Ol' Blue Screen

New software lets anyone sing like Sinatra or compose like Mahler. But do we really want computers that make country-and- western stars croon on key?

"No real singer worth their salt would ever get near such a thing. This is an advanced karaoke box," Greenberg says. "The Milli Vanilli syndrome is the tip of the iceberg. You have Mick Jagger stuffing a roll of socks in their crotch. Everyone's getting silicone implants. It's part of the same continuum."

While Greenberg scoffs, others are taking the promise of true artificial musical intelligence very seriously.

Members of the Wemberley Winds, an ensemble in England, are right now preparing their pipes for a November recital at Oxford of a brand-new Gustav Mahler opera. Never mind that Mahler died 87 years ago. The score of the new version was composed entirely by a Santa Cruz computer.

And recording engineers -- even those who work with serious singers -- now use AutoTune almost as a matter of routine: "I'd say I've sold about 100 AutoTune boxes," says Ted Bahas, a salesman at Sam's Music in Nashville. "And I've sold another 130 of the AutoTune computer plug-in."

By one measure at least, David Cope, chair of the department of music at UC Santa Cruz, is the greatest composer to have ever lived. While pretenders such as Wolfgang Johannes Mozart composed fewer than 50 symphonies in a lifetime, Cope has penned 1,500. He has also written 1,500 ensemble pieces. In all, his catalog of classical compositions includes 5,000 scores of various types.

"It's really simple," says Cope, explaining his compositional technique in a dimly lit office at UCSC's Porter College. "You pull down the input menu, and what you do is you load the database. This is, in some ways, the most important part of the process. So, you load it -- or you can create a brand-new database. You don't want any mistakes in it. If you have a single mistake in a database, one wrong note, it becomes amplified in the composing process. So you will have 10 or 12 wrong notes possibly in the output, and it sounds miserable, so you have to be sure your data is absolutely correct. That's Step 1."

Cope is describing his work with the program Experiments in Musical Intelligence, "Emmy" for short, which he has used to compose most of his own massive musical oeuvre. Run the program once, and you have a brand-new Cope composition based on the style of the professor's previously composed works. Leave the machine running a few days, and you have thousands.

Like the IBM's Big Blue chess machine, Cope exploits a computer's raw number-crunching power to make a facsimile of human creative prowess. First, he dumps the several dozen compositions he wrote without the help of a computer during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s into a database, which the computer program chops up into identifiable musical segments. The computer then mines these segments for signature patterns. Having thus divined a composer's "style," it reassembles these oft-used flourishes into a new order, like letters inside a flexagon, using as a template organizational benchmarks also gleaned from the composer's earlier work.

The UCSC Orchestra last year performed a 42nd symphony of Mozart's, which, despite lacking a certain, shall we say, life, was nearly indistinguishable from the 41 such works Mozart composed before he began to decompose.

The Emmy program's uncanny ability to mirror the style of great composers earned Cope a cover story in the British magazine New Scientist last year, and dozens of Luddite editorials in British newspapers.

But like a hotel cover band that can't get anyone to listen to its original tunes, Cope has had far less luck getting his own computer oeuvre performed. This troubles Cope, because he designed the precursor to the Emmy programs during the 1980s as a way to circumvent a bad case of composer's block. Now, he says, he considers his computer to be much more than a mere compositional tool. For him, Emmy is the second member of a composing duet, a Hammerstein to his Rodgers.

By his description, one wonders if it's more a monster to his Frankenstein.
"We're in the process of creating new beings: mind-children, if you will. We are in the process of creating a new kind of life," Cope explains. "How should we feel about these beings that we bring into the world? I consider them our children."

Cope has had a difficult time convincing the musical establishment of this.
Of the 12 orchestra conductors he has sent his "Symphony No. 1383" to, none has shown any interest. They're scared, he says: "I believe that down deep inside there is a computer phobia."

Undeterred, Cope revels in the fact that he hasn't had a composer's block since the '80s. Whenever he gets stuck, he just asks Emmy for ideas.

"Before, I would be given a commission and would have to say that a piece was going to take one or two years to finish," Cope says. "Now, I say two weeks."

As accomplished as Cope's program is, its painstaking data-entry procedures and its ancient LISP programming language put it out of reach of all but the most dedicated computer-music buff.

Enter Eric Wenger, the Parisian mathematical genius poised to release the Mozart in Everyman. Wenger was already a Mac-world legend for his landscape-illustration program, Bryce -- which allows computers to paint photographlike depictions of oceans, mountains, and other images -- when he moved from Paris to a Castro District condominium a year ago.

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