Algorithmic Thinking and Musical Performance (2019)

Mieko Kanno

About this exposition

This presentation examines instances of elementary algorithmic thinking and musical examples that bear the same principles. A particular focus is given to the function of algorithmic thinking as a performative skill in action. The presentation takes as its background that the application of the procedural logic of algorithm has a long history in music, and that examples can be found in many types of music-making as activities. While much of this application is already discussed in the discipline of musical composition, I observe that the significant presence of algorithmic thinking in performance is still to be articulated. In the three sections titled ‘affordance’, ‘combinatoriality’, and ‘sequence’, I examine each concept in algorithmic operations, and how the same principle can be observed in musical practices. These three sections provide reflection on the nature of the processes involved in music-making. They also simultaneously argue that contemporary musicians possess the capacity to process necessary information and tasks algorithmically, consciously or not.
typeresearch exposition
keywordsMusical performance, algorithms, sequence, combinatoriality, affordance
last modified23/05/2019
share statusprivate
licenseAll rights reserved
published inRUUKKU - Studies in Artistic Research
portal issue11.

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457561 kids learning algorithms 1 https://www.tynker.com/blog/articles/ideas-and-tips/how-to-explain-algorithms-to-kids/ All rights reserved
457566 kids learning algorithms 2 https://www.tynker.com/blog/articles/ideas-and-tips/how-to-explain-algorithms-to-kids/ All rights reserved
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457585 division example me All rights reserved
457594 directions https://www.google.fi/maps/dir/ All rights reserved
457597 tablature 1 Luis de Milan (1535). Libro de musica de hihuela de mano, intitulado El Maestro. Valencia, Folio G VI/V; cited in Apel, W. (1953). The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 57 All rights reserved
457598 tablature 2 Luis de Milan (1535). Libro de musica de hihuela de mano, intitulado El Maestro. Valencia, Folio G VI/V; cited in Apel, W. (1953). The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 59 All rights reserved
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457645 bach fugue Leipzig: Bärenreiter All rights reserved
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RUUKKU portal comments: 3
nimetön/anonym/anonymous 21/05/2019 at 12:09

The following peer review was presented to the author during the process and has influenced the final exposition. It is here presented in a slightly edited form.


Anonymous Reviewer


The exposition fits the theme of the issue, as it focuses on music performance underlying, through the focus on algorithmic thinking, the procedural nature of performance, rather than its status of ‘being’ as a finished product (as stated by the author in the first paragraph of ‘read me first’.)


It must be noted though that the way in which the author describes music performance seems both vague and reductive. First of all, in writing about the completeness of music performance it would be important to take into account (at least in a footnote) modes of performance that challenge this view, or even take it as the object of performance itself (e.g. experimental music, Fluxus, free jazz, etc.). Secondly, throughout the exposition a vision of music performance emerges which resembles merely the explication of compositional processes, and which is therefore partial and limiting (or could become interesting, but provided that the author states her self-awareness of this point of view, or that sufficient argumentation is given).


This exposition might be interesting as a pedagogical introduction to algorithmic thinking, as it contains several and disparate entertaining examples demonstrating the ubiquity of algorithmic thinking in human activities. At an academic level though, these examples would need to be elaborated, and especially the link to music performance be investigated more thoroughly and profoundly. This exposition might seem more a draft for a more elaborated paper, a starting collection of ideas.


It is clear that the argument is made from the perspective of someone who is acquainted with compositional processes and music performance. The relevance of artistic practice is shown mostly in the section “Combinatoriality”, where the author reports a survey done among members of a contemporary music group. Nevertheless, the connection with the theoretical horizon (in itself a bit scanty and underdeveloped) seems to deserve more engagement, and a deeper and more specific account of practice as knowledge production.


For example: the survey hints to an interesting process, where different instrumentalists process actions in a different order according to the specificity of the instrumental interfaces, and of the physicality and spatiality of these interfaces. The same score is mapped by these different specificities in different ways, and interpolated with “each player’s ‘mindfulness’ about detail that renders her/his approach individual.” Nevertheless, a conclusion seems missing about what the author describes as the “quality of the outcome.” How is it affected? What defines such quality? The exposition would benefit a lot from an attempt to address these questions.


On the other hand, questions are asked about music performance that seem not to pertain specifically to algorithmic thinking. When the author asks “Do you just listen to what you are doing? How much do you concentrate on listening to the present music-making, and how much do you follow the pre-conceived design for the performance that you’ve created in your practice? What proportion of concentration power do you allocate along the timeline of the performance, meaning between what has happened before now, what is happening now, and what is about to happen? - she makes not clear to what an extent answers to these questions might connect to algorithmic thinking.


The theoretical horizon (the nature of algorithmic thinking) is faced in too simplistic a way for other disciplines to benefit from the exposition.


Does the submission contain a description or exposition of the question, issue or problem the research is exploring? If not, does this omission matter?


