From the editors

What good was it to be “a great composer,” the ROMANCE WAS GONE. There was no longer the old joy of sitting in the studio, writing out, and recording these tunes, if 5 minutes later they could be elaborated, and developed into works of great symphonic proportions by machine intelligences! Frankly, what good was a composer’s human brain, when scores for pattern re-arrangement in the many styles of music, excellent programs for “personalizing” one’s own sequences, and clever novelty features, were all written. What did a composer do now? What could be composed that would not be so quickly and easily imitated and developed? THIS BECAME THE REAL CHALLENGE.1

Unsurprisingly, the best thinking on music today was done by Maryanne Amacher nearly 40 years ago. The problem with “conceptronica” (as coined by Simon Reynolds2) is not some silly opposition between music and ideas,3 it’s that “conceptronica” is simply another subgenre of Shopping Cart “Experimental” - that is, it shares a fundamental assumption about what “music” is along with that which it is supposed to oppose. Obviously, “musics” are always also ideas,4 and (as Chris Mann would remind us5) “ideas” are always also musics. But the obviousness of this isn’t easy - it doesn’t allow us the simple binarisms upon which still so much music and music writing rely - it requires us to face the inseparability (but also the inherited historical mess of understandings) of thinking and sensation.

[C]omposers had to face something even more DISTURBING, that writing these melodies, or “germs” to be developed -- the main activity of most composers -- was NO LONGER that profoundly CREATIVE, after all! [...] The unsettling truth was that most approaches to creating music, BEGAN with EXISTING FIGURES -- melodies snatched from the great fragments of MUSICAL MEMORY! What composing usually amounted to, was a re-arranging and modifying of these patterns, i.e., OTHER MEN’S TUNES, and giving them a PERSONALIZED SEQUENCE IN TIME. And, the Silicon Composers were now doing this better and faster than they could!6

What is shared by both AI generated musics and the vast majority of music criticism? Not just a quantitative and mechanistic notion of the musical, but all the more crucially, they share an assumption of a quantitative and mechanistic notion of a creative subject - of mind. I arrange bits of (audio) data in time, therefore I am. And regardless of how rarefied and special those particular bits of data might be, the interpretive encounter with them is limited in its (most often) singular, monolithic nature. Co-orchestrated in criticism, this framework reduces “music” to a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy-of-an-assumption-of-the-notion-of-autonomous-music (music meant to be listened to apart from function, apart from social historical spaces, apart from each other). As with the remnants of virulent modernity writ large, try as we may to do otherwise, when “we” say “music,” it’s all but impossible for our utterances to NOT bear the traces of this infection.

For composers to feel “worth anything” the music they now made must explore areas of sensitivity, for which NO SOFTWARE for INSTANT DEVELOPMENT yet existed! Composers had now to GO IN AND LISTEN in ways NEVER DONE BEFORE! They must hear, think, and explore the “unformulated,” where CLUES were still insufficient for synthesis! [/] They had also to try and UNDERSTAND now, in the very deepest sense, “musical memory” -- how music’s many tunes, and melody traces matched “listening mind’s” memory traces -- rather than simply snatching these melody fragments out of the air, and re-arranging them in time. [...] They re-charged their special musical sensitivity to INVENT.7

The purpose of a perfect AI musical simulacra would be, as Jonathan Sterne recently phrased it, to benefit “people who are currently paying musicians who don’t want to pay them.”8 But what can be revealed in IMPERFECT simulacra, beyond the biting uncanniness of the ease with which both music AND music criticism can be outwritten by “Silicon Composers?” How can a vast technical mechanism created to generate ever more of the same dull content be re-used as a means to approaching invention, imagination? What if we were to use the absurd combinatorics of quantitatively generated data as a means to trick ourselves into qualitative change?

The AI generated music criticism that is the basis of Issue 5 differs in one significant regard from Amacher’s notion of “Silicon Variation-Maker Scripts”: our computer model is intentionally left under-developed in its analysis of source material to emulate (a few years of reviews from the Wire, Pitchfork, etc.). Instead, our technology utilizes a model highly-trained on the vernacular English of the Internet.9 The result is a fracture - the world around us seeping into the language space of “experimental music’s” hermetic formalism. A gesture that might be read as a bemused variation on John Cage’s opening the windows to let the world outside into the music...

The MUSIC INDUSTRY is in turmoil. People really want to experience NEW SOUND WORLDS because they have discovered the joy and value of creating new SYNAPTIC PATHWAYS. They know well the thrill of growing stronger, as new nerve tissue is synthesized.10

[…] They realized the best thing they had going for them now was their SENSITIVITY, and they HAD to use it. They HAD to IMAGINE, and they HAD TO STRETCH THIS IMAGINING or they would be “duped” within hours! The crisis was such, that it seemed they had to summon even MOLECULES coded for human perception! Keeping a stiff upper lip, THEY MOVED FORWARD, and sharpened their antennae! Gradually they began OPENING MIND CHANNELS which habituation, and musical conditioning had SUPPRESSED for many, many years. Consciously tapping the listening response codes with their music, they cultivated the growth of “listening minds.”11

The sum total of our collected reviews is a reflection of contemporary music criticism, but one rendered foreign and unfamiliar. Spending time with the artificial world mapped in Issue 5, with its networks of alien, virtual artists doing strange things around the sonic, there’s a glimmer of a throwback to a time in our own histories- to moments when our own naivety precluded a concretization of our notions of “music” - when music criticism was exciting and thrilling.

Obviously what Issue 5 has invited and has prompted are yet more streaming bits of compressed audio data. But in the play of an experience of a pleasure of not being ourselves without play-acting being an other - of not knowing what one is - a pleasure of transformation, perhaps we indirectly rediscover something of the sensitivities Amacher describes? Which is to say: that maybe the pleasure of the task spurred on by the pleasure of humor and one’s identification with a particular “review” touches a moment of imagination in which even “music” as such (in its zombie hegemony) is for a moment suspended.

The question would be how to proceed, how to hold onto that which exceeded the calcified formula, how to understand that what one has created here is also not just the re-arrangement of data in time, but a synthesis of idea and matter - an activity of “listening mind.” We hope our readers find this issue invigorating, with, or toward, the pleasure of imaginative new sound worlds reshaping our very consciousnesses.

  1. Maryanne Amacher, Intelligent Life, from the section called, “BACKGROUND LEADING TO THE CURRENT MUSICAL CLIMATE - SUMMARY: WHAT HAPPENED TO MUSIC,” p.76 


  3. As in Derek Walmsley’s recent editorial in Wire, Dec. 2019. 

  4. “Obviously” at least in so far as we imagine our EWE readers might be less inclined to cling to old cliches like “music as a universal language,” or the notion that music and discourse are somehow not only distinct but antithetical.  

  5. Approximately, anyway - “If speech is a kind of music, how does that impact politics?” was how Chris Mann stated it at Triangle Arts Association in 2018’s Literacy of the Throat (with Hong-Kai Wang & 1/2 of your editorial team)  

  6. Amacher, ibid., p.78 

  7. Ibid., p.83 



  10. Amacher, ibid., p. 67 

  11. Ibid., p.84