LOS ANGELES — Can a concert hall dream? The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a lot riding on the answer.
On Sept. 27, with big-ticket donors watching expectantly from a parking lot across the street, Refik Anadol, a Turkish-American artist, plans to transform the billowing steel superstructure of the orchestra’s Walt Disney Concert Hall into a swirling, phantasmagorical collage.
The 12-minute performance will be fashioned from artifacts from the Philharmonic’s own history: millions of photographs, printed programs and audio and video recordings, each one digitized, microcrunched and algorithmically activated to play in abstract form across the building’s dynamic metal surface. If all goes according to plan, “WDCH Dreams,” as the production is known, will kick off the Philharmonic’s centennial season with the kind of brio that befits the company that Zachary Wolfe described last year in The New York Times as “the most important orchestra in America. Period.”
Mr. Anadol, a bubbly and rather cherubic-looking 32-year-old who dresses entirely in black, likes to imagine the building, which was designed by Frank Gehry, as an enormous artificial intelligence, one that recalls the orchestra’s past and slips into reverie about its future. A few weeks ago, armed with animations and storyboards, he showed up at the Philharmonic’s administrative offices, in an elegant but understated building next to the concert hall, to detail his progress.
Gathered in a small conference room were Kenric McDowell, an artificial-intelligence expert from Google, and several Philharmonic officials, chief among them Chad Smith, the orchestra’s chief operating officer and de facto head of programming, a man whose preppy demeanor belies a reputation as one of the most innovative figures in classical music.
The building’s “performance,” staged for patrons paying upward of $2,500 per person for the opening-night gala and free to all on the nine evenings after that, falls into three parts. First, “Centennial Memories,” when data from the Philharmonic’s history — 44.5 terabytes of it, Mr. Anadol reported — is projected onto the building’s skin.
Mr. Smith broke in: “44.5? The last time we were together, it was seven terabytes.”
That was a while ago, Mr. Anadol reminded him. The audio recordings alone — nearly 77,000 of them — now come to seven terabytes.
“That’s an average of two recordings a day,” Mr. Smith observed, doing a quick calculation based on the 99 years the orchestra has been playing. (The actual centennial won’t come until September 2019.) “Interesting. O.K.”
Next comes “Consciousness,” when the building processes the billions of data points it has received to form a vast web of connections: every performance of every symphony, every trumpet, every oboe, every note the orchestra has ever played. And finally, “Dream,” when the concert hall fuses all this together to generate a sort of combinatorial fantasia — to “hallucinate,” as Mr. Anadol put it.
“This,” he declared, “will be a very divine moment.”
And one long in coming. It took 16 years for the concert hall to be built after Lillian Disney, Walt’s widow, donated $50 million for its construction, and it has taken another 15 years after its completion in 2003 to realize the architect’s vision for its exterior.
“I have always had the dream that images and videos would be projected onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” Mr. Gehry said in an email. “During the design process, I selected the metal for the express purpose of taking projection. I’m happy that the L.A. Phil is going to do it now for its anniversary.”
Technically speaking, of course, the Walt Disney Concert Hall will no more be dreaming than the “Mona Lisa” follows you with her eyes. But that’s not the point.
“I thought it was time to take these beautiful memories and organize them into a story,” Mr. Anadol said later as we sat in his studio, a former auto repair shop just down the street from the site of the Disney complex where Mickey Mouse was created in 1928.
Where car mechanics once labored, a half-dozen designers in their 20s now work behind enormous computer screens. “It’s kind of a science fiction story,” he added. “We have concern about the future because that’s where we all live”— so when the building “dreams” in his story, it’s using information from the past to project itself into the future.
Mr. Anadol is a data artist. Although his use of luminescence recalls such California light-and-space artists as James Turrell, he’s less influenced by other artists than by architects — Mr. Gehry among them, for “how he defines the future,” Mr. Anadol said — and by people like Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist.
