Symphony Space is full of invisible crickets and cockroaches, grasshoppers as large as dogs that chirrup under the seats and great glassy bees. The auditorium buzzes and whirrs with giant insects, crystalline chirping and thrumming, rubbing through the air and brushing overhead. Their throaty calls come from speakers hidden around the room. On stage, a full orchestra and three solo flutists follow the directions of David Robertson, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony. One flute player watches Robertson with special attention. Robert Langevin, wearing a headset and a bright red shirt, holds a most unusual flute. Thick wires run out of the flute like vines or tapeworms. From the fifth row, stage right, I can see the headset vibrating with every breath. Langevin is playing a MIDI flute, an instrument that composer Pierre Boulez developed while working at IRCAM, a music science institute. The flute allows for real time synchronization between a computer music soundtrack and a live orchestra. Instead of blindly trailing a click-track, musicians dictate the direction of the score. The MIDI flute takes electronic sound “live”—the computer actually responds to the musicians—and renders electronic orchestral compositions incredibly fluid and dynamic. Though strange to watch, like something out of Star Trek, it is a pleasure to listen to.
At “Contact!, The New Music Series,” the New York Philharmonic is performing its third piece of the evening, Boulez’s …explosante-fixe… (1991-93), an elegy for Igor Stravinsky. The composition is named after a passage in surrealist André Breton’s L’amour fou, and means, approximately, “fixed explosion.” Indeed, notes seem to erupt into the concert space and then hover, suspended, recaptured in the haunting echoes of the electronic accompaniment. Amplified noises from the other flutes flesh out the soundtrack; the apparent presence of magnified insect life is just the ramping of tongues into silver mouthpieces, twistings of lips into embouchure, the wind streaming through hollow organs, and the clacking of fingers on metal keys. The effect is as mineral as it is insectoid. The music is like entering a field of mammoth crystals growing towards the sun. If quartz could sing, it would prefer …explosante-fixe… over all other songs. Boulez makes the mating of electronic and organic sound a beautiful and seamless drama; in …explosante-fixe…, the boundary between natural and artificial life seems irrelevant and illusory.
Where avant-garde music excelled in the early 1990s, the publishing community is playing catch-up. Despite the widespread availability web-based publishing platforms, e-readers, and social media services, print media is only now beginning to integrate with digital technology. Increasingly, those technologies have avoided an all-or-nothing ultimatum; that is, they encourage publishers to keep their analog publications, at least for now. The synthesis of electronic and ‘organic,’ or print, publishing is anything but seamless and beautiful, though. In fact, the resistance of publishers to new technologies, or their hasty adoption of technology to ward off anxious executives and technology officers, is based in a groundless fear. The digital transition will not inevitably drive traditional print publications out of business. And if digital media does require adaptation for survival, its products will draw on the aesthetics and structures of conventional media systems. Digital does not mean human-less.
At Parse.ly, the continual emphasis is on the importance of human interaction—either with social media programs, online content, or our own content. “Data plus human intelligence equals trends,” is a kind of unofficial motto around the office. Parse.ly Dash does not replace the human element in analytics or replace human insight; rather, it relies on human users to maximize its usefulness. Without a real person behind the screen, the program is directionless. Dash is like the MIDI flute: it’s the interface that mediates between the human musician and raw information, a pathway that needs human input to produce beautiful music or analytics intelligence.
Is Dash cybernetic? The software is a contact plate between human and machine intelligences. With Dash, I’ve seen human users, lost in a sea of data, suddenly find a buoy, a trend to grasp, a spike in traffic that leads to a new relationship with a Twitter user or referral site. Working here, I have the opportunity to watch cyborg intelligence emerge around our product. It’s a thrilling experience.