Is Music Dead?

Is Music Dead?

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As a stretch of wild and secret country, with strange and eerie chasms, neighbored by sunlit meadows.

As an event which has filled us with terror and dread, you have put a rainbow in the sky. 

–from the opera by Gustav Mahler


Without Elvis, none of us could have made it.  –Buddy Holly

In 1988 a German musicologist walked up to American composer David Cope, exclaimed, “Musik ist tot!” (dead) and tried to punch him in the nose. Seven years earlier Cope—the author of more than seventy published compositions, and a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz—had invented a form of artificial intelligence that could emulate the great composers. It was called Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI), and its elegant computer code was able to analyze and then steal the style of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Mahler-all the towering artists-and write fakes that fooled experts. Kala Pierson, an audience member at a 1999 EMI concert at the Eastman School of Music, recalled the response of the faculty and students: “I’ve never seen so many composers shocked out of their smug complacency in one fell swoop.”

Last June, MIT press published Cope’s 500-page tome, Virtual Music: Computer Synthesis of Musical Style. It includes chapters by scientists like Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, musicologists like Eleanor Selfridge-Field and Jonathan Berger, along with scores by the program and a CD. Hofstadter says bluntly, “EMI should earn its place as one of the most significant adventures of the twentieth century.” But he adds that he’s deeply troubled by the program: “Is a composer’s soul irrelevant to the music?  I’m not saying it is, but if so … that would be for me an absolute tragedy.  Some of my favorite composers are Chopin, Bach and Faure. If such minds of infinite subtlety and complexity and emotional depth could be trivialized by a small chip, it would destroy my sense of what humanity is about.” Others, like Berger, argue that the essence of creativity lies in the act of listening, not composing: “I maintain that creativity is in the ear of the beholder.”

Many listeners are initially offended by EMI, notes Cope, but over time they mellow and even become fascinated. Last spring his university’s orchestra performed an EMI-crafted Brandenburg concerto. “The audience really liked it. Four years earlier we’d performed an EMI Mozart and the response had been extremely hostile. This time I couldn’t generate any hostility in the question and answer period afterwards. I finally started asking myself insulting questions!” Now Cope plans to debut a Mahler opera crafted by EMI, beginning with six arias performed next March, again by the university orchestra. Mahler himself never wrote a complete opera. “I created a libretto from Mahler’s colorful letters,” says Cope, “and EMI wrote the music, a 3 hour and 45 minute grand opera. I love the piece.”

How does EMI work? Cope found a way to divide a composition into fragments and assign each fragment a grammatical function. He also translates a composition into a language of computer-coded “events” (specifying when each note begins, how long it lasts, pitch, loudness, which instrument plays it). Cope feeds EMI several works by a composer, so the program can analyze the patterns and unique signatures that keep showing up. Finally, he borrowed a programming technique that allows one to link words into meaningful sentences, so that EMI can compose. Hofstadter recalls listening to a faux-Prokofiev Sonata in Cope’s living room, and hearing a “very striking chromatically descending eight-note motive in midrange, then moments later the same motive way up high on the keyboard, then once again a few notes lower, and then one last time very deep down in the bass line … the passage reeked of Prokofievan impishness.” The program had apparently analyzed a completely different motive occurring four times in rapid succession with exactly the same timing and pitch displacements—and then recreated the pattern with different notes.

Cope thinks EMI reveals the way that all great composers work: by listening to other composers, and without knowing it, analyzing and emulating patterns, and then creating their own. Is EMI a threat to the sanctity of the soul? Cope says: “When people protest that a human did not write this music, I say, ‘There were plenty of humans involved. A human wrote the program, humans created the computer, humans listen to the output.’ I can only speak higher of the human race for having invented computers that can compose beautiful music.”

He’s right, but that’s cheap consolation to those of us who, like Hofstadter, don’t want computers trespassing on “sacred” terrain. Most likely, there is more to music than will ever meet EMI’s ear. In his new book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books), cognitive scientist and jazz musician William Benzon offers a new word for our lexicon: “to music, with musicking as its participle.” When you musick, you perform, listen to, compose, or dance with music. And something happens when musicians “musick” together, something as ineffable as mystical experience. Benzon quotes Neil Young: “You hit the wall…it’s the end of notes.  It’s the other side, where there’s only tone, sound, ambience, landscape, earthquakes, pictures, fireworks, the sky opening, buildings falling, subways collapsing … when you go through the wall … it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. I love to go through the wall.” And trumpet player Terrance Blanchard: “Maurice Andre, the great classical solo trumpeter in Europe, once said that when he plays he sometimes gets the impression there’s no trumpet. He feels like he’s singing! I have yet to experience that. But when I listen to John Coltrane, I hear it.” And Leonard Bernstein on conducting: “You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer … those are ecstatic times, those moments. Schopenhauer said that music was the only art in which this could happen and that art was the only area of life in which it could happen. Schopenhauer was wrong. It can happen in religious ecstasy or meditation.”

Of course, that doesn’t faze the indefatigable Cope. “Right now EMI and I are working on Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony.” Cope and EMI may have to answer to world-famous conductor Simon Rattle, who clearly knows how to musick. Rattle once said, “If anyone has conducted a Beethoven performance, and then doesn’t have to go to an osteopath, then there’s something wrong.”