Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Musical Frontiers

A couple of days ago a message popped up in my Twitter timeline, a suggestion for a blog. It went like this: "Are there any musical frontiers left?"

I thought about this question and rolled it around in my mind. It wasn't a question I immediately liked or one I had any immediate, instinctive thoughts about and that bothered me because, usually, I will have some mental starting point to go from that comes immediately to mind. But not so with this question. So I went to sleep and let it slide for a while. Thoughts will come when they may and there's no use forcing them. The next day I thought about it some more but, still, I wasn't really overflowing with thoughts on the subject and it became clear to me that if I was going to have an answer to this question it probably wasn't going to be on the terms it was asked. That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the answer to the question is to re-frame it and give, instead of a straight answer, a new angle of view from which to approach the subject. What follows is going to be my attempt to do this and my reasoning as to why I need to.

Another way to ask this same question is to ask if anything is really new. Clearly, at some points, the answer to this is yes. We do, for example, sometimes create new genres of music or new sounds. When human beings discovered electricity, for example, it opened a door to electronically amplified sound and, later, electronically engineered instruments. The electric guitar and the synthesizer are both 20th century developments. These instruments have opened up new musical frontiers. And yet, I assume, both of these instruments have their limitations. There is only so much you can do with them realistically. OK, maybe with a modular synthesizer with mixed modules (the more the better!) you maximise your potential for a wide and varied selection of sound creation. But music is not just sounds, its structure too. Even where that structure is a deliberate lack of it. My point here, though, is that technology is one thing that delivers musical possibility. Just as in former centuries manufacturing skill led to the creation of the instruments of the orchestra, giving birth to orchestra music, so the 20th century (and beyond) heralded music made by electronic means or even in new ways made possible by technology. Before the computer music had to be played. These days many people simply draw it and a machine renders it into a coherent whole.

So it seems clear there have been new forms of music, new tools to use and new ways to go about the whole process. Yet my question raises the prospect of this coming to an end. How do I feel about that? Personally, I must express ambivalence towards it. I have have no crystal ball and I cannot tell what someone might invent next. I'm much more of a reactive person here. When I make music I evaluate what resources I have and then I allow myself to be expressed through them. I am not trying to cross a musical frontier or break a boundary into some new musical uplands. My line of sight is not to where human music-making might go next. In fact, I don't see myself or music in such generalized, global terms at all. And this is why this question is somewhat annoying to me as a question. I don't like the way it is expressed and it grates somewhat on the person I am and the understandings I have about the world. These are not at all bad things! New insights, rubbing against opposing viewpoints and scenarios, is what should help the intelligent person to develop and grow themselves. But, even so, I want to answer the question a different way.

Music, in my understanding, is a matter of personal expression. Now I know that not everyone agrees with this. John Cage, for example, would vehemently disagree. But much as I have read, enjoyed and nodded along with much Cage has said, I just feel instinctively that when I make music it is a personal thing, a matter of personal expression. This is what I think and feel I am doing. I might even go as far as to say that my music is a personal statement or validation of self. For some, and I'd include myself, it is even a kind of therapy, a way to help ease our existence in the world. If this is even partly true, or true for you as a music maker, then I fail to see how this connects particularly with the idea of a generalized musical frontier. To go along with this type of understanding is to say that musical output is linked to individual people - as a necessity. So, in that case, even a desire to "cross musical frontiers" would be, at base, just the desire of a particular human being. It would be a personal mission. This in itself, of course, does not completely annihilate the idea of a generalized musical frontier and I've already agreed that our human history is one that includes opening up new kinds of music and new sounds. But, nevertheless, it does seem somewhat at odds with such an idea. It raises the question "What is your music about? What is it for?"

But concentrating on this idea of music as something inspired by and through particular human beings raises another possibility. This is that there might be music that wasn't made by human beings at all. Indeed, only yesterday I remember seeing a couple of references to some piece of music (which I now can't find!) that, so it seemed to suggest, had been entirely composed by a computer. And this seems to me to be a frontier: the human contemplation of music that humans did not make. But something else did. This raises lots of philosophical questions of course. I assume the computer that made the music did so without any feeling at all. It would not know what it felt like to make music and could have no feeling to put into the making of the music. This would be very different to the experience of many music makers. (As I sit here typing I hear a crow cawing outside, nature's music?) But it would still be music if appreciated as such by human listeners. Could one new frontier be, in a generalized sense, that in future music will be something technology generates for itself and we humans just listen to it? But if that were so it would also open up the possibility for humans to "jam" with machines, musically creative machines. In my random thinking I've gone and found a frontier! But is it a welcome one? I also seem to have offered a rider to my belief that music for some is personal. It need not be if an impersonal machine that doesn't even know it is making music can make it too.

But this raises an intriguing question: if machines could make their own music (totally undirected by any human impetus or prompting) then what music would they make? It would be silly and arrogant to think it might be anything like human music since we know that even humans make music in genres and sub-genres that are birthed from specific enculturated contexts. Indeed, I find it hard to theorize how we could even expect to understand machine music as music. Human music, for we must admit there could be non-human forms, is based on human experience of life. This primarily means our physical experience of the world which is limited to a narrow bandwidth of sound (generally taken as 20 Hz to 20 kHz). We know there are sounds that occur above and below these frequencies but they are not a part of our music because we cannot physically perceive them (but we can use them as modulation sources, for example, as an LFO in a synthesizer). This serves to set human music in context as human and to show that others forms would and could be possible. No doubt we will get entirely non-human music and it will be fascinating to hear (if we could hear!) what this sounds like should any of us live long enough to hear it. This would be genuinely new.

But yet I must come back to my own uneasiness with the original question. Although I have now found one possible new frontier I feel within myself that there is a more important point to make. When approaching the question in general we are aware of the broad scope of music, more than any one person has ever made themselves. And this, I think, is my point. For whilst the question of generalized human musical frontiers might be, for me, somewhat moot, when it comes to a personal application of the question it certainly is not. For any musician has only ever really scratched the surface of what they could achieve musically when compared with the whole of their species. There will be so many genres of music, styles of playing, instruments used, sound palettes worked with, that they have just never even tried. This is important because it means that any one musician, or group of musicians, will have what I perceive to be a vast array of possibilities to hand. Its as easy as setting a new course, entering a new musical landscape and saying "Let's see what I can make of this!" And that is tremendously exciting because not only does it mean you can put anxieties about new musical frontiers to one side but it also means that you don't need to worry about them because you personally are always going to have somewhere to go anyway. Have you tried making jazz music? Rock? Funk? Gabba? Electronic Body Music? Working with just percussion sounds? Just flute sounds? Just static noises? Just voices? How many different time signatures have you used? Etc. You can see the list will be endless and as large as your imagination.

I admit that these are the only musical frontiers that I am really interested in and this is because they are the only real ones that practically apply to any actual musician. It may be that in this experimental attitude to music, one I would actively promote, I create something that someone else regards as new. If so, then so be it. But I tend to think this will be achieved more by accident than deliberation. I tend to think you should worry about extending your own range and experience and let the rest take care of itself. It may be that you yourself operate within a fairly limited set of circumstances. Maybe you always use the same sounds or things and just reorganize them in different ways. Well don't!. Stop doing that. Think about new ways to use or apply old things. Determine that your next recording will use a completely different sound set. Even go so far as saying you want it to sound like something using sounds you have not yet made. Use only sounds that you made yourself so you know that each is unique. One thing I can agree with Cage on is that every new piece of music is an experiment, a personal experiment. And while this is so for you as a music maker then every day will be the breaking of a new personal boundary and the crossing of a new personal frontier.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Its Time To Talk About Synthesizers and Sound

A few things floating around in the atmosphere prompt me to write today's blog which is to be about synthesizers and sound. Within the community of folks interested in these subjects there are all kinds of people. Some of these people are worth listening to and many are not. Just as some simply want to be popular, others are more thoughtful and purely artistic. Now the website Sonicstate.com recently published an article called Synthesis Innovation: Are You Sure We Can Handle It? in which the writer made the point that its not actually that easy to design a new synth that breaks new ground. We are, so the point was made, trapped in our conventional understandings of sound and synthesis. And, then again, if someone did make something new we might not like it... because its new and unfamiliar. People, in general, like what they know. This is very true in music and very relevant to Sonicstate.com which publishes a lot of gear reviews (mostly synths) and often the opinions given of anything new or a bit different are critical seemingly, to my mind, because the reviewer is a bit set in his ways. He wants something he knows it seems to me. Yes Nick Batt, I do mean you.

