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

61982 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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Yeah, I've seen paintings done by elephants. They were interesting - for a little while.

Also, irrelevant, IMO.
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The process or method used for a work is not the most important ingredient, IMO. It is how the composer has edited, developed and managed the process which produces the end result. IOW, Schoenberg's 12-tone method is used by many composers in a very different ways producing a wide variety of music. The most important things are the composer's instinct for issues concerning form and balancing repetition, variation, and sequence - all of which are evident in classical musical compositions from pre-CPT to the most avant-garde works.

Did this composer take the raw material and manipulate it in any manner? If so, then it was not a random assemblage of sounds.

Not that there is anything inherently unmusical with random assemblage of sounds.
I just think it's very interesting that some people who usually eschew artistic hierarchies of "this is better than that" can find such a hierarchy and place this piece on the lower level of it, and apparently without much basis other than the intent of the creator of it. To put it another way, Bach can't really be any "better" than Elliott Carter, but anything by Elliott Carter is somehow self-evidently better than "Bubbles".
I'm curious who are the members on TC who usually eschew artistic hierarchies of "this is better than that"?
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"Bach is superior to hip hop." Discuss.
You persistently ignore several people, including myself, who have told you that they recognize hierarchies as subjective assessments made individually. Your opinion might be that Bach is superior to Hip-hop, but another person may disagree.

Why are you incapable of understanding this fairly simply concept?
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Subjective assessments made individually are really no more meaningful than "blue is my favorite color", and I'm not certainly not going to get my knickers in a twist if someone prefers red.
Well, you sure have spent a lot of time not getting your knickers in a twist over avant-garde classical music.

But you continue to miss the point: subjective assessments are meaningful to the individual.
No I haven't. I find a lot of avant garde or "new music" to be very interesting.
You have continually argued about Bach, e.g., being greater than Carter, e.g., or Rap, etc. Why?
"Continually"? No, only in this thread. Why not? Is Bach greater than Carter? Is ' "Bubbles" is better than A Mirror on Which to Dwell' a valid judgement?
Again, for the umpteenth time: Bach is greater than Carter to someone who thinks that, but not to someone who thinks the opposite.

There is really nothing else to say.
So he really isn't, and "Bubbles" may very well be better than Carter's entire output to someone who thinks so. Therefore why the consternation?
I guess you believe (and it is a belief) there is objective criteria that establishes (as an incontrovertible fact) that Bach is better than Carter. And that this information is important. I disagree on both counts, but most emphatically on the second.
It comes down to why a person listens to music, and what they look for and what it brings to their lives.

If listening to "the greatest music" is important to someone then they will look for outside authorities to provide them with guidance to those composers.

If you listen to music, as I do, for enrichment and fulfillment through the listening experience, then you don't need any outside authorities for guidance. All I need to do is listen to something and it either provides the experience I seek or it doesn't.

Being told that Composer X is greater than Composer Y translates to me as that person's subjective opinion, nothing more. I don't even think in terms of greater or lesser, for me the question is over whether I enjoy/find interesting a composer's work.
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I watched the entire Bubbles video and came to the following conclusions:

1. It is hard to gain a meaningful impression of the work with only the MIDI sound samples.

2. It is entirely possible, and maybe even probable, that the board has a priority to encourage works of a forward-looking nature as opposed to funding works that do not plow new artistic or stylistic ground.

3. The process with which he created the work falls entirely within the accepted method of composition. The raw material was developed through improvisation by his children, but improvised music has provided the foundation of musical works for centuries. Often I've read of a composer sitting at the piano and "fooling around" until he uncovers a phrase or harmony which he wishes to use. It shouldn't matter who improvised the music, the important thing is that the composer uncovers ideas and motives that are useful to him.

4. I do not respect the composer's agenda. But he would be a fool to ignore the results and only use this experience to further attack "avant-garde" music. I think he may have found a way to develop an entirely new avenue for his work, if he chooses to continue down this path.

