Mike Wilson's Blog

I was a MA/MST student at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Accoustics.

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I was going through some old notes, and came across something I jotted
down ten years ago during a rare moment of calm during my
undergraduate studies when I was reading in one of Caltech's

It is a quote by Claude Shannon from "Shannon: Collected Papers" and
is probably my favorite quote by anybody ever.  So I, without
permission but in good faith and under the belief that this is Fair
Use, will reproduce it for you here:

"I do what comes naturally, and usefulness is not my main goal. I like
to solve new problems all the time. I keep asking myself, how would
you do this? Is it possible to make a machine to do that? Can you
prove this theorem? These are my kinds of problems. Not because I am
going to do something useful."

Ok, so if I take an excerpt like that I need to connect it to computer
music, right?  Let's go.

Something I struggled a lot with, and still do at times, is justifying
spending energy on computer music or even music at all.  There are a
lot of people for whom the value of music is self-evident, and those
people aren't quite the audience of this post (but feel free to
continue reading!).  For some others, there is a clear hierarchy of
"valuable" technical work.  Perhaps at the top of the hierarchy are
things like applied physics, chemical and electrical engineering,
bio-medical, etc.  Robots are pretty big nowadays.  Things where you
see an impact or some cool demonstration that screams "science" or
"progress" at you.  Then maybe a bit lower are more abstract things
that are hard to understand but seem to be done by smart people, like
mathematics or theoretical natural sciences.  Far below that are
fields like the arts and humanities, where music would be grouped
(note that I graduated from the school of music at Stanford).

There is an obvious problem with this way of thinking once you start
to look into things, at least from the CCRMA perspective.  Many of
these divisions are arbitrary and unnecessary.  The technology behind
Auto-Tune was originally used for oil drilling.  The same Golay codes
used in GPS can be used for room acoustic measurements.  There is
plenty of cool technology and science in computer music, and
bleed-through can happen both ways.

It might seem counter-intuitive to just focus on whatever comes to mind
and expect great things to fall out naturally, but I observed a lot of
people at CCRMA seem to do exactly that.  I think it's less random
chance and more that if you're always solving new problems and
thinking about things in new ways you're going to be that much more
prepared for when you are forced to solve problems and think in new
ways to accomplish your goals.  Use it or lose it (talking about your
brain here).

So if you're interested in computer music, or really anything at all,
don't worry too much about how useful your work is going to be.  Just
do what comes naturally, and solve new problems all the time.  Maybe
easier said than done, but I guess that's why we're not all Claude


email mwilson@alumni.caltech.edu
Disclaimer: the views herein are my own and do not represent the views of Stanford University. All material copyright Michael J. Wilson.