Plenty of people who work in technology are musicians. Plenty of humans are musicians, and all of us are listening, even those who cannot hear. In my travels through datacenters and software, I have come across musicians like myself who have not only done double-duty with their computer science and creative lives but also relate and interweave them. If they’re like me, they cannot break them apart. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of us. We all have different stories, came into the worlds of music and of technology from different angles and different backgrounds.
I’ll hazard a guess that when you think about the words music and technology together, it’s likely you’re thinking about music technology. This isn’t surprising, a great deal of music technology surrounds the production, performance, and recording of music. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), studio recording, guitar pedals, analog control voltage synthesizers, DJ decks, Ableton Live, Max/MSP, Joe Armstrong running Erlang on Sonic Pi… the list goes on and gets fractally esoteric. All great examples of technology facilitating the art of music, but I’m interested in what’s happening the other way around.
The original impetus for this post was a comment someone made that raised an eyebrow… it made me briefly question the ideas I have about the field of resilience in distributed systems somehow relating to music. But humans share such an indisputably organic relationship with music and musical training that I knew I wasn’t just some crazy person, the connection was there and it was real. How else do I have the job I have now? This pushed me to want to find others that share my views on the close relationship music has with software and operational reliability.
Take Chloe Condon (Dev Advocate at Microsoft), a self-described recovering musical theatre actress. Now, my musical theatre training and tastes are preeetty specific, but I can relate. She pulls her theatre training into her work unforgivingly, and that is awesome because I fear that. Inspiringly passionate about the connections between her performing arts expertise and working in tech.
Recently chatting with her at SCaLE, Chloe clued me in about someone close to my wheelhouse: “Opera Singer turned Software Engineer” Catherine Meyers. Her Mozart could’ve been an Engineer talk correlates music theory and counterpoint to building software. She emphasizes the similarities of pattern recognition between the two disciplines, especially as it relates to learning. Preparing a new piece or constructing a score interpretation is 100% relatable to the software engineer learning a new language or building in a new framework. I especially love how she emphasizes the importance of having different types of minds together in one group, in other words, don’t be afraid to hire a music major.
These folks that are trained in synchronizing common ground through the experience of playing in musical ensembles carry a distinct advantage. Diversity and communication are the trademarks of both successful musical groups and software teams. Establishing common ground through shared learning is crucial to the modern team building and operating distributed software. It is obvious to me that ensemble music not only relates to complex systems but also to highly coordinated teamwork, to wit:
I’ve conducted marching bands, wind ensembles, and jazz bands... They are complex, highly interdependent systems.
This couldn’t be more true! I have been in an experimental vocal trio, a free improv quintet, a blues band, a jazz group, an early music ensemble, a 330 piece marching band, uncountable operas with full orchestra and cast, chorales of few to many, piano accompanists by the dozen. There is nothing in any of these situations that doesn’t require common ground and shared experience.
In her blog post, The Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming, Jessica Kerr (Lead Engineer at Atomist) introduces the concept of symmathesy, a state of collaboration that is integrated with learning, all as part of the system (even the tools are team members). She does so by taking us back to the foundations of modern opera in Italy, adeptly adopting the term ‘camerata‘ from the Florentine Camerata example she uses, applying it next to social circles of painters and artists in later centuries, and then to teams creating software. She considers how our mental models evolve and how common ground is reached through the shared experience of a varicolored team from all sorts of different backgrounds, ultimately making the team more powerful. “We are developing whole new ways of being human together” she states, and to me, that’s nowhere more clear than with multi-disciplinary collaboration.
The CS / Math / Music crossover is clearly one I have encountered a lot, from early on. While I was studying voice and music technology in undergrad, I vividly remember walking with a good friend in downtown Blacksburg, and her saying to me “I could never major in music, there’s too much math.” I used to laugh at this because there’s really only as much math as that you wish to encounter. Want to dive into tempered tuning and Kepler’s mathematical ratios for perfect fifths? Go for it. But you know, these days I look at that statement through different lenses. Yes, there is just enough math! And if you study music, you may run the risk of studying computer sciences. * Please be aware that some practitioners of both have reported sudden bouts of inspiration and lightheadedness due to euphoric discoveries that cross disciplines.
On the subject of cross-discipline study…
I find a lot of what of I learned in music performance transfers directly to public speaking.
