Orchestra is first to play AI take on Beethoven’s unfinished 10th

Artificial intelligence – AI – seems to be everywhere, from chatbots to streaming recommendations to image generators and dozens of features you don’t even know are on your phone.

Later this month, it will be center stage when the Grove City College Orchestra performs the world premiere of the first AI-generated attempt to complete Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony.

“Symphony (After Beethoven)” was created by composer and scientist David Cope’s Experiments in Musical Intelligence – EMI – system two decades ago but was never performed live. The first movement of the piece will comprise the first half of the Orchestra’s concert at 7:30 p.m. April 28 in Ketler Auditorium. The show concludes with Beethoven’s “First Symphony.”

Beethoven died in 1827, leaving behind dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sketches for an unfinished symphony. Composers and musicologists have long been fascinated with the idea of completing the work, with varying success.

“This is the sort of piece that has kept the imaginations of conservatory kids for quite some time, there are even novels written about it,” Music Technology Instructor Mark Wasilko ’17 said.

Cope, the “godfather of AI composition,” took up the project in the late 1990s. He used the sketches and a model of Beethoven’s entire musical output as the basis for EMI to finish “Symphony (After Beethoven),” according to Wasilko, who met Cope when he was doing graduate research. For a variety of reasons, it “sat on a shelf for two decades,” he said.

“One day Cope mentioned it, offhand, to me … I asked him if I could have a copy of the score and kept it in the back of my mind to get it performed one day,” he said. The growing ubiquity of AI in our everyday lives – and the ongoing debate over the implications of that – provided an opportunity.

“I thought, why not now? Surely there is an interested audience. And why not Grove City College? Beyond the school having many students and faculty interested in the meeting of the arts and STEM, a Christian school is uniquely positioned to approach questions of how AI will affect the future of humanity from a made-in-the-image-of-God worldview,” Wasilko said.

Students performing “Symphony (After Beethoven)” are approaching the work with some of those questions in mind, according to Music Professor and Department Chair Dr. Jeffrey Tedford ’00, who directs the 81-member ensemble. He surveyed students as they rehearsed the AI composition and found most were wary of the idea but saw the value in engaging with it through performance.

“I had no idea what to expect, and I am positively surprised at what the AI was able to create,” Anne Leaman, principal viola, said. “Yes, not everything is perfect, and that’s OK because it shows why we still need humans to compose music and how technology can be an aid to composers.”

Laura Austin, second violin, was skeptical at first. “Even if it ends up sounding as nice as something a human – such as Beethoven – composed, it seems to me that the humanity behind it is lost,” she said. Kendra Schoeppner, second violin, noted that even if the music is AI-written, “it is still the musician’s job to interpret it.”

“I still don't think I will ever prefer AI music over man-made music but playing through this piece is showing me how there is definitely still potential in this field,” Matthew Runninger, principal oboe, said. Logan Green, principal percussion, also sees the potential. “Give it a chance. It's not Beethoven, but the concept itself allows for creative thinking and very active listening,” he said.

Beethoven is the perfect composer to “bring back to life through cybernetic alchemy,” Wasilko said. “If he were alive today, I’d bet he’d use AI. He was a serial innovator who added newly created brass instruments to the orchestra and stretched and pushed the forms and tonality of his day.”

“‘Symphony (After Beethoven)’ is so vital because it’s a piece of AI music that can show that there’s something of ourselves in all of the ones and zeroes, something of David Cope that lives in EMI,” Wasilko said.

The Orchestra’s concert is free and open to the public and livestream will be available at gcc.edu/livestream .

For more about the Department of Music, visit gcc.edu/musi.

Orchestra is first to play AI take on Beethoven’s unfinished 10th

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