Alex Braga: first musician who uses artificial music intelligence to perform live
Not so long time ago artificial music intelligence was considered to be a “science fiction”, but, thanks to a small team of like-minded people from Italy, it became true. Today A.M.I. – world's first artificial intelligence capable of hacking the improvisation code of any musician and any instrument after few notes – is being developed in Roma Tre University.
“It sounds complex but it’s actually really fun,” claims Alex Braga, a well-known musician and an author of this idea. He is about to make a revolution in a field of electronic music by introducing A.M.I. to both live music shows and creative studio work.
A.M.I. is already building its’ path to public recognition due to Braga’s new collaboration performances where he improvises together with the finest pianists of nowadays. One of the upcoming shows is planned for an opening conference of “Maker Faire Rome – European Edition” on October 12th.
So, as much as being an article on artificial music intelligence and “Maker Faire Rome”, this is also a story of an artist, an emotional performer and an enthusiastic “nerd” Alex Braga, whose talent to bring the feeling of adventure to otherwise “dry” technology is indisputable. By connecting it to his views on the music making process, sustainable life and creativity in general, Braga gives A.M.I. a purpose – to become a tool of creating harmony between man and the machine.
Orchestra conductor of the future
Artificial music intelligence sounds very… complex. But how does it actually work and how long did it take to develop the technology?
It’s not complex at all! It actually goes back to the roots when musicians could jam without fear focusing just on the chemistry between them. Electronic music took it away for some time: premade materials and preparation became most important [in a performance].
Artificial music intelligence (A.M.I) brings back the fun. It gives a soul to electronic music by allowing performer to jump on stage and improvise the same way as any other musician. However, the work’s still in progress. What we came up with is a first release and it took us about 6-8 months to get to it.
At the moment, our performance is made with me, my machines and A.M.I. on one side of the stage and pianist on the other side of the stage. In the middle there is a huge video projection. So the pianist starts to play whatever he wants. I don’t know what, I don’t need to know and that is the fun part of all the demonstration. After 100 notes, A.M.I. cracks the code and I start to receive unlimited notes previsioned on what he’s playing. So I become an orchestra conductor of the future because I assign all these midi notes to virtual instruments and can build electronic orchestration while pianist is playing.
If he stops, my virtual musician stops, if he changes the pitch, we change the pitch, if he goes faster, we go faster, if he slows down… well, you know, we just jam together as if we were in a jazz club in the thirties.
Moreover, all his notes generate a visual from one side of the screen and my notes generate another path from my side. When these lines get together, they create new images, showing how the human side and artificial intelligence can co-work in order to create the balance.
That leads to my next question: how the development of artificial music intelligence can change working conditions for music makers?
Just imagine this: you are a producer, arranger, composer. You have a track and you want to orchestrate it. You need the bassline, you need the strings, you need flutes, synthesizers… What you normally do, is you go back to the start, listen to the melody you prerecorded and little by little build everything else around it. You try to add bass, if it doesn’t sound good, you redo it. Then you go to strings, a polyphonic orchestration, which takes many layers, a lot of time of planning. That is how it normally works.
When you use our algorithm, you only need to play the first theme. A.M.I composes all the rest for you. You can hear it on real time while you are improvising on your theme. In terms of life performance, if you are electronic music maker, you need to control grids, pitches, tunes, melodies, stuff like that and if live music player, who is on stage with you, changes something, you might end up completely screwed. So having A.M.I for electronic music player is like orchestrating all the other “musicians” within his instrument.
How did you come up with an idea to create A.M.I.?
I’ve always found artificial intelligence to be, probably, the most advanced tool we have to fulfill the concept of sustainable future. Yet, there are still so many people who believe that A.I. is capable of taking over humanity in, let’s say, 2035. Claims to stop development of artificial intelligence are similar as prohibiting hammer just because one can break somebody’s head with it. That are people, who use machines as weapons, not machines which decide to become weapons.
So I wanted to show that artificial intelligence has nothing to do with slavery of human beings in the nearest future. The main idea was to demonstrate on stage how man and machine can cooperate in order to overcome boundaries that man alone cannot reach and machine alone cannot reach either. I had a vision to build artificial intelligence that could decode the improvisation pattern of any musician on stage in real time.
