Emily Howell and UCSC professor David Cope make beautiful music together
Dried reeds, seashells, metal tubes, bells and tiny tin cans labeled “beer” jostle for space among the 200 or so wind chimes hanging from the ceiling of David Cope’s home office. One wall is lined with schemes for elaborate satellite dishes, scrawled in pencil on large sheets of tan paper. Textbooks, novels, sheet music and CDs spill from the shelves onto the cluttered floor.
“This is the sanctuary,” Cope says, negotiating a path to his desk, head bobbing from side to side to avoid the low-hanging and varied tentacles. There are chimes from every continent except Antarctica, he explains. “Some make lovely, extraordinary sounds, and some don’t.”
Cope certainly knows a thing or two about sound. He is a prolific composer and professor of music at UC Santa Cruz, where he teaches theory and composition. He has published nine books on music and says that he experiences withdrawals, depression and disorientation when he goes without hearing melody for too long. Cope’s musical resume is indeed long and noteworthy, but it is his latest endeavor with a very exceptional student that may just earn him a seat in the annals of history.
Emily Howell is by far Cope’s most fascinating pupil. She lives for music and nothing else. She composes at lightning speeds, doesn’t talk, doesn’t eat and lives in Cope’s house, spending most nights lying on his desk beneath the canopy of wind chimes.
Don’t be alarmed. Emily Howell doesn’t suffer loneliness, pain or hunger. She is a computer program, designed by Cope to analyze and write music. And write she does. Her first album, From Darkness, Light, will be released in 2010.
Cope was born in San Francisco in 1941. His mother, a “frustrated” concert pianist, had the young Cope playing piano by age 3—“as soon as I could move enough body parts,” he recalls. His first visual memory is looking up at the underside of a grand piano. A severe asthmatic, or “blue baby” as he was often called due to his oxygen-deprived, bluish pallor, Cope moved to Phoenix with his family when he was 5. Doctors said the arid climate would ease his condition and give him a better chance of living to adulthood—something they felt would be unlikely were he to stay in the Bay Area.
Growing up, Cope excelled at music, but pursued many other interests. His dream, he says, acknowledging the drawings on the wall, was to be a radio astronomer. “But I had no choice. The music was in my bones and my body, and no matter how hard I resisted I was a musician from day one.” An avid chess player, Cope says he has “always wanted to be able to create a game as good as chess. I know I’ll never succeed, but it’s a great deal of fun trying.” He also claims to write pulp detective novels under a pseudonym, which he won’t reveal. Some have even been published, he says.
“I don’t sleep much,” he explains with a wry smile.
The process was painstaking. Cope first had to turn compositions into numbers, something the room-sized computers he was working with could understand. He used punch cards to communicate with the machines and received punch cards in return. “Frankly,
I don’t remember having a screen,” he says. “It was really tough.”
Mother of Reinvention
In 1975, while Cope was in the process of writing a book on computer music composition, it occurred to him that he would like to use computers to better understand his own compositions. To prove to himself that he understood the underlying mathematics of his music, he set out to create a program that could analyze his music, recognize an underlying algorithm—a set of rules or guiding principles—and create compositions based upon that algorithm. “I want to know consciously what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” Cope says. “An algorithm is a way of being very careful and lucid about one’s artistic creativity.”
The process was painstaking. Cope first had to turn compositions into numbers, something the room-sized computers he was working with could understand. He used punch cards to communicate with the machines and received punch cards in return. “Frankly, I don’t remember having a screen,” he says. “It was really tough.”
Over the next five years he continued to tinker with the process. It became easier as he got better at writing code and as computer technology progressed, but it was not until 1980, after Cope was commissioned to write an opera and encountered a stifling case of composer’s block, that he pursued the project seriously. He knew the solution to his creative hurdle lay in his work with computers. He began Experiments in Musical Intelligence, or Emmy, which he lovingly refers to as Emily Howell’s mother.
For seven years, Cope chipped away at Emmy. Initially, the music generated by the computer was unsatisfactory. But the more data he plugged into Emmy, from composers like Bach, Mozart and eventually himself, the better Emmy’s suggestions became. Slowly but surely, as he refined his method, and as Emmy listened to more classical compositions, she began to deliver the kind of music Cope wanted written.
To accomplish this, Cope used a programming language called Lisp, which is an improper acronym for “list processing.” Lisp is one of the oldest programming languages still in use today and is the most popular language used by developers of artificial intelligence. Following the Lisp protocol, Cope turned musical compositions by his favorite composers into a series of five numbers—each number representing a unique musical feature: when a note is to begin, the pitch of the note, how long that pitch will last, the tambour of the note, and the note’s volume.
Using these groups of five numbers, or “parameters,” Cope mapped entire musical compositions and entered them into Emmy’s database. Considering that each parameter only accounts for one note, and that there are multiple notes in a chord and thousands of chords played in succession throughout any given composition, one can begin to understand how long it must have taken to enter an entire symphony into Emmy’s database.
“With Emily Howell, my dream was to create a composer with a novel contemporary style a unique, contemporary style all of her own.”
One fateful day in 1987, Cope threw away most of the work he had done on the opera over the previous seven years and put Emmy to work. The new opera literally wrote itself in two hours, much shorter than the two weeks he spent afterward transposing the music.
The professor had faith that his project would bear fruit all along, though looking back he is not sure why. “I felt completely liberated,” he says of completing the opera with the aid of Emmy, which he estimates wrote nearly 60 percent of the music for his commission. “The 40 percent that came from me was inspired by what came from the computer.”
Some might find it ironic that Cope spent seven years writing a program to write for him, instead of buckling down and finishing the opera himself, but he doesn’t look at it that way.
“… Emily Howell is just another recombinator. It recombines
elements of pieces in its databases based on rules. It is exactly how human beings compose, though they don’t want to admit it. They think they are doing something magic, something new, but in reality they’re recombining notes and motifs used before.” —David Cope
“Computers don’t think for themselves,” he says, noting that Emmy was only doing what he had programmed it to do. “It saved me a lot of time. It was writing music faster than it takes to play the music it wrote.”
Emmy composed 1,000 published pieces of music before Cope effectively put her to rest by deleting the library of classical compositions Emmy referenced to create her pieces. Taking the time to recreate Emmy’s entire musical database would take months. Plus, it makes Emmy’s work limited and rare, in a sense, which encourages orchestras to play her works. “Why play this sonata in Mozart style when there are 1,000 that could be composed tomorrow?” Cope asks hypothetically. “Humans like rare things. That’s why we give gold, silver and bronze medals.”
The most significant result of Emmy’s passing, however, was her successor.
Emily Howell—who takes her name first name from her mother, Emmy, and Cope’s father, Howell—is a second-generation computer composer. “With Emily Howell, my dream was to create a composer with a novel contemporary style,” Cope says, “a unique, contemporary style all of her own.”
Whereas Emmy was built to produce entire pieces of music on command, Cope works collaboratively with his new program, having her listen to the works of Emmy and telling her what he likes and dislikes. In a typical session with Emily Howell, Cope will have the program analyze a particular phrase or chord progression from one of Emmy’s compositions. The program will then rearrange what it just heard. If Cope likes what he hears, he “applauds” by signaling his approval with a key command. If he dislikes what Emily Howell has created, he will “boo” with another key command.
“I like to think of her as a cat,” Cope muses, noting that he has to coax Emily Howell to produce the desired result. “You order her around, and sometimes she’ll do it and sometimes she won’t.”
Over time, just as a human composer remembers which works were well received and which works were not, Emily Howell has developed a style according to Cope’s taste. “The pieces that finally come out are pieces that I like but never could have composed on my own,” he says. “There’s only one criteria: Emily Howell must please me!”
Critics of Cope and his creations may scoff at what he is doing. Some may see it as a mere collage of previous works, not something truly original.
“Nothing is new under the sun,” Cope responds. “Everything is a recombination of everything else. The universe is built that way. … Emily Howell is just another recombinator. It recombines elements of pieces in its databases based on rules. It is exactly how human beings compose, though they don’t want to admit it. They think they are doing something magic, something new, but in reality they’re recombining notes and motifs used before.”
Others may view it as a cold and inhuman method of creating music—lacking a vital essence.
Cope can understand the objection to taking humans out of the picture entirely. However, he is quick to note that he always prefers to have Emily Howell’s compositions played by human performers. “Computers play music with such precision that it often sounds dry, artificial. I like the warmth that human beings bring to music.”
That said, Cope sees nothing wrong with the formulaic nature of Emily Howell’s writing process. “Every composition contains rules,” he says. “Following those rules can create new compositions. No composition’s rules are so finite that they describe only that composition. If one can discover what those rules are, then one following those rules should be able to create compositions that sound different than the composition analyzed. … Everything we do and interact with is composed of recombinations of the elements produced in the Big Bang.”
Ultimately, some working musicians may simply see Emily Howell as a threat, an objection Cope simply can’t relate to.
“Emmy and Emily Howell put one composer back in business again,” he says with a smirk. “Me.”