Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Today on NPR, on the heel of Fresh Air, I heard the tail end of a report on David Cope's EMI, "Experiments in Musical Intelligence", a computer program which can emulate various musical styles, including Bach, Chopin, Mahler and Navajo (yes, native American music).

Apparently, Cope, a composer himself, has advanced the programming sufficiently enough that EMI can now produce full concertos. During a symposium, three concertos were presented to an audience: a concerto by JS Bach, a concerto by Larson in the style of J.S. Bach, and a concerto by EMI in the style of JS Bach. The audience largely identified Bach's concerto, but interestingly concluded that EMI's concerto had been written by a Larson and Larson's by the computer.

First, my sympathies go out to Larson. I'm not a very good pianist and I'll never forget the day a young woman said that I played the piano like a typewriter. Such efficient and devastating put-downs are rare and to be savored by the victim. As for Larson, poor man, where does one go after an audience picks the computer as being the more soulful composer? A hundred years ago, we would find Larson hanging by the neck from his own rope (in the viscinity of his piano), I'm sure.

Anyway, the organizer of the event was mathematician Douglas Hofstadter, author of "Godel, Escher, Bach". Hofstadter won the Pulitzer prize in 1980. Here is a part of what Hofstadter wrote as a result of EMI.

What worries me about computer simulations is not the idea that we ourselves might be machines; I have long been convinced of the truth of that. What troubles me is the notion that things that touch me at my deepest core -- pieces of music most of all, which I have always taken as direct soul-to-soul messages -- might be effectively produced by mechanisms thousands if not millions of times simpler than the intricate biological machinery that gives rise to a human soul. This prospect, rendered most vivid and perhaps even near-seeming by the development of EMI, worries me enormously, and in my more gloomy moods, I have articulated three causes for pessimism:

(1) Chopin (for example) is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(2) Music is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(3) The human soul/mind is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.

Let me briefly comment on these. Pertaining to (1), since I have been moved to the core for my entire life by pieces by Chopin, if it turns out that EMI can churn out piece after piece that "speaks like Chopin" to me, then I would be thereby forced to retrospectively reassess all the meaning that I have been convinced of having detected in Chopin's music, because I could no longer have faith that it could only have come from a deep human source. I would have to accept the fact that Frédéric Chopin might have been merely a tremendously fluent artisan rather than the deeply feeling artist whose heart and soul I'd been sure I knew ever since I was a child.

That loss would be an inconceivable source of grief to me. In a sense, the loss just described would not be worse than the loss
incurred by (2), since Chopin has always symbolized the power of music as a whole, to me. Nonetheless, I suppose that having to toss all great composers out the window is somehow a bit more troubling than having to toss just one of them out.
The loss described in (3), of course, would be the ultimate affront to human dignity. It would be the realization that all of the "computing power" that resides in a human brain's 100 billion neurons and its roughly ten quadrillion synaptic connections can be bypassed with a handful of state-of-the-art chips, and that all that is needed to produce the most powerful artistic outbursts of all time (and many more of equal power, if not greater) is a nanoscopic fraction thereof -- and that it can all be accomplished, thank you very much, by an entity that knows nothing of knowing, seeing, hearing, tasting, living, dying, struggling, suffering, aging, yearning, singing, dancing, fighting, kissing, hoping, fearing, winning, losing, crying, laughing, loving, longing, or caring.

OK. This is all a bit too melodramatic for me. Far be it for me to judge Hofstadter, but there is a very clear fourth possibility and the fact that Hofstadter fails to consider it, or that it possibly doesn't even occur to him, bespeaks a man with an obviously too-elevated opinion of himself. Here it is:

4.) Hofstadter's soul/mind is a lot shallower than Hofstadter ever thought.

I listened to the extract of EMI's Bach concerto on the program, and while it was clearly in the Bach style, I didn't for a minute think it was by Bach. Yes, I was impressed, but it was clearly a modern redux. It had all the soulful trappings but lacked the soul. To be fair, there aren't many things I am an expert on, but Bach is one of them. And this brings me to my next thought:

Fact is, the majority of classical music listeners can't tell the difference between J.C. Bach (Bach's youngest son) and early to middling Mozart. There are few listeners who could tell the difference between Dittersdorf (a second tier classical composer) and Haydn.

usic is a language. Just as the vast majority will never master an instrument (like me & my piano) the vast majority will also be limited in their ability to appreciate music. Only about 2% of America's population listens to classical music with any regularity. That means that 98% of America could NOT tell the difference between EMI and Bach. Does that mean EMI has equaled Bach? No, it means that the American public is not conversant with the language of classical music, and Bach in particular. It would be like asking an American to differentiate the different dialects of Chinese.

Getting back to
Hofstadter. Instead of concluding that Chopin, Music, or all of humanity is a lot shallower than Hofstadter ever imagined, maybe it's just that Hofstadter is a lot shallower than Hofstadter ever imagined.

This possiblity doesn't even seem to occur to
him . That is, Hofstadter drags down all of humanity with him!

The ego is breathtaking.

I vote for option (4).
Hofstadter's appreciation of Chopin is a lot shallower than he ever dreamt. The human soul lives on.

Anybody who thinks they can fool me with a pastiche of Bach, bring it on.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Fascinating. I have long feared this to be true:

(2) Music is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(3) The human soul/mind is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.

The joy of music is sort of like the joy of waking up in the morning, having a brisk cup of good coffee, then being called on the phone and informed that you do not have to work that day and you have a whole free day ahead of you.

The *reality* of music, is that they call you back 10 minutes later and say "I was just kidding, hurry you're going to be late", and the joy fades.

Music is like math, it paints an ideal reality. A beautiful reality that is divorced from our lives, but tantalizes us with a glimpse of perceived perfection.

Music and math are beautiful, whatever beautiful ultimately means.