Emily Howell - The Computer Is The Composer

Emily Howell is not a person; it's a computer program that creates beautiful music all on its own. Developed by UCSC professor David Cope, Emily Howell is about to release its very first CD through Centaur Records.

Cope's initial effort was called Experiments in Musical Intelligence or EMI, which he pronounced as "Emmy". EMI was an analytical engine that could take the body of a composer's works and create new works that were in a similar style.

Around the start of 2003, Cope decided to take his decades'-worth of musical databases to the virtual dump. He kept the fruits of EMI's labor, but not the data that generated those pieces—"I essentially stopped doing historical replications. That aspect of my work was finished," he said. From there, he created what he describes as the succession of EMI: Emily Howell.

Instead of feeding Emily a database of works that already exist, he gave her a collection of works that EMI had produced to get it going and, from there, she began working on her own musical style. Cope described Emily's style to be similar to modern composers, a "sort of an amalgam of all styles" and very contemporary.

But what makes Emily interesting isn't just that; it's the fact that she can take audible feedback—musically or verbally—from an audience in order to modify her compositions. "The program produces something and I say yes or no, and it puts weights on various aspects in order to create that particular version," said Cope. "I've taught the program what my musical tastes are, but it's not music in the style of any of the styles—it's Emily's own style."

Should human composers see Emily Howell as a competitor, an artist in its own right? Cope thinks so.

"Most living composers feel exempt from the controversy with EMI because their music hasn't been affected by the fact that any music that sounds like Mozart is good or bad," Cope explained. "Now those same composers are looking at a competitor—a virtual composer competing in the same arena with 'her' own style and music that is really excellent. It seems to me that these composers should feel a little less smug and more defensive about their position."

Science fiction readers are already accustomed to the idea of a computer that creates compositions, both musical and artistic. In his 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson had his AI Wintermute create music for the residents of Zion:

"Voices." The Founder from Los Angeles was staring at Case. "We monitor many frequencies. We listen always. Came a voice, out of the babel of tongues, speaking to us. It played us a mighty dub."
"Call 'em Winter Mute," said the other, making it two words.
"Listen," Case said, "that's an AI, you know? Artificial intelligence. The music it played you, it probably just tapped your banks and cooked up whatever it thought you'd like..."
(Read more about computer-generated dub)

Update: Readers thought about Sharon Apple, the virtual idol from Macross Plus. Take a look at this performance video from Macross Plus.


(Sharon Apple video from Macross Plus)

Sharon Apple is an artificial idol; she exists as a computer program which produces a hologram for concerts or other performances. Her programmers can take in audience responses via a special bracelet worn by concertgoers; this information is fed back into her performance. In public, Sharon appears as a black box, with a red optical sensor for a 'face'.

Also, I remembered Tei Toei, the idoru from William Gibson's 1996 novel of the same name.

And finally, take a look at this video of virtual singer Hatsune Miku. End update.

And finally, take a look at this video of virtual singer Hatsune Miku.

For poetry created by a computer, consider the verse transcriber from J.G. Ballard's 1971 story Studio 5, The Stars.

I was pasting down one of Xero's satirical pastiches of Rubert Brooke and was six lines short. I handed Tony the master tape and he played it into the IBM, set the meter, rhyme scheme, verbal pairs, and then switched on, waited for the tape to chunter out of the delivery head, tore off six lines and passed them back to me. I didn't even need to read them.

Via Ars Technica.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/5/2009)

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