ask ada

Singer, violin, viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, electronics and video

A music theatre work for singer, 6 instruments (violin, viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion), electonics and video. The work revolves around Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and famously credited as having written the first computer algorithm in 1843. Commissioned by The Greek National Opera it will be premiered there at the Alternative Stage in June 2021.


  • Composer: Yannis Kyriakides
  • Text: Theodora Delavault
  • Visuals: Darien Brito
  • Singer: Michaela Riener
  • Conductor: Gregory Charette

Ask Ada - programme note

In her infamous 'Note G' to a paper on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (1843), Ada Lovelace, creator of the first computer algorithm, writes: "The analytical engine might act upon other things besides number."

With this vision she foresees the era of artificial intelligence and its effect on our lives more than a century and a half before its time. As an amateur musician (she played the harp), she even understood how music itself, could be generated by an algorithm based on certain rules:

"Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."

When I was asked to compose a new work based on Ada Lovelace, my first thought was what kind of composition might she have imagined could be written based on these algorithms. When I looked at the original algorithm, the first thing that struck me was how contemporary it seemed: functions, variables and loops that we find in contemporary code was already in this first algorithm, a programme that she created to solve so-called Bernoulli Numbers, a complex mathematical procedure.

I set about trying to create my own algorithm based on generating a series of numbers with a similar pattern. Bernoulli numbers were quite difficult to tame in musical terms because the series had such an extreme accumulation. I tended towards a simpler series generated from the Bernoulli triangle, an array of partial sums of the binomial coefficients, which generated a more musical series which was applied to pitch and time parameters an accumulating pattern of notes. With this algorithm the basic harmonic and rhythmic fabric of the work was generated, in 36 parts, which can be heard in the synthesiser patterns underlying the whole work. I wanted to create a sound world that was both machine-like but within a coherent harmonic world that would not be too far from the tonal language of mid-19th century Europe.

The work is in 36 parts. 36 for the number of years of Ada's (and her father Byron's) life, but also for the number of lines in her algorithm (if the loop is repeated once). The lines of this algorithm are clearly defined by the type of mathematical function that is carried out, alternating between the four basic types: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I wanted to use this structure in how the pieces of her life are presented, a dramaturgy that oscillates between different perspectives of her life, of her writing, the autobiographical, the scientific, and her legacy. With this idea of creating multiple perspectives on Ada's life that could be gradually exposed throughout the work, the libretto was created by Theodora Delavault with texts around the themes of: Ada Remembering – reminiscences about her life with description of mid-19th century society. After Life – the legacy of her pioneering work on computing. Dear Babbage – a selection of some of her many correspondences with Charles Babbage. Note G – the kern of her scientific and visionary ideas. Fare thee well – a commentary and an imagined reflection on one of her father's, Lord Byron's poems. Uchronia – texts about a possible dystopian future (or present) through the effect of Artificial Intelligence on our lives.

These different perspectives acquire different types of voices in Ask Ada. Some, like the Ada Remembering parts are like arias, where the character Ada personified by the singer reflects on her past in a quasi-baroque vocal style. In After Life her voice is doubled, the singer sings through 'autotune' a software programme where a synthetic voice is generated and retuned to the notes that she plays on the keyboard. At the same time, another 'inner-voice' comments with on-screen text. Dear Babbage, and the Note G parts exists also on a level between writing and singing, though here it is reversed, we read her thoughts and hear the comments sung. The two non-Ada voices in the piece are heard in Fare the Well, where a computer voice recites the Byron poem, and in the Uchronia part where the conductor, whose voice is increasingly 'vocoded' by the character Ada, turns to the audience and talks to them as if in a lecture. The piece is bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue where projected text is read silently.

As well trying to translate the structure of the piece through her original algorithm, and creating a parallel algorithmic harmonic structure, there are various forms of encoding of text into music in the piece. The algorithm and the texts of Note G are encoded in many of the passages of notes that the instrument play. This idea of translating data from one medium into another is something that is a fascination in much of my work, and it echoes the original thought of Ada that numbers could be replaced by letters or other things in the world. These are elements that no listener is expected to perceive when hearing the piece, but they can perhaps recognize that there is a semantic form in the musical phrasing that might stand for something other than itself. Another example is in the material that is played by the music boxes: the notes here are a complete encoding of Byron's poem Fare Thee Well, that is often heard when the music boxes are played. The music boxes here have a double function, both referring to the idea of childhood, but also to Babbage's Difference and Analytical Engines, and the punch cards used in early computing, a metaphor for a technology of transcoding.

Finally, I would like to express my appreciation for the creative team involved in this production. The writer Theodora Delavault, with whom I had worked together a few years previously on a music theatre piece based on Bocaccio's Decameron. She is a writer who I knew would have immediate affinity with the subject matter, and who could translate the relevance of Ada Lovelace's ideas into a contemporary context. Darien Brito, who's impressive work as a creative coder in the audio-visual art field was perfectly suited to create the generative visuals for this piece. Singer Michaela Riener, who is equally at home in both contemporary and Baroque repertoire and has an incredible ear and intelligence for the music she is interpreting. The conductor Gregory Charette, who's experience and understanding of this kind of music was invaluable in getting the piece realized. And the team in Athens: Alexandros Mouzas, who conceived of the idea of doing a piece on Ada Lovelace and commissioned this work. The production team of the GNO alternative stage who so professionally brought the piece together, the video director Konstantinos Arvanitakis, who shot and edited the video of the performance, and last but not least, the wonderful musicians, who had to deal with some quite virtuoso material and performed the work so brilliantly.