Synthesis

Up way too early this morning, I was on the InformationSuperNetHighWeb™ and came across this description of the Music Plus One (MPO) project out of the School of Informatics at Indiana U. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Music Minus One (I wasn’t), it’s a program that allows a musician to play along with a computerized musical accompaniment:

MMO makes a recording of a piece of music for soloist and accompaniment, such as a sonata or concerto, where only the accompaniment is actually recorded. The music is prefaced by several warning clicks (something like Lawrence Welk’s “and a one and a two and a …”), and the soloist tries to play along with the recording. A heartfelt yet futile battle of wills follows which eventually results in the live player’s unconditional surrender to the robotic insistence of the recording. Thus, contrary to both musical etiquette and common sense, the soloist must follow the accompaniment.

By comparison, the goal of MPO is to put the human in control, instead providing a computerized accompaniment that follows the musician’s cue:

 . . .the program must respond in real time to the soloist’s tempo changes and expressive gestures; the program must learn from past performances so that it assimilates the soloist’s interpretation in future renditions; and it must bring a sense of musicality to the performance in addition to what is learned from the soloist. In this way MPO *adds* to the soloist’s experience by providing a responsive and nuanced accompaniment rather than *subtracting* from it by imposing a rigid framework that stifles musical expression. 

I’ve added emphasis there to the bit that I find most wonderful. I imagine the goals of MPO as potentially a much larger metaphor for how we should be interacting with digital technology.

Unfortunately, all too often technology seems to be engineered to take us by the ear and pull us along some predetermined path. I can’t tell you how often I feel like I’m being bullied by technology. I know that’s a pretty irrational sentiment, but it’s the best way to describe how I feel when I try to figure out how to get Novell GroupWise (our institutional email system) to work for me. And, I’m a more advanced user! It’s no wonder so many people (faculty? students?) approach technology with a whole lot of skepticism.

(And, by the way, for the record, for what it’s worth, it can be pretty exhausting having to bridge the huge abyss that that skepticism generates!)

So, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that instead the technology should be following us, responding to our tempo and rhythm — providing opportunities and approaches for doing what we want to do better and thinking more deeply about what we want to think about.

And that’s what I set out to write about in this post. But, as I started writing, I changed my mind. See, I suspect an experienced musician would read this and say that when musicians play together they are actually seeking some kind of shared experience of leading and following, that they are constantly judging, gauging, and adjusting based on their shared readings of each other’s tempo and rhythm, that they are, in fact, reaching some kind of state of synthesis. Is that true? And, if so, what would it feel like to be in that state with technology?