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THE COMBINIST

February 2019

In a previous blog I have already talked about inspiration, and what exactly it is, and how you recognize it. It is a strange phenomenon: difficult to describe, but at the same time indispensable for composing. And now that artificial intelligence is slowly but surely starting to make music (for example, there is an application that finishes classical music that the composer has never been able to complete), it becomes quite a mystery: do computers actually need inspiration or is it indeed 'just' an arithmetic process?

For me, composing music is like traveling to an unknown destination without a map (or navigation). You don't know where you will end up, nor how you should get there. You only know when you arrive where you have been going all along. Of course you recognize a landscape here and there, or a house, or a road - but there is no point in hanging there: you have to go somewhere where no one has been before. You hope that place exists, but you don't know for sure. Sometimes it turns out to be a bit disappointing, and you come home disappointed. If that place appears to be there, you will never want to leave.

In theory, every song, every symphony already exists: it is the combination of every conceivable tone, timbre, tempo / rhythm and phrasing / dynamics that determines the identity of the composition. There are countless possibilities, most of which I don't think are to be heard. The composer, the name says it all, therefore only composes from the available resources. He combines them, combines them. You could just as well call him or her a combiner. One combiner combines this, the other slightly different in a different way. But he draws on available resources, data, data. That is already quite close to an arithmetic process, from which AI functions.

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Then the pressing question arises: what actually makes a human composer better than a computer? And, worse, is that really the case? And who determines that? If the computer suddenly introduces an electric guitar when completing a Schubert symphony, we assume the thing is incorrectly programmed. If a living person would think of that, he would be either a bad craftsman or he would consciously break a code - and that breaking accepted codes and conventions is often the basis of renewing an art form.

I must also note that there are certainly people who compose worse (or perhaps I should say: less appealing) than a computer. Of course the A-musicians among us, but also certain professional brothers who will never learn it. And I fear that as technology progresses, there will be fewer and fewer people composing 'better' than their artificial colleagues. At some point they will understand why something works or not, emotionally then. That will also be an algorithm. I doubt whether the AIs will ever reach the level of Bach. And perhaps Bach was nothing but an extraordinary mathematical genius, who may not have invented quantum theory, but transformed what he did discover in the universe into tones, timbre, tempo and dynamics. Exactly all those things that can move us ordinary mortals - in contrast to quantum theory, which never moved me to tears.

Speaking of Bach and other genius composers such as Mozart: although I can write quite a nice tune every now and then, I really feel like a toddler to them with his first block box next to a structural engineer. It is almost impossible to comprehend the amount of nuts they have written down in their sometimes short existence. It would take a normal person a lifetime to just write it down, let alone think of it (and that without a computer and other tools). I sometimes wonder what Bach and his associates would have written today. Do they actually still exist, these kinds of musical giants? We may not recognize them, just as Bach and Mozart did not have the status they have today. Or would they just be busy developing computer programs, which… well, never mind.