Unfinished Beethoven symphony reimagined in a click in Switzerland

As conductor Guillaume Berney marks the opening downbeat, the first chords ring out in a Lausanne concert hall of what could conceivably be an extract of Beethoven's Tenth Symphony -- if the great German composer had ever managed to complete the piece.

Unfinished Beethoven symphony reimagined in a click in Switzerland
Members of Nexus orchestra, conducted by Guillaume Berney, warm up prior to performing in Lausanne on September 2nd, 2021. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The classical music world has often speculated what Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) would have gone on to write after his monumental Ninth Symphony.

And a number of musicologists and composers have already ventured to orchestrate and complete some of the scraps of notation they believe were his first sketches for his next symphonic masterpiece.

READ ALSO: How AI is adding the final notes to German composer’s Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

But to mark their 10th anniversary season this year, Berney and Switzerland’s Nexus orchestra have decided to use artificial intelligence to create a four-minute extract which they have dubbed BeethovANN Symphony 10.1.

“That is not a typo,” Berney told the audience at the first night, with a second performance scheduled in Geneva on Friday.

Computer programme designer Florian Colombo works with his software in Lausanne on September 2nd, 2021. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Berney explains that the ANN refers to the artificial neural network that created it, basically without human intervention.

“We don’t know what it will sound like,” Berney acknowledged to AFP ahead of the Lausanne concert.

The final score was only generated and printed out hours before the performance, after computer programme designer Florian Colombo oversaw the final step in what for him has been a years-long process.

‘Like watching a birth’
Seated in his small apartment with a view over the old city of Lausanne and the Alps in the distance, Colombo made a couple of small changes before clicking a button to generate the score.

“It’s like watching a birth,” Berney said as he picked up the first pages emerging from the printer.

The excitement was palpable as the freshly created sheet music was presented to the orchestra.

The musicians eagerly began rehearsing for the evening concert, many smiling with surprise as the harmonies unfolded.

“This is an emotional experience for me,” said Colombo, himself a cellist, as the sound filled the hall.

“There is a touch of Beethoven there, but really, it is BeethovANN. Something new to discover.”

Berney agreed.

“It works,” he said. “There are some very good parts, and a few that are a bit out of character, but it’s nice,” the conductor said, acknowledging though that “maybe it lacks that spark of genius.”

Florian Colombo (R) speaks to members of Nexus orchestra next to Guillaume Berney (2nd R) during a rehearsal in Lausanne on September 2nd, 2021.(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Colombo, a computer scientist at the EPFL technical university, developed his algorithm using so-called deep-learning, a subset of artificial intelligence aimed at teaching computers to “think” via structures modelled on the human brain or ANNs.

To generate something that might possibly pass as an extract from Beethoven’s Tenth, Colombo first fed the computer all of the master’s 16 string quartets, explaining that the chamber works provided a very clear sense of his harmonic and melodic structures.

He then asked it to create a piece around one of the theme fragments found in Beethoven’s sparse notes that musicologists believe could have been for a new symphony.

“The idea is to just push a button to produce a complete musical score for an entire symphonic orchestra completely without intervention,” Colombo said.

“That is, except for all the work I put in ahead of time,” added the computer programmer who has been working for nearly a decade towards deep-learning-generated music.

‘Not blasphemous’ 
Colombo said that using a computer to try to recreate something begun by one of the world’s greatest musical geniuses was not encroaching on the human creative process.

Instead, he said, he saw his algorithm as a new tool for making musical composition more accessible and for broadening human creation.

While the programme “can digest what has already been done and propose something similar,” he said the aim was for “humans to use the tools to create something new.”

“It is not blasphemous at all,” Berney agreed, stressing that “no one is trying to replace Beethoven.”

In fact, he said, the German composer would likely have been a fan of the algorithm.

“Composers at that time were all avant-garde,” he said, pointing out that the best were “always eager to adopt new methods.”

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Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

Depopulation threatens the future of Switzerland's picturesque mountain villages, but three brothers are trying to keep theirs alive by capturing its essence in a bottle.

Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

In the one-road hamlet of Souboz, nearly 900 metres (2,950 feet) up in the Jura mountains, the nature-loving Gyger brothers distill whatever they forage, such as gentian roots and juniper, in a bid to sustain the local economy.

Switzerland is trying to stave off the slow-motion extinction of its remote communities as young people move to the cities for jobs and opportunities.

Thanks to a grant from the Swiss Mountain Aid foundation, the Gygers were able transform their grandfather’s old home into the Gagygnole distillery,
turning professional a couple of years ago.

The name comes from eldest brother Gaetan’s nickname Gagy, and gnole — French slang for a drop of the hard stuff.

On the ground floor of an old farmhouse, the scent of coriander and juniper berries hangs in the air, while warmth emanates from the 2.5-metre-high copper still in which Gaetan distills gin over a wood fire.

“This production site has been in our lives since we were very young. We really have roots anchored in our village,” he told AFP.
 An agronomist by training, Gaetan, now 30, had studied in Geneva.

“We didn’t want to set up in the city,” he said, despite the bigger potential client base.

 Mountains in Swiss DNA

The brothers’ choice is a rare one in Switzerland.

The mountains cover 70 percent of the country, but three-quarters of the population lives on the plain between the Juras in the north and the Alps in
the south and east.

Geneva, Lausanne, Bern and Zurich all lie in the area of relatively flat terrain between the two mountain ranges.

The mountain villages are emptying, their grocery stores are closing and, as in Souboz, the schools are shutting, too, as the population gradually
shifts ever more towards the lower-lying towns and cities.

The population of Souboz has dropped from 135 in 2012 to 85 last year.

Faced with the slow-motion exodus, some villages are trying everything they can to reverse the tide, including financial incentives to attract newcomers,
such as offering empty houses for a symbolic sum of one Swiss franc.

READ MORE: ‘Impossible’: Why Switzerland’s one franc homes are too good to be true

And Swiss Mountain Aid provides funding to hundreds of entrepreneurs, such as the Gyger brothers, to bring jobs and business to the hills.

The mountains are “part of our genes, our DNA”, but “if we want to keep the mountains alive, there must be people”, said the foundation’s chairman Willy Gehriger. “We act like the spark,” he explained.

Established in 1943 to help lift mountain dwellers out of poverty, the privately-funded foundation mainly supported farmers initially — but broadened its scope around a dozen years ago. Now it helps small businesses, installs Wi-Fi, pays for computer courses and funds the transformation of dilapidated listed buildings into tourist accommodation.

Gehriger said the agricultural sector alone was no longer enough to keep the mountains thriving.

 Message in a bottle

 Dressed in baseball caps and t-shirts and armed with an iPad, the Gygers are far from the stocky, rustic, grumpy stereotype of mountain men.They are on a mission to repopulate Souboz and revive the economy in the local Juras.

“We’re aware of doing something good for Souboz. Our mountain regions have enormous potential. They’re really something that we Swiss should be proud of,” said middle brother Luca, 27.

Their gamble has paid off as the family business has a handful of employees and occasionally takes on local artisans and farmers to help bottle up the
brothers’ original gin, whisky and vodka recipes.

Last year, they produced 18,000 bottles of spirits.

Gagygnole’s eaux de vie are sold in 200 shops around Switzerland and one of their concoctions was voted the best gin in the country last year — while the brothers’ gin fondue is also a hit.

The Gygers think it is still too early to consider exporting.

“We always refused because it was difficult in terms of logistics, but why not… as long as it goes with our philosophy,” said 26-year-old Tim.