I introduced the idea to a few universities. I told that I am an artist, I don’t write codes, but I can sniff that this is something for the future. I asked them if my vision is a science fiction or if it is something that can be done. Some of them claimed it’s a science fiction, some didn’t answer at all and one, that is University of Roma Tre, wanted to partner. Professors Francesco Riganti, Antonino Laudani and Alessandro Salvini became my “soulmates” to develop new organic instrument to make music.
Hacking finest pianists of the world
How many times have you performed with A.M.I. on stage already?
I’ve done about ten concerts with one of the finest piano improvisers Danilo Rea, who used to play with musicians such as Chet Baker (to name one). Then, at the end of August in Paris, in the Centre Pompidou, we debuted with Francesco Tristano, a superstar pianist from Luxembourg, known for both his classical works and his distinctive techno style. In the end of September we are going to play in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, and then in the opening conference of “Maker Faire Rome”, on the 12th of October. This will be the only concert I am going to play with Francesco during “Maker Faire”, during other concerts I will be joined by young and talented pianists from Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. We’ve partnered with them to study artificial intelligence as a new music instrument.
Is it the first time you are going to be a participant in “Maker Faire”?
Yes, and it as an honor to participate in an event organized by Roman stakeholder. I am very excited to bring this particular project, developed by University Roma Tre, and treated well by audiences not only in Italy, but also in foreign countries. Until we started working on A.M.I., this type of project was considered to be something typically made in Paris, Berlin or New York. People like me felt as if we don’t have credentials to do it here. Now, when there are problems with low self-esteem in Italy, it is important to show that we are able to produce great things; we don’t need to leave home, family and go somewhere else to try our luck.
“Maker Faire” is a fantastic event. Last year I visited it out of curiosity. This time I will be playing 10 concerts during 3 days but if I have spare time, I will spend it going around and watching everything this event has to offer. Sometimes even small things can become a huge inspiration so I am really looking forward to it.
From guitar & computer to the laws of harmony
You have worked in many different projects involving various medias but it seems that one form you always concentrated on was music. How did you start making it?
It’s a funny story. When I was around twelve years old, I discovered that all my friends had computers so they could play video games and I could not. I begged my parents to buy me one but they thought it would be better if I played a music instrument instead. They told me that if I chose an instrument to study, they would buy me a computer. So I chose guitar.
My mom was very smart. When I finally got a computer, I didn’t spend time playing video games. Instead, computer as well as guitar became my instruments to make music.
Did you consider yourself more as a musician or an artist back then?
Well, you definitely never see yourself as a contemporary artist even when you are. I wanted to be in a rock band! My hair turned blue, then green, then all the different colors. I was playing the guitar, writing indie psycho rock music and I was really much into that. But, even though rock is my roots and up until now, when I sing or scream in the shower I don’t scream contemporary electronic music, even back then I understood that in rock everything has been said and there were so many better artists who’ve done it before me.
I asked myself what could I do to become a game changer, an innovator. What was the futuristic kind of way? Dj’ing? No, DJing was boring as hell. I’ve done that but… you press one button, see people dancing and you are not. It’s not much of fun for musician who prefers to play on stage, to sweat, to offer his soul to the crowd.
That is selfish but I wanted to do something never done before so that nobody could critique me or compare with someone else. Nobody has ever stepped on stage using artificial intelligence to play in real time before, so here I am.
When did your focus shift towards the the topics of sustainability which are very common in your work?
It was music that made everything to go into right places. Music as the code that contains the laws of harmony, as a pure intention to speak to the soul. Practicing it is like practicing meditation: one can reach different level of mind. So my interest on sustainability as well as holistic view of life was driven by it.
I think you cannot fight the battle for Amazon or fully regard the nature, if you haven’t tried to create harmony around yourself. It is never going to work. This is why I am also interested into ecological food, I am a surfer, I love to cook and grow my own groceries. They are all integral parts of the system that need to be put together… But these are just boring words, life is much more interesting, believe me!
Interview by Grete Kaulinyte
First published on KULT.LT