The Music of Man-Computer Symbiosis

If the user can think his problem through in advance, symbiotic association with a computing machine is not necessary…One of the main aims of man-computer symbiosis is to bring the computing machine effectively into the formulative parts of technical problems. [emphasis added]

-J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960)

What does “man-computer symbiosis” sound like?  The question might conjure the vocoder or auto-tune – sonic mixtures of man and computing machine that, when functioning to augment expressivity, I’ve called hyperhuman.  When computer scientist J. C. R. Licklider wrote about the potential for “man-computer symbiosis” in 1960, however, he had something different in mind – a use of computing machines not just to help perform work, but to help formulate the work to be done.  For Licklider, man-computer symbiosis was an “expected development,” requiring major advances in computer memory, programming languages, and interfaces.  Today, it’s a reality – and it sounds like the music of David Cope and Emily Howell.

In 1980, David Cope had composer’s block.  A friend suggested he write a computer program to help him compose, Cope took the suggestion, and the result was EMI: a computer program that analyzed a composer’s “musical DNA” and produced new works in his style.

David Cope discusses EMI on Radiolab, with musical examples:

EMI was a highly sophisticated realization of an old idea: composition by algorithm, using combinatorial procedures.  Athanasius Kircher was one of the first to use combinatorial procedures to mechanize musical composition.  In 1650, he described a box containing wooden strips covered with sequences of numbers and rhythmic values; by selecting and combining sequences on these strips according to Kircher’s rules, anyone – even those with no musical knowledge – could compose a hymn in four-part counterpoint.  Kircher called this box his “arca musarithmica,” or “music-making ark,” and presented it at as a musical marvel to astound his royal patrons.

Kircher's music-making ark

In the eighteenth century, composers turned composition by algorithm into a popular diversion by publishing musical fragments together with instructions for their combination into pieces.   In 1757, for example, C. P. E. Bach published an “Invention by which Six Measures of Double Counterpoint can be Written without a Knowledge of the Rules.”  Bach instructed readers to invent two rows of numbers with six digits each, and explained how to cross-reference these numbers with the tables of notes he provided. Following his procedure produced one of over two-hundred-billion possible short pieces of two-voice invertible counterpoint.

C. P. E. Bach, Table 2 from "Invention by which Six Measures of Double Counterpoint..."

More common were procedures involving dice, and producing brief minuets or other dance pieces.  In a musical dice game attributed to Mozart, the player roles a pair of dice to obtain a number (1-12), looks this number up on a chart to obtain another number (1-176), then cross-references this latter number with a table of 176 measures of music to identify the next measure for his 16-measure minuet.  Repeating the same procedure with 1 die and a table of 96 measures for the 16-measure trio, the player would produce 1 of over 10^29 possible minuet and trios.

Mozart's Dice Game: The iPhone App

All of these devices suggest that musical composition can be mechanized – that even human invention is essentially mechanical.  Yet in each case, one need only scratch the surface to see that machines are not participating in the “formulative parts” of musical composition.  All of the musical material has been formulated by a human composer, with constraints placed around it to enable its algorithmic recombination into acceptable new music.

Cope’s latest project, however, is different.  Cope calls EMI’s successor program Emily Howell, and the humanizing name is telling.  Cope composes with Emily Howell in a cooperative – we could say symbiotic – relationship.  As Ryan Blitstein reports:

Instead of spitting out a full score, it converses with Cope through the keyboard and mouse. He asks it a musical question, feeding in some compositions or a musical phrase. The program responds with its own musical statement. He says “yes” or “no,” and he’ll send it more information and then look at the output. The program builds what’s called an association network — certain musical statements and relationships between notes are weighted as “good,” others as “bad.” Eventually, the exchange produces a score, either in sections or as one long piece.

In Licklider’s terms: dice games and EMI mechanically extend the composer whose music they recombine; Emily Howell enables composer-computer symbiosis.  By cooperating with Emily Howell to make compositional decisions, Cope has effectively brought a computing machine into the formulative parts of technical problems.

From the album Emily Howell: From Darkness, Light



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