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Re: Black boxes,, The Curse Called MIDI...

At 02:29 PM 8/15/98 -0400, andre wrote:
>a Mac user, and frankly the computer as music tool is something not to
>> my taste anyway, so I have not tried Koan.  But every "algorythmic
>> composer" or "generative" music program--maybe every music program,
>> period--I've ever seen functions on some basic assumptions of what music
>............> terrible bore.  I feel that MIDI is a curse which has
>extended the reign of
>> these dead europeans' ghosts.  
>..hmm. how is MIDI any more of a curse than , say, electricity - which is
>truly at the root of all this mildewed computer music..???
>Why does everyone always blame crappy music, "bad" sounds,  non-original
>ideas, etc, on a simple switching/info carrying protocol. with all this
>worrying, I'm continually amazed we even have time to.......PLAY !
>When i use MIDI to simply switch my gear from a clean reverby patch to a
>chorusy distorto patch, or a synth from bells to organ..... how is the
>mechanism doing that a curse ??
>I just get antsy with such generalizations, i guess. Who exactly anointed
>MIDI as the catch all that would do everything including read our minds at
>500 GHz ??? It seems any performance short of that deems it worthy of the
>trash heap.

I think you expressed this point before, Andre. Then, as now, I think you
are on a tangent to the actual discussion. You are looking at this entirely
as a user of tools, rather than a creator of tools. And you are a 
user of tools, saying "this is what I have, what can I do with it?"  and
that's fine, but that's not what David is getting at or what we were 
with last time this discussion came up. 

Creators of tools are people who tend to take a very different perspective
on their environment. They say, "this is what I want to do. Is there a tool
that will let me do that?" If there is one, they are happy and they go on.
Oftentimes, though, the correct tool does not exist and they are not happy
and they can't do what they want. So they set about adapting existing tools
to their new purpose or inventing entirely new tools to meet their needs.
These are the restless sorts of people who are never satisfied with the way
things are and constantly seek to improve upon it. The goal is more
absolute, altering it to fit the available tools is not an option. If you
look around you now, most of the human-developed devices you see were
created by people like that.  

Midi is a sort of language. (and language is a sort of tool.) It has words
and definitions and grammer. Language tends to be closely tied to culture
and thought processes. In a given language there will be some ideas which
are very easy to express, some which are difficult, and some which are
completely unexpressable. Different languages tend excel in different 
with different degrees of success. (English is great for business, but
French is better for romance, say. And the language of the Aborigines in
Australia is supposedly great for theoretical physics, as well as 
of abstracted dream states, but you wouldn't want to write a contract with
it.) In a very real way, the language defines the boundaries of ideas you
can express. And sometimes, it defines the boundaries of ideas you can even
think, and defines the people and culture who use it. 

This is why languages are constantly evolving. We have new ideas to 
so we invent new words for them, or make stylistic evolutions to 
But you can only go so far that way. This is why programmers keep inventing
new programming languages. The existing languages sometimes can't 
new ideas, and a new language is created that suits the ideas better.

As a language, Midi has a very limited vocabulary and a restrictive
grammatical structure. It defines a very limited boundary of what can be
expressed with it. this is not to say you can't express anything with it, 
find it extremely useful. Within its boundaries you are fine. Indeed, you
can use it to achieve brilliance in musical expression.

But if you wish to express ideas outside the boundaries, midi might not 
for you. If you are the sort that seeks to create tools, you might first
seek to adapt midi to your needs, adding new words to it. But at some point
the boundary is limited by the fundamental grammatical structure of the
language, and you just can't go beyond that.

Some of us reach that point and conclude, aha! time for a new language. We
need a new tool to achieve our goals, because the existing tools don't get
us there. The restless tool creators in some of us are always at work....

That's why there is so much interest in a new protocol for communicating
musical ideas electronically, and why some people devote a lot of effort to
that, and why some people merely proclaim "MIDI sucks!"

Much discussion of this goes on in academic circles. Check out CNMAT
(http://www.cnmat.berkeley.edu), Computer Music Journal, IRCAM, prodeedings
from the ICMC, etc. A huge amount of work on new musical languages has been
done already and continues vigorously. By all means, join the process.

Kim Flint, MTS                     kflint@chromatic.com
Chromatic Research                 408-752-9284