by Edward Campbell-Rowntree
You shall live as few live, but of course you cannot die an ordinary death; you will die of eternity.
–Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (Novalis)
In 1814, the Leipzig-based Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung published the first version of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastical tale ‘Die Automate’. Besides dealing with themes of science, love, naturalism and technological innovation, ‘Die Automate’ is most prominently concerned with two things: artificial intelligence and music. Towards the end of the story, the main characters, Ludwig and Ferdinand, find themselves at an evening concert hosted by Professor X, a loathsome philosopher and chemist with an affinity for music and robotics. His hand-made mechanical music-hall is home to all sorts of sounding wonders, but the Professor is most eager to show off his entourage of handmade automata – a ‘male’ flautist, a ‘female’ pianist, and two ‘boys’ with percussion instruments – who it seems can all play with utmost precision and accuracy, but wholly without expression or feeling. Horrified by the cacophonous sounds of the ensuing concert, the two friends swiftly take their leave and begin discussing the philosophy of music, and whether the sublime mysteries of performance can ever be recreated by non-humans. While Ferdinand remarks that the recital was at the very least ‘interesting’ (interessant), Ludwig passionately expresses his uneasiness at the musical automata who, as soulless entities, should not be able to engage in a fundamentally soulful activity:
‘To make music by means of valves, springs, levers, cylinders, or whatever other mechanical apparatus you can use, is a senseless attempt to use the means to an end to accomplish what can only result when those means are animated and, in the slightest of movements, controlled by the craft of the soul (Kraft des Gemüts).’
Ludwig’s views here are really a surrogate for Hoffmann’s own – he was suspicious, if not a little paranoid, about the potential threat to humanity posed by mechanical ‘intelligence’. While this may be a platitude, the sense of anxiety expressed in ‘Die Automate’ seems to resonate in our own times, with technology continuing to advance at an exponential rate, and artificial intelligence perhaps moving towards the ‘singularity’: the hypothetical point at which technological growth becomes unstoppable, irreversible and, perhaps most disconcertingly, life-like. Ludwig’s criteria for a good performance – one that serves to mediate the inner feelings of the soul – seem to foreshadow a kind of musical Turing test which, instead of asking if machines can ‘think’, asks if they can feel. For Ludwig, music is the most untouchable of the arts, something that emerges from and responds to our innermost feelings of love, passion, and wonder. Responding to the automaton’s eerie resemblance to human beings – what we now call the uncanny valley – Ludwig cites Macbeth’s words upon seeing the ghost reappear:
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!
The aesthetic landscape created by Hoffmann in ‘Die Automate’ is an uneasy one. As the musicologist Emily Dolan has shown, music-lovers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were fanatical about this sort of thing: mechanical ‘intelligence’, musical gadgets, newly invented instruments (like the orchestrion, a glorified music-box designed to simulate the sounds of a full orchestra) – anything that could elicit a sense of wonder and spectacle. But they were also suspicious, and at times horrified, by the eerie and supernatural qualities of advanced technology. Could we perhaps learn something from Ludwig’s skepticism? Have the valves, springs and levers of Professor X’s automaton ensemble morphed into something more clandestine, like the circuit-boards and micro-chips in our smartphones? Huawei, the Chinese tech giant which is now the second-largest telecoms manufacturer in the world, has recently ventured into the very different world of classical music to show off the power of their state-of-the-art A.I. But rather than assembling an orchestra of mechanical performers like Professor X, they want to endow their A.I. with the most exalted and lofty mode of expression a musician can hope to master: the art of composition. And rather than starting with the basics – melody, harmony, form, or even scales – they set their A.I. to work on a task at the zenith of Classical composition: to complete Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor – his ‘Unfinished’ symphony.
By completing one of the most iconic unfinished symphonies of all time, Huawei has set out to honour Schubert’s legacy, as well as taking inspiration from his pioneering spirit, by using the power of AI to finish the Symphony No. 8 in the same style that Schubert started it.
Franz Peter Schubert – commonly imagined as the neurotic, introverted, and emotionally damaged bachelor-composer who frequented the more sordid corners of Vienna – died in 1828 at the age of 31, an early death even by nineteenth-century standards. What he produced in his short but concentrated life amounts to an extensive body of music, including eight (complete) symphonies, a collection of piano sonatas, string quartets and a string quintet, as well as over 600 lieder: the German art-songs so popular with the emerging middle-class Biedermeier, who favoured the combined sensibilities of poetry and music. Aside from this, he also left behind a number of incomplete works – fragments, preliminary sketches and lost manuscripts of symphonies, operas and the like – among which was the ‘Unfinished’ symphony. Be sure, it was posterity that gave the work its name: when the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner went public with the symphony in 1865, it was they who provided the tagline of Die Unvollendete Symphonie. By 1822, the work was in its current form, and Schubert never returned to it: even after a close examination of the historical record, it seems we will never know why.
Unlike most classical symphonies, which are formally structured into four separate movements, only the first two movements of the ‘Unfinished’ are known to us (as well as a preliminary sketch for the third). While these alone are considered to be unsurpassed in terms of thematic innovation, melodic ingenuity, and orchestral command, we remain predisposed to hear the work as incomplete because of its title, and associations with symphonic norms. In its truncated state, the ‘Unfinished’ readily turns into a metaphor for Schubert’s own tragically brief life. The composer Hugo Wolf wrote: ‘The Symphony in B minor compares in form with the external existence of its creator who, at the height of his creative powers, was taken prematurely by Death.’ Many felt that Schubert was at the beginning of a period of artistic maturity we would usually associate with old age and ‘late style’ – that which can only be expressed when the artist is fully confronted with the stark truth of mortality. Death resides as a powerful force somewhere in this music: Theodor Adorno understood this when he remarked that ‘Death is our entry to the underworld into which Schubert is escorting us.’
