Mauro Lanza

The Composing Machine

In his book The Ever-ready Composer of Polonaises and Minuets, published in 1757, Johann Philipp Kirnberger created a system that allowed any amateur to compose music without having to know the techniques or rules of composition, by means of rolling dice and operating choices among a set of pre-composed measures. In 1957, Lejaren Hiller composed the Illiac Suite, probably the first piece of algorithmic music—which is almost entirely based on traditional rules, like those to be found in the treatise on counterpoint Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux.

Pierre Barbaud, pioneer of digital music in France, envisaged the computer as becoming a tool by means of which one could rapidly produce “easy-listening” music, thus having more time and resources to spend in writing “real” art music, obviously with pen and paper. In a recent interview, the French composer Pascal Dusapin declared himself horrified by the fact that a score of his student was obviously the result of a computer program: “A human being would never write so many notes!”

It seems that a recurring topos in early computer-based composition was the idea of having a dumb machine mimicking—more or less clumsily—the music created by humans. And it seems that when the same machine leaves the uneasy task of aping and starts to follow rules and paths producing results unexpected by humans, it scares them even today…

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