But regardless of the trials and tribulations necessary to create a new, groundbreaking synthesizer, something most of us will never be involved in anyway, there is a further question about new sound. And in the comments under this article the discussion turned more towards that. This is something I'm very interested in both as a music maker myself and as the host of the Electronic Oddities Podcast in which I often purposefully look for music no one has ever heard before and make a podcast out of it. I am greatly satisfied by doing this because, first of all, its exactly about finding something I've not heard before. Its about the refreshment that comes from something new. And I love this feeling that this music I'm hearing is not familiar, not using all the hackneyed old tropes and not something that could be played on TV or radio outside a dedicated show called "alternative" or something like that. A lot of this music is never going to be popular and certainly not mainstream. But that is its attraction. Its the attraction of the different. Its a counter culture. It is here you go if you want new, different, other, wild, crazy, alternative or strange.

But yet when discussing this with regular folk such as one might find in public forums I become very frustrated because most people do not think this way. To most people music is a tune about 4 minutes long with singing involved if possible. This is the kind of music that is "commercial", the kind that "pays the bills". But, I ask myself, what has music got to do with paying bills? Well for some people, I admit, it has a lot to do with it. But this isn't necessarily so. Music is just arranged sound and silence at the end of the day and money has nothing to do with it. One respondent to the article I mentioned talked about the stock sounds that come with synthesizers and made the point that such sounds are used by "successful producers". But is being a "successful producer" a musical ambition or a commercial one? The two are not the same thing. Being a "successful producer" is what I would call setting the musical bar as low as humanly possible. There is a reason most successful musical acts are not known for their musical innovation. Of course, a few slip through the net. They manage to combine innovation and creativity with popularity. But mostly not. They are the front for a bank of producers and 15 song writers. In my view most really exciting and interesting music has barely even been heard. And you have to find it yourself.

Now synthesizers are merely devices for making sounds. But it seems that often they make the same or similar ones. Of course, this problem will get exponentially worse as time passes because people will have more opportunity to make noises with them and they will, inevitably, tend to go down similar paths. There is a whole conventionality about this that I have already referred to and this becomes an issue if you want something new or different. Its for this reason that I have been a fan of modular synthesis, especially the Eurorack format, because here the building blocks of sound are broken down into hundreds of possible individual modules. No one manufacturer has any idea to what use you will put their creation or with what other elements you will combine it. The very format itself is, thus, pregnant with sonic possibilities. So I tend to think that when a new or "groundbreaking" synth is being discussed or pined for on synth forums that maybe people are missing the point. This new synth you want is right in front of your eyes. You just need to build it. It can be made of whatever is out there and these elements can be combined in any way you please. The results will be, at best, a fantastically exciting world of possibility. You just need to make the effort to create it. Surely this is an area in which "new" sounds can be discovered?

           A custom modular synth made by Latvian company, Erica Synths

I don't know what kind of music you regularly listen to but in the music I listen to, so-called experimental, noise, various kinds of ambient, avant-garde, IDM, etc., (all electronic) I hear lots of new, different and interesting sounds all the time. I firmly believe its not that there are no new sounds left to find, its that most people are just conventional, boring and totally unimaginative (music makers and listeners). "New sounds" generally won't be found in pop songs, chart music or things for general consumption. So if this is your musical diet I suggest you look elsewhere. And let me say that here "noise" is only a tiny part of what I'm talking about. "Sound design" is what I'm really talking about, the creation of atmospheres, ambiences and textures. Such music, and it is music, is as old as commercial synthesizers. I can refer you to records from 1969-1970 using synthesis to do just this. Those who read this blog or listen to my podcasts will know of examples of it that I've referred to before. Some synthesists, those I would characterize as at the more artistic end of the spectrum, have always wanted to make such music. You will note, of course, that in synthesizer music history there are instrumental synth albums that have sold in 8 figures (such as Oxygene by J-M Jarre). But then we need to remember never to confuse "good music" with "popularity". I make a weekly podcast of electronic music that showcases lots of never heard artists happy to just make their own thing unconcerned by popularity, fame or "what music makers want from instruments" which is a shorthand for the needs of boring, gigging musicians who wouldn't know creativity or originality if it left teethmarks in their backsides. If you produce for a mass market then you are inevitably compromised by that same market. Popular artists who make their "experimental" record often experience a dip in popularity as a result. And then go back to their formula for popularity.

The problem here is that nearly everyone is happy to reproduce something that they heard before. Very few are unhappy with that and want to be completely different. I've lost count of the unsigned bands and artists who say they sound (and often advertise themselves as sounding) like somebody else you might have heard of. I sit there thinking "WHAT?" If you sound like somebody else then I might as well go and listen to them instead. Its fair to say that originality is not often in vogue with many. People are too conventional to be different. We see this also with the sounds that are put into synths, both the hardware and software varieties. These get used by multiple people so that the sounds become known. This is not necessarily all bad if you happen to like the particular sound but music is something, I think, which always needs to keep being refreshed. It is a human failing that it is all too easy to be lazy but in music it can also be rewarding to do everything yourself. Anyone who has a synthesizer has a device that can be used in multiple ways with the sole purpose of creating sounds. And these devices do not necessarily have to be used as intended either. The whole genre of Acid House comes from a use and abuse of the Roland TB-303, for example. This device was originally put out by Roland as a relatively tame accompaniment device for people who played other things. It allowed you to not have a bassist. But in the hands of inventive people it became the lead instrument for bass heavy dance music. These same inventive people, I think, are drawn to modular synthesis too because such people are driven by an artistic desire for the new or different. Their polar opposite, to my mind, are those who want to design a patch memory system for modular synths which, up until this point, have no way to save the sounds you make on them. Once the patch cords are removed your sound is gone. THAT IS A GOOD THING!! The problem is that even new things eventually become ossified over time. Roland itself now remakes its old instruments in digital format (including the TB-303 now reborn as the TB-03) and sells them as a standard.

You are probably getting my point here that this comes down to a matter of mentality. It comes down to what music is for you. If its to make a career or to appease people commissioning music well then you have to give them what they think they want. These are limitations and, depending on your attitude to these things, maybe ones that are too much for you. But if you have more artistic freedom and a mind to wander then you are free to roam wider, disconnected from the need to appease anybody or anything but your own desire to roam across sonic landscapes and textures. This is what I do when I make my podcasts. These are good because they are not reliant on one person or their creative impulses. You can mix and match the tastes of many. But I must warn you Spotify-infested hordes that finding something new or different takes effort. It can't just be served up to you by some commerce monkey in a playlist. A big problem with this is how music is heard in the first place. You can search for yourself, a time-consuming process, and you will certainly find new, different and interesting things. But the vast majority don't search at all. They want to be spoon-fed whatever the mainstream gives them. Then they complain there's nothing new. Well of course there isn't! Those who make money out of selling music do so by serving up the same, the safe things, what people know. They wouldn't offer you something new and avant-garde. So my point is its up to listeners to seek out new and interesting music. It is out there.

