An essayistic contemplation on humanity and artificial creativity in Opus Cope: An Algorithmic Opera (2021)
Before Chat GPT and Midjourney, there was Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI); and before Elon Musk and AI-art generator-prompters, there was David Cope. In his charmingly dizzying feature documentary, Opus Cope: An Algorithmic Opera, filmmaker Jae Shim leads us into the world and mind of David Cope, the creator of the world’s first AI-generated opera and a polymathic classical music composer and pioneer of artificial creativity. The film premiered in October 2021 at Decibels Music Film Festival, and had its first theatrical screening in a limited two-day special series in late March this year at Laemmle Theater in Glendale, Los Angeles. In the dim theater prior to the start of the screening, I overheard a small group of industry people and a TV writer directly behind me quietly and enthusiastically exchange jokes about a future where they were replaced by creative AIs. Although not ostensibly addressing the portentous or fortuitous future AI might hold for us, Opus Cope resurfaces a piece of history that clearly strikes a nerve today.
Shim is less interested in these debates, however, than spending as much time as possible with our protagonist — most prominently in his cramped study from the ceiling from which hangs about 200 wind chimes of different shapes and materials. The entirety of the film’s visuals consists of current-day interviews and vérité footage filmed over the span of 5 years, and use of the archives consists extensively and effectively of audio recordings mixed by the Emmy-nominated sound designer and editor Mike James Gallagher. As much as Cope deserves a documentary that details his life’s works — in music and physics (he is also a radio astronomer) — and reclaims his contributions and legacies into mainstream consciousness, Shim defies such framing, focusing instead on the concurrent creative and scholarly pursuits of his protagonist nowadays. Whether or not the briefness of historical footage and small pool of interviewees in comparison to other films in the same category is a deliberate choice, the result is a poetic immersion in the restless, and whimsically self-contained world of Cope in search of novelty and creativity.
Cope’s love of wind chimes
Despite an influential figure in a field that engages academia, popular culture and the common working class, David Cope is correctly introduced by the film as someone we might not know much about. Yet the film does not wallow in lengthy accolades and backstories. The opening sequence places us in the archives consisting of newspaper clippings featuring Cope and cassette tapes labeled “EMI” — Experiments in Musical Intelligence. This is what Cope has been mostly known for over the past 30 plus years. In the early 1980s, he was a young and promising classical music composer being tasked with writing an opera. Suffering from writer’s block, in 1981, Cope began to feed musical notes into his computer in search for a creative partner. The process is explained by Cope’s long-time confidante and editor Keith Muscutt through a detailed flow chart. For someone who knows little about coding, the overall idea seems simple enough: first, Cope would quantify the elements of a piece of music, such as the pitch, the duration, placement in a musical piece; then, he would create databases of distinct musical sequences using these smaller set of data; the set of numbers in the database would then be reassembled and recombined to create a complete piece, before being exported into a MIDI file. I don’t know how programming works, but assume there would be some algorithms that can help with coding and assorting all the musical notes and meta data, except that in the 1980s, Cope did everything manually. The mere thought of sitting by the desk typing for hours each day for months inspired awe.
Out of this repetitive motion arose Cope’s most famous creation: Emmy — the name Cope endearingly uses for his cybernetic partner. Strikingly similar to how we talk to Chat GPT today, Cope interacts with Emmy via a chat window on his personal computer; and like how Chat GPT has and continues to stir suspicion and apprehensions from the public and the creative professionals, Emmy’s music was not well-received. Muscutt has been one of the few staunch supporters of Cope, serving as a spokesperson for Cope and articulates what Cope himself could not on the implications and significance of his algorithmic practice. On the other side is Bernard Greenberg, a classical musician and polymath intellectual who represents the oppositional view that great music, like any great work of art, can only be produced by beings with souls. Therefore, there will forever be a fundamental difference between Bach’s music and Emmy’s Bach-like music. The twist occurs when Greenberg, while playing segments of real Bach chorales to demonstrate to the camera their distinctly human quality, accidentally begins playing EMI’s Bach Chorale. With that, Greenberg fails the unwitting Turing test for machine artistry, and Muscutt and Cope score. Perhaps, as Muscutt says in an earlier scene, that humans might just be “a kind of machine capable of creative activity in meaningful ways.” During a dinner conversation with Muscutt, Cope suggests that he would not disclose in advance to his audience the fact that his newly released music is composed by algorithms. It seems Cope’s intent was at least partially one of testing — or teasing — the public.
