Playing Guarde

Music Metacreation and the Vanguard

by Alan Ranta

8 February 2012

(artist unknown) 

When Machines Can Build Machines Endowed with Creativity

In this system, funding decisions are often dependent on the production of academic papers. As Eigenfeldt notes, “In order to get research money, you have to prove that you’re doing something that’s research based. They don’t necessarily take the final product into account. The types of things that are going to get funded are things look good on paper.”10 Thus, engagement with the public is not emphasized, and the academic environment becomes insular. Professors in the arts may become complacent, largely repeating works or recycling artistic concepts to produce projects that “look good on paper”.

While Eigenfeldt’s work is not political in the sense of being critical of academic or artistic institutions, he remains open to the influence of popular music, and cares a great deal about audience reaction. Practically all of his pieces have been performed at conferences, concerts, and festivals. While Eigenfeldt is dependent on the grant system for funding, thus realistically neutralizing much of the potential for politicization against the university, his refusal to become complacent within his own artistic process can be seen as a political act at least partially in line with Greenberg’s definition of the avant-garde. However, it is likely that Bürger would see Eigenfeldt’s financial dependency on the institution as “neutralizing the political content” of his work. 

On the other hand, for Bürger, the avant-garde is was a more ephemeral concept. He notes that the attack by the historical avant-garde on the institution of art failed to unite the institution with the practice of life. It maintained its untouchable distance. Bürger sought to reunite the praxis of art with the praxis of life, which makes the contemporary avant-garde a process of constant evolution.

In this connection, Eigenfeldt’s work is generative, created in real time, making it arguably tied to the “praxis of life” as it happens. Many of Eigenfeldt’s works are directly influenced by the actions of the crowd and live performers, modulated by the living moment. In his Theses on the Cultural Revolution, Guy Debord proclaimed that the “goal is immediate participation in a passionate abundance of the variation of fleeting moments resolutely arranged.” Indeed, many of Eigenfeldt’s programs are designed to resolutely arrange various fleeting moments, truly in the moment.

Bürger also describes the relationship between “shock” and “newness”. These notions are not specific only to art, though. Any society, in general, can only survive if it sells the goods that it produces. 11 As such, consumers are constantly bombarded with shock, with appeals to the newness of products. 12 However, there is nothing that loses its effectiveness more quickly than shock, while newness merely means variation within the narrow, defined limits of genre.

Eigenfeldt also conceives of a future application for his works in the realm of video games, where pieces could be generated based on the actions of the player. This would bring metacreative music closer to the “praxis of life” in the 21st century, since video games are now a bigger market than film. Although, if and when that happens, that would also become part of the norm, an expectation of people hungry for distraction, and as the newness of generative music faded, so would their impressiveness and impact.

New Avant-Garde, New Media

Lev Manovich’s major contribution to the discussion was his 2001 book, The Language of New Media. Where Greenberg focuses his discussion on poetry and painting while largely ignoring film and music, and Bürger more or less follows suit while largely denying or ignoring entire movements such as Dadaism and Futurism, Manovich approached the theory of the avant-garde with an absorbing contemporary mindset, placing new media within the context of “the most suggestive and broad ranging media history since Marshall McLuhan”.13

In The Language of New Media, Manovich does not focus his analysis on the concept of the avant-garde but outlines the development of what he refers to as “new media objects”. Manovich prefers the term “objects” to “product” or “artwork”.  According to Manovich’s expansive definition, a new media object may be a “digital image, a digitally composited film, a virtual 3D environment, a computer game, a self-contained hypermedia DVD, a hypermedia Web site, or the Web as a whole.”14 The realization and perception of new media objects are affected by or dependent on five general principals: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding.

Numerical representation is a base level parameter, since all computer data can be reduced to ones and zeros, making it the genetic code through which all digital information is stored and communicated. Modularity refers to the “fractal structure of new media”, as the different elements of new media exist independently. A useful example Manovich gives for this is an HTML document. 15 An HTML document may use images, media clips, movies, and other media stored in a variety of locations, yet brought together through language commands to a computer into a perceivably singular form.

Through the use of the first two principles of numerical coding and modular structure emerge the distinct yet comparatively similar concepts of automation and variability. Automation is where new media objects are created and/or modified through templates and algorithms. Variability refers to the multiplicity and mutability of new media objects. Where traditional paintings are permanent once fixed to a canvas, and copies can only be made as identical albeit slightly weaker references to the original, new media objects “can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions.” For variability, Manovich again refers to the example of a Web page, where a computer, guided by human commands, assembles the final form of a page, and humans are free to purposefully alter the results through the HTML language.

Manovich’s final principal is transcoding.16 This is an observation of how the understanding and representation of our identities are influenced by the logic of the computer. Manovich outlines two layers of affluence: the media/cultural layer and the computer layer. His example to distinguish the two layers is that of a digital image, be it a GIF, JPG, BMP, etc. When a person views the image, they see a reference to human culture. The representation enters a dialogue, as the image relates to similar images the person has seen or to real world object events or objects.

Yet, the image simultaneously exists as a file, as ones and zeroes, on the computer, which presents the image by decoding the formatted language in which it was written, specifying its size and color. The image takes up space on the computers hard drive, and must then enter a dialogue with the rest of the information stored there. Superficially, one may notice “LOL” and “OMG”, abbreviations developed for ease of texting and forum chatting, now being a part of the everyday English language as an instance of transcoding, but the larger implications deal with the ways in which we process information and, in turn, program computers.

