Why Are Artists Poor?

A recent article on artnet ruffled feathers on Twitter with a claim that artists’ pay is predetermined by their physiology, based on its reporting of a new neuroscientific study. The article headline is “Why Are Artists Poor? New Research Suggests It Could Be Hardwired Into Their Brain Chemistry”. I’ve read the article and the research behind it. The headline is wrong and the article is misleading. The research is modest, interesting and probably correct.

The study by Goya-Maldonado, Kyle, Brodmann & Gruber is published in the paperReactivity of the Reward System in Artists During Acceptance and Rejection of Monetary Rewards’. Its theme creativity and its “negative correlation with the availability of monetary reward.” Finding that no neurological research has yet investigated this, Goya-Maldonado et al. decide:

This is an interesting phenomenon and, following this reasoning, instead of directly requiring creative production from artist and non-artist volunteers in our research protocol (which could hinder creativity), a decision was made to study the baseline dynamics of their reward system as a fundamental starting point.

In other words, before studying how creativity and artwork is affected by money, let’s first find out whether artists themselves are any different to non-artists. They cite evidence that a particular experimental reward task (the ‘desire-reason-dilemma (DRD) paradigm’) in combination with fMRI scanning shows that monetary rewards activate areas of the brain associated with our dopaminergic reward system. So they propose to use this approach to test the idea that artists are less motivated by money:

Based on previous behavioural research on incentives, the hypothesis was that in comparison to controls the reward system of artists would be less reactive to acceptance and rejection of monetary rewards.

24 participants did the task, half of whom described themselves as creative (5 actors, 2 painters, 2 sculptors, 2 musicians and 1 designer) and half who did not (1 insurance salesman, 1 linguist, 1 social economist, 1 dentist, 1 environmental scientist, 1 construction engineer, 1 business administrator, 1 psychologist and 4 university students). fMRI works by detecting oxygen levels in blood. This study measured blood oxygenation (BOLD) in areas of the brain that promote (the ventral striatum (VS)) and suppress (the anterior ventral prefrontal cortex (AVPFC)) dopamine production. The results are:

Our hypothesis of reduced BOLD response in key regions of the reward system of artists was confirmed by the differential activations of the VS. On the other hand, activation in the AVPC was increased in artists in comparison to other professions.

In other words, the evidence shows that in doing this task artists’ react differently to money. This means that the hypothesis that artists are less motivated by money now has some empirical support. This is uncontroversial. What has inflamed a negative reaction is the artnet article’s framing of the research and interpretation of is findings. The article says that the research suggests a link between “brain chemistry”, occupation and earnings. This is false.

The researchers note the study’s limitations: small sample, single study, specificity of task (not creative), specificity of reward (artists may respond differently to other incentives), does not exclude socio-economic factors (income, class). They do not make any claims about how much money artists earn or whether this is determined by their physiology. They make no suggestions about why the artists reacted differently. They say this study is a small but important first step towards studying creativity and monetary reward via neuroscience. I am inclined to agree.

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Listening to the first of the NTS sessions by Autechre, I noticed something about the  track ‘32a_reflected’. Parts of it sounds like it’s played backwards. On playing the track twice in a row, you can hear that it start how it ends, but in reverse. The spectrogram below shows the last 15 seconds of the track on the left and the first 15 seconds on the right. Clearly they mirror each other.

So ‘32a_reflected’ is a musical palindrome. Here’s a spectrogram of the whole thing:

But it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Each of the stereo channels are reflected versions of each other. The left channel is the same as the right channel played backwards, and vice versa. This spectrogram of the first and last 15s shows the stereo channels separately (left channel at the top, right channel at the bottom):

This means that if you play the whole track in reverse, it sounds the same but with the stereo channels switched round. The structure can also be seen in the waveform:

But it’s not exactly symmetrical – the second half is a bit louder (around 1dB on average). You can see this in the two images above: the left-hand portion of the spectrogram is slightly brighter, whilst the right-hand portion of the waveform is slightly wider.

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CO-DEPENDENT is a collaborative label run by Stephen McEvoy (tuuun, FLUF), Calum Gunn (Conditional) and Casper Gottlieb (GOHV, Disformation). CODE072 is my new release on the label, an EP of music based on sonification of weather data. Historical monthly data is available from the Met Office for various meteorological stations. I picked 5 of the stations with the longest records, going back from December 2017 to January 1853. The datasets include:

  • Mean maximum temperature (°C)
  • Mean minimum temperature (°C)
  • Days of air frost (af)
  • Total rainfall (mm)
  • Total sunshine duration (hours)

Instead of using min and max temperature, I converted them to average temperature and range in order to get two sets that differed more. Using Mathematica I generated MIDI files by mapping the weather data values to pitch and volume while keeping the note length uniform. These were arranged and edited in Reaper, and were played with RAZOR, Synth1 and General MIDI drums.

