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The "Bubbles" experiment - What is contemporary music worth?

61978 Views 2164 Replies 70 Participants Last post by  Forster

I would like to introduce you to an exciting experiment that I discovered.

It's about the Dutch composer Alexander Comitas. He wanted to test whether the modern atonal art music, which is usually promoted nowadays, can be distinguished from hitting random keys on the piano.

For this purpose he "composed" a piece called "Bubbles" by letting his young children, who had no musical education, play random notes on the keyboard. In the end, the children only divided the notes among the instruments. However, the composer did not tell anyone how the piece was made.

And indeed: Alexander Comitas received a grant of 3000 € for this composition! The jury, which consisted of a composer, a musicologist and a conductor, found the piece to be of high quality and even better than the previous (mostly tonal) compositions by Comitas.

You can take a closer look at the story under the following links:

'Bubbles' and Beyond: An Ongoing Musical Saga (Aristos, March 2013)

And here the composition Bubbles:

What do you think about this? I find the experiment very exciting, as it confirms what I had been thinking for a long time: A lot of modern classical music can hardly be distinguished from random notes.
I have seriously studied the composition methods of modern composers like Boulez, but came to the conclusion: No matter how "structured" these compositions seem on paper, they are irrelevant to the listener, since these structures are simply not audible.

However, instead of criticizing these compositions constructively, advocates of atonal music are often amazed at the "complex" and "innovative" structures of the compositions - even if they do not exist, as the Bubbles experiment shows.

I think that such experiments should be performed more often so that it becomes clear that the avantgarde mentality is causing damage to modern classical music and hindering the development of new music that actually relates to the way humans perceive music.

What do you think?
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I'm trying to understand the OP a bit better.

What do you think about this? I find the experiment very exciting, as it confirms what I had been thinking for a long time: Most modern classical music can hardly be distinguished from random notes.
I assume you mean that some modern classical music can hardly be distinguished from random notes. Are you really referring to avant-garde music rather than modern classical in general? A high percentage of the modern classical I hear is tonal, and I assume you don't think those works sound random.

I have seriously studied the composition methods of modern composers like Boulez, but came to the conclusion: No matter how "structured" these compositions seem on paper, they are irrelevant to the listener, since these structures are simply not audible.
I think it's somewhat interesting to discuss what classical music listeners hear when they listen to music. I'll give two examples from my experience - Mozart's Symphony 41 and Xenakis's Pithoprakta.

I adored Mozart's Symphony 41 from the first time I heard it. I especially loved the last movement, but I had little understanding of what Mozart had done to create that movement. I heard the music but not the structure. Later I learned about the structure and found it fascinating, but that knowledge did not change my emotional reaction to the work.

I read a detailed explanation of how Xenakis created a portion of Pithoprakta. He used a very technical process to map the distribution of velocities of the molecules in a gas onto music. I understood the process, but that process had no effect on how I heard the music. I certainly could not hear the "structure" or that process in that portion.

People can enjoy a work whether they understand the creation process (hear the structures) or not. I understand little about the "structures" or creative process for Boulez's Sur Incises, but I find the work engaging, beautiful at times, and quite enjoyable. Can you give me a better sense of why you say, "No matter how "structured" these compositions seem on paper, they are irrelevant to the listener, since these structures are simply not audible"?
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I figure that we can let the revanchists rage all they want. Avant-garde music isn't going anywhere.
I agree avant-garde will always be with us. But so will tonal music, at least for some time. I remember years ago working my way through the composers on the Naxos Music Library and being surprised that so much contemporary music is tonal. And these were all works that had been recorded not simply composed. I can't remember what percentage was what I would call avant-garde, but I have the feeling it was relatively small.
But what is the reason they do this? Why don't they like the modern music, and why do they think it damages classical music. If so many feel and think this way there are probably sensible reasons for it.
Yes, there are sensible, meaning understandable, reasons for it. The music has broken far enough from common practice tonality (CPT) that it is difficult for many to hear anything beautiful or interesting in it. Those people are used to CPT music. Their brains have learned to follow it, find beauty in it, expect what CPT music gives them. Modern music in some sense is like a different language. If you don't understand it, it sounds nonsensible, even bizarre.

