Tiffany Jenkins: The genius of creation requires human input

''Good artists do not pander to audience tastes, they shape it' (Getty)
''Good artists do not pander to audience tastes, they shape it' (Getty)
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RESEARCHERS who hope that an orchestra made up of robots can make sweet music will not get very far, writes Tiffany Jenkins

IN the film Amadeus – about the eighteen century composer, Mozart – there is a moment that neatly encapsulates the nature of creativity.

Antonio Salieri, the then well-recognised court composer, performs his new work. Mozart listens to the composition, repeats it from memory, critiques it, and without breaking sweat improvises an improved variation.

It is a devastating act. Salieri knows that he has witnessed the destruction of his reputation and musical pretensions, for it is the work of a genius. In comparison, he is mediocre. The experience is more grating because he believes Mozart to be immoral and an idiot. Creativity is portrayed as original and unmistakable. It appears to come from nowhere, yet seems inevitable when it does.

This idea – that genius in art is the work of an exceptional human being – has been challenged by scientists from Imperial College London, trying to find out if you need a composer to make music. They have published a paper in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, based on a study in which they conclude – somewhat prematurely and more than a little reductively - that the answer is no.

Armand Leroi from Imperial College London, professor of evolutionary developmental biology, told BBC News: “What we are trying to find out is whether you need a composer to make music.” Something else is at work, he suggested. “We don’t often think of music as evolving, but everybody knows it has a history and it has traditions.”

They ran a programme called “DarwinTunes”, created by Dr Bob MacCallum, a mosquito researcher at Imperial, where a computer produces loops of 100 tunes. Listeners scored the sounds in batches of 20 on a five-point scale running from: ‘I don’t like it’ to ‘I love it!’ The programme then ‘mated’ the top chosen loops, resulting in musical offspring from each pair – a musical take on the survival of the fittest.

These new loops were then tested again. As they progressed, the listeners – without knowing where they were in the process – preferred the more evolved music, suggesting that it improved over time. And listening to it, they are right. Nasty bleeping noise eventually morphs into jingly, pleasant sounds that are not all that bad. But that is all they are – just all right. The tunes are neither offensive, nor memorable, and hardly up to the standard of anything on iTunes.

The researchers acknowledge that the music is nothing special, and yet they seem eager to trumpet the death of the composer. “This is all the stuff that is familiar from our understanding of the biological world, but we see it here in music as well. It tells us,” Leroi declared, “that you can evolve music without a composer” and that “market forces – consumer choice – is itself a creative force”.

It would appear that certain scientists think they can unlock and replicate artistic creation. They are not alone. There is the cutely named RobOrchestra, where a group of robots play together and whose researchers hope that they will soon create sweet music. RobOrchestra can carry a tune, but like chimpanzees painting and monkeys writing books, they don’t get very far. They certainty won’t come up come up with the next Don Giovanni. In truth, with DarwinTunes, or the performing robots, there is no danger of any contemporary composer losing their job. These attempts to replicate the process of creation fail to see that composition requires human beings – exceptional individuals – and society.

Consider Leroi’s theory of consumer choice as a driver. For a start, new great work is usually unexpected and often received critically as it is initially antithetical to the prevailing tastes. Many innovations have been met with displeasure until a generation or two after they appear. This was never more the case than with the “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky. When premièred in Paris in May 1913, the audience – deeply shocked by the unconventional score and choreography – responded to the complex structures and dissonance by booing, throwing punches and fighting, until the police were called to restore some kind of order. Now, it’s frequently repeated on Classic FM.

Good artists do not pander to audience tastes, they shape it. Mozart is said to have taken the response of his fans seriously but reinforced the musical traits that listeners didn’t like. Further, popularity is not commonly the sole indicator of excellence. Music that does pander to a successful formula, is rarely critically acclaimed. Paradoxically, not giving the audience what they think they want, is what they want. This is the original and unpredictable aspect of creation.

Although the creative act is more than the work of one individual, the extra factor is not the market, which cannot be relied on to produce greatness; one reason why the arts benefit from philanthropy and state funding. Composers can only move a tradition forward with some level of consensus; in relation to the mood of the times. This makes it a sophisticated social activity, rather than one determined by fragmented, individual responses – which is what you get with DarwinTunes. The social and political circumstances of the early twentieth century influenced the making of The Rite of Spring as well as its reception.

This particular experiment tells us little about the act of creation. It fails to explain the great variety of musical styles, or why music sounds different today to the past. Just think of the similarities and contrasts between hip hop, chamber music and the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia – they are not the result of natural selection, nor what sells. Factor in human intervention, culture and society and you may get closer to an answer.

One individual or many, composers will always be human. Animals and birds make noises to communicate, but not for its own sake. Robots and computers do it because we programme them to. No other species produces complicated sound for no particular reason – for pleasure or pain only. No other species can take what is natural – our biology – and alter it. And that is why this experiment strikes a false note. I hope that there is no encore.