People, of course, have differing tastes. They always will. And none of this matters. We should know by now that there is no "good music" and no "bad music". There is only music I like now and music I don't. And even that may change for people's tastes can change. Those tastes are also not coherent or logical. I like glitchy IDM music but my childhood has also bequeathed me a love of some of the hits of Englebert Humperdinck (ask your parents or grandparents). I didn't choose to like any of this music. I just did. The fact is it doesn't matter what you like or why. There is nothing special and nothing to be gained by liking one thing over another. Its all just music. That said, the whole point of this blog has been that if you want new, as the original article I referred to was about, then you will only find new sounds as a music maker or new sounds as a music listener by either making them or searching to find them. There is no shortcut. You will get out in proportion to what you put in.

You have only yourself to blame.


One man who I think knew all this was the recently deceased synthesizer designer and engineer, Don Buchla. He created many instruments, beginning in the 1960s, which were aimed to create new types of electronic music. He did many unconventional things at the time, such as not attaching a musical keyboard to many of his instruments, which forced their users to go a different way about creating electronic sound. He was a man who refused to compromise design for popularity. (Bob Moog, who was also a pioneering synthesizer designer, did add keyboards to his instruments and received many more plaudits - and sales - as a result.) He inspired not only many electronic musicians but many electronics engineers who now incorporate designs he inspired into their own electronic devices and so his legacy of innovation continues today beyond his own life span. He will be much missed. RIP Don.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Music and Genre

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of genres in music. This is a silly statement. For I can say that I like ska music, the acid sound, EBM, kosmische music, sound art, and some other things and these are all genres of music. Genres are musical sub-cultures that share some recognizable features, helpful ways to group certain sounds together and hopefully in a descriptively useful way that cuts some ice and actually helps the users of the term to know what is being talked about. The problem, however, is that often this isn't the case at all and especially if you haven't experienced a musical genre from the inside. Another problem is that genres can become more narrowly and narrowly defined. What, for example, is Aggrotech and how is it different from EBM or electro-industrial? I admit to being completely at a loss. I recently read a comment talking about "Black Ambient". I have no idea what that is or how it might be different from "Dark Ambient" which is another genre label I have come across. I admit that I ask myself if any perceived difference matters. What use is a term that doesn't have wide currency anyway? Using it doesn't help because in order to understand its meaning you'd need to experience the difference yourself.

So there is an issue with increasingly narrow sub-genres. These operate more as identifiers for insiders than instantly recognizable labels for the masses. Such labels aren't always welcome either. Some musicians don't want to be nailed down to one label or genre. Recently I put up a podcast in my Electronic Oddities series formed around Electroclash music. When I do a genre show I always try to formulate in my head a compact description of what I think this genre is trying to encapsulate. I included Ladytron in that podcast even though Ladytron have, in the past, refused the Electroclash tag. But I noticed that some others regarded their sound as fitting within the genre and so I included them. The song I picked doesn't sound out of place so maybe it was a good decision. But I can understand Ladytron's point.

Of course, for some people identifying with a particular genre might be important to them. These people set out to fit in with a genre and its important to them they are recognized as this sound. One example here is Noise Music, especially Harsh Noise. This is just a noise wall with barely any variation between tracks or bands. But it is a distinctive and definable sound and some simply want to join in making it. Another example might be EDM. EDM is a very produced (some would say over produced) and polished form of dance music made with a computer. It has a recognizable sound that separates it out from rawer forms of dance music. EDM is very popular and lots of music makers who already have computers are very keen to make it. They all sound the same so its not hard to miss. But this is where my problem with genre starts to raise its head.

My problem with genre is that it is limiting. As a musician I would hate to think people can use one word to describe what it is I do. I'd regard it as an insult and myself as a failure if that was the case. I guess my own self-image is that, musically, I have more strings to my bow than just sounding one way. Now some people want to sound one way. That's up to them. I'd regard it as not overly interesting though as once you've heard a song or two what more is there really to listen to? You've heard what this person or people do and you aren't going to get anymore variety than that. This is a silly statement too. There are plenty of acts I've heard and liked in my life who really only sound one way and I have no problem with them at all. If you like a certain sound then you like it. But I'm trying to get at something more than this. There are also experimental groups that I like. These have more of an unpredictability about them and I like them for that fact. These groups avoid categorization, which is what putting musicians in genres really is, and I like that idea. I don't want to be categorized myself. "Experimental" is a good tag for this and some people use the term as a genre term too. But "experimental" tells you next to nothing about what someone is going to sound like. 

Recently I came across another genre discussion that revolved around "the modular sound". This, so it is assumed, is the sound made by modular synthesizers. This discussion was started off by the famous modular synth user, Richard Devine, when he commented in one of the first teaser videos for the new Behringer Deepmind 12 synth that it sounded "very modular". Hannes Pasqualini wrote an excellent piece about this comment and if "the modular sound" even exists and you can read that HERE! and you should read it for its an interesting discussion of if this sound even exists and, if so, what it is. In the article Devine himself was very clear that he thinks there is such a sound, its a sound that is "organic and changing constantly". I know exactly what he means by this. I myself would probably have mentioned a sound that involved constantly changing modulations, a sense of movement and a feeling of being a musical organism, you can hear all the parts working in their place but it somehow all feels as if it is a unified whole. I note, however, that in the Facebook discussion where I found reference to Pasqualini's article there were a few people quite adamant that there was no such thing as "the modular sound". They emphasized the possibilities of the machine and argued this meant there was no such sound. But if when I mentioned "the modular sound" ideas of what that might be came into your head then maybe the phrase denotes something after all. (I note that much "modular music" one may hear is brief jams that people make for videos they put online. This phenomenon itself contributes to a modular sound in that it is so-called "noodling".)

Of course, I turn all these genre discussions back upon myself for, like many musicians, I want to be able to describe what it is I do. In this connection "the modular sound" is interesting to me not least because, over the years, sometimes people have said to me that some of my music sounds very "modular" or "analog" (not the same thing of course!) when the truth has usually been that the songs they were hearing were made entirely in software. I often do set out to try and ape a certain sound though (or I just find one that reminds me of something) and so the comments that I got, quite innocently and honestly, confirmed in me some measure of success and that, yes, there are people out there who associate certain sounds with certain equipment. I often deliberately muddy these waters too because I've often lied to people who have asked me what I used to make something. This, please understand, was not from any malicious intent. It was more mischievous in that I have noticed people make judgments based on what they think you have used. I merely wanted to disrupt these, to me, invalid judgments and make the listener return once more to the sound they are hearing. Musicians, especially of the electronic variety, can be very snobbish or judgmental about equipment and I simply wish to not play that game. Comment on what you hear not what was used to make it when listening to music is the focus!

Now I think there's ample reason to say that my music is not one thing. I might sometimes call it "experimental" but this is a relative term. Experimental to who exactly? One person's experiment is another's "I've heard this before". I think what I'd actually like to be is a genre of one: "music that sounds like me". No one else can sound like me if I allow my personality to shine through what I do for no one else is me. This is my technique and I try to make music containing that spark of uniqueness, that brings that little bit of me to the fore. This, of course, will not tell you what I sound like. But, as I've tried to explain, part of me is resistant to genre labels in the first place. You get to know what I sound like by listening to me. And this is surely the point of music anyway. If it can be explained away by a genre label it removes the need to listen to it. So I try not to fit in with genre and I try to be varied so that what I do cannot be crammed into the same musical box. That said, my music has taken a turn this year in what, to date, doesn't seem like such a vintage year to me. My music often reflects the world I see around me and is, in some sense, an expression of this. Yesterday I lay trying to come up with words to describe it. I got

1. Noisy
2. Abstract
3. Atonal
4. Bricolage

Now this isn't a genre and that's good. In practice a lot of my output this year, which has increasingly used random sounds I have found online (a notable change in content from former years), has been unpleasant noise, messy and sterile. These are aesthetic judgments by me, its maker. But it has served a purpose for I have seen the world destroying itself, chaos rising and things politically, socially and culturally making less and less sense. Would not noisy, abstract, atonal bricolage be the music for a world that was like this? It seems that I have thought so. Of course, I have to be the kind of musician I am for this to be so. Some musicians, it seems, start off with an idea in their head. They then try to recreate this idea in sound. But I am not like that. I never start with an idea. Instead, I start with a musical situation. This compromises instruments, sounds and, primarily, thoughts and feelings about non-musical subjects. In effect, before I begin I collect a pool of things that I am going to use. The way I make music is then to filter the instruments and sounds through the thoughts and feelings. My music, however abstract, is always about some idea or feeling and success is articulating that in sound. So I regard my genre as sounding like me for my music is what I think and feel in sound.

