Ottawa Symphony

3D StringTheory Program Notes


3D StringTheory Program Notes

Singularity, Harry Stafylakis

Violet Crumble, Jeffrey Ryan

Singularity (2018) for 3D-printed string octet & orchestra – Harry Stafylakis

I. Emergence
II. Pattern Recognition
III. Automaton
IV. Simulacrum
V. Uncanny Valley
VI. Deus Ex Machina
VII. Turing Test
VIII. Ghost in the Machine
XI. Code Appendix

The technological singularity (also, simply, the singularity) is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence (ASI) will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. According to this hypothesis, an upgradable intelligent agent (such as a computer running software-based artificial general intelligence) would enter a "runaway reaction" of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence that would, qualitatively, far surpass all human intelligence.


Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don't know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.

—Stephen Hawking

When I was first approached by the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra with the idea of creating a new orchestral work that would feature as-yet-nonexistent 3D-printed instruments, I was mystified – and deeply curious. What would they sound like? In what ways would they be better or worse than our existing instruments, honed by centuries of expert craftsmanship and natural materials?

The very thought of pitting these synthetic analogues against their once-organic counterparts found resonance with my preoccupation with the ethics of technology – and in the literature (fiction or non-) that explores the topic. The possible eventual emergence of artificial superintelligence has long been a source of great concern amongst writers of speculative fiction and, more recently, amongst the leading scientific, technological, and philosophical minds of our generation.

Singularity is a musical exploration of that line of inquiry. Somewhere between a concerto (or sinfonia concertante) and an instrumental sci-fi oratorio, the work positions the soloist group wielding 3D-printed instruments as the surrogate for machine learning – the synthetic – while the orchestra surrounding them fills in for humanity – the organic. As the artificial entity learns and grows increasingly towards sentience, the music asks itself: what is the end run? Will this lead to utopia or to a darker alternative?

The piece is in nine movements. Though they run into each other in a continuous stream, my hope is that their individual titles will provide the listener with guide posts for navigating the work’s narrative.

My deep gratitude to Alain Trudel, the soloists, the OSO, luthier Charline Dequincey, Creadditive designer Laurent Lacombe, Winnipeg’s Industrial Technology Centre, and the Canada Council for the Arts for a very exciting and artistically satisfying journey.

—HS |

Perhaps we should provide seat-belts for this one! A Violet Crumble is an Australian candy confection invented by Abel Hoadley in 1913. It is loaded with chocolate and sugar. It caught Jeffrey Ryan’s attention as he is a confessed chocoholic. So he gathered together an entire ‘kitchen sink’ of wallopable items (from bundt pans to glass jars to tam-tams to tuned percussion) in order to create this hyperkinetic seven minute excursion in sugar-wiredness! For different colours he adds winds and strings to the ensemble. As the composer writes: there is “a slow introduction that luxuriates in rich chocolate, the sugar kicks in, and the music takes off at a non-stop frantic pace, constantly switching ideas and shifting focus as it succumbs to the effects of a few too many Violet Crumbles.”

Violet Crumble was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with funding from the Ontario Arts Council. Its première was on April 18th 2001 in Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto with the TSO directed by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. “It is dedicated to all those who believe sugar, chocolate and caffeine constitute a food group”!

Les Élémens, Jean-Féry Rebel

To be born a ‘Rebel’ could be considered either a handicap or a signal for future action (even more so if it were spelt the French way – Rebelle!). Jean-Féry Rebel chose the latter option! He was the son of a tenor in the Sun King’s private Chapel, soon became the protégé of no less than the great Lully himself at the Versailles Court of Louis XIV. He rapidly rose up the ranks becoming an important conductor and composer at the royal court. He was particularly known for his ballet scores (a favourite form of the French court) and ended his long career with the astonishing Les Élémens which he prefaced with Le Cahos.

M. Rebel wrote the following note about Le Cahos: It is “that confusion which reigned among the elements before the moment, when subjected to invariable laws, they took their ordained places in the order of nature.” In describing how he represented Chaos musically he wrote: “I dared to undertake to link the idea of the confusion of the elements with that of confusion in harmony. I hazarded to make heard first all sound together or rather all of the notes of the octave united in a single sound.” Today we call that a tone-cluster! The ‘chaos’ theme returns seven times with diminishing intensity with each revisit. It concludes (how else) with a perfect consonance – an octave! And all this was written in 1737 ! We thought Haydn was being exceptionally avant-garde when he wrote his Prelude to The Creation in 1797/98 – where, he too, used dissonance to represent Chaos. Clearly M. Rebel was well ahead of his time.

Octandre, Edgard Varèse

Octandre – there is the clue – just eight instruments with which to tickle the ear.  What the iconoclastic Varèse had on offer was flute/piccolo, B flat clarinet/E flat clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass. Varèse divides Octandre into three movements (Assez lent, Très vif et nerveux, Animé et jubilatoire) performed without pause. The first is led by the oboe, the second by the piccolo and the third by the double bass – acoustical signals that are difficult to miss. As usual, Varèse’s music is all about sonority – tunes aren’t exactly his thing – but sound and rhythm most definitely are. In just seven minutes he rearranges how we listen to these particular instruments. So, the oboe and E flat clarinet launch Octandre with chromatic and repeated-note figures which operate throughout much of what follows. The trumpet and flute cause a sudden eruption of sound – but if you ‘aurally blink’, you might miss it! The movement ends with a return to the opening oboe motif. The middle movement is launched by the piccolo (lively & nervous). But it is the trombone, albeit stuck on more or less one pitch that creates an incantatory impression. Motifs from the first movement reappear and the movement ends with flutter-tonguing of a final chord that might just curl your hair! But help is at hand as the last movement is launched by the greatest of contrasts – the double bass and bassoon with brief solos. Then, horreurs, a hint of that most ancient of musical structures – the fugue! It soon dissolves to allow a new version of the repeated-note motif in high woodwinds. Just remember – all this is compressed into a mere seven minutes!

Varèse completed Octandre in 1923. It had its première at New York’s Vanderbilt Theater, at a concert of the International Composers Guild, on January 13th, 1924 conducted by E. Robert Schmitz. You might be surprised to learn that the audience at that première accepted Schmidt’s offer to perform Octandre again. Clearly a partisan crowd! Unusually, for music that pushed the boundaries so severely, Octandre also gained some positive reviews in the press.

©  David Gardner