Virtual Composer Creates New Music There's a mysterious new composer on the classical music scene. Her name? Emily Howell. But no one's ever seen her in person. The reason? She's a computer program created by David Cope, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Host Guy Raz speaks with Cope about his creation and gets a sneak peek at Emily's first record, which hits stores next spring.
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Virtual Composer Creates New Music

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Virtual Composer Creates New Music

Virtual Composer Creates New Music

Virtual Composer Creates New Music

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There's a mysterious new composer on the classical music scene. Her name? Emily Howell. But no one's ever seen her in person. The reason? She's a computer program created by David Cope, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Host Guy Raz speaks with Cope about his creation and gets a sneak peek at Emily's first record, which hits stores next spring.

GUY RAZ, Host:

This next story is for listener, Ross Berentine Trueluck(ph) of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He complains we haven't been featuring enough classical music on the program. So Ross, this one's for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is, of course, a majestic new composition by Emily Howell. Her modern masterpieces make her among the most technically unique composers in America. Her new album is coming out early next year, and we're giving you an exclusive listen before its release.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Professor Cope, welcome to the show.

DAVID COPE: Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

RAZ: What exactly is Emily Howell, and how does she, it work?

COPE: Well, that could be a very long answer, but simply put, it's a computer program I've written in the computer programming language LISP. And it is a program which accepts both ASCII input, that is letters from the computer keyboard, as well as musical input, and it responds to me in a collaborative way as we compose together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: We should remind people who just joined us that Emily Howell is a computer program. It is not a she. It is not a he, but you've given her this beautiful name, Emily Howell. How did you come up with that name?

COPE: The first name is a variation of a former program I spent 22 years writing called EMI or Emi, and the second name, Howell, is my middle name and my father's first name, and so that's its origination.

RAZ: So she's like your virtual wife.

COPE: Well, my wife, my real wife, wouldn't necessarily agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COPE: But at the same time, she might because I spend sometimes, she would say, a lot more time with Emily Howell than I do with her.

RAZ: So how does it work, Professor Cope? How do you actually get this computer program to make this kind of music?

COPE: I decided to use those pieces as the data sort of base for Emily Howell. So she's a sort of second generation program.

RAZ: Let's listen to another of Emily Howell's compositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: How would you describe what her music sound like?

COPE: The first piece you played was sort of quasi-tonal, and that's a very early work of hers built on databases that we sort of agreed upon, she and I. This is from "Opus Suite." It is her sort of growing into the modern music scene by, you know, me sort of coercing her to do something a little bit more challenging for the ear. So it's a bit more dissonant than one would ordinarily find, but I think it's rhythmically exciting and interesting, and it sort of pushes forward in a sort of dramatic way.

RAZ: David Cope, if you were a classical music reviewer, and you heard this music, and you had to write about it, how would you describe it?

COPE: If I were reviewing the last one, for example, I would say that it was full of drama, that the movements were about the proper length. They were impossible to play by human beings, those with three Disklaviers, computer- controlled, playing the music, and it's so difficult that no human beings, no matter how many you've got playing pianos, could possibly do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Professor Cope, the works you created with a previous program you wrote, EMI, stirred up some controversy in the music world. Critics were saying that program in some way was a threat to the sort of innate, you know, human spirit of creating music.

COPE: You know, as far as I can see, you know, computers have yet to prove in any way that they are capable of anything but following our instructions. So therefore, as far as I'm concerned, both EMI and Emily Howell are simply software programs following their instructions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Do you think that some musicians and composers might justifiably feel a little bit threatened by what you've produced?

COPE: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, in fact, I would hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COPE: I think - I don't know about threats(ph), but I think challenges and the manner in which we ask questions about what we do and where it comes from is what life is all about because, you know, I think this kind of thing is more than healthy. It's necessary for us to grow and develop as human beings.

RAZ: Professor Cope, thanks so much.

COPE: It was indeed my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: We asked David Cope if Emily Howell could come up with a variation of the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED theme, and this is what she delivered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And we'll end today's show with another piece composed by Emily Howell with a little help from David Cope.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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