On Listening to Emily Howell, Non-Human Composer

Emily Howell’s debut album as a composer was released in February of this year.

I first read about Howell, David Cope’s astonishing feat of programming, here. Other articles here, here and here. You’ll notice the recurring reactions (fear and denial), not to Howell’s work, but to her existence. These are helpful for Cope and Howell’s notoriety, but neither makes sense. Howell, and her imminent offspring, are not going anywhere.

Fans of Howell say her critics are too harsh because they know she’s not human. If you didn’t know she was software code, their argument goes, you’d be more inclined to like her music. If there were a Turing test for music, Howell fans argue, Howell has passed it.

Excluding the false parallel with Turing’s test for language (notes and words are not the same), I think this is missing the point. Knowing that Howell is not human is no different to knowing that Elena Kats-Chernin is female, that Shostakovich was Russian, or that Beethoven went deaf. How’s the music? Any good?

I’m going to listen as I would to any other composer’s work. Open mind, hoping to love it.

The album is titled From Darkness, Light, and already Howell resembles many young composers trying to make a splash: her album title is just awful, and its cover (as you can see above) is even worse.

From Darkness, Light I: Prelude – This, as with the other five parts of this work, is for two pianos. Arpeggios running up the keyboard, firmly tonal, minor key. Harmonic rhythm kind of dull.

From Darkness, Light II: Fugue – If you’ve never written a fugue, it might seem that software is ideal for a form with such rigorous rules of structure and harmony. But for me, the rules are the least impressive part with great fugues. It’s the ability to extract surprise and freshness while remaining economical that I admire. This one has a skinny first subject, but its counter-subject has promise. The treatment is a bit relentless. Excerpts from these first two movements here.

From Darkness, Light III: Prelude – pretty, and with a more satisfying harmonic rhythm than the first prelude. It develops a little predictably, seems as if it’s really going somewhere, and then it stops. Hear most of it here.

From Darkness, Light IV: Fugue – a much better subject, and it develops nicely, culminates well, dies away as it should. You can lose yourself in this one, if that’s how you like to listen to fugues. A keeper.

From Darkness, Light V: Prelude – Howell has an odd way of not knowing when she’s on to something good. And I say this without meaning that she’s non-human, and can’t judge individual sections of music in their relation to the whole. I am sure she can, but for some reason she often chooses not to. This piece plays on the contrast between its two sections, and fairly obviously at that. Some subtlety in the tansitions would help.

From Darkness, Light VI: Fugue – Good subject, perfunctorily treated.

Land of Stone – Ms Howell, you will have noticed, has no gift for titles. Scored for chamber orchestra, this is probably what people are expecting from a non-human composer. It begins with single notes, drawn out by passing them among the instruments, Webern-style. There are small outbursts of dissonance before the single notes resume, and the piece builds to a longer end-section, with individual instruments given their own lines. The texture becomes more dense as the bass drum pumps away underneath. In terms of orchestration, Howell is comfortable with the strings, has yet to master the woodwinds, and is uninspired in the percussion and brass departments.

Shadow Worlds I – Performance credited to Howell herself, on three Disklaviers. This is a perpetuum mobile affair, with short flurries of notes in different registers, over a grinding bass run. The implied harmonies vary, as do the dynamics, and the bass gives way to high-register trills. Then it all collapses to the left, with the dampers off, and I am not sorry to see it go.

Shadow Worlds II – Brian Eno turns up. Single notes, arranged around the three different keyboards, struck and allowed to hang in the air. Some shorter clusters, usually up high, all of it pleasantly atonal. Is it a twelve tone row? Don’t think so. Nice enough, but extraordinarily similar to an extraordinary number of other pieces.

Shadow Worlds III Howell has yet to demonstrate any love for rhythmic games, but here a single chord stabs out on different keyboards and, as the rhythms begin to intersect, a funky kind of pattern builds. The single chord begins to thin out into its component parts, until individual dots speak out from each keyboard, and the combined rhythm disappears bit by bit. I like it. I like it a lot, and if I’d heard it without knowing its human composer’s name, I would have immediately sought him/her out to find out what else he/she had written.

Shadow Worlds IV – Grand opening, modal motif, repeatedly coming back to its tonic, bang bang bang. The three keyboards stick to one register each: low, middle, high. It sounds like the Siege of Leningrad would sound if we didn’t already have a tune for that.

Based on this album I think Howell’s future, at first, is in film. Her predecessor, EMI, was incredibly prolific and fast, but Howell has been more taciturn so far. If she is capable of composing quickly, she’s already proven herself to be very reliable, and sometimes good. From a purely mercenary point of view, I’d sign her tomorrow for a film score, and if I were an overworked film composer, I’d use her as an assistant, probably uncredited. If she (or any others like her, and they will come) can learn orchestration, she can own the generic film music market, the corporate video market, the porn music market, the techno market …

From an artistic point of view, I’d like to see Howell let off the chain, and break more rules. Could Cope insert a line or two of maverick-code? Howell’s greatest compositional deficiency, I think, is her lack of skill in development. When she masters that, she’ll get the emotional response from audiences that isn’t quite there yet. She also has no sense of humour, but that won’t hurt her career.

Could Howell learn to improvise? Could she learn the principles of inventing a great jazz solo, and whip one out in real time? I’d love to hear that.

In fact, if I were the Artistic Director of a Festival, looking to make a splash, I’d be trying to commission a piece entirely by non-human creators. Visual art with a Howell score. A dance piece with choreography and music by non-humans. The hard part would be getting the creators to work with each other, but that’s already the case with humans.


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