The 12 monthly readings and an annual weather cycle means that the data has inherent rhythms. Some of the datasets are correlated – like sunshine and temperature, and some are inversely related – like temperature and frost. Rainfall is the most random. Frost has flat spots with successive zeroes. Different meteorological stations start recording at different times, and there are a few gaps. Below are charts of median temperature, sunshine, rain and air frost (click to view full size).

The first two tracks were included in Belgian radio show L’étranger, #364: http://www.radiopanik.org/emissions/l-etranger/show-364-i-always-nod-out-past-the-00-02-mark/

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Alvin Lucier – Criss Cross / Hanover

Spectrograms of Alvin Lucier’s new album, made with Sonic Visualiser, using the following settings:

Amplitude scale: dBV^2, colour palette: green
Sample window (x axis): Hann; 4096 samples; 93.75% overlap
Frequency bins (y axis): all, log scale

Criss Cross (top), Hanover (bottom). Click images to enlarge.

Using a larger window size allows better representation of lower frequencies but decreases the temporal resolution (because of the time-frequency uncertainty principle). Applying more overlap makes up for some of this loss. However, there are lots of visual artefacts: smears, shadows, reflections, interference. Nevertheless, some of the music’s main features are represented, like the point at which the beating frequencies of the two guitars are at their slowest in the mid-point of Criss Cross. You can distinguish the piano from the other instruments in Hanover, and see the structure of ascending/descending/static notes.

Changing the bin setting from ‘All’ to ‘Frequencies’ looks quite different:

Sonic Visualiser documentation says:

If set to Frequencies, each peak’s bin will be drawn with a single line at a position that corresponds to an estimate of the actual frequency present within the bin, rather than the theoretical frequency range of the bin. This instantaneous frequency estimate is arrived at by comparing the theoretical phase difference between consecutive time frames at the nominal bin frequency with the measured phase difference.

This setting reduces the visual artefacts, increasing the contrast between sound and silence, but loses much of the structure that was previously visible, although perhaps it better represents the music’s minimalism. Squeezing the horizontal scale and using a larger window (16,384 samples) shows the structure of Criss Cross more clearly. Now the two separate frequencies are visible at the start and end, and they cross in the middle, as one guitar descends a semitone from C to B and the other does the opposite:


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So, 2017. Like 2016 but worse. Political incompetence, dishonour and deceit in UK and US governments. “Social murder” – inequality exposed in the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. “Economic murder” – evidence of a correlation between austerity policies and mortality rates. Evidence that austerity is hardest on the poor, black people, women, people with children, the disabled and their carers. Another warning – this time by a group of 15,386 scientists – of catastrophic climate change, resource depletion and mass extinction (pictured above – the only good news is the top left graph that shows how global action reduced ozone-depleting CFCs). And yet this year also produced a lot of good music, writing and ideas. This is a list of some things that made it less insufferable, less pointless and less hopeless.

Mark Fisher – Acid Communism
The death of Mark Fisher in January was a tragic start to the year. In remembrance, a quotation from his book Capitalist Realism was installed as a mural at Goldsmiths College, London, where he taught in the Department of Visual Cultures.

Acid Communism is the book on emancipatory politics that Fisher left unfinished. ‘Acid’ relates to the cultural aspect, a counter-movement to capitalist realism, destroying its appearance of a ‘natural order’:

De-psychedelization is an aspect of capitalist realism that reduces everything to the imperatives of business and to neurotic psychological interiority. (2012)

And ‘communism’ means building a vision of a new kind of socialist society, making the ‘impossible’ attainable:

…its realisation still lies ahead of us, provided we accept that what we are fighting for is […] the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond 20th century-style state centralisation. (2014)

Acid Communism was one of the subjects spoken of in Mark’s memorial service. The idea has been developed in relation to the Labour Party membership that has been revived under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, as Acid Corbynism. Repeater Books plan to publish an anthology of Fisher’s writing on the subject, and there is an online archive of this work at https://egressac.wordpress.com/ I’m currently reading Derek Wall’s book about Elinor Ostrom, an economist whose research on polycentric governance of complex economic systems might be useful in realising the new model of public ownership that Mark Fisher imagined, beyond markets and states.