If the nineteenth century was happy to hear the ‘Unfinished’ as an allegory of the composer’s untimely death, Huawei’s efforts to complete the symphony, with or without the assistance of A.I., already seem rather misguided. Ignoring the circumstances surrounding Schubert’s life, his work, and why the ‘Unfinished’ does not invite us to conclude it, Huawei claims on its website to be extending ‘the boundaries of what is humanly possible’, and making ‘the world a better place.’ They preprogrammed one of their flagship smartphones with an ‘artificial neural network’ – interconnected algorithms, modelled on the human brain, which adapt by doing – which ‘analysed’ the first two movements of the symphony, and then ‘composed’ new thematic material for the third and fourth movements. From here the use of technology seems to stop, with the composer Lucas Cantor stepping in to act as an assistant, to identify good ideas from the A.I. (if any), and fill in the gaps. Cantor describes the process as “collaborating with a non-human intelligence that is channelling the intelligence of a dead human … and that’s profound.”
The intersection between music and technology is key to understanding why Huawei’s enterprise is nothing special. Cantor cites the digital guitar and the digital audio workstation (DAW) as examples of how music and technology can combine, but he fails to understand the distinction between ‘technology’ and ‘electricity’. Musical instruments are themselves a type of technology to extend the somatic possibilities of human expression: music has always relied on mechanical invention. Pythagoras (supposedly) combined the sciences of geometry, music and astronomy to build his ‘monochord’; J. S. Bach frequently collaborated with the instrument builder Gottfried Silbermann to extend the sonic capabilities of the pipe organ; Richard Wagner oversaw the building of a new brass instrument now known as the Wagner tuba. These inventions emerged not from a desire to promote mechanical invention, but as a means to an end: to make music sound better. Music, in its most essential form, denotes the complex alignment between culture and technology. But if we take the etymology of technology – tekhne: “skill” – we are left wondering where the tekhne is supposed to reside in this collaboration between man and computer.
Nonetheless, the results of the composition present us with a question: do we hear the work of ‘great’ composers as such because they are intrinsically so, or because those with authority on the subject have said so? When listening to Huawei/Cantor’s ‘Finished’ symphony the answer is a resounding no. Their completed version forgoes Schubert’s nuanced thematic development and meticulous orchestration in favour of dramatic techniques such as harmonic suspension and chromatic tension, more at home in the operas of Wagner half a century later. In short, it sounds like clichéd film music, so far away from ‘the style that Schubert started it’ that it is not even worth an in-depth analysis. Upon hearing the first performance of the (original) ‘Unfinished’ in 1865, the music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote an elegant and moving response that captured the sense of Schubert expressing himself from beyond the grave. After the introductory bars, the clarinet and oboe emerge from the depths, sounding together above the turbulent strings: Hanslick heard this gesture as Schubert declaring himself to the audience: ‘he has hardly entered, but you can feel his presence by through his steps, his very way of opening the door…’ Schubert is nowhere to be found in Huawei’s newly-written bars.
Given the most recent diplomatic and geopolitical angst surrounding Huawei’s building of the fifth-generation (5G) wireless communications network, there is reason to be suspicious of their technological endeavours. Having previously ‘taught’ A.I. how to drive a car, turn a whale’s love song into ‘music’, and power an app that helps deaf children to read, Huawei’s attempt at symphonic composition looks like yet another phase in a zealous marketing campaign – one that claims to have broken a new boundary of A.I. processing technology. In ten to fifteen years, they say, their A.I. will catch up with the average level of human intelligence. But Huawei have intruded, blissfully unaware, onto a work so intimately connected with the concept of death and the afterlife that to attempt to finish Schubert’s work with assisted technology woefully misses the point.
There is still heated debate about how Schubert died; nervous fever, typhoid, syphilis, stroke and mercury poisoning have all been proposed. But we can be sure that he suffered. His final days were marked by periods of manic hysteria in which he sang ceaselessly from his bed, believing he had been buried alive next to the musician he worshipped and admired most: Ludwig van Beethoven. When he first heard Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, he was moved to ask, “After this, is there anything left for us to write?” We might ask the same thing of the ‘Unfinished’. His brother Ferdinand, whose apartment became Schubert’s final residence—or Sterbewohnung (death house) as it’s known to the Viennese—interpreted the composer's dying hallucination as a request, and arranged for him to be buried just a few feet away from Beethoven, in the Währinger cemetery in central Vienna. The celebrated dramatist and friend of Schubert’s, Franz Grillparzer, was asked to write the epitaph for the grave:
DER TONKUNST BEGRUB HIER EINEN REICHEN BESITZ,
ABER NOCH SCHOENERE HOFFNUNG
(THE ART OF MUSIC HERE ENTOMBED A RICH POSSESSION,
BUT EVEN FAR FAIRER HOPES)
‘Even far fairer hopes’: had Schubert outlived his disease, would he have revisited the Symphony in B minor, and finished the ‘Unfinished’? What would it have sounded like? These questions are what instill the ‘Unfinished’ with its poignancy and its enduring sense of enigma. A.I. may be helping to solve a host of human problems, but its incapacity to overcome artistic ones is strikingly obvious. As our lives become increasingly automated by technology, the need for art – that human form of expression controlled by the ‘craft of the soul’ – is more important than ever.
EDWARD CAMPBELL-ROWNTREE reads for an MSt in Musicology at St. Catherine’s College. He is a
pianist with an affinity for the music of François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Art by Alex Haveron Jones