Guest author Melissa Olsen is a passionate fan of classical music and is currently the marketing director of Morbie.
Early this year, Swedish development company DoReMIR Research finally released its widely-praised ScoreCleaner app, a program that takes musical notation with impressive accuracy. It’s been promoted as the answer for would-be-composers who need help converting their ideas into something more shareable in the musical community. It’s a great example of machines helping humans produce art as music.
It’s not alone, of course. There are many more examples of machines helping the musical process along. It was a reverse talk-back circuit that gave us the gated reverb of the 80’s (think of the drums from “In the Air Tonight”) and auto-tuning gave us the distinctive sound of Daft Punk’s greatest hits.
On a more advanced level, we also have vocal synthesizers now: the Japanese Vocaloids, programmable “singers” in a box who can be made to sing the compositions of whomever happens to own the program. Machines, it seems, have been helping composers do their work for quite a while.
In fact, they might be able to replace the composers already.
The Artificial Creator
Enter such visionaries as David Cope, who is responsible for the controversial Emmy and the later but still controversial Emily Howell. Emmy was the first of Cope’s fascinating creations, a program of Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI) that eventually became so advanced that it could recreate famous composers’ musical styles in new compositions.
How did it work? Essentially, Cope fed Bach’s compositions to the program in order to establish a database whereby the composer’s patterns could be deduced. Then he added another database for deriving Bach’s rules of composition. This wasn’t just the standard way he strung notes together but also when he went against his own “formulae” (or deviated from his own standard). And then he added classifications of phenomena found in music.
The result? By 1987, Emmy’s Bach-style compositions were being played to a speechless audience at the University of Illinois. And polarizing listeners around the world.
A Composer Without a Soul
Cope’s work with Emmy and the program he regards as her daughter, Emily Howell (a more interactive composition program that actually engages Cope in an exchange that helps it put together music gradually through associations and Cope’s preferences), has elicited powerful responses in many people. Some welcome it, but perhaps even more view it with distrust.
Critics have complained that Emmy’s work had no “soul” … even though several of them said the opposite of the same pieces before they were told who or what Emmy was.
The fear seems to be that this technology is an incursion into what many think the “final frontier” of human qualities: creativity. Indeed, given the frightening success of Emmy’s work, some might even say this incursion is an outright invasion, from such a perspective. But a core part of the problem has to do with the argument that creativity or emotional meaning can only stem from “a soul.”
The idea of a soul isn’t something we can really properly explain. It’s not even something we really understand, which is probably why there’s a tendency to imagine it as something divorced from machines (which we can explain and understand). But it’s an important point in this question of music coming from the machine. After all, if one really looks at the relation between the artist, art, and the viewer, isn’t the “soul” of art more a function of the observer’s perception than a possession of the artist him/her/itself?
“Real people” have produced art that’s been called “soulless.” Cope’s program has produced music that some have found desperately moving. Why should the artificiality of an artwork’s creator render the art itself any less genuine for the observer affected by it?
The Future Of AC And Music
Using mathematics and formulae to create art isn’t new. Many classical composers, Mozart included, were already doing it long before. Much of the resistance to Emmy seems to be in its removal of the human from the process of creation, its ability to do all the work itself.
Still, Emmy had its limitations. Cope himself stopped using it and “trashed it” by destroying its extensive database, doing so partly out of concern that its very success at what it did, its amazing productivity, was becoming its own curse. For even the most beautiful of artworks can be dulled somewhat by relentless repetition of its theme.
Cope’s more interactive program, the second-generation Emily Howell, is less reliant on reproduction by repetition. It also doesn’t make the human composer fully unnecessary to the process, so it might be (slightly) less alarming to those who received Emmy with such negativity.
But even with Emmy, humans were never fully unnecessary. It took humans to process and draw personal meaning from its works, as noted above. And if the day comes that people come up with programs that can do that as well, that can respond to stimuli like music with that sort of full-fledged perception, who can still argue about soullessness in the machine then?
Photo courtesy of Flickr member North Cascades