In New York, the musician’s union is gearing up for a battle against a new technology, the Sinfonia (links via Girlhacker). The issue is whether the Sinfonia, a souped-up keyboard that has enabled the producers of a new Off-Broadway musical, The Joy of Sex, to to run its orchestra pit with only three musicians is an instrument or a "virtual orchestra machine". If it’s simply a new and powerful electronic instrument, the musician’s union will be forced to stand down, but union representatives say that the Sinfonia is no ordinary synthesizer. Ever since Elisha Gray hooked keyboards to oscillated metal reeds and Thaddeus Cahill realized that electric signals could generate musical tones, the sawtooth sounds of electronic music have been improving. (The improvements didn’t come in time for Cahill; he and his family managed to build his seven-ton masterpiece, the Telharmonium, but a lack of electronic amplifiers was crippling; after a brief flurry of interest, the project began losing money hand over fist, and today not a scrap of the several models of Teleharmonium — one weighing two hundred tons and occupying two floors — remains.) There were various oddities along the way, such as theremins and the bowed Choralcello, but generally electronic instruments stuck to keyboards and progressed in a rigorously linear fashion, with electronic music improving all the while. The Pianorad, developed by science fiction and radio pioneer Hugo Gernback, gave way to machines with well-known names made by people like clockmaker Laurens Hammond and engineer Robert Moog. Even if the Russian models looked like they could withstand a direct artillery strike, they were still clearly a single musical instrument. Not so the Sinfonia. Although everyone seems unclear about how, exactly, the Sinfonia works, it seems to be a fairly direct blow against the Musician’s Union. That doesn’t mean that it’s not also an electronic instrument, and the union representative does himself no favors when he scoffs at the idea of composing for the Sinfonia as being as unlikely as composing for tape recorder; the American-Mexican experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow wrote, and wrote beautifully, for manipulated player pianos, and tape recorders seem like an easier instrument with which to work. The Sinfonia mimics instruments; it has a built-in MIDI system; although reports differ, some have made it sound like the Sinfonia player is little more than a glorified metronome, keeping time for the conductor while the pre-programmed Sinfonia does all the work. And if that’s the case, the Musician’s Union seems right to be upset — but I think they should go further.

Performances by machines have been a dream ever since Vaucanuson’s piper, which used hydraulics to drive the fingers and mouth of a carved boy. Vaucanuson’s creations, the height of the art of automata-making, inspired von Kempelen’s Turk; that chess-player would have been even more impressive had it not been a complete fraud. The Turk was later acquired by Johann Maelzel, a magnificent showman and fraud who stole the idea of the metronome from Dietrik Winkel and made a huge commercial success of it before Winkel caught up to him in a court of law. But if the chess-playing Turk would have been a wonder, wouldn’t a composer of music be doubly so? In this modern age, why doesn’t the Musician’s Union demand mechanical composition for mechanical music?

Algorithmically-generated music is, in fact, reasonably easy to create. Take a fractal and turn it into sound (link via Ambiguous). The tools needed to make something random but likely to please using something like the 1/f algorithm are surprisingly unsophisticated; you could do it on a circa-1983 Atari. It doesn’t even require a computer; in the late eighteenth century, a number of composers (including Mozart and a student of Bach’s) mapped out composition by dice (link via Kempa, who gives a great deal more detail). And if you couldn’t manage to scrounge up a pair of dice, you could create your magnum opus using a few spare hamsters. A little bit of market research, as in composer Dave Soldier’s collaboration with conceptual artists Komar & Melamid, and the mechanical composer could generate somethin everyone was bound to love!

This survey confirms the hypothesis that today’s popular music indeed provides an accurate estimate of the wishes of the vox populi. The most favored ensemble, determined from a rating by participants of their favorite instruments in combination, comprises a moderately sized group (three to ten instruments) consisting of guitar, piano, saxophone, bass, drums, violin, cello, synthesizer, with low male and female vocals singing in rock/r&b style. The favorite lyrics narrate a love story, and the favorite listening circumstance is at home. The only feature in lyric subjects that occurs in both most wanted and unwanted categories is "intellectual stimulation." … If the survey provides an accurate analysis of these factors for the population, and assuming that the preference for each factor follows a Gaussian (i.e. bell-curve) distribution, the combination of these qualities, even to the point of sensory overload and stylistic discohesion, will result in a musical work that will be unavoidably and uncontrollably "liked" by 72 plus or minus 12% (standard deviation; Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic) of listeners.

Seventy-two percent approval for the score, the right author for the book, and a few dozen mechanical gamines? It’ll win an Obie, just as soon as we mechanize the critics.