Making Music with New Technologies and A.I.

Seventy years have passed since Alan Turing invented the first machine capable of creating simple melodies. Turing’s machine sounded exactly like a modern sampler, and his recordings could be considered the very first examples of electronic music.

In the 1990s, several pop and rock musicians used computer-generated music and lyrics: David Bowie, in particular, worked on a songwriting software called “Verbasizer,” a digital version of the cut-up technique that he had been using for decades. The software was born from his collaboration with Brian Eno and Ty Roberts, and it was used by the artist to compose the lyrics featured in the 1995 album Outside.

Despite the tremendous developments of science in recent years, algorithms and AI are still far from being able to create a commercial hit capable of climbing the charts and winning Grammy Awards all by themselves. Yet, artificial intelligence is becoming more and more the center of a debate focused on the fear of replacing musicians, singers, and writers with these new technologies. Progress runs fast, and the idea of artists being replaced by Artificial Intelligence may sound scary for some.

Yet, with time musicians and the public could see new technologies in a different light. These inventions could be a new way for artists to approach music and go above and beyond the current musical scene through innovation and automation. From this perspective, AI might become a powerful tool to spur creativity and lead to new sounds.

Holly Herndon and PROTO 

Holly Herndon’s album Proto (2019) is one example of the productive and novel interaction between human beings and artificial intelligence. Herndon, who holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University’s Centre for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, defined her laptop as the most intimate instrument, capable of things that “no other instrument has ever been able to do.” She claimed it was essential to the making of her first album Movement (2012), but years later Herndon was able to go further with the use of AI.

Holly Herndon’s PROTO album cover

For her third album, Proto, Herndon not only assembled vocalists, developers, and guest contributors, but she also developed the AI music recording system Spawn. Spawn, a synthetic multivoiced singer, made it possible to create a record that “incorporates live vocal processing and timeless folk singing, emphasizing alien song craft and new forms of communion.” However, the role assigned to Spawn is not a substitute for human contribution to music. Actually, it is quite the opposite: subjected to a learning process, the software has learned to recognize, interpret and rework voices, and to put them together. 

“Eternal” is the fourth track from the album. The voices in this solemn piece sing overlapping continuously, making the human ones indistinguishable from the sound produced by artificial intelligence. It consists of simultaneous use of automation and community-based choral singing. 

“I don’t want to live in a world in which humans are automated off stage. I want AI to be raised to appreciate and interact with that beauty,” says the artist. It seems impossible not to see the beauty in the interaction between human and artificial voices recorded in the album. It is a way to make technology closer to humans, less alien, and constantly interconnected. In Herndon’s words, a way “to make technology seem less dehumanizing.”

The Impact of New Technologies

The above-mentioned example may suggest that using artificial intelligence does not necessarily have to be a way to replace human intellect. Instead, it could allow us to be more human and communicative with each other. The development of digital music technologies has generated new approaches to songwriting and composition, as well as endless possibilities for sonic expression. Only time will tell what will be of the music industry; meanwhile, we can listen to Holly Herndon’s tunes and lose ourselves in a blend of human and electronic voices.

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