[Humanist] 31.71 automated musicianship

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jun 1 06:59:06 CEST 2017

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 71.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 31 May 2017 10:16:20 +0000
        From: Joris van Zundert <joris.van.zundert at huygens.knaw.nl>
        Subject: Re:  31.67 automated musicianship; Haraway's Chthulucene
        In-Reply-To: <20170531055338.F39D61B65 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

Machine learning is getting really efficient at detecting and reproducing
the patterns in (the making of) human artefacts. This is what these
algorithms do. In ways that is interesting, in many more ways I suppose it
is just scratching at the surface of some essence of creativity.

I am reminded of people using apps like Enlight and Prisma to recreate the
craft that Van Gogh and Warhol mastered to reproduce real life pictures in
Van Gogh or Warhol style. No doubt those apps are just trickster gimmicks
to snoop on their users' behavior, but that is not my point.

Some elusive net gain I think is hidden in that kind of use that learning
algorithms provide: enjoying and recreating the very craft and style the
artist developed. At the push of a button we now see our cat as Picasso 
might have pictured it. That is an enjoyable gimmick, an aesthetic 

And no doubt some artist will someday produce complex combined styles
re-using the automated styles that have been learned by algorithms to amaze
us with some new form of art, different enticing poetics and aesthetics.
There's much to gain.

But that is a promise.

What is under pressure all the while meanwhile is current modes of
creativity. Deep learning algorithms reproduce craft, but as far as I can
tell until now not creativity. They result in admirable imitations. But
they do not seem to do the chance(?) trick of finding previously untried
combinations that for some reason deeply confuse, enchant, worry, or

Learning algorithms still miss out on the serendipitous element involved
with creativity. Allow me to lift an example from the wonderful book by
Julianne Nyhan and Andrew Flinn[1] that I am currently—supposed to be, I'm
afraid I have to admit—reviewing. They interview Judy Malloy who recounts
how she chanced into the idea of non linear narrative. This was all to do
with her having a child that wanted to play with the same drawing board as
the one she used to lay out her sheets to develop plot lines. Thus for
sheer practical reasons she started to use index cards to collect plot
elements. And well if you start re-sorting index cards you chance on the
possibility of non linear narratives. Now, go pattern learning that.

This however, is not some Socratic plea that human creativity is damned and
doomed if we continue to try to outsource our creativity and livelihood to
the writing of code and the computing metal. I have no doubt that learning
algorithms and artificial intelligence will be able at some point to be
creative, and that they will spur many a creative process, new forms of art
and artefacts.

It is just that the current tide of machine learning seems to be aimed at
the low hanging fruit of reproducing production patterns, which is a
business interest not a humanistic one.

So, if you ask if we will find out more about human artefacts as
creativity, the answer for me is: yes, provided we turn our computational
thinking towards that question. Will it be worth the cost? No, certainly
not if we kill all the artists in the process. But as with all technology,
that is a choice. Unfortunately a choice that is almost not at all ours to

All the best

[1]  Julianne Nyhan and Andrew Flinn. “Computation and the Humanities:
Towards an Oral History of Digital Humanities”. Springer Open, 2016.
Available at: http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319201696 [last accessed
31 May 2017].

Drs. Joris J. van Zundert

*Researcher & Developer in Humanities Computing*
Dept. of Literary Studies
Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

joris.van.zundert at huygens.knaw.nl


*visiting address*
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185
1012 DK  Amsterdam
The Netherlands

*postal address*
P.O. Box 10855
1001 EW  Amsterdam
The Netherlands


*Jack Sparrow: I thought you were supposed to keep to the code.Mr. Gibbs:
We figured they were more actual guidelines.*

On Wed, May 31, 2017 at 7:53 AM Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 67.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>   [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>   (18)
>         Subject: automation
>   [2]   From:    Enrico Natale <enrico.natale at infoclio.ch>
>  (11)
>         Subject: Re: Donna Haraway's Chthulucene / Humanist Digest, Vol
> 104,
>                 Issue 22 /
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>         Date: Tue, 30 May 2017 06:04:16 +0100
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         Subject: automation
> In response to Henry Schaffer's pointer to an article on the automation
> of musical composition, there are two consequences I think will hold --
> though I'll be glad for arguments to the contrary:
> (1) more human composers of music will be put out of work than have
> already;
> (2) we will find out more than we already know about music as a creative
> activity.
> The 70 year-old fear of automation has, as we all know, not proven
> groundless, as Shoshana Zuboff and others have demonstrated. The life of
> a musician is in general not an easy one; many find themselves working
> as musical hacks, doing just the sort of thing that software can now do.
> Can we say that the net gain has been worth the cost?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
> University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
> Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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