I know that there is value in new music being written and am only sadly amused that someone like this composer admittedly spent years and much work to produce something with the sole ambition of discrediting avant-garde music and the artistic boards who fund commissions.
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The behavior of the avant-garde wasn't very pieceful towards more conservative composers in the past. And there is a competition for performance and influence anyway. So I demand a fair competition. Things like this, a composition verified to be badly composed wins a prize, backs up my assumption that there is no fair competition, and that decision makers are biased towards atonal music.
First of all it has not been demonstrated that the work was "badly composed." In fact, the process used included standard methods of composing: editing the thematic material, deciding upon a multi-movement form, applying durational manipulation and other standard tools such as retrograde to the motives and phrases, and deciding upon the instruments and orchestration.

And it did not win a prize. The composer was awarded a modest amount of money for the purpose of further exploiting the work. I don't think there is much to read into this event other than the boards involved perceived enough in the work to warrant their support.

You are right to say that there is a finite amount of performance opportunities for new music. As far as I can tell the community where this experiment took place has set up a process for the purpose of funding new music which will lead to performances. The process is one of a juried review. There are certainly other avenues for composers to try to get their work heard, however, this composer chose to follow the path of submitting a work to this agency and was successful in getting funding.

I fail to see what he has to complain about.
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That does not seem probable to me. I mean, how is Bubbles a forward-looking piece? Does it really plow new stylistic ground?
Apparently the boards perceived more stylistic new ground than in previous works by this composer known to them, this was stated in their letter.

I get what you mean, there are pieces like Schumann's ABEGG-Variations, where he just mapped a person's name to musical notes and then used it as a motive. However, in these cases the 'random find' is just a small part of the composition, as the development of the motive and its harmonisation is mediated by the composer's craftmanship.

In the case of Bubbles, however, the 'random find' is literally the entire composition. There is no conscious musical structuring to speak of.
Then you did not watch the video since the composer described in detail all of the manipulation he applied to the raw material (you also must not have read my other post which specifically outlines the compositional process he used). What he did was very similar to the example of Schumann you cited.
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But the kids "improvised" without musical education. And he used more than just the phrases he liked.

I assume improvisation by someone who can play an instrument is better than by someone who can't. And this also is a point that convinces me that musical quality is somewhat objective. If player A or B is better is primarily subjective but who wouldn't agree that the quality of the music from both was better after they learned to play the instrument?
Who said the kids had no musical education? I have to assume they did. But in any event, it is irrelevant whether they did or did not have any training. The raw material is just that: material to be manipulated in order to create a musical work. This the composer has done. The meaning of the word composer is based on the idea of putting things together, which is the most important aspect of composing, not necessarily the origin of the raw material.

But which natures are forward-looking? This is an even more subjective question than the question of quality.
I am not talking about the nature of a person, but the nature of the music. Obviously the boards in question have their own ideas about what music is forward-looking or at least I think their letter referenced the composer's stylistic evolution. I did not get the impression they were concerned with establishing a preferred style for all music they fund.

And "new" and "forward-looking" aren't the same thing. But maybe some avant-gardists don't make a distinction here.
I can't speak for "avant-gardists" (whatever that is) in general. I generally give people the benefit of the doubt and don't assume they are insincere or indiscriminating concerning matters of taste.
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I'm sorry but that's not correct.

I recommend you to watch the first video again, to pay attention to the Raw Material that he plays and to compare it to the finished music in the second video. The movements sound, despite the changed instrumentation, almost identical. So the composer clearly didn't do anything significant to change them.

As he explains in the first video, most of the things he did (double note values, bar lines) only make the score more readable and professional looking without actually changing the music.

The only exception is indeed the 3rd movement. Here the composer applies the retrograde plugin which causes the entire movement to be played backwards. This makes the movement in fact even more random sounding than it already is. He thought that this randomness would create an increased vibe of "complexity".

So no, this can absolutely not be compared to what Schumann does. Schumann composed music, Comitas made a score look pretty. I think we can believe that this piece is indeed just a child's improvisation.
I am not arguing that what Comitas did was good music, but from my viewing of the video I came to a different impression of the amount of manipulation he applied. I only watched one video where he described his process of working with the raw material. Obviously, Comitas is not an exemplary example of a composer of avant-garde music, in fact he is trying his hardest to discredit the entire genre.