I find this way of doing things much more authentic than following some genre. But there will be others who want to do exactly that and that is their choice. As I've already intimated, my thoughts on genre aren't consistent anyway - and nor need they be. There are good and bad things about genre and we aren't required to have merely one thought about the subject. What is much more important is finding your own way and finding a sound that you truly identify with (from a musician's point of view). 

The Electronic Oddities Podcast, which often features differing musical genres, can be found at https://www.mixcloud.com/DrExistenz/ 

My music, whatever it might be made with (and I'm not telling!), can be found at https://elektronischeexistenz.bandcamp.com/ 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Posthumanity: Where We're Going

Ghost in The Shell started out in the late 1980s as a Japanese manga. Over the following years it was turned into anime films and even games. A whole world grew up around it. Ghost in The Shell is a story of the near human future when cyborgs, humans enhanced with the addition of technological parts, are a reality. In this near human future humans can be hacked because their minds have become like software and we are all connected to vast machine networks. The brains of the people in this world, the hardware on which they run, might not even be biological anymore. Indeed, its even possible that some people have become fully technological, electro-mechanical beings yet still regarded as people. But how would you feel shaking hands with such a being? Would you consider it a person?

Moon is a film by Duncan Jones who is the son of David Bowie. Jones's film also discusses the near future. In his film a technician called Sam Bell is the only worker on a base on the moon that is mining for Helium-3, a resource which supplies a vast amount of the world's energy needs. Sam is out on the surface of the moon in his service vehicle when he crashes into one of the mining vehicles and he becomes injured and does not return to base. The base artificial intelligence, GERTY, awakes another Sam Bell to do the work for it transpires that Sam is not a unique person in this world. Sam, and this new Sam, are both clones of an original Sam Bell. Their memories of a wife and child are implanted memories. Everything they think they know about who they are is false. They are, in fact, just manufactured employees fed a story so that they will function within safe parameters for their employer's benefit. GERTY is instructed by the employer not to let the second Sam find the first Sam but, inevitably, he does and so both Sams begin wondering about who they are and what is going on. Imagine if you were suddenly made wise to the idea that nothing you think about yourself is true. (Indeed, this could actually be true right now. How would you know?)

And so here I've briefly laid out a couple of future scenarios for human beings. Except these might not be expressly human beings at all. Some people would say that doesn't matter. Mamoru Oshii, the Japanese director of a couple of Ghost in The Shell films, has said that the moral of his films in this narrative world is that, whether animal, human or posthuman, all existence is worth the same respect. Clearly this was not the thought of the employer in Moon though as these people merely sought human machines to do their bidding. They were fed lies and treated dishonesty all so that they would perform the task that they were unknowingly made for. Both of these fictional narrative worlds open up pathways for discussion around posthumanity, that step in the evolution of human beings that many futurists think is to come next. Posthumanity is, in many respects, about going beyond the boundaries that nature has gifted us, deliberately using our human intelligence to engineer and create new, better forms of life for ourselves. This may well involve completely getting rid of our biological form which, let's face it, is a basic weakness of our species responsible for much of our pain and suffering. But this does not mean that a technological future for our species would be trouble-free or even without new dangers as yet unseen. 

This technological future is actively being explored by us even as you read this blog now. Google, for example, is actively working on AI, as are a number of other companies. AI, artificial intelligence, is about creating a machine that could think for itself. But its also a step along the road to being able to take our human minds and put them anywhere, for example, inside a much better technological body. Both of these scenarios create new forms of being, new beings in effect. I was thinking about this the other day as I watched some of the recent Apple Event. Tim Cook and the rest were lauding their new products and saying how great and forward thinking they were. But in the light of the science fiction I'd just been watching it seemed all so terribly backward. An iphone, for example, is a device you hold in your hand or carry in your pocket. But imagine if all that tech was simply a part of you. That's what I call forward thinking. For now, the iphone remains very much a backward product suited to biological human beings and not the future cyborgs we may become.

So this is a little background to the thoughts that inspire today's blog. I want to continue now by asking a few pertinent questions in these interlocking contexts and then engage in some thinking aloud in response to them. My first question runs thus:

1. What is the definition of "human" if all biological material could be replaced by technological or electro-mechanical (synthetic) parts?

In previous blogs on this subject, of which there are quite a few if you look back through the archive, you will see that there I've taken the view that to be human you must be biological. Human beings, people, just are flesh and blood. This weakness, if it be that, is just part of their make up, what we regard humans to be. I think I still believe this but it becomes about more than this. What makes a person a person? Both the fictional narratives I've referred to make the point that being a certain identity, having certain ideas and beliefs about yourself, does. So, in this sense, a person need not be biological at all. Nothing about your body need be biological. You could have a metal skeleton and a computer for a brain but if you have an idea of who you are, where you are from, hold beliefs about yourself, have intentions, etc., then you are what we might call a person. This is a radical thought to have because it cuts away this notion that to be a person you must be biological. To be a human being it might very well be the case that you need to be biological. But not to be a person, an identity. So this then forces the question "What's the importance of being specifically human, human as we have always known humans to be?" If it was possible that we could retain our identities as persons but leave the biological "human" anchor behind wouldn't we want to do that?

This leads logically into my second question:

2. What is a mind, soul or consciousness? Is this the locus of humanity?

In Ghost in The Shell the whole basis of the narrative world is the "ghost". This is the mind, soul, consciousness of all the characters in the story. Provided you have one of these you are regarded as a person, a being, and worthy of respect. (This is also true in Moon by the way, at least from the viewer's perspective. The Sams may be clones but they are clones with a consciousness.) But it seems clear that this is something other than our understanding of a human being that is being discussed here. A number of characters in Ghost in The Shell are almost pure machines. Others are more biologically human. (Its noticeable that, whatever their make up, they all want to appear human though.) But, in all cases, it is the "ghost" that is the important thing. This is what is regarded, in the end, as "you". But is this right? Thinking on a biological, human paradigm the answer to this must be no. You are your biology. Most biological humans do not regard their arms, legs, heads, even DNA etc., as peripheral to who they are. They regard them as integral to who they are. Each human body is different, unique, and experienced uniquely from the inside out. This is true even for those of us who need false limbs or prosthetics or wear glasses or have a hearing aid. We experience our bodies individually as physical things. But these false limbs and prosthetics are baby steps down the path to a different understanding. Imagine a machine future rather than a biological one. Replace biological thinking which is based on the idea of your uniqueness with machine thinking in which everything is replaceable, customizable, upgradable and interchangeable. Your body is now not so definitive nor so integral to who you are. What remains as uniquely you is what you think about yourself, your memories, your thoughts, your ideas, that nexus of things you think. This becomes the thing that makes you you, that makes you the person you are. Again, being a person, an identifiable individual, is not reliant on being biologically human. Sam Bell 1 in Moon is not Sam Bell 2. They both have a different consciousness even if they are identical clones. So, yes, perhaps it is our "ghost" that, in the end, makes us who we are.

But this raises an issue.

