The creative ghost in the machine.

We writers spend so much time trying to be original. It’s not just for our sake so we can flatter our egos and point ostentatiously back at how unique we are. We also do it because we like to think we are dreamers. We look at the world outside and reconfigure it in new ways inside to bring it back out in the form of art so others can enjoy it and share in our dream. It’s so human that nothing could replicate it. Creativity is ours and ours alone. We paint the Mona Lisas and we write the sonnets. We also make the music… until Emmy came along. Emmy, and its new version, Emily Howell, are programs that create new, original music designed by Professor David Cope. The first program baffled people by creating songs indistinguishable from Bach original pieces, inciting an enraged uproar. Now, the second version is out and creating even more inspired pieces that you can find clips of in the link along with a lengthy and interesting article. In that article you will find what I’ve said multiple times: creativity is recombination of existing elements. Yet, it is recombination with a soul, isn’t it? Does the program feel the music or the thrill of making something new? Probably not but you have to give it credit. It recombines the way a DNA synthesizer recombines, coldly and with precision but creating products that are still beautiful. I think this demonstrates how we too are like the machine. We take everything we’ve seen and heard and process it; yet we do it because we love it, because it compels us whereas Emily Howell does it because Professor Cope hits the start button yet the results are still stunning. How does it know to put the notes in such an order as to evoke emotion? Are our emotions so transparent that we can be triggered to feel something based solely on an algorithm? What does this mean for the music industry if a machine can make music that sounds more genuine and heart-felt than most of the human musicians populating the Billboard charts? Whatever the case, I look forward to a machine that creates because it shares the human love of creating something new, something no one has seen or heard before.

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4 Comments on “The creative ghost in the machine.”

  1. jonvagg Says:

    Well, we humans are known for having emotional responses to all kinds of stimuli – sunsets, birdsong, etc. as well as music, art and literature. We’re also good at finding/interpreting meaning in things that might otherwise be regarded as random (star constellations and astrology are often held as examples).
    It’s no surprise that a programme can replicate what we might recognise as Bach’s style, because that music is relatively rule-driven; it might even be able to replicate much more tricky and apparently random stuff like Stockhausen.
    But perhaps the key is in the programming; it’s the difference between a musician having to take a year to write a piece on paper, or a year to write a programme that will churn out a hundred pieces – in that sense we’re looking at the ability to produce music on an ‘industrial’ scale (without it sounding like industrial music, which I’ll own up to being a fan of).
    I can’t help feeling the issue can be taken back to the ‘programming’ one of the artistic vision coming from the choices made in the programming – until the programmes become heuristic, of course…


    • Industrial music is pretty great. Front Line Assembly has shown some amazing evolution in style over the course of their career.

      But getting back to the post: I think the amazing thing here is not just our ability to find patterns and meanings in things but for a machine to duplicate or create a semblance of purpose behind the tones without any purpose being there. What’s more, any program can randomize notes and chords but this actually puts them into a unified whole to make an original song which is quite impressive. It reminds me of the philosophical zombie question of whether something that displays signs of being alive is really alive or not. Of course this computer program is not sentient but its ability to replicate a process that usually requires sentience and emotion is cause for reflection. Though you pose an interesting observation on what role the programmer plays in the machine’s stylistic choices. I guess it’ll be a while before we know if a machine can have a musical preference. Wouldn’t it be comical if it had a dislike of techno and synthesizer music?

  2. jonvagg Says:

    In the area I’m most familiar with, literature, a distinction is sometimes made between ‘writerly’ and ‘readerly’ perspectives.
    A writerly perspective starts from the idea that the writer of a text ‘means something’ or is trying to ‘convey a message’ and the job of the reader is to work out the meaning.
    A ‘readerly’ perspective starts from the proposition that humans construct meaning for themselves and the ‘meaning’ of a piece of writing is whatever sense a reader makes of it, irrespective of the intentions of any writer.
    With writers who are human, both scenarios are possible at the same time. Presumably writers write something because they are trying to tell a story, convey a message, etc. But the sense that readers make of any given piece is, unfortunately perhaps, constructed entirely independently of the writer’s intention. This is so even if the reader is operating on the principle that they’re interpreting what was written on the basis of trying to work out ‘what was really meant’.
    Large chunks of cognitive and linguistic psychology and sociology address this issue, with the original work in the field being things like Saussure’s ‘Course in General Linguistics’ (1916) and George Herbert Mead’s ‘Mind, Self and Society’ (1934) – both still widely read as key studies in this area.
    You may of course know this stuff intimately and I may be telling you something you already know. But it does suggest that the perception of beauty would be something entirely on the human side of the process as ‘receivers’ of the music. And we do respond to deliberately random stimuli – consider for example the discussions of what pop lyrics ‘mean’ in relation to songs where the lyrics were created through random cut-up processes.
    You say ‘are our emotions so transparent that we can be triggered to feel something on the basis of an algorithm’. I think the answer to that has to be yes, at least in some circumstances. That’s why the psychologists who design the placement of products in stores and the choice of music in them are among the highest paid in their profession! Maybe a way to proceed with this line of thought is to look in the detail – what types of emotion, what triggers, what situations, and how would you create an algorithm – as an equation or as code – in a meaningful way?

  3. jonvagg Says:

    Just to follow up on the idea of machine consciousness: today (30 March) Yahoo (and no doubt other search sites) is carrying a Sky News story ‘Problems Hit New Search For ‘God Particle’.
    This relates to malfunctions in the Large Hadron Collider, which in some quarters is believed capable of creating black holes that could swallow the Earth if it succeeds in getting protons to collide.
    The story concludes: ‘Conspiracy theorists claim the machine is aware of its own power and is deliberately breaking down to avoid the destruction of the universe.’


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