Thomas Metcalf: AI-generated haikus & surrealism

18th January 2023

Articles NMC Recordings

Thomas Metcalf is a composer whose music explores the generation of musical material through non-musical phenomena, and was one of the rising star composers chosen to take part in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain's Young Composers scheme this year. The pieces he composed as part of the scheme are a surreal interpretation of the climate emergency, that set texts generated by feeding words such as ‘environment’, ‘climate’, and ‘endangered’ into an AI poetry-writing application. Find out more about his process and inspiration below.

One of the things I labour over a lot when writing music with vocalists is the choice of the text: hours are usually spent reading and researching to find the one that sparks the most fulfilling creative response. After searching for appropriate texts for these pieces, I began to get frustrated and listless, so brashly turned to the first AI poetry-writer I could find online and was presented the opportunity to feed in prompts to theme the poem. Using words related to environment (NYCGB’s theme for 2022-2023) both generic and social/political, the app produced the texts eventually used for LIVING SENSE DATUM and H(AI)KU on the first try: complete with grammatical errors and nonsensical imagery. It was these imperfections that led me to start writing, and out of which developed the wider concept of the piece. The idea that I had to use the text generated on the first try also added a sense of constraint to the musical process, which is a feature used heavily in my other work, usually relating to ideas of visuality and pictoriality.

Rich Hardcastle

LIVING SENSE DATUM interprets the theme of environment from the perspective of the choir as a social force, contrasted with the clunky technologically generated text. The score uses extensive indeterminate notations which deconstruct the idea of the choir to each individual singer and their impact on the overall texture and sound; an organised collective of individuals each with their own agency towards a common goal. This parallels to the heightened sense of panic and action manifested in discourse around the climate emergency. The surreal and glitchy aspect of the text is highly important to the piece, and working with NYCGB was incredibly fruitful in exploring the possible ways in which this could be enacted, particularly using IPA phonemes and other vocal effects. There is something about the fact that this piece is sung by young people (18-25) that adds another layer of importance of this piece to me: our generation faces unprecedented challenges in the years ahead and this work is an anthem to the collective efforts that we must all undertake. There is a sense of unfairness within society, and the tensions between the technological text and social music embody this disjuncture.

Our generation faces unprecedented challenges in the years ahead and this work is an anthem to the collective efforts that we must all undertake.

This reflects the dedication of this piece to my late mum, who died in 2020 from cancer at the age of 53. The unfairness; the surrealism; the incomprehensible nature of this experience felt like the suitable combination with the themes outlined in this piece. In LIVING SENSE DATUM, when every member sings, shouts, says the word ‘WHY?’ (4:27), this is at once the voice of a generation, the voice of the earth, but also my personal voice. 

In H(AI)KU, the text is used in a slightly different way, one in which I choose to highlight its artificiality, rather than use it as a more authoritative, narrative text – this is somewhat ironic as I actually think that these are better poems…! For example, in ‘Artifice’, the singers produce only the vowel sounds from the haiku ‘Human’ alongside whistling, or in ‘Life’ where the idea of something glitching is used on ‘aurora’ or ‘febrile’, or finally in ‘Environment’ whereby I deliberately exploit the ‘h’ sound that sneaks in when the first vowel sound of ‘trespass’ is repeated. For me, there is a sense of construction or emergence throughout the movements; something almost biologic; learning ‘how’ to say words and making errors. Whereas LIVING SENSE DATUM is an expression of the tension between human and technological, H(AI)KU might be seen as a combination of those concepts out of which something new may emerge.

Ruth Evans

This is at once the voice of a generation, the voice of the earth, but also my personal voice. 

These pieces wouldn’t be what they are without the immense support of NYCGB and the Fellowship Ensemble. The Young Composers Scheme is an invaluable and unique experience, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside such talented, enthusiastic and open-minded musicians. My thanks go to Ben Parry and Ruth Evans, as well as the Fellowship (Tim Peters, Olivia Shotton, Florence Price, Jason Ching) and especially the Young Composers (Ben Nobuto, Claire Victoria Roberts, Sun Keting) – hoping we can all make music together again sometime soon.

Find out more about NYCGB Young Composers 4

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