As a student of opera, I couldn’t agree more. Long ago I had a theatre teacher tell me “you will never be happy not onstage.” I didn’t know what she meant until I myself experienced exactly the same kinds of challenges and rewards with giving talks and public speaking as I did singing Mozart or Fauré in front of large audiences. I discovered that my experiences onstage presenting music are exactly the same headspace as when I’m talking in front of a room of computer people about distributed systems.
When I gave my talk Measuring Distributed Databases Across the Globe at Southern California Linux Expo 13x (2015), a very enthusiastic artiste-cum-techie approached me afterward. They had decided to move into software engineering after art school and said my talk, which combines theories and ideas in music with those of observing and operating huge distributed databases, was inspiring. They had been trying to reconcile their internal ‘artistic identity and self’ with their passion for coding, and I had opened their eyes to a new way of considering it.
I will never forget this. It was exactly like having someone come up after one of my experimental music performances (which are also heavy with technology) being blown away and asking how things worked. Even if one mind out of a thousand is influenced by what I’m doing, whether it’s music or technology, I’m building the camerata through sharing.
Eureka! The audience contributes to symmathesy, too. There are tons of examples; the feedback of a crowd during a DJ set, participants of David Tudor’s Rainforest, someone opening a candy wrapper at the symphony. There’s no getting away from the audience, however small. John Cage preached throughout his career as an avant-garde composer: listeners are participants. Every performance is something new because there are different people in different places every single time. The title of this piece is a play on Cage’s Musicircus, an amalgamation of disciplines and performers occupying the same large space together with the audience.
So consider the sheer experience of music and how it feels oddly in-step with how we think about technology, and take it one step further. Many of us trained in the practice of music consider it so much a part of our bones that it seeps into our work, we don’t have a choice, the pattern recognition pathways seem to match up. They fit into our psyches in a comfortable way, share the same affinity for abstractions, incorporate complex and overlapping systems that stretch the human capacity for comprehension.
Do I have an aptitude for music because I’m successful in understanding the practical application of complex things? Or do I have an aptitude in technical operations because I have been trained in music and theatre arts? Doesn’t it make sense that the diversity of music is a human quality, not a disciplinary one? Why should our work as computer scientists, software engineers, database operators, and network gurus be any different?
Temple Grandin talks about the world needing all kinds of minds. In her view, different people fall amongst three “categories” of thought: Picture (common on the autistic spectrum), Pattern (code, math, music), and Verbal (writers). It resonates with me a great deal because I always feel like I’m thinking in ways others are not. More specifically, though, it underlines how different styles of thinking can bring entirely new perspectives on a particular question, and how crucial diversity is to human endeavor, if not evolution itself.
This post started out as me being passionate about a subject and wanting to search for others who were. I had some bullet points of my own to insert, but as I searched and connected with others in the field, I learned new things and this blog transformed from a list of Twitter handles to real human relationships. I have grown to understand what Kerr means when she says that ideas are for sharing and collaboration, not hoarding and heroism. I for one am claiming my spot in the camerata that pushes us forward through a New Renaissance.
In no particular order, post 10 of your favorite albums, one per day, which made an impact on you. Post cover, no explanation, nominate someone each day to do the challenge.
I think these games are fascinating windows into peoples’ aesthetic, but because of FB’s sorting and selection criteria, I see maybe TWO of a particular friend’s ten-albums-once-per-day series. So, if I am taking the time to compile, I want to make sure you see them all. Plus I’m all into the cross-platform sharing thing and doing this on my blog helps me spread the word of good music (and keeps me writing). And being a DJ there are plenty of previously posted lists, check out previous blogs for more of my listening habits and recommendations.
One final note: this was fucking hard, and I had to mostly stick with certain genres (I can’t even begin to describe the numbers of vocal music recordings that have influenced me, for example). To cull influential albums down to 10 is worth the challenge alone… indeed, mine goes to 11. It could be an entirely different list tomorrow. Nevertheless, every one of these has a story (and not necessarily musical ones), but in keeping with the guidelines of the challenge, they will remain untold… for now. 🙂
Back in the mid 90’s before I ever got into techno music, I owned the original VHS copy of Peter Greenaway’s 1983 release 4merican Composers (natch, “Four American Composers”) and watched it constantly while in music school; I think I probably saw the Cage movie no less than 10 times.
