Almost 200 years after Franz Schubert abandoned his Symphony No 8, the Chinese electronics giant Huawei has employed smartphone A.I. to finish it. Donal O’Keeffe attends the London premiere, and recalls another artificial intelligence with musical pretensions.
Taking my seat in Belgravia’s historic Cadogan Hall for the first public performance of Unfinished Symphony, a modern-day completion of a revered work of classical music using the artificial intelligence in a smartphone, I found myself thinking of Star Trek’s android Lieutenant Commander Data.
When Franz Schubert left his Symphony Number 8 in B Minor unfinished beyond its second movement, some said the work was so perfect, it didn’t require a third.
That didn’t prevent others from attempting to complete the Austrian master’s work in the almost two centuries since Schubert’s death.
The latest effort to finish the Unfinished Symphony uses technology as far beyond the early 19th century as warp drives and positronic brains are beyond our own.
Schubert had sketched out a third movement in 1822, and – legend has it - a fourth movement was ready to go, but reportedly he ended up recycling the music planned for the fourth into a more pressing project, the incidental music for the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern which premiered the following year.
Some think Schubert - who died in 1828 at the tragically young age of 31 – was already suffering the onset of the syphilis which is thought to have killed him (though it was recorded officially as Typhoid Fever).
While it is theoretically possible he was distracted by ill health, a look at the prodigious works completed by Schubert in his final years suggests it’s more likely he was distracted from his great work on the Eighth Symphony by his great work on all of his other great works. He was a powerhouse of innovation and originality right to the end.
We’ll likely never know why Schubert abandoned his Eighth. But now, 197 years later, the Chinese technology giant Huawei has embarked upon an intriguing project to complete it, using – at least in part – an Artificial Intelligence model benefitting directly from the processing powfmateer of the dual NPU (Neural Processing Unit) in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone.
The A.I. analysed the timbre, pitch and meter of the first and second movements, using this data to generate melodies replicating Schubert’s style. Huawei then employed Emmy-winning composer Lucas Cantor to arrange those melodies into a hypothetical completed Symphony No 8.
The finished work is beautiful, but sounds – to these untrained ears – uneven, in the sense that there appears to be a clear temporal shift from Schubert’s original first and second movements, which are of the early 19th century, and the new third and fourth movements which feel very much of the early 21st century. That said, Cantor had an impossible task. Had he produced a slavish reproduction of Schubert’s style, he would likely have been accused of soulless painting-by-numbers.
Huawei is a company in the wars at the moment, under fire from the US, with the arrests of high-profile executives amidst accusations of security breaches and espionage.
It needs good news stories, and using smartphone A.I. to complete Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is good publicity, as was training the same A.I. to drive a car last year. Indeed, it is perhaps in such “vanity” projects as these that the imaginative potential of technology is realised.
There is, however, genuine social benefit to Huawei’s work, as demonstrated last year by their wonderful StorySign app, a free programme which uses a combination of augmented reality and AI to teach Deaf children to read.
There are 32 million Deaf children in the world, and their particular needs are often overlooked, despite the endless possibilities of ever-advancing technological innovation.
We all know that we carry in our pockets slim devices which are millions of times more powerful than the primitive computers which, half a century ago, put men on the moon.
Listening to an orchestra play music composed – for the most part – by the artificial intelligence inside a smartphone, I found myself wondering if our phones mightn’t now be smarter too than a robotic innocent savant from the imagined 24th Century.
Which brings me to Data.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, a sequel to the original 1960s show, began in 1987. Data, played by Brent Spiner, was Science Officer on the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D, a ship launched a century after the Enterprise captained by William Shatner’s James T. Kirk.
Data was the spiritual heir to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, but where the superior Spock disdained and denied his own half-human emotions, poor white-faced, golden-eyed Data was an artificial life form which lacked human feelings but strove tirelessly to understand and emulate humanity.
As I watched the premiere of Unfinished Symphony, I remembered a 30-year-old Star Trek episode called “The Ensigns of Command”.
In it, Data plays the violin in a string quartet. He warns Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) that while it is technically flawless, he has been told his playing lacks soul.
On hearing Data replicate and combine successfully two very disparate playing styles, Picard disagrees, complimenting him on his creativity.
With a human being still needed to curate the melodies generated by Huawei’s smartphone A.I., we are not yet at the point where artificial intelligence can be independently creative, but – as Commander Data might put it – Huawei’s Unfinished Symphony is an intriguing experiment which shows considerable potential for future innovation.