20 January 2008

Musical Ergonomics: Aesthetic Unity, Narrative Control, and Shared Authorship/Readership

Neuromancer massively-multiplayer role-playing game

A  s for CoCo™, it was a charming, agreeably quiet, and effective companion. The program notes were informative, and for those who simply wanted a visual aide, the live feed of Morgan conducting (shot from the orchestra’s point of view) was an attractive enhancement. The commentary was useful, particularly in a new and unfamiliar piece such as Bunch’s — the texts linked the music to Lichtenstein’s paintings (shown on the hand-held screen) and directed the listener to changes in mood and instrumentation. But even a well-known work such as Beethoven’s 8th yielded an engaging summary of exposition and development. It wasn’t until the second half, however, that the device proved worth its weight in gold. With the Mahler texts on the hand-held screen, it was no longer necessary to search for them in the program (as any vocal recital fan can tell you, the sound of hundreds of audience members turning pages in unison can be a big distraction). Recital lovers also know that presenters often provide the texts but keep the lights so low no one can read them. Here they were in your hand, illuminated and easy to read! Suddenly, I was convinced: The gadget’s a very good thing.”
  —  Georgia Rowe, Andante, 25-FEB-2005.

One of the biggest problems in compositional ‘form’ (or programming ‘form’, as covered in the previous post ) is achieving a ‘unity’ of style, expressive aesthetics, and meaning. ‘Lack of unity’ assaults the mind and emotions. ‘Expressive incoherence’ is aesthetically ugly and annoying.

But the issue of coherence isn’t just whether the ideas and feelings make sense in the sequences or the mashups and overlaps that are composed/arranged. It also has to do with the slew-rate—how fast the transitions are (as Robert Kirzinger put it) in the context of who’s listening or participating, and in the context of what the listeners’/participants’ skills, training, mood, intentions and goals, and other factors are at the time. The question is not just pertinent to the juxtaposition of pieces by disparate composers. The question of coherence is also raised at the level of movements’ relations to each other within works—how coherent are the movements with each other, in the sequence in which they are arranged—and even down to the phrase level, as David Lewin points out. Or even at the ‘ambient’ configuration level, as Jesper Kyd points out.

Hypothetically, unity can be guaranteed simply by using the same ‘material’ from beginning to end, as is done in some fugues or in some of Steve Reich’s or other minimalists’ pieces. Morton Feldman’s ‘Rothko Chapel’ and ‘Why Patterns?’ on the same disc: same composer, similar meditative intent, similar sound intensity, similar acoustic performance spaces and timbres, similarities in ‘vocality’ among the instrumental and choral parts, different orchestrations but nonetheless cohesive. ‘Why Patterns?’ for flute, glockenspiel and piano, a dissonant vegetative proliferation. The work doesn’t seem to have a beginning or ending. A cosmic, zen-like piece of music, where the audience members are incidental. Coming in half-way through or leaving before the end may not detract from your apprehending its meaning. This has unity and coherence with zen-like qualities of ‘Rothko Chapel’. Just one example, but one that illustrates the multiple dimensions around which aesthetic value judgments must be made and are made.

Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel; Why Patterns? CD

    [50-sec clip, Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel-3, UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, 1.2MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel-5, UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, 1.3MB MP3]

You can’t tell what 50 sec of the third movement of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel I excerpted, could you! Shall I excerpt 50 sec of John Cage’s 4’33’’ ? The entire piece consists of silences—silences of different lengths, as they say. As a musical piece, 4’33’’ leaves almost no room for the pianist’s interpretation. As long as the pianist watches the stopwatch, she/he can’t play it too fast or too slow. She/he can’t hit the wrong notes. She/he can’t play it too loud or too soft, too flatly or too floridly. What you hear when you listen to 4’33’’ is entirely a matter of chance—nothing of what you hear is anything the composer ‘wrote’ in any ordinary sense. It’s nonetheless a composition—Cage, the godlike Blind Watchmaker, intended for you to have an antiphonal, aleatoric musical experience, without explicitly specifying what the content of that experience will be—only specifying that it should have a pianist, a piano, and be 4’33’’ in duration. It is symbolically rich and it has its own peculiar aesthetic unity and coherence. Different if someone coughs, say, than if a city bus goes by and is heard faintly through the walls of the concert hall. It would be sacrilege if I excerpted 4’33’’ and gave you a 50-sec clip of it. More than sacrilege, it would be incoherent to do so.