AudioBoyz – The Rise Of Gqom (Hypermedium)
In contrast with the previous releases on Hypermedium by EVOL and Patiño / No God Ritual which engaged with sound art theory and performance, this EP is clearly aimed at the dancefloor. From Durban, South Africa, it’s bouncy and banging music, made with pared-down arrangements of punchy polyrhythmic drums, vocal samples and synth stabs.

Roland Kayn – A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound (Frozen Reeds)
I admit, I’ve not yet managed to listen to all 16 CDs in one 14-hour session. Kayn was a pioneer of cybernetic music, creating generative systems with modular synthesizers. Although his scores and the equipment he designed to realise them are pretty complicated, these pieces might sound fairly simple at first, because they seem to be composed of few elements. But there is almost no repetition, and that’s where the complexity is. It’s a document of Kayn’s success in setting up systems that create sounds and change them in interesting ways over long timescales. There is detail of different kinds at different scales. These are astronomical sounds – vast, diffuse, ominous, inhuman, impressive.

Jaap Vink – s/t (Recollection GRM)
Jaap Vink taught at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht in the 1960s, where he would have crossed paths with Roland Kayn. Vink worked on algorithmic music and electronic synthesis – similar to Kayn, but from a different angle. This is a collection of work produced between 1968 and 1985 that sounds years ahead of Kayn’s album which was recorded in 2009.

The Ba-Benzélé Pygmies (Bärenreiter-Musicaphon, 1965)
Amongst old music that was new to me this year, two albums stand out. One is Improvisations for Cello and Guitar (ECM, 1971) by David Holland and Derek Bailey – this was the first Bailey album that really clicked with me. The other is music from West Africa. After I’d tweeted a link to a track from Musiques du Cameroun (Ocora, 1965), a reply from Charles Turner – author of the book Xenakis in America – said that album had been the only thing on his turntable from 1973–74, and he recommended checking out the Bärenreiter label. Very generously, he gave me a rip of the Ba-Benzélé pygmies LP recorded by Simha Arom. It sounds like nothing else, both weirdly alien and eerily familiar. There are solo instrumental/voice pieces and polyphonic choral music with percussion, songs of celebration and sorrow, lullabies and mythological stories. The liner notes include descriptions of the society and the music’s role in it, a musicological analysis, maps, and photos. In July, NTS radio did a good show based on West African recordings from the British Library Sound Archive: https://www.nts.live/editorial/british-library-sound-archive

Kara-Lis Coverdale – Grafts (Boomkat Editions)
Grafts is a piece in 3 parts, starting with piano, organ and dulcimer in a soft church-like echo, carefully placed and subtly manipulated. The middle section is like Philip Glass or Steve Reich – cinematic music made of phasing piano arpeggios, with bass, pads and choral voices. It gets increasingly hazy as it transitions to the final part based on soft warm loops, like a track on Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which slowly swells and fades. Gorgeous.

NYZ – FLD RCRDR / MCRTNL (Entr’acte)
Dave Burraston has been productive since winning a fellowship, working with Chris Watson and Richard D James and working at Moog and EMS studios, amongst other things. These two CDs represent two central aspects of this activity – field recording and modular/algorithmic synthesis. FLD RCRDR has recordings as its main source, and MCRTNL is synthesized sound, but both also make use of sequencing and processing with cellular automata systems. Each track is a little electronic world of sound. Burraston at his best. These albums beautifully suit Allon Kaye’s current product design for the label too. http://noyzelab.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/nyz-fld-rcdr-mcrtnl-dual-cd-release.html

Anastasia Kristensen – Boiler Room Berlin 6th birthday
Listening to this electro/techno set and seeing how happy Kristensen is bouncing behind the decks is an antidote to all the bad stuff for an hour. This mix of new and old music is good too: https://www.residentadvisor.net/podcast-episode.aspx?id=598

Saplings Records
In response to climate change and habitat loss, Fis (Oliver Perryman) has set up Saplings Records. The label will produce no physical formats but will plant a hundred trees for each album sale. An EP by Fis and Rob Thorne is the first release. https://saplingsrecords.bandcamp.com/

Graham Dunning, Tom White and John Macedo – Live Balls (The Black Plume Editions)
There’s been a lot of good releases on cassette this year: Ewa Justka – Acid Smut (Fractal Meat Cuts), Jay Glass Dubs – Dislocated Folklore (The Tapeworm), Kate Carr – From A Wind Turbine to Vultures (And Back) (Flaming Pines), EVOL – Tunnel Flop (anòmia), Allon Kaye – ATDK 1—Crime (Entr’acte), various artists – A Can of Worms (The Tapeworm), plus a few more mentioned below. One of my favourites doesn’t actually have any tape inside it. Based on a collaborative live performance with Graham Dunning and Tom White, John Macedo produced a limited series of cassettes containing lots of small coloured balls that jiggle around inside as it’s played. Other unusual music-related objects of note were Mark Fell’s political tea towel , Conditional’s Computer Music patch, and GOHV’s Chemicalistic Phlugm.