One of Mr. Anadol’s signature works is “Wind of Boston: Data Paintings,” a 6-by-13-foot video display in the lobby of a Boston office building that uses wind readings to create an ever-changing set of images that rise and fall like waves. Another installation went on view in July at the Charlotte, N.C., airport: “Interconnected,” a video representation of everything that’s transpired at the airport over the previous 90 days — every flight arrival, every departure, every car pulling up, every passenger boarding.
The memories that inform “WDCH Dreams” are usually locked away in a 2,500-square-foot corner in the Los Angeles County Hall of Records, a nearby 1960s high-rise. But even as the show mines the orchestra’s past, “WDCH Dreams” speaks to current issues in computing. It uses some of the same artificial-intelligence algorithms that underlie facial recognition, which has become increasingly controversial as its potential for abuse becomes clearer. And Mr. Anadol’s idea that a building can think and dream is a fanciful version of the so-called internet of things, the fast-growing network of “smart” objects — home appliances, thermostats, cars, what have you — that are being given a sliver of intelligence with little thought for how to secure them against digital intruders.
The project also loops back to popular culture — in particular, to the films of Christopher Nolan, who in movies like “Memento” and “Inception” displays a narrative sleight of hand that transforms everyday experiences like dreaming and remembering into the stuff of wonder and suspense. A key methodology behind “WDCH Dreams,” a machine-learning technique that originated in a Google lab in Switzerland, has even been called “Inceptionism,” after the 2010 movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a corporate spy who sets out to manipulate his target’s dreams.
Mr. Anadol had made the idea of activating the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s exterior the subject of his master’s of fine arts thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles — and that, in turn, brought him to the attention of Mr. Smith and led to his first commission for the Philharmonic: creating a video installation that transformed the interior of the hall into a virtual tapestry during a performance of Edgard Varèse’s “Amériques.”
But that, like his thesis project, involved the relatively simple idea of the concert hall’s reacting to the sounds being made in it. For the building to “dream,” the computer code that controlled the display would need some understanding of what it was dreaming about. He needed to go deeper — which is where Google, and Inceptionism, came in.
Mr. Anadol first connected with the Google A.I. team at a 2016 symposium at a San Francisco art gallery. Later that year, he was offered a residency at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program, a nascent effort to bring artists and engineers together to ponder big questions, like the nature of intelligence and the relationship between humans and machines.
By this point, Mr. Smith and other leaders of the Philharmonic — including its celebrity conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and its chief executive at the time, Deborah Borda, who left last fall to become C.E.O. of the troubled New York Philharmonic — were already planning its centennial season.
They laid out an ambitious agenda, including a $500 million fund-raising campaign, a street festival running the eight miles from the downtown concert hall to the Hollywood Bowl, and the commissioning of 50 new works for the coming season by such composers as John Adams, Philip Glass, Andrew Norman and Steve Reich. When the idea of fulfilling Mr. Gehry’s long-expressed desire to use the outside of the concert hall as a canvas came up, Mr. Anadol was the obvious candidate to make it happen.
With Google supplying machine-learning experts and cloud-computing resources, Mr. Anadol and his team set to work to make their computer system dream. They used different types of neural networks — the computing technology that underlies most artificial intelligence efforts today — to process pictures and text from the orchestra’s archives and generate new imagery that’s based on them, and to fashion a sound collage from decades of the orchestra’s recordings. It’s about “the idea of the machine as collaborator,” Mr. Anadol explained.
“WDCH Dreams” is a benign work, an unalloyed vision of artificial intelligence as partner rather than threat. The future it posits would not be out of place in Disneyland. Mr. Anadol is aware that there are less wholesome currents — that the same technology that processes millions of historical images from the Philharmonic’s archives could be used, for instance, to monitor populations on a vast scale.
And yet, “I am very, very optimistic,” he said. “I think these are incredible tools to have for creativity.” So it’s that aspect that will be on display on Sept. 27. As Mr. Anadol put it, “Frank Gehry’s building is now having its ‘Inception’ moment.”