3. Where is the line between man and machine? Does it actually matter?

Following the line of thinking I'm taking here, it doesn't. As Mamoru Oshii thinks, so long as the being is clearly a separately functioning individual then what does it matter what it is made of? A bee, a human, an intelligently aware machine, they are all just forms of life. Of course, it will probably matter in practice. Shaking hands with a "robot" is going to feel alien and possibly even frightening to a human being. Technological life, after all, is completely alien to us. It is not our experience of life. Just as if you woke up and you were an octopus or an elephant and it would feel bizarre (compare Kafka's The Metamorphosis), so it would be if humans were suddenly machines. But if you except that future beings could be machine beings then you have no reason to deny them anything you might grant beings of other kinds. Ghost in The Shell raises the prospect of various stages along the path to machine beings. Some may have technological implants whilst others have largely had their bodies mechanized. This might surely help human beings to get used to the idea of mechanical beings and make this kind of "line" fade away. But, as I discussed in the context of my second question, its what makes a being a being or a person a person that counts here. And that's not necessarily anything to do with what materials you are made of. So, no, it doesn't matter unless you had a bias towards biology.

But this leads us to probe deeper:

4. What is the correct understanding of a human? Is "ghost in the shell" useful as an idea here?

Even though, so far in this blog, I've taken one view on this subject, its fair to say that's not the whole story. I'm sure there are people who think that machines could not be people or persons. And certainly not humans. I agree that machine beings would not be human. That's why I'm using the term "posthuman" to describe them. They would clearly be beings based on us but they wouldn't be us. My point in this blog though is to ask if whether they are human or not is actually the most important question - or even a relevant question at all. Much more important and interesting is to ask if they are beings and, if they are, what that means. Of course, we are humans and so are doing all this thinking from our human perspective. Human beings are special, different, to us because we are all human beings. We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as the pinnacle of creation. And yet we are standing on the cusp of possibly creating beings that could easily and exponentially surpass us. These beings could be everything we are only many times more so. They could maybe become things we cannot even guess at. At this point we would need to ask ourselves what was left of the human in them at all. But in order to do this we need to know what a human being even is and its not clear we know that yet. In this blog I've followed my fictional leads and said it is this "ghost" in the shell of our bodies that is who we are. But I'm not blind to the fact it may well be more than this. Its also quite scary to imagine that if it were this "ghost" then it could be hacked or deceived as in the fictional stories I've referred to. Perhaps this says more about humans than we realize. Perhaps it is thinking itself that is human, thinking as a vulnerability. And perhaps that thinking is the burden that humans, perhaps uniquely at this point in time, must carry. But its quite narrow to focus this thinking on minds and brains. Our whole context in life is relevant to this process. We are constantly getting and processing feedback from our surroundings. A grey sky can depress us and seeing a smile can make us happy. Thinking does not put you, or your brain or mind, in a vacuum. Thinking involves all that is. And so the human is a part of everything and takes part in everything. Its not just some definable personality or identity in abstraction. That would be to take on the machine thinking of our posthuman descendants.

But, taking this thinking on anyway, lets push the technological door open and peep inside.

5. If you could copy a consciousness what follows?

This is the type of question my two fictional narratives of choice have followed, each in their own ways. As Moon shows, you might get hundreds of identical workers, slaves in effect. (I neglected to mention earlier that in Moon the clones have been engineered to breakdown and die after 3 years, the length of their fictional contracts working on the moon base. At this point all the Sam Bells think they will be going home to their non-existent families.) For Ghost in The Shell the problem becomes that people can be hacked, subverted, corrupted, for other nefarious purposes. A technological being thought of through the metaphor of a computer could be subject to all the problems a computer could have. So, for example, these technological beings could be hacked and viruses implanted which make them do bad things. Or kill themselves. After all, technological devices simply run the programs they are instructed to run, don't they? This would be a specifically technological form of the psychological manipulations we humans sometimes undergo or undertake. If you could control the code, though, then you could control the beings.

But there are identity issues here too. There are unending numbers of Sam Bells in Moon. But, that being so, none of them are really Sam Bell at all. They are nobody. They have nowhere to anchor themselves and have no timeline along which they can situate themselves. Identity is fundamentally based on uniqueness, being able to place yourself in a narrative you tell yourself about yourself, but also identification with other things that helps you build this narrative of self. So what if yours had been implanted or was fake, a tissue of lies? You are Neo from The Matrix in the pod being fed fiction as truth. If consciousness can be copied then how can you even be sure you are you? You live in a world without foundations. Not only do you not know up from down, right from left, you wouldn't even know where to begin. If consciousness could ever be copied then you could lose control over that most basic thing of all: who you are. Its a scary prospect, at least, if you're a human being.

We can explore these questions of varying types of being by asking other questions. I find this one interesting:

6. Can you murder a robot? What about a cyborg? What about an AI?

There are issues of definition at play here first. A robot is here basically a mechanical drone. A cyborg is different and is a human/machine hybrid being. An AI is an artificial intelligence and so was never human to start with. But it is a living, thinking entity, a personality and identity with its own integrity.

My intuition would be that you can't murder a robot. It is just a machine as we think of machines now. It has not developed self-awareness nor does it regard itself as a being. Because it doesn't regard itself at all. However, the cyborg and the AI are more complicated scenarios. 

A cyborg is a human/machine hybrid. This doesn't necessarily mean it has a human mind and brain though. As in Ghost in The Shell, where some characters have had technological brains implanted, it might not be the thinking part of them that is still human. Does this matter? Probably not. To look at them you would still see a person. I find this strange though and as I watched two Ghost in The Shell films I wondered why all the characters, who in theory could technologically change their appearance, were all so eager to stay looking like conventional humans. Is the human form the best possible form available? This must be questionable. And so this led me to ask how cyborgs thought of themselves. Clearly they weren't so detached from their former biological humanity as they could be. They thought of themselves as people just as the Sam Bells did in Moon. The latter were actually biological humans, of course, but they had been genetically engineered, for example with implanted false memories and with a kind of self-destruct mechanism after 3 years. It seems to me quite clear that you could murder a cyborg. They appear to be and think of themselves as people. They share in that sense of self and identity we would regard as them having a personality.

The same could be said, of course, for an AI. Or, at least, for the possible so-called "strong" AIs some human beings hope to create in the near future. Strong AIs are ones which literally do think for themselves just as much as you could say that you yourself do. That being so, how would you distinguish such an AI from yourself or grant it any less dignity than you do yourself? Because it doesn't have a body and runs instead on circuit boards? This hardly seems reasonable. You are basically strings of genetic code yourself. And yet you feel like a person. If a strong AI felt like a person too and expressed itself as one what reasons could you have for denying it the personality you regard yourself as having? If you just pulled the plug on it, denying it energy just as if you starved a human being, wouldn't that then be murder? I think you could murder a strong AI.

This blog has been yet just another foray into this subject as I've made many before. There are unending questions here and not just about the future and technology but, fundamentally, about us humans. As I look out on the world we humans are a mess. We are weak, pathetic, self-serving, destructive, vindictive, meaningless. It is often said that the basic human quality is simply the will to survive. But as I ask myself questions about being human, stimulated by some interesting human stories from thoughtful minds, I start to ask myself what the importance of being human is at all. Sometimes in science fiction, and in life, there is a sentimentality about this. In more cynical science fiction the future is about how the humans win. (Independence Day films I'm looking at you!) And yet, are humans even important or relevant at all in a universe they cannot begin to fathom? We may surmise that we are important to ourselves but so what? The universe is not mandated to even notice human thinking. And now we see that even we ourselves are thinking of ways to surpass ourselves. It may yet turn out that we are just another footnote in the history of something that was so big it swallowed us up in its wake without even noticing that we were ever there. 

