New musical Beyond the Fence created almost entirely by computers

Is there a formula for writing a hit musical? And if so, could a computer do it? The new musical Beyond the Fence, which was written almost entirely by computers, hopes to answer that question.

Algorithms used to generate plot, music for new show set to open in London

The creative team for Beyond the Fence included human composers and computer scientists, but the music and plot were almost entirely created by a set of computer algorithms. (SkyTV/YouTube)

Is there a formula for writing a hit musical? And if so, could a computer do it?

That's one of the questions the team behind the new musical Beyond the Fence hopes to answer. The musical, making its debut in London in February, was written almost entirely by computers.

CBC technology columnist Dan Misener answers some questions on what this means for the intersection of science and art.

How did computers write a musical?

The music in Beyond the Fence — and its plot, which centres around a group of women living in a peace camp protesting U.S. cruise missiles in 1982 — were almost entirely created by a set of computer algorithms, in an example of what some people call "computational creativity."

The project was launched by Benjamin Till, a composer, and his husband Nathan Taylor, an actor and writer. They worked with a team that included experts in music and computation. Together, they did a data analysis of musical theatre.

An algorithm looked at existing shows and analyzed certain factors, including the size of the cast, the emotional structure, and plot points like falling in love or dying.

Those factors were then correlated with the relative success of the musical. Essentially, they tried to algorithmically reverse engineer the recipe for musical theatre success.

Then, a specialized algorithm generated the show's central premise and characters. A piece of software called PropperWryter was used to create a plotline.

The music was also generated by an algorithm. There's actually already a lot of software that can generate original compositions, but the software used for Beyond the Fence is named "Android Lloyd Webber," because it was "trained" specifically on musical theatre.

Should composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber be worried that algorithms might replace human creativity? 

Jason Cullimore, a composer and a PhD student at the University of Regina, says a human creative approach will still be needed — but it might be expressed differently.

In addition to writing music himself, Cullimore also writes code that writes music, which he says is its own type of creativity.

"When I design computer music systems, I'm making choices that go beyond simple math," he said.

"I'm making choices like, 'Do I want this music to project happiness, or sadness, or somewhere in between?' It's definitely not like computers are replacing human beings. It's just changing the balance of who makes the choices."

Cullimore's research focuses on what he calls "adaptive music," where a computer creates music in response to — and in some ways, in partnership with — the audience. The idea is that the audience becomes part of the process, creating the score — again, not removing humans from the equation, but shifting the creative decision making.

Rehearsals are set to begin early in 2016, and the show opens in London on Feb. 22. (Beyond the Fence)

Are we seeing other examples of "computational creativity?"

Yes, it's an idea that goes beyond computer-generated music. For example, at the intersection of artificial intelligence and computational linguistics, you'll find algorithms that can generate poetry. One computer scientist even managed to get a computer-generated poem published in a literary journal.

There are also algorithms that can write hip-hop lyrics, optimized for rhyme density.

Algorithms have also been used to create jokes, visual art, and even simple video games from scratch. But up until now, we haven't seen a computer-generated musical on the scale of Beyond the Fence.

Is it likely we'll see more computer-generated art?

It seems likely, but a lot depends on the quality of the output. For example, most of the jokes generated by computers right now aren't that funny or sophisticated. A lot of the visual art that algorithms create is pretty weird.

Jason Cullimore calls the emergence of computer-generated art "an exciting development," but says we need to be careful not to lose the essence of "art" in the process.

"We want to make sure that our art expresses something that's human, as opposed to something that's automatically generated," he said.

We'll find out soon if Beyond the Fence meets that standard. Rehearsals are set to begin early in 2016, and the show opens in London on Feb. 22.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.


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