It also seems that Cope not only takes pleasure but also tremendous inspiration and motivation in the public’s criticisms. “I want the negative reaction,” Cope professes, “I feed off of it. I keep going because of it. It’s mine and mine alone, and I love it.” Indeed, when introducing the latest album created by Emily Howell — a more advanced program succeeding Emmy as her “daughter” — Cope mischievously and semi-ironically calls it “blasphemous music.” In the superimposed archival audio featuring a much younger Cope perhaps in the early days of EMI’s public attention, Cope says in a nervously joking way that his wife, Mary Jane Cope, was one of the few musicians who still speaks to him. We never get to see footage or images of a younger Cope (besides the small profile photos briefly appeared on the news and journal articles at the beginning sequence), but from the rather cloistered world the film creates around Cope, it seems nothing much has changed.
Much of the film consists of episodic footage filmed over the span of five years despite the lack of clear marking of time or space. Once we are strolling with Cope on the beach looking at a weathered obelisk; then we are in a forest and Cope is discussing in real time or offscreen interview the life cycles of humans, nature, and potentially, computers. Time and life are two of the three qualities Cope tentatively uses to define creativity in his work-in-progress book, The Creative Machine, which also lend themselves to titling the middle three sections of the film. Shim, also the film’s editor, has a sharp sense of both physical space and the soundscape, and loves to put his character in places that evokes speech and sentiments that he can later remix and juxtapose to elicit the most out of his audience. In one particular poetic sequence early on, Cope discusses the concept of time. This speech, which supposedly comes from his interview with Shim in his study, is superimposed onto footage of closeusps of the ocean waters. As he fleshes out his preliminary thinking on time, we see the still waters, waves folding up and down, moving sideways, clusters of bubbles floating on shallow waters, then bursting on the beach. Is time, like everything else, moving forward and backward? Certainly this dialectical motion characterize Cope’s method of inquiry.
The remaining chapters of the film consists of an overture, an intermission, and a finale. Marked in large white letters on black, these title cards further dissolve the sense of linear time, and render the film as a discursive exploration of the nature of creativity and artificiality. The emulation of the structure of an actual opera in this way also befits the meta-narrative of the film and corresponds to its actually ingenious title where the use of colon is meaningful and richly tasteful. And it turns out, Cope’s opus — translating to “work” from Latin — encompasses not only algorithmic music but also astronomy, visual arts, and literature, and the sources he fed to his algorithms range from Bach and Chopin’s music to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope images and Japanese haiku masters’ poetry. Cope has even published a poetry book, Comes The Fiery Night, which comprises 2000 haiku poems written by Japanese masters and the machine. Perhaps this is the source of the haiku poems littering throughout the film in imposing title cards, but the sporadic way they are presented and the brief moment of the book’s appearance make these uncredited texts elusive. You may get more from these scattered moments of meaning from streaming than watching in the theatre.
Many of Cope’s experiments and ideas are not new today, which may in fact easily lead to associations with some of the “evil” aspects of the technology and the people helming the industry. In a scene where a fellow traveler on an eclipse-watching trip Cope is on with his wife, Mary, asks what Cope thinks about the economic threats AI poses. “This is evolution. Survival of the fittest,” Cope says eventually. Otherwise, opposition to Cope is presented as theoretical, the main issue being whether or not the recognition of creativity in something inhuman undermines our own humanity. His contrarian view and practice stem more from innocuous intellectual engagement than deliberate provocation or moral rebellion. Even though Cope may not be interested in answering the many problems he consciously or unconsciously provokes as an artist and academic who mostly inhabits the elite world of higher education institution, as viewers in 2023, we cannot help but continue to ask: what are we doing when we grant AI the formalities of moral agency? If creativity is not a determinant of our unique humanity, where else should we look for it?
In conclusion, it is in a playful and essayistic spirit of searching that the film defines Cope. The film effectively leaves out crucial elements characteristic of a biographical film, such as early influences and breakthrough experiences. There are many moments where I wish I could talk to this man — such as challenging his equivalence of intelligence to the ability to predict, and inquiring about the fact that he built one of the first radio telescopes of Arizona at the age of 15 in the 1950s, according to his 2017 interview with the Computer History Museum, and why he pursued music and astronomy. The hybridity of this cinematic experience translates to Cope’s assorted creative endeavors, who now feels as embodied in the symbolic and transient images as in his glorious past accomplishments. He exists as much physically on screen in the nature of his chaotically, elaborately designed study, as he exists ideologically as an intellectual forbear. By the end of the film, Cope demonstrates for us his newest algorithmic pursuit, a novel-writing program called ALMA. With a few clicks and taps, ALMA spills out an entire novel. Would this be the future of our cultural and creative industry? What insights, advice or admonitions can he offer us? I guess we have to wait to read his book in order to find out.
Links of Interest
Opus Cope: An Algorithmic Opera is streaming on Amazon and Tubi TV. https://tubitv.com/movies/696623/opus-cope-an-algorithmic-opera?start=true
2017 Video Interview with David Cope