The office looks like the aftermath of a surrealistic earthquake, as if David Cope’s brain has spewed out decades of memories all over the carpet, the door, the walls, even the ceiling. Books and papers, music scores and magazines are all strewn about in ragged piles. A semi-functional Apple Power Mac 7500 (discontinued April 1, 1996) sits in the corner, its lemon-lime monitor buzzing. Drawings filled with concepts for a never-constructed musical-radio-space telescope dominate half of one wall. Russian dolls and an exercise bike, not to mention random pieces from homemade board games, peek out from the intellectual rubble. Above, something like 200 sets of wind chimes from around the world hang, ringing oddly congruent melodies.
And in the center, the old University of California, Santa Cruz, emeritus professor reclines in his desk chair, black socks pulled up over his pants cuffs, a thin mustache and thick beard lending him the look of an Amish grandfather.
It was here, half a dozen years ago, that Cope put Emmy to sleep. She was just a software program, a jumble of code he’d originally dubbed Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI, hence “Emmy”). Still — though Cope struggles not to anthropomorphize her — he speaks of Emmy wistfully, as if she were a deceased child.
Emmy was once the world’s most advanced artificially intelligent composer, and because he’d managed to breathe a sort of life into her, he became a modern-day musical Dr. Frankenstein. She produced thousands of scores in the style of classical heavyweights, scores so impressive that classical music scholars failed to identify them as computer-created. Cope attracted praise from musicians and computer scientists, but his creation raised troubling questions: If a machine could write a Mozart sonata every bit as good as the originals, then what was so special about Mozart? And was there really any soul behind the great works, or were Beethoven and his ilk just clever mathematical manipulators of notes?
Cope’s answers — not much, and yes — made some people very angry. He was so often criticized for these views that colleagues nicknamed him “The Tin Man,” after the Wizard of Oz character without a heart. For a time, such condemnation fueled his creativity, but eventually, after years of hemming and hawing, Cope dragged Emmy into the trash folder.
This month, he is scheduled to unveil the results of a successor effort that’s already generating the controversy and high expectations that Emmy once drew. Dubbed “Emily Howell,” the daughter program aims to do what many said Emmy couldn’t: create original, modern music. Its compositions are innovative, unique and — according to some in the small community of listeners who’ve heard them performed live — superb.
Sample of Emily Howell — Track 1
Sample of Emily Howell — Track 2
With Emily Howell, Cope is, once again, challenging the assumptions of artists and philosophers, exposing revered composers as unknowing plagiarists and opening the door to a world of creative machines good enough to compete with human artists. But even Cope still wonders whether his decades of innovative, thought-provoking research have brought him any closer to his ultimate goal: composing an immortal, life-changing piece of music.