Composer block? No problem, the AI ​​takes care of it: David Cope and EMI


 [ Art and AI , episode 10] 
 Have you read the other episodes yet ? We have already talked about music ! 

One of the biggest names in the history of "computer composition" is that of David Cope, professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Cope began his career as a "traditional" musician and composer, if you can say so, creating hundreds of works that have been performed all over the world. In fact, the 1982 American Record Guide said of Cope that he was one of the most ambitious, prolific and multifaceted composers of that generation.

Not only musician, also computer scientist

Cope approached the world of computers during the seventies of the last century, learning to program and studying the world of artificial intelligence. Applying his new computer science knowledge to music, in 1975 he devoted himself to his first digital composition, using an IBM computer with punch cards.

It took an enormous amount of time to program [the machine] and actually get the results, because the punch cards, which we got from the computer in response to the input, had to be converted from small holes [..] to small notes . [..] It was a horrible song, really terrible.

He later attended the Summer Workshop in Computer Music at Stanford, studying several computer languages, including LISP, the standard programming language in artificial intelligence. In those years he became a teacher of the laboratory on algorithmic computer music at the Digital Arts Research Center of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

David Cope

David Cope (2017). Credit:

The art block and the solution: why not let the computer compose?

In 1981 he was commissioned a work, but Cope was in full compositional crisis, so he decided to devote himself to programming a software that could do it for him.

I decided to go ahead and work on some of the AI ​​I knew and program something that would produce music in my style. [Once I listened to the music produced by the machine] I would say "ah, I wouldn't do this!", And then I would go off to do what I would do. So [the program] was something to provoke me, something to push me to compose.

The program he worked on later took the name of EMI ( Experiments in Musical Intelligence ), or Emmy. Experiments in Musical Intelligence is an analytics program that composes new pieces in the style of the music they have been trained with, without exactly replicating any of those pieces.

The first failures and the search for the right way

Cope initially decided to program the computer by inserting encoded musical rules, but he did not get satisfactory results, as can be understood from the words written on his web page:

My first experimentation with Experiments in Musical Intelligence involved encoding the rules of writing into musical parts based on my understanding, as part writing constitutes one of the primary superstructures of traditional tonal music. After much trial and error, my program produced some sort of simple music that basically adhered to these rules. Although substantially correct in terms of how the voices move towards each other and conform to classical "triadic" harmony, the music seemed, at least to a polite ear, lifeless and without much musical energy. [..] Having an intermediary, myself, inserting abstract sets of rules for composition seemed artificial and unnecessarily premeditative.

Drawing up a set of rules for each different musical genre (or style of a certain artist) would have been unthinkable. Thus, Cope decided to change his approach: he would no longer have to teach the machine rules, but rather instruct it by making it read the scores of dozens of compositions by a particular artist .

My idea was that each musical work contained a series of instructions for creating different but highly similar replicas. These instructions, correctly interpreted, can lead to interesting insights into musical structure and, hopefully, create new examples of music that are stylistically faithful to the original works.

But how does EMI work?

For Cope, the key concept behind the creation of new music in a well-defined artistic style is that of recombinancy (which we could translate as “recombinability”). In fact, Cope explains, just as all the greatest literary masterpieces in the English language are nothing more than original combinations of only twenty-six letters, even Western music is nothing more than the recombination of the twelve tones of the temperate scale on different octaves.

Obviously, the recombination of musical “pieces” without the right criterion would only produce a mass of notes difficult to identify as music. According to Cope, in order to get the software to create a new composition, even a very simple one, a thorough musical analysis is necessary.

As he explains on his website and in the book Experiments in Music Intelligence (published in 1996 after 15 years of work on his music generation computer system) the software is based on three fundamental principles , which are also the basis for today's artificial composition of music:

  • Deconstruction . "Deconstruction": analysis of the musical compositions provided in input and subsequent fragmentation into parts thereof.
  • Signatures. “Signatures”: identification of the common character between the various compositions, which indicates and characterizes the style of a genre or composer.
  • Compatibility . “Compatibility”: recombination of pieces and motifs according to the style identified to create new original works.

Bach by Design : EMI revives the legend of baroque music

From when the work was commissioned to Cope in 1981 to when it actually went on stage, eight years passed. Even if, according to the artist, once the software was completed, it took two days to have the work ready. After the staging, the artist tried his hand at having EMI write numerous compositions in the styles of various legends of the history of music, training it with pieces by Bach, but also by Bartok, Brahms, Chopin, Gershwin, Joplin, Mozart or Prokoviev and Cope himself.

From these experiments, in 1993, the Bach by Design album was born. It was released in 1995 by Centaur Records because the artist, for about a year, could not find a visionary enough label to support him in the publication. On this, Cope said:

I spent almost a year trying to get a real record company to produce that music. It was really hard. I remember my biggest exasperation was when two negative responses arrived on the same day. The first said "we only publish contemporary music, and this, according to our definitions, is not contemporary music", while the other said "we only do classical music, and this is not classical music", so I said "so what ' is"?

bach by design
The cover of the Bach by Design album composed by EMI

Even finding musicians who could play that music was a challenge for Cope, so much so that in the end he opted to have the songs played by a Disklavier, an "automatic" piano. Choosing to have a machine play the entire album led to Cope receiving negative reviews.

The first three reviews of Bach by Design were negative on the grounds that the album sounded too stiff [inhuman]; when I read them I was very upset that they were not primarily about how [the pieces] were composed, but how they were performed.

Subsequent compositions of EMI

After EMI's first album, Cope started having the software compose many more songs. For the next album, Classical Music Composed by Computer , Cope was joined by human musicians to record EMI's compositions. The album received better reviews than the first and attracted the attention of many experts in both classical music and artificial intelligence.
Cope has produced several other albums using EMI, including Virtual Mozart and Virtual Rachmaninov . Through the software he even composed a complete symphony in the style of Mozart, which was performed at the “Baroque Festival” in Santa Cruz in 1997.

Cope has produced thousands of other works using EMI and many of them have been able to fool some of the most seasoned classical music fans. So, if we thought of a hypothetical Turing test applied in the musical field, we could say that EMI has managed to overcome it by far.

The article Composer block? No problem, the AI ​​takes care of it: David Cope and EMI comes from TechCuE .