Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Although most of the hubbub surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday has subsided, a few bits of the celebration have lingered into 2021 as concert halls worldwide open up once again. However, one recent Beethoven item has raised many eyebrows in the music world. Back in September, the news broke that a team of computer specialists and music scholars had “completed” Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony using AI technology and scant scraps that Beethoven left behind upon his death in 1827. Dubbed “Beethoven X: The AI Project,” it was also announced that recording of the results—played by a live orchestra—would be released the following month. Like many, I was skeptical. This just seemed like another lame excuse for more Beethoven deification, one that would take the focus away from issues that are currently more pressing, like promoting diversity and equity in classical music.

Still, I was curious what the results would sound like. So, I recently met over Zoom with my friend Tanner Cassidy—a PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to listen to it and share our impressions. (There may have been a smidge of alcohol involved as well… *wink*) Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity. What did we think? Does a computer have the potential to live up to Beethoven or is this something best left in the trash bin? Let’s find out…

Kevin McBrien (KM): So about a year or two ago, this German telecommunications company [Telekom]—with AI specialists and music scholars—was like, “Hey, let’s take these incomplete sketches of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and feed it into an AI program and see what happens.” And this is the resulting piece that came out of it. There was this musicologist—Barry Cooper—who reconstructed the first movement in the 80s and that’s been recorded and released as kind of a hypothetical Beethoven 10. And this one, apparently, is just the third and fourth movements.

The musicologist Barry Cooper realized the first movement of Beethoven’s Tenth in the 80s, which was subsequently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tanner Cassidy (TC): So there’s no second movement that exists?

KM: I guess not, or there’s not enough to go off of.

TC: I actually have some experience with AI-generated music. An undergrad friend of mine was writing bebop-based algorithmic composition, where he fed it Charlie Parker licks, and then he had me play what the computer spit out, which was just nonsense. AI has really struggled with rhythm, so I’m really curious to see what rhythm sounds like.

KM: Yeah, I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story, and it’s weird. So, I’m also curious to listen to the whole thing.

TC: Well, I’ll mute my audio, and then we can listen to this.

[We listen to the third movement.]

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Happy Birthday, Ludwig

This is intended as a postscript to my January 2020 blog post, “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday.” Click here to check it out.

On January 27, 2020, I published a blog post entitled “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday).” In it, I expressed my lifelong admiration for Beethoven and his music, but also my mixed feelings on the celebrations planned for his 250th anniversary year.

“Happy Birthday Jesus Beethoven. Sorry your party’s so lame.”

Turns out that most of it hasn’t aged well. In early March, a little under two months after publishing the post, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Live performances with packed audiences became all but impossible, and one by one, individual concerts and even entire seasons were canceled in the interest of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Now, nine months later, the situation has improved very little, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Any hope of an all-encompassing Beethoven celebration in 2020 has been extinguished, yet another casualty of this dumpster fire of a year.

Some people are lamenting the loss of the Beethoven year, while others are celebrating it. Personally, I feel somewhere in the middle. Yes, it’s absolutely true that Beethoven didn’t really need all the hubbub of this anniversary year in the first place. His music is performed so much already and would have continued to appear on concert programs either way, anniversary or not. The celebrations that were planned seemed, in some cases, overblown, unimaginative, and even a tad lazy. And of course, there was the very real possibility of it all becoming excessive. As Aesop allegedly said, “It is possible to have too much of a good thing.”

On the other hand, yes, it is a loss. Though I waffle back and forth in my opinions on Beethoven 9, there’s absolutely nothing like experiencing it live and I was greatly looking forward to hearing at least one performance of the work in August. I was also excited for other performances that juxtaposed Beethoven with newer or less-performed works, such as Brooklyn Rider’s striking program that was to pair Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang Quartet (No. 15) with newly-commissioned works by contemporary women composers. The pandemic has made me—and millions of others—hungry for live performance, and though I may not have been enthusiastic about the idea of sitting through an all-Beethoven concert back in January, honestly, that sounds pretty great right now (even if it did include Wellington’s Victory!)

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32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday)

“Ludwig van Beethoven is the most frequently performed of all classical composers. He was also a radical artist who constantly reinvented himself, expanded the boundaries of music and posed questions to society. Even today he inspires people all over the world.” So proclaims the homepage of BTHVN 2020, an organization that joins in this year with hundreds of others worldwide to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most famous, beloved, and—indeed—frequently performed composers in the Western canon.

The birthday boy

The festivities will be wide-ranging and immense. Beethoven’s symphonies, overtures, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets will appear on programs the world over, and, in many cases, entire cycles of these works will be presented. New recordings of time-tested favorites will be made, and classic recordings will be remastered. (Case in point: a recently-released, 123-disc box set claims to offer “the most complete Beethoven anthology ever produced.”) Symposiums, lectures, essays, articles, and books will seek to reveal new insights about the composer. In all, Beethoven will receive a truly comprehensive celebration that he could have only imagined during his lifetime.

Yet, amidst all this merriment, there’s something about this whole celebration that’s a bit overwhelming, redundant, and even fatiguing. And there are some things that I feel need to be said about this. Below, I have compiled a list of 32 miscellaneous thoughts about Beethoven, his music, and his 250th birthday celebration. Why 32? It’s mostly inspired by the film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, but it’s also because Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas. (Come to think of it, those two things are probably connected…) These musings are wide-ranging and in no particular order. I would also like to emphasize that many of these express my opinions. Some you may agree with, others you may disagree with. And that’s 100% fine! At the end of it all, though, it’s clear that there’s still much left to be said about Beethoven…

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