Ghost in The Shell is currently being remade as a live action film starring Scarlett Johansson and is scheduled to be out in 2017.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Exploiting R2-D2

A big subject amongst creative people in the digital age is the subject of piracy and, more specifically, of stealing in general. Barely a day goes past without some example of artistic theft being brought to public attention whether this be someone lifting songs from a Soundcloud account and then blatantly passing them off as their own, photographs being used or modified in an uncredited way or people being asked to use their creative gifts for free. It can rightly be said, with little hyperbole, that the creative impulses of human beings are constantly and consistently being exploited by other people for their own gain and sometimes for their monetary profit. Indeed, so insidious and constant is this tendency these days that it has become thoroughly normalized. People see artistic work as something of little worth that can be had for free. Its often pointed out that artists suffer because of this due to their inability to support themselves from creative lifestyles. Its logically possible to take the view that every act of theft or expectation of something for free contributes to this mentality regardless of how trivial or inconsequential you may regard any individual example as being. I should point out, before I carry on, that I don't have clean hands here. I live in exactly the society I've described and am prey to the same dubious impulses. So today's blog is not holier than thou. I'm just as guilty as the next person. I've also been the victim of theft. On Soundcloud my entire set of music, over 60 tracks, was stolen and put up elsewhere for money in 2010. Last year I became aware that a Russian account was routinely downloading my Bandcamp tracks and making them available on a Russian website. This is routine and normal for many.

The reason I discuss all this is because last night whilst idling through my Twitter timeline I came across someone advertising a T shirt he had made. As I sometimes but certainly not always do (I expect like everyone else), I went to have a look at the product he was selling. It was a T shirt with the image of R2-D2 from Star Wars on it. R2-D2 had been coloured in. It wasn't a bad T shirt. I can imagine that some people would want to buy it. But the question that came into my head immediately and, I admit, not at first totally seriously was "Has this image been licensed from George Lucas/Disney?" Now, of course, R2-D2 is not this guy's artistic creation. Its someone else's and certainly held by some body or entity as their's to artistically license and exploit for profit as they see fit. Of course, neither this person nor the online record label he is attached to and selling this product through had even so much as broached this question in the process of their activities. The impression I got from their responses was that there was seemingly no problem here. The artist concerned gave me the argument that Lucas and Disney were rich enough (so this somehow makes it OK) and the online record label sent back a sarcastic picture apparently intimating I was getting my panties in a bunch over nothing. So, according to these two, both of whom are seemingly reluctant to even acknowledge that this is fairly obvious stealing, there's no problem here. Stealing someone else's design is fine. You don't even need to question yourself over what you are doing.

Now, as I said last night to the person concerned, this isn't my fight. It is, in the parlance of our times, no skin off my nose. George Lucas and Disney are both indeed staggeringly rich. I don't really care more than those involved here if they lose a few dollars they might have otherwise gotten if this had been done properly. And its also true that I'm no one's moral police. As I stated above, when I started this conversation I wasn't even doing so totally seriously. I suppose I raised the issue to find out the response. It was a heuristic question to attempt to find out the attitude at work here. The artist selling the T shirt gave the reply that the creators/owners of the property were rich enough already and the record label said they would stop if Lucas or Disney complained. Neither answer is good enough and anyone reading this as well as those concerned knows it. But apparently its difficult for some to admit this even with their hands in the till and their pants pulled down on camera for all to see. As I said at the start, such activity has become ingrained and normalized. The idea "I want to use something so I just will" is there in the midst of us and its not going away anytime soon. 

However, its not always universal. I'm aware of another artistic person on my Twitter timeline who recently wanted to use some music from the artist Moby. As I understand it he wanted to do some work on a set of ambient music he had put online, I think for free ironically enough, and then put it out on his own account. It transpired that this musician had gone so far as to contact Moby or his management directly to see if he was allowed and able to do this. I admit that, when I learned about this, I flinched inwardly a little. If Moby had dumped this online for free then why ask at all? Surely it could be taken as read it was OK to use the material? By highlighting the issue with those concerned it could only really go badly if they said no, right? And, besides, Moby would likely never find out anyway. My artist friend is not the most popular musician in the world, as he himself would admit, albeit he should probably be more popular than he is. If he went and did whatever he wanted with Moby's music the chances of Moby finding out in the vast jungle of the Internet is extremely negligible. I expect this latter belief is at the heart of what the person with the R2-D2 T shirt and his record label think too. They don't expect those who really own the image will find out. No harm, no foul, right?

So why did this become such as issue for me that I wrote a blog about it? I can't really say but I think its the exploitation at the heart of the issue that tweaks my moral nipples so that I can't ignore it. What I've discussed here is blatant stealing however those at the heart of the matter want to avoid, belittle or ignore the fact. They are both in the wrong and guilty of artistic theft and exploitation. So Lucas and Disney, or whoever actually owns the image if R2-D2, are probably mega-rich and its doubtful they will miss the few dollars they might have made. But that's not the issue. I'm certainly not raising this out of concern for their bank balance. I'm raising this as a way of asking if stealing is OK now. What do you think? Is stealing OK? Does it matter? Are there consequences from the idea that I can decide for myself on a case by case basis if I should be allowed to steal? The conventional attitude is certainly "No harm, no foul". But, like many conventions, is that valid? What are the ramifications for people just deciding for themselves whether they should steal or not? Is it OK in society if we just become laws unto ourselves? Sure, this is hardly the crime of the century but, as one supermarket chain here is fond of saying, "every little helps". Every little supposedly inconsequential act goes onto the fire and helps it burn that little bit brighter. It all contributes to the mentality "Stuff is free if I want it to be". I have asked the record label concerned if its OK if I download and sell their entire music catalog as my own now. I don't expect it is but that's exactly what hypocrisy is. As I reported above, apparently the problem with hypocrisy is that I'm in the wrong for getting my panties in a bunch about it.

Now this T shirt issue would still be wrong if they gave the T shirt away for free. But at least then those concerned wouldn't be openly seeking to profit from the skill, work and ideas of others. Currently, they are. That's their choice and their problem if, by some miracle, things ever went tits up. What I refuse to accept, however, is that it doesn't matter. Its not "a bit of fun" as the record label wrote back to me. Getting money for nothing surely might be fun for them but all it does for the rest of us, in its own tiny, barely measurable way, is corrupts public morality. Maybe that doesn't matter either.

But isn't that merely the thin end of a particularly nihilistic wedge?

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Human Condition

It strikes me that writing this blog is probably the most popular thing that I do. Over the time I've been doing it my readership has gone up from barely 20 readers a blog to three figures. This makes my blogs much more popular than my music but, of course, not every blog is the same and it does matter where I advertise the blog. If I advertise a music blog on Facebook I will get many times more readers than if I just post it to Twitter a few times. Twitter, it seems, just does not reach that many people (even though I'm supposed to have over 1000 followers). If you want to be really popular you need to go to Facebook. Now none of this has anything at all to do with my subject for today's blog. It was just the way my brain worked to get me into writing this morning. My subject for today is "The Human Condition," something that sounds rather profound but need not necessarily be so. My blog today amounts to thoughts that follow from looking at the following picture:

                       The Human Condition by Duane Michals

The picture, as you can see, is a series of photos that blend from one of a man standing on what appears to be a train platform to a picture of a galaxy in space. The whole is titled "The Human Condition" but why? What is the point here?

The first thing it says to me is "perspective". We are subjective beings with an ego. This means we focus on ourselves a lot and we see with and through our eyes. The world, in many respects, is our world, the world we see with our eyes as we relate it to us. This is not just a matter of eyes but of knowledge and understanding too. These are equally "our's". We aren't seeing through the eyes of other people or using some generic understanding. Its all very, very personal. This also means its very, very narrow. How many people are there in the world, each with their own eyes? No one thinks that they all see what we see. In fact, we know they don't. This should promote humility. Quite often it doesn't and we go the other way. What we see is truth. What anyone else sees is dubious at best. But take a look at the picture again.

