Music, science and technology – how do they inspire each other?

I publish a brief transcription of my statement given at the Nexus Pavilion of Science, Technology and Art at La Biennale di Venezia (Venice, Febraury, 2 and 3). Here the link to the event.

Music and the digital – music, science and technology – HOW do they inspire each other? Before trying to answer this question I would like to step back to a prior question: WHY do they inspire each other? The answer, at least in my experience, is simple: because mirroring one another they reveal unexpected features in a striking virtuous circle.

It is an idea I encountered for the first time while sudying maths at the university. There is a quite recent field, called Category Theory, which let you see some mathematical concepts from the point of view of other ones. So it let you take advantage of the framework of a specific branch of maths to study another one: to see some of its properties otherwise invisible or not that natural. The same can be done relating music and science, and in my brief speech I would like to focus on one aspect involved in this relation, in this mirroring process. This aspect is music ontology and its representations.

In fact my activity as a composer leads me on a continual reasoning about what music ontology might be referred to as, and, consequently, what music phenomenology might be referred to as. Where for music ontology, I mean the discipline which tries to define what music is, what the defining characters of its objects are and how they are related to each other. For music phenomenology, I mean the one which tries to define how we perceive all of the above. Of course these definitions are quite partial and they mostly show the features of my own topical interest.

So, let’s come to the point: how does music ontology relate to science and to the digital technologies? In my own knowledge and experience it does, and in at least two ways.

Firstly, as a mathematician I attempt to study music ontology in abstract frameworks. These frameworks sometimes reveal new and unexpected features of the musical objects and systems I am examining in depth. For example I am currently studying a generalization of chord-networks, while taking advantage of some interesting properties of iterated line graphs of tone-networks. Regardless of the results I am getting (and the ones I do hope to get!), this new abstract way of thinking is greatly inspiring me as a composer and theorist, offering me new perspectives on harmony. Graph theory is teaching me something on harmony. And conversely I am facing new and yet unexplored mathematical challenges.

Secondly my activity as a programmer leads me to study music ontology from the point of view of knowledge representation. As I am sure you all know, knowledge representation may be seen as a set of categories for programming and data representation which allow us to work handling data IN an articulated set of knowledge while, at the same time, AS an articulated set of knowledge. At the moment I am working on an artificial intelligence which composes variations on a melody in several different styles and in their eventual yet unknown combinations. At the beginning of the project this forced me to even think of how a melody might be formalized and digitally represented. This was done to ensure that my formalized melody would hold all of its ontological features taken from several different points of view. Today, this has quite changed the way I look at a melody. And conversely taught me a lot about coding.

I think the most interesting fact of these two ways in which music, science and technology relate to each other is that they not only do this but they also inspire each other. It is truly a virtuous circle. We need new mathematical objects and programming approaches to represent music ontologies. New music ontologies. And I feel that this gives both Art and Science precious life force.

© Giovanni Albini 2017, riproduzione riservata.

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