Skip to content

Grading Your Soul on a Curve

March 2, 2010

Off to New York City this week – always good for my creativity to be exposed to Culcha for a while.  Seeing The Pride, Venus in Fur and Present Laughter – wanted to see Next Fall but ay caramba the prices for a Broadway play.  Going to the Bronzino exhibit at the Met, Tim Burton at MoMA, Jane Austen at the Morgan, and the new and improved USS Intrepid because, well, because big planes and ships and shit are cool.  I always feel more motivated after exposure to other people’s work to do my own, and I really need to get out of this rut I’m in. 

I hate speaking in the artificial languages, the lingua francas of business or motivation or Oprah, but I feel like maybe I’ve “lost my passion” – I’m not abandoning the book but I don’t burn with desire to do it, to see it done, to force my new world upon the public and make them love it (and me).  I’m engaged with the research, with the subject, but not so much with the awful ugly painful lonely mess of writing fiction. 

As I’ve mentioned before recently, maybe I do need to try and sell it the “traditional” way – to have the mechanisms of publishing to kickstart the work, to have a firm deadline, a guarantee of some audience – even if only my editor, and a check for it, if no other reward, something that gets more appealing every time the threat of temporary unemployment rears its head.  I don’t feel the need I used to feel to see my name in lights; I’ve disabused myself of the notion that becoming a “noted author” or even just a famous one would fix my life; I know that writing novels pays for shit unless you’re cranking out Pattersonia.  So I feel like an actor, asking a nonexistent director, “where’s my motivation?”  Ars gratia artis isn’t filling my “soul” with inspiration either.

Speaking of soul, this article has got a lot of press lately (I’d never heard of Miller-McCune before this, had you?).  Years ago, UC Santa Cruz professor David Cope created a music-composing AI called “Emmy,” who “produced thousands of scores in the style of classical heavyweights, scores so impressive that classical music scholars failed to identify them as computer-created.”  But being a professor of music who’d built a composer program that, if not a Mozart, was at least a Salieri, was no easy life, and, tired of the pressure from his fellow musicologists, Cope eventually “killed” Emmy, deleting most of the code that comprised her.

Now he’s back with “Emily,” a more advanced iteration that is also producing squawks of indignation from those who firmly believe in the separation of the Church of Art and the State of Science.  But how Cope created the original AI is a fascinating look into how, whether we acknowledge it or not, our own creativity is not the ineffable gift of a Muse from On High, but a codifiable process (underlining mine):

Cope emptied Santa Cruz’s libraries of books on artificial intelligence, sat in on classes and slowly learned to program. He built simple rules-based software to replicate his own taste, but it didn’t take long before he realized the task was too difficult. He turned to a more realistic challenge: writing chorales (four-part vocal hymns) in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach, a childhood favorite. After a year’s work, his program could compose chorales at the level of a C-student college sophomore. It was correctly following the rules, smoothly connecting chords, but it lacked vibrancy. As AI software, it was a minor triumph. As a method of producing creative music, it was awful.

Cope wrestled with the problem for months, almost giving up several times. And then one day, on the way to the drug store, Cope remembered that Bach wasn’t a machine — once in a while, he broke his rules for the sake of aesthetics. The program didn’t break any rules; Cope hadn’t asked it to.

The best way to replicate Bach’s process was for the software to derive his rules — both the standard techniques and the behavior of breaking them. Cope spent months converting 300 Bach chorales into a database, note by note. Then he wrote a program that segmented the bits into digital objects and reassembled them the way Bach tended to put them together.

The results were a great improvement. Yet as Cope tested the recombinating software on Bach, he noticed that the music would often wander and lacked an overall logic. More important, the output seemed to be missing some ineffable essence.

Again, Cope hit the books, hoping to discover research into what that something was. For hundreds of years, musicologists had analyzed the rules of composition at a superficial level. Yet few had explored the details of musical style; their descriptions of terms like “dynamic,” for example, were so vague as to be unprogrammable. So Cope developed his own types of musical phenomena to capture each composer’s tendencies — for instance, how often a series of notes shows up, or how a series may signal a change in key. He also classified chords, phrases and entire sections of a piece based on his own grammar of musical storytelling and tension and release: statement, preparation, extension, antecedent, consequent. The system is analogous to examining the way a piece of writing functions. For example, a word may be a noun in preparation for a verb, within a sentence meant to be a declarative statement, within a paragraph that’s a consequent near the conclusion of a piece.

