There are a fair few new shows debuting this year on the West End. Some from familiar faces like the team behind the Lion King for new show Aladdin. Some from some new faces. And one from an entirely different kind of face.
Aka, a computer and its programming.
Yes, you read that right.
Opening in February at the Arts Theatre, Beyond the Fence is a new musical which has been conceived entirely by a computer.
And the science behind it is pretty amazing:
The process began with a predictive, big data analysis of success in musical theatre, conducted by Dr James Robert Lloyd, Dr Alex Davies and Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter (Cambridge University). They interrogated everything from cast size, to backdrop, emotional structure to the importance of someone falling love, dying (or both!) – in more and less successful shows – to create a set of constraints to which the musical had to conform, to theoretically optimise chances of success.
Next, the team visited what’s known as the What-If Machine at Goldsmiths, University of London. With Prof Simon Colton, Dr Maria Teresa Llano and Dr Rose Hepworth at the helm, the machine generated multiple central premises, featuring key characters, for the new show. The team selected this as the starting point and the original idea for the musical:
What if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?
A plot structure for the musical was also generated computationally, thanks to work led by Dr Pablo Gervás (Complutense University of Madrid). A brand new analysis of musical theatre narratives enabled him to adapt an existing story telling computer system, called PropperWryter, to turn its hand to musicals and build the core narrative arc of the new show.
Taken together, all of the above enabled the precinct for the emerging story to be identified: Greenham Common. The team then wrote a book and lyrics (with the assistance of some other computational tools) that fitted all these constraints.
Finally, the music material has been provided by Dr Nick Collins (Durham University), who has created a computer composition system he calls Android Lloyd Webber based on a machine listening analysis of musical theatre music, conducted by Dr Bob Sturm (QMUL) and Dr Tillman Weyde (City University). Additional computer music material will be generated using the FlowComposer system created by Dr Pierre Roy and Dr Francois Pachet (SonyCSL, Paris).
Source: Beyond the Fence
Whether or not the show is actually any good, I’d say that pun justifies this entire experiment!
It’s a bold venture and I’ll be interested to see just how much of it is computer derived. For example, did it generate song titles and the creative team then built songs round them? From the synopsis alone, it is sounding a tad cliched. Although given that the programme took into account countless musicals before it, that can’t be helped. And I’m pretty sure computers aren’t accustomed to cliches. Yet. This seems to be where the human aspect comes in, with certain lyrical free range given here. Hopefully more detail about this, the methods and perhaps what sample of ‘successful shows’ will be given in the accompanying Sky Arts TV show: Computer Says Show.
…I’m now 99% sure the entire project was conceived to see how many computer/musical puns they could make.
We’ll end on the question the trailer poses: Can Science really create Art?
And I’m sure people will have different opinions about that. Me? Personally, I think it’s an intriguing concept, bringing together man and machine.
Just as long as they don’t go near Shakespeare, we’re good.