Although some like it almost immediately, most must learn to like it. The process is similar to all learning. One struggles as one's brain tries to make sense of the new language, math, music, or whatever. As one's brain interacts with the new material, one's brain changes and learns to find the new material more accessible, more understandable. In music, that can lead to finding the music enjoyable.

Studies have shown that through exposure people can learn to find certain chords much less dissonant. That's simple compared to learning to enjoy, say, Boulez. When I first came to TC, I hated most modern music. I didn't even enjoy Shostakovich or Prokofiev. I gradually learned to love much modern music by listening repeatedly and listening for different things than I found in CPT music. I went through the learning process. For some, like myself, the process was fairly long, but I assume for others, the process is much quicker.

I assume some feel it damages classical music simply because composers are no longer composing music they like. Concert going is a zero sum game in that one realistically can only go to so many concerts. If some now schedule this awful music, they are scheduling less "good" music

Where is the artistic intersection between atonal/serial music and other classical music? I don't see it. If you like classical music, its likely that you don't like atonal music.
I'm not knowledgeable enough to understand, except in a very general sense, the links between Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern music. I know Schoenberg sounds somewhat romantic to me, but I couldn't give a detailed reason why. I do know that many people, my daughter for example, who have studied these transitions do see a clear movement from one style to another.

I think saying "If you like classical music, its likely that you don't like atonal music" is like saying, "If you like vegetables, it's likely you don't like broccoli." It may be true, but it gives the impression that broccoli is not a vegetable.

And different styles obviously compete for influence and performance time.

So it is just a reasonable cultural war.
I don't think it has anything to do with culture as I've explained above.

Inevitable. And given what is happening elsewhere in society at least I'm not in the mood for appeasement.
I'm unaware of the demands you would be appeasing.

I don't know how much fraud is involved in atonal music, but a lot is imaginable, because I have no trust in "progressives". It is usually no problem for them to accept cultural collateral damage and to lie if necessary. Our decadent societies will have to pay the bill at some point.
This seems to be a political statement rather than a musical one. I have no idea what it could mean musically. Do you not trust Monteverde, Haydn, Beethoven, or Wagner? Did they lie? What bill?
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But jazz and prog-rock also have their links to classical music. Just cause the stuff you listed is all labeled "classical music" by some "academics", it doesn't mean we all have to consider them all to be "part of the family".
I don't think works by Stockhausen, Xenakis, Messiaen, or Boulez are labeled classical music by some academics. As far as I know, all music schools view those as classical music composers. I have never seen a general classical music website that doesn't include them. So, sure, you don't have to consider them to be "part of the family", but at TC we will continue to view them as classical music.

If someone on this forum is only interested in stuff like Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ferneyhough and trashes common practice music all the time, there's no reason we shouldn't consider him an "outsider".
In my experience on TC I have never seen someone trash CPT music. I've seen people disparage a composer or some works, but I've never seen someone disparage CPT music in general. I know people who do not like CPT works, but those people never make disparaging comments about it.
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What is the most atonal/serial piece you learned to like?
I'm not trying to duck your question since I understand why it's interesting, but when listening, I don't really think of works as atonal or serial. When I first came to TC, I thought I knew which works were atonal. After reading more about the term and talking to my daughter, who almost decided to pursue a doctorate about atonal music, I realized I will never know simply by listening. Works which many here think are atonal, are not.

A few examples of music dissimilar to CPT that I really like would be:
Boulez - Anthemes II
Furrer - Spur
Grisey - Les Espaces Acoustiques

Does that help?

Its a philosophical question: Is progressiveness always better then tradition, and is it just a matter of time until it pushes trough, or is a mixture of the right progressive and conservative ideas better? I think a mixture is better and the fundamental partisanship for one direction is extremism. In music and elsewhere.
I do think that's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. I think music progressiveness is different than political progressiveness. I don't see music progressiveness as ever harming anyone. You may like the music or not. If not, you move on or learn to like it (unlike politics where you can't necessarily move on). I'm not sure I know what fundamental partisanship for one direction in music is. As far as I can tell, there have never been more directions explored in classical music then being explored now.
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I don't see it as a zero-sum game.

