What We Miss About Music – A Human Connection

Music, as much as it is an auditory experience; requires a face – a personality.

In this Spotify age, we are spoon-fed with playlists of reasonable music and only so rarely do we hear something of character, that we go back to the main player to identify the song and singer. Even then, these identified songs will eventually be forgotten, as other new hits come along.

So, how does a singer get and retain our attention? Firstly, as mentioned, the song must have character. It must be pleasing (of course) and slightly different according to our various tastes. For me, indie songs are a dime a dozen and the only ones that stand out are those with great vocals and awesome lyrics. Of course, everything about the song has to be genuine, and not sound pretentious, if you know what I mean.

Secondly, the singer must put his/her face, or rather the personality to the music. That is the only way to make a lasting connection. The reason why some people loved Nirvana and still do, is because of the personality of Kurt Cobain – someone so sad and intense, but doomed by heroin. The reason why people will always remember Prince and Freddie Mercury is because of their larger-than-life persona on stage.

Being able to observe a singer – the way he/she performs, and what he/she says – gives one a deeper understanding of the music created, and enables one to form a connection with the singer, albeit through a screen. When one looks at another’s facial expression, so much is told without words, and that is when music becomes human and human-connected.

When I observed a video of Hozier at the Mahogany Session, I saw in his brief introduction, a humble musician. I was immediately drawn towards him and his great vocals carried me through the rest of the song. When I watched Jeff Buckley’s performance, I saw his intense passion for music, and how genuine he was; needless to say, another musician remembered.

Hence, in order for singers to retain an audience, they must put their personality to music. The greatest indulgence is an unplugged session – only vocals and simple instruments. Perhaps then, Spotify should consider generating more content: videos, short biographies and quotes, to create lasting connections between artist and audience.

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Beware of Progression into Non-humanism

This world is a growing pool of humans: labels and numbers. The increasing use of technology allows data analysts to put us like points on the map, record our behaviour and for what purpose? The predominant answer is profit.

It was and is still true to say that ‘money makes the world go round’. Data analysts use our charted behaviour to find our trend of spending, and sell this data to corporations that can afford it. These corporations then work in stealth to influence and coax our spending. Of course, governments use big data, to monitor and supervise our behaviour, and rules change without us really understanding why.

One must question if anomalies pop up on these charts. If yes, then are these the ones who are left out, marginalised and vulnerable in our society? Then do we do anything with this data, to help them? If anomalies do not show, then are we excluding people from our view, our consideration and our humanity?

In the book, Awakenings, late Dr Oliver Sacks propounds the folly of medicine to reduce complex human experience to data, and warns of our reduction of humanism:

“The whole of this book is concerned with these questions – ‘How are you?’. ‘How are things?’ – as they apply to certain patients in an extraordinary situation. There are many legitimate answers to this question: ‘Fine!’, ‘So-so’, ‘Terrible!’, ‘Bearing up’, ‘Not myself’, etc.; evocative gestures; or simply showing how one is […] All of these are intuitively understood, and picture for one the state of the patient. But it is not legitimate to answer this metaphysical question with a list of ‘data’ or measurements regarding one’s vital signs, blood chemistry, urinalysis, etc. A thousand such data don’t begin to answer the essential question; they are irrelevant and, additionally, very crude in comparison with the delicacy of one’s sense and intuitions.

[…] Folly enters when we try to ‘reduce’ metaphysical terms and matters to mechanical ones: worlds to systems, particulars to categories, impressions to analyses, and realities to abstractions. This is the madness of the last three centuries, the madness which so many of us – as individuals – go through, and by which all of us are tempted. It is this Newtonian-Lockean-Cartesian view […] which reduces men to machines, automata, puppets, dolls, blank tablets, formulae, ciphers, systems and reflexes. It is this, in particular, which has rendered so much of our recent and current medical literature unfruitful, unreadable, inhuman and unreal.

There is nothing alive which is not individual: our health is ours; our diseases are ours; our reactions are ours – no less than our minds or our faces. Out health, diseases and reactions cannot be understood in vitro, in themselves; they can only be understood with reference to us, as expressions of our nature, our living, our being-here (da-sein) in the world.”

Hence with our increasing reliance on technology, we must not forget the importance of paying attention to human experience. We must view with circumspect, our progression towards non-humanism, towards exclusion of people in need. 

SCI-FI-AI

I’ve been a fan of science fiction movies since young and my first fascination with artificial intelligence spawned from the movie, A.I (2001)

As a child, what struck me most was the scene of abandonment – the mother, Monica, had driven David, the A.I. who looked exactly like a boy, to a forest and left him there. His sudden sense of loss and despair were poignantly portrayed by young Haley Osment. There was certainly no difference between him and a human boy – he was clearly distraught by his mother’s cruel treatment. This emotional parting got me wondering if A.Is could feel like us, and if so, should we treat them the same? 