Yes, the question and issue are clearly stated, but their treatment seems not exhaustive. As the author rightly points out, a certain amount of algorithmic thinking seems to underlie every single human activity. In this sense though, she makes not clear what is the specificity of music performance; at the same time the way she describes algorithmic thinking is limited to a list of examples, without deeper discussion of its implications.


The exposition suggests that observing every human action in terms of algorithms is revealing, but, once this is explained, it provides a theoretical framework that remains too vague. I would appreciate a reflection on where the distinction between algorithmic and non-algorithmic processes lies. Too many questions remain suspended. Among them, I can suggest: is algorithmic thinking confined to instructions and decision-making processes? Cannot we define basic human processes, such as language itself, as algorithms? And if so, what is the impact of algorithm thinking also in unconscious or automatic processes? How do algorithms shape the way of perceiving the world? Do emotions, for example, challenge the ubiquity of algorithmic thinking? Or not? What about perceptions? Etc.


Does the submission show evidence of innovation in content, form or technique in relation to a genre of practice?


No, the submission does not propose any innovation in content, form or technique in relation to a practice. It limits itself to the observation of a pre-existing established practice.


Is the research issue contextualized in terms of social, artistic and/or theoretical issues? Is it linked to discussion on the positions taken by other artists to whom this work contributes a particular perspective? Is the process that led to this submission well documented? If not, do such omissions matter?


References are brought in relation to theoretical issues, some en passant, some more substantially documented (e.g. Gibson, Loycker, MacKenzie). No voices from other artists are brought to the table (save for the results of the survey conducted among colleagues).


Does the submission provide new knowledge, interpretation, insights or experiences in, on, or for art or art pedagogy? What might these comprise?


This exposition provides some insights on the processual nature of performance, shifting the discourse from performance as finished object to performance as process of decision-making.


Are the methods used adequate and sound? Is the research, analysis and/or experiment thorough?


The examples provided have the merit of being easy and entertaining, but seem too simplistic for an academic level. The exposition does not address the topic of methodology – which is not a problem, but also does not provide much consistency or direction.


The exposition is legible, easy to approach and understand. The integration of media is simple but functional and engaging. In the introduction, with the hint to an instruction leaflet (“Read me first”) the author suggests an interesting format for developing the exposition as an algorithmic series of instructions itself. Possible suggestion: why not follow this initial idea throughout the exposition in a form that replicates the algorithmic thinking exposed in it? It would make things more intriguing.


This exposition faces a topic of potential interest, namely the discussion of algorithmic thinking in processes of music performance. The treatment of this topic, though, suffers from a lack of specificity and profundity. On the one hand, the general theoretic framework is treated in terms that are too simple, and that leave too large an amount of basic questions unanswered; on the other hand, the specific focus of the paper – music performance – is treated only in vague terms, without the deeper engagement that is expected from a practitioner and an artist. A large amount of presuppositions undermines the soundness of the paper, specifically about the relationship between composition and performance, performance and listening, performance and electronic music, interpretation and improvisation, various notational systems (e.g. tablature vs rhythmic-diastematic). There are some practical and theoretical implications of thinking about music performance in terms of algorithmic processes that seem promising, but that are unfortunately left unexplored.


Possible suggestions:


Given the claim in the exposition (with which I tend to agree) that algorithmic thinking is a forcefully ubiquitous process at the basis of human acting, it would be fruitful to reflect on what part(s) of the musical experience (or more general human experience) challenge algorithmic thinking, or are left uncovered by it.

The submission would benefit from deeper investigation on the implications of algorithmic thinking from the maker’s perspective. What are the subtler consequences of explaining music performance through algorithms? What does it actually change? Are there practical examples where this mode of thinking can make a difference, or have an impact?

The distinction announced in the abstract between algorithmic composition and algorithmic performance seems a very promising ground. What could be the implications of thinking algorithmically in performance independently of compositional algorithmic processes? What is the specificity of performance in contrast to composition that thinks algorithms in its own modalities and media?

Petri Kuljuntausta 21/05/2019 at 12:12

The following peer review was presented to the author during the process and has influenced the final exposition. It is here presented in a slightly edited form.


Petri Kuljuntausta:


The subject of the exposition is closely connected to the theme of the call: How to do things with performance? The writer’s goal is to analyse how we can find the idea of algorithmic method from musical performances.


The subject is interesting, as we don’t know much about the processes and decisions that musicians do in real time in the performance situations. The writer has fresh ideas, the writer also finds examples on algorithmic thinking from real life and with the help of these the writer gives a good example on the different algorithmic processes.


The most important value of this exposition is how it turns our minds to find algorithmic thinking and processes from the performance situation and real-time musical decisions.


The exposition is interesting as an artistic research, as we don’t have much research material from this area. As the writer is also a musician, this gives inner sight for the subject and thus the research is based on the musician’s own experiences, too. The writer has ability to research the subject objectively and present the ideas systematically and logically.


The opening paragraph in READ ME FIRST chapter is problematic. The idea of an 'unfinished performance' is not clear and I don't know what the writer really wants to state.. This paragraph should be edited (or deleted).


