photo authorized by Bruce Sterling
Turku, Finland, and Turin, Italy. What could these two distant cities possibly have in common? Besides their names, of course.
In Turin, in order to stop a public transportation tram or a bus, you have to stretch out your hand like a well programmed robot, in a very specific way. Otherwise the bus flies by you! The same goes in Turku.
Turin is known for its fashion-conscious gentlemen, who, for some occult reason, choose to wear pants in the shocking color of orange. This cult of orange trousers also exists in Turku.
In Turin, people never brush against you without an apology of deep concern for invading your personal space. They will open doors and courteously hold them, in shops, tram, and living rooms, for anyone of any age, class or gender. The same goes in Turku, Finland.
The tourist pamphlets warned me that the Finns are a sober, silent lot: no Italian hand-waving for them, no chattery small talk, no fake sweet smiles from the locals, even though they are eager to be good hosts and to help foreigners. The streets are remarkably clean in Turku. The population shows very few visible class differences. Public beggars and derelict hobos are rare. And alcohol is extremely expensive. In fact, anything poured into a cafe glass in Finland costs a mint.
In the lost days of the Cold War, Finland used to be my mother's favorite country. I always wondered how this small, rather low-key nation had such strong appeal for my mom, a Yugoslav communist and a world-travelling doctor.
Maybe it's their placid common-sense: those long, honest straight in the eyes looks the people gave me, when I started waving my hands and carrying on at them in my Italian, Balkan fashion. Madame: do you actually need something with all these wild gesticulations? Does something trouble you? And they weren't making fun of me, on the contrary, they were entirely prepared to help!
When I balked a little at being stark naked in a Finnish sauna, an elderly woman offered me motherly concern, with a sad, superior smile. She explained that clothes carry the germs of the outdoors into the intimacy of saunas, and that it's good for women to be aware of their bodies, especially when there are no men around.
With that said, our cultural symposium in Turku was opened by a transgender performer who sang like a man while dressed like a female diva. She declared that her trade, for years on end, was to make art from the confusion of bodies and genders. I wonder what happens when she goes to a sauna?
At Turku's Sibelius museum, a soberly engaged audience listened attentively to music composed by robots. Metaphysical lectures and discussions ensued. What is the essential nature of this algorithm-generated music? Is it part of the mathematical structure of all possible musics, from which a robot picks out music, like a radio-telescope picking up the noise of the cosmos?
What does it mean, this soulless music? The divinity of music was often claimed in musical history, from Bach to Mozart, but the patterns of the music of Mozart and Bach can be analyzed and mimicked by software. This may sound rather reductive, but then again, close your eyes and listen -- with this blind taste-test, can you really tell any difference between software structures and the divine accomplishments of the great composers?
Actually, yes, I thought I could feel some difference -- listening to the machine-music of this Spanish programmer-composer was like listening to a mentally confused Italian woman who waves her hands energetically without ever getting to the point. The human emotion expressed in a musical composition may not be logical, but it exists.
So what about the alleged desires of robots? Could they exist? Do robots have a death drive just like us humans; would an Artificial Intelligence want to commit suicide? Can we humans extend our desires through avatars, thus reaching unlimited states of desire, a kind of moral infinity? Mix philosophers, composers and machines, and the results are so Finnish, so cool!
The intent Finnish audience was quite keen on these cloudy, Nordic-scale life and death questions, mythic conundrums that people of sunnier nations would scarcely dare or need to inquire about, at least not as a matter of joyful fun.
Even the concierge at my hotel was a Finnish philosopher. When I staggered back from a bar, in the morning's wee hours, with no hotel key, listing sideways after a long metaphysical discussion on life and death with four male strangers, he handed me a fresh key without even blinking his eyes. He seemed to know that every foreign woman visiting Finland meets such situations. It's the golden path to understanding in the ways of that country.
Turku is a lively and busy mid-sized city, which scarcely sleeps in the summer, since the daylight rules the skies. To make up for the lost sleep, they hibernate in the snowy winters, like bears. It's like an Arctic jet-lag, hard but exhilarating.
The food is elaborate and refined, fish, meat, bread and potatoes, with herbal smells and tastes I couldn't recognize. The soil and seas of Finland yield the likes of seal and ptarmigan and tundra cloudberry, maybe even some bear and reindeer. It might be best to call these acquired tastes.
The symposium's final concert, for human piano and computerized orchestra, made my day in Turku. Through the deft use of the piano's foot-pedals, the skillful pianist brought on an entire invisible orchestra, prerecorded in his laptop. Basses, kettledrums, cymbals, one violin, ten violins, a hundred: with a potential infinity of violins on hand, he was the director, performer and composer at the same time! Powerful and impressive!
My goodness, what would my mom ever say? This Yugoslav Communist doctor was still a cultured European, and she prided herself on her music connoisseurship. She spent many seasons in La Scala in Milan, carefully dressed and ravished by the living tradition of the classics.
But how "classic" were the classics, after all? When Mozart wrote his music, the period instruments sounded quite different than ours do. Deaf Beethoven imagined only the sounds of his orchestras, while Wagner could surely do with fewer trumpets, unless you're spending three days being blasted at in a cave.
These days, it's the "robots" versus the "classics" in an out-of-control free-for-all. Which ones are better loved, which ones will outlive us? Which ones are our true heritage, and our bequest to those that follow?