This afternoon I helped compose a song with Pete Townshend of The Who.
Okay, not exactly. It was actually with Pete’s computer.
I can see you’re skeptical, so I better provide some context. To do that, we’re gonna have to go all the way back to 1971, the year I was born. Because that was when Townshend began work on a musical project known as Lifehouse.
The Who had just found great success with their rock opera, Tommy, and Townshend was now working on a new musical project called Lifehouse. A science fiction story in which the world has suffered an ecological disaster, Lifehouse included a major plot line based around the idea that the world’s music was controlled by a small group of powerful media conglomerates, which in turn pumped its mediocre muzak into the minds of humanity. (In some ways it’s similar to Rush’s 2112 album, which came out in the late 70s, without the Ayn Rand influence.)
“The essence of the story-line was a kind a futuristic scene…. It’s a fantasy set at a time when rock ‘n’ roll didn’t exist. The world was completely collapsing and the only experience that anybody ever had was through test tubes. They lived TV programs, in a way. Everything was programmed. The enemies were people who gave us entertainment intravenously, and the heroes were savages who’d kept rock ‘n’ roll as a primitive force and had gone to live with it in the woods. The story was about these two sides coming together and having a brief battle.”
As part of their revolutionary struggle, the heroes of the story utilized a technological weapon called The Method, which would combat the soulless music they were literally being force-fed.
“What Lifehouse was about, at its root, was to reaffirm that what’s important is that music reflects its audience as absolutely and completely as possible,” Townshend explains on his website. In the early 70s, he was exploring Sufi mysticism, which no doubt put him in touch with qawwali music, like that of the famed Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whom I got to interview in 1992. Qawwali concerts, which often extend to four hours or more, intend to use the trance-like power of lengthy musical performances to bring the performers and audience into a state of spiritual ecstasy. This, of course, is often a complete contrast to rock concerts, where performers and the audience show up, do their thing and leave. Townshend says:
Standing on stage and waving your arms about is wearing a bit thin, I think. There’s going to have to be a way of listening to music which doesn’t mean that you’re going to have to face in a particular direction, there’s going to have to be a way of listening to music that doesn’t mean that you have to go out to a concert hall between eight and ten in the evening. I’ve seen moments in Who concerts where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the world was just going to stop, the whole thing was just becoming so unified. But you could never reach that state because in the back of their minds everybody knew that the group was going to have to stop soon, or they’d got to get home or catch the last bus or something – it’s a ridiculous situation.
For various reasons, Lifehouse didn’t come together as planned, even though Townshend composed many songs for the rock opera. Instead, these songs were published as part of the album Who’s Next, arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time. But Lifehouse – and the musical weapon known as The Method – never fully vanished from Townshend’s creative consciousness.
This brings us to last February, when Townshend was wrapping up work on his novel, The Boy Who Heard Music. The novel was released chapter-by-chapter on a blog, and he invited the public to comment on the story and help improve it. When the novel was complete, Townshend announced that some of the bloggers who participated in the story’s development would be invited to participate in his next project – the rebirth of The Method as online software that would interpret the images and sounds submitted by a person and convert it into music.
As I explained on my blog:
A partnership between Townshend, programmer Dave Snowdon and composer Lawrence Ball, The Method will perform musical works generated by a computer based on interactions with a real person, referred to by Townshend as a “sitter.” Initially the website will feature works generated by The Method through interactions with Lawrence Ball and others, but Townshend plans to invite bloggers to “sit” with The Method and generate music of their own. At least that’s the way I understand it from his description on his blog. From what I’ve heard of Lawrence Ball’s work, his music is reminsicent of Erik Satie and Arvo Part. Adding Pete Townshend to the mix, along with a community of 500 bloggers, will hopefully lead to some exciting, unusual results.
Yesterday, I received an email informing me that I was being invited to serve as one of the first beta-testers of The Method. I’d have a chance to “sit” and have three musical portraits painted for me. So this afternoon, I logged into and gave it a shot. The website asked me to upload a series of original audio clips, as well as a photo. This data would then be interpreted by the website to create an original electronic composition. I wasn’t sure if it would take the content I gave it and sample it, or just be inspired by it. First, I supplied it with a photo of me from my honeymoon. I then gave it three audio clips:
- A loop of me saying “The moving walkway is ending; please look down.”
- A sample of me doing babytalk to Kayleigh, and her response.
- A loop of a Tunisian malouf trio I recorded in Tunisia last year.
Once this was done, The Method went to work, composing an original work based on my inputs. The result is this song. It’s just over five minutes long, and is very reminiscent of the work of Terry Riley, Michael Nyman and Phillip Glass, each of whom often utilize electronic-like repetition in their compositions. Personally, I like the piece a lot, though I can see how people might dismiss it as being too repetitive. (It also has some crackle noises at the beginning, which must have occurred when The Method saved the mp3 file.) I’ll be very curious to see if my future experiments with The Method produce similar results. I’ll have to go out of my way to submit a photo and audio samples that are very different from the ones I just used.
So what’s next? For one thing, The Method is still in beta, so it’s not totally ready for prime time yet. Eventually, more people will be invited to sit for musical portraits, and even be invited back repeatedly to work with Townshend and his collaborators to expand them into major works. They’ll also take their show on the road, doing live performances of some of the compositions, with sitters like me invited to attend and potentially participate.
Meanwhile, any musical works produced by The Method will be co-owned by Townshend and the sitter. For all practical purposes, that means that if you sit for a musical portrait, you can do whatever you choose with the results, as can Townshend. We just can’t veto the other’s uses of it. That way, we can both use it, refine it, sample it, license it and perform it. Not like I would ever say no to Pete if he wanted to incorporate it into a concert or anything like that.
So that’s the result of my first experienced with networked musical composition. I can’t wait to do it again. -andy