Challenging machine aesthetics and the musical automation

Henrik Frisk

Goodbye Intuition


  • The artistic research project Goodbye Intuition (GI), hosted by the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
  • At the center of the project is the develompent of a machine co-player that the four members of the project interact with

Goodbye Intuition


  • The general idea is to challenge the roles and aesthetical values of the four musicians in the group.
  • Members of the group are: Ivar Grydeland, Morten Qvenild, Andrea Neumann and Sidsel Endresen.

The Creative Machine?


YuMi conducts Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra in 2017

  • The machine improvisor in GI is a Max/MSP program
  • The technology is not the focus, only the responses from the interactions
  • Is it possible to draw dividing lines between technology/technique, interaction and result?

An abstract machine?


  • The (abstract) machine according to Deleuze and Guattari is something different
  • A way to handle desire and the sub-conscious

What does it do?

  • Collects material (sampling)
  • Builds an archive
  • Plays back material based on a limited range of possible musical settings
  • Settings may be varied during performance

What is the nature of this kind of instrument?

  • NIME
  • Hyperinstruments (Machover 1989)
  • "an instrument within an interactive computer music context […] can be understood as both composition and instrument building" (Fiebrink 2011)
  • "the work is replaced by the interface" (Frisk 2008)

What is the identity of this, and similar, systems?

  • An instrument?
  • A performer?
  • A composer?
  • A composition?

    Ambiguity is typical for interactive environments (e.g. Lippe 2002)

My focus

  • A study on the interaction with the improvising machine
  • What was it that triggered discussions concerning:
    • aesthetical judgments
    • interactive experience
    • judgments explored and questioned
    • the interpretative space opened up through the experience of playing with the seemingly responsive machine co-player

Andrea Neumann and KA

Mixing archives

Discussion of performance

Composition or player?

One of the topics raised early on in the workshop in Stockholm was the notion of KA as a composition rather than a co-improviser, or an instrument.

  • "It makes me want to plan more ahead"
  • "Less intuitive, and more planned"
  • "When playing with humans there is always an idea of the ambition"
  • "Maybe its all in our heads"
  • "Is it fair to say we play together?"

Composed instruments

Interpreting the attitude of the performer of a composed instrument with the help of categories from the traditional way music is created leads to various metaphors such as that of playing a musical instrument, conducting an orchestra, playing together (ensemble) with a machine, acting as a one-man band.

(Schnell & Battier 2002)

The power of anthropomorphism

KA is often talked about as

  • trying to do something
  • being in a state (of mind)
  • consciously going in a particular direction or making a choice

A consequence of the nature of musical practice as embodied and founded in awareness and communication?

Not to listen

The hardest–or easiest–is to get the machine to not listen.

  • How to get a machine improvisor to not listen?
  • How can it be rude? But not all the time…
  • How can it contribute meaningful resistance?
  • An interactive instrument being not interactive.
  • What's the point of being rude to an instrument that doesn't care?
  • How can we think of machine ethics?

Questions and reflections

What is the role of technology in digital art?

  • an item is a work of digital art just in case
    1. it's art
    2. made by computer or…
    3. … made for display by computer
    4. in a common digital code (Lopes 2009)

The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. (LeWitt 1967)

For KA, what is the role of the underlying code?

  • Depending on the level of interactivity that the system affords, the underlying programming is perhaps the most important contributor
  • Or is it the affordances of the framework, Max/MSP in this case?
  • Or the hardware?

For KA, what is it to be ethical?

  • Ethical behaviour in musical improvisation and artistic practice extends what is generally seen as acceptable in person-to-person interation
  • The ethics of improvisation is negotiated through the aesthetics of the context
  • What does actually guide the aesthetics of KA or any other machine improviser or meta-instrument?
  • The programming?

What (if any) is the next step for machine improvsation?

  • It is possible (or likely) that tools are developed that exhibit 'real' musical intelligence
  • What is the freedom of such a tool (if this is at all a meaningful notion)?
  • Are we prepared to let it develop its own aesthetics, and hence its own ethics?
  • What if the machine does not want to play with humans at all?
  • What contraints may we put on the machine's freedom without it affecting the freedom we generally allow humans?

Objection 1

  • Until machines create machines they depend on human progammers and designers that have values
  • Even advanced machine learning algorithms are influenced by biases (Snow 2018)

Objection 2

  • Musical performance is not solely dependent on sound but also by a great number of other impressions.
  • Hence, if the machine is only listening to sound, the potential interaction is (very) limited
  • KA has no physicality, no body, and no presence, which is a great disadvantage and part of its limitation

If you play with humans you have an idea of their aesthetics so that part is kind of integrated, on beforehand. So maybe there is always some kind of quick preparation, or plan in order to feed into the total?

Sidsel Endresen Lab #5, part 2, 19 February, 2019.


  • Frisk, H., Improvisation, computers, and interaction: rethinking human-computer interaction through music (2008). Malmö Faculty of Fine and Performing Arts, Lund University.
  • Fiebrink, R., Real-time human interaction with supervised learning algorithms for music composition and performance (Doctoral dissertation) (2011). Princeton University.
  • Lippe, C., Real-time interaction among composers, performers, and computer systems, Information Processing Society of Japan SIG Notes, 2002(123), 1–6 (2002).
  • Lopes, D. M. M., The ontology of interactive art, Journal of Aesthetic Education, 35(4), 65–81 (2001).
  • LeWitt, S., Paragraphs on conceptual art, Artforum, 5(10), 79–83 (1967).
  • Machover, T., Hyperinstrument: musically intelligent and interactive performance and creativity systems, In: Proceedings of 1989 ICMC (pp. 186–190) (1989). Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference.
  • Schnell, N., & Battier, M., Introducing composed instruments, technical and musicological implications, In: Proceedings of the 2002 conference on New interfaces for musical expression (pp. 156–60) (2002).
  • Snow, J., Amazon's face recognition falsely matched 28 members of congress with mugshots (2018).

Thank you!


Henrik Frisk