Playing Guarde: Music Metacreation and the Vanguard

(artist unknown)

To create something or to create something that creates something; that is a question. But if you lead an electric horse to art, does it dream of the avant-garde?

The goal of metacreative artists is to endow computer programs with creative behaviors, to create computer algorithms that have the same ability to make artistic decisions within certain frameworks as human beings. To this end, metacreative artists employ the tools and techniques of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the same used in cognitive and life sciences. 1

Metacreative music composers create virtual performers who can generate new and unique compositions, often in real time, with no assistance from the human composer after the initial programming is complete. Metacreative composers do not just program a computer or machine to play a composition; they create artificial artists. Thus, this area of investigation threatens many traditional artists, and as metacreation develops, the role of the artist and artistic creativity in modern society must be reevaluated. Our methods of expression and evaluation must evolve.

Metacreative artists are arguably on the cutting edge of cultural production, seeking to unite the mechanical with the artistic. However, is it really possible to create a machine that is able to make autonomous artistic decisions? If so, could those artistic decisions ever be considered, not merely competent, but avant-garde? And what would that mean for our perception of human artists?

Algorithmic Composition in Academia

Although some popular artists have experimented with algorithmic composition techniques over the years, 2 much of the work in the metacreative field is conducted in universities. Simon Fraser University's School of Contemporary Music produces some of today's most innovative metacreative projects.

Associate Professor Dr. Arne Eigenfeldt has worked at SFU in various capacities since the mid-'90s, lecturing at the School for the Contemporary Art between the years 2000-2003. During this time, Eigenfeldt worked extensively with methods of sound manipulation and processing, such as granular synthesis 3 and Max/MSP. 4 By 2004, Dr. Eigenfeldt was developing computer software that would generate melodies, harmonies, and rhythms for ambient music, ultimately released through various labels under the name "Raemus", this being his lone venture into the realm of popular music. After that, Eigenfeldt's work became increasingly academic, more concerned with how to achieve art than the final result.

In 2005, Eigenfeldt began developing a software program he named "Kinetic Engine". The program was originally conceived as rhythm generator that would play sound samples as installation art with patrons able to influence the density of its rhythms. In the absence of patron participation, the program would create its own independent rhythmic compositions ranging from one to fifteen minutes in length. (5) We'll come back to that in a bit.

In 2008, Eigenfeldt met Assistant Professor Philippe Pasquier, a computer scientist with the School of Interactive Arts and Technology in SFU's Faculty of Applied Sciences. Pasquier's primary research discipline was in the field of artificial intelligence. Their ensuing collaboration pushed Eigenfeldt's work from a more traditional "interactive" art approach to an exploration of metacreation and computational creativity, the cutting edge of computer programming where computers are endowed with the ability to make artistic decisions.

Together, Eigenfeldt and Pasquier founded an interdisciplinary group known as "MAMAS" (Metacreation Agent & Multi-Agent Systems), which is housed at SFU. With the group's help, newer versions of the "Kinetic Engine" evolved to incorporate several new computer algorithms that pushed the piece from installation art to true metacreation. A harmonic component was added, as well as an evolutionary "Genetic" algorithm, which creates rhythm populations 6 based on the analysis of other music. The program was also integrated with Ajay Kapur's "MahaDeviBot", a solenoid-based drumming robot capable of simultaneously striking and shaking twelve physical percussive instruments. 7 Using the knowledge gained from "Kinetic Engine", Eigenfeldt started developing "Coming Together", which includes two sub-projects: "Freesound" and "Beauty and Truth".

"Freesound" is a generative soundscape composition that features four autonomous artificial "agents". It should be noted that there is a great deal of variation in the definition of an "agent" among metacreative artists, but the view held by Eigenfeldt and Ajay Kapur is, as he explains, "directly related to existing musical paradigms: the improvising musician. Such an agent must have a much higher level of knowledge, but, similar to other multi-agent systems, each agent has a 'limited viewpoint' of the artistic objective, and, as such, collaboration is required between agents to achieve (musical) success". 8 Basically, an agent is a virtual performer, a singular piece of a larger program that possesses its own sense of agency.

In "Freesound", agents are programmed to select and play sound files from a recording database in real time. This means that each "performance" of the piece is unique and unrepeatable. As agents select sound files, each spectrally analyzes 9 their sounds and compares them with those selected by the other agents. This allows the agents to avoid playing the same dominant frequencies of sounds so they do not play over each other. Agents also employ signal processing, whereby they manipulate their auto signals by filtering frequencies out, adding reverberation or processing delays. The piece culminates when the agents produce a series of granulated instrumental tones based on what they've "listened" to during the piece.

