20 Dec 2021
The Sound of Contagion performance of music generated and inspired by Artificial Intelligence
On 30th November, the Digital Research Cluster at Wolfson College hosted an extraordinary event – a performance of music generated and inspired by Artificial Intelligence, encouraging the audience to reflect on what makes a creator creative and how we think about authorship, artistry, and composition as products of human creativity in an age of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.
The event was brought to us by “The Sound of Contagion” team, a flagship project of the Oxford-Berlin partnership between the University of Oxford and Universität der Künste. The Sound of Contagion explores what happens when we use creativity to improve algorithms, and algorithms to support creativity: it brings AI, music composition and narrative theory into conversation in an innovative, disruptive and yet charming story of resilience in the face of crisis.
Event advertising graphic, courtesy of Chelsea Haith
This was the live premiere of new music by composer Robert Laidlow, responding to the algorithmically-produced “The Sound of Contagion” story. Robert is the PRiSM Researcher in Artificial Intelligence at the Royal Northern College of Music, and this was not the first time we’ve seen him in Oxford – in 2019 his piece “Alter”, composed with and about AI, was performed in the Holywell Music Room after its Barbican premiere.
While Rob was present in person in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, co-creators Chelsea Haith and Wenzel Mehnert took to the stage digitally – Chelsea, a researcher and writer based in Oxford and South Africa, provided commentary on the project's origins and future from South Africa; Wenzel, a researcher and theorist, read the AI-generated text from Berlin. Their intended travel had been prevented by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it seemed entirely appropriate that an event conceived and composed during the pandemic should be performed in it too, mediated by our response to it.
Rob Laidlow (on stage), Chelsea Haith (on screen). Image courtesy of David De Roure
The music was performed by Bandwidth, an ensemble dedicated to producing real-time music online, embracing the high-latency environment of the internet and using online platforms to discover new ways of reacting to one another, through the way we listen and respond. The musicians were invisible to the audience in the auditorium, behind the scenes in two separate rooms until their curtain call, supporting the singer on stage.
The performance also included work by composer Marco Galvani, who beamed in live for conversation. To complete the evening’s experience, the reception featured an exhibition of the project's concept art by South African artist Sara Laubscher. Her original compositions had been fed back into the AI algorithm to produce new works exhibited alongside the originals.
David De Roure, Professor of e-Research in the Oxford e-Research Centre, director of the Wolfson Digital Research Cluster and Technical Director of PRiSM, said:
“It was the most digital event, and probably the most complex, that the cluster has ever seen and it was hugely successful – it was exciting and provocative, and it prompted questions about AI and creativity which should contribute to a much wider debate about what it means to be a creative human in a world increasingly pervaded by AI and algorithms.”
The Oxford-Berlin partnership between the University of Oxford and Universität der Künste, showcases ideas and research across the arts and humanities, combining established methodologies with new and exciting forms of artistic expression. The event was made possible by the Minderoo-Oxford Challenge for Governance in AI and The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH). This event would not have been possible without the support of the teams at TORCH and the English Faculty, with special thanks also to Amy Barker, Ruth McGuire, Christine Bayliss, Sadie Slater, Holly Knights, Alasdair MacDonald, Carl Schoenfeld, Bryony Oliver, Kathryn Pocock, and the Bandwidth ensemble.