Do Algorithms Dream Of Improvisation?
dogtrax, Kevin's Meandering Mind, May 16, 2019
Here is a convergence of two texts in a feldgang — first, a shared reading of The Art of Is with other CLMOOC friends and then, an article in this week’s The New Yorker by Hua Hsu entitled “Machine Yearning.” In The Art of Is, I am in a place in the text where writer […]

Here is a convergence of two texts in a feldgang — first, a shared reading of The Art of Is with other CLMOOC friends and then, an article in this week’s The New Yorker by Hua Hsu entitled “Machine Yearning.” In The Art of Is, I am in a place in the text where writer Stephen Nachmanovitch is exploring improvisation and mistakes, and how one (mistakes) often lead to the other (improvisation) to make art. In The New Yorker piece, Hsu focuses in on artist Holly Herndon’s work to create music through a computer-generated voice program she calls Spawn, training it to sing to Herndon’s music on her new album, PROTO.

Hsu then connects Herndon’s work with computers and algorithms to some other movements on the music landscape, including rapper Lil Nas X’s successful maneuver to manipulate the algorithms of pop music charts to create “Old Town Road” (an analysis of top charted songs led the making of this song) and it, of course, has reached the top of the charts.

Further, Hsu notes that a company called Endel is now developing music created only by algorithms to “personalize” a space or environment that, according to Hsu, take ” … into account everything from their (listener) heart rate to the weather and thje time of day.” Endel got signed to Warner.

And Hsu notes that jazz pianist Dan Tepfer is releasing a new album soon called “Natural Machines” in which he plays duets with computer algorithms, in which the algorithms, according to Hsu, are “… designed to respond to his improvisations, producing a more dynamic range of sound than his two hands could make on their own.”

Huh. So, now connecting what I have been reading in the magazine piece to what I have been reading in The Art of Is, a question that keeps popping up into my head is this:

Can algorithms improvise? Will they be able to improvise? What will that mean?

Or is this one of those fault lines between human and machine, where improvisation is an art form that is truly and only human — something that draws from the heart, soul and mind? Or is that statement my own naive thinking, and machines will, if not now then soon enough, come to to learn how to be improvisational machines, creating art in the moment with no pre-programmed instructions? And if so, will we be able to tell the difference?

I’d like to think the first is true — that improvisation is a skill only humans have — and that we will be able to hear and recognize an improvisational solo by machine (Computer vs Coltrane? Saxophonist wins every time … right?) but I am less and less confident on that declaration as the years progress and I see projects like these unfolding.

What do you think?

Peace (I wrote that myself),
Kevin