Daniel Kühnel, Intendant of the Symphoniker Hamburg
One can start by observing that in the field of the performing arts and classical music the Internet is often understood as merely a broadcasting platform. This limited type of usage hardly begins to make full use of the medium’s technical possibilities, because it does not adequately reflect the full potential of either the platform or the music. Very generally, it can be said that the digital space accessible through the Internet can connect people who are physically quite distant from each other and is capable of processing almost unimaginable amounts of data in accordance with largely autonomous parameters – which brings us to the broad field of Artificial Intelligence. Up until now, as my colleagues and I see it, there has been no serious engagement anywhere in the world with these possibilities as regards classical music.
Together with Sylvain Cambreling, the Principal Conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, and a team led by the video artist Aron Kitzig, who specialises in the connections between video art and classical music, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra is developing a two-part project: in the first part, the Internet will be redefined as a concert performance venue, and in the second part, the original digital material will be transformed into a staged event.
The idea is to create two collages – one musical and one visual – whose inextricably linked performances will produce an intentional uncertainty that defies coherent explanation in spite of the fact that they generate plausible compositional textures, and for this reason are capable of modelling perceptual uncertainties.
The musical point of departure is Gustav Mahler's DAS LIED VON DER ERDE [The Song of the Earth], which will be presented on six evenings in the first part of the project. (In addition, a recitation in the Kun opera style of the Chinese poetry on which Mahler’s work is based is planned for an earlier evening.) On each of the first five evenings, which will be recorded, a double collage of music and visual images will be presented. One movement from Mahler's work will be at the centre of each double collage: the first song on the first evening, the second song on the second evening, and so on. On the sixth evening, all six movements of DAS LIED VON DER ERDE will be streamed live, with portions of the visual material created during the performance itself – insofar as current technology allows.
It is not coincidental that DAS LIED VON DER ERDE lies at the heart of the project. This choice and the innovative format of the project are a reaction to the collective experience during the past months of people around the world living under the impact of the pandemic. The project attempts to deal with questions of how we comprehend and confront life. It is ultimately about the nature of human existence in a physical, spiritual, and political sense. In this respect, DAS LIED VON DER ERDE can be described as existential. It traces the increasingly narrow boundary between life and death, exposing fissures that not only make it more difficult to distinguish between life and death, but also less important. The work represents the transition from life to death as a shift between descriptions, levels, or states of being. The piece does not present this transition as a supernatural experience, but rather attempts to find a poetic language to describe the infinite horizons of human thought. The categorical imperative of this infinity is "Die and become!" It invokes the need for a spiritually intact life that is at peace with itself and grounded in a trust of other people.
The first part of the project is designed for an audience in front of computer screens. The selection of the musical repertoire, which also means the organisation of the pieces in the sequence of six evenings, does not follow the usual dramaturgy of progressive classical music performances, but is based on a process of association that results in a collage. The goal is not merely to replicate the live concert experience by streaming on the Internet, but to create a succession of musical events that is appropriate in the digital context.
The choice of musical works was motivated by both intellectual and poetic considerations, and the first part of the project explores the possibilities of the digital realm as a place in its own right, sui generis – a place of innumerable brief associations, a place of shared (in a new sense) artistic reflection, and a place belonging to the space/time of the new visual worlds that have not yet been sufficiently articulated either in cultural or image theory. These new worlds are created by Artificial Intelligence and must be considered in one specific sense to be processes, not only because they are generated by the technologically organised access of musical material, but also because of the conditions in which we perceive digital space.
In the first part of the project, the members of the audience, in front of their screens, will experience the interactions between images from the concert hall, philosophical and poetic commentaries on the events, classic video art, and a visual world created by Artificial Intelligence. These elements are brought together in a video choreography that is only seemingly parallel to the music and which creates a collage-like visual level that increasingly merges into an artistic unity with the music. The collage nature of the work, already evident in the choice of the music, the visual material, and the merging of the two, is also manifest in the fact that Artificial Intelligence itself arises and “learns” from the volume of data it acquires. In a manner of speaking, this process achieves Kant’s "erweiterte Denkungsweise", or the human ability to look at an issue from many viewpoints. This also explains the unique power of collage techniques, which are capable of evoking a new awareness, ideally even investing the aesthetic judgement of the viewer with new elasticity.
Commenting on the visual world created by Artificial Intelligence, Aron Kitzig says, "The Internet is full of data of every possible type. Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN) are algorithms that, without setting specific goals, use the data produced by each of us every day in order to ‘learn’. You could also say that they (re)produce ‘ideas’ of objects. It is essential to explore how intellectual creations are linked to sensory experiences. That is what I will call here the 'feedback loop' or the game of ping-pong between sender and addressee, between machine and recipient, between music and image. GANs increase the figurative aspect to an unrecognisable extent by producing feasible compositions and textures that defy coherent explanation. These 'GAN images', already in use in recent works of art, can be understood in their vagueness as a perceptual process. Consequently, in this respect GANs offer a potential tool for art by making it possible to shape the essence of perceptual vagueness.”
The planned work is radical in its intention of exploring an art form which is neither concert nor video nor primarily theatrical. The point is not to illustrate the music, or to underlay or overlay the video with music, but to create of a new area for perception. According to Aron Kitzig, "The GAN brings our fragments of memory to the surface and links them together into a new narrative. The most exciting artistic issue is not the aesthetic configuration of the objects created by GANs, but the observer’s sensory recognition within the digital space and the expansion of our perception through our interaction with these objects. 'Natural perception' and its conditions are what phenomenology declares to be the norm. These conditions are existential coordinates that define the manner in which the observer is 'anchored' in the world, their sense of being in the world, an opening to the world expressed as 'all awareness is awareness of something'. Accordingly, in my work the perceived or actual motion is certainly not meant in the sense of an 'idea' that is visualised in matter. It is meant as a form of recognition that organizes the field of perception according to an intentional awareness."
In the second part of the project, a stage version will be based on this material, but with the relationship between the visual and musical media reversed, as it were. Here the visual component will be integrated into a live on-stage presentation, thus expanding considerably the concert experience through the inclusion of contemporary processes of visual reception. The planning for the second part, which has yet to be finalised, may employ a large number of screens distributed throughout the stage area. These would follow a centrally controlled choreography, with the ensemble of musicians placed behind the audience. Also possible is a video projection onto a translucent surface behind which the orchestra is placed. In any case, cultural habits will be called into question and the concert ritual altered in two provocative ways: on one hand, simply by the displacement of the music from the stage (which corresponds to the partial concealment of the concert images by other video material in the first part of the project) and on the other by the audience’s confrontation with a stage event employing material generated by Artificial Intelligence. Thus the combination of Mahler’s music with a visualisation of the aesthetic possibilities of the Internet age reaffirms freedom as the essence of all cultural activity.
The following musicians are collaborating with Sylvain Cambreling and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra to create the musical collage: Nicholas Angelich, Martha Argerich, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Daniel Behle, Julia Kleiter, Andrei Ioniţă, David Orlowsky, and Michael Volle.