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Smackdown: Artificial Intelligence

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Meet composer Emily Howell: she’s crafting original works of classical music that sound sharp and lively, if a little derivative. Some say her pieces sound like Bach or Liszt. The issue: Emily Howell is a computer-based algorithm, designed by composer David Cope. He joins us to talk about Emily Howell’s latest album, From Darkness, Light.

Later: does artificial intelligence even belong in music? We settle it with a Soundcheck Smackdown; guests include Wired Magazine columnist Eliot Van Buskirk and jazz critic Will Layman.


Eliot Van Buskirk, David Cope and Will Layman

Comments [25]

Noah S Weber

I apologize, but both sides of this argument were a bit contrived.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a pianist and a computer programmer (amateur musician) about Emily Howell. I think this captures what the real argument is... morally, ethically (although admittedly a hair crude, since that is how our banter progresses)

Jun. 26 2010 10:32 AM
Mark from Brooklyn

I've never heard any musician worth his salt give a second thought to these questions. When you start worrying about "authenticity" you start sounding like the people would complained about the advent of the electric guitar. As Bjork has said "they're just tools."

Jun. 16 2010 02:38 PM
a g from n j

methinks you've gotten a response from the asperger syndrome crowd,many of whom think that emotions are not important because they miss the nuances therefore don't care about the human element.

Jun. 15 2010 02:57 PM
Mark from Westchester

It's a trap. For these programs to extrapolate music from a melodic snippet or whatever is the point of departure, it must presume what it is the listener wants to hear. The more we develop the ability to generate "pretty sounds" and nothing but, the chances diminish that one will uncover something unique or random. Nothing will be left to the same way Amazon presumes taste when you purchase something, you'll forever receive their suggestions for the same type of stuff. Take them up on it and you'll never get out.

Jun. 15 2010 02:44 PM
mike from Mars

The guy from wired likes AI music and the old cranky guy from NPR who puts the mimickers of black soul music on a pedestal doesn' so surprising...I get the felling sometimes that everything on this station is just an endless article/book promotion machine for every piece of trite pop psychology and art/science out there curated by old horny men who never got their novel sold.

Jun. 15 2010 02:38 PM
Tim from Brooklyn

All art is mediated, whether it's poetry or music or a theater performance. And to make it you use the "math"--meter in poetry, measure in music, or stage directions/script in drama. But you mediate all that through your heart, through your emotions.

If you mediate the math through something that is itself a product of math--the computer--you get a recursive loop. It is only when we surprise our feelings with a new use of the mathematically rendered frames of creation that artistic expression happens, I feel.

Jun. 15 2010 02:33 PM
mike silver

We are having the same debates in Architecture and design. Nothing exists in isolation from the observer. And since the observer cannot be computed no machine will ever replace the listener. If you displace the author through computation then the one who does this is in fact raising the audience to the status of the artist. So the real danger is our own programmed behavior not our tools. If we are not reducible to simple algorithms let's start acting like it.

Jun. 15 2010 02:33 PM
Juli from Skillman, NJ

A computer is just a tool to implement the artist's message. The artist is the one who had their heart broken, not the computer, or the guitar, or the pencil that writes the songs. The computer programs are just 21st century instruments.

Jun. 15 2010 02:31 PM
bog from bay ridge

maybe we don't need another human emotions. maybe we've heard all human emotions related to loss, love, hate etc. lets computers show us what they think about our emotions. it could be refreshing.

Jun. 15 2010 02:31 PM
Ken from Little Neck

Bottom line - good music is good music and it doesn't matter who or what created it. I've yet to hear any "artificial" music that could stand up to the real thing, but that doesn't mean it can't (or shouldn't!) happen.

Jun. 15 2010 02:28 PM
David A. from Brooklyn

I'm a programmer and programming IS art. There is an aesthetic to creating and adapting and incarnating algorithms. So what's strange about art creating art?

And yes, we don't have to worry until the computers start listening to the music on their own.

Jun. 15 2010 02:26 PM
Don from Hauppauge, NY

Also, I agree with Mike from NJ. That was uninspired composition.

Jun. 15 2010 02:22 PM

It seems to me that this algorithmically created music is, in some sense, just an extension of the musical experiments of people like John Cage decades ago.

I wonder where on the musical spectrum the guests would place music like that.

Jun. 15 2010 02:22 PM
Betty Anne from UES

Didn't Mel Brooks do something similar when he used a human musicologist to compose his score for the Producers and Young Frankenstein?

Jun. 15 2010 02:21 PM
Estelle from Austin

As far as I'm concerned, Cope is the composer of anything "written" by Emily. He made judgement calls in designing "her," and his tastes and style informed his strategy.

Jun. 15 2010 02:21 PM
Don from Hauppauge, NY

Computers *cannot* do anything truly random. It's called "psuedo-random". There absolutely is a magic to the natural randomness of the "live" universe.

The computer-generated music is also based on patterns created by the so-called great composers, so from my perspective, the computer isn't creating anything, just mathematically transforming the works of the greats. The creativity, at the root of it, still belongs to the greats.

Jun. 15 2010 02:20 PM
Mike from NJ

In answer to the basic question; is it still music? Yes, of course it is. But if Emily is any indication, it is bad music.

Jun. 15 2010 02:19 PM
Tom from Upper West Side

It seems that artificial intelligence creates artificial music.

Jun. 15 2010 02:19 PM
Larry from New York, NY

What I love about all the arts is the point of view of the artist. Without that point of view, the reason for the creation, it is not art or, in this case, music. It becomes sound.

Jun. 15 2010 02:18 PM
Juli from Skillman, NJ

No matter the design of the creating implements, it is still an artistic representation of the creator's conveyance.

It is like asking if Monet utilized something other than a brush to apply the colors, is it still art?

What kind of question is that?

You will never be able to tell me that Jean Michel Jarre or Thomas Dolby are less contributory based on their methods of music creation.

Jun. 15 2010 02:16 PM
Brian from Manhattan

Hi Joel,

This is nothing new. The human element has been totally removed before. Remember the player piano?

Jun. 15 2010 02:16 PM
Carol from Maplewood NJ

The work by Emily is rather boring and predictable. What the machines are good for is playing things that can't possibly be played by a human (12 fingers worths etc.)

Jun. 15 2010 02:15 PM
Ellen from Brooklyn

I think you guys are forgetting that the computer didn't program itself. Someone gave it instructions and rules. It's really not that much different from another piece of music derived from rules.

Jun. 15 2010 02:15 PM
Laurie Spiegel from NYC

I think David Cope's work is quite wonderful. Don't forget that a musical algorithm is a human creation in itself and is only as good as the musical knowledge and sensitivity of the person who wrote it.

I would call it a "meta composition" - a human musical composition that is able to generate other musical compositions.

Jun. 15 2010 02:14 PM
Lonnie from Brooklyn!!!!!

I'm not worried-- "Emily" just reminded me that Phillip Glass has been debuting AI produced music for years and years and we never Knew!!!

Until now. . .

So the real question is: Who or WHAT is Phillip Glass?

Jun. 15 2010 02:11 PM

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