FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Bach-A-Doodle-Doo

page1image256

This morning, J. S. Bach’s birthday, I woke not to the tolling of church bells as he might have done on any March 21stbetween 1685 and 1750.

The tinny reveille I heard came not from a Gothic belfry but from a space-grey MacBook Pro a few feet from my right ear. My wife was on the internet and had launched an unlikely wake-up call.

However feebly delivered, the melody I heard would have been familiar to old Johann, so deeply engraved on his hard drive was this venerable Lutheran chorale. Emanating from the laptop were the hymn’s first two short phrases, rising resolutely step-wise up the minor scale.

The tune was delivered in electric piano tones, first as a single line, then repeated along with a droning alto, and finally in four parts that were the work of the birthday boy himself. The message conveyed, even without the text being sung, was not exactly one to launch me out of bed to greet the spring day, attack the problems of the world, and be at one with myself and the planet:  Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig.

One common English translation of the chorale runs: “Ah, how futile, how insignificant.” Nichtig is the toughest bit to translate. Nichtis the German negative—“not.” The adjectival form nichtigmight more poetically be rendered as “vain” or its connotations more closely approached with the clinical “nugatory”—even more ungainly than “insignificant.”  Nichtigpoints toward nothingness: the desires of earthly life worthless, human striving a black hole of meaninglessness. Nichtigis a bleak word. When the Germans begin talking about the futility of earthly striving, translation is itself vain.

Still, one begins to understand why birthdays weren’t celebrated in Bach’s day.

My ears awake and soul duly chastened, I opened the eyes. “Look!” is the final word of the chorale’s first verse. Look at what? Your own vanity and that of the world.

My wife had reopened the Bach Doodle that today greets all the world’s Googlers, pushing Bach’s popularity way beyond its previous high point when the famous Toccata in D Minor (even if that piece is held by some not to be by Bach at all) approved credit card transactions at all Trader Joe’s last Halloween.

Bach has never been more visible, more audible, more popular than he is today. Sometimes praised by Lutheran devotees as the Fifth Apostle, he has now been sanctified by the world’s search engine: this March 21st is Saint Johann’s Day.

On the Google Doodle marking this watershed moment, a plasticky play figure in white wig, red cheeks, and black cantor’s robe sits at a little organ that looks more like a Hammond B-3 than one of the colossal instruments Bach piloted during his lifetime.  The greatest master of music-making feet, this Bach’s legs are idle, almost invisible: the Google Doodle will be powered by brain not pedal power.

The Doodle is interactive. You click on the arrow in the middle of a cog that, we’ll soon learn, signifies mechanistic invention. A message asks the viewer to wait a moment as the machine springs into action. We zoom past the organist into his private chamber. There are sheaves of manuscript paper presumably filled with Bachian masterpieces. We then see a toy box with a bar code on one side: you’re always buying or selling on Google, most often something as precious as your attention. The unheard chorale text wants you to think it is your soul that’s on sale.

The box has two words stamped on it in red: “Machine Learning.” Inside the box is a toy piano with analog switches and other bewigged dolls: the look is seventies synthesizer retro.

A message appears:

“Hi, I’m 18thcentury composer Johann Sebastian Bach! I’m known for my enchanting harmonies. What is harmony? Well, let’s start with a simple melody. It’s pretty, but not very exciting.” Bach never said “Hi”. And he didn’t use exclamation points to introduce himself. He deployed them when setting words about death and the end the world—like the one based on this very melody. “Ah how futile, Ah how nugatory, is the life of man!”

The five ascending notes we hear on the piano and see on the staff could, I suppose, be construed as “pretty”—but the text makes them otherwise. They are about the nullification of prettiness. Another run through those notes is made with the alto, now appearing on the staff below just the main melody. We are told this, too, is pleasing to the ear: “harmony”.  The tenor and bass join in for the four-part harmony composed by Bach and heard at the close of his cantata (BWV 26) Ach wie flüchtig, ach wei nichtig composed in 1724.

At last we are invited to collaborate with this Silicon Valley Bach: “Want to make music together? Add notes to the lines below and our machine will use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to harmonize your melodies in my signature style.”

Soon after his death Bach was held up as the greatest master of four-part chorale harmonizations. It was a practice at which, said one admirer, “he excelled all other composers in the world.” If Google has indeed captured this “signature style” through “machine learning” that assimilates the data from Bach’s own work then it has accomplished a goal long sought.

The creation of composing machines had been contemplated—and worried about—in Bach’s time, too. A Lutheran theologian writing in 1754 dismissed the accomplishments of a flute-playing automaton fabricated in France then making the rounds through Germany: “No one has yet invented an image that thinks, or wills, or composes or even does anything at all similar,” asserted J. M. Schmidt. As proof that no machine could write or perform expressive music, he adduced Bach’s Art of Fugue, a sprawling demonstration of combinatorial invention far more complex than the four-part harmonizations whose secrets Google claims to have cracked: “Everything the champions of materialism put forward must fall to the ground in view of this single example,” wrote Schmidt.

Must belief in Bach’s inimitable genius crumble against the clarion sound of Google’s Birthday Doodle?

On the interactive staff I entered the next line of the same chorale. The machine quickly created something grammatical enough: better than the results of many human undergraduate theory students, worse than many others. The plunky piano sound that Google uses for its Bach-based results is a preemptory move meant to make clear that the Machine Learners are not going for expression but rather for mechanistic reproduction of notes on a screen: this is music as math not emotion.

The Google Bach Machine knew nothing of the words, the message, the feel, the beautiful terror of the melody, its myriad possibilities.  The machine did not know what Bach himself had created for the flowing accompaniment of the lower parts so as to evoke the fleetingness of human life (Leben) that, the text goes on to sing, forms like fog (Nebel) and dissipates the next moment. LEBEN and NEBEL are capitalized in eighteenth-century German hymnals to make it clear that the words are mirror images of one another: life is a fog even on the page.

The chorale’s simplicity appears to have led to its choice for the birthday demonstration—Google’s effort to make their Bach the composer, literally, of today.

Google is hardly embracing this same Lutheran view of life’s ephemerality even as they pursue the goal of analyzing, emulating, and ultimately surpassing Bach at some Deep Blue moment of the future? The unwitting adoption of this Doodle Chorale for March 21st, 2019 admits what Google never will: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig.

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

April 24, 2019
Susan Babbitt
Disdain and Dignity: An Old (Anti-Imperialist) Story
Adam Jonas Horowitz
Letter to the Emperor
Lawrence Davidson
A Decisive Struggle For Our Future
John Steppling
The Mandate for Israel: Keep the Arabs Down
Victor Grossman
Many Feet
Cira Pascual Marquina
The Commune is the Supreme Expression of Participatory Democracy: a Conversation with Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune
Binoy Kampmark
Failed States and Militias: General Khalifa Haftar Moves on Tripoli
Dean Baker
Payments to Hospitals Aren’t Going to Hospital Buildings
Alvaro Huerta
Top Ten List in Defense of MEChA
Colin Todhunter
As the 2019 Indian General Election Takes Place, Are the Nation’s Farmers Being Dealt a Knock-Out Blow?
Charlie Gers
Trump’s Transgender Troops Ban is un-American and Inhumane
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Just Another Spring in Progress?
Thomas Knapp
On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque
Elliot Sperber
Every Truck’s a Garbage Truck
April 23, 2019
Peter Bolton
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail