Jaron Lanier

Can Soulful Music Survive Digital Epistemology?

Date 9/21/05

Affiliation Artist & Musician, Berkeley


This lecture is dedicated to the memory of Robert Moog.

Lanier claims that many people have the wrong idea about "Digital Information" and how to use it, and that a tough reassessment of computation could get us unstuck so we can have new musical styles and be soulful again. According to Lanier, pop music in America is in a bizarre state. This is the first time since electrification that a new

musical style hasn't appeared with a new generation. Hip Hop, weird attitude rock, and so on, are in many cases the music of the grandparents of today's undergraduates. Meanwhile, the term "Soulful" has been applied to music more frequently since the rise of digital metaphors and computational challenges to the very idea of "Soul." "Soulful" music is typically pre-digital, with old blues recordings being the canonical examples; New music described as "Soulful" is usually nostalgic. Making everything fungible gradually reduces the differences between things. This is what happens when all music is digitized, easily available, and remixable. Shouldn't ideas, including musical ideas, be anti-entropic? Is remixing enough?

Digital objects have more explicit boundaries than other objects. Do we have enough self-knowledge to know where the boundaries of music are? A clarinet is made of matter but a computer is made of ideas, and ideas might never be good enough for music making. Do computers confine us to eternally re-digesting the ideas of programmers, even when we are the programmers? Definitions of music and personhood tend to gain and lose transcendental components together. Does attitude about "Soulfulness" matter? His talk will include brief musical examples and performances.


Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author. Lanier's name is often associated with Virtual Reality (he is credited with coining the term). Lanier served as the Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative, a coalition of research universities studying advanced applications for Internet 2. Lanier is currently an External Fellow at Berkeley's International Computer Science Institute and is visiting faculty at at Dartmouth, UPenn, Columbia, and at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (where he is a visiting artist).

As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new "classical" music since the late seventies. He is a pianist and a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. Lanier has performed with artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton, Vernon Reid, Terry Riley, Duncan Sheik, Pauline Oliveros, and Stanley Jordan. He also writes chamber and orchestral music, including an opera that will premier in South Korea. Lanier has also pioneered the use of Virtual Reality in musical stage performance with his band Chromatophoria, which has toured around the world as a headline act in venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival. He plays virtual instruments and uses real instruments to guide events in virtual worlds.

-- As of 9/21/05

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