The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

Song of the Ambassadors

K Allado-McDowell with GPT-3, Derrick Skye, Refik Anadol
AI, Live Performance
United States
October 2022

"If we could understand any correlation between brainwave signals and someone's experience of the music, or their state of consciousness, could you actually compose with states of consciousness? Generate music based on algorithms using pre-composed or co-composed music? That would be awesome." —K Allado-McDowell

Song of the Ambassadors reimagines opera as a musical ritual producing scientific understanding about the effects of music on the body and mind. It is above all an opera, a hymn to the sun, space, and life written by K Allado-McDowell using the A.I. language model GPT-3 and performed by a trio of vocalists representing the ambassadors to those three entities. But it is also a meditation and a neuroscience experiment performed by a team of scientists from the University of California, San Diego, who record and analyze the brainwaves, heart rate and other data of subjects in the audience.

The score, composed by Derrick Skye, combines traditional Ewe music from Ghana, Persian classical music, electronic music, and environmental sounds to form a meditative hymn to the sun, space, and life sung by the opera’s "Ambassadors." For the Lincoln Center performance, A.I.-generated images designed by media artist Refik Anadol were infused with real-time brainwave data from Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center's artistic director, to create visualizations on stage alongside the ceremonial set pieces and costumes designed by Marcos Lutyens and Oana Botez. The neuroscience experiments were performed by a team of scientists from UC San Diego who recorded and analyzed brainwaves, heart rate and subjective feedback from pre-selected subjects in the audience.

Song of the Ambassadors was presented at Alice Tully Hall in New York's Lincoln Center on October 25, 2022 as a work-in-progress.

K Allado-McDowell is a Los Angeles resident who leads the Artists and Machine Intelligence initiative at Google. Allado-McDowell, who prefers "they" pronouns, first pitched Song of the Ambassadors in 2021 when he was in a Lincoln Center fellowship program known as the Collider. Their idea was to envision the concert hall as a place where healing could happen. As a college student, Allado-McDowell had taken a yoga class that unexpectedly careened into a "kundalini awakening," an intense experience which they later described as an explosion of rainbows, the feeling of cool liquid uncoiling in their lower back, and a glowing purple sphere pulsing green and gold in their inner vision. Allado-McDowell took this as a sign that they did not have a functioning cosmology.

In 2014, after working for a Taiwanese tech company in Seattle and making several trips to the Amazon rainforest, they had a searing realization one night that if we didn't treat A.I.s with love, they might kill us. they joined a small A.I. team at Google. Artists and Machine Intelligence got started two years later, when the team leader suggested they partner with artists.

One of their first partnerships was with Refik Anadol, an Istanbul-born data artist living in Los Angeles. Anadol, who holds MFA degrees in Design Media Arts from UCLA and in Visual Communication Design from Istanbul Bilgi University, was an artist-in-residence at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence when he created Archive Dreaming, an installation at the SALT Research library and archives in Istanbul. Anadol subsequently worked with Allado-McDowell on WDCH Dreams, which used artificial neural networks to process 99 years of images, recordings and text from the archives of the LA Philharmonic to create an elaborate sound-and-light exhibition that played on the stainless-steel superstructure of the LA Phil's Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. WDCH Dreams went on to win the Columbia DSL's 2019 Breakthrough Award.

Composer Derrick Skye is a Los Angeles-based conductor, composer and musician who often integrates music practices from different cultural traditions around the world into his work. As a student at UCLA and the California Institute for the Arts, Skye studied Western classical music, Hindustani classical music, West African music and dance, Persian music theory and Balkan music theory. Having been an artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he is now its artistic advisor.

“'This is what your brain was doing!' a Lincoln Center staffer said to Shanta Thake, the performing arts complex’s artistic director, while swiping through some freshly taken photos. It was the end of a recent rehearsal at Alice Tully Hall for 'Song of the Ambassadors,' a work-in-progress that fuses elements of traditional opera with artificial intelligence and neuroscience, and the photos did appear to show Thake’s brain doing something remarkable: generating images of flowers. Bright, colorful, fantastical flowers of no known species or genus, morphing continuously in size, color and shape, as if botany and fluid dynamics had somehow merged. . . .

"Thake, sitting silently to one side of the stage with a simple, inexpensive EEG monitor on her head, was the “brainist,” feeding brain waves into Anadol’s A.I. algorithm to generate the otherworldly patterns. 'I’m using my brain as a prop,' she said in an interview." —Frank Rose, The New York Times