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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Information Asymmetry

After my morning cup of high-octane Starbucks French roast, the term Information Asymmetry popped into my brain. The idea wont leave me in peace or let me free until I blog about it.

It's a fascinating concept.

The notion of Information Asymmetry has been applied in many areas of study and is particularly helpful in economics. It immediately conjures up examples of corrupt CEOs such as the fat-cats from AIG and Bear Stearns who personally cashed in on hundreds of millions of dollars in stock while they publicly encouraged others in the public to buy it. It's not a purely theoretical concept. For many former employees and investors who suffered, it's as real as the loss of food on the table, a secure retirement, or even a safe home to live in.

Of course I internally parse of all of these theories and concepts in musical terms. What does Information Asymmetry mean in the world of music composition? I'm not original in this regard. In the 1960s and beyond music theorists and composers attempted to apply the rules of Information Theory to music. The late David Lewin wrote articles on it, and I once heard a string quartet of his that was performed at Harvard's Sanders Theatre in Cambridge for a Fromm contemporary music event. From what I recall, the computer-assisted composition was written utilizing rules Information Theory as an underline theoretical construct (and the piece was a bore).

I'm much more simplistic than that. I want to know "what does a theory do for me, and can I readily hear or apply the results?" It's gotta be tangible and have some verifiable practical use.

I think we can agree the information flow is from composer to performer to audience. The audience has both the advantage and disadvantage of being at one end of the food chain. They receive the final product, but don't know the specifics about how the sausage was made. They weren't there when the composer was constructing it, and didn't hear what transpired at the rehearsals.

Other dynamics such as informative or misleading program notes, music reviews, and prior hearings of the work all play a significant role in our perception. Music is a very complex form of communication and the cultural norms are beyond the scope of this blog and my ability to discuss it. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

What I will say is that examples of Information Asymmetry in music seem to exist. I've exploited it myself.

In 1999 I composed a set of three pieces for piano (it was among my last 20th century works). The second piece in the set is a very slow Adagio, which is very soft, tranquil, relaxing, and peaceful in nature. When it was first performed in March of 2004 by pianist/composer John McDonald, I sat in the audience both listening to my work and observing the audience.

I knew something that the audience did not. About two minutes into the soft and relaxing music of the second movement, there is a fortissimo violent attack with both hands on the keyboard intended to shock. It's entirely musically appropriate, and the gesture interjects a new and contrasting element of sound into the piece.

Sitting there in the audience, I knew it was coming and felt a little uneasy about the uninitiated and what they were about to be subjected to. No one had heard this work before, and I hadn't mentioned the big surprise in the program notes since it would "spoil" the grand effect.

In a sense this shock and awe event is a prime example of an Information Asymmetry situation. Just myself and the pianist had access to the information, while the audience did not. It's an age-old technique, and Haydn's "Surprise Symphony" (#94) is but one noteworthy example of its' wide-spread application.

It was with mixed feelings that I observed one listener sitting before me jump with shock as John McDonald attacked the piano without warning. It later occurred to me that I could have inadvertently induced cardiac arrest (Perhaps my next blog post will be about the need for malpractice insurance policies for composers).

It begs the question, what does the audience actually need to know about a piece? How much information should be supplied prior-to or during the performance, and when does knowing the facts become counter-objective to the composer's basic intention. Are we going overboard with an emphasis on pre-concert talks, projected super-titles of the text in translation, and expert analysis by concert reviewers?

There is also the problem of information-overload, which may be one of the contributing factors to why complex music has fallen out of favor in recent times. Western classical music is built on a philosophy of permanence. Its' information is notated, documented, analysed, and recorded to the nth degree for the posterity of time. By allowing the musical-information of the "classics" to be ever-present, it loses spontaneity and valuable element of surprise. As great as the Beethoven symphonies are, I will never be able to experience them for the first time ever again. True, I will find new things, but the initial first-date is history.

Another example of blatant Information Asymmetry in a musical composition comes to mind when I think of Elliott Carter's "Night Fantasies" (1980). It's an extremely rich piano piece filled with inspiring musical ideas. For the most part Elliott Carter has been very reluctant to talk about the theoretical aspects of his music. He has coyly discouraged experts in the field from publishing these details.

I recall when Carter played a recording of his "Night Fantasies" before it had been released to the public in the summer of 1981 at the Yale Norfolk Summer School. It was at a seminar for composers, and I asked some pointed technical questions about his new work, which he characteristically choose to avoid. Is that Information Asymmetry?

Subsequently Carter's "Night Fantasies" have made the rounds and been well-accepted by the public. Carter's own program notes for the work state his motivations and intentions about writing it - emphasising the influence of the great 19th century composers on his piano writing and a case of insomnia. Yet, under the hood (so to speak) it is clear that much more is at work in this piece, and it's not as simple as Carter has led us to believe from his program notes.

Many years after my first encounter hearing "Night Fantasies" while having the composer before me to inquire about the work, I discovered a wonderful theoretical article by John F. Link about the underline construction and system behind Carter's piano piece. It was new "information" that not only improved what I know about the work, but informed my hearing of the music beyond what my little ears could take in on their own.

Information Asymmetry is at play here. Carter's program notes intended for the general public may be superficially true, but clearly avoid the meat and potatoes of his true compositional objective. In a way, his program notes verge on disinformation to the hard-core serious listener. As a composer he has access to some really cool toys in his sandbox that he's not telling us about. He's in control of the information at all levels.

Unlike insider-trading in the stock market, insider-composing in the music biz is fair and acceptable practice. The audience does not always need to know the the bare-bones mechanics of the underline intent. After all, the concert audience has paid for a magic show and wants to be entertained. Not all magicians share their tricks. That would "spoil" the show.

The next time you go to a concert, read a review, or read the composer's program notes, be aware that manipulation is at play. Conscious of the process or not, the information you take in in various forms will impact your experience of the music. This is just the way it is.

As a listener you are on the short side of the stick in the relationship between information-provider and information-recipient (The performer is sort of a middle man and co-conspirator).

It's an imbalance of information. But it's a justifiable asymmetry.

Have a great Thanksgiving!