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Though improvising computer systems are hardly new, jazz has recently become the focus of a number of novel computer music projects aimed at convincingly improvising alongside humans, with a particular focus on the use of machine learning to imitate human styles. The attempt to implement a sort of Turing test for jazz, and interest from organizations like DARPA in the results, raises important questions about the nature of improvisation and musical style, but also about the ways jazz comes popularly to stand for such broad concepts as “conversation” or “democracy.” This essay explores these questions by considering robots that play straight-ahead neoclassical jazz alongside George Lewis’s free-improvising Voyager system, reading the technical details of such projects in terms of the ways they theorize the recognition and production of style, but also in terms of the political implications of human-computer musicking in an age of algorithmic surveillance and big data.
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