Meet Emmy, the computer program designed to emulate famous classical composers. Built by David Cope in 1981, she has since written many scores that have been performed across the country. While many scoff at her work as a mere “ruse,” it is hard to deny their beauty. Despite the fact that these are computer-generated compositions, they are truly moving.
By Megan Guerber
Computers rarely create something that I find touching. Their work is often cold and disjointed in comparison to the fluid human creations that inspire me. While technology has always impressed me, it rarely sways my emotions the way hand-generated art and music can.
The other day, a friend challenged this point of view. She told me about David Cope, a professor and classical composer who designed a computer program to write music. I found a YouTube video of one of the songs and was speechless. It is genuinely beautiful. It is program-generated, yet it still moved me.
This technology came about when David Cope suffered from a long streak of composer’s block in the late 1970s. He describes it as a time during which he was completely lost and suffered from a weakened sense of identity. Cope decided to take an unexpected approach to his dilemma, shifting his creative efforts towards building Emmy (Experiments in Musical Intelligence or EMI). This program analyzes data taken from sheet music, interprets a composer’s style, and then uses what it has learned to generate new compositions. The music it spits out at the end could be considered rubbish, but after Cope carefully assigns it to instruments, it is almost indiscernible from the masterpieces it emulates.
Each note is given a number based on certain characteristics. Emmy then searches for patterns amongst these numbers, thus learning the composer’s style. This mode of creation is based on the idea of recombinancy, which Cope describes on his website as “a method for producing music by recombining extant music into new logical successions.” In this way, Cope has programmed Emmy to learn the compositional techniques of Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and even Cope. (He collaborated with Emmy in order to finish an opera he struggled with for years.)
Each of Emmy’s compositions takes after a well-recognized genius. They do not fully compare, yet they are beautiful in their own right. Based on the innovations of a mastermind, processed by a computer, then reinterpreted and performed by human beings, this music has the strength often achieved via collaboration.
When thinking about the use of computers in art, it seems to all come down to one important question: does the work move you? Certainly Emmy’s creations do. She is but one example of what technology has to offer artists. We should all strive to use it as well as Cope.
Learn more about David Cope’s work on Radiolab.