The writer introduces too many examples of algorithmic actions of everyday life. Instead, I would like to read how the writer takes a step further and introduces more examples on algorithmic thinking in different musical performances. At the end of the chapters Affordance and Combinatoriality, we get only one musical example.


In the Abstract, the writer states about the goal of this writing: "A particular focus is given to the function of algorithmic thinking as a performative skill in action." But sometimes the writer forgot to stay with the subject. For example, in the chapter Combinatoriality, the main focus is in the preparation of the performance. It is interesting to learn how different musicians make preparations for a concert, but this goes slightly off the track as in this analysis the question is about the actions of music performance, not the actions before the performance (like the description on how to prepare the musical material, like pages of the scores, before the concert performance).


There is no problem with the design and navigation, they work logically and support the ideas of the exposition.


This submission is important. It will open up new ideas about the musical performance. The submission provides new knowledge, insights, and interpretation. However, there is some minor problems with the content and sources that I have mentioned, and these should be corrected before publishing. Also, I missed references to other research projects and articles from this field (a different perspective on the human side of algorithms).


Despite my critical comments, I find this text stimulating and it is clear that if the writer elaborates the ideas in next writings, it will help musicians even better to understand algorithmic actions and decisions during the performance.

nimetön/anonym/anonymous 21/05/2019 at 12:13

The following peer review was presented to the author during the process and has influenced the final exposition. It is here presented in a slightly edited form.


Anonymous reviewer


A Dialogue for Two Unnamed Voices


- Is it relevant? Does it respond to the questions it is expected to respond to?

- I think very much so.

- And what are these questions?

- The relationship of the mathematical concept of algorithm and live performance, in this case live musical performance. In other words, the relationship of mathematical and musical processing.

- So how computer programs perform music?

- No, that’s exactly what it’s not about. And this is what I find best about the exposition. It is concerned with how musical performance is carried out algorithmically by humans, not by computers. Certainly, it also makes reference to machine computation, but this is in the periphery. The focus is on musical performance as an organizational, temporal process that can be approached and described in terms of algorithmic decision-making and that requires a very specific type of skill or expertise, if you will.

- In these times, it is unusual to speak of algorithms without referring to computers. I’m thinking here of Annie Dorsen’s “algorithmic theater” or the many manifestations algorithmic processing has found in electronic literature, for instance in the Reader’s Project by John Cayley and Daniel Howe.

- Exactly, this is why this particular exposition strikes me as very refreshing. Its point of departure is unusual, I agree.

- There are four parts to the exposition, entitled “Read Me First”, “Affordance”, “Combinatoriality”, and “Sequence”. Is there a part you find particularly important in terms of the claims or proposals the exposition is advancing?

- The latter part of “Sequence” strikes me as going to the very heart of the matter. Here the author explicates their understanding of how algorithmic thinking relates to and describes not only the composition of but the very performance of contemporary classical music. They refer to the flexibility and mutability of algorithms, which continue to often be perceived of as mechanical and rigid.

- This pertains to computer algorithms too, as they are not the impenetrable “black boxes” they are often claimed to be, at least not non-commercial algorithms.

- Exactly, this is something of a paranoid understanding of algorithms. To counter such understandings, the author, in the latter part of “Sequence”, points to how the preconceived design for any performance meets the real-time cognitive work inherent to performance in a delicate balancing act that they also refer to as “juggling as you go.”

- You’re going to have to flesh this out for me a bit. I don’t quite follow.

- Well, what I think the author contributes to artistic research is a newly articulated understanding of live performance as a series of acts that must be carried out rigorously and with precision and, importantly, combined with a sensitivity or attentiveness to musical structure. Only through this combination can the performer make use of the potential of the composition to move the listener.

- What do you mean by “moving the listener”?

- Allowing them to witness or even experience the cognitive process of the performer, or “enacting decisions [as a] real-time process,” as the author describes it.

- Now, is this germane only to musical performance?

- Absolutely not, and this is where the wider relevance of the exposition comes in to play. As I see it, this resonates with many other forms of live performance. I am thinking of, for example, how a performer executes a score. There is a similar process at play there, although audience members are rarely familiar with performance scores, even more rarely than with music compositions.

- From what you describe and from what I myself discern, it would seem that the relationship of practice and research is very close in this exposition, to the point of being seamless?

- Yes, one might assume that there has been a practice that has led to a certain research interest in algorithms or algorithmic thinking, but as this way of thinking and working seems to have been characteristic of the practice to begin with, the line between the practice and research is “a line drawn in water,” as the saying in Finnish goes.

- Rather than belonging solely to the domains of industry and machine computation, algorithmic thinking is then an absolute necessity for performers of contemporary classical music. Becoming more aware and articulate of this is perhaps what the exposition ultimately proposes.

- Yes, and in itself the exposition is clear and rigorous in the ways it presents its claims and observations, as if to exemplify the very thing it is exploring. The exposition itself may be understood as a design for performance, but as the author stresses, the real art is in its enactment.

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