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Computer Music Journal 25.1 (2001) 54-61

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Some Ontological Remarks about Music Composition Processes

Horacio Vaggione

Music composition processes can be envisioned as complex systems involving a plurality of operating levels. Abstractions of musical ideas are manifested in myriad ways and degrees, one of which is of course their suitability for implementation as algorithms, enabling musicians to explore possibilities that would otherwise lie out of reach. However, the role of algorithms (finite computable functions, in Turing's sense) is not to be simply reified in a composition.

Composers use computers not only as "number-crunching" devices, but also as interactive partners to perform operations where the output depends on actual performance. Composers are concerned with the creation of musical situations emerging concretely out of a critical interaction with their materials, including their algorithms. This task cannot be exhausted by a linear (a priori, non-interactive) problem-solving approach. Interaction is here matching an important feature of musical composition processes, giving room for the emergence of irreducible situations through non-linear interaction.

Irreducibility is perhaps a key word in this context, as we are dealing with music's categories and ends. Music is not dependent on logical constructs unverified by physical experience. Composers, especially those using computers, have learned--sometimes painfully--that the formal rigor of a generative function does not guarantee by itself the musical coherence of a result. Music cannot be confused with (or reduced to) a formalized discipline: even if music actually uses knowledge and tools coming from formalized disciplines, formalization does not play a foundational role in regard to musical processes. I will refer in this article to a "realist" ontological principle relying on "commitment to action" which can shed light on the nature of musical compositional processes in regard to formal constructivism. Additionally, musical processes, at least from the composer's point of view, are not situations "out there" waiting to be discovered: they are rather to be composed (since they did not exist anywhere before being composed), and hence they cannot be considered properly as modeling activities, even if they use--and deeply absorb--models, knowledge, and tools coming from scientific domains (acoustic and psychoacoustic modeling, for example).

In fact, music transforms this knowledge and these tools into its own ontological concern: to create specific musical situations (musical "states of affairs"). To this end, a palette of diverse compositional instances is needed, including strategies for controlling and qualifying results and choices, according to a given musical project. These compositional instances, to reiterate, are not envisaged here in the frame of the traditional approach to algorithmic (automatic) composition: they are instead seen in the light of the ongoing paradigm shift from algorithmics to interaction (Wegner 1997, Bello 1997), where the general-purpose computer is regarded as one component of complex systems (Winograd 1979), and where the composer, being another component of these complex systems, is imbedded in a network within which he or she can act, design, and experience concrete tools and (meaningful) musical situations.

It is under this perspective, I believe, that the formal status of musical processes can be approached--in a certain way "revisited"--as I will try to do in this article, focusing on ontological questions. Computer music practice (computer-generated and computer-assisted composition) is of course the underlying frame of the discussion here offered, because these reflections have arisen from the author's daily exposure, as a composer, to a situation in which algorithms, choices, and "musical theses" are themselves confronted within an "action/perception feedback loop" which seems to constitute [End Page 54] definitively the pertinent instance of validation of musical processes.

Approaching Music's Ontology

Schönberg's Criticism of "External Calculus"

Schönberg states in his Style and Idea that "a purely external calculus system calls for a formal construction whose primitive nature is suitable only to primitive ideas" (Schönberg 1951). This remark points, in the particular language of its author, to the mismatches that may be caused by literal application of operations which may be successfully applied in other fields, but which are not guaranteed...


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