What makes music appealing to us?

This is a question that philosophers and musicologists can bullshit about ad nauseum.  And it’s a question to which David Cope has devoted a flourishing, career responding with rules and algorithms that lead to music we actually like to hear.

He began in the 1990s with machine learning.  Feed the program Chopin and it produces a romantic and dreamy piano piece with obligato left hand and rubato counter-rhythms in the right.  Not surprisingly, his greatest success was in emulating Bach, because much of Bach’s music is based on rules of harmony and counterpoint.  (I don’t need to convince you that it’s the surprises in Bach that make us marvel that a person like this could ever have existed.  Amazingly, there are moments with this kind of surprise in Cope’s Bach, but not with the richness of the original, flesh-and-blood Bach.)

computer-composition-with-linesThe next step was to stretch those classical styles to produce works that are fresh to our ears.  Here is what happens to Bach, a fugue from the album From Darkness, Light.

A larger challenge for anyone who would systemetize music is not just to produce interesting sounds but to take us on a satisfying journey, with a progression that has its own integrity and logic as well as surprises and a sense of completion at the end.  See if you think he succeeds with Land of Stone.

David Cope began in the 2000s to compose music in collaboration with Emily Howell, a name that he gave to his computer program.  (The EMI stands for Experiments in Musical Intelligence.)  These are original compositions, synthesized but emulating human rather than electronic sounds, sometimes stretching beyond can be performed on physical instruments.  The quality of his product is a tribute to Cope’s refined musical aesthetic.

Emily’s latest album is called Breathless, and my favorite track is perhaps the most conservative, called Prescience.

David Cope was born this day in 1941.


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