On what constitutes good music, opinions may vary, and often fractiously, but there is a far wider consensus on the importance of music itself. Incredibly, all the age-weary platitudes still sound true: The ability to make music separates us from the animals; it expresses our humanity; it is the cornerstone of culture. But that consensus has now been severely tested by the work of David Cope, whom I read about recently in the online magazine Miller-McCune. In a superb profile titled Triumph of the Cyborg Composer, journalist Ryan Blitstein describes how Cope is questioning the very philosophy of music, and how he may be, in a strange way, one of the most influential composers of our age.
Cope embraced composition, he tells Blitstein, because he wanted to create one work as great and moving as Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. But in 1980, when he was commissioned to write an opera, he was laid low with an acute bout of composer’s block. In desperation, he turned to his other passion—computer programming—hoping that he could write software to produce music in the David Cope style.
He went one better. Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI or, more lovingly, Emmy) could produce music in anybody’s style, as long as she had been fed with enough samples of the composer’s canon. One day, when Cope started up Emmy and stepped away for a sandwich, Blitstein writes, “she spit out 5,000 beautiful, artificial Bach chorales, work that would’ve taken him several lifetimes to produce”. When Cope performed Emmy’s compositions as well as authentic Bach to an audience of classical music aficionados, few were able to differentiate between the two.
The reaction to Emmy, and to her more advanced successor Emily Howell, has included some genuine marvel but has consisted largely of debate and anger. Record companies refused to give Emmy a contract, and musicians refused to play her music. And unlike in a certain Stanislaw Lem short story, in which poets kill themselves after a machine begins to write verse, this reaction to Emmy doesn’t appear motivated by insecurity. Instead, it emerges because Emmy has put in doubt that sacred consensus about the creation of music, and thereby put in doubt our very notions of what makes us human.
Technically, all music is born by arranging and rearranging seven notes, an exercise in permutation that a computer is primed to execute. No music, therefore, can be utterly sui generis. “Nobody’s original,” Cope says, devastatingly. “Everybody copies from everybody. The skill is in how large a fragment you choose to copy and how elegantly you can put them together.” If you borrow and tweak a phrase from another work, it’s a knowing tribute; if you smuggle away a section wholesale, it’s Anu Malik at his most “inspired”. But the process, Cope points out, is precisely the same, and although he doesn’t say it, the implication is clear: If all music is made up of temporary loans from all other music, why not let a computer do that job?
This rubs uncomfortably against the grain of our concepts of both music and musical genius. Music, we like to believe, is a product of the human soul and, further, a channel between composer and audience, carrying a sentiment too frail to be communicated in words. Musical genius discovers not the most efficient or time-tested way but the most sublime way of parsing that sentiment. And yet logic tells us that Cope is right: Music really is just mathematics, just seven notes marvellously combined. Bach may have arrived at his combinations instinctively, and Emmy may have patiently crunched a million prior possibilities, but the chorale sounds the same.
The purists, though, needn’t yet slit their wrists in despair; in fact, I think there is still cause to celebrate man’s bond with music. Tellingly, neither Emmy nor Emily Howell has helped Cope compose his one truly great work, a slender hint that there may be more to this art than intelligent note-juggling (although even that might be false comfort: Emmy-Cope’s masterpiece may be languishing in his vault of computer-generated compositions, unappreciated and unperformed). Then too, the software can only mimic a style, not create one. Emmy can give us more Bach, but she cannot give us a brand-new genius, simply because she needs us to tell her what we consider “beautiful music”.
With time, and with newer computer technologies, these too will change. What will not change, however, is that our ideals of aesthetics will still be shaping the music we listen to. We will still find a cello solo intensely stirring where a flourish of woodwinds would have passed with a bare murmur of approval; in that sense, we are still “making music”, bending sound to our unique sensibilities. We aren’t human because we can compose music. We’re human because we can respond to it.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org