Can computer music have a soul?

Now that the Man and I have regrouped, we’re back to having all those stellar rambling conversations that made hanging out with him so much fun in the first place. Last week we’d arranged for coffee out and after the drinks were done, we walked and talked for at least an hour and a half around the neighbourhood before getting back to his car to drive around and talk more while listening to music created by talented computer users.

Since he uses software to assist in his own music making, I was curious if he’d ever heard of a story about a computer that composed music without help from human input at all (save the program’s designer/operator). I couldn’t recall the precise story at the time, but I explained to him about this computer that was programed to create new music that was pretty much identical to some other classical pianist or something. I used Chopin and sonatas as my example and that people were given an opportunity to listen to this beautiful piece and were either told before or after they heard it that a computer made the whole thing up. I also thought that upon this discovery, people were generally appalled.

I asked his opinion about it and I think he found the whole idea intriguing. I think he was also stymied for a bit as he worked through the obvious implications of a world where computers can create new things like music. Is it real creativity without a human “soul” involved in the process? He thought not.

I asked something along the lines of, does the fact that a computer can accomplish this diminish the abilities of people like Bach or Beethoven? Were they really great musicians, or just superb mathematicians who could measure speed, rhythm and pitch as well as a computer can? I can’t recall how I phrased my other thought, but it was something like this: if we ever are at a point where some A.I. thing is intelligent enough to make decisions for itself (hell, even a Roomba learns how to avoid dogs and toddlers), why wouldn’t it count as creativity or ingenuity or any other trait characteristically and historically reserved for humanity?

Anyway, we never got to an end of that conversation; our topics wander around like dogs after a rain when all the scents are gone from the things that used to be familiar (and he should know where I got that analogy). I’ve since looked up this topic to see what kind of computers have got composing as part of their programming.

Douglas Hofstadter writes of his experience in 1995 while reading a book called Computers and Musical Style by David Cope. The book included a little mazurka written up by a computer program in the style of Chopin (so I was right about the Chopin angle after all – yay memory). As Hofstadter was a long time fan of his work, he quickly brought the book to his piano to test the little ditty out.

I went straight to my piano and sight-read through the EMI [the program was called Experiments in Musical Intelligence] mazurka several times, with mounting confusion and surprise.

Though I felt there were a few little glitches here and there, I was impressed, for the piece seemed to “express” something. Had I been told it had been written by a human, I would have had no doubts about its expressiveness. It sounded slightly nostalgic, had a bit of Polish feeling in it, and it did not seem in any way plagiarized. It was new, it was unmistakably “Chopin-like” in spirit, and it did not feel emotionally empty. I was truly shaken. How could emotional music be coming out of a program that had never heard a note, never lived a moment of life, never had any emotions whatsoever?

It was quite the paradox for him, yet as he toured North America and talked about this 1991 wonder of computer programming, it barely caused a ripple in audiences, unlike how I remembered this story.

hardly anyone in my audiences seemed upset at Cope’s coup in the modeling of artistic creativity; hardly anyone seemed threatened or worried at all. I, on the other hand, felt that something of the profundity of the human mind’s sublimity was being taken away. It seemed somehow humiliating, even nightmarish, to me.

Not only that, but when asked to rate which piece was Bach’s original and which was machine-made, a third of audiences got them mixed up. In the case of Chopin vs EMI, nearly everyone mixed them up. The technique this program used was so sophisticated as to be nearly undetectable. Check the pieces out for yourself here and be amazed. I’m quite fond of the Joplin-style rag, myself.

Hofstadter had to readjust his feelings about Chopin after all this. If a computer program can easily dupe audiences, then is there anything overly special about the original compositions? After all, he felt the same range of emotions listening to that machine’s creations as he always did with Chopin’s original work. He also started to wonder – either music is far shallower than he thought, or we soulful, emotional people are. Neither option sounded promising.

Another computer program got some media attention in 1995. It was called Serendipity. At the bottom of that page is one of the compositions with Saskatoon prominently slapped on (how about that!?) and you can have a listen to the short song on site, too. Since he’s a local boy, of course my library has the Robert Fink album which includes that song plus a few others created in this manner. And yes, I’ve requested it so I can listen to those, plus the rest of the stuff he’s done. This synthesizer stuff is nowhere near as pretty as what EMI managed, but still – it’s original and it’s computer designed. It’s impressive.

So, I dunno. I don’t think we’d ever get to a point where human-created music would cease to happen. I think there will always be space for both, and appeal for both.

A couple different musicians had a shared concert recently in New York – Sarah Cahill played some of her piano pieces and an inventive laptop user, Carl Stone, played the tracks he’d created by manipulating the music of others into something new and original and just as varied and interesting as Cahill’s piano compositions. Writes Steve Smith about that half of the concert,

On the accuracy of Mr. Stone’s simulation I am unqualified to report, but his music was a powerful stimulant with lingering euphoric effects. Voices stretched like taffy were folded into ghostly choruses; the whine of a stringed instrument became a mosquito arabesque. Noises normally rejected, like surface scrapes and static bursts, provided fertile sonic lodes. One passage suggested a distant gamelan heard in fits over crackling shortwave radio; in another, an unaccompanied singer became a cybernetic madrigal consort suited to a Kanye West record.

I’m not sure if that last sentence counts as high praise, but it’s nice to see “euphoric” get used. As one who’s been given many examples of computer based music lately, I concur that some of it is quite fine and capable of generating that level of emotion in a listener. Absolutely.

and here’s something kind of related but mostly put in because it’s damn cool: the Scottish created Cybraphon made out of recycled whatever the hell stuff and still makes some damn fine music. Again, embedding seems to be failing me, so click the link instead and watch this thing in action.

About 1minionsopinion

Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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