Program Music | VAN

A new piece on VAN by yours truly:

Recently, I played a series of symphonic movements for a class. Some were by Mozart, and others by other composers. With a little practice and guidance, the class picked up a rough impression of Mozart’s style, as distinct from the other works. The last piece I played was by David Cope’s software Experiments in Musical Intelligence (better known as EMI or Emmy). Emmy was designed to emulate other composers’ styles as closely as possible, and I wanted to test its effect on a class that wasn’t aware any of the music they would be hearing was written by software.

Of course, my real purpose was to test their reactions to algorithmic composition in general. One student, who’s preparing for her final school exams, gave a comment that’s been fairly exemplary of those I’ve heard when I bring up the topic: “You want to know that there’s a person writing the music. Otherwise how can it be special?”

Cope mothballed Emmy in 2003, and has channelled much of his subsequent work into another algorithmic composition project, Emily Howell, which uses outputs from Emmy and Cope’s training with an association network to generate music in its own style. It was only when I played Emily Howell’s music for the class that that same student was taken aback. She knew the piece. It’s in her study playlist.

The idea of algorithms that create art, and that create music specifically, is fascinating, and the more research I did on it the more interesting I found it. I think this piece should be a good primer for anyone who’s interested in the topic.

“The Next Rembrandt”

Claire Voon, on Hyperallergic:

You may be quick to identify a portrait unveiled this week in Amsterdam as a never-before-seen painting by Rembrandt. With a calm gaze, mouth slightly parted, and wearing a frilled collar with a wide-brimmed hat, the man resembles the sitters the Dutch painter so frequently depicted. Rather than dabs of paint, however, this portrait consists of pixels—148 million of them, to be exact, all created by machines and captured in a 3D-printed painting.

We’re living in a world where computers can make convincing original works in the style of Rembrandt and Mozart. That is amazing.

I’m not convinced that it means artists’ jobs are under threat from automation in the same way as people working in other fields. Mozart and Rembrandt have been dead for centuries, and while their music and art still draws people to concert halls and museums, no composer or artist has ever gained success by writing or painting in their styles. Their originality is a key part of their popularity.

Computers now can create millions of works that are functionally indistinct from those by famous historical artists, and I doubt we’re that far from having them create entirely original works. But the function of art is more than the beauty of the melody or the control of the brush stroke; it’s the connection it makes between creator and audience, and that connection can’t exist, I believe, between human and machine.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In the nineteenth century, the falling cost and visual fealty of photography meant that traditional visual art didn’t need to recreate the physical world; doing so was redundant since photographs would do it more efficiently and more faithfully. So visual art started to move away from more realistic depictions of the world to more abstract ones, creating works that only humans could.