Then Play On

I know today’s post was supposed to follow on the previous item about C.S. Lewis, but in this morning’s email was a very interesting note from my friend Gus Spathis.

Gus had found a brief essay – you can read it here – by Douglas R. Hofstadter, the restless polymath behind one of my favorite books, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In this item Hofstadter discusses the work of one David Cope, an artificial-intelligence researcher and composer from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Cope (I wonder if he is related to Edward Drinker Cope) has developed a computer program called EMI that generates new compositions in the style of various composers. Hofstadter summarizes the idea:

The deepest underlying principle behind EMI is what Cope terms “recombinant music” — the identification of recurrent structures of various sorts in a composer’s output, and the reusing of those structures in new arrangements, so as to construct a new piece “in the same style”. One can thus imagine feeding in Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and EMI coming out with Beethoven’s Tenth.

EMI’s central modus operandi, given a set of input pieces, is:

(1) chop up; (2) reassemble.

There are, of course, significant principles constraining what can be tacked onto what, and these principles are formulated so as to guarantee coherence. I summarize these two principles as follows:

(1) Make the local flow-pattern of each voice similar to that in source pieces;
(2) Make the global positioning of fragments similar to that in source pieces.

What particularly bothered Hofstadter, a pianist himself, was EMI’s ability to generate a mazurka in the style of Chopin. Chopin’s music is to many (and I am inclined to feel this way myself) the most poignantly beautiful of all: the sweetest, the saddest, the tenderest, the most human, and for a computer program to have created a piece in Chopin’s style so well-composed that it fools even the savviest of listeners is to Hofstadter a tremendous blow. He lists some gloomy options:

(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.

He concludes:

…the day when music is finally and irrevocably reduced to syntactic pattern and pattern alone will be, to my old-fashioned way of looking at things, a very dark day indeed.

Strong stuff, coming from one of AI’s more enthusiastic proponents. And unquestionably Cope has achieved in EMI something truly remarkable; take a listen to some of the pieces available here.

It’s easy to see why a person might be bothered by this. The history of our investigation of our place in the world has been, from one perspective, a continual diminution of our status – we, the children of Adam, molded by God specifically in His image and given explicit dominion of the world and its fauna, have suffered demotion after demotion. The Earth turns out not to be the fulcrum of the Cosmos, about which the heavens themselves wheel in subservient ambit, but is rather just one of several bodies orbiting the Sun; the Sun, in turn, is shown to be just a rather middling little star, one of billions in the Milky Way; the Galaxy itself is revealed merely to be one of an incalculable multitude flung in every direction throughout immeasurable space. Likewise, even our stature here at home has been lowered again and again: the Earth, once thought to have been prepared at the beginning of historical time as the stage upon which the human drama would be played, is shown to be of immense age; of such an age, in fact, that if all of geological time were to be represented by the height of the Eiffel Tower, the span of human history – once thought to be the point of the whole show – would amount to no more than the layer of paint at its apex. Perhaps the greatest insult of all was the lesson taught us by Darwin: that even we ourselves, our very bodies, arose in direct genealogical descent from the slobbering beasts of the primordial slime. And now comes this: the final treasure, the last remnant of our former grandeur – our ability to create transcendent beauty in the form of art – is usurped by a few lines of code and a box of wires. Are we to be left with nothing?

But there is another way of looking at it. Each of these “demotions” from our lofty status took nothing away from us; to the contrary, each one represented a tremendous enrichment of our understanding of the world; a step forward in our growth and wisdom, and a narrowing of the illusory gulf (and why do we crave it so in the first place?) between ourselves and the natural world. And in every case teeth were gnashed, and garments rent, and often there were those who fought jealously to prevent the new ideas and insights from taking hold. As for Professor Cope’s invention, it may well turn out that music’s emotional power is due at root to its instantiation of certain natural regularities, certain patterns, sensitivity to which has been so adaptive as to manifest itself in humans as deeply felt pleasure – a simple joy in participating in the underlying harmonies of the world, relationships that are all around us. And it may be that the gift of the great composers embodied a somewhat algorithmic talent, duplicable by computers in much the same way that such machines can now create beautiful games of chess (another milestone recently passed, the achievement of which was greeted with similar keening and wailing). But even if we build machines in a few years that can churn out Beethoven sonatas all day long at the press of a button (and it is worth pointing out that both EMI and Deep Blue are, after all, human creations), what have we lost? Whenever we learn something new about what makes us what we are, whenever we pierce the veil of mystery that divides us from the exquisite Dance of matter and energy that is the living World from which we sprang, we are enriched.

