Sunday 9 June 2024

Breathing Poetry

This is a bit geeky, but I haven't played with my Roli Seaboard for some time - partly because it developed a fault which required some delicate soldering. Now it's back, and I am rediscovering it. Also the music technology to support it has got a lot better. Ableton Live now supports Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (without the trouble of creating lots of independent tracks) and that is a bit of a game-changer for me.

When I first ran the Global Scientific Dialogue course in Russia in 2018, the Roli seaboard was a key tool that I used to illustrate the point about redundancy (which I have always seen as key to machine learning). Now I see it as a powerful demonstration of geometric algebra, which I think is the deeper structure within which redundancy fits. It is the geometric algebra of the Roli seaboard which makes it so expressive - and which makes all music making expressive. 

When I wrote this paper on music with Leydesdorff ( I was interested in the multidimensional data of expression produced by the instrument and did some simple analysis. Now I think I could do more to illustrate the point. The action of playing the instrument perfectly illustrates the distinction between scalars and vectors. Noise of the environment or feedback from the instrument informs the note selection, which is constrained in various ways, and which expands itself through interaction with itself and with others. And the really important thing is: it breathes. 

AI is driven by redundancy, but it doesn't breathe. And we tend not to breathe when we get excited about the technology. But not breathing is death.

Good poetry, music and art always breathes. AI can write clever poems, but they don't breathe like the work of great artists. In poetry, it is love poems which illustrate this most clearly. Consider this love sonnet by Pablo Neruda:

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,   
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:   
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,   
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries   
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,   
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose   
from the earth lives dimly in my body. 
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,   
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,   
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,   
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

The breathing in this is powerful and visceral. How do words (mere words!) do this? I think it is because when we speak, and particularly when we talk about deep feelings, the words just illuminate how we are made inside. Poets reveal their inner physiology to others. That is also why we love the people we do. We don't love them for their turn of phrase! We love them for the way they're made.

AI can only do words. But all that is illuminated by its word selection is the ingenuity of its mechanism, and the breathless enthusiasm of its proponents. For proponents like me I must remember this. To have been blessed by love is to be reminded of what really matters.

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