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Re: GG:has the electronic future arrived?

(Yesterday's NYTimes article is now reproduced on
http://www.superconductor.com )

About SuperConductor's "performance" I wrote yesterday:

>Mozart's Piano Concerto K453, 3rd Movement.  Also not too bad, though again
>the large paragraphs don't breathe.  I miss playfulness and whimsy.  But
>biggest oversight is a fundamental element of musical grammar.  The program
>clobbers the resolution note of every appoggiatura (and this movement has
>hundreds of them at the ends of phrases) rather than resolving quietly.
>This error is as musically serious and obtrusive as using the word "the" at
>the end of a sentence, or putTING acCENTS on the wrong syllaBLE.  You'd
>think that given all the trouble they've gone to in this program,
>with regard to dynamics, they'd teach it how to recognize this.

Thinking some more about this and listening to a good performance of the
Mozart concerto K453 (a live recording with Robert Levin at the piano),
another severely lacking element occurred to me.  It can be described very
simply: SuperConductor doesn't improvise.

Even in the most severely detailed and thoroughly notated classical pieces,
in which one is "not supposed to" improvise any new notes, there is still an
element of improvisation at play all the time.  Every performance is
different as the performer reacts to the instrument, the room, any listeners
present, her personal feelings at the moment, and what she had for lunch.
Tempos, accents, phrasing, articulation, and many other elements are subject
to change according to the needs of the moment.  (If the listeners aren't
paying attention, make subtle changes to coax their attention back....)

This principle should be familiar to anyone who has ever had a music lesson.
The teacher or coach suggests, "Try it again and pay attention to X," or
"Give it more Z."  The student mentally focuses on X, or adjusts the Z
parameter in the brain, and plays the piece differently.  If the student is
especially responsive and skilled, the piece comes out sounding *very*
different at only a small suggestion.  The score didn't change, but the
music certainly did.

Musicians who no longer take lessons have trained themselves to give
themselves such suggestions to get the type of performance they want at any
given moment.  For example, at a recording session a musician plays the same
piece several times with different emphases, and then later chooses the take
that was most successful musically (reacting this time as a listener, not as
a player).  At a live performance the musician chooses emphases depending on
what that particular situation seems to need, and depending on an
imaginative assessment of what the listeners are receiving.  Recall GG's
flight from concerts to recordings: he was weary of trying to project the
music with "party tricks" so it sounds convincing at multiple points in the
room.  That's a very real problem for musicians, actors, a public speaker,
anyone on a live stage.

Preparation for a performance is a matter of preparing a whole range of
parameters that can be tweaked as needed at the moment, responding to what's
going on.  Sometimes it's playing all the same notes but in a different
manner; sometimes it's playing some different notes.  It's *not* going to a
practice room, getting something absolutely perfect "as the composer
intended it", and reproducing exactly the same thing in performance.  An
overrehearsed performance is rarely an interesting performance.

The brinkmanship of not knowing exactly how it's going to come out is part
of the joy of playing music.  Every time it's different.  If the composition
is rich enough, it's still interesting after hundreds of performances.  If
it's going very well, the audience is swept up in the sense of adventure and
helps to *cause* some of the on-edge improvisation.

One attempts to simulate this in recordings.  Even though it will sound
exactly the same on replay, there has to be enough human irrationality built
into the performance to make it feel fresh and repeatably rich-textured.  If
one merely gets all the notes right in an objective manner, the result
sounds antiseptic and doesn't stand up well to repeated listening.  The same
result happens if one over-edits a recording...it doesn't feel real anymore.
It might as well be a machine playing.  (The reason we keep listening to GG
recordings is that he was a master at providing a rich texture and a sense
of fresh adventure: there's something to hear and pay attention to every

In a piece such as this Mozart concerto, where the performer *is* supposed
to improvise new notes as well as playing the written notes, SuperConductor
has no imagination.  It just goes through reproducing everything it sees
according to its recipe.  Such a performance doesn't repay close listening;
it only superficially sounds OK.  The program also does not recognize that
the exact same notes at different points in a composition have different
purposes (for example, the way the aria of the Goldberg Variations sounds
different at the beginning and end of a performance).  A human performer,
having lived and aged through the course of the performance, does play
identical notes differently in repeats.  The audience has lived and aged,
too, and needs something different the second time.

It's the irrationality that makes good performances breathe like living
things.  It's a carefully controlled willingness to let tiny random things
happen in the moment, the spark of creativity.  The good musician has a
whole range of "correct" interpretive parameters to choose from as needed,
not just one.  It's a fantastic experience when a performer allows herself
to discover new things about a composition *during* a performance, as it
unfolds: a sensitive listener can sometimes sense when this is happening.

Computers don't have imagination or feelings, they don't sense meaning, and
they don't learn from experience.  That's why computer programs will never
be able to give performances that sound like live musicians, at least until
they are able to adapt from moment to moment to the situation.  Somebody has
to build an artificial flexibility and randomness deeply into the program,
allowing them to simulate human irrationality and adaptability.  Then they
will sound perhaps as good as boring uninspired musicians.

It's still not what the composers intended, unless the composers were
writing explicitly for mechanical reproduction.  (There *does* exist good
music of such a type, for example Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player
piano.  Nancarrow makes mechanical precision a virtue rather than a
liability.  Let the machine play polyphonic rhythms of 3 against 7 against
11 while accelerating at a rate of 2% per minute.  That's what machines are
good at.)

Bradley Lehman, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl
Dayton VA