Alter, Artificial Intelligence, and the Modern Polymath

18 Dec 2019

by RPS Composer Robert Laidlow

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of the polymath recently.

Can the idea of an expert in many distinct fields continue to exist in a world which is splintered and fragmented? Where every fork in the rabbithole of research might take a lifetime to truly master? If we cast our minds back to famous historical polymaths, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Hildegard von Bingen – and Ada Lovelace, of course – one could argue that, if the sum of human knowledge is a river, then the river's scientific and artistic banks were once much closer together than they are now. Close enough for a single person to bridge them.

Today, in our digitalised, fractured, expansive, exponential millennium, can this still be the case?

On the one hand, of course it can. There are many modern polymaths who continue to inspire people globally, across subjects. Increasingly, however, I feel that the historic notion of the polymath can only take on its full meaning today not through individual “genius”, but via cross-disciplinary collaboration: a meeting of minds, with a common goal. So, I was delighted when composer Emily Howard asked me to lead a Barbican commission for the PRiSM team (2 November 2019) which included musicians, engineers, data scientists, historians and more. PRiSM is the Centre for Practice and Research in Science and Music at the Royal Northern College of Music, and my position there is Researcher in AI-Assisted Composition.

Our new musical work would celebrate the mathematician Ada Lovelace. Lovelace wrote extensively about early mathematical engines designed by Charles Babbage. She was also one of the first people to postulate that a machine might be able to write music of its own, and today, we have computers that can do such things. My commissioned piece Alter, performed by the Britten Sinfonia, aimed to bridge the gap between those old ideas and the ideas we now have about artificial intelligence. I wanted Alter to reflect the “polymath” that was crucial, at a time when we did not distinguish so severely between STEM and The Arts. I wanted it to truly embody creative research, and by this I mean inventing new software and hardware for the project. Happily, I did not have to do this alone.

The commission was for mezzo-soprano and ensemble, so one of the first things to think about was setting the text for the piece. I wanted the text to be very closely tied to Lovelace and her contemporaries, but I didn’t want to just set one of her own letters, or similar. Instead, we decided to use machine learning to produce new “Lovelace-style” text, training it on a dataset of her correspondence. Together with Professors Ursula Martin and David de Roure, we assembled several datasets of different sizes which a text-producing algorithm could learn from, before ordering them in such a way that meant that if you read the text from start-to-finish, it uses more and more sophisticated artificial intelligence models. I think you can hear this in the text – from a fractured, almost abstract beginning:

I can not explain this step
But I have altered my mind
It seems to me as clear as possible

To a much more coherent (yet still introspective) end:

What is the nature of the Body?
Am not I pure?
Am not I a noble person?
Am I beautiful?
Am I not a man?
The thing in front of me is always moving.
It is a thing of wonder.

It was very exciting working in this way. The text was often surprising and inspiring, and the work we were doing is quite unique. I’m not sure I know of AI-generated text being used in this way before, certainly in classical music, and it’s got a lot of room for development and exploration. There’s something lovely about being able to tailor your model to an exact project too – it feels like we’ve created something bespoke, just for this piece.

On the matter of bespoke, we also designed and built a brand new percussion instrument for this concert – the Lovelace Engine (pictured right). I wanted something that could physically link Babbage’s proto-computers with today’s computers, and also something that could be theatrical and eye-catching. Together with Jonathan Morris of Cambridge Design Partnership, with assistance from the North-West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership, we created this new instrument to resemble Babbage’s Difference Engine, to be played by the Britten Sinfonia’s percussionist. Whenever it plays, we also hear electronics generated by AI, and the text (as mentioned above) moves to a more sophisticated model.

In my mind at least, the three are linked – turn the crank, release the AI, alter the models. We couldn’t be more happy with the result – it’s almost all 3D-printed using the latest technology and demanded some genius design innovations from Jonathan to produce the sounds I wanted.

Alter has been a huge launchpad for me and my practice. It’s exhilarating to not only use brand new technology in my work, but to actually facilitate the creation of entirely original research in the pursuit of music. The process of collaboration in creating the piece is very distinct from the usual model, where a composer might work alone for long periods before working with the performers shortly before the concert. The role of this technology is not to replace composers, or filmmakers, or whoever you care to discuss: rather it is to facilitate creativity, to provide a mirror on our own practice, and to push us into new areas of originality.

Alter was premiered by the Britten Sinfonia and Marta Fontanals-Simmons, conducted by William Cole, on 2 November 2019 at the Barbican Centre. It later received a second performance at TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

Robert is currently studying for his PhD at the RNCM, and developed Alter during his Wild Plum Arts Residency at The Red House in Aldeburgh. As an RPS Composer, Robert will write for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Ensemble 10/10. He will develop his profile through a series of workshops and seminars, designed to help our composers promote themselves, and gain a foothold in the profession. To find out more about the range of opportunities we offer to composers, please click here.