True to Manovich’s principals, Eigenfeldt is engaged in the production of new media objects. Modularity can be seen in the use of different agents “coming together” to create singular works, and the birth of quark agents in the instances of success. This can also be seen in the use of the Genetic Algorithm and “Kinetic Engine” across different applications.

In particular, Eigenfeldt’s objects employ automation and variability to great effect. He uses algorithms to achieve the overall goal of his objects: automation, while he constantly adapts his projects to work with human performers, adding variables to his equations. Furthermore, given his work with Philippe Pasquier and artificial intelligence, he is always playing with the notion of transcoding, teaching computers how to think like humans and, in order to do so, reorganizing his thought patterns to think more like a computer in order to figure out how to teach computers to learn.

The possibilities and ramifications of Eigenfeldt’s work are vast. There may very well be a day when human hands are removed from the situation, where machines can build other machines endowed with creativity. One has to wonder at what point the objects’ agents will truly become artists themselves, capable of avant-garde conceptualization. At what point are the individuals who program music metacreation avant-garde artists?  Or does that determination depend on the artistic choices of the metacreative agents?

Some may see metacreative art as a threat to humanity’s pursuit of artistic expression. Indeed, as these systems continue to perfect, the role of the artist in modern society will be brought into question, particularly given that artistic creativity is one of the intangibles that defines our humanness. However, if human artists are deserving of their title, the result of this fear should be to push their works in more interesting directions, forcing them to be better and more creative to differentiate their abilities from that of machine learning.

There is no reason to fear the works of Dr. Arne Eigenfeldt. His art follows a natural progression in avant-garde music. Taken at face value, Eigenfeldt respects a rich tradition of experimentation with chance processes, from the roots of serial composition planted by Arnold Schoenberg, its expansion beyond the 12-tones by Pierre Boulez, to the organized ‘silence’ and philosophical indeterminacy that runs through the works of John Cage. While the works of those composers are universally recognized as major influences on the development of music, their work was supremely contentious when it premiered, and the work of Arne Eigenfeldt is no different. He creates the opportunity for new music, and lets the chips fall where they may.

1. According to the introduction on the MAMAS website:
2. For example, Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin) claimed to have created a melody-generating algorithm in the late ‘90s, although no one has ever been allowed in his studio to verify.
3. Granular synthesis is a method in which oscillator outputs or sound samples are broken into 10-50 millisecond pieces called “grains”, and are then reorganized to form other sounds (for more info, go to
4. “Max” is a visual programming language for music and multimedia that was developed in the late ‘80s. In the late ‘90s, the ability to process digital audio signals in real time was added to the program’s basic package, hence Max Signal Processing (MSP).
5. Eigenfeldt, Arne and Philippe Pasquier. “A Realtime Generative Music System using Autonomous Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Agents”. Proceedings of 12th Generative Art Conference (2009).
6. Like animal populations, rhythm populations are developed through a combination of necessity and chance, encouraging desired traits to survive while allowing for the possibility of variation, evolution.
7. For more info on the MahaDeviBot, go to
8. Arne Eigenfeldt and Ajay Kapur. “An Agent-based System for Robotic Musical Performance” (Proceedings of NIME 08, 2008).
9. Spectrum analysis breaks a given signal down into amplitude (strength or volume) according to frequency. This information can then be displayed on a graph typically called a spectrogram.
10. Personal interview with Arne Eigenfeldt (March 29, 2011)
11. Peter Bürger. Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.61.
12. One only needs to look at the cyclical generations of Mac products, marked by vague stylistic difference more than actual features, to see this process of newness in action.
13. William Wagner of the UCSB English Department in Telepolis, 2002.
14. Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), p.39.
15. HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language, the language in which most pages on the World Wide Web are written.
16. The literal definition of transcoding is the direct digital-to-digital conversion of one encoding to another (i.e., a ten-minute long song from a CD encoded to the FLAC lossless format is 66.8 MB; the FLAC can then be re-encoded to MP3 with a consistent bit rate of 320, and the resulting file will be 18.4 MB)
Boehmer, Konrad, and Ian Pepper. “Chance as Ideology”. October 82 (1997): p.62-76.
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Debord, Guy, and John Shepley. “Theses on the Cultural Revolution”. October 79 (1997): p.90-92.
Eigenfeldt, Arne. “Coming Together - Negotiated Content by Multi-agents”. In Proceedings of the international conference on Multimedia (MM ‘10) (2010): p.1433-1436.
Eigenfeldt, Arne and Ajay Kapur. “An Agent-based System for Robotic Musical Performance” Proceedings of NIME 08 (2008).
Eigenfeldt, Arne and Philippe Pasquier. “A Realtime Generative Music System using Autonomous Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Agents”. Proceedings of 12th Generative Art Conference (2009).
Eigenfeldt, Arne and Philippe Pasquier. “A Sonic Eco-system of Self-Organising Musical Agents”. Proceedings of EvoMusArt 11, the European Conference on Evolutionary Computing (2011).
Eigenfeldt, Arne and Philippe Pasquier. “Real-Time Timbral Organisation: Selecting samples based upon similarity”. Organised Sound 15 (2010): p.159-166. Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”. Parisian Review (1939).
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
McLuhan, Marshall. Laws of Media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

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