Apr 28, 2016

Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

A close study of even the most radical artists reveals a larger community and history of other artists from which a particular composer draws influence, the germs of new ideas or even a point of departure to react against. As the often-quoted maxim goes, “We are all perched on the shoulders of giants.”

“If you create something, the question of how you are influenced by others is a natural question, and it’s something that network theory is trying to answer,” said Juyong Park.

Park is a physicist at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea. Park is part of a team along with Arram Bae and Doheum Park also from KAIST and Yong-Yeol Ahn at the University of Indiana who recently published a study that tries to map the relationships between composers, musicians and conductors.

In layman’s terms, network theory is reminiscent of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” parlour game (pardon the headline pun), where players try to connect the prolific actor to another entertainer via people they’ve each collaborated with in as few steps as possible.

“I think the great appeal of network theory is that everything is connected,” Park said. “That sounds philosophical, but if 99 percent of the people in the world are connected by a factor of 5 or 6, you really start to think about your position in a new way.”

Building on a previous study, Park’s team used metadata from 67,277 classical CDs listed by ArkivMusic. Unlike that previous study, the team looked not only at composers but also performing musicians and conductors (75,604 in total.) Each time a composer was performed by a group or a composer’s piece appeared on a CD with another composer that created a connecting line that was measured. In total, that amounted to more than 428,000 connections in a massive network.

From a bird’s-eye view, the musicians and composers that had the largest network (i.e. had the most points of connection) are some of the usual suspects.

Journalpone0151784t002The most represented/recorded classical artists in each category

“Mozart was the most performed composer, featured on 5,288 CDs. The Tenor Plácido Domingo is the most popular performer, featured on 354 CDs. Herbert von Karajan and the London Symphony Orchestra are the most prolific recording conductor and ensemble,” the study states.

What might be more surprising is that as large as the network is, it would be remarkably easy to play a classical version of the Kevin Bacon game. Almost 99 percent of the network was connected, and the average number of steps to connect any two points (representing varied geographies and centuries of history) within that network was 5.6.

Four prominent communities emerged in the network: Austrian-German Romantic music, American-based modern music, a transitional period between Romantic and Post-Romantic, and lastly — and perhaps somewhat surprisingly for those who see the classical world through a Eurocentric lens — a community closely linked to classical guitar, Spanish and Latin American composers and performers.

One common trait of the most represented composers was their versatility. Researchers analyzed composers’ relevance to the five most common performer groups in the network: violin, cello, piano, soprano and tenor. Composers who were most relevant to all of those groups (even when controlling for the degree of total recordings by a composer) were also the most recorded and prominent overall.

Building on their previous work, Park said his team wanted to look at the network not only on a macro level but on a microscopic view as well. This meant looking at the individual networks that might be overshadowed by say Mozart or Beethoven to see the community that forms around less represented artists.

People new to classical music looking to explore might often not know where to start. They will inevitably be steered towards composers and artists most represented on the macro scale, but very often that interest began by discovering a particular piece, composer or artist that they connected with. The music and artists they might most be interested in would be those in the smaller community related to that CD or recording they found. Park said the team wanted to be able to chart out that network as well.

“It kind of follows a newcomer to classical music. If you find someone you really like — it could be a classical guitarist — you want to know what the most relevant musicians are to that guitarist that you’re hooked on,” Park said. “Those artists don’t have thousands of recording like Bach has, so in order to look at that, we had to look at very small details within the network.”

The more you already know about an artist, seeing some of those connections might be easy. But for newcomers, knowing where else to explore isn’t always easy. From a commercial application point of view, Park said his team is mindful that this kind of network building could be useful to applications like Pandora, which try to suggest playlists around a single artist or piece.

Network theory is still an emerging field in which researchers like Park are trying to create better and better models. To some, it might seem strange to apply this kind of scientific process to more abstract questions of culture and art, but Park said he hopes it can add another level to the way we understand connections.

A newer branch of this research includes something called stylometry. There, instead of looking at metadata, researchers are trying to mathematically analyze properties of art and looking for similarities in artists’ styles. In literature that might mean tracking word choice or sentence structure. In visual art it might mean looking at the geometrical qualities in a painting. Music is a little harder to track this way, but Park said that there is work to do just that.

It might not be the most traditional way to understand or appreciate art, and Park said he has heard from some who accuse this mathematical view of taking the fun and emotion out of art. But to Park, this is just another way to appreciate a field he loves through a prism he is passionate about.

“Really, we are all doing this because we love the art,” he said.