Bach Humbug!

Ok, so it’s a pretty poor attempt to shoe-horn this into the Christmas season but it was worth a try. But that may be the slightly off-centre type of thinking that makes us human.


Computer-generated model of Bach, based upon information from paintings

Towards one end of the scale such left field thought processes generate terrible puns like mine. At the other they may reach the heights of creativity and the like. And for many, the likes of J.S. Bach are right out at the point that draws acclamations such as ‘genius’.

Whether or not you agree I think we should all be wary of some of the claims from researchers at Washington University regarding the ‘mapping’ of Bach’s music. The team have, for the first time, precisely analysed Bach’s music note by note and have been able to present the information using computers and over a million annotated labels. The results have been published on MusicNet with the hope that composers and the like can make good use of them.

So far so good. But they also have in mind the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and are hoping that machine learning researchers can use the algorithms they have created to both re-create and to replicate Bach’s music.

bwv1043Some already have their eye on using AI to finish Bach’s unfinished fugue or to generate music tailored to the individual by analysing the minutiae of favourite pieces of music.

These thoughts – plans even – are not isolated to the world of classical music. There are similar endeavours throughout the tech industry. But I think we should all be worried, disturbed and rightly resistant. Not, in a luddite sense, to the technology itself. But to the claims, motives and outcomes that are not currently being critiqued or challenged by the industry itself.

First are insidious claims that the machine knows best. In most of the reports researchers were quoted as saying that using algorithms to complete Bach’s fugue would result in the ‘definitive’ or ‘expert’ version.

I wonder if Bach would agree? Who else, after all, could truly be said to be worthy of giving the final judgement on his music? Or are we to cede the joy of our individuality to the machine? Besides, if you asked me for the best version of anything, so much of my response is to do with the ‘whole me’ – my mood, my experiences, my needs at that moment in time. What I consider best one day is not certain to remain at the top tomorrow. More likely it will become one of, rather than the. Or the best so far.

When will we learn that Technology is a way of doing things and not the only way?!

Also worrying is the trend towards using such technology to tailor our own experiences and interactions with the world.


MusicNet analytics

Now I’m reasonably ok with e-bay or someone using what I have looked at to suggest some alternatives, based upon which search terms I have used.

It bugs me most of the time because I like to do that old fashioned ‘browsing’ thing – browsing from before the days of the internet where it meant more like:

‘Rummaging through a load of un-related things because I wont know what I want until I see it.’

(I am one of the generation who, on rainy afternoons, might pick up all kinds of interesting ideas because they had resorted to flicking through encyclopedia when there was nothing else to do.)

bach1Just occasionally, the algorithms work and I will use the suggestion offered. However, most of the time, for an unbelievably complex series of reasons, responses and unconscious associations beyond even the best super-computer, I baulk at the suggestions offered.

In short, I don’t want a computer-fed-playlist of music that I like. I’ve no doubt the researchers would do a fine job and that I would find most of the music had some appeal. But music is not about me. If my music was limited to the confines of my taste and my interpretation it would pretty soon begin to turn sour in my mouth – or ears at least.

“So God created human beings in his own image.”

Genesis 1:27

Whatever else Genesis tells us about the world and why things are the way they are it is absolutely clear that we are not machines or machine fodder. God is the source of all of our creativity and imagination. Just as we see God’s creativity in the Universe around us and in our own being, we are called to explore that pull to imagine in every aspect of our lives.

Rather than looking for the ultimately limited and short-sighted ‘quick win’ of things being perfectly suited to our own needs I feel we need to embrace God’s gift of complexity.

“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvellous – how well I know it.”

Psalm 139:14

Being made in God’s image means I am fundamentally a relational being. I learn by exploring and interacting with the world and with others because they are not like me.


Just as each human being is an expression of God’s creating love we too find God in our creating and loving.

True, sometimes what we create – from the suffering of others to especially poor puns such as ‘Bach Humbug’ – are painful and difficult to celebrate. But the answer lies in developing our creativity, not ceding it to technology.

The lack of humility of humans before humanity (and the rest of creation) is more frequent and more disturbing. Yes, music, like all the Arts, makes use of structure and all kinds of physical, chemical, psychological and physiological structural interplay. But just being able to analyze these events is not what creates them.

And using the results of such tools to barricade myself into a world of ‘just what I like’ not only impoverishes me but makes me god of a smaller, meaner, less creative and imaginative world  – one not even of my own making; one I have ceded to a machine.

But I’ll leave the last word to the great man himself…johann-sebastian-bach-quotes-3



About Stuart Dyer

Stuart Dyer, Christian Writer and Musician living in West Sussex, England. Works in the hope of producing the worthy novel or solo; giggles at Oliver Hardy, Peter Sellers and Spike Jones; admires Hudson Taylor, Dickens, Salinger, Bill Bailey and Neil Peart; listens from Wagner to Miles with lots of stops in between; dances to motown and aims to achieve balance in all things.
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