Black Midi: compositions so complex humans can't perform them

Maybe interesting, but not an original idea - see Conlin Nancarrow


I do wonder if a human could move his/her finger up and down fast enough. I guess there are 8th, 16th, 32th notes, and 64th notes, but are there, say 1024th notes? I wonder what the smallest sized note is for some of these compositions.

Disagree on yuk, though. The piece under Bugs Bunny is pretty neat to my ear, until my network/computer/sound card/whatever choked on it.

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Yeah, I wasn’t sure what the problem was there. YouTube, my network connection, my sound card (on motherboard…), although the video was acting funky there too at times.

Isn’t it unfair to lump all MIDI composition as being derivative of Nancarrow? I love a lot of his player piano work, but the compositions were crafted with the specific intention of playing to the strengths and weaknesses of these instruments. Also, being on paper, the compositions are, by necessity, strictly deterministic.

The generality of MIDI decouples the sound events from their performance data. Rather than triggering a fast hammer throw, the MIDI protocol covers separate notes, velocity, pitchbend, as well as continuous controllers, bank and patch change, and more. This suggests many kinds of organization of sound events which would never be done on a piano, or even on any physical instrument. Another big factor is that the events can be generated non-linearly, in real-time, in response to immediate events. This allows the pieces to be open, interpretive, even algorithmically combined.


Well, yes and no. You’d have to program a synth or virtual synth to produce some of the really short notes because no human musician could start and stop the sounds fast enough on any acoustic instrument. Basically, you’d hit the note but it would only play for a fraction of your action. And you’d need a lot more fingers, but that would probably require a massive expansion of the brain’s motor functions to control them all. As @BernardDeems points out, you could overcome that particular limitation by simply dividing it into however many parts for an ensemble. But there’s another problem which I think is the biggest hurdle, and that’s timing. Those bridges that sound like the melody buried in white noise are made up of all those short notes that scroll across the piano roll (the visual representation in the video), and what information is there would be smeared to true white noise if all those notes weren’t hit with perfect timing. I just don’t see a human ensemble hitting all those notes precisely enough to create the mosaic the computer performs.

If you could somehow get an arbitrarily large orchestra of synth musicians to hit every note with millisecond-perfet timing and program their instruments to cut off the notes quickly enough, with either different parts doing different length notes or different keys programmed for different length notes, then just maybe you could pull this off as a live human performance.

As a MIDI composer, I personally love this music. Although I don’t compose anything nearly this complex, I frequently create arrangements that I personally could never play even one instrument of on my keyboard. I can barely play Chopin at quarter speed, yet MIDI lets me express ideas well beyond my skills as a keyboardist. But I’m also the child of one of the top 100 living classical pianists, and as such I appreciate the emotion with which a truly talented human musician can imbue a performance. One of my personal criteria for human-parity AI is a machine that can perform music with the same emotional inflection as a master musician.

In the meantime, I for one welcome the imperial march of our new MIDI overlords :yum:

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me too! i was like “these motherfuckers better give a shout out to the OG!”

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For contrast, here are a few pieces composed as electronic music, later performed by humans. Frank Zappa started his “Jazz from Hell” album as he delved deeply into the Synclavier system, and let loose devising compositions which were freed from the expectation of people ever performing. But, later on, Ensemble Modern did practice this music and perform it. The next one, by Doctor Nerve, is part of leader Nick Didkovsky’s adventures in the FORTH-based HMSL, composed for the band.

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