Computer Scientist Luc Steels on the Grunewaldkirche, Bach, and Passions

by Luc Steels (Fellow 2015/2016)

Sunday 20 March 2016. It is early evening and I am on my way with my companion Anne Marie to the Grunewaldkirche. You just have to go around the corner of the Delbrückstraße, then right on Bismarckallee, and then the church is a bit further on your left.

I recognize the neogothic building immediately. I was already there once in 2008 when I was a Fellow in the Focus Group of Holk Cruse. Beate, Holk’s wife, had the key to the church and we sneaked in. We went up the stairs to the organ, an adventurous climb in itself, she sat down, pulled some of the stops and started to play. Incredible, absolutely beautiful music filled the whole church. Bach, of course. Beate was not only using her fingers but also moving her legs up and down quickly touching keys with her feet. I was mesmerized. How can one play like this? Getting these sounds streaming through the church must give an incredible feeling of power and a total deep enjoyment of the music.

Today, we are coming back to the Grunewaldkirche for a performance of the Johannespassion. Turning on the Bismarckallee, I see that there are very few people around the church. Maybe the performance was the week before? Or maybe nobody was showing up? We hasten our step.

As we enter the church, there is a big disappointment. The concert has already started and we can no longer get in. How stupid. I am deeply disappointed. All day, I had been working in utmost concentration on my book on the evolution of language. I guess, I lived up to the image of the computer scientist as a nerd who sticks the entire day glued to his screen, locking all sunlight and all reality out. I plead with the person at the door. Have they really already started? We hear applause. This must be the singers and the conductor entering. Please! We are allowed to slip in and quickly glide on benches on the side, quite close to the stage, which is where I want to be.

The music starts immediately and we get transported to 1724 when Bach, then 39 years old, conducted this oratorium for the first time in the St. Nicholas church in Leipzig. The orchestra starts the very familiar introduction that I remember instantly because I sang the Johannespassion as a member of the Tokyo International Singers when I lived in Japan. It is a stunning piece of music that pulls the audience right in. There is a kind of drone-like drive sustained by the violins and the continuo organ, a beautiful melody being played on top of that by two oboes and flutes with two melodic lines intertwining, and then suddenly after about twenty bars there is a crescendo and the choir explodes with the opening chorus: "Herr, unser Herrscher..." (“Lord, our master . . .”). The church is still lit from the sun outside. It gets darker as the story of Jesus’ last days unfolds. In the end of the performance, I am left with a feeling of profound sadness.

Monday 21 March 2016.Michael Jarrell is this year’s composer in residence. Somebody who can write musical compositions of this complexity and breadth must have a superior form of intelligence, skill and passion. He must be a god! And indeed, Michael looks like a Greek god with his white hairs flowing above his head. Today, he shows me something that is disturbing him: Computer programs that produce some form of music are getting better all the time. I am quite familiar with some of these experiments and what is behind them. Initially most of them have tried to emulate a particular compositional style. An example is the work of David Cope who tried to emulate Bach’s compositional style in a project called ‘the well-programmed clavier’. Although this is quite amazing, it must be said that these computer programs have no real knowledge of counterpoint or harmony, and so they are in a sense less intelligent than the earlier Artificial Intelligence programs. They replay, albeit in a sophisticated way, what they have heard, like an ‘idiot savant’.

But Michael shows me the outcome of a computer program called IAMUS that seemed to be quite different. It relies on the creation of new algorithms by simulating the biological process of evolution by selection. IAMUS randomly combines programming fragments that determine some aspect of the composition and submits the result to a selection process which embodies esthetic criteria. A programming fragment that contributed to a piece of music that satisfies better the esthetic criteria is reused for the next cycle of combining and trying. The others are discarded. The music produced by IAMUS is played by professional instrumentalists, and one of its compositions ‘Transits into an Abyss’ was played by the London Symphony Orchestra at the recent Turing centennial celebration. What disturbed Michael was that this music was actually not bad at all and somehow close to his own musical style. There seemed to be something new, a new musical language, which was coherent from one composition to another. We listened to the music, and I thought Michael felt a bit depressed, like the human world champion GO player that was recently beaten by an Artificial Intelligence program. I reassure him. I am deeply convinced that only music composed by humans has the capacity to evoke fundamental human experiences, the way Bach evokes the biblical “passion” in his Johannespassion, simply because a machine does not have access to them.

Tuesday 22 March 2016. I am preparing myself to go the Tuesday Colloquium. Just before I am about to leave, I quickly check the news. My heart stops. The airport in my home town Brussels has been the subject of a terrorist attack, dozens of people are killed. My daughter lives a few blocks from the attacked metro station and takes the train going through that station every morning around the time of the attack in order to go to work. I quickly send an email and try to call. There is no answer. Has something happened to her? I rush to the colloquium room and slip in at the last minute. The abyss between reality and Wiko-life has never felt greater.

Wednesday 23 March 2016. I felt a strong need to take a train from Berlin back to Brussels. On the way I listen again and again to passages of the Matthäuspassion. The music reinforces the profound sadness in my heart.

Thursday 24 March 2016. My daughter and Anne Marie are fortunately unharmed, but the city as a whole is deeply hurt, and we hear of people who did not make it. There is a performance of the Matthäuspassion by John Eliot Gardener, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque soloists at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. It is a thin veneer of culture on a city in total shock, where the army patrols in the streets, the subway and many offices are shut down, restaurants and night life has come to a stand still. We insist in going there, in order to feel our sorrow translated in music and find the strength to get back on our feet . . .