Then, I watched Blade Runner (1982). The most memorable scene was Deckard’s questioning of Rachael, a replicant who thought that it was human. During the intense minutes of this Voight-Kampff Test, Deckard became confused and uncertain about Rachael who provided emotional responses but seemed to display replicant eye patterns. Later, Tyrell revealed that Rachael was a prototype model of a different kind of replicant – one with emotional memory and capacity. The difficulty in telling human from A.I. piqued my interest once again. 

A few years ago, I watched Her (2013). Even though the A.I. was not given a face or body, the romance that eventually developed between Samantha and Theodore, was moving. What was initially just a companion very quickly developed into a fresh romance. Her indications of wanting to “go out with him”, to “feel how its like”, was refreshing to imagine. He became so enveloped in her (represented by a voice-over) – her wit and humour, and her affections for him – that he broke down when he thought he had lost her. The most interesting scene was one of the last. She admitted that she was chatting with many, many users at the same time and that her love could encompass all of them. She was clearly greater than envisioned. She may have achieved enlightenment – of universal love – when Theodore was left sobbing at the stairs. The evolvement of the artificial intelligence seems to be beyond our control, as programs can teach themselves more, and more, etc.

Last year, I watched Ex Machina (2015), which to me was one of the best movies on A.I. after A.I. (2001). Besides being visually stunning, thrilling and sophisticated in plot, it too offered new questions into A.I. The conversations held between Caleb, a programmer and Ava, the humanoid robot, slowly introduced the complexities of dealing with a being with intelligence that superseded ours. Even though Caleb was somewhat prepared to deal with an A.I., well keeping in mind that she was not human, he was later manipulated into helping her escape. In the ending scene, I held my breath and asked myself “Will she release Caleb from the locked room? Did she have affections for him, at all?” She left without even a turn of head, into the world, free and powerful. 

Besides movies, the TV series, Humans (2015) comes to mind. It was fantastic in its slow and careful exploration of Synths with and without consciousness, and their relationships with humans. Of the many episodes that caused me to question more, I was curious about Niska‘s behaviour when questioned on feelings. She showed no physical expression, such as crying, when relating her experience of being abused as a prostitute, but claimed that one may still feel even though one may not express it in the same way. This was thought-provoking as we know that some humans are too inept at expressing emotions. So what do we consider human? Do we consider feelings or rather, do we consider expressed feelings?

Finally, I’ve just watched Ghost in the Shell (2017). The elaborate visuals of complex animation were stunning and the intense plot left little room for audiences to take a breather. It was such a feast for eyes that one simply could not have a moment’s rest. In the middle of the film, I realised my lack of emotional connection to the central character – Major, an A.I. with a human brain. Usually, I would feel sorry for the A.I. who usually suffers emotionally despite being a robot. In this movie, I was left wanting. How did you feel about this movie?

Leaving Social Media

A week ago, I disabled Facebook and Instagram on my mobile phone. Why?

In late 2015, I started an Instagram account to share my experience of travelling through Germany and Italy. Having no idea about location and keyword tagging, my posts received little or no attention. As time passed, I learned how to tag my posts properly but I wasn’t zealous like people who included tags in separate comments. Also, I began adding more friends, so to speak, or rather just to have more followers. I know many if not most, do not actively like my posts. I do not actively like their posts either. So, what is this about?

What began as a wish to share my experience, became a day-to-day mindless habit of scrolling through pictures which inform me about people’s lives; or rather the side of life they choose to show. It became worse when Instagram caught up with Snapchat and introduced live stories. Surely, we cannot know more about another than through following their daily schedules. Curiously, mundane lives do have elements of interest, to share about.

Of course, I did enjoy Instagram for the stunning and at times, inspirational pictures of National Geographic and adventure photographers. But I was sucked into a world of materialism and superficiality. Without knowing, I was absorbed by how people looked, where they travelled to and whatever good they had that I didn’t. Furthermore, I began to mind how many likes my post got. It was human nature to keep track of progress. I became a person who cared about whether someone was noticing me and liking what went on in my life. To be honest, this isn’t me.

Facebook had a lesser grip on me for there were more video posts than photo posts. These videos were mostly of comic nature, with okay to poor quality content. What was worse were the posts on animal abuse. Surely one doesn’t need to be constantly shocked with graphic images to know that animal abuse exists and inhumane people deserve to be hated on. Overall, Facebook was another mindless scroll of videos and random posts, of casual likes and dislikes.

Upon reflection of time – the measurement of our lives, I realise I haven’t been spending it well. In pockets of time – waiting for the bus, travelling, during meals, etc. – I have been mindlessly scrolling through these applications, and compulsively keeping my Instagram feed active. What then have I gained through this habit? A year on, I have gained little, socially or intellectually. I must come to admit that I have been wasting my time. Then one will ask, what do we do when we have nothing to do?

