Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.—Attributed to Goethe
Goethe admired Beethoven’s works. But Missa solemnis 2.0, a collaboration between pioneering media artist and director Refik Anadol and The Philadelphia Orchestra (April 7, 9, 10, supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage), brings Goethe’s pithy saying to stunning visual and sonic life in ways the German literary giant never could have imagined.
Beethoven completed his Missa solemnis in 1823. Despite being regarded as one of his most stunning musical creations, the piece is rarely performed. 2.0 reimagines this masterwork in ways that deeply respect the music, while applying 21st-century technology to give it a vibrant new life for today’s audiences.
The composer’s partner in this century-spanning project, Refik Anadol, was born in Istanbul. In 2008, while still an undergrad there, he presented his first digital art installation. He went on to create projects that turned the exteriors of buildings all over Europe into artistic canvases, coining the term “data painting” to describe using data as a pigment. After completing master’s degrees in Turkey, he enrolled at UCLA to be closer to his heroes, the pioneers in media arts, and to work on what he calls “next-level concepts.”
Missa solemnis 2.0 is surely one of those. When the project was first proposed, Anadol remembers thinking “Why not use Artificial Intelligence [AI] to try to reconstruct the reality of what Beethoven could imagine?”
To do that, Anadol turned to a database of 12 million images of buildings that Beethoven could have encountered in Europe. (The final presentation includes imagery representing religious spaces and iconography to create a sort of virtual cathedral for the performance of this sacred work.) He then created custom software that, in effect, allows his AI to listen to the Orchestra performing Beethoven, and “dream” an alternative architecture from the composer’s time, while at the same time projecting that dream for the concert audience. (Viewers of the Orchestra’s concerts on the Digital Stage had a taste of what’s in store during performances of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in the fall of 2020.)
Which comes first for Anadol, art or technology? “I got my first computer when I was eight years old. And I was clinically addicted to video games at an early age. I loved how the games let me escape from reality. I was in a virtual space throughout my childhood. So for me, there’s never been a distinction between art and technology. I see a natural connection with the machine as a creative tool.”
Not only that, Anadol says music has always been a key impetus in his creative life. “In all of my projects, every single inspiration has come while listening to music. I have done several projects that combine music and technology—with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and European orchestras. Meanwhile, Yannick and The Philadelphia Orchestra were looking for a cutting-edge, inspiring, innovative approach to the classical music experience. So it was a perfect match. When they kindly asked if I’d consider a collaboration, and I met with Yannick, his vision for the Missa solemnis was so powerful.”
Turning that vision (and Anadol’s take on it) into a physical reality inside Verizon Hall has involved a lot of back and forth. “We have so many restrictions from the engineering perspective. First of all, we are imagining a major scale LED media wall, like a monolith, a data monolith, a data sculpture, going from floor to ceiling; an immersive, multi-dimensional media wall involving millions of pixels. It’s very heavy. It requires next-level rigging techniques. We also have to figure out how big it should be, and exactly where to put it. So we are going step by step, but I am very confident we’ll have one of the most gorgeous installation designs ever!
“Then we have to train our AI to respond to the music. Yannick made the final decisions on which recordings we should use. And then, because we have to be ready for a live performance, we also have to rehearse live with the AI. We’ll be analyzing its behavior right up until the concert.”
How did Yannick respond to Anadol’s ideas for reimagining Beethoven? “It’s amazing,” Anadol says. “He’s been super open-minded since day one, exploring fresh, new concepts, trusting the computers and algorithms. This is truly future-forward, cutting-edge imagination. I deeply appreciate his collaboration. We’ve discussed many complex ideas that are way ahead of our time at the moment, but I’m sure if there’s a dialog that means we can one day make it!”
While popular culture sometimes depicts AI as a truly frightening development, Anadol completely disagrees. “I’m in love with science fiction in general. I love the idea that buildings will one day dream, and AI will become a part of architecture. I do believe our neuro-scientific capacity will go beyond what it is right now. So AI for me is a good thing. I have a very optimistic attitude. We won’t destroy ourselves but become better humans. I’m not a wishful thinker, but truly, I think there’s an incredible potential in AI for humanity.”
How does his Artificial Intelligence compare to the peak level Human Intelligence embodied by The Philadelphia Orchestra? “Of course, what the mind of the audience will experience and what the AI ‘experiences’ is completely different,” Anadol says. “At the end, the audience will define it and decide. But I think there’s a perfect harmony with the music and the visuals when they are exactly ‘understanding’ each other.”
He admits, “There will also be some serendipity. We sometimes don’t know what the AI will do! So there will be some unexpected beauty, some beautiful, aesthetic accidents, creating inspiring moments.”
That serendipity can also be a source of stress, the kind of jitters performers can feel at a premiere. “I know Yannick and all the musicians are playing within milliseconds of perfection,” says Anadol. “I’m at the mercy of the computers and algorithms in the digital realm. So the stress comes from trying to be sure that my part of the presentation is as perfect as theirs is, and that this AI doesn’t make something random that we don’t control. We’re really on the edge of technology here, so anything can happen. But that’s beautiful stress!”
Anadol notes that some critics have dismissed the idea of using AI to respond to music as “Mickey Mouse.” “This is a very intelligent artform. We are creating a machine to hear the music and interpret a narrative with AI.”
Speaking of Mickey Mouse, what does Anadol think of a previous grand project involving The Philadelphia Orchestra, cutting-edge technology, and bold imagination: 1940’s animated triumph Fantasia?
“I always say this: We are on the shoulders of many giants. Fantasia is one of those shoulders. I was very young when I first saw it, in middle or high school. I don’t even know how many times I saw it; it was just so inspiring. Now, working in this AI context with The Philadelphia Orchestra, I’m deeply honored to be close to such shoulders.”
Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.