There is no reason why someone can't listen to both both Mozart, i.e. CPT, and contemporary music; I do. There are extremists on both sides of the issue, though, and they seem to be poisoning the well for everyone.
By zero-sum game I don't mean you have to listen to one or the other. Rather I mean that there is a fixed amount of listening time (or concert going time). If during some of that time, a "unpleasant" work is substituted for one you like, you've lost "enjoyable" listening.
Or opened up a new vista. I have always valued an open and curious mind as the best traits when given the opportunity to hear music which is new to me.
Well, that does not affect whether it's a zero-sum game. It is. I have always valued an open and curious mind period. And you know I would prefer access to new music as well.
One question for contemporary atonal music lovers. Why is almost all this music sounds as autistic, anxious alien escaped from mental hospital?
Basically, your comment could be read as, "Why does atonal music sound different?" It certainly is different from what you've become accustomed to. Baroque music is different from Renaissance. Romantic music sounds different from Classical. And modern/contemporary sounds different from Romantic. In particular, modern/contemporary often has more dissonance, may not focus on tonal centers as much, can be rhythmically unusual, etc.. Many people, such as myself, have to spend time becoming familiar with the new language before we find the music engaging, satisfying, or even beautiful.

Many of us have become more accustomed to the new languages used in modern/contemporary music and find the music wonderful, and yes, we also find it different.
My main problem with this kind of music is autistic sound of almost every composition. Some kind of mysterious vibe can attract me, but autistic and anxious atmosphere quickly became empty, boring, and emotionally unsatisfying.
I'd agree with fbjim that I have no idea what is meant by autistic music. Autistic is generally a term used to describe people not sounds. Personally, I also dislike music that has an anxious atmosphere which quickly becomes empty, boring, and emotionally unsatisfying, but I suspect we're not talking about the same music.

One problem is that you are using terms which no person who enjoys the music would ever use. How do you expect someone to respond to that? If someone asks another, "Why do you like horrible music?" What would they say?

Incidentally, here's an example from the internet of why people don't like classical music.

Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid - and often there's no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff.
Basically, classical music is boring, emotionally unsatisfying, too cerebral, and unmelodic. Why do you like music like that?
Nope. Wrong analogy. That can be truth for some classical piece, but there is so much variety in melody, harmony, emotional range in music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky etc. In modern atonal music dominate anxious atmosphere without authentic human need for harmony, order, beauty, inspiration, pleasure, sadness etc.
I think you're missing the point. Your view of modern/contemporary music is uniform. All such music is dominated by "anxious atmosphere without authentic human need for harmony, order, beauty, inspiration, pleasure, sadness etc." The quote I used is the view of many people who dislike classical music. Their view is that all classical music "is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid."

Your view of modern/contemporary atonal music is similar to their view of classical music. You may think that's not possible, but they don't. CPT classical music really is boring, dry, and unemotional to them no matter what you think.
Nope. Im not missing the point. But, if "many people" would hear modern atonal music they will be screaming after 2 minutes and probably will be try suicide. There is another interesting thing, there is some classical popular piece as Moonlight sonata or Dance of knights. Imagine that you play these pieces to people who dont listen classical, and then play them some string quartet by Elliott Carter. What you think what will be their reaction, and which music they would prefer? How they would describe emotions and aesthetic in these pieces, and what will be general view and consensus?
If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that more people find CPT music pleasing than atonal music. I agree, but that has little to do with your original points. The original comments were:

Why is almost all this music sounds as autistic, anxious alien escaped from mental hospital?
My main problem with this kind of music is autistic sound of almost every composition. ...autistic and anxious atmosphere quickly became empty, boring, and emotionally unsatisfying. ...
Contemporary atonal music sounds as mental hospital, absurd, empty. There is nothing human in it. You simple dont have aesthetic criteria.
Put aside the fact that I don't understand what autistic, mental hospital music is, and I suspect no one else does either. I simply posted a summary comment about classical music from those who dislike it showing that some who don't like classical music find it boring, emotionally unsatisfying, too cerebral, and unmelodic. That view is roughly similar to your view of contemporary atonal music.

