Laura Paisley
Automation trailer still

Grammy-nominated, Emmy-winning composer Adam Schoenberg’s cutting-edge new work invites listeners to consider the conflicts and connections between human and machine. It also yielded an exciting interdisciplinary collaboration at Occidental.

Adam Schoenberg. Photo by Sam Zauscher
Can a technologically superior yet emotionless machine create music that is able to move us?

Automation, a commissioned work by Associate Professor of Music Adam Schoenberg for cello, halldorophone, electronics and orchestra, will attempt to answer that question. Called a “cinematic concerto” because it enhances the traditional concert hall experience with filmic elements, Automation explores the complex relationship between humans and technology as well as the intersection of acoustic and electronic music. 

Schoenberg devised the performance concept together with cellist Yves Dhar, his former Juilliard classmate and the producer of the piece. The product of nearly five years of planning and collaborating, the performance aims to attract younger audiences to the concert hall and embrace mainstream topics such as living with technology in a digital world.

“Yves’ initial thinking was that he wanted a piece that was relevant, timely and could attract a younger crowd,” Schoenberg says. “So we immediately thought of tech and the world that we live in and what that means for a musical performance. Then came the idea of a concerto that is rooted in analog—ie, acoustic instruments—but placed in the 21st century.”

A halldorophone.
Dhar performs as cello soloist with the orchestra and will be joined onstage by his holographic counterpart, who plays the cello synced to pre-recorded tracks of AI-generated music. The AI cellist and Dhar go on spar back and forth in “battle mode.” The holograph is produced by 2D digital images projected onto a highly reflective, near-transparent scrim, which makes the projections appear 3D.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the halldorophone—an electro-acoustic feedback instrument reminiscent of a cello—is making its world premiere as a solo instrument with orchestra. The halldorophone is a drone-like instrument that produces distortion, frequency beats, feedback and rich overtones. Its eerie sounds were featured in Oscar-winner Hildur Gudnadottir's scores for Chernobyl, Joker and Arrival. 

Occidental College became the first educational institution in North America to commission and now own this instrument, with funding from both the Barbara U. Johnson ’43 P’71 GP’04 GP’13 Fund for New Music and the Mellon Arts and Tech in Los Angeles grant.

The holographic cellist performs music that was composed by a specially designed AI algorithm, an aspect of the performance that came about through Occidental connections. Through casual conversations with Associate Professor of Computer Science Justin Li, Schoenberg learned of AI that can not only replicate a type of music, but actually digest and learn music, and then compose something original.

That led to further discussions, and Schoenberg began working with his colleague Kathryn Leonard, professor and founding chair of computer science, at the Summer Institute for Computational Creativity and Interactive Arts. Organized by Oxy Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows Teddy Pozo and Fabio Paolizzo, the institute was also funded by the Mellon Arts and Tech in Los Angeles grant.

“I knew very little about AI going into all of this, but Kathryn was incredible to work with,” Schoenberg says. “She and her partner Ghassan Sarkis, who teaches at Pomona College, built an AI for us named AGNES—Automatic Generator Network for Excellent Songs.”

Kathryn Leonard. Photo by Marc Campos
They “fed” the AI compositions by Schoenberg so it could learn his musical language and style, plus a singular cello piece so the AI could familiarize itself with the main element of the music it would create. The AI was developed over the course of several months before producing the music that was ultimately embedded in the score.

Leonard called the collaboration a great example of the exciting projects that come out of the liberal arts and Oxy’s support of interdisciplinary work. 

“I had never worked on computer-generated music before,” Leonard says, “which meant I had a lot of fun experimenting with how teaching our AI composer different styles of music—ranging from video game melodies to Bach to Radiohead to Schoenberg—would result in different styles of AI-generated outputs." 

Leonard said she felt as though she was collaborating with the AI, with Schoenberg and with all the composers who came before whose music helped inform the AI model.

“Knowing that the product of my work will be performed and therefore experienced by a general audience, rather than the usual small group of researchers in my research area, is also quite gratifying,” she added.

Automation premieres May 13-14, 2022 with the Louisville Orchestra, conducted by Teddy Abrams.