Emily is a lousy composer, I'm so glad to say.

Emily is a lousy composer, I'm so glad to say.


norman lebrecht

October 23, 2009

News that a computer boffin in California had successfully manufactured a simulacrum of ‘classical music’ was of such overwhelming importance that I was asked to analyse it on BBC Newsnight, while the leader of the British National Party was contentiously being given parity time on another channel.

To my relief and delight, the musical samples obtained from Professor David Cope at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were of such derivative transparency and inventive poverty that the project fizzled out before our ears. Professor Cope calls his computer golem ‘Emily Howell’ and believes that, after 40 years, she can finally compose good music.

Of the ten samples I heard, one was a pastiche of Rachmaninov, others of Schumann, Scriabin, Chopin, Debussy, early Schoenberg and Terry Riley. Not one original or ear-catching phrase in the whole batch. Strung together, they might make a template for the soundtrack of a very low budget B-movie. As music, let alone ‘classical’ music, they are aesthetically null and void.

The relief I felt on reaching this conclusion was immense. Just imagine if the computer had written real music, a structured piece that could arrest the attention and affect the emotions. The day that happens – and I don’t believe it will – human life will cease on earth because our last cognitive functions will have been taken over by machines.

Computers can already do all sorts of things that the average mind cannot – my tax returns, for instance. What they are unable to achieve without human instigation is to originate art and ideas. They cannot move us in ways that art does or inspire us in a spiritual manner. That remains the realm of real music. That’s where the composer will always beat the computer.

Mark Lawson, in the Guardian this morning, appears to reach the same conclusion. 


  • M Villeger says:

    Sounds like the Sci Fi series that trecks in supposed XXIVth century in which the only “classical” music the android robot can muster is from the XX century and earlier… Nothing of the XXIInd century for instance…

  • Eric Sogge says:

    What’s new in all this? Philip Glass years ago claimed this sort of thing as his very own. He no doubt resents the professor’s poaching on his preserves.

  • Ricardo says:

    I can’t help being reminded of Stanislaw Lem’s “Electrobard” chapter in his wonderful novel “The Cyberiad”. Read it if you haven’t, and you’ll see what I mean. The advantage of The Electrobard is that it is funny. This experiment with Emily, on the other hand, does not strike me as funny in any way.