A May 2020 article in The Wall Street Journal heralds the dawn of the age of the “decision machine,” when supercomputers and artificial intelligence are able to sort through the myriad possible consequences of complex, dynamic situations to predict the most likely outcomes.
But the idea of such a mechanical brain goes back in some primitive form to antiquity and begins to become something contemporary society might recognize as a computer in the 1830s, when English noblewoman Ada Lovelace King — the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and the Countess of Lovelace — wrote what some consider to be the first computer program.
The mathematical pioneer and latter-day feminist icon is paid tribute in Australian-American composer Melody Eötvös’ 12-minute orchestral work “The Deciding Machine.” Commissioned two years ago by the Grand Teton Music Festival for its COVID-canceled 2020 season, the work will finally get its world premiere Thursday, with subsequent performances Friday and Saturday, at Walk Festival Hall in Teton Village.
Born in 1984 in New South Wales, Australia, to a Hungarian father and naturalized as an American citizen after meeting a “Midwestern boy” who became her husband, Eötvös has interests and influences that are as wide-ranging as her global heritage.
“I’ve always loved traveling,” she said earlier this month from Australia via Zoom. “I have a very long list of places I’ve always wanted to go.”
Perhaps in lieu of actually getting to go to all those places, she found escape and adventure through the arts and cultures of some of those destinations, and has written music based on her reading and research of Scandinavian folktales, Greek legends, Australian mythos as well as 19th-century literature, philosophy, mathematics, biology, physics and other sciences.
“When influenced by different cultures or a story that’s old,” she said, “you need to try to get into the sound world of what’s around that object. … That’s a hugely important thing for me to do. By the time I’m 50, maybe I’ll be really good at it and it won’t take a couple of years to listen to everything.”
The same goes for writing about science and math. For “The Deciding Machine,” commissioned for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, she just needed the first measure or so. Thrilled by the idea of writing for such an important milestone, she dove into reading about historical female figures, especially some who have been overlooked, and eventually came across Ada Lovelace, who, she said, occupied an “interesting place socially” and made such century-spanning contributions to computer science.
“The Deciding Machine,” Eötvös said, starts with high, repeated notes, like a code or an alien language. It starts, stops, modulates, overlaps, and eventually begins to resolve into a recognizable time signature, though one still strained and in conflict with the meter.
“I liked the way that sounded,” she said. “So I’d write, change, write, and then find an answering figure and go back to working with that original idea. There was endless variation, constantly varying the figure. It repeats but not identically. And then above that I wanted it to sound like a machine, constantly propelling it forward.”
From a simple idea, in other words, a universe of complexity evolves which Eötvös’ organic, human mind then turns into art and expression and emotion and ideas.
“I wanted to write from beginning to end, for it to flow,” she said. “I don’t write separate sections and then fill in the middle. … I used the string section to pretty much write the structure of the entire piece and orchestrated it out from there. That was interesting way of working … that stems from a lesson I learned from [Australian composer-conductor] Richard Mills: You want to keep it to four or five textures max, so you could play it on the piano, like a piano reduction or for four hands. The music is written so you could do that.” ￼