International Musicological Society (IMS) European Commission Independent Expert
COMPOSING IN THE ZETTABYTE ERA: AN INFORMATION-THEORETICAL APPROACH TO COMPOSITION
This paper explores the use of Information Theory as an impetus for music composition, aiming to outline the main concepts derived from the theory and how they influence – and influenced – musical thinking. In particular, it describes the essential communication properties of entropy, noise, channel capacity, repertoire, and expectancy, briefly addressing how they affect compositional method and aesthetic parameters embedded in the environmental context which will be referred to as the Zettabyte Era. The zettabyte is the amount of information estimated to have been generated, transmitted, stored, and retrieved by humanity by 2012, and is equivalent to one billion terabytes, or 36 billion years’ worth of HD video playback. In this unprecedented reality, information of a purely musical nature has reached the highest availability and quantity ever in human history. An Information Theory-driven compositional process explores the nature of what Max Bense terms Mitrealität, which refers to the different reality which the work of art belongs to. In the Mitrealität, signs become aesthetic signs not so much because of their individual characteristics (their ‘meanings’), but because of their order and the relationship be- tween them. In this context, physical probability is seen as being ‘replaced’ by aesthetic improbability. Mitrealität then means that aesthetic processes are statistical, an assertion which has been widely accepted from a theoretical perspective and which finds experimental validation from the point of view of music perception. Since the first contact of composers with the new theory, particularly the ones associated with the German journal Die Reihe, there has been rising interdisciplinary interest in Information Theory. One significant outcome of the theory was the so-called cognitive revolution – set in motion in 1956 in the symposium organized by the ‘Special Interest Group in Information Theory’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – igniting cognitive science and subsequently its cognitive musicology branch. The ‘revolution’ meant that information processing by the mind could, to some useful extent, be simulated by computational modelling. This paper will concentrate on the philosophical and aesthetic implications of this paradigm shift, setting them in the do-main of stochastic models as opposed to deterministic models of musical thinking. While deterministic models are associated with chaos, stochastic models are better understood in terms of random processes evolving according to probabilities. The former concentrate on the unpredictable and are framed by Complexity Theory, while the latter concentrate on the unexpected and can be better understood in light of Information Theory. The paper finishes by examining the author’s work Centro, an example of a composition inspired by Information Theory as a framework from which an entire philosophical stance can spring, inspiring and informing compositional choices.
Keywords: music composition, Information Theory, stochastic composition, expectancy
Christian Benvenuti is a composer, multimedia artist, teacher, and researcher. Christian writes acoustic, electroacoustic, and mixed-media works exploring generative processes and methods that trigger a Creative response from the composer, forming a duality of determinacy and intuition. Christian studied at the University of Surrey, where he completed his doctorate under supervision of Professor Stephen Goss. He is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. His research broadly concerns the relationship between music information, aesthetics, and cognition. His interests include composition, information dynamics of music, communication, music and technology, music and dance collaboration, music psychology, and music cognition.