4 min read

Notes on an academic SCANDAL

the hammer and sickle, a robot and a synth, all just hanging out, thinking about utopian modes of music composition

Earlier this morning, I was drafting a vague idea for The K.N.R.U. It was about how I never really got comfortable returning to academia to study for a PhD in music, and I was trying to figure out if that might be at all interesting for anybody else to read.

At some point during those studies, I had written a paper that got published in an academic journal about electronic music, but I haven't given any thought to it in the years since. I wanted to remind myself of what exactly I had written, because I was pretty sure it hadn't aged well. While tracking down a PDF of it online, I noticed that at some point it had been cited by an entirely different paper! This is what is supposed to happen in academia, but it was unexpected for me, as in hindsight I was a bit embarrassed by my article and had cheerfully consigned it to the memoryhole, assuming that it was so niche nobody would ever read it anyway. My curiousity piqued, I grabbed a PDF of the other paper that was citing mine. It was titled Marketing and music in the age of digital reproduction from 'The European Journal of Marketing'. I cmd-F'd to find my name and found this gem of a paragraph:

"The appropriate response to such technologies has always been to engage with them creatively, whether you are artist or marketer. One could argue that the increasing precision of machine learning algorithms could potentially address some of the issues within the music industry, both creatively and otherwise, to generate the unpredictable and exhilarating experience of music that we are all seeking (see Wolinski, 2017)."

One could argue, could they!? And that is what Wolinski is arguing, is he??

Now, for sure, when I wrote the paper they are citing I was pretty early in my studies. I didn't really know why I was writing it, other than it was because that is what people doing PhDs are supposed to do, and I was kind of making it up as I went along. As far as I remembered it before today, I had wanted to find a way to write about utopia and why capitalism is bad, but it needed to be in the guise of a paper about popular music composition. I also had a great/dumb pun for the title (Fully Automated Luxury Composition), and in the end just kind of fudged it all together by framing the idea of 'using Max to make some a generative music patch' as a means of forging a bold path toward utopian music-making. Like I said - not my finest hour, but at the time I think it was the path of least resistance because I was still trying to do academia properly.

What I don't remember doing is arguing that "increasing the precision of machine learning algorithms could potentially address some of the issues within the music industry, both creatively and otherwise, to generate unpredictable and exhilarating experience of music that we are all seeking" (Wolinski, 2017, apparently).

For a start, the music industry is not reformable. Burn it to the ground imo. For a second, as if I've been cited in something called The European Journal of Marketing!? For a third, I am not a tech bro. And for forth, I stand by Fully Automated Luxury Composition being a great/dumb title for a paper written back in 2017.

Anyway I reread my paper just to make sure that I'm not a secret marketing genius and/or owner of a Silicon Valley startup. It is not a great essay and I remain a bit sheepish about all the music composition bits in particular. But I do stand by these general points extrapolated from it:

  1. Fredric Jameson's ideas about utopia and the utopian impulse are fucking cool and no matter how hard it is to read his work, I should keep trying.
  2. A utopian reading of Attali's ideas about composition remains an interesting notion that I feel I could/should have developed in the years since this paper.
  3. The conclusion does manage to tease out a useful entry point into the dialectic between capitalism and popular music that goes deeper than I had ever realised before starting to read more critical theory.
  4. As clumsy and basic as the bits about generative music are, I am relieved to report that I still don't really understand how the people who wrote that other paper thought I was suggesting that the judicious application of 'machine learning algorithms' could fix the music industry.
  5. It is quite funny that for some reason I chose to use everyone's favourite sulky philosopher Adorno as the ultimate arbiter of what defines 'popular music'.

There's no grand conclusion to any of this. It just made me laugh. But here now, just for the record, is my current stance on 'machine learning algorithms' and the degree to which they should be used anywhere to do anything: I LOVE COMPUTERS; PERHAPS COMPUTERS WERE A MISTAKE.


I think The Komoy Research Unit might have shifted into slow-motion-summer-mode. My Pattern Club show coincided with the end of (or hopefully just a pause in?) another project I've been working on, and now I've had chance to take a breath, I realise that I'm feeling a bit creatively spent. I am fortunate enough to not need to jump back into anything immediately, so I'm quite enjoying not doing anything interesting enough to write about here.

I had vaguely considered maybe writing about books I am reading, but this year so far I have managed to pick a huge amount of stinkers and not many memorable ones. Two notable exceptions from the other week:

Radical Intimacy - Sophie K. Rosa --> A clarion call for rethinking ways of being, outside of capitalism’s heteronormativity. The real juicy stuff was in the introduction and conclusion. The chapters in the middle were all about taking a particular subject: mental health, relationships, housing, death and explaining why capitalism makes it all harder and worse.

Mrs. S - K.Patrick --> Moody like a summer storm. Written in a compelling half-light. Like being safely led by a firm hand on your forearm through some kind of sultry and melancholic forest. Surefooted yet understated. Smokey.

A couple of recent stinkers in case you want to punish yourself: Ghost Story by Peter Straub. A long and ultimately not very impressive, kind of racist and sexist Stephen King b-side. Cold People by Tom Rob Smith. Fascinatingly poor while also being incredibly dull. Makes ChatGPT's clumsy mashing up of other people's ideas look subtle. Who let this book happen!?

What's some good summer reading? My to-read pile is already too big but also nowhere near big enough.