Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Is it possible to use computers to write a musical?

So, word is out: Nathan and I have been working, in secret, on a very special project for Sky Arts which asks a very interesting question: "Can computers write a stage musical?" Actually, more specifically, the question we're asking in the documentary is "how can computers aid and influence the creation of a stage musical?" The subtle difference is necessitated by the fact that there are still some things, like the writing of dialogue, which computers can't even pretend to do.

Nathan and I are over-seeing the entire project. We're writing what the computers can't write and curating and adapting the stuff that they can. The different processes we're utilising have been and are being developed by teams of top academics across the world. That's why we spent time in Madrid, Durham and Cambridge over the summer. Some of the processes are astonishing. Some are laced with bugs and issues. Our task is to stumble from one to another interrogating systems and finding out how they can be used to help our musical.

So far, we've had most success with computer systems which deal with ideation; the generation of creative ideas which aid people like me and Nathan. A computer is able to offer any number of curve-balls which can make a writer or composer think in an entirely different way. Years ago, for example, David Bowie invented computer programmes which generated pairs of random words which he used to inspire lyrics.

It's been quite a journey. I have learned much. I've been inspired. I've been blissfully happy. I've been frustrated. I've been incredibly stressed.

But will the musical be any good? Well, you'll have to see for yourself! It's on at the Arts Theatre from 22nd February... So go buy a ticket at:

I am proud to report that the show is set in an anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s. Believe it or not, this setting was selected by computer and I'm so pleased that the virtual Gods landed on that particular spot. I have long since been obsessed by what happened in those camps 35 years ago. Those women are my genuine heroes. They re-invented feminism and ultimately returned Greenham Common to the good folk of Newbury. And having spent a great deal of time in a CND commune in my early childhood, they're also women that I feel I know very well.

Readers will not be surprised to read that the day was spent writing. I've been working on a song called How Dare You, which has been inspired by a computer composition with the catchy name "Show Tune 1.74." The music comes in batches of up to 100 melodies, which we have to patiently sift through with our pianist Katharine. Some are awful beyond words. We howl with laughter. We wince. We get punch drunk and wish that we were deaf. And then once in a while a strange thing happens, our collective ears perk up and we get a little excited. A nip here, a little tuck there, a change of chord, and a driving accompaniment... and suddenly there's a number we can be proud of.

So there you have it. That's my secret and that's what I'll be doing till February! Do book yourself a ticket before the show sells out.

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