So you don't like contemporary atonal music. Fine. I don't like some of it either.
Well "boring, dry, too long, unemotional etc." are judgements of the music, not qualitative statements. Most of these people would probably still recognize that the 4th movement of Beethoven Symphony 5 expresses a happier emotion than the 1st Movement, even if they find it boring / too long / whatever.
That may be true, but are you suggesting that as a criticism of modern, contemporary, or atonal music? Why? Berg's Violin Concerto is stunningly beautiful. It's a remarkable piece of music, and it's atonal. Even if atonal music does not give a sense of happiness, why is that important?

On the other hand I can't think of atonal pieces that express emotions like happiness, harmony or peace. But maybe someone more knowledgeable can provide counter examples.
I absolutely do not believe any music can convey harmony or peace. Someone may experience happiness when listening to some music. I would say I experience a sense of serenity when listening to the end of Berg's Violin Concerto, but I'm sure that others would not necessarily experience that feeling.

Overall, I don't see that as argument against atonal music. You either like the music or not. It may be interesting, engaging, beautiful, but it's just music.
Count me as one too. I dismissed the entirety of Mahler's symphonic output having heard and disliked only the adagietto from the 5th. Eventually, I succumbed to the 6th, the 5th, the 3rd and the 1st, by various routes.

So, yes, open minds can change. But a mind that has dismissed the entirety of "contemporary" music as our fellow member has is rather more sweeping a dismissal than the kind of specific rejection we've both referred to....
I know many, including myself, who have repeatedly listened to many new works to "learn" how to appreciate them. Many of those I know have had much success in going from finding a work unpleasant to greatly enjoying the work. All of them believed that the work could eventually become accessible (they had an open mind).

I doubt anyone who believes that certain music sounds like an "anxious alien escaped from mental hospital" would listen with the appropriate attitude necessary to change how one's brain hears the music.
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I am happy to discuss whatever aspect of atonality you'd like. However, atonality existed in many forms from many different composers and countries in the 20th century, not just Vienna post-Arnie's op. 11. Charles Ives in very early 20th cent., Bartok can be extremely atonal, even Hindemith can be sort of described as kind of a liminal space between the two schools. There's many others. (And there are even passages in Strauss and extended passages in Berlioz that are atonal).
When I first came to TC, I thought pretty much any modern work that sounded "weird" was atonal. I quickly learned that I had no understanding of atonal. My daughter, when studying theory in school, gave me a very different sense of atonal than the "simple" idea of a work with no tonal center. She told me her understanding of atonal was a decision made typically by musicologists analyzing works. In her view, it had little to do with hearing a tonal center (although this could also be true), but rather the distinction was whether analyzing a work made more sense within a CPT framework or not. If so, the work was tonal. If analyzing using other techniques (I guess modern techniques) made more sense, then the work was atonal. She said she even analyzed Wagner using a non-CPT framework. She said one could do it, but she felt it made more sense to use a CPT framework. If you think this is not quite right, please let me know.

I never even think whether a work is tonal or not since, unless it's, for example, Classical or Romantic, I probably would have no idea. The concept seems fairly useless to the vast majority of TC members since they don't analyze music.

One question I have is whether there are significant numbers of non-CPT modern works that aren't really atonal. For example, would a work such as Scelsi's Uaxuctum or Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima be considered atonal?
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There are all sorts of instances where words, when used in the context of specialized fields, have meanings that are not strictly in line with their dictionary definitions, let alone their etymologies.
Absolutely, yes. In particle physics there are is a particle known as the charm quark. The term "charm" here has nothing whatsoever to do with the definition of charm (e.g. giving delight). It is simply a technical term.

We've had debates about atonal and it's meaning. It is a technical term used by those who analyze music. My feeling is that anyone who does not routinely analyze music and talk to others in the field of music analysis about such music may misunderstand the term and its usage. The etymology of a word in general usage can be very useful, but the etymology of technical terms can be misleading.
I don't use the word pantonal because I don't recognize any coherent conceptual basis for it.

The term doesn't derive directly from an ancient root. Tonal in that context relates to the modern musical term tonality, not to tone.
I wonder how often the term atonal is used within professional circles. Do composers regularly use the term even when discussing SVS or other such works? Do musicologists refer to atonality often? Obviously it could depend on the specific discussion, but I wonder if it's considered a very useful or important term.

