by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

As a classical concert pianist, I was depressed to read your posting about computer-generated classical music “every bit as good as the originals.” For starters, it wouldn’t hurt to be suspicious of qualitative aesthetic statements posing as scientific assertions Which originals? Good in what sense? According to whom?

I took a listen to EMI’s “Symphony in the Style of Mozart” and “Sonata in the Style of Beethoven.” Give me a break. Did you ask any professional musician friends to weigh in on this story before you linked to it? The Beethoven is a pale (and obvious) rip-off of the “Moonlight” Sonata, with the harmonies reconfigured. The Mozart is a inspiration-free classical style exercise, scales and harmonies in place, but absolutely none of the delicate synthesis of opposites and quirks that characterize Mozart. EMI (and Cope) are rearranging deck chairs on the ships of giants. It so happens that some aspects of the High Classical Style (1770-1820ish) lend themselves well to algorithm and mathematical understanding, especially in hindsight; but of course not all, and that last’s kind of important. To say that these are “as good as the originals” is silly, like saying a EZ Bake Oven is just as good as a Viking Range.

Unfortunately, we know stovels better than we know music, as a whole. It doesn’t prove anything that some audience members cannot tell the difference between EMI and Mozart: the type of thinking about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven that is required to appreciate their real inspirations, their profound shocks, their revolutions in tones: many audience members aren’t there, in the same way (for instance) that many people--myself included--cannot fathom all the nuances of health care policy. They recognize a certain sound and stylishness, in the same way many people respond to superficial talking points.

The Blitstein article you link to is full of dubious and inaccurate music-writing. For instance, talking about the nature of the composing process:

"...the most likely explanation, Cope believes, is that music comes from other works composers have heard, which they slice and dice subconsciously and piece together in novel ways. How else could a style like classical music last over three or four centuries?"

Well, the first bit of this quote is simply Musicology 101. Really, composers take things they have heard and rework them in novel ways?!? This is not a revelation, or a belief; it is just an obvious fact of any kind of writing (music, text) or any creative process at all. And the second bit of this quote “a style like classical music”made me want to stick a fork in my brain, made it obvious that the writer is (to put it politely) not knowledgeable about what we call classical music (for want of a better term). What style are you talking about? The style of Mozart? Or the style of Tchaikovsky? Or Josquin? We’re talking about hundreds of years of humans notating music, the massive Western heritage of humans communicating through music; it is not remotely a single style, it is an incredible evolving kaleidoscope of style and thought, even though it all basically gets dumped in the same section in the modern record store (such as it is).

Let’s concede the point that the human notion of originality has some element of cult in it, and some portion of what we call the creative can be easily simulated by the modern computer. It is fascinating to see what elements of creativity computers can ape, or hasten. But, Daily Dish, don’t aid and abet journalists who want to dupe us with naive broad-brush statements; why not have a real musical expert talk about EMI or Emily Howell? I notice a conspicuous absence of fellow musicologists or musicians in the Blitstein article, people who have devoted their lives to studying Mozart, Beethoven, etc. How come he didn’t talk to (for instance) Charles Rosen or Joseph Kerman or Richard Taruskin? I think the answer is obvious. The writer is nervous that the “hook” of the article (The Computer Mozart!!!) would be revealed as the total BS that it is.

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