My point in this entire discussion is to argue that just because the improvisation of children formed the raw material for a musical composition does not imply that the work is invalid. The fact that Comitas used this as an elaborate gotcha scam is to his discredit.

But the cause of avant-garde music is unharmed by his little card trick.

For those of you grasping for anything to undermine avant-garde music, Comitas is your patron saint. For those of us who appreciate and enjoy an assortment of the avant-garde, Comitas is a clown who achieved his 15 minutes of attention. Sad that this is the only way he got some.
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Yes its sad, because his other stuff doesn't seem bad. I like his piece "the witches cauldron". He is not just an untalented composer salty that he is bad. He has some talent, but the jury preferred him using nonsense instead of his talent for composition. I fear that this "card-trick" is reproducible. But if it is reproducible than it is justified because it proves a grievance.
You are not giving enough credit to composers of new music if you think they are susceptible to perpetuating this kind of fraud. They are artists with the ambition of realizing specific aesthetic goals. They do this by writing new music that explores a variety of extended techniques, imaginative narratives, confronting social issues, and historical injustices.

Which is to say they are no different from composers throughout history.
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Isn't that a bit too much political? Do they really have aesthetic goals if at least 50% of these aspects are political?

Really? Where are the confronting social issues and historical injustices in the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky for example? In Wagners case ok I see it, "Verachtet mir die Meister nicht" somewhat fits into the "historical injustices" category. And the first and second theme in Bruckners Symphony No. 3 are actually about "confronting social issues". But I mean that is rather a side note. These composers wrote a lot of absolut music. Where are the politics in Tchaikovskys swan lake or Mozarts symphonia concertante KV 364?
Young composers have used some aspect of 21st century society as a jumping off point, but it is not always political in nature. Issues of community, otherness, communication, figure prominently in the lives of people in their 20s and 30s, and it is natural that these same issues will inspire their music. But not always. However, I have noticed this in my interviews with a number of young composers.

My last sentence is a broadly drawn comparison that today's composers have just as much artistic integrity as composers of the past. But because today's world is very different from the world of 150-300 years ago, the issues surrounding the creation of new music involve issues of technology, globalism, social media, and related "hive mind" concepts, as well as a plethora of extended instrumental techniques. Many of the scores these young composers produce are not using standard notation - but the music produced can only be described using unique notation.

I have noticed a resistance by some of TC to new music because it sounds different from the classical music of the past, and often this calls into question the motivation or sincerity of the composers. IMO, this is a red herring.
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I didn't meant contests, but the everyday rivalry on the market. Like Honda and Chevy but not in a race but at the shop counter.

There is music of classical composers which doesn't get performed at all or delayed for 50 years.

And what inspires them to atonal music exactly? I associate "community", "communication", "social media" rather with popular music influence which is tonal. What is the purpose of making everything sound dissonant? What about musicans of popular music? Why do they prefer tonal music? Are they less inspired by "community, otherness, communication", "technology, globalism, social media, and related "hive mind" concepts"?
I read these as rhetorical questions since there is no way I can answer them. But it ought to be obvious that composers choose the tonal/atonal style as it suits their expression.
Is this progress, random, unlistenable, something you like?

Charles Wuorinen: Fourth Piano Concerto (2003)

By now 18 years old. If this work were your child, they'd be leaving home for college.
The only random music is that which is based on ambient or environmental sounds. But there has been plenty of beautiful music created from field recordings or ambient sounds. But, anytime a human is involved in the creation of music it is never really random.

This whole thing about randomness is another huge red herring.

And just because you may not be able to hear the craft in an avant-garde composition does not equal the absence of craft.

For me, the bottom-line is what is the quality of my experience when I listen to a piece of music. I am not listening for craft, I am listening to the sound of the music - it either interests/pleases me or not.
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Just as an example, one of the most acclaimed (by which I mean it got praise from the mainstream music press) avant-garde works of the 21st century consisted of a tape loop which, due to problems with the equipment, slowly degraded over time as it was recorded and looped.

To what extent is it "just random"? Does it matter if the work was conceived by accident?
William Basinski's Disintegration Loops - absolutely beautiful and extremely moving if you know the full story behind them.
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