Smudo, Vaile, Vladimir and Ludwig – when chess meets music

7/23/2007 – Can a chess program play music? Can Fritz compose? Or to frame the question more precisely: can the search algorithms we find in chess also be used to compose fully arranged musical pieces? These questions were recently answered in an event featuring some famous German TV stars and world champion Vladimir Kramnik. Big illustrated report with Ludwig samples.

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School partnership for the Chess Olympiad

Before we come to the musical part of this report, let us explain what the event involving the German pop stars and the world chess champion were about. The action School Partnership for the Chess Olympiad in Dresden was initiated by a Hamburg high school teacher, Björn Lengwenus, who some of you might recognise as an author of the very successful Fritz and Chesster children's series. Since there is to be a Chess Olympiad in Dresden next year, Björn got together with the German Chess Federation's Youth section to set up partnerships between each of the FIDE member countries and German schools, who will hold special courses on the country, invite the ambassador of the country to visit the school, stay in touch with their chess youth and if possible visit the Olympiad to get to know their partners personally.

It was necessary to mobilise 162 partner schools, and these were quickly found – in fact the organisers had to select from a list of 180 volunteers. A total of 60,000 school children will be taking part in the action, for which a special patron was needed. This was, very appropriately, world champion Vladimir Kramnik, who immediately agreed to lend his support. Kramnik attended the inaugural ceremony in Hamburg, which is where our picture report begins. At the bottom of the page you will find a link to a video report.


Delegations from schools and members of the press gather for the occasion


German GM and TV host Dr Helmut Pfleger (right) introduces the world champion


Vladimir Kramnik speaks to the audience about youth and chess


TV and music star Vaile was one of the celebrities at the event

Vaile, who like Cher and Madonna uses only one name, is a singer and actor, who is a star in the German soap "Marienhof" and has been referred to as Germany's answer to Jennifer Aniston. Vaile is not a starlet but a fully trained actress who attended drama school in Hamburg and New York. Our conversations with her revealed that she has a very high level of classical education and very outspoken opinions on relevant subjects, from theatre to film to sitcoms to music. You can read more about her on her website here. And yes, we offered to get pliers and rid her of that thing on her lip, but Vaile demurred. It is part of her image and her personality.


Last year Vaile, a chess enthusiast, played an exhibition game against Levon Aronian


Vlady and Vaile – the two spent a lot of time discussing chess and music


Pairing the partners: Kramnik drew the German schools, Vaile the member nations


Vaile draws the names of different countries from a container


Nigeria is partnered with a German school drawn by Kramnik


After the drawings pupils from the partner schools of two countries played a blitz game.
We must not fail to mention: Nigeria beat Russia in this first School Partnerships match


The other star at the event: German rapper Smudo

Smudo, who's full name is Michael Bernd Schmidt, is the rapper and texter of the Hip-Hop band "Die Fantastischen Vier" (the phantastic four). He too is a chess enthusiast and earlier this year played an exhibition match against Vaile (there is an illustrated German report here).


Chess enthusiasts Smudo and Vaile


What are they up to? Smudo with Kramnik's manager Carsten Hensel


Journalist Dr René Gralla, who helped organise the event


Ludwig, the chess musician

The second part of the evening was dedicated to a brand-new musician, Ludwig, a software product with a remarkable chess background. To kick things off Helmut Pfleger gave the audience an introduction into the the world of Ludwig.

Chess and music – people love to bring them together. Wasn't Philidor, the great chess master, also a renowned composer of classical music? Mark Taimanov is an accomplished concert pianist, former world champion Vassily Smyslov an operatic singer. And isn't chess itself a form of art, in many ways related to music?

The answer is yes, chess has much in common with music. But not, perhaps, in a way that we normally think. Chess is related to music composition because the latter can be programmed in much the same way as chess. Surprised?

The head of the programming department of ChessBase (and co-founder of the company) is Matthias Wüllenweber, originally a physicist, who in 1987 wrote the first professional chess database program. In 1991 he was directly involved in developing Fritz, the program that today is playing world champion Vladimir Kramnik.


Matthias Wüllenweber with composer and musician Jan-Peter Klöpfel

Matthias is also an amateur musician. He plays the piano very competently, fluidly improvising in classical or modern style. He also plays a number of other instruments, less proficiently but with great enthusiasm. The latest is the flute, which he is eagerly trying to learn in his spare time.

A few years ago Matthias started to experiment with music composition. Not with a pencil stub and sitting at the piano, but with the computer. He started to write algorithms and program code that assisted in finding harmonic and rhythmic arrangements to a tune. In this endeavor he discovered that he could use many of the techniques we find in computer chess: a brute force tree search, evaluation, cutoffs and pruning, and a host of other algorithms. Soon the program was not just supporting the musician, it was actually composing music all by itself.


Matthias explaining the tree search of a chess playing program


... and the analogous search by Ludwig (during the Kramnik vs Fritz match)

The first pre-alpha version of Ludwig was introduced to the general public in the National Art Gallery during the Man vs Machine event last December in Bonn, Germany. Naturally it is not just a composition program, which people could use to produce hundreds of new songs a day. That would be a very restricted application, to pu it mildly. So Ludwig developed another talent: it has become a musical companion for the novice player.


What should I compose for you: a Ludwig control screen (click to enlarge)

The basic idea is that people who want to learn a musical instrument have problems finding interesting scores to practise with. Usually they have to play simple tunes, which do not sound very pleasant until the student becomes fairly proficient. This is where Ludwig comes in. You tell the program what instrument you are playing, and what level of proficiency you have reached. Then you tell it what kind of music you like. After this Ludwig composes a piece for you, one which has full accompaniment, with different instruments. So while you are playing a very simple tune on your instrument, the piece already sounds impressive. You can be playing the solo part in an orchestra, a string quartet, a big band or a jazz group.


The Ludwig accompaniment screen (click to enlarge)

In Hamburg Matthias Wüllenweber, who is being assisted by composer and musician Jan-Peter Klöpfel, showed the audience that all of this actually works, using himself as a prime example. He played the flute as a child, and after a 30-year pause has taken it up again, practicing with Ludwig. He and Klöpfel played a number of pieces, composed, on the fly, by Ludwig. At one stage Matthias asked for a volunteer in the audience to play percussions (you can tune out individual instruments in Ludwig and play them yourself). Guess who took up the challenge.


Vladimir Kramnik accompanies Matthias and Jan-Peter on the stage


The chess master and the musicians


A visitor in the audience enjoying the impromptu recital


Incidentally Vladimir's mother is a piano teacher, so this kind of thing is not completely new to him


After the recital Vladimir Kramnik and Frederic Friedel discuss Ludwig with Vaile

Vladimir reminded me that we should ask Vaile what she thought of Ludwig. "If you were presenting a new chess playing program you would come to me for an opinion, wouldn't you? We must consult a professional." Vaile did not want to give us a final opinion, after the short demo and restricted knowledge of the program. But she did promise to come around some day, test Ludwig and explain to us exactly what the (human) music composing act involves.


We can learn from her: Vaile, a real flesh-and-blood composer


Ludwig will be available as a ChessBase product in October this year

Report by Frederic Friedel

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