AGF aka poemproducer aka Antye Greie – SOLIDICITY
This album demonstrates the range of Antye Greie’s artistic practice. The first track starts with sounds of mosquitos, recorded in Finnish woodlands, that are then edited, processed and structured into musical forms. Next is an arrhythmic tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, then music made with a pure data patch connected to fungi. In these and in the other tracks about cryptocurrency, migration and politics there is an alignment between the subject of the work, its sound and its means of production.

tuuun – AA0001 (fluf)
Simple repetitive parts made from crisp and deep 808 drum sounds combine into a more complex rhythm. Against these drums an irregular but persistent pitched percussion is foregrounded, with some randomized hiss and an occasional acid squelch. Stephen McEvoy is the person behind both tuuun and fluf. He did an interesting project about tinnitus earlier this year, involving a survey of people’s experience of tinnitus, which I took part in. A summary of the findings was later shared with participants, together with music based on the data which is due for release on the MEDS label next year.

A fluorescent green cassette by Tom Knapp, whose Mophoc Rez EP (Ge-stell) should have been on my list last year. It’s a piece to keep returning to because it’s difficult to work out what’s going on or to even remember what you just heard. MIXEDSIGNALGENERATORS is also ambiguous, comprising two sides of music concrète made, as the title suggests, from a variety of sources: field recordings, synthesized sounds, instruments, and all kinds of processing. Comparable in structure and quality, but with a completely different set of sounds based on physical tape manipulation, is Chew Cinders (Midnight Circles) by C. Reider. Another similar work of two extended parts, this one made of  digital sounds, is Diverted Units (Holodisc) by Maria W Horn. 

Alan Moore – Jerusalem (Liveright, 2016)
I got this book as a present last Christmas, but only recently finished reading it. It’s split into 3 books and like Moore’s only other novel, Voice of the Fire, it’s set in Northampton, where he lives. Halfway through the first book, The Boroughs, the disorientation caused by chapters introducing new characters in different eras, each point of view told in their own language, and the hyper-orientation of detailed descriptions of the local streets became overwhelming. So I put it down and had a break to read a couple of other books (Ann Pettifor – Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance; Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century). Picking it up again, the threads that connect the chapters became clearer, and it got easier to read. The lines converge to an end-point where the subject of the book becomes the book itself. Jerusalem is the story of a specific place and its people and a general philosophy on life and death.

Iku Sakan – Human Wave Music (Natural Sciences)
Konrad Sprenger – Stack Music (PAN)
Layered harmonic arpeggios of hammered metallic string sounds. Fractal drones. Human Wave Music sounds like physical modelling synthesis, whilst Stack Music is made with computer-controlled physical instruments playing patterns based on the Euclidean algorithm. The titles of Iku Sakan’s tracks – ‘Serotonin Rainbow’, ‘Warm Glow’ – match their soporific sound, whilst the classically-named pieces by Konrad Sprenger – especially the longer ones, ‘Finale’ and ‘Rondo’, which include organ – can be more unsettling when they stray into the uncanny valley of mechanical performance.

Machine Woman – New Sept (MMODEMM)
New Sept is on a set of 5 cassette singles. A short and perky little track, it’s less complex than ‘Camile From OHM Makes Me Feel Loved‘ from the When Lobster Comes Home EP (Technicolour) but just as good. Like most of Machine Woman’s music, it makes me smile and makes me want to dance.

Peter Seligman – Dropup (Moss Archive)
This sounds like melted-down music, reduced to constituent parts that jostle against each other, re-combining into new monstrous forms that lurch around menacingly.

Various Artists – Misapplications (Conditional)
Calum Gunn’s label Conditional shows its strength and breadth with this compilation of computer music. This album includes something by all 19 artists on its catalogue.

Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage (RVNG Intl.)
Reassemblage is influenced by a film of the same name by Trin T. Min-ha. Using synthesized eastern instruments, the compositions have a Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and asymmetry. The more recent Lex has more of the same sound design.

Errorsmith – Superlative Fatigue (PAN)
Party, my body”

Other things that got played a lot:

  • Autechre – JNSN CODE GL16 / spl47
  • Dillon Wendel – Pulse / High
  • Equiknoxx – Mark Ernestus Remixes
  • Giusto Pio – Motore Immobile
  • Hafez Abdel Rahman – Sudan Tapes
  • Kevin Drumm – Bandcamp subscription
  • Kindohm – decera
  • Lee Gamble – Mnestic Pressure
  • Lutto Lento – Dark Secret World
  • oxhy – respite unoffered
  • Porya Hatami – Monads
  • Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Two Orb Reel
  • SW. – The Album
  • The Necessaries – Event Horizon
  • Thomas Brinkmann – Retrospektiv
  • Tony Conrad – Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain
  • Various artists – Ishq Ke Maare: Sufi Songs from Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan
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New music

Two new bits of music out this month:

Joe Evans, who released my first two albums on the Runningonair label, has put together an album of remixes of an old and previously unfinished track of his from the 90s called ‘More Than Machine’. There’s a variety of responses to Joe’s instructions to deconstruct the original, including remixes by Ekoplekz, Stephen Chistopher Stamper, Howlround and Clive Henry. My approach focused on the drum sample in the track’s 6/8 breakdown section and re-used the original MIDI files with different instruments. Proceeds from the albums sale go to an anti-slavery charity. https://runningonair.bandcamp.com/album/more-than-machine-remixes

I’m very pleased to have two new pieces out on the FLUF label as part of its AA series which has so far included music by tuuun, Empathic Window, bamboo and Calum Gunn. AA0006 is two tracks made with sonification of environmental data. Each track is based on two sets of data. ‘0006A’ uses two time series of monthly readings of global average surface temperature as measured by the Met Office (HadCRUT4, 1850-2017) and NASA (GISSTEMP, 1880-2017). ‘0006AA’ is made with daily measurements of greenhouse gases by NOAA – C02 (1979-2017) and CH4 (1983-2017). In both tracks, the main measurements (°C, ppm/ppb) are converted to pitch in MIDI files. The second track also incorporates the time of day at which each reading was taken – this is used to set the duration of each note. Sounds were made with Razor synth and the Fluid R3 GM sound font in Szforzando. These two tracks are the latest in a larger body of work based on sonification of data that represents the state of the world today and how it’s changed over the years. There’s an album in the pipeline – more details on this soon.

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Dark Ages

A short playlist of music I’ve been reminded of by current events. Most of this is music I’ve liked since I was younger that seems more relevant now than it did at the time.

Dead Kennedys – Nazi Punks Fuck Off. With today’s news of the demonstration in Charlottesville, the latest example of the rise of the far-right in the US, this track came to mind instantly.

Propagandhi – Less Talk More Rock. Just as Dead Kennedys wrote Nazi Punks in reaction to the neo-fascists attending their gigs, Propagandhi wrote this one against homophobes.

Sun Ra & His Arkestra – Nuclear War. In reaction to president Trump banning transgender people from the US military, Bandcamp supported the Transgender Law Centre by donating all its share of sales on 4th August. One of the things I bought on Bandcamp that day was this.

SNFU – Black Cloud. Looming over us all now, thanks to US and North Korean political leadership. Another nuclear-apocalyptic song, this one with a really nice vocal melody.

NoMeansNo – Dark Ages. Describes the general bleakness of living in late capitalism in 2017. I’ve always liked the biblical style of language in NoMeansNo’s lyrics, with dark imagery and tales that centre on humanity’s flaws. Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed is a good example of this, and it’s one of my favourite albums. It’s only after buying that Sun Ra single and exploring his other music that I realise how much of an influence he’s had on NoMeansNo.

Joy Division – Leaders of Men. Another beautifully bleak song about torment and hopelessness.

Napalm Death – Multinational Corporations. Around the time I was doing my A-levels I painted a mural for a friend on his bedroom wall, and in return he paid me with a couple of Napalm Death albums, one of which was SCUM. My copy is the orange version. Multinational Corporations is the first track, a simple anti-capitalist anthem.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On. The whole album is a thoughtful reflection on hard times, and the title track represents many of its observations on class, politics, race, the environment, employment, love and war. I used to think the title was a question, but it’s a declaration: THIS is what’s going on. It’s grim, but it leaves you with hope.

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