I quoted EdwardBast but would appreciate inputs from Torkelburger or any other professionals.
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So the question asked is "What is contemporary music worth?" I think we'd all agree that although plenty of contemporary music is tonal, there is a group of works that are clearly different from what was written in the Romantic era. I think we all agree that those works which deviate further from Romantic sensibilities are often difficult for many classical listeners to appreciate. In fact, many will find them boring, ugly, repulsive even. They may be seen as having no emotional content, random sounding, and "unrelated to how humans perceive music."

We can also agree that many listeners find some of these works exciting, engaging, even beautiful. Many look forward to hearing new contemporary works and exploring the musical sounds. In fact, many view these works in the same light as CPT music - interesting, desirable to hear, and moving. To most of those people CPT and non-CPT contemporary are simply different, and so is Renaissance different from late Romantic. Some contemporary likely would be viewed as more different from CPT than Renaissance is from late Romantic.

So, What is contemporary music worth? Presumably to those who like it, roughly the same as CPT music. The great Alban Berg said, "Music is music."

There are those who dislike or hate contemporary music. Fine. There are those who do not wish to spend time learning to appreciate the music. Fine. The follow on question is, "Why do some who dislike contemporary music spend time explaining what's wrong with it?"
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...Thus I'm not going to use the term in this sense anymore. And I think we can now move on to the music that was actually meant in the OP....
Obviously you can continue the present discussion, but I'm not sure I understand your original intent in the OP. Could you give several specific examples of works that you were referring to when you wrote "Most modern classical music can hardly be distinguished from random notes"? As you say, we can ignore the tonal/atonal designations, but I don't really know which modern classical music you mean. Do you think it's the majority of contemporary music now being composed?
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What I meant is, that even if a piece of music is lauded by professional musicians, that does not mean that it is indeed great. This is the point of the bubbles experiment. Even an accomplished composer can interpret some kind of genius into a trivial composition if he approaches it with the right mindset (e.g. if the composition is presented as a piece by an eminent composer who put years of hard work into it). I call this the "musical placebo effect".

Now as for the critically lauded avantgarde giants, I don't want to dismiss them right out hand, but given the results of the Bubbles-Experiment, I think we should consider the possibility(!) that some modernist works or composers are famous because the critics fell prey to the musical placebo-effect.
I doubt anyone on the committee felt that Bubbles was great or the work of genius. They chose it as one piece to receive a modest grant. I think there is an enormous difference between the one-time result of a small grant committee and the general assessment of classical musicians who collectively deem a contemporary composer's works of high quality. One can presumably learn something from the Bubbles experiment, but your conclusions seem a bit of a stretch.

Awhile ago I was told of a paper that received a prize at a conference. That paper directly violated the results of my physics Ph.D. thesis along with 1000s of other papers produced by other high energy physicists. Basically, the paper was garbage. I have no idea why it might have received a prize, but it would be silly to use that result to question the results of high energy physics experiments. The Bubbles situation is somewhat different, but I think it hardly suggests that many contemporary works are indistinguishable from nonsense.
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It doesn't prove that much contemporary music is nonsense, it but it raises the possibility that this is true in at least some cases. But in order to get definitive proof we would have to perform further experiments, specifically experiments that compare highly regarded works with manipulated/randomized versions to check if experienced musicians can tell which one is the original.
I don't see how one would get definitive proof that some music is nonsense. I'm not sure what Comitas did with the "random" sounds generated by his children. He says, "Using several computerized processes that were entirely mechanical and in no way truly creative, I translated this meaningless material into a score playable by an ensemble of various instruments." I don't know what "mechanical" means, but I assume he did more than assign the notes generated by his children to different instruments. If he added any of his musical expertise (even if he felt it was not creative), he changed the result significantly.

If he had simply taken the notes from his children and assigned them to random instruments (capable of playing those notes), then I would agree the music was somewhat random. The children likely did not generate a truly random set of notes. Such a composition would be an interesting test for a significant number of contemporary composers but not for a small grant proposal.
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