Many people perceive art as an expression of the human soul, a revelation of our unique humanness. However, one modern composer – Emily Howell – has generated a great deal of controversy and thrown these beliefs into question, partly because her compositions are actually quite good…
Get With The Program
Emily Howell is not your average composer. In fact, she is a computer program designed by Dave Cope, himself a composer who encountered a particularly strident bout of writer’s block in the early 1980s. To overcome it, he decided to turn to his computer for help.
His original creation used pattern analysis to implement what became known as algorithmic composition – essentially studying the vast corpus of classical music, figuring out how it was all put together, and then using the underlying fundaments to generate new variations. The original program was called Emmy (or EMI, Experiments in Musical Intelligence). This year, the new and improved version, Emily Howell, is about to take the world by storm – you can listen to some of her work here.
Although some of Emmy’s output was indistinguishable from human compositions – and in fact, at a live performance, most of the audience couldn’t tell the difference between Emmy’s ‘imitation’ Bach chorals and the actual Bach work – she was never accepted by the music community.
Essential to Cope’s approach – which is certainly remarkable in the field of AI, as well as that of music – is the notion that recombination is essential to creativity. According to him:
“Nobody’s original…We are what we eat, and in music, we are what we hear. What we do is look through history and listen to music. Everybody copies from everybody. The skill is in how large a fragment you choose to copy and how elegantly you can put them together.”
The idea that great music can be created by a machine is clearly anathema to many people, as they feel it somehow devalues the spiritual aspect of human artistic endeavour.
However, it has always been the case that another person may create a song that is deeply moving, but this does not prevent you from creating a different song that is also deeply moving, an expression of your own individuality. There will always be variations – even if you had written that song a week later, it would have been slightly different.
The fact that a computer can create moving music does not impinge upon our own ability to create moving music; nor does it detract from the individuality of expression thereby revealed.
A computer could simulate a thousand monkeys typing at a thousand typewriters, and perhaps eventually it would generate ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’. Perhaps any artistic creation can be eventually uncovered through algorithmic means; but the practical infinity of variables that contribute to each human artwork make it vanishingly unlikely this would ever happen. So keep writing those songs…