In his autobiography, Miles Davis complained that classical musicians were like robots.
He spoke from experience – he studied classical music at Juilliard and recorded with classical musicians even after becoming a world-renowned jazz artist.
As a music professor at the University of Florida, which is transforming itself into an “AI university,” I often think of Davis’ words, and the way musicians have become more mechanized over the past century. Also, I see how machines are getting better at imitating human improvisation, in all aspects of life.
I wonder what the limits of machine improvisation would be, and what human activities would survive the rise of intelligent machines.
the rise of machine improvisation
The machines have excelled in activities involving the continual reproduction of a certain item – the same Toyota being mass-produced in a factory.
More immediate activities are less rule-based, more fluid, chaotic or reactive, and more process-oriented. AI is making significant progress in this area.
Consider the following examples:
The trading pits of Wall Street, Tokyo and London were once filled with a vibrant chaos of traders shouting and signaling traders, reacting to changing conditions fluidly in real time. These trading pits have mostly been replaced by algorithms.
Self-driving technology may soon replace human drivers, automating our fluid decision-making processes. Autonomous vehicles currently stumble where greater mastery of improvement is needed, such as dealing with pedestrians.
Much live social interaction has been replaced by the sterile activity of meticulously writing down emails or social media posts. Predictive email text will continue to evolve, bringing increasingly transactional quality to our relationship. (“Hey Siri, email Amanda and congratulate her on her promotion.”)
IBM’s computer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, but it took another 20 years for the AI to beat the top players in the board game Go. This is because the number of possible move options in Go at any given time is far greater, and there are virtually no specific rules – it needs more improvisation. Yet man ultimately became no match for the machine: in 2019, former world champion Lee Sedol retired from the professional sport, citing the dominance of AI.
music becomes more machine-like
At a time when classical music has abandoned it, machines are replacing human improvisation.
Before the 20th century, almost all major figures in Western art music excelled in composition, performance and improvisation. Johann Sebastian Bach was mostly known as an organist, his first biographer describing his reformation of organs as “more devout, solemn, dignified and sublime” than his works.
But the 20th century saw the division of the artist-musician-reformer tradition into specific regions.
Artists faced the rise of recording techniques that filled consumers with definite, homogeneous and objectively correct versions of compositions. Classical musicians constantly had to give technically flawless live performances to match, sometimes reducing the music to a sort of Olympics.
Classical pianist Glenn Gould was both a source and a product of this situation – he despised the rigor and competitiveness of live performances and retired from the stage at age 31, but withdrew from the studio to collect visionary masterpieces. Were impossible to perform in one take.
Musicians mostly abandoned the serious pursuit of improvisation or performance. Modernists became increasingly fascinated with processes, complexity, and algorithms reflecting contemporary technological developments. The ultra-complex compositions of High Modernism required mechanistic precision from the artists, but many postmodern minimalist scores also demanded robotic precision.
The Reformation almost completely ceased to be a part of classical music, but developed into a new art form: jazz. Yet jazz struggled to achieve equality, particularly in America, in its country of origin, in large part due to systemic racism. The classical world also has its own version of the “one-drop rule”: works written by jazz musicians are often dismissed as illegitimate by the classical establishment.
A recent New York Times article called on the orchestra to open itself up to improvisation and collaborate with jazz luminaries such as saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, who has composed many orchestral works. But college and university concerts have isolated and marginalized jazz studies, depriving orchestral musicians of training in improvisation. Instead, musicians in an orchestra are seated according to their fair rank ability, and their job is to replicate the motion of the lead player.
They are the machines of the music world. In the future, will they be the most disposable?
Davis perfects the art of imperfection
AI’s march continues, but will it ever be able to join true improvisation?
Machines easily replicate objects, but improvisation is a process. In pure musical improvisation, there is no predetermined structure and no objectively correct performance.
And improvisation is not just improvised creation; If that were the case, AI would eliminate the difference between the two because of its computation speed.
Rather, improvisation has an elusive, human quality as a result of the tension between skill and spontaneity. Machines will always be highly efficient, but will they ever stop calculating and switch to an intuitive mode of creation, like a jazz musician going from practice room to gig?
Davis reached a point at Juilliard where she had to decide on her future. He was deeply involved with classical music and was known to carry around with Stravinsky scores in his pocket. He would later admire musicians from Bach to Stockhausen and record jazz interpretations of compositions by Manuel de Falla, Heiter Villa-Lobos and Joaquín Rodrigo.
Yet there were many reasons for jazz to leave the classical world. Davis remembers playing “about two notes every 90 bars” in the orchestra. This was in stark contrast to the extraordinary challenge and excitement of late night jam sessions with musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.
He experienced the reality of racism and “knew that no white symphony orchestra was going to hire him.” (In contrast, Davis regularly hired white players such as Lee Konitz, Bill Evans, and John McLaughlin.)
And he was against a machine.
But in jazz, Davis was able to turn his technical struggle with the trumpet into a haunting, iconic sound. His misplaced notes, missed notes and torn notes became wheezing, whispers and sighs expressing the human condition. Not only did he own these “mistakes,” he also actively gave them a risky approach, prioritizing color and expression over accuracy.
He had an art of imperfection, and therein lies the paradox of jazz. Davis left Juilliard after three semesters, but went on to become one of the most important musical figures of the 20th century.
Today the land has changed.
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Juilliard has a rich jazz program, led by another trumpeter well versed in both classical music and jazz – Vinton Marsalis, who has received two classical Grammy Awards for his solo work. And while the narrative of “robots coming for our jobs” is cliché, these displacements are happening rapidly, greatly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are approaching a time when actual robots may replace Davis’ classical “robot” – perhaps some of the 20 violinists in a symphony orchestra – if only as a gimmick for the first time.
However, we may soon discover that jazz artists are irreplaceable.