E  ven more telling is a psychological rationale that suggests why something new should happen at this moment. To assert an I-relation between mm. 29-32 and mm. 33-36 has entailed our obtruding the idea of rows into a piece based, so far, on ‘configurations’. This precipitates a critical point in our reception of the music [Dallapiccola’s ‘Simbolo’]. We may not be fully aware of the crisis, to be sure, but perhaps we sense it obscurely, as suggested by the composer’s indication ‘oscuro’ on the dyad {G, A-flat} at m. 33. Given this state of affairs, something ‘large’ should happen just after mm. 33-36. Perhaps a row will appear in the music. Perhaps some new configuration-type will appear—possibly generating a new ‘variation’. Or perhaps the piece will close, as it in fact does, via the references to the original configuration in mm. 37-42 and then in mm. 42-46. The enigmatic effect of those references is not simply due to a ‘stimmung’ inherent in the material itself. Rather, our puzzlement involves a sense of incompleteness; the music withdraws from us, withholding something from us—that is, the row. We are impelled onwards.”
  —  David Lewin, Dallapiccola’s ‘Simbolo’, in Musical Form & Transformation, 2007, p. 14.
Poorly-constructed fugues can be deadly. If we listen to music that continues for too long without enough rhythmic or harmonic texture to hold our attention then we tend to go to sleep. Carnatic and other asian music presents challenges to those of us whose minds were raised in western traditions; in spite of our concentration, attention becomes an effort.

If the rhythm and/or harmonic textures change, though—not excessively frequently or precipitously, and not too infrequently or glacially—then our attention is captured and remains in focus. We listen to the succession of messages with pleasure, or angst, or whatever emotions are consistent with the content and intent of the music. Each new message must last long enough for it to be meaningful and aesthetically effective. If it doesn’t last long enough, or if it violates our expectations (as Robert Kirzinger said in his email response to the previous CMT post), then it’ll frustrate and irritate us or wear us out. Continuous change or scatological change makes it impossible for us to remember what’s gone before, or to relate one part to another. Inevitably, the lack of completion or fulfillment leaves us dissatisfied and forgetful of what we’ve heard. Do not put your iPod on ‘shuffle’ and expect fulfillment or aesthetic coherence, unless you have a very tiny, already-coherent iTunes library on that iPod.

Human factors engineering for avionics and cockpit-design has many of these same ‘durability of attention’ cognitive issues. In conditions of poor visibility, inexperienced pilots get into spiral dives in several ways, but this is the most common: While the pilot (John Kennedy Jr?) is looking for lights on the ground or other horizon reference, the airplane slowly rolls into a banked attitude. With no horizon visible, the pilot looks at the ‘artificial horizon’ indicator in the cockpit and notices that the horizon bar is not level. The initial reaction is to roll the horizon bar back to level, which rolls the airplane into a steeper bank. This is known as a ‘horizon control reversal’.

Cognitive Ergonomics of Cockpit Gauges
In a steep bank, the nose of the airplane drops, and it starts to lose altitude. To maintain altitude, the pilot pulls back, which tightens the turn and steepens the spiral dive. At this point the pilot is confused, disoriented, and no longer in control of the airplane. Such a sequence can and does happen rapidly, and the resulting crash is invariably attributed to ‘pilot error’. No doubt the pilot made the error, but what caused the ‘error’ is never determined nor the probable cause reported.

