Douglas Hofstadter

"The Surprising Prowess of an Automated Music Composer," by Douglas Hofstadter, in The Invisible Future: The Seamless Integration of Technology into Everyday Life

In the spring of 1995, I came across the book Computers and Musical Style by a professor of music at the University of California at Santa Cruz named David Cope, who built a music composition system called Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI). In its pages I noticed an EMI mazurka supposedly in the Chopin style. This strongly drew my attention because, having revered Chopin my whole life long, I felt certain that no one could pull the wool over my eyes in this department. Moreover, I knew all 50 or 60 of the Chopin mazurkas very well, having played them dozens of times on the piano and heard them even more often on recordings. So I went straight to my piano and sight-read through the EMI mazurka--once, twice, three times, and more--each time with mounting confusion and surprise. Though I felt there were a few little glitches here and there, I was impressed, for the piece seemed to express something. If I had been told a human had written it, I would have had no doubts about its expressiveness. I donít know that I would have accepted the claim that it was a newly uncovered mazurka by Chopin himself, but I would easily have believed it was by a graduate student in music who loved Chopin. It was slightly nostalgic, had a bit of Polish feeling in it, and it did not seem in any way plagiarized. It was new, it was unmistakably Chopin-like in spirit, and it was not emotionally empty.

I was truly shaken. How could emotional music be coming out of a program that had never heard a note, never lived a moment of life, never had any emotions whatsoever?

The more I grappled with this, the more disturbed I became--but also fascinated. There was a highly counterintuitive paradox here, something that obviously had caught me enormously off guard, and it was not my style to merely deny it an denounce EMI as trivial or nonmusical. To do so would have been cowardly and dishonest. I was going to face this paradox straight on, and it seemed to me that the best thing to do was to look the monster right in the face. And thus I picked up my telephone and phoned David Cope in Santa Cruz. I reached him with ease, and as he was very friendly and open, I asked him about aspects of EMIís architecture that I had not been able to glean from his book. After a lengthy and informative conversation, we made a point of agreeing to meet next time I was in California. In the meantime, I continued to grapple with this strange program that was threatening to upset the applecart that held many of my oldest and most deeply cherished beliefs about the sacredness of music, about music being the ultimate inner sanctum of the human spirit, the last thing that would tumble in AIís headlong rush toward thought, insight, and creativity.

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