Audiences at the Barbican are to be challenged to distinguish between music composed by JS Bach and a piece generated by an artificial intelligence algorithm “trained” to produce harmonies in the style of the German musician-composer.
Planned by Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford university mathematician, in collaboration with musicians, composers and visual artists, the event is part of a season of shows, performances and displays on the AI revolution that will fill the London venue next year.
Other events in the “Life Rewired” series include an exhibition exposing the latest advances in the science of AI and assessing its potential impact on human society. The Kronos Quartet, a string ensemble, will also have its live performance analysed, “processed” and re-projected by a neural network in a work by Trevor Paglen, an American artist.
Bach’s highly structured music has long been considered “mathematical”, raising the question of whether a sophisticated computer might be able to generate new compositions that sound convincingly like authentic work of the composer, Prof du Sautoy said.
With the help of harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and composer Rob Thomas, the part-lecture, part-performance will also tackle what it means to be human in the AI age and whether machines can ever become conscious or creative.
“AI is threatening to do all our jobs. But there’s one area which we feel is protected: the arts,” said Prof du Sautoy. “I’d like to challenge that and show that algorithms could well be able to challenge us and even push us creatively.”
The project comes in three parts, in homage to the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, published by Douglas Hofstadter in 1979. The work discusses the idea of consciousness being enabled by so-called “strange loops”, exemplified in mathematics and music.
In the second part, Prof du Sautoy plans to create physical versions — how literal they are remains to be seen — of the impossible architectural fantasies of the Dutch artist MC Escher, inspired by the architecture of the Barbican and installed throughout the building. In the final section he will take part in a theatrical performance alongside actor Victoria Gould, exploring how one consciousness remains essentially unknowable to another.
Artists and musicians are increasingly engaging with AI, in spite of what some see as its potential threat to their livelihood. It will take centre stage in Britain’s pavilion at the World Expo to take place in Dubai in 2020, under the direction Es Devlin, the stage designer and first woman to be asked to design the British pavilion since its inception in 1851.
Prof du Sautoy, who has penned a book, The Creativity Code, on AI, is optimistic about the opportunities that neural network technology presents for artists. “My feeling is we shouldn’t worry too much yet. We can all get stuck in a rut. AI may help us behave less like machines and offer us new ideas.”
Figures released by the Barbican on Thursday showed it attracted record numbers to its events in 2017-18, with 1.3m people visiting the arts and performance centre on the edge of City of London.
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