Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Collaborators reunite for posthumous collaboration

Why do people enjoy music? Why are people so easily hypnotized?

Hypnotism and music are both by-products of tribalism. Modern music -- delivered through earbuds and headphones on buses and trains -- is private, but music is traditionally public, synchronizing a social group, creating common emotional and even physiological experiences. The evolutionary justification is that tribes formed around rhythmically and melodically evoked emotional states: songs bound people together into one organization if not organism.

Though commercialized, music remains deeply connected with politics and religion. Without spending too much Adorno-time, the psychological/political implications of simplistic rhythms and melodies -- and their ready utilization by systems trying to suppress creative thought (think, for example, of the Soviet fondness for the Nazi composer Carl Orff), are noteworthy, and should cause us to question the harmlessness of popular music.

The relationship between music and the psychological experience of transcendence is a deep subject -- a lot of the pleasure of music comes from the creation and modification of an expectation -- you start to fall into a political trance, but then the composer solves the problem in an unexpected yet somehow inevitable way. The violation of expectation opens a crack, and through that crack, you might even see God. Leaving Adorno decades behind, we can gesture towards Empson, and the idea that ambiguity is part of the pleasure of an aesthetic experience.

If an individual can't build contradictions into his own work, art produced by a collaborative effort often has the same complexities found in the works produced by the highest order of genius. Thus McCartney and Lennon were both utter mediocrities on their own, but when McCartney's superficial cheerfulness was yoked to Lennon's art-school "profundity", the product came very close to genius. A collaborationist work becomes a koan, with each partner contributing the element that undermines the other, with the totality demonstrating the futility of a unified intellectual approach to the world.

What follows is an experiment: Can one blend the emotional states of two audio files and create a composite file that retains traces of both emotional states? Create a posthumous Lennon-McCartney mashup? Will that result have aesthetic value and political interest? Using R and tuneR, it is not difficult to detect the periodogrammatic rhythmic signature of a speech pattern. Using the SoX package, it's easy to stretch tempo while preserving pitch. Why not unspool a musical piece at rate of a person's speech?

Cortot and Furtwaengler were Nazi sympathizers whose music is accepted as transcending their unsavory associations. Cortot's rendition of the first set of the Chopin Etudes is a catalogue of emotional states and keys, unsurpassed by subsequent interpreters. Cortot collaborated during his lifetime, so it is appropriate to match his performance of the etudes to rhythms from a speech by Adolf Hitler. Combining the extreme emotional sensitivity and psychological purity of Chopin with the rigid degeneracy of Hitler as a way to underscore the moral idiocy of Cortot, puts fascist speech in the service of creating an anti-fascist consciousness -- the psychological consequence of shifting, unpredictable rhythms should produce the opposite effect of Hitler's hypnotic meters.

The provisional results are musically interesting. The cross pollination of all the public musical works with all the public domain speech patterns far exceeds the volume of existing copyrighted musical works. If anyone is interested in continuing the experiments, I'll put the R script on github.