Playing with Music, Part I: Assumptions and Amendments

One of our most difficult tasks, as artists and as people, is understanding our own assumptions. These sets of foregone conclusions define our own realities, and our actions and interactions therein. Many of these assumptions can prove beneficial—“this steaming soup bowl must be hot, better wait to eat it”—or are relics of past learned experiences—for instance, knowing where a friend, colleague, or loved one might be if you want to talk. But some assumptions can negatively impact ourselves and our surroundings when they take the form of prejudices. Taken to extremes, these may prove harmful: here in Baltimore, particularly, the history of racial and class prejudice has been violently brought to the forefront of the city’s cultural consciousness in recent months. But even without such a telescopic view, assumptive acts can hinder an artist’s development because they re- and de-form one’s interactions with the world about one—sometimes with benefits, and sometimes with challenges.

Coming to grips with what we assume can be extraordinarily difficult, as it requires both the intensity of focus to observe what we ourselves are doing, and a broadness of vision to take in a bigger picture with which we may compare and contrast our work. The resulting awareness can certainly benefit the development of an artist’s “voice,” that distinctive and personal way in which the artist uses her or his materials to create and frame their works. For composers, this voices can change throughout a lifetime, but in retrospect frequently has clear technical elements—a widely spaced major chord in first inversion is a common Beethovenian trope in his late works, and an ascending 4th followed by two-three descending steps is common contrapuntal “stuffing” in late Bach (a reference, perhaps, to the passion chorale O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden). For young composers (or artists of any stripe), this process of balancing technique, form, and message (if there is to be one), along with all the other ineffable elements of art-making within an ever-widening global culture can seem inexorable. This magnifies the potential time for self-doubt that seep between individual compositional decisions that might be glossed or taken for granted later in life.

This intense questioning period affords the chance to create novel and individualistic works, setting the composer on a path to find her or his “voice;” at the same time, it can be an aesthetically dangerous time, easy to fall prey to assumptions of how something “should” be or sound, what “should” come next, whether defined by a composer’s peers, teachers, or cultural heroes.

One of my roles at a liberal arts college where I teach is to lead a Composer’s Forum where we explore repertoire of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. To choose the works for the semester’s repertoire list, I try to use a variety of strategies, sometimes moving by time period, or stylistic/technical “movement,” or even instrumentation (a particularly fruitful method that dovetailed well with an orchestration class I was teaching at the time). This year, we are exploring music by continent as a way to expand the students’ (and my own) musical worldview. Through reading and listening, we can also discuss what compositional choices and what creative or sociological forces are shaping composers within different nations.

To demonstrate how pre-existing assumptions can affect personal choices and interactions—casting light on aesthetic evolution on a larger, cultural scale as well as on a smaller, individual one—we took the last half of our first class session together to play a game—Nomic.


Peter Suber

Nomic is a game about creating rules. As such, it makes a good deal of sense to introduce it to composers, who are both working within a certain set of “rules” (or, rather, cultural expectations) in their music theory classes, while at the same time having to create their own, individualistic rules set for their personal creative pursuits (which may or may not be based on or influenced by previous rules sets they have learned). The game was invented by philosopher Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Ammendment, and popularized by Douglas Hofstaddter (the polymath computer-programmer-cum-counterpoint-aficionado who gave us the wonderful labyrinth of a book Gödel, Escher, Bach) in his column Metamagical Themas. The basis of the game is that there are two sets of rules, mutable and immutable, that govern play. Players take turns in which they first propose a rule change (defined as an addition, deletion, or emendation of a rule), and then roll a die, adding the face value to their score. The original game included some very specific definitions of rules and actions which I glossed in the interest of time; also, it included the win condition of “the first player to 100 or more points wins.” For our classroom purposes, here were my rules which I gave to the students:

Immutable Rules:

  • Rules changes may be discussed; following any discussion, they are voted upon. Each player has one vote. Immutable rules must have a unanimous vote to change; mutable rules may have a simple majority to pass.
  • Once a rule is voted on, it is in effect, but is not retroactive.
  • Play proceeds clockwise from the professor.
  • The professor serves as arbiter.

Mutable Rules:

  • One turn consists of: (1) Proposing a rule change (a deletion, addition, or emendation or a rule) and (2) throwing one die and adding the face value in points to your score
  • When a proposed rule change is defeated, the player who proposed it loses 10 points.
  • When a proposed rule change is adopted, the player who proposed it gains 10 points.
  • If a proposed rule passes without unanimity, those who voted against it gain 10 points.
  • Only one player may win. The object of the game is find a way to do so.

Additionally, I instituted a global rule that existed outside the game, forbidding any action which was illegal or disobeyed the school’s code of conduct.

I felt Nomic would be perfect to simulate simplified cultural interactions and evolutions. Change is certainly possible, but requires communal buy-in to take root. For purposes of this class, I had kept win conditions (and several other aspects of the game) open: after all, for artists in the 21st century, “winning” is not nearly as defined as it once might have been—and, if we think it is so defined, we may sometimes find we have painted ourselves into an aesthetic corner.

A brief summary of play:

The early part of the game was spent alternately testing the rules (and, it seems, the other players), as well as vying for points. After several turns, the players realized that, although there were conditions to gain points, there were no actual specifications for winning. A number of proposals for win conditions were suggested, with one eventually succeeding and resulting in a lucky win.

Interesting highlights included:

  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that, in order to win, one must lose the game (this may have been too arcane to gain acceptance)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) that doubled the points value of a dice roll (a clear “rising tide lifts all boats” amendment)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that made on of the players the arbiter (a role I had purposefully left nebulous; the gist of the defeat was that there were few tangible “campaign promises,” essentially quid pro quo elements, that would give value to the other players in return)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby a defeated amendment would still garner points (I assume that self-interest trumped egalitarianism here)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby win conditions specified the first player to 50 points was the winner (there was then discussion as to whether this was supposed to be 50 points exactly, or 50 or more points)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) whereby the win conditions became: the first player to attain a points value which is a multiple of 9 is the winner (this was first 10, but was thought to easy because of the points values of amendments—thus, rules changes are controlled in part by the pre-existing rules)

In the end, luck won out: a player with 5 points rolled a 2, which, due to the multiple rule, resulted in a gain of 4 points, and thus a score of 9: a win!A lucky win.

An observer who walked in post-game saw a certain player’s score who had accumulated a fair number of points: “It’s too bad! You had so many points.” Of course, as the students discovered, when win conditions are created communally, the illusion of value (points) can result in biases that define our actions, e.g., the early push to accumulate points in-game, or the definition of win conditions based on pre-existing points values.

When asked what factors led the students to vote for or against an amendment, one of the overriding factors was allegiance: “did they vote with me or against me last time?” (This is an interesting resonance with the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario which we’ll look at in the next installment of this article). Self-interest, loyalty, and egalitarianism thus spin together, resulting in a unique web of interactions—demonstrating how competition for the control of ideas can create a specific culture of creation (in this case, rules creation) that both forms and deforms itself—and instructive revelation as we begin to look at musical cultures beyond our borders. Most importantly, however, we found that, as artists, we must (literally) decide what our own win conditions are, and what assumptions we must overcome to create our own worlds.

NB: All identifying marks have been removed and privacy of students maintained in keeping with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Permission was gained from students before writing.

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