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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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But what is the point of having structures if they are not audible? If the structure of music can't be heard isn't the result effectively perceived as unstructured / chaotic / random sounding music?
Audible to whom? I wonder what proportion of the audience for, say, Beethoven's 6th, can recognise, name and describe the effect of sonata form? If they can't, does the symphony suddenly become chaotic?

Picture the well-to-do on their way to the first performance in 1808:

"Oh yes, Lobkowitz, I'm sure Mr Beethoven will try once again to entertain us with sonata form. Personally, I think he needs to replace the minuet with a scherzo, but we will see what he has for us."

"My dear Razumovsky, you are such an ***! He already replaced the minuet in his 'Eroica'. Were you not there? It has such a transformative effect on the whole piece, but I wish he would try something a little fugal."

And afterwards:

"Donner und blitzen!! Four hours has giiven me such a sore arsch!"
At the moment, I'm listening for 'polymodality' in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I was not familiar with the term when I first heard his 3rd Symphony, nor would I have recognised it until it was pointed out to me. I suspect I'll not continue to recognise it in other of his works, as it's too subtle a 'structure' for my ears. But the symphony doesn't sound chaotic or random.
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A lay listener probably cannot name sonata form correctly, but they can certainly hear it.
Can they? Are you a lay listener? I suspect not. You'd need to sample some lay listeners to be able to verify your assertion.

Speaking from my own experience as a relatively experienced lay listener, I could neither name nor hear 'sonata' form until it had been pointed out to me. But, as you quite rightly point out, there are other structures that any interested listener can hang on to to help make sense of a symphony.

Consequently, your assertion that without 'structure' there is chaos does not stand up.

sonata form is only one of many aspects of classical music's highly structured nature.

The others are the rules of common-practice tonality: Diatonic scales (major/minor keys), Triadic harmonies (major / minor chords), Harmonic Syntax (cadences, modulation rules), and voice leading rules (resolution of dissonances).
All this things work together to give the music a distinct, structured and non-random sound.
Of course, all true. but not all music requires these sorts of structures to be enjoyable, though that inevitably brings up the question of the definition of classical music, and I suspect your definition might be narrower than mine.
I don't understand your reasoning. You seem to be contradicting yourself.
I think we're both having difficulty. You said:

If the structure of music can't be heard isn't the result effectively perceived as unstructured / chaotic / random sounding music?
We both acknowledge that actually, there are 'structures', plural, that can help the listener, but in any case, my point was whether they could be heard. We'll just have to disagree on what the lay listener does and does not hear.
If they can help the listener, then of course they can be heard. I don't see how the listener can get help from something if he does not notice it.
This is a curious loop. The 'if is all important. If they can't be heard, they can't help, can they?
Exactly. That would be like following the advice of a person you cannot hear.
Which leaves us where we were. You have greater confidence than I do that the lay listener will hear these structures.

Oh, and structureless music need not sound chaotic.

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.
Exploring the 'Alexander Comitas'/Eduard de Boer website, I found the man has a lot on his mind, not just the conspiracy of music schools to promote only the atonal.

Whoever chipia is, I'm disinclined to discuss further an old and manufactured controversy aimed at provoking members into fruitless non-dialogue.
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Music that sounds like random noise may still be regarded as music. Not by all, it's true, and of course, it rather depends who is doing the listening and the declaring its randomness.

Random noise might be claimed to be music, but that's a debate that has little prospect of conclusive agreement, regardless of whether people like what they hear.
I blame a view of history that sees atonal music as superior or supposes that tonal music was forbidden/inexistent in the 50s, because if it was forbidden/inexistent then there is nothing to search for, right?
A view of history that would be I right? Tonal music was neither forbidden nor non-existent in the 50s.
"High art": a serious (deep) reflection on the human experience, communicated via media that are sympathetic to that reflection, well-organised and/or well-wrought.

Any use as a starter for 10?
What about arguing that the best in one genre is better than the best in another?
One might continue to claim that this Cox's Orange Pippin is better than that Conference, but there is nothing inherently inferior in a pear compared to an apple. One might prefer one to the other, but that does not give it some critical advantage.