As a honorable musicologist is want to do, I lent my copy out to a friend who had never heard of any of them, but then never got it back because of moving across the country. So I’ve been searching high and low for higher quality versions of these videos.
It is way out of print, but you can still find the VHS version… they’ve been released on DVD in Europe, but only in PAL format. In the digital age, this is unacceptable for me, so I finally came across someone who ripped the videos and I now have – albeit in relatively lowres VHS-sourced AVI files – all four on my iPod. The quality is what you’d expect from a 30-year old VHS tape, but it’s not horrible.
I’ve been struggling about whether to post them myself, but today Ubuweb has answered my prayers and posted all of them for me (lo and behold, the quality is no better than my collected AVI files, I suspect they may have procured them from the same source).
So here they are, I highly recommend… they are the greatest films about avant garde music you’ll ever find anywhere:
Incredibly, when I was a young boy I assumed everyone was supposed to know everything. It wasn’t until I was probably 30 that I realized things are meant to be learned and practiced, never known outright or assumed to be perfect.
But I spent a long time growing up thinking the opposite, that because I didn’t know something meant I couldn’t belong.
When I was thirteen, between finishing The Lord of the Rings and discovering Playboy, I locked onto a character in David Eddings’s The Belgariad; a wizardly type bloke who espoused silence and the ability to listen, leaving speech to those who knew not how to think. I locked step, it made sense. There wasn’t ever a time I felt like speaking up in a crowd, my opinions didn’t seem that important, and for some reason my brain always seemed busy doing other things, so speaking up is never a real priority for me.
What does this mean in the long run? There are a lot of times when I think I am incubating some genius, that there is buried deep within my soul a discovery I could only make by living this long… up until now nobody has caught on, if I am truly guided by intuition. Or am I? I wonder if I have already encountered my own Fitzcarraldo, or if it has yet to come; my instinct is that it is in the near future.
Even so it scares me to jump into something as if it were the last promontory of the final peak of some long meandering cliffside where I haven’t learned anything but where to go next, can I reach that handhold just beyond my grasp. There are moments where I can see clearly into the future, precisely recognize a moment or passion, but it soon falls away into a sense of loss, where I cannot understand the pathway to that end.
I happen to be a voracious reader. I would probably write more if I didn’t read so much. One thing I’ve noticed is the tendency to obsess on a single writer’s work: someone or something will turn me on to a specific author, I’ll read one of his or her works, and immediately want to read everything they’ve ever done. On occasion I accomplish this, but sometimes the task is simply too great.
Currently I’m on an Arthur C. Clarke (CBE) trip, embarking with Childhood’s End after recently finishing Rendezvous with Rama. To be honest these purchases were inspired by Clarke’s death in March of 2008, when I remembered how he changed my life while a freshman in high school.
It’s pretty interesting how we remember things, especially points in time that present themselves as an immediate recollection, almost painting-like in their clarity. When I first was assigned the task of reading the novel 2001 as a freshman in the remote western mountains of North Carolina, there was some sort of stencil work done on my brain. I recall a very specific day in that classroom, noticing the green of a fresh blackboard, where I was so incredibly thrilled with this fantastic view into the Universe, that I immediately picked up 2010 and kept reading. Probably it was two or three years before I saw the accompanying films.
Then there was William Gibson. I read Neuromancer and was completely hooked: I went through a barrage of Gibson novels right in a row, staying up late into the night when I should have been practicing, but instead being sucked into fantasies of Black Ice and the fast paced action of transient networks and cyberpunk, reality TV and a California civil war, popular meme-based advertising and terrorist plots – the language and ideas all resonate with me strongly.
But perhaps this was all an extension of my admitted affairs with the art and writings of William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles (his Wikipedia entry curiously devoid of photographs); authors whose catalog I have yet to extinguish but to whose prose I am drawn. Bowles holds a special place with me because I really got into his compositions for voice, singing many of them in recitals. My next multi-book adventure will be The Red Night Trilogy, parts of which I’ve read and even adapted to music.