The second thing this picture says to me, building on the idea of perspective, is that we are all so small and inconsequential. Taking that first person point of view we all usually have we all seem so terribly important to ourselves. Some people even act this way, as if its all about them. But get to the last part of the picture. Now try and convince yourself you even matter at all. You might as well be nothing. If this were a statistics class you would be nothing for your contribution to the vastness of the universe is functionally zero. Think about it. The Universe is so big and we are so small that you basically have to be on top of someone to even see them, to notice they even exist. We stand here on this equally inconsequential planet and feel so important, like the Universe is there for our taking. But we have no clue. We aren't even ants. I don't think that this fact is contemplated nearly enough. We are so concentrated on ourselves as the be all and end all. What happens, what changes, if we start to think of ourselves as nothing, as cosmic dust, as those who change nothing? We invest our actions with so much significance and yet, in the end, do they even have any at all? I love this wide view of space. Because it changes everything about us and who we are. Or, it should. In that context, no Earth-bound agenda is of any consequence at all. Its just lost in the vastness.

I was thinking about morality yesterday, spurred on by reading more Friedrich Nietzsche books. His books aren't actually that long but take a long time to read because they must be read slowly, one sentence at a time. They require a lot of thinking time. He has a lot to say about morality and especially about how, as a herd phenomenon, it works against us being the best people we can be, which is a shorthand version of saying what I think Nietzsche actually wants. Nietzsche sees modern Western society as under the rule of a Christianized morality which is utterly destructive. It weakens rather than strengthens. It is characteristic of "decadence" and is contrary to nature. Nietzsche conceives of the best of us as warriors who do not want to be spared. We become intoxicated with life and drive ourselves on to be the best we can be. Its true to say that in many respects Nietzsche sees "the herd" as holding such strong individuals back and much he says about morals and morality is very much at odds with common thinking, thinking he would ascribe to the prevailing Christian narrative. Christian morality, for Nietzsche, has nothing to recommend it and is characteristic of people who are afraid of death and so engage in flights of fancy. It is an infection, a virus in all human thought. More than this, people so influenced are not even living whilst they are nominally alive. Nietzsche regards "freedom" as "the will to self-responsibility" but regards Christianity as the resignation of the weak.

Reading Nietzsche on morality, and remembering that in one book, Beyond Good and Evil, he even tries to invent a form of life that goes beyond such a thing, is challenging. This, indeed, is why I read him. He asks the right questions or, at least, the ones this reader finds pertinent to his own life. Nietzsche is a very biologistic philosopher. He ploughs that furrow which says that knowledge, our knowledge, is life-shaped. Like a plant that grows by reaching out towards the sun, so we seek to prosper ourselves by reaching for what we perceive as the warmth and light. But note that this says nothing of absolutes. It doesn't, for example, suggest that because we think we know something, and have feelings that we know, that we actually know anything at all. It could be, as Nietzsche writes elsewhere, just a "history of Man's errors". Nietzsche thinks that morality is such a thing, the history of an error that has infected everything and fabricated an "artificial, falsified world". We take so much for true or as read due to moral valuations and choices without even really realizing that this is what we are doing. Nietzsche has a book on this, On The Genealogy of Morals, which excavates beneath morality and shows it, at bottom, to be baseless and empty. He shows morality to be a domestication of Man, an abnegation of our species' animal vitality. "There are no moral phenomena at all," he writes, "only a moral interpretation of phenomena".

"Morality" seems very much to do with the human condition. You will never stop hearing people tell you to be moral, whatever that means, from the first moment you can understand others to probably your last. And very soon you will catch on that this is usually done with varying levels of sincerity, hypocrisy and honesty. But, nevertheless, and despite the obvious fact that pretty much everyone else is moral only to a certain degree, morality will be pushed forward as something vitally important. But I honestly question this because, looking at that picture again, I ask myself how I can even regard any human thought or action as having even a simple consequence. This picture makes me wonder if the human condition is not to give importance to things that just don't matter at all. And so much of human morality is saying what matters and so this picture directly intersects with such a valuation. It almost stares back at you and interrogates you and dares you to say any fabricated, human rules or valuations count in its contexts. To be sure, this is scary. It removes all boundaries. It begs the question of if there are any rules or standards at all. To be sure, there are none that we don't make. But why should anyone care about that? 

Nietzsche distinguishes between moralists and amoralists in terms of courage. Moralists are cowards. They cannot cope with reality as it presents itself to us in all its particularity and so they flee into the Ideal. Witness here your Christianity again. The world does not teach us that the good prosper and the evil suffer. Often it teaches us the exact opposite. Or that good and evil have no relation to life outcomes at all because its just random and complicated. So what reason is there to be "good"? But for the Christian moralist, however, that lesson must be true and so they create an imaginary realm where that is in fact the case and argue that we will all be subject to it in the end. An invented divine Arbiter guarantees this. Thus, their cowardice speaks as they run from a world they do not want to comprehend. The Amoralists, in turn, such as Nietzsche would want to be, do not deceive themselves willingly in such ways. They do not seek to escape into the Ideal nor do they wrap themselves up in Man-made morality and then posit it as innate, eternal or binding. Such people are seen, on this Nietzschean view, as courageous for they must live in a world devoid of these so-called comforts. They are warriors, sophists (whom Nietzsche sees as realists) and matter-of-fact. They do not create realms that do not exist and then judge life in the fictional light it creates.

All of this asks very deep questions of "The Human Condition". It suggests there is no duty to be good, to love or to care. But, looking at that picture again, I am constantly being reminded how unimportant I am. This is not in a depressive sense, which it easily could be. But its in a way which almost lifts the burden of existence from me. And, make no mistake, existence can certainly be a burden. Mattering and caring can be burdens. This picture suggests they need not be and shows this view up as the choice, the moral choice, it clearly is. All of morality is a choice and often one in which we do not even ask ourselves what we are gaining or losing by choosing one thing over another. Morality is often lazy and unexplored and this is because it is idealism, its not real. Its a creation. It cannot stand any serious probing or investigation. Every time this is done it just falls apart and reveals itself as insubstantial nonsense. It is like our picture. We see ourselves and our lives as like frame one. Its all about us, our world, those we bump into day to day and how we relate ourselves to them. This would suggest morality as merely practical rules that simplify life, the line of least resistance. But the view gets wider and these things become less and less important. Our views, based on our insular world, become less and less relevant. By the time we get to frame six none of these things matter at all and the idea of the idealists, that these rules needed to be innate and eternally binding, just seems silly and ridiculous.

So what is the human condition? Thinking you matter when really you don't? Creating ways to cope with a universe which is nothing like the fabrications we have explained to "make sense" of it? To be lost and yet to imagine you are found? To have invested things with meaning that really have none? To make of yourself something permanent when you were always only temporary?

Sometimes I think it would be better to be anything other than a human being. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

So What Are You Really Making Music For?

I've repeated many times over the years that I hate advertising myself. There is something about it that just makes me curl up into a ball inside and squirm. I have become a naturally private person. I value being left alone and anonymity. I want to be left to my own devices because my chief ability, I think, is having ideas. Left alone I can have these ideas and try and make something of them without interference from other concerns. My idea of hell is to be famous. I literally cannot think of anything worse. I would go crazy very quickly if I was constantly getting requests or comments about not just the things I do but me myself as well. But you're probably wondering what the problem is as you sit there reading this. Surely, you're thinking, there is no danger of me becoming famous anyway? You're right to think this because there isn't. And even if there was I'd probably stamp on it as soon as I noticed it anyway. I've done the fame/money equation in my head a few times and I think the money would not be worth the fame.

