Saturday, March 14, 2009

Quantifying Greatness In Music

Posted by Trott

I just stumbled across this old thing I started writing. I have no intention of finishing it. In fact, I'm not even sure where I was going with it. This almost certainly had to be from the early days of the Palace Family Steak House web site when the concept was to make it as simultaneously tedious and yet paradoxically enjoyable a blog as possible.

It seems a shame to not put it out there. So, here you go. Sorry. (Anything that compares Eminem to Schoenberg requires an apology. So, I'm apologizing for that specifically, but also the whole thing in general.)

Quantifying Greatness In Music

There are essentially two schools of thought regarding quantifying
greatness algorithmically in art in general and in music specifically.
One school says, essentially, that it can't be done. The other school
says, essentially, that it can be done but we do not yet have the
machinery (i.e., computers) capable of doing so and/or the proper

I myself, for no good reason, subscribe to a sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty
Principle of quantifying greatness--as soon as you discover the algorithm,
greatness changes. Let's arrogantly decide that this is a third school.

The first school has a few different flavors and anyone subscribing to
it may be of any and all of the flavors. First, there is the idea
that greatness is too dependent on things that allegedly can't be
quantified, such as the cultural context of the work in question.
Then there is the idea that the perception of a work of art is simply
too complex and non-algorithmic to ever be modeled algorithmically.
Another idea is that greatness itself is a chimera; what is great to
one person is not great to another and trying to model the
determination of greatness is futile because you aren't trying to
model anything that is empirically real.

For people of the second school, perhaps the most immediate of these
objections is the one involving things that can't be quantified, such
as cultural context. Applying the Uncertainty Principle makes it all
the more problematic. If Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, as inarguable a
great work in music as you are going to find, were written today, it
would (correctly, in my opinion) not be celebrated as a great work.
Instead, it would be written off by critics as a conservative look
backward, and ignored by the public, or at best, embraced by a weak
and unimportant shard of the public the way John Williams's movie
scores are embraced. An algorithmic model of greatness based on
Beethoven's Ninth would fail miserably today, and correctly. The work
of Eminem contains complexities and challenges that Beethoven simply
could not have predicted. This is not to say that Eminem's work is
greater than Beethoven's. However, it may be as challenging and
important as Pierrot Lunaire. (I don't actually believe it to be
so, but I am not certain of my conviction here, which is another
problem for modeling greatness computationally.) Indeed, both The
Marhall Mathers LP
and Schoenberg's Pierrot contain violent imagery
that was shocking upon its release to the world. The world debated
whether it was poetry or pandering. The world also debated (and
continues to debate) whether the vocal parts of Marshall Mathers and
Pierrot constitute music or charlatanism.


 Anu said...

The artist must provide the right work at the right time.

Yes, making Beethoven's 9th (or something similar) would be marked as "retro". Wrong time. But there is no doubt that people would comment on its excellence despite being "old fashion".

And there are plenty of works whose primary strength is "timeliness" (or novelty) and over a longer period of time, their shine fades. I think much of the catalog of Beck falls into this category.

In the 20th and 21st century things get a bit more complex, because of the sheer volume of works - old ones re-discovered, re-mastered, re-sold; new ones shoved out the door. Sales figures compete with artistic merit.

Frequently what makes art valuable in retrospect isn't the work itself but what it triggers/triggered, and represents/represented. The Sex Pistols or The Pixies, for example, or any other band that is better appreciated for the bands they inspired.

I can't support any "algorithmic greatness model". Artistic greatness is a cultural thing and thus unpredictable. I think it's possible to make reasonable guesses about what the public and/or critics may like in the near-term, but there really is no way to guess what will endure for 10, 50, 100 years.

Classical music (or "Western Art Music", if you prefer) is already a dead and embalmed thing. There is no progress, no innovation. Its best works lie behind it and its popularity (such as it is) rests as much or more with its cultural associations and reputation than its future.

Sadly, Jazz and rock are not far behind. And last time I checked, hip-hop had seen better days.

Comparing The Marshall Mathers LP to Pierrot Lunaire is entertaining but pointless, sort of like asking "who would win in a fight: TJ Hooker or Odysseus?" These are works aimed at listeners separated by hundreds of years, cultures, and expectations.

Any assignation of "value" or "merit" to either work is inherently subjective and wholly dependent on the values with which the listener approaches each work.

My money's currently on Schoenberg for a few reasons: Schoenberg did it all himself, Eminem relied on many other talents to create his work (not even counting the samples).

Schoenberg was stretching the edges not just of "good taste", but of his genre and music as a whole. Nothing about Eminem's record puts it out on that edge (I'd look more to someone like Dalek, but even they're not far-out enough).

Finally, Schoenberg's work inspired powerful reaction, pro and con, in the press but in the music world as well. Perhaps it's just the much shorter temporal distance, but Eminem's effort has yet to demonstrate that level of influence.

Of course, now I'm thinking I should make a hip-hop version of "Pierrot Lunaire" which is all based around samples of Schoenberg. (Though ideally the Insane Clown Posse would be best act to do this.)

I mean, come ON. In one of the Pierrot segments, the crazy clown drills a hole into some dude's head, sticks his Turkish tobacco in there, and uses the guy's skull as a pipe for smoking...while the guy is still alive.

That's hardcore. That shit would make the Geto Boys and Cypress Hill run for their mommies.

I'ma start this right away!

12:00 PM, March 15, 2009

<< Home