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An AI Completes an Unfinished Composition 115 Years After Composer's Death

It's never too late to finish what you've started, even if AI does the job for you.

by Suchi Rudra
18 June 2019, 7:11am

Image: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This November, the Prague Philharmonic will perform the third and final movement of “From the Future World,” an AI-completed composition based on an unfinished piano piece by the famous composer Antonín Dvořák, 115 years after his death. Emmanuel Villaume will conduct.

The concert is the culmination of an experiment in AI and creativity that got its start last year when Richard Stiebitz and Filip Humpl, creative directors at the Prague office of global ad agency Wunderman, approached Luxembourg-based AIVA Technologies, an AI-music startup.

“We wanted to see if you can use AI in the creative process in a positive way,” Stiebitz said. “Because everyone is afraid of AI, thinking AI will replace humans. But I am an optimist, and I think when people are clever enough and learn how to apply AI, it can be very helpful.”

AIVA, which stands for Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist, has been composing "emotional soundtracks" for films, TV ads, and video games since 2016.

AIVA's challenge: to complete a symphony from an unfinished, unnamed two-page fragment of a Dvořák piano composition in E-minor. Pierre Barreau, CEO and co-founder of AIVA, said it was a “happy challenge” to take on.

“AI is often abstract, so this will help show what AI can do, as a response to a lot of fears around AI," he said. "It's not the point to have humans out of the equation, but rather to have humans augmented and to collaborate with AI.”

Although this is not the first time that AI has finished the work of a composer, the November concert will be the first time such a composition has been performed on such a large scale and in a major concert venue. “So it's an experiment to see what happens, and maybe the discussion will be important as well. Now, classical music lovers are digesting that this classical music is coming from AI—and they are starting to consider that it is valid,” Stiebitz said.

Although the composition process for typical clients is usually under a minute because the request is based on an existing style of music supported by AIVA, the Dvořák composition took about 72 hours. This included the time needed to re-train AIVA on a database of 30,000 scores, as well asall 115 of Dvořak's opuses (including his famous 9th Symphony, “From the New World”) to craft a whole new style specifically for this project.

During the composition process, AIVA generated hundreds of different examples, from which Barreau's team selected the one with the most stylistic resemblance to Dvořák. All three movements were completed in December 2018.

While Barreau's company has a digital recording of the three movements played by virtual instruments, there is so far only one human recording of the first movement, performed in Prague by renowned Czech pianist Ivo Kahánek in April this year. The second movement will be performed (also by the Prague Philharmonic) during the Rock for People music festival in early July in the Czech town of Hradec. Recordings of the second and third movements are still in the works.

Everyone is an interpreter

Although performing an AI-generated composition may seem like a radical departure from the norm for members of the Prague Philharmonic, Stiebitz saw that the musicians remained the interpreters of the composer's music, whether that composer was human or not.

“The interpreter is saying 'It's my music, because I put the soul into it, and composers are just making the notes.' Of course I know the composers do more than that, but the interpreters are thinking that they are giving more to the music—and I witnessed this. I could compare the midi recording to the live version, which does have something more to it, and that is the role of humans,” Stiebitz said.

But here's the thing about music: it's not just the musicians who play the role of interpreter. The listeners are interpreters as well.

Stiebitz was surprised when the Prague Philharmonic manager told him she was deeply touched by the midi recording of AIVA's composition, especially the third movement. Another unexpected reaction he received came after playing AIVA's creation to students he teaches at the University of Economics in Prague. One student said he heard water bubbles in the music. This was after Stiebitz had told his class that Dvořák is said to have planned to compose another symphony after returning to Europe from America, with the inclusion of water themes as a reference to his oceanic voyage—and the unfinished piano fragment may have been an attempt at writing this new symphony.

“I said to him, if you hear it there, it is there, because it is about imagination and humans, and imagination is the most important thing. I was surprised, but everyone hears music in their own way. This is why AI music works. I– it must always have a human touch,” Stiebitz said.

The future of virtual artists

Because AIVA Technologies is comprised entirely of musicians, and the startup's clients are mostly composers, Barreau said it's important for his team to convey the message that their AI virtual artist won't replace anyone—humans must always be around to make the decisions about how the AI will work.

The humans who consider working with AIVA often come with initial doubts about the place of AI in creativity and wonder if AI should or will replace humans. However, Barreau said that after trying the product, the clients realize they are not a slave to AI.

“It's kind of the opposite—AI is assisting them with a specific need. AI can create ideas for you, and you decide which ideas you want to push forward," he said. "AI can help those not trained in music to write better music. And I think it's a pretty powerful idea, because it's not a bad thing to be more creative, regardless of the tools you are using."

However, AIVA has already become the world's first virtual artist officially registered as a composer with an author's rights organization, France and Luxembourg's SACEM. This means that AIVA’s creations are copyrighted, just like those of a human composer.

Vivienne Ming, an artificial intelligence expert and theoretical neuroscientist, said that “while distinct limitations to AI-generated art remain, AI can still be a powerful tool that greatly speeds the process for human artists and other creatives.” Current and near future artificial intelligence, like deep neural networks and similar technologies, is a tool that can be used “to explore unlikely or untested combinations...and extend works of human creativity.”

But Ming added that “there is no theoretical limit preventing artificial intelligence from some day being creative in the same sense of exploration and agency that human artists possess. For now, however, bringing meaning to the unknown is still a pretty human domain.”