The ubiquity and versatility of computer algorithms in the field of sound and music – which is continuing and extending the historical tradition of rule-based musical composition – makes it necessary to reflect their role, especially for artists using them in their daily practice. Although this seems self-evident, it's possible and wide-spread to use algorithms naively, also in various one-dimensional ways. I have done so myself in the past, and I'd like to explain my revised views on the subject by suggesting and discussing a categorization.
The following analysis emerges from observations of my artistic practice in the fields of electro-acoustic as well as instrumental composition. For sure, it is not valid for all possible usages of algorithms regarding sound and music, e.g., I omitted the role of algorithms in performance. However, I tend to think that the outlined abstractions of human-machine interaction can be applied to other working processes as well, even beyond the domain of audio – I'm looking forward to discussing this with other participants of the ALMAT symposium on the occasion of the upcoming round table.
First, there are two poles of algorithmic functionality: the production and the organization of sound. Both can be intertwined, but they can also be separated, which, I think, can be more problematic in aesthetic regard. Secondly, there are two poles of attitudes when working with algorithms: construction and experimentation, both can apply to sound organization and production. I will argue that a successful workflow will mostly include a meaningful balance of all these elements – whereas, an over-emphasis of either pole is a potential danger of entering an artistic cul-de-sac. In this sense, a dialectic relation between the poles of functionality and the poles of attitude is welcome, but this is not the only kind of dialectics I'm arguing for: I'd like to show how, via repeated judgments, especially the historic-dialectic aspect comes into play and influences, maybe even dominates, a workflow, which, on the surface, might look to be mainly driven by an abstract – the algorithmic – paradigm. To a large extent, it's the unconscious, sedimented knowledge, which is influencing the individual's relation to new material – that can hardly ever be new in any sense.
At this point, I should say that I'm talking about my practice of programming and adjusting algorithms. I've observed that many colleagues are acting similarly, though, I have also seen people taking algorithmically generated output as granted, so judging the algorithm by its abstract value (beauty?) and not by its materialized results. I have to admit that I'd feel extremely uncomfortable with such an approach.
Furthermore, it's worth mentioning that the usage of algorithms doesn't necessarily require its programming, algorithms can be chosen and combined in a higher-level syntax, graphically or not, and the future will bring more of such tools. However, I think that being able to access at least a minimum of lower-level syntax at the end gives more choices to the artist.
To exemplify the bespoken categories, I will finally include a current snapshot of my artistic work. Right now – summer 2020 – I'm at the starting point of composing new pieces with totally synthesized material, something I haven't done for a long time in which I preferred synthesis based on recorded samples. I'm more intensively experimenting with three methods that are all rather new to me, and I'm not sure what I will decide on at the end. However, I will comment on the experiences that I have made so far. That might clarify the abstractions of the described determining forces – which are a result of similar experiences in the past.
As I regard the dialectic reaction as the driving force behind the algorithmic working process, I'd like to start here.