Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Artifical Intellegence and the Classical Guitar: An Experiment

The idea behind websites like Pandora is to help music lovers use technology to take more control of their listening experiences. One inputs the name of a favorite artist and the service then plays music that fits what appeals to someone who listens to that group or musician. This, one would assume, comes in the form of other music in the same genre. In other words, if I input Earl Scruggs, I don't expect to get Run DMC or Kathleen Battle. Also, the "station" is supposed to "learn" from the listeners preferences. Don't like a song you hear? You can click or tap a button and you should not hear it anymore. Love something? You can click or tap something else to make sure music like that gets played more often. (You can also find a link to purchase said music, but that isn't what this discussion is about.)

I have three apps on my phone for this purpose, from three services that can be accessed from the Internet: Slacker, Myxer, and the ever-popular Pandora.

I loved Slacker when I first started using it, particularly because of my interest in jazz. Almost without fail, I hear the music I was hoping for. Surprises came in the form of deep cuts from classic and not so well known albums. Until I was interested in hearing some classical guitar, the only glitch I ran into was when I input Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and an hour later was treated to Jerry Garcia's plodding, achingly long, and horrifyingly dull rendition of "Shining Star."

I figured that if I wanted to hear classical guitar, the best bet would be to input the name of the great Andres Segovia. What came out was all fine music, but not what I wanted. After a piece played by the Spanish master, I go something from John Williams -- the composer, not the guitarist. Then there was a tune by Michael Hedges. Over the next few minutes I heard from only one other classical guitar player, Christopher Parkening. Tunes came from Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Leo Kottke, Al Di Meola, Yo Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman. At least some of it was classical.

I was drawn to Myxer because I liked the idea of creating a "room" where I could invite friend to enjoy the music I was listening to. The rooms allow one to list up to five artists, which would, one would presume, increase the odds of getting one's desired listening experience.

Alas, it is not to be. The jazz "rooms" were okay, but often went into eras and sub genres I was not expecting. Not always bad stuff, but sometimes this made for a jarring moments and annoying interruptions to my routine. But it was worse when I input the names of Mr. Segovia and others of his ilk.

The only classical guitarists I heard in the next hour were Segovia and Pepe Romero. Perhaps one could say Paco de Lucia plays classical, but none of the pieces I heard were. Again, Django Reinhardt came up, but so did Ottmar Liebert, Badi Assad, Lee Ritenour, and folk musician John Renboum. The biggest surprise came when the sounds of Spanish metal band Epilogo came through my speakers.

Pandora, which was painfully awful when I first tried them out years ago, was the best of the bunch. After several hours of listening, the only non-classical music I heard was an acoustic piece by Al Di Meola. There was great variety, from different periods and different albums, some solo work and some with ensembles, but only the one cut was not from a classical guitar. Songs segued with each other easily and there was a minimal amount of commercials (I'm too cheap to, as of yet, pay for the non-commercial versions of these). Yet after awhile, or perhaps because my body was beginning to reject the experiment, things started to sound the same.

Of course, by Sunday afternoon, I was ready to listen to something else, and I don't know that anything significant came of my little experiment, except I added to my list of life's little disappointments. Perhaps I learned not so much about the services themselves as about the expectations of a lover of great music. We want surprises, something new or something old performed in a fresh way. But we want things to fall into certain parameters, even when we are, as I am, eclectic in our tastes, and those parameters are not always the same each time we make listening choices. So if I cannot completely choose myself material which fits both needs when I create a playlist from my own collection in something like Winamp, then how can I fully expect it from those services with more extensive libraries than I can possibly own?

That I cannot quite answer that question won't keep me from complaining however.

No comments: