David Cope is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz (my alma mater). In a segment on Radio Lab over the weekend, he described an extraordinary project he began in 1981 when he was suffering from a serious case of composer’s block. After a conversation with a computer scientist, Cope developed the idea that it might be possible to use the computational power of a computer to identify the essential DNA of his compositional style and then aid him in assembling the opera he hoped to write.
A program called EMI, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, was the result of that effort. The description of how this “tool” works is fascinating. While he originally intended to use it for help with his own musical development, he quickly saw its potential to parse and uncover the patterning in all music.
The first results of this effort seemed lifeless to Cope. But with tweaking and adjustments, the results became quite extraordinary. It seems that there is a signature in the structure of a composition, and that signature can be used for propagation.
In Cope’s words:
My idea was that every work of music contains a set of instructions for creating different but highly related replications of itself. These instructions, interpreted correctly, can lead to interesting discoveries about musical structure as well as, hopefully, create new instances of stylistically-faithful music.
My rationale for discovering such instructions was based, in part, on the concept of recombinancy. Recombinancy can be defined simply as a method for producing new music by recombining extant music into new logical successions…recombinancy appears everywhere as a natural evolutionary and creative process. All the great books in the English language, for example, are constructed from recombinations of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Similarly, most of the great works of Western art music exist as recombinations of the twelve pitches of the equal-tempered scale and their octave equivalents. The secret lies not in the invention of new letters or notes but in the subtlety and elegance of their recombination.
Of course, simply breaking a musical work into smaller parts and randomly combining them into new orders almost certainly produces gibberish. Effective recombination requires extensive musical analysis and very careful recombination to be effective at even an elemental level no less the highly musical level of which I dreamed.
(The Radio Lab link above offers samples of music written using EMI by Cope as well as compositions “inspired” by the elemental DNA of Bach and other composers.)
This provokes my sense of what is signatory in art as well. Peter Schjeldahl wrote a piece in the New Yorker several years ago that has haunted me ever since. While suffering from dementia at the end of his life, de Kooning was still painting elementally de Kooning works. Which causes one to ask, where does style reside anyway? (I have also pondered the claim of neurologists who say a brain damaged person in the West can sing the happy birthday ditty even if they cannot speak or recognize their family members.) Researchers have tried to identify the fractal-like DNA of a Jackson Pollock painting—not without controversy, however—or those other small tells that end up determining the authenticity of a work of art.
On a more personal level, can you spot the signatory patterns in your own work? Looking back at my early efforts I see all sorts of patterns, proclivities, inclinations and tendencies that feel familiar to me now. Cope’s approach is scientific and my judgment is subjective, but the question is still floating for me.