Music Connects Us

Notes from our Artistic Director
February 1, 2022

Perusing the Files

It’s February.  Outside, Winter is fighting against the freshness of a new Spring, but inside, I’ve been taking a second look at the files I’ve amassed since I started writing these e-blasts in 2019.  My files are bulging with articles and ideas I thought would be interesting to share but which I simply lacked space to include.  So I think today can be my chance to focus on one of these items – a musical initiative that caught my attention and that hopefully will be intriguing reading for you.

Herr Beethoven, meet Watson

Beethoven dominates my files because I think he is, after all, the great one (sorry, Wayne) and because 2020 was his 250th birthday year…so he’ll be the focus of this issue.  Into our home over the past few months have come a highly acclaimed biography (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford), a book of beautiful poetry about the man, his life and his music (Beethoven Variations by Ruth Padel), plenty of articles I’ve clipped and printed, and even this Kikkerland solar Beethoven who ‘conducts’ for me every morning in a sunny upstairs window .

But above all else, what has piqued my interest has been the international effort to set Artificial Intelligence upon the few notes and staves of music he jotted down as a first step towards composing another symphony.  Here, in Beethoven’s own hand, are those musical examples he left for what was to be his “new gravitational force”, as one of his friends later described how the composer spoke of his intention.

With this annotation and the full scores of Beethoven’s other works, especially the Symphonies, a team of Beethoven scholars, composers, musicologists and computer scientists went to work to let a computer program ‘compose’ the great work that the master never completed.

Beethoven died in 1827, less than three years after composing his monumental Symphony No. 9;  he’s believed to have been felled by lead poisoning, a diagnosis that specialists from the US Department of Energy laboratory verified from fragments of his skull and his hair which had been authenticated by Austrian sources.  If you’re interested to find out more about how the diagnosis was handled, here’s a link to a National Public Radio interview in 2005 with the study’s leader.

But back to AI and Symphony X.  The fascinating story of how Artificial Intelligence ‘composed’ this new symphony was described last September by a professor at the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  As the Director of the Rutgers Art & AI Lab and a key leader in the Beethoven project, Professor Ahmed Elgammal was well-placed to describe the project.

Permit me to recommend highly that you take the time to read Dr. Elgammal’s article, linked here from the online journal for you, The Conversation, whose tag line is Academic rigour, Journalistic flair. The article concludes with a portion of the actual music.

This is an absolutely intriguing story, not just because of what one learns from the Beethoven project but also because this activity demonstrates what human ingenuity and mechanical inventions can undertake and accomplish together.  (What AI means for the future of music and all the arts has to be the focus of a future February newsletter.)

From among the experts associated with the process I find it especially interesting to hear a scientist describe how a machine can attempt to interpret what it has already been fed while he admits that it simply cannot express what the human element alone brings into the creative process…what he calls ‘..the spirit of the times’ in which Beethoven lived.  Also interesting for me is to hear the participating workshop organist, Cameron Carpenter, (a genuine star in the international organ orbit who insists only on playing non-pipe organs), speak about why he thinks an electric action instrument was inserted into the score even though Beethoven himself never wrote for the organ.

Bonn’s 1845 monument to Beethoven.
So, what does the full score actually sound like?  While there is a portion of music at the end of the Elgammal article, here’s the premiere performance, thanks to Magenta Musik of Germany and YouTube.  The Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn gave this performance in their hometown just four months ago, on October 9, 2021.
 (Note to readers:   this video opens with some on-stage commentary in German for the seated audience, but then, at the 12-minute mark, an English translation is added with further background information, after which the performance begins.)
Does this sound like genuine Beethoven to you?  I wish we had the opportunity to gather together right now for a discussion about what Project Beethoven X achieved.  Personally I’m drawn to the score…can’t wait till the Toronto Symphony programs this!
Thanks for sharing my February e-blast detour among my files.  But let me not forget to tell you that Huron Waves is working towards the warmer days ahead, likely not with Beethoven but certainly, come March or April, with exciting news to share.
Till we’re together again, stay safe and healthy.  And remember that Music Connects Us.
John A. Miller, Artistic Director                                                                         February 1, 2022