Monday, March 27, 2006

Art and the Enterprise

Artistic Innovation

Sometimes artists produce amazing innovations, with painstaking labour. Subsequent technology makes this painstaking labour unnecessary. We can recognize two separate innovations - the product innovation (what the artist produces) and the process/production innovation (what the technology produces).

What is the linkage between these two innovations? To what extent has the artistic innovation stimulated the technological innovation, established a proof-of-concept which technologists can then implement. Great art changes the way we perceive the world, and this may include changing our understanding of the possible.

One example I have quoted a couple of times is Karlheinz Stockhausen and the synthesizer. In the 1950s, Stockhausen and other composers produced some innovative pieces of electronic music, for which every sound had to be hand-crafted. Once the synthesizer had been invented, similar music could be easily produced with a few quick knob-twiddles. As a result of the widespread use of synthesizers in popular music, as well as the many rock musicians (Beatles, Can, Zappa) who pay explicit tribute to Stockhausen, a piece like Kontakte sounds a lot less strange to the modern ear than it did to the contemporary ear.

On this point I disagree with Brian Eno, who once commented that "Stockhausen was an example of a charismatic theoretician who inspired a lot of people but whose own work is generally unlistenable." [source: MOJO April 1997, interview with Andy Gill]

Does this familiarity diminish the striking originality of Stockhausen's work? Or should we regard Stockhausen's achievement with greater respect, because of his lack of tools, and his (arguable) influence over later technology as well as (acknowledged and unacknowledged) influence over later music-making.

I should also mention the BBC Radiophonic Workshop here. The brilliant Delia Derbyshire produced the original theme music for Doctor Who using hand-made equipment - music that today still sounds utterly wild and futuristic. (Sadly, the BBC no longer uses this version, and now plays a tame remix recorded with modern equipment.)

Similar examples can be found in the visual arts before the invention of photography. Many artists developed styles of painting and perspective which predated the modern camera.

Enterprise Innovation

I think there are three important patterns here that may be relevant for enterprise innovation.
  • Innovation before automation. Don't automate something until you have understood it, simplified it, improved it. (This principle is sometimes known by the slogan: Don't pave the cow-paths.)
  • Retain the capability for further innovation. Automation should not eliminate the possibility of hands-on creativity. Lewis Mumford (in Technics and Civilization) argues that it is generally beneficial to retain some 'craft' production alongside automated 'factory' production, as a source of 'education, recreation and experiment' and 'as a means to further insight, discovery and invention'.
  • Invent in order to innovate. A composer such as Thomas Dolby, who sets out to invent new tools for producing music (including building new hardware and software), may thereby be able to produce music that is different to what everyone else is producing.

For further discussion of Stockhausen, see my posts on Thomas Dolby's keynote speech at the 2005 Rational Conference (May 2005), Lightweight Enterprise (March 2006), and Grandpa's SOA (Oct 2007).

Chloe Glover, Manchester honours the woman behind the pioneering music of Doctor Who (Guardian 10 Jan 2013)

Updated 12 Jan 2013 (Delia Derbyshire Day)
Updated 12 March 2015 (removed link to wrong Andy Gill)

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