I’m not sure what it is, but perhaps others have the same sort of drive I do, to explore authors and artists to whatever extent necessary. This leads me to wonder whether these types of minds will always exist, regardless of what we think ‘technology’ is doing to our ability to appreciate non-technical forms of expression. Just because our mediums change doesn’t mean the human spirit has lost the ability to create beauty.
It’s been a while since I’ve sincerely blogged, as I’ve been somewhat obscured by computing lately. You’d think with all these computers around me, I’d be blogging all the time; but what I really want is less of them around me so that it feels like something more special than just another thing I do on the computer.
For example, this weekend was my birthday weekend (born in 1971, for those counting), and it felt very good going on “computer silence” for two days after the Friday night party. In fact, I didn’t do much of anything except plan my set for next Saturday, play Super Mario Bros Wii, and work through the pileup of recorded Showtime serials with my wife.
A good deal of people I know that make music on computers do so as a second life to their work day on them. Multitasking on computing problems at the same time as applying yourself creatively – and otherwise using software, interfacing with recording gear, attached hard drives, sound drivers, etc… all while you’re also concentrating on finishing that perl script for your job (if you’re lucky enough to be in an environment where your work computer can double as a creative tool), and of course keeping up with “the scene” in blog format or forums or twitter and social networks, not to mention keeping up with what feels like an exponentially growing volume of album releases – is not a very sustainable way to work.
Switching between brain processes like this often makes me feel fractured, like I am not quite in touch with the things that I identify with creating art. The myriad problems of computer technology are an infinitely complex layer of interaction which I can frankly do without. The irony of this is that before I went into a highly disciplined performance school, I had a “designed” undergrad major in music, focusing on Composition and Music Technology (a type of degree that’s now been heavily formalized in many universities, and is no longer rare at all). From that point forward, technology became a very important part of my musical description.
At some point, however, technology took over. It’s taken me many years to see in retrospect that what I was doing isn’t quite what I loved to do as a performer and an artist, and splitting my attention between things wasn’t helping my attempts at doing great things. As an extension of that, I believe my will to do original things was diminished by the layer of complexity and confusion brought on by an intervening computer operating system. Pretty soon, the issues I faced in my day-job became the same issues I faced in music making on the computer, and it wasn’t long that I couldn’t handle that union of cognitive space. I’ve now found myself not wanting to open a computer at all after I get home from work.
This may have a lot to do with circumstantial things: my day-job work environment isn’t great (bright fluorescent lamps, no privacy, high stress when on-call, poor management, general chaos), and I’ve had to sideline my musical activities in lieu of getting back up to speed on things I need for this job. When I get home, I don’t want to do much except unravel from the day, my motivation to create is low – not necessarily because I don’t want to make music, but because the enormous task of what to do with it after I’m done isn’t something I feel like dealing with any longer.
So I’m looking forward to this week in particular: in the coming days I’ll continue preparation and practicing for my set on 12/12, where I can just play music and not worry about computers in the process. I have some hurdles to overcome – fixing/patching the new modular so that at least *some* of it works, paring down the complexity of my instruments – so I will be forced to focus on music in the way I love: brainpower in the pursuit of creativity.
at times i get overwhelmed by possibilities. the details drag me down, and i lose sight of the path. what causes this?
for instance, what music do i choose to write? do i use electro-acoustic elements, or do i stick to raw sound design? do these ways of working always produce the same results, even though i cannot hear them? do i limit myself by focusing on a working method that could easily shift into tunnelvision? why is it i think like this in the first place, because i hear opportunities of sound in what others are doing? because, hey, that’s a great sound, why didn’t i think of that?
we artists ask these questions. it takes a lot of self-confidence to go out there and sell yourself, but i’m still not sure what it is i do that makes my music what it is. i certainly try to find unique, DIY, individual ways of doing things, but i turn the corner and find someone building it better. some of the electronics instrument/effects building going on around the electronica community blows me away.
but what makes the music change? how does it develop? we’re moving into a world where musical styles – and listening – is more and more splayed, there are almost as many “genres” as there are individuals making music.
there is still something in the music that grabs the mind. it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what “inspiration” or “genius” a particular piece contains, to different folks these mean completely different things. i usually can’t locate it in my own work, i certainly don’t know where it happens or how to identify it. regardless, it shows up.
so, in a very real way, it doesn’t matter what it is i do, or how i do it, just that it is me doing it, in the most genuine way i can.