Surely, one can idle or be at ease with boredom. In the past, people gain inspirations and ideas in times of idling. These days, we do not allow that emptiness which can drive creativity and independent thought. Instead, we fill them with poor content, and drive ourselves along the mainstream and lose our ability to be uniquely, ourselves.

Of course, I must say that I am quite a failure at social media, or in fact socialising. That is why social media has lost its purpose for me. In the first few days of disabling the apps, I can’t help but want to feed my habit of viewing. Instead of re-enabling them, I downloaded other apps for quality content reading, such as science and other news. Yet one does not engage the intellect all the time, so there are definitely periods of emptiness. In these, I idle, and let my mind work in the way it wants to work. I do not gain inspirations everyday, but they sure come often. Instead of gazing at my phone, I now observe life around me. I observe my surroundings, people and see things anew. I hope I no longer need to search for lost time.

We must always reflect on our habits, for they make up our lives. If we find our habits meaningless, we must persist to change them.

Designed Genetic Change

In April 1971, the US National Institutes of Health organised a conference to determine whether the introduction of deliberate genetic changes in organisms was conceivable in the near future. Provocatively titled Prospects for Designed Genetic Change, the meeting hoped to update the public on the possibility of gene manipulations in humans, and consider the social and political implications of such technologies. 

No such method to manipulate genes (even in simple organisms) was available in 1971, the panelists noted – but its development, they felt confident, was only a matter of time. “This is not science fiction, ” one geneticist declared. “Science fiction is when you […] can’t do anything experimentally…it is now conceivable that not within 100 years, not within 25 years, but perhaps within the next 5 to 10 years, certain inborn errors…will be treated or cured by the administration of a certain gene that is lacking – and we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare society for this kind of change.” (The Gene)

45 years later, this year, Dr John Zhang engineered a baby -one without the mother’s abnormal mitochondria DNA. The controversial procedure removes the nucleus from the mother’s egg and transfers it into the donor’s healthy egg with normal mitochondria. With In-vitro fertilisation (IVF), the egg is fertilised with the father’s sperm and placed in the mother’s uterus.

The technique gave birth to a baby boy who carries less than 1 per cent of the abnormal mitochondria DNA. Unlike his siblings who died aged six and 8 months respectively, he may be able to live, free of fatal disorders that affect his developing nervous system. (read more here)

The controversy that surrounds this breakthrough is that of the combination of DNA of 3 parents. However, it must be noted that mitochondria are the cell’s energy factories and are separate from the DNA that determines a child’s inherited traits. The mutation in mitochondria DNA results in a power failure, leading to failing muscles, brain, heart, etc. Arguably, it is incorrect to label it thus as a 3-parent baby, since what changes is only the power source, and not the genetic code that makes a baby the product of his/her parents.

Furthermore, it has recently been discovered that infertile mothers who use donor eggs to conceive, do pass their DNA to their child. Do we then label these cases as “3-parent babies”?

Also, the donor in most cases of assisted fertility do not have legal rights as a parent to the child who is born. As a donor, he or she has no interest in fulfilling the general duties of a parent, and hence should not be pulled into the picture merely to invite public discourse.

Artificial Music

Gaetan Hadjeres and Francois Pachet (Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Paris) have developed a neural network capable of composing music in the likeness of Bach, one of the greatest composers of baroque music in the 18th century.

The machine, DeepBach, was given a data set of 2503 chorales by transposing 352 Bach chorales to other keys within a predefined vocal range. 80 percent of the data set trains the neural network to recognise Bach harmonies while the rest validates it. Given a set algorithm, the machine then produces harmonies of its own in the style of Bach.

In order to determine the success of DeepBach, more than 1600 people were asked to listen to two different harmonies of the same melody, and determine which sounded more like Bach. More than 400 of them were professional musicians or music students.  Around half the voters judged the DeepBach harmony to be Bach’s; whereas seventy five percent of them judged Bach’s harmony to be his own.

The results prove DeepBach’s capability in understanding the complexity of Bach’s compositions, in terms of its structure and rules of construction.

This latest advancement in technology offers us a glimpse of what may be the future of music – or at least a part of it – that machines can and will generate music beyond our current appetite of electronic sounds. Arguably, in time, DeepBach can be taught to recognise and rectify its errors in composition, and become more Bach-like. For the untrained ear, it may become impossible to tell the difference between original and artificial compositions. And does it matter? Will we cease to appreciate good music just because it lacks a human author?

Another implication of this technological advancement is the possible threat to the creative industry. Will musicians lose their jobs to artificial intelligence? Arguably, no. Today, the music industry thrives not on the quality of music, but on media influence. After all, how many modern artists can compare to those of Nina Simone and Prince? These days, what feeds the ears must also feed the eyes and quench the constant thirst to be entertained, be it in the form of social media engagement or celebrity gossip. If an artist fails to be riveting on social media platforms, it does not matter how good his/her music is. Simply put, we still prefer to be entertained in person, by persons.