You know the singularity has arrived when the robots start playing marimbas. Shimon, engineer Guy Hoffman’s robot musician, doesn’t play programmed music — it improvises in ensembles with human players, communicating with a “socially expressive head” and favoring musical ideas that are unlikely to be chosen by humans, so as to lead the performance in genuinely novel directions.
“The project, therefore, aims to combine human creativity, emotion, and aesthetic judgment with algorithmic computational capability of computers, allowing human and artificial players to cooperate and build off each other’s ideas,” notes the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, Shimon’s patron. “Unlike computer- and speaker-based interactive music systems, an embodied anthropomorphic robot can create familiar, acoustically rich, and visual interactions with humans.”
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey make photographs using grass. When grass is grown from seed on a vertical surface, it can record complex images much as photographic film does: Each germinating blade produces chlorophyll in proportion to the light that reaches it. Stronger light produces greener grass, and blades deprived of light grow but produce no chlorophyll, leaving them yellow. “In a sense we have adapted the photographic art of producing pictures on a sensitive film to the light sensitivity of emergent blades of young grass; the equivalent tonal range of black-and-white photographic paper is created within the grass in shades of yellow and green.”
“A grass photograph has the power to elicit strong emotional responses in the viewer, and it is undeniable that the beauty of the freshly grown grass canvas suggests all that is fertile and life-enhancing. Our desire to alleviate the process of decay has encouraged us to journey into the world of science and genetics, and has opened our work to a greater number of people throughout the world.”
When critics dismissed his paintings, Dutch artist Han van Meegeren decided to seek his revenge on the art world: He devoted himself to forgery and spent six years fabricating a Vermeer masterpiece. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll recount the career of a master forger and the surprising mistake that eventually brought him down.
We’ll also drop in on D.B. Cooper and puzzle over an eyeless fruit burglar.
Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of pencillin, grew “germ paintings” of living bacteria on blotting paper. He made this 4-inch portrait, titled “Guardsman,” in 1933.
“If a paper disc is placed on the surface of an agar plate, the nutrient material diffuses through the paper sufficiently to maintain the growth of many microorganisms implanted on the surface of the paper,” he wrote. “At any stage, growth can be stopped by the introduction of formalin. Finally the paper disc, with the culture on its surface, can be removed, dried, and suitably mounted.”
Here’s a gallery. “Even in Fleming’s time this technique failed to receive much attention or approval. Apparently he prepared a small exhibit of bacterial art for a royal visit to St Mary’s by Queen Mary. The Queen was ‘not amused and hurried past it’ even though it included a patriotic rendition of the Union Jack in bacteria.”
In 1979, artist Max Neuhaus proposed a silent alarm clock. Or, rather, a clock that awakens one with silence:
Instead of a bell which begins with a sudden clang and gradually dies away, this concept is precisely the opposite. The sound is introduced gradually; beginning inaudibly it grows slowly over a period of minutes and, at its height, suddenly disappears. The long subtle emergence of the sound causes it to go unnoticed. It becomes apparent only at the instant of its disappearance, creating a sense of silence.
The change would awaken you. It’s not even really silence that you’d hear — the normal background sounds would still be there. But “in this silent moment, for a few seconds after the sound has gone, a subtle transparent aural afterimage is superimposed on the everyday sounds of the environment, a spontaneous aural memory or reconstruction perhaps, shared by all who notice it, engendered by the sound’s disappearance.”
Most piano music is written with the melody in the right hand, which seems unfair to left-handers. In 1998 left-handed Chris Seed determined to do something about it: He remortgaged his house and spent £28,000 on a “reversed” instrument built by Dutch fortepiano makers Poletti and Tuinman.
“At first Seed found it far harder to learn to play the instrument than he’d expected,” reports Rik Smits in The Puzzle of Left-Handedness. “It seemed as if he’d have to begin learning again from scratch. But once he got going, Seed’s brain turned out to be perfectly capable of converting everything he’d ever learned into a left-handed playing technique. Exactly what he’d hoped happened: all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place more or less automatically. Seed became at least as good a pianist as he was on a conventional piano and eventually he felt real delight in playing ‘as God intended.'”
