Notes Antic Disposition

Livecoding the musical apocalypse

Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools:


This piece is recieving mixed feedback, due to its odd contrast of diving in to a mind blowing and immersive creative environment with a slightly off-tangent, noobish sports commentary. It’s great.

For a more forward driving take on this topic, it’s hard to beat Giles Bowkett’s RubyFringe presentation.

The rise of algorithmic composition has left critics in a frenzy; computers as musical tools have eclipsed the entire history and structure of musical form. This is epitomized by David Cope’s experiments in musical intelligence:

As Cope tested the recombinating software on Bach, he noticed that the music would often wander and lacked an overall logic. More important, the output seemed to be missing some ineffable essence.

Again, Cope hit the books, hoping to discover research into what that something was. For hundreds of years, musicologists had analyzed the rules of composition at a superficial level. Yet few had explored the details of musical style; their descriptions of terms like “dynamic,” for example, were so vague as to be unprogrammable. So Cope developed his own types of musical phenomena to capture each composer’s tendencies — for instance, how often a series of notes shows up, or how a series may signal a change in key. He also classified chords, phrases and entire sections of a piece based on his own grammar of musical storytelling and tension and release: statement, preparation, extension, antecedent, consequent. The system is analogous to examining the way a piece of writing functions. For example, a word may be a noun in preparation for a verb, within a sentence meant to be a declarative statement, within a paragraph that’s a consequent near the conclusion of a piece.

Finally, Cope’s program could divine what made Bach sound like Bach and create music in that style. It broke rules just as Bach had broken them, and made the result sound musical.

Is contemporary music completely breaking down in a slosh of every historical genre available being constantly re-mixed and mashed? Will algorithmic composition tools like Emily Howell give rise to a whole new progression in music?

The now-famous anecdote:

At one Santa Cruz concert, the program notes neglected to mention that Emily Howell wasn’t a human being, and a chemistry professor and music aficionado in the audience described the performance of a Howell composition as one of the most moving experiences of his musical life. Six months later, when the same professor attended a lecture of Cope’s on Emily Howell and heard the same concert played from a recording, Cope remembers him saying, “You know, that’s pretty music, but I could tell absolutely, immediately that it was computer-composed. There’s no heart or soul or depth to the piece.”

These perceptions call into question the very basic nature of the relationship between music and emotion.