Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief

Composer David Cope has a knack for describing music in the least romantic terms possible. Whenever Mozart heard something, Cope says, "He was able to digest it and store it in his database. He could recombine it with other things so that the output would be hardly recognizable."...

There's a reason Cope talks about composing this way: He is the inventor of the world's most musically creative computer program, whose latest album came out a few weeks ago. Cope has been writing software to help him compose music for 30 years, and he long ago reached the point where most people can't tell the difference between real Bach and the Bach-like compositions his computer can produce. Audiences have been moved to tears by melodies created by algorithms. And yet, it's not exactly that Cope has created a computer than can write music like a human. The way he sees it, it's that humans compose like computers. ...

"We don't start with a blank slate," he said. "In fact, what we do in our brains is take all the music we've heard in our life, segregate out what we don't like, and try to replicate [the music we like] while making it our own." What separates great composers from the rest of us, he says, is the ability to accurately compile that database, remember it, and manipulate it into new patterns. ...

To stump Cope, I presented him with the famous melody to the second movement of Beethoven's C minor Sonata, the "Pathétique." Could a computer really generate such a beautiful string of notes? Surely this was the product of Beethoven's genius. Cope directed me to Mozart's Piano Sonata 14, also in C minor. A nearly identical melody, in the same key, occurs three minutes into the second movement. Of course, pointing out that Beethoven ripped off Mozart doesn't explain where Mozart got the melody. But Cope makes a convincing case that Mozart, in turn, may well have heard something like it and stored it away. In other words, great melodies (to our Western ears) are products of evolution, not creationism. Even if Mozart never heard the precise melody, he surely heard similar riffs that his mind, which was constantly recombining bits and pieces of his database, stuck together to make the final product. Cope has another program, called Sorcerer, that can scan a piece, compare it to various databases, and look for similar passages in earlier works. Positive matches appear more often than you'd like.
--Chris Wilson, Slate, on there being nothing new under the musical sun

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