidance trick. Using 21st century technology to sell 19th century hoch kultur is proof of how we have dug ourselves into a cultural hole. Somehow, the most significant developments of the 20th century have gone missing. Using the Internet to sell opera shows how we just don’t get the world we have invented, neither the problems nor the potential to change the way we make music and make the new music experience relevant. Why improvise with risk only to settle for the unexamined comfortable? I’m reminded of the Singapore government’s “Bring on a Smile Campaign” in 1985. In one of the most controlled populations anywhere, the conformist smile became an article of policy.

Unlike Gaia and other concepts of the earth-body spaceship on automatic pilot, the Internet depends on mostly coal-powered electricity, and like consciousness, is fixed in the physical reality (the current neurological state as espoused by philosophers like John Searle), so when the planet gives out, so will our digital world. As improvisers, we could just switch it off for a whole day, even a week maybe, and see what happens. But amongst performing musicians at least, I’m not aware of a popular Luddite movement to avoid the connection. We might despair at the loss of revenue and control over our recorded works, but we are all junkies to a degree, especially those who are gig-a-holics; whole life times are being spent online sucking the remaining drops of working blood from a profession in chronic decline.

So, if the dictates of new young Nerd Emperors (mostly American or Chinese nerds) force every human into the clothes of reluctant improvisers, will improvisation per se be able to sustain and navigate its traditional role on the outside of mainstream technology (if you can find an outside)? Improvising musicians have always operated on the edge, proposing marginal suggestions: the instrumental break in the pop song, the inexplicable, the subversive technique, plain off-center weirdness, the magic gesture beyond the singer’s narrative, the ability to take a given (genre) and screw with it. In fact, a screwdriver may be a more radical and musical tool to own than an iPad. In the current climate of content free “creative industries” (ha!), could improvisers take the role of the Nigerian email fraudsters and other more subtle and successful moles who want in under the firewall? The history of improvising outsiders is not written, and probably by identifying them we would commit some sort of Heisenberg heresy and by observation simply make them disappear. Any interesting transgression in western music has often involved the improvising element; transgression is a key to innovation and change. Improvising around the surveillance state is like subverting those who “know” how music should be and sound.

This would suggest that improvisers have to start acting with political intent – could be a long wait. But just imagine if all that skill and experience went into a new professional option – dealing with the digital deluge – new careers in improvised stress management, improvised finance, improvised politics, improvised learning (I found out last year that a “full stop” in a text message is now considered an act of aggression) – the improvised ephemeral world is how it is for non-improvisers as well – start-ups, pop-ups, push-ups, shake ups, screw ups. Improvising musicians have been dealing with enjoyable assaults on the senses since the beginning of musical communication itself. It’s time we took on the Faustian pact of endless connectivity – we’ve got the chops for it.

“Another top up of your tea, dear?”

[Author ID for The Concrersation] Jon Rose is a violinist, improviser, composer, and inventor of over forty years’ international experience. In 1987, he introduced The Interactive Violin Bow into the world. The article “Bow Wow” on this innovation was published in Leonardo Music Journal, downloadable here: His recent book, Music of Place: Reclaiming A Practice, is published by Currency House. He does not do Facebook or Twitter, but his ancient website still functions.

© 2014 Jon Rose

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