The "Beauty and Truth" sub-project is similar to the later versions of "Kinetic Engine" in that agents are used to create musical compositions. However, in "Beauty and Truth", the agents are entirely autonomous in the sense that must "choose" the pitch, rhythm, volume and timbre. As the agents explore the terrain of their musical environment, they converge on related pitches, amplitudes, and timbres democratically, evaluating their collective successes and failures by listening to other agents and judging how well they form melodic phrases. On a macro level, the agents generate communal goals and execute plans to achieve the parameter of a "successful" performance, a successful evolution from random sound to synchronous production.

In the final moments of "Beauty and Truth", if the agents successfully synchronize their artistic efforts, four additional agents called "quarks" are introduced to the piece. The quark agents improvise brief virtuosic flourishes on the emergent harmony and rhythm produced by the first set of agents. The piece will start over shortly after the quark agents appear, or the when the original agents suffer too many failed attempts at synchronicity.

Metacreation: Is It Avant-Garde?

When asked, Eigenfeldt's definition of the avant-garde is typical among most practicing artists. For Eigenfeldt, avant-garde simply means to experiment, to push an art form beyond its current boundaries. Indeed, the French term 'avant-garde' literally translates to 'advance guard' or vanguard, and much of the popular conception of the term ends there. Enter into the dialogue Clement Greenberg, Peter Bürger, and Lev Manovich, three avant-garde theorists who represent different historical eras. Greenberg developed the discussion on avant-garde with his 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Bürger produced a canonical exploration of the term with his "Theory of the Avant-Garde" from 1975, and Manovich brought the discussion into the 21st century with his 2001 book The Language of New Media.

In his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Clement Greenberg defined the avant-garde in opposition to a notion he referred to as "kitsch". He saw kitsch as a product of consumer society, as the "easy stuff" that exacerbates the decline of aesthetic standards, and as a diversion for humanity's increasing capacity for boredom. Both kitsch and academic art are described as calculated, mechanical, and formulaic.

Included his definition of kitsch is academic art, as he stated, "All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch." He saw academic art as a form unable to touch important, controversial issues, and in which the creative act is reduced from inspiration, introspection, and invocation to mere "virtuosity in the small details of form". In other words, academia transforms artists into artisans, who are then absorbed and diluted by kitsch. As this recuperation –as founding Situationist theorist Guy Debord called it– takes place, the function of the avant-garde becomes a rolling wave of innovation, finding "a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence."

That said, a significant concept in Greenberg's essay is the "umbilical cord of gold". He argues that, while the masses have largely ignored the process of cultural development, the avant-garde was almost wholly supported by the elite ruling class. There are many examples of Greenberg's umbilical cord of gold. In Beethoven's time, wealthy patron aristocrats supported serious artists; today, institutions such as art galleries, publishing houses, and universities support artists and their often-extravagant works. Ironically, the avant-garde, armed with an awareness of historical and social criticism to position itself at odds with mainstream society, is almost always attached to it by this umbilical cord of gold.

In many ways, Greenberg's definition of the avant-garde would place Eigenfeldt's metacreative work firmly in the kitsch category. The mixture of computer science and the arts in Eigenfeldt's work is not only academic, but could easily be seen as mechanical and, certainly on a mathematical level, formulaic. Yet, Eigenfeldt's work could be seen as expressing the very tension articulated by Greenberg's comparison of avant-garde and kitsch.

Eigenfeldt's work is not purely artisanal craftsmanship, and obviously far from being the "easy stuff" that Greenberg despised. Though Eigenfeldt clearly uses scientific and mechanistic tools to develop his art, he conceives much of it with public performance in mind, as an art piece not as a computer program. While Eigenfeldt uses algorithms and digital code, technological processes that are clearly the product of consumer society, his works can be seen as questioning the very foundation of artistic inspiration and the human pursuit of art, asking whether a machine can truly be an artist. In this sense, Eigenfeldt's works can be seen as recuperation in reverse, taking commodified, mainstream tools and using them to express a radical idea. Thus, Eigenfeldt may be seen to exemplify Greenberg's definition of the avant-garde.

Peter Bürger notably enters the avant-garde discussion with his 1974 book, Theory of the Avant-Garde. The book weighs and measures much of the discourse produced to the time of its publication, from Adorno to Walter Benjamin. Like Greenberg, Bürger is highly critical of the institution of art, and central to his critique is the notion of recuperation, whereby the art establishment embraces socially critical objects and "neutralizes the political content of the individual work".

Both Bürger and Greenberg refer to role of the institution and its effect on the avant-garde, with Greenberg focusing primarily on academia and Bürger discussing the art establishment more generally. The interaction between the institution and the artist highlights another tension in Eigenfeldt's work, with an emphasis more on the artistic process than the production of actual art pieces.

Eigenfeldt works within the system of a university, and his work is very much affected by Greenberg's umbilical cord of gold. Where artists in the public realm depend on populous support, creating art that brings an audience into concert venues or engaging them in other forms of consumption, Eigenfeldt's projects are largely funded by grants. In order for him to attain grant funding, his work must appeal to juries consisting primarily of artists or academics.

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