Toward a New Music: Are We There Yet?

Carlos Chavez had many profound ideas that he shared in his book Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity. The portion of the book that caught my attention was Chapter 4: Electric Instruments of Musical Reproduction. Though the book was first published in 1937, Chavez already had a premonition about the direction the musical world might take. In our present year, 2017, it’s safe to say that some of Chavez’s thoughts are accurate but thankfully some traditional ideas have remained in tacked.
Chavez explains that machines could enhance our musical experiences. He foreshadowed musical machines performing compositions to a perfection level that could not be accomplished by humans. When I read this I instantly thought about the evolution of the player piano (the pianola, which he does discuss) and how we currently have digital pianos that not only sound and feel more like an acoustic piano (added bonus, they never have to be tuned) but can also play more notes at the same time than any human could ever do alone. These digital pianos have the capacity to program and record whatever you “punch in.” The computer program itself does the “written” work for you.
He does bring up the fact that these musical machines could also eliminate the human performer. To some degree, this has occurred. Take for example pianists that accompany instrumentalist and vocalists for school contests (UIL Solo/Ensemble). There are now computer programs (example: Smartmusic) where a student can play with a digital accompaniment that follows along with the student’s tempo tap. And of course, some people would rather use an MP3 player with a pre-recorded accompaniment to assist with these competition events. This option does come in handy because sometimes there are just not enough pianists to go around. Rather than pay a human accompanist, it is also cheaper and easier to just “press play” on a device and not worry about scheduling rehearsals. In this case, perhaps a “musical machine” has its benefits but will it eventually replace human accompanists? And what about computer programs that use algorithms that compose music for you? Imagine if all of Beethoven’s music was composed by a machine? Beethoven wouldn’t exist. Would some of us picture a computer while listening to his music instead of visualizing Beethoven’s tumultuous life? That added inspiration would not be there.

That being said, I always thought creating music was a HUMAN characteristic? I believe that our capacity to create music and art is one of the things that sets us aside from other animals on this planet. How can a machine “feel” the emotion of the music? It cannot (at least not yet…yikes!). Chavez delves into the idea that these musical machines would “eliminate the personal factor of human interpretation.” I convey this message to my music students quite often. What is the purpose of learning to play an instrument? Self-expression is one of the main reasons. Humans need an artistic outlet and music serves its purpose in this regard. Most people listen to music, learn about music, play music to feel alive. But if Chavez’s predictions come true, will our musical humanity die out? The good news: in 2017 our society is still willing to hear real-life human performers. We are still willing to learn how to play an instrument for enjoyment and we still find value in the arts. Who knows if there will come a day when machines (robots) take over our artistic creations. The thought is frightening and fascinating at the same time.

-Laura Aguirre


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