Seed told the BBC, “The piano has transformed my playing, and I hope it will set a precedent for a future of left-handed pianists and uncover a whole new wealth of talent in the world of music.”
The Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo had no training as a composer, but in 1913 he argued that music had become “a fantastic world superimposed on the real one,” a collection of “gentle harmonies” that pursued “purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound” but had nothing to do with the real world.
He proposed that “this limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of ‘noise-sound’ conquered.” “We find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearing, for example, the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastoral’.”
Accordingly he invented a new set of experimental instruments, the intonarumori, or “noise makers.” There were 27 varieties, all acoustic. Typically a performer turned a handle that rattled or bowed a set of strings, and the surrounding box and horn amplified the sound.
When Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti debuted their “noise orchestra” in April 1914, it caused a riot, but Russolo was undisturbed. “I am not a musician,” he wrote. “I have therefore no acoustical predilections, nor any works to defend.”
In September 1970, cybernetic sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz unveiled a remarkable piece of robotic art at a Dutch science museum. Standing 8 feet high at the shoulder and “resembling a giraffe or dinosaur,” the Senster was basically a mechanical lobster claw mounted on a six-jointed neck actuated by quiet hydraulic rams. Using an array of microphones, the creature would turn its head in the direction of a sound, its speed proportional to the volume. If the direction of the sound source remained constant, the rest of the body would gradually follow, making the “animal” appear to home in on the sound. It would shy away from loud noises, and at overwhelming sound levels it would raise its neck vertically and “disdainfully” ignore further sounds until the volume came down. Doppler radar units enabled it to detect the motion of visitors; it was attracted toward small motions but “frightened of sudden movements.” All of this ran on 8K of core memory, but Ihnatowicz found that visitors quickly imputed an animal-like intelligence to the sculpture, and the atmosphere of the exhibit was much like that at a zoo:
In the quiet of the early morning the machine would be found with its head down, listening to the faint noise of its own hydraulic pumps. Then, if a girl walked by, the head would follow her, looking at her legs. Ihnatowicz describes his own first stomach-turning experience of the machine when he had just got it working: he unconsciously cleared his throat, and the head came right up to him as if to ask, ‘Are you all right?’ He also noticed a curious aspect of the effect the Senster had on people. When he was testing it he gave it various random patterns of motion to go through. Children who saw it operating in this mode found it very frightening, but no one was ever frightened when it was working in the museum with its proper software, responding to sounds and movement.
MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks later suggested that intelligent behavior can be achieved when sensory signals are mapped as directly as possible to motor signals through a large number of loosely coupled processes, with minimal internal processing. The Senster wasn’t updating an internal model of the world; it would simply turn its head toward a sound, but its behavior struck visitors as intelligent.
(Aleksandar Zivanovic, “The Technologies of Edward Ihnatowicz,” in Paul Brown et al., eds., White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, 2008.)
Composition 1960 #5, by avant-garde composer La Monte Young:
Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.
When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside.
The composition may be any length, but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.
“I felt certain the butterfly made sounds,” Young wrote, “not only with the motion of its wings but also with the functioning of its body … and unless one was going to dictate how loud or soft the sounds had to be before they could be allowed into the realm of music … the butterfly piece was music.”
In Visible Deeds of Music (2002), Simon Shaw-Miller writes, “An insect recognized as of great beauty, often understood as a symbol of transformation in art, is here the instrument itself. Its flight acts as a visual metaphor for the absent melody, or inaudible sound; Young is reported to have said to his colleague Tony Conrad, ‘Isn’t it wonderful if someone listens to something he is ordinarily supposed to look at?'”
Composer Alfred Schnittke’s gravestone bears a musical staff with a semibreve rest under a fermata, indicating that the rest should be held as long as desired. It’s marked fff, or fortississimo, meaning that it should be performed very strongly.
Overall it might be interpreted to mean “a decided rest of indefinite length.”