My name is Andrew and I make electronic music. I put this music online and, to some, this suggests that I want attention, for it if not for myself. Up until now I would have reluctantly agreed with you. As a girlfriend of mine once remarked, "Why are you putting it online if you don't want people to like it?" This may seem a reasonable question to you and you may think she had a point. I am a fairly prodigious producer of music. Over 3,000 tracks in hundreds of albums in 8 years is my guesstimate for my latest spurt of activity. Pretty much all of that has been online at one time or another. Most of it now isn't save for my latest new album, not yet one week old, and two albums of "greatest hits" that I have let stand on my Bandcamp account as examples of pieces of music I am most proud of. But I find myself asking again why it is there at all.

I had a thought the other day which was pre-meditated by the fact that my new album, U8, received zero attention in the first two or three days it was online. I don't garner much attention really but zero attention is just as rare. I can usually expect a few plays and maybe five downloads for anything I do. If the stars align maybe an album will hit ten or even twenty downloads. The things that get more are rare exceptions. But there are exceptions. I have one album this year with ninety five downloads. It occurred to me in the moment I recognized my latest work had produced no attention that, actually, I was now free, free of having to make music that somebody else, somebody out there, might like. I started to ask myself, yet again, why I'm making this music and if making this music for reasons other than to count my plays and downloads was enough. I had an allied thought too. I considered that if I liked music by some third party then I wouldn't care who else liked it or how popular it was. In that case it would be wholly good enough that I liked it. So why couldn't this be good enough or sufficient with my own music too?

OK, I admit that everyone wants to be popular. Everyone wants to feel loved, liked and appreciated. Why does social media have like and favorite buttons if not to garner cheap appreciation for things you post? But what does it say about the person who finds self-worth in such things? I'd like to believe very much that I'm not so easily pleased. So, to get back to my conundrum, I ask myself again why it can't be good enough that I like my music. I think that now, having had the insight of no plays or downloads, it can be. I'm fairly realistic about my own music, I think. Its not all at the same level and the way I work means that its only in retrospect that I can sift and filter the better from the worse, the stuff that grows from the things that fade. All my music passes a basic "instinct" test I give it before I put anything online and that test is to ask if I'd want to be associated with it. But, over time, I can figure out the really good bits from the rest. My album A Maze of Electronic Sounds is seventy bits of music over eight years that is "better" than the rest. Time has helped me make that decision and I think every track of that album is fantastic. The album currently has twenty one downloads. But I don't care. I play tracks from it every day and it eases my path through this vale of tears called life. Job done.

Of course, there's more to it than that, especially if I want to be seen as some kind of artist and appreciated not simply for "product" but for having a set of skills or abilities or insights. Does the idea of this tickle my vanity? Yes, of course. This plays into ideas of identity and self-worth again. I am a human being. I have a human psychology. People want to feel appreciated and appreciated for definite reasons. My self-image is of an artistic creator. Now its extremely rare that anyone will comment on my music. This is partly my fault in that I've deliberately put it somewhere people cannot comment as they listen. Someone who wanted to comment to me about my music would have to go to the lengths of deliberately going to my social media and expressly addressing a comment to me. It seems that for almost everyone this is a step too far. I've had bad commenting experiences in the past. I made the mistake of putting work some years ago on You Tube and let's just say that You Tube has no filter when it comes to commenters. Some very hurtful things were said which, being the person I am, it was hard to get past. When thinking about comments its strange that we always imagine only good ones. But some are more than ready to give you both barrels without thoughts of consequences. 

The thing is that we usually take what we do very seriously and we imagine that others will too. But to others what we do might be a joke. Are we ready to hear that? What we do is for us often a very personal matter. In my case this is very true. My musical work is basically a narrative about my life experience in sound. It is "honest not good" as I have phrased it on my Bandcamp biography. To criticize it is basically to criticize my experience and say there is something wrong with it. So, for me at least, there are stakes involved here. I imagine this is true for other musicians, painters, poets and all types of artistic people too. But this only makes me go back and ask myself the "What I am doing this for?" question all over again. It makes me ask what role "the general public" have in this scenario. Do I need other people to value my experience of life expressed in sound? No, I don't. My experience is what it is whether you like or agree with it or not. And all genuine experience is valid as well. So I don't need anyone to say that what I did has any validity. The fact I did it is all the validity it will ever need.

So I find myself thinking that I need to start seeing my own music like someone else's. If I like it that's good enough. No one else's validation is needed. Its perfectly fine for it to be my secret if that's what it is to be. It can be like that record you hear which no one else has and it feels a little special to you because of that. If the music has its effect on me then its work is done. As I write I'm listening to my track "Sad Song" from the album Lousy Marketing Strategy. This track always gets under my skin. Not only is it one that I actually play keyboards on (rare), but it expresses perfectly my own sense of melancholy that I carry with me everywhere. Yet, at the end of this track, a dance breaks out. It, thus, tells me a little story about myself. No one else has this relationship with this piece of music for no one else realizes or experiences this. It occurs to me now so strongly that this is enough. It doesn't need to be appreciated by others or seen for what it is by someone else. Every time I hear this track it tells me this story of myself again. That is its work and it does it well. 

And yet, even after all this realization, I still feel pangs of vanity. "This is all true but, still, if a few people liked it and told you how great it was that would be OK, no?" I suppose it would. But its neither necessary nor sufficient. If I made music just so someone else would tell me they liked it (assuming I could even do such a thing) then I would feel so hollow and fraudulent thereafter. I'm only making music at all to give expression to my experience of life. It absolutely must be true to that or the process of making and listening would be a destructive one for me personally. I suppose this leaves the question hanging in the air of its worth to other people. Apparently, that worth is not much. I cannot say I have any fan, not one that I'm overtly aware of anyway. Clearly some few people are in that five people who seem to download most things I do. Thank you if that's you. Its just that I think I need to make sense of my music without factoring in outside influences. To be prey to "likes and faves" is to be a cork in an ocean I do not control. I'd rather make sense of what I'm doing in a more stable atmosphere if that's at all possible. The world is fluctuating enough already as it is. Indeed, as Nietzsche knows well, all things are flux. (Nietzsche himself, I'm reminded, was not popular in his own lifetime. His books sold only a few hundred copies each. He would be amazed at what a philosophical superstar he has become. And probably also appalled.)

I don't know what this means for the future or whether I will just stop putting music online. I've been less than motivated recently. However, the Bandcamp counters don't lie: I know how many plays I get and how many of those are barely 30 seconds of my track that might be fifteen minutes long! Do I really need the distraction of that in my life like some silent, anonymous critique of my art's worth? Is it true that it would be better not to know? Of course, there may be those reading this who are thinking "No, don't take your music away, blah, blah, blah....". But you already know my reply to this: if you value it then why isn't it being listened to and downloaded? Now I'm coming across like some bitter and disappointed fellow who is sad because no one likes his music. But, truly, I'm not sad at all. Quite the opposite. I know my music's worth to me. I know how hearing it back tells me things about myself, how it helps me explain my experience of the world and that is a huge help to me. The rest of you listeners out there don't even enter into this equation. Other listeners are, as it were, a side issue.

As I finish writing this blog it occurs to me that there was one comment a couple of years back that really did touch me. It was by someone who has now sadly died and he was a musician himself. A couple of years ago in 2014 I made a track called "Lament for Existenz". It was as emotional and melancholic as you might imagine from that title. This other musician, a young man half my age, went out of his way to tell me that this track really touched him. It meant a lot to me that he did that because, knowing a little about him, I knew that he had health issues of his own and so knew something of the personal struggles that life can bring. So I felt, upon hearing his comment, that, somehow, my track had managed to communicate to a like mind. I've always remembered that I treasured this about the track whenever I hear it again. I suppose I hope that this is what my music can do for others as well. But I'm not doing it for that reason. It was touching to know that I had created something that someone else could feel though. Because most of all I think I'd like to believe that what I'm communicating in my music is something real. Because if its real then who cares what anyone else thinks?