Unless you're Elisabeth Lutyens or Roger Warlock, in which case, you could open your mouth, make a declaration and the criticism sticks for a long time (see references to cows wrt to Vaughan Williams.)
Or you could compare the Mass in B minor with Sgt Pepper. If it truly is apples and pears then that shoots down the whole "music is just music" view.
I don't follow your conclusion. Sorry.
My dislike of her art is not looking down on it - it is no more than what I said: I dislike it, a lot.
But you didn't just say you don't like it. You also described as kitsch. Did you mean to use the word as a derogatory term, or a factual one?

Definition of kitsch:

showy art or cheap, decorative objects that are attractive to people who are thought to lack any appreciation of style or beauty:
Some considerable unfocused discussion about 'high art' with what seemed like two assumptions about what the term means, and with no agreed definition. (I suggested a definition of 'high art' which may simply have been overloooked, or perhaps read then ignored as not suiting those assumptions).

Assumption 1 - 'High art' means the only art worth troubling oneself with, relates especially to the traditional and classical, not the modern (and especially not rap!)

Assumption 2 - 'High art' is a term used by the pretentious, the snob, to elevate themselves above hoi polloi, and to denigrate art from particular periods and genres.

If I missed the agreed definition, I'm sorry - could someone point me to it?

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I notice that there is a distinction in german between E-Musik (serious music) and U-Musik (entertainment music), but the term "entertainment music" doesn't seem to appear in english. E-Musik is music that requires troubling oneself with, U-Musik is for easy amusement. But not all classical music counts as serious music. Johann Strauß senior was the first who used the term U-Musik for dance music, which was classical in his case. I think the term entertainment music is useful, because a lot of music is actually for singing and/or dancing without musical comprehension barriers much different from complicated classical forms. It happens to be that most popular musics are short songs instead of symphonies, sonatas or operas etc. But classical music also contains songs, dances, marches and other rather easy stuff like this.

So as a alternative to the distinction between high and low genres its maybe a good idea to distinguish between serious and light forms.
I have no problem with the idea that one composer might be communing with his heavenly mentor while another is looking to 'just' strum and entertain the kids. In fact, that's exactly what I am saying, and why comparing one form of music with another is odious. The composer's intent is not a sufficient ground on which to base a critical analysis of whether something is high or low, superior or inferior. By all means compare Stravinsky's Scherzo a la Russe and his Rite of Spring and call one high and one low if you wish. But they can be assessed on their own terms as engaging and enjoyable, satisfying the needs of listeners, exploring an aspect of the human experience ('fun' is just as important to us as 'serious' or 'deep') and both written for specific but different purposes.

Scherzo: "The only two conditions were: the piece had to be easy-listening and it had to fit on a 78 rpm disc."[4]
Rite: "was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company"

(Both from Wiki)

^ Of course, kitsch can be fun and not a bad thing on its own. But I think I said appallingly kitsch or some such words. The adjective is the key word for my reaction to the artists in question.

I'm not sure I care to define high art - the looseness of the term seems fertile as far as discussion is concerned - but I can see that there might be a need to dispel and remove the prejudices (assumptions) you allude to.
The looseness of the term is partly what leads to infertile discussion. And the assumptions remain unchallenged while it is freely thought that classical music is not just 'high art' (but undefined and therefore unchallengeable) but superior art, and those who like it are superior beings.

While we're on definitions, it seems there's also a problem with what constitutes 'pop'. When it gets represented by a single act (Perry, Bieber, etc), you can be pretty sure that the writer is either taking the p!$$ or hasn't the faintest idea about either pop today or the full spectrum of what might be covered by 'Popular music'. It seems that if it ain't classical, it's mere pop, and all pop can be reduced to K-Pop, whether it's folk, rock, indie, alt etc etc

Some of the posts here are utterly incomprehensible to me. Talk of hierarchies breaking down or inverting and the implications for society...I don't know where to begin to object to such...stuff.

I suspect it goes in the other direction -- we find it aesthetically pleasing (or not) because we like it (or not), and we like it (or not) for reasons related to our social identities and desires -- at least occasionally.
I find music aesthetically pleasing because I find it aesthetically pleasing.

