The future of music

AI in Classical Music: discover ‘Automation,’ the groundbreaking Human/A.I. Double Concerto

December 22, 2023
AI in classical music
Source: Yves Dhar

Key takeaways

  1. ‘Automation’ is a groundbreaking Human/A.I. Double Concerto that blends classical music with advanced AI, offering a unique, futuristic experience.
  2. The concert features innovative elements like a holographic AI performer and the unique halldorophone, pushing the boundaries of musical performance.
  3. This concerto represents a significant step in the evolution of classical music, showcasing how technology can enhance and transform traditional art forms.

Pushing the boundaries of AI in classical music, ‘Automation’ brings to life a captivating blend of orchestral beauty and cutting-edge technology. Have you ever imagined what this fusion could look and sound like? You don’t need to imagine anymore. This innovative concert combines traditional orchestra music with the latest AI technology, complete with mesmerizing holograms and the unique sounds of halldorophones.

‘Automation’ is the brainchild of two creative minds and longtime friends: Yves Dhar, an award-winning cellist and producer, and Grammy-nominated, Emmy-winning composer Adam Schoenberg. They have created something that’s not just a classical concert, but an exciting mix of live music with futuristic visual effects and technology to make a show that’s nothing like anything you’ve ever seen or heard before.

This concerto explores some big questions about music and machines. Can a machine that doesn’t feel emotions make music that touches our hearts? What does it mean for human musicians when machines get really good at playing music? This show is an experience that makes you think and feel, blending the old world of classical music with the new world of technology. 

Meet AGNES, what makes AI in classical music possible

One of the most captivating elements of ‘Automation’ is the integral role played by artificial intelligence in its composition. Composer Adam Schoenberg’s journey in this direction started with a conversation with his colleague in the Computer Science department at Occidental College, Justin Lee. This initial discussion opened the door to an innovative idea: what if AI could not only replicate his style but also learn and compose new music?

This intriguing concept led to a collaboration with Kathryn Leonard, chair of the Computer Science department, and Ghassan Sarkis from Pomona College. Together, they created AGNES (Automatic Generator Network for Excellent Songs), a specialized AI designed to understand and contribute to the musical language of ‘Automation.’

AI in Classical Music: discover 'Automation,' the groundbreaking Human/A.I. Double Concerto 1
The holographic AI cellist in ‘Automation’ performs a part composed by a machine learning algorithm. Photo credit: Chambermusicamerica.org

To train AGNES, Schoenberg provided a rich diet of his compositions. These pieces offered a comprehensive view of his musical style and language. The goal was to enable AGNES to absorb the essence of Schoenberg’s work and then apply this understanding to create something novel.

However, the journey with AGNES wasn’t straightforward. After four months of training, the AI initially produced music in a very basic style. “I could see how it was learning, but it wasn’t growing. It was very square and as if it was trapped within a box,” said Schoenberg in an interview. This early output prompted Schoenberg and the team to expand AGNES’s parameters, providing more depth and complexity to its learning process.

After a week of processing this new material, AGNES generated its own musical output. Embracing the unpredictability and uniqueness of AI creativity, Schoenberg decided to use AGNES’s composition unaltered, embedding it directly into the score. This decision marked a bold commitment to the authentic integration of AI into classical music.

Bringing holograms and halldorophones to the stage

Another standout feature of ‘Automation’ is its innovative use of a holographic AI and the unique halldorophone instrument. These elements are central to the concert’s theme of humans versus machines, adding layers of depth to the performance.

The hologram represents an AI musician, creating a visually striking counterpart to Yves Dhar’s live performance. It’s a sophisticated projection that uses a technique evolved from the old Pepper’s Ghost illusion, combined with modern technology. They project 2D images onto a special transparent screen, creating the illusion of a 3D figure on stage. This approach not only adds a futuristic touch but also symbolizes the intersection of human artistry with digital innovation.

AI in Classical Music: discover 'Automation,' the groundbreaking Human/A.I. Double Concerto 2
Yves Dhar and the AI hologram playing ‘Automation’ in the world premiere with the Louisville Orchestra, May 2022.

“Automation is about man and machine, humans and artificial intelligence. So why not have both human and AI performers live on stage to represent themselves?” said Dhar.  

The halldorophone is an intriguing and somewhat eerie string instrument created by artist and designer Halldór Úlfarsson. As Dhar remarked, “It looks kind of like a cello. But it doesn’t function or sound anything like it. I’d describe it as a drone-based instrument with lots of distortion, vibrating metallic parts, frequency beats, rich overtones.” Just like how AI can surprise us with its outputs, the halldorophone’s aleatoric soundscapes add an element of uncertainty and spontaneity to the concerto.

Together, the hologram and the halldorophone encapsulate the essence of ‘Automation.’ They represent the blending of the old and the new, the acoustic and the digital, the predictable and the unforeseen. It’s in this space where ‘Automation’ truly shines, offering audiences not just a concert but an experience where technology, tradition, and innovation unite to create something entirely new and mesmerizing.

Crafting a cinematic concerto

The creation of ‘Automation’ is a journey that redefines the traditional concerto, transforming it into what Yves Dhar playfully calls a “cine-con” or cinematic concerto. This concept is a bold reinterpretation of the classical form, where composers used the concerto to showcase the talents of extraordinary musicians, often including themselves, in a dialogue with the orchestra. Dhar and Schoenberg aimed to honor this tradition while propelling it into the modern era with a 21st-century twist.

So, what exactly makes ‘Automation’ a cinematic concerto? It’s the infusion of elements typically found in films into a classical music setting. By integrating visual projections, dynamic lighting, and a blend of electronic and acoustic sounds, ‘Automation’ becomes an immersive experience that captivates the audience visually and sonically.

The term “cinematic” here doesn’t imply that ‘Automation’ is a film, but rather that it embodies the essence of a movie-like experience. The concert hall transforms into a space where the storytelling power of cinema meets the emotive force of live orchestral music. This blend brings a new dimension to the concerto, one that engages the audience in a multi-sensory journey.

This innovative approach aims to offer the audience more than just a musical performance—it’s an invitation to explore AI in classical music, as well as experience a story, a concept, and an emotion, all blended in a collage of classical and contemporary artistry.

Is ‘Automation’ a glimpse into the future of classical music?

This reimagining of the concerto format by Dhar and Schoenberg is an audacious move. It’s a testament to their belief in the power of music to evolve and adapt, to embrace the new without losing sight of the old. ‘Automation’ is not just a concert; it’s a groundbreaking experiment in storytelling through music.

Holograms are nothing new in music. Since Tupac’s holographic appearance at Coachella 2012, there have been many other holographic performances from both deceased and living artists. What ‘Automation’ showcases is the potential when classical music meets new technologies. It could very well be a glimpse into a future where AI enhances the beauty of traditional music. Moreover, it’s a conversation starter, prompting us to think about the future of music and the role of technology in the arts.

‘Automation’ first hit the stage in 2022 with the Louisville Orchestra. Now, they’re getting ready for more shows. Curious to see this groundbreaking concert live and experience the thrill of AI in classical music? They’re set to join Symphony San Jose in California this January 2024 for an amazing performance. Get ready for a revolutionary human/A.I. cinematic concerto that’s changing the game in classical music. It’s an experience that promises to be unforgettable.

Sabrina Bonini

Sabrina Bonini is a content specialist, writer, and educator focused on Web3 and entrepreneurship. She started her career as an audio engineer and musician, and has been passionate about the intersection of music and cutting-edge technology since then.

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