The term ‘pilot error’ is misused when such errors can be prevented by an experimentally proven equipment modification. In the case of flight attitude control, all that is needed is to cause the ‘little airplane’ symbol on the artificial horizon gauge to rotate in direct response to aileron control inputs. So, to return to a wings-level attitude, the pilot merely has to align the airplane symbol with the displaced horizon bar and maintain that alignment as the real airplane and the artificial horizon bar, rotating in opposite directions, both return to wings-level.

To illustrate, if the airplane rolls to the right, the horizon bar rolls left. The pilot notices this and applies left aileron to align the airplane symbol with the horizon bar, causing the plane to start rolling back toward wings level. As this is going on, the pilot gradually reduces the left aileron input to maintain alignment until the ailerons are neutral when the wings are level. Thus, straight-ahead flight is restored. The three display modes all indicate a bank to the right. The left indicator is rotated counterclockwise. In the center indicator, the airplane symbol is rotated clockwise. In the right indicator, the horizon is the same as on the left, but in addition the airplane symbol is rotated clockwise by the pilot’s aileron input, indicating that the plane will continue to roll to the right. The instrument represented on the left is the standard system in today’s airplanes including John Kennedy’s Piper Saratoga II. With the display at the right, pilots maintain wings-level flight merely by aligning the airplane symbol with the horizon, a natural response.

Each of the three gauge designs has the advantage of ‘judgment-neutrality’. That is, none of the gauges strongly says at any time that the pilot is making a wrong decision—they simply show the fact of pitch-yaw-roll (right-banking/left-banking and nose-up/nose-down attitude) with respect to the ground. You may have your reasons for piloting the plane in the attitude it is taking—that’s up to you; the gauge doesn’t tell you you are wrong to do so, and it doesn’t prejudicially tell you that something bad is probably going to happen if you keep steering that way. That’s just the way a gauge should be!

So, maybe orchestras and presenters should try ‘musical avionics console’ graphical PDAs or VR heads-up goggles to hand out to audience members who want them, to give the audience notice of aesthetic turbulence ahead, or advance views of the aesthetic terrain below. You thought the CoCo™ ConcertCompanion™ text-plus-video RF PDA guides that’ve been tried in 2003-2007 were distracting, aesthetically disturbing? Well, get a load of ConcertFlightSimulator™.

My cup of tea? No, no wireless virtual consoles or PDAs for me. Technophile though I am and alternative-venues classical/newmusic person though I am, I don’t really want more ‘gear’ when participating in a live ‘meat-world’ performance. And I don’t want to hear or see other concert-goers fumbling with the glarey little gizmos either. Not even nice Studierstube PDAs. People dropping their programs on the floor is distracting enough as it is. And I don’t want to be subjected to other people ‘crashing’ their augmented-reality concert flight-deck hand-helds. I don’t want a concert hall full of ‘gamers’ to intrude on my listening (or performing).

InvisibleTrain™ augmented reality PDAs
No, you [concert presenters, artists, composers, recording/broadcast producers] have the ‘con’. The aesthetic unity and musical ‘safety’ of your ‘flying’ are fine with me just as they are, even when you deviate from the flight-plan or ‘normal’ sequence of movements. I can live with it. I may prefer some other unity, some other coherence. But, then again, I may learn something from you, and from the choices you make. Or I may learn something about the reasons for my deep preferences for hearing all of the movements of Brahms’s Op. 111 Quintet in G major together, with respectful/meditative silences before and after. Either way, I’m happy. Citizenship includes following others, enabling others and just simply trusting others to lead. I would not come down on you for failing to make the best aesthetic decision, and you know that I have every confidence in you, that you will successfully complete our aesthetic/experiential ‘mission’.

Different story, though, in SecondLife or classical music in other VR realms. If some ‘aesthetic avionics gauges’ were available in SL and I could configure my own in-world virtual-concert cockpit the way I want, I might in fact use them. Happy, in SL, to have you as co-pilot. The SL script language isn’t quite up to that yet, though.

Microvision Windshield heads-up augmented reality monitor

[Laurie & Fry, on linguistic coherence]

Kamata Psychology of Product Development book