Finally, Cope’s program could divine what made Bach sound like Bach and create music in that style. It broke rules just as Bach had broken them, and made the result sound musical. It was as if the software had somehow captured Bach’s spirit — and it performed just as well in producing new Mozart compositions and Shakespeare sonnets. One afternoon, a few years after he’d begun work on Emmy, Cope clicked a button and went out for a sandwich, and she spit out 5,000 beautiful, artificial Bach chorales, work that would’ve taken him several lifetimes to produce by hand.

Finding a way to code “humanity” into the process is pure genius in my eyes, but in the eyes of others, not so much.  In the 1980s, Emmy’s music was panned by a music critic…two weeks before its performance.  People asked to tell the difference between “J.S.” Bach and “Emmy” Bach became enraged when they turned out to be wrong about which was the “real” Bach.  Twenty years later, the same problem is occurring with Emily:

At one Santa Cruz concert, the program notes neglected to mention that Emily Howell wasn’t a human being, and a chemistry professor and music aficionado in the audience described the performance of a Howell composition as one of the most moving experiences of his musical life. Six months later, when the same professor attended a lecture of Cope’s on Emily Howell and heard the same concert played from a recording, Cope remembers him saying, “You know, that’s pretty music, but I could tell absolutely, immediately that it was computer-composed. There’s no heart or soul or depth to the piece.”

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so absurd.  One of the leading critics of Cope’s creations (the software more so than the music) is Douglas Hofstadter of Godel, Escher, Bach fame.  Hofstadter’s argument is that

Emmy proves that “things that touch me at my deepest core — pieces of music most of all, which I have always taken as direct soul-to-soul messages — might be effectively produced by mechanisms thousands if not millions of times simpler than the intricate biological machinery that gives rise to a human soul.”

You lost me at “soul,” buddy.  I’m with Cope, who says simply,

“I can understand why it’s an issue if you’ve got an extremely romanticized view of what art is,” he says. “But Bach peed, and he shat, and he had a lot of kids. We’re all just people.”

For Cope, the musical experience is enough in itself; it doesn’t need the context of Mozart dying young or Bach’s private feelings about the Reformation or Beethoven going deaf for it to be beautiful.  I think we are looking at the last gasps of Romanticism, the idea that dying of tuberculosis somehow makes your work more interesting.

“The dots and lines on paper are merely triggers that set things off in our mind, do all the wonderful things that give us excitement and love of the music, and we falsely believe that somewhere in that music is the thing we’re feeling,” he says. “I don’t know what the hell ’soul’ is. I don’t know that we have any of it. I’m looking to get off on life. And music gets me off a lot of the time. I really, really, really am moved by it. I don’t care who wrote it.”

Future generations will be more pragmatic as, mercifully, atheism spreads and incoherent notions about intangible things like souls are set aside as useless if not pernicious.  Pragmatism will be the order of the day if we’re to survive, and music will be beautiful if it is beautiful, if it strikes the keys in our heads that play what we enjoy.  The cult of the artist is a recent invention, this notion that we need to know everything about the creator to fully appreciate their work – and, unmentioned in the flights of fancy about souls, there’s the down side, this need to know if they had any personal flaws that would force us to Denounce Them and All Their Works (Philip Larkin’s racism, Ezra Pound’s fascism, etc.), and strip them of their Great Soul medals and trophies.  Would we have to hate Bach if we found out, after all these years, that he beat his wife and kids unmercifully?  Would that rich, soully goodness Hofstadter feels listening to Bach disappear with his beatific image of the artist?

Moreover, either everybody has a soul or nobody does.  Listening to samples of Emily’s compositions on the article page, they didn’t seem any better or worse than any New Agey, Wyndham Hill composition, or a derivative, second-rate movie soundtrack, or those goddamn tinkly treacly piano bits serving as background to “inspiring true story of athlete overcoming adversity as narrated by Bob Costas,” all created by a presumably ensouled composer.  If a programmer writes a program that creates better, more original music than anything cranked out by some derivative hack “artist,” who has more soul? 

If a new Bach were to write software that could help him solve his composition problems, unleash a flood of magnificent creativity that would have been impossible without it, by what percentage would the “soul” of the work be reduced?  By what percentage do we reduce the “soul” of work not composed with quill pen on parchment but rather on a computer that can reproduce the sound of an entire orchestra in a way that only Beethoven could once hear in his head?  I think we are setting the table for the next Culture War – not the one we fight now between those for and against a civilized world, but more of a civil war within our civilized Culture, between those who would see the old sentimental approach endure, and those who “see no color” in the tools used to create art, as long as the end product is worth viewing, reading, or hearing.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: