Talkin' about my automation
brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Mon May 7 07:19:23 CDT 2007
>From The Sydney Morning Herald (check out the illustration):
Talkin' about my automation
May 7, 2007
Has Pete Townshend created the ultimate computer composer? Will Hodgkinson finds out.
"It sounds like Michael Nyman, doesn't it?" says Pete Townshend as he plays a gloomy slice of music on his laptop. With its gently shifting electronic waves and bleeping rhythms, it does sound like something the British composer might come up with. The track - a long way from the power riffs of the Who - is the result of a project Townshend has been working on for the past 36 years: a revolutionary way of making music called the Method.
We're at Townshend's Oceanic Studios in Richmond, south-west London, and the piece the Who's guitarist and songwriter is playing isn't exactly one of his own, although it might reflect his maudlin but creative personality.
The Method, a program Townshend has created with the composer and mathematician Lawrence Ball and the software engineer Dave Snowdon, makes a listener-created composition. The user enters information into the computer - a photograph, a voice recording, a rhythm and a sound - and a few minutes later the program comes back with a piece of music that reflects the information it has been given.
"The track becomes a reflection of something inside you, the listener," says Townshend. "The listener is an active part of the artistic process."
The piece we're listening to is one of three musical self-portraits that Townshend made by giving the computer different photographs and rhythms each time. "Despite my changing the data I put in, all of the pieces that came back had a plaintive, mournful feel," he says, fascinated, if a little disappointed by this insight into his personality. "But when my girlfriend Rachel had a go, the program produced bubbly music in a cheerful, major key, which is entirely in keeping with her personality. At the risk of sounding pretentious, there is a metaphysical element to this that goes beyond science."
Townshend's entire career has been based on the risk of sounding pretentious. It has also been about pushing rock music into new frontiers. The Method has its genesis in Lifehouse, a film-album-stageshow project that Townshend began in 1970. The essential theme of Lifehouse - a future population is interconnected and fed information by an imperious media conglomerate, like a dictatorial version of the internet - is simple, but Townshend's verbose telling of it rendered Lifehouse too complex for any film company, theatre group, and fellow members of the Who to get their heads around. The project was shelved and some of the songs from it were salvaged for the Who's 1971 album Who's Next, but Townshend never let go of the ideas behind it.
"Who's Next is about the way music works, and how an audience is ostensibly there to see a band but really there to see itself," he explains, recalling how the original script for Lifehouse included a concert by the Who that would free those attending from the shackles of their oppressors. This theme underlines Townshend's conviction that it is the shared energy between performer and audience that gives rock music its power and value.
"It came from an interest in Sufi poetry, that God is an ocean and we are drops in that ocean, and we're all connected. Now we've all got computers and we can all share ideas, so finally the kind of interaction between artist and audience I was writing about in Lifehouse is possible."
Townshend compares the relationship between computer program and user, or band and audience, with that between a painter and their sitter. "Let's say you're Lucian Freud's sitter and you arrive at his studio in a really bad mood," he says. "Your mood is surely going to affect his work. And if you're an attractive young woman and you arrive feeling sexy, who knows? Maybe you get to shag the old sex fiend. It's all part of the artistic process. With the Method, you arrive at the computer in a certain mood. That will affect the data you put in and therefore the music that's the end result."
The music the Method currently creates seems to end up sounding like, well, Nyman. With a dash of Steve Reich. That, surely, cannot reflect every facet of human identity. Could it not produce music that sounded more like, say, the Who?
"Theoretically, it could be done," says Townshend. "Lawrence Ball has written the software to make music that reflects his own taste, but as it develops, we may be able to get this machine to do other things. We're using the software as an instrument."
I suggest that something as impersonal as a computer program cannot possibly express the highs and lows of personal experience that, for example, a maniacal drum solo by Keith Moon could. "But music is just data," counters Townshend. "A word is a word and there is one way to spell it. Music is similar. A song like Won't Get Fooled Again is just a string of zeros and ones on the page, but when the Who perform it live the subjective response of the audience turns it into art. The Method is just a computer program until somebody uses it."
As an idea, the Method is revolutionary. As a way of creating timeless music, it's not easy to be convinced of its value. "This is a ticket to ride, not a shortcut to a masterpiece," says Townshend. "There's no shortcut to being up there with Bach, Beethoven or Charlie Parker. But this might just take you somewhere interesting."
Time to put the Method to the test. After logging on to the website, lifehouse-method.com, and setting up an account, I put in a sound (an E chord on a guitar), a recording of my voice (typical English middle-class), a photograph and a rhythm (the drum break to Wipe Out by the Surfaris). The computer comes back with a piece of music that is calm, stately, cheerful, elegant ... everything I'm not. Perhaps the program has recognised something hidden from the surface, or perhaps, like a savvy fortune-teller, it is giving results that are in its own commercial interests.
With the Method up and running, where will it go from here? "A community aspect is the next stage," says Townshend.
"You can walk down [London's] Oxford Street and feel totally isolated, or feel like a drop in the ocean of humanity. The internet creates an extension of that same feeling, so hopefully the Method will help us re-engage with one another by sharing these musical portraits and elaborating on them together."
Before he leaves, I ask Townshend if he's worried that the Method may be written off as an interesting but ultimately redundant experiment in technology. "It may be a universal language now, but when I started, rock'n'roll was written off as irrelevant," he replies.
"For that reason I'm used to working in a minority and it doesn't bother me. At this stage I'm just hoping people will approach it with an open mind, and that I can finally close the book on my great lost project."
-Brian in Atlanta
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