Thursday, October 22, 2009

Meet Emily Howell, classical music's virtual composer

EMILY HOWELL could be the next big hit in the classical music world. She has already received critical acclaim for her compositions and secured a record deal, with her debut album due for release next year.

Emily Howell, however, is a computer program. The brains behind her music belong to David Cope, a music professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After almost four decades' work he has created a machine that can create original compositions of contemporary classical music.

One commentator said that Emily Howell's "modern masterpieces make her among the most technically unique composers in America".

Her first album, From Darkness, Light, is due for release in spring. It is played by humans on two pianos through six movements.

Professor Cope said that he initially created programs that could analyse the work of hundreds of classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, and replicate their style. "I was successful in creating a bad program that would create bad music," he said. "It was drivel."

The system improved over time, but eventually Professor Cope moved on to create something that could not only imitate others, but also create original pieces in a style of its own.

"I put my skills into creating a unique composer that created contemporary classical music that would be interesting and grab people's attention, but was in nobody's style except that particular kind of software."

Professor Cope said the music from Emily Howell's album was similar to that of 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky, but fundamentally different in style.

The project has been controversial. Many have urged him to "kill" Emily Howell, saying that the program was against the innate human spirit of music creation. Some composers and orchestras have refused to play her work. Although eventually a number of big-name classical performers expressed interest in playing the music, their agents would not let them, citing industry controversy over the work.

Professor Cope believes that it is reaction to the idea of computer-created compositions, rather than the music itself, that causes people to dislike it. He pointed to the example of the first concert of the work, which was played at his university a year ago, when the audience was not told that Emily Howell was a computer program.

"A professor came to me and said this was one of the most beautiful pieces he'd heard in a long time. The first concert was received extremely well.

"Then I lectured about the program, and presented From Darkness, Light again. The same professor came back and said, 'From the minute it started I could tell it was computer-composed. It has no emotion, no guts, no soul.' He had not remembered the music from the previous concert, and would not believe it was the same music.

"Those people who have a belief that computer programs can't compose music will believe that, and supersede their personal taste."

But many experts remained sceptical about the project. "For me, music is primarily about the human condition," said Hilary Finch, a classical music critic. "A machine is doing something different. I'm not sure how satisfying it could be to humans."

Professor Cope argues that Emily Howell's music is the distillation of the work of the great composers of the past and present. "Computers are not separate things," he said. "The computer is human-made. The program itself is human-made. The music in the database is human as well. There's so much about this that is human. There's just a lot more humans involved in making this than usual.",25197,26244626-2703,00.html

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