The real dignity, the real grandeur, is in our ability – and infinitely wonderful and precious it is – to seek, to learn, to adapt, to grow, and, with a boundless and childlike curiosity, always to pursue a deeper understanding of our place in the World. That is what it really means to be human, and I see no threat to it anywhere in sight.

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  1. Bob Koepp says

    Creating exquisite beauty is something nature does quite regularly, presumably without help from artistic geniuses — just look around and be awed. Should it come as a surprise that an algorithm can generate beautiful patterns after the style of … ? Only if you think that the way(s) humans generate beautiful patterns can’t be mechanized. But why on earth would one believe that? I’m certainly no Cope, but I’ve played at algorithmic composition, especially with constrained randomness, and occasionally have been aesthetically thrilled by what emerges.

    Posted April 10, 2006 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Right, Bob. I was surprised that Hofstadter, of all people, would be so dismayed.

    Posted April 10, 2006 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  3. Bill says

    Once given Beethoven or Mozart or Chopin, it is not too surprising that one could computationally create similar output. Humans have done it many times before. I have heard intermission programs on concert shows where a pianist plays a piece in the style of a different composer. I once read an article in “Scientific American” that analyzed the randomness of music and found Mozart to be between deterministic and Brownian. I have seen pictures of landscapes that do not exist created using fractal geometric calculation. In fact much of nature is fractal.

    What I would truly be amazed at is that given all the precursors of Beethoven, but not Beethoven, a computer then produced Beethoven-like music. For that matter would it be early, middle, or late Beethoven and does computer synthesis distinguish such developmental changes? I have come to the conclusion that the only people genuinely threatened by computers are those who do everything the way a computer would. The complexity of humans is such that machine computation will not totally supplant them.

    Posted April 10, 2006 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Duncan says

    Quite right. It’s not technique which is uniquely human, it’s the choices that are made in creating or defining technique which characterize human expression. You can see a corollary example in painting. Leaving composition aside for the moment, it’s a trivial matter in Photoshop to render any image as a Van Gogh or a Seurat. What Photoshop would never do and (for now, at least) could never do is decide to render images that way in the first place.

    In art, talent often refers to pure mechanical ability in a given field. Genius or inspiration describes the ability to break from tradition and define a new technique, and that’s where humans truly differ from computers. For every Rembrandt, there is a school of talented students who follow instruction to the letter and wind up creating paintings that, for most purposes, are hard to differentiate from the Master’s. This is what Cope’s computer does. Yet you can build a whole wall of computers creating “new” Rembrandts, and none will ever paint a Picasso, a Van Gogh, a Kandinksy, a Rothko – they would never think to do it in the first place.

    Posted April 10, 2006 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Duncan, Bill,

    I’m not so sure that I’d be willing to go on record as to what computers will “never” do…

    But if they should get to the point of being able to do all the things that we would like to reserve for ourselves as uniquely “human”, I still don’t see how our humanity will have been diminished. I’d say rather that we will simply have some new friends and partners (or enemies, if we aren’t careful, or perhaps even masters)…

    Posted April 11, 2006 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm,

    I listened with great delight to three of the “Cope composers” I particularly enjoy, Beethoven, Chopin and Bach. The re-rendering was excellent, beautiful and thrilling. Nevertheless, I recognized most of the small segments of each of the composers original works that had been remastered. This could have been done manually without the aid of a computer but with much more work (except perhaps for the writing of the program) and when a student of piano as a boy in England I was expected to dissect the structures of certain composers and re-arrange into a new composition.

    Despite the sadness of many people at this achievement, I found it relives the composers joy of the original compositions. The segments are still the original compositions of the composer that have been reorganized and indeed could have been done this way by the composers themselves.

    Depite not having been writen exactly as Beethoven or Chopin composed them, the heart and soul of the composers still shine through the pieces and this is why Cope deserves all our congratulations. It is as if the composers were still with us today.

    Posted April 27, 2006 at 5:05 pm | Permalink