Sunday, October 11, 2009

Emily Howell

Haven't you heard? There's a new and mysterious classical composer on the scene. Her name is Emily Howell, and no one has ever seen her in person. Wanna know why? Its because she isn't a person. Emily Howell is a computer program created by David Cope, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (whose middle name just happens to be Howell). His program allows him to use letters from a computer keyboard, as well as musical input to "collaborate" with the computer in creating new music. The foundation upon which Emily operates is created from a database of musical composers, all mostly dead, classical composers. Emily is then able to analyse this data and then compose in the style of these composers without actually recreating any of their original compositions. Basically, when one collaborates with Emily, one is essentially collaborating with all of these said dead, classical composers to create new music. Pretty cool.

Now, I think Cage might have been a fan of this idea, given that the human composer would be involved as little as possible in the composition process, therefore removing his or her own tastes and preferences from the work completely. But then again, Emily is programmed with the "musical knowledge" of all of the great 18th century classical composers -most of which we can agree had massive egos and perhaps personal agendas or emotional messages they wished to push with their music. We know what Cage thought of this "pushiness" and his opinion of Beethoven... perhaps Cage would have programmed Emily's database with something else.

There's also the technical aspect to consider. From an indeterminacy standpoint, one might question the degree of chance involved with a program like Emily. When one hears her music, one can note that she operates off of patterns. She is, indeed, following the musical patterns most likely used by those composers that make up the data base from which she draws. It might also be noted that even computers can express a "personal preference," accessing memory and running operating patterns which they can most easily access and run (even ipod shuffles do it).

So maybe Emily isn't exactly "up to snuff"in the indeterminacy department, but her work is truly original and I personally think it sounds fantastic.

Moving away from the John Cage ethos for a moment, Emily Howell also presents some rather alarming questions. Is a computer program that composes its own (her own) work a threat to the human spirit of creating music? Emily's creator doesn't believe so. David Cope says that since computers can do only what humans program them to do, Emily is only as talented as the composers in her database and the programmers who dictate her method of analysis. Not to mention the feature that allows the operator to "collaborate" with Emily to create the composition. Though this may be true, and though Cage would definitely agree that human meddling is involved, I must disagree.

I see Emily as a formidable opponent to the human composer with respect to composition of a technically complex piece. Her ability to produce variations and spit out bar after bar of original and interesting material is admittedly intimidating. I don't, however, think that Emily's compositions can hold a candle to the very aspect of human composition that Cage sought to avoid -emotional involvement. The classical composers from which Emily's database is made filled their compositions with feeling and sentiment. When they are all mashed together and drawn upon, that feeling is convoluted and renders Emily unable to produce anything with the same emotional intensity that springs from the human composer. Technically interesting, Emily's pieces lack that underlying, magical quality that elevates music to an intimate and personal experience, for the composer, the musician, and for the listener. In short, Emily's amazing, but I don't think us humans have anything to worry about.

Oh, and if anyone's interested, Emily Howell's first record will hit stores next spring.
P.S. The picture up top is really a photo of Daft Punk (more on them later) but I thought it was fitting.

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