In my journey through music over time, there has inevitably been a social component to my choices, because I've not always been listening to music in a social vacuum, whether it was listening with my parents and siblings, teen peers at school, friends at college or my partner. When I meet with the members of my quiz team, we might compare notes and acknowledge the 'identifiers' of our generation (those albums that everyone has in their collection - or not), but we're well past liking music just because of its social implications.

Having said that, there may be members here who want to tell us about their currently listening, and their top ten this or that because they seek some kind of social currency, but please let's not generalise about everyone.
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We're all just human beings.
Stop there. I'm averse to being lumped in with the rest of the human race just because of biology and evolution. I hesitate to raise the names of any well-known mass murderers, dictators, cheap celebrities for obvious reasons, but they too are 'just' human beings.

But I think that the backlash against the idea of high art caused more damage than good. Popular music is anyways ubiquitous and enjoyed but lots of people, there's a reason it's called popular.

If you abolish the concept of high art, the result is that people will just listen to whatever music is easiest available / accessible to them and ignore classical music because, if all is equally good, why bother seeking out something else, especially if it requires more effort to appreciate?

So you gain nothing, but lose whatever influence classical music had.

Also, I think the artistic and technical horizon of musicians is becoming more narrow as a result, because if everything is equally good, the effort to educate yourself on music may be considered a waste of time.
What concept of "high art" is being abolished, and who is doing the abolishing ? Who set the definition and who gets to decide what belongs to it?

Re high art versus low:

Stop the hand wringing please. If the prejudicial terms bother you, use others, but it's lazy to deny the difference between music as a fine art and pop music, especially since it's easy to acknowledge the difference without condescension or snobbery. Here's how: Don't say simplistic things like classical music is better than pop. Instead address what needs and desires among listeners are met by the different forms of music in specific technical terms. For example, it's pretty obvious that for those who enjoy lengthy instrumental structures organized by analogy to coherent sequences of internal states, classical music is better than pop - any pop of any era. Likewise, if one enjoys the musical equivalent of Celtic knots, intricately woven and equally weighted contrapuntal lines developed in patterns of steadily increasing complexity, Bach fugues and Josquin motets are better than any form of pop music. Enjoy labyrinthine harmonic progressions through multiple keys wherein rising and ebbing levels of tension are fluidly controlled … . You get the idea. In general, it's fair to say that fine art music satisfies many aesthetic appetites not addressed by pop music. Someone else who cares can wax poetic on the needs met by pop songs.
I agree that "classical" (by which we assume we mean CPT and nothing 'modern') and "pop" (by which we mean chart fodder, not anything from jazz, rock, soul, blues etc) are different and serve different needs for broadly different audiences.
The issue is not what your hypothetical Pop listener prefers but what is included in Pop, or non-Classical genres. The problem is in your own mind, IMO, not the artistic expressions I have mentioned. You have blinders on, and define Pop and other non-Classical styles of music with a reductive broad brush.
Unless I missed it, chipia doesn't define pop at all. I've asked, they refuse to answer...yet.
The best pop music is probably going to be more artistic than the weakest classical; but the best classical vs the best pop is no contest. As has often been pointed out in this kind of debate, you might as well argue that the best car vs the best television is no contest.
I dunno, I dislike a bit of prog specifically because it seemed a bit too concerned with artistic "relevance" by affecting things from classical music which they seemed to mainly take as "really long track lengths". It's a case where I think they got away from what popular music was actually strong at, and why my favorite prog is still in a rock idiom (like 70s King Crimson), or is outright experimental (Krautrock).

I've talked about this before but I don't think it's a coincidence that the most enduring "progressive" (not necessarily "prog") music of that period was taking inspiration from the newest, most adventurous fringes of classical music and adapting it, rather than reaching back to classic symphonies or whatever.
And I dislike a bit of baroque because...

How does such an observation advance the argument?
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Well, if we're going to argue about the artistic merits of pop music versus classical, the example of popular music which deliberately affected classical music as an attempt at artistic elevation seems actually like arguing the contrary position.
Did someone propose that pop affected classical?

I don't accept that "prog" had a published agenda of any kind. In fact, "prog" is another term that is of dubious origin and fails to do justice to the array of bands that it allegedly encompasses.
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