Finale User Spotlight: Emily Howell

Centaur Records recently released a recording of the music of Emily Howell, featuring several tracks for multiple pianos and one for chamber orchestra. If you’re not familiar with Emily’s music or background, and have iTunes, please take a listen to a few excerpts before you read any further:

What was your first reaction? Would you like to know more about Emily before you form an opinion? Many listeners would and I wonder why that is.

At an early concert of this music, one professor in the audience described the experience as “one of the most moving experiences of his musical life.” This frustrates David Cope, a professor emeritus of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Why?

Six months later, at a lecture where recordings from that previous concert were played, it was revealed that Emily is in fact a music composition program created by the aforementioned David Cope. Upon learning this, the same professor, who had spoken so highly of Emily’s music earlier, was singing a different tune. Cope recalls him saying, “You know, that’s pretty music, but I could tell absolutely, immediately that it was computer-composed. There’s no heart or soul or depth to the piece.”

I can remember a time when music notation software was new enough that some educators wouldn’t allow its use in their composition/orchestration/arranging coursework. I suspect that debate is largely settled today. Can you imagine an English course where word processing software wasn’t allowed?

Perhaps simply out of a practical interest in job security, humans are frequently hesitant to accept that computers might do anything as well as a human. In the 1990s chess software began beating world champions. Today we accept this, but that’s chess. It’s not music composition. That’s completely different. Right?

Apparently not to David Cope. Emily Howell is not the first computer program David has written that composes music, nor the first to inspire controversy. Emily’s predecessor, Emmy (actually “EMI” for Experiments in Musical Intelligence) created thousands of scores in the style of specific classical composers. When David would ask audiences to determine which pieces, for example, were written by Bach and which were written by Emmy, many could not. And for some reason this upset people. Again I suspect the concept of job security. In contrast with Emmy, Emily Howell doesn’t attempt to imitate past masters, but instead was designed to create original contemporary classical music. Not an endeavor that I would typically associate with job security, but never mind.

While on that topic, and thinking specifically of my own job, perhaps I should mention that Emily’s music is made with the help of Finale. David explains:

“My composing programs produce MIDI files that I then use Finale to produce final scores. Since MIDI files don’t capture legato marks, etc., I have to read those from non-MIDI output as numbers and then translate these to Finale as appropriate. Finale works great for this and I’ve used it for almost two decades now.”

I’d like to thank David for his long-time support of Finale and taking the time to chat with me. I’d also like to share my opinion on computer-generated music. Personally I’m all for any kind of music, no matter how it’s created. I can’t really understand how anyone could be angered by someone making music, whether they did it by writing computer code, playing a hand-carved bamboo flute, or writing on manuscript paper with a quill pen. To me it’s all a positive act of creation.

And if the results sound good to you, even better.

On the other hand, some folks work hard at writing computer programs that automatically create spam in the form of blog comments, complete with links to commercial websites that want your business. There is some artificial intelligence at work here too – while too many comments appear simultaneously (from the same source) to be the work of a mere human, the best cleverly pull snippets of text from the blog they comment on so as to appear to be a genuine response. I make sure these never appear on the blog, but it’s not an inspirational use of time.

Want to get mad at a computer programmer whose software performs human-like tasks?  I think these folks are more deserving of harsh words than anyone trying to make music, but that’s just me.

Please let us know what you think by clicking on “Comments” below.

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