Beat the Real Thing?

When the violins played their first chords I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe. This year’s Rotterdam Philharmonic Gala performance (Prokofiev and Debussy) was nothing short of breathtaking.

Afterwards, at the diner table the conversation turned to technology and innovation.

Could we….?

Being the innovation geeks that we are, me and one of my guests couldn’t help but wonder: could we ever faithfully recreate the sounds we just heard using modern digital technology – perhaps with a combination of sampling and physical modeling?

Right now the answer is a resounding NO.

The current state of digital audio and synthesis is impressive but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. Of course computer technology and processing power are growing at a staggering rate. Perhaps in the future we could build a machine – a digital orchestra – powerful enough to generate all the intricate details and the irregularities, as well as the powerful strokes and stabs, and waves of sound that seem to lap around and overwhelm the audience at time. If we are also able to build speakers (or a headset) to accurately deliver that sonic experience perhaps one day we will be able to fool our ears.

But not our eyes. Seeing the different musicians play – and take brakes, seeing their faces and gestures as they articulate the story they are telling, seeing the conductor direct, perform and play act, and seeing the audience react is just as much of the experience as listening to the actual music itself.

If you want the experience of seeing a real symphonic orchestra: go see a real symphonic orchestra.

Should we…?

Should we ever try to make a perfect digital copy of existing art? Yes. I think so.

There is nothing wrong with emulation. Trying to emulate existing – or rather the previous, outdated technology – is setting an impossible benchmark that accelerates development. The first printed books – the incunables of the renaissance – were trying to copy the style of handwritten books of the previous era. Early book printers hoped to increase the chances of adaptation by conforming to existing – centuries old – standards. This accelerated innovation and creative development until printing became a mature art form in its own right. Printing enabled creative possibilities that a monk equipped with a quill and ink would never be able to produce. Not even in a life time. By now off set printing is increasingly becoming the out-dated technology which digital printers, LCD-screens and e-books are trying to emulate.

Emulation will never be reach perfection. It will however surpass the original eventually by taking new roads. Robots that cook entire meals from scratch or perform certain sexual acts will never be able to replicate the real thing (by virtue of not being real). They will however be able to do things that don’t even exist in our wildest imagination. Yet.

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