Monday, 2 May 2016

Embracing Randomness

Music and Life are two different things. But in many ways I find them to be intertwined. Perhaps this is just me. I think something about life or I concentrate on the tortuous path of my own and music seems to either mirror that or come to be the means through which I express or interpret it. I make electronic music so perhaps this is natural. Something which always attracts my focus, and about which I have written before, is randomness. I am still convinced that many people find randomness threatening and devaluing of things (because they need an "author" and have an authorial view of the world). And I am still equally convinced that such thinking makes no sense and is stuck in its ways, unable to see that there are other ways of seeing. Of course, we all have our truth and we all see the way we cannot help seeing. We have each lived specific lives which lead to specific beliefs. But some of us, hopefuly most of us, realise that these things are not a must but just the contingent ways our own lives have worked out. We recognize that others have lived different lives and see things differently because of that.

There are many ideologies in the world today and many are not pretty. They are authoritarian and harsh. They tell us that things must be a certain way and often include compulsion in things or in us to make this so. People like to impose things on the world and say "So it must be!" I try not to be one of these people for I do not think that the world is a certain way and I have no interest in imposing anything on it. I think that the world just is, that it has motors of its own that cause it to keep rolling along, and that we are, at best, tangential to these facts. Human beings are creatures who are constantly over-egging their own importance in a universe in which, to be blunt, we aren't important at all. Our world and even the universe itself did not need human beings or their made up gods to come to be and to be as they are. We are in meaningful senses just one more cosmic accident and, it is not unforeseeable, yet more cosmic accidents will take us away as easily as they created us.

A person who thinks this way, or, at least, this person who thinks this way, can't then, I think, think in too strict terms. People's art comes from their appreciation of life and so, in music, similar thoughts tend to prevail. And yet, from time to time, I still wonder what others find threatening in randomness. In my music I have, many times, come across the notion that I have become set in my ways. I am, so I say to myself, once more just doing the same thing over and over again. I am using the same tool or the same sounds or the same process. And this bothers me. I feel that such things, when they happen, are constricting limitations in a world full of possibilities - if only I could think of them. Randomness is, in some sense, infinite possibility. I am often frustrated with myself because I will have some tool and use about 5% of its possibilties before discarding it. We are, as people, creatures of habit, as William James said, and it is easy to slip into habits and rely on them as safety nets. But I want to scream out loud that the world is not a place to be safe in. To be truly alive is to always be on the edge of disaster, to feel that there is something to lose.

Randomness has a bad reputation. When people think of randomness, and I speak musically now for a moment, they think of a random mess or incomprehensible noise. Randomness certainly can be this. It is random, after all. But take a step back and consider the following pictures. 

These landscape scenes were, in genuine ways, created at random. Certainly, no intelligence was behind their creation. (Theists may disagree.) We may say, in creative terms, that no creator created them. But I'd be willing to gamble that most of my readers, if not all of them, find these scenes stunningly beautiful. This should then act upon your thinking to question your notion of what the results of randomness can be. Things can be stunningly beautiful and inspirational at random without the hand of what some regard as a necessary author to give things meaning or beauty or importance. Indeed, I might go further and suggest that it is ONLY the random things that can truly do this. Such things are detached from others and we can get lost in what is before us without the static of who did what and why. No one created those landscapes. They just came to be. All by themselves, prey to the unthinking hands of a million random forces. It is a mystery why we find such things beautiful and I certainly cannot explain it. But that doesn't change the fact that we do.

Can randomness in music be approached the same way? I think so. For while there is no inherent beauty in the landscape scenes and it is a useful mystery as to why we find them beautiful, we know that we do find them beautiful. The same can be said of looking at the stars in the sky and many other things. If you ask yourself the question "Why is something beautiful?" it becomes very hard to explain it in terms of something deliberately done. It becomes easier to explain it in terms of "Things have just worked out that way". Randomness, and an appreciation for it, I think, helps us to do this. It is in letting go that we find ourselves more at peace and more at one with all the other things. Wanting control and to be in charge is, certainly for some purposes, a necessary and useful thing. But I don't think it is when being creative or wanting to understand things. You have to be able to let go and let things fall where they may. Musicians of all kinds speak of the good fortune of "happy accidents". I think this is a recognition that not always being in control and saying how things should be is a good thing. Put simply, the wonder is not our's to command and the ability to control doesn't mean that control is where it's at. Control is but a tool, one to be used in the knowledge that we are very limited creatures. It is human to remember that so much is beyond us - and should be!

My Electronic Oddities Podcast for this Friday (6th May) is to be about music made only with modular synthesizers. Some, if not much, of this will incorporate randomness. Indeed, in most modular synthesizer formats randomness has been embraced as a principle and there are various modules whose sole purpose is to provide random voltages or to randomize sound. These ideas please me even as those landscape pictures above do. They put right in the middle of music made this way that I AM NOT GOING TO BE IN CONTROL OF IT. I think this is a good thing and it reminds us of our place in the order of things. We are not controllers, we are just more things that came to be, things that can create and see beauty in things. I think the more that we repeat this to ourselves the better people we will be. 

I reject the modern notion that we can be in charge of everything and create the universe we want rather than the one we got and are constantly in receipt of. I see the notion that we should take charge, in its grandest sense, as a striving to be gods. But we are not gods. We can only become less human by wanting to be them. Randomness and, to some extent, the abstraction that often goes with it, is a reminder to me that things are fine just how they are, however they work out. We should be at peace with that if we can be. We are not gods. We should be content to find beauty in things, even things like pain, misery and finitude, for this is a random gift of our existence too. These were our lots, the things randomness assigned us. And we are not so poor after all if we can see things as they appear to us not as things that someone deliberately made for us but as things that just are. This is an anti-authorial view of the world and also an anti-authoritarian view. It is one in which we recognze that life is flowing past us and through us all the time. It is not fixed. It just is, constantly flowing. I like music that mimics and represents this. It is like a therapeutic reflection of life, the stream of consciousness that we all are. 

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