Holly Herndon & Spawn

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In January of this year, I started speaking to Mat Dryhurst about artificial intelligence and machine learning. I knew very little about it, save for the works of David Behrman, George Lewis, and the like, early pioneers into the interface between man and computer. Mat was open, enthusiastic, and suggested many fine articles. Along with partner Holly Herndon, the two created Spawn, an artificial intelligence that was also a member of their vocal ensemble.

In April, I chatted at length with Dr. Holly Herndon about her upcoming album, PROTO, which was the first album to feature AI. It certainly won’t be the last.

And in November, an excerpt from this chat was finally published as part of New York Magazine‘s Future Issue. You can read that here.

Below is a deeper dive into the future of music and machine learning.

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What’s the starting point for Spawn?

HH: It came out of touring for two years and asking questions after that. how do we want to make music going forward? We wanted to work with people, with players. I get lonely and depressed when I’m in the studio along. Even with an ensemble, I spend even more hours alone doing editing. It was a need for human contact. From having toured so long in electronic music circuit, I noticed that things were becoming so automated, the perfect AV show. It almost doesn’t matter that there’s someone onstage. Even with Platform, we tried to present the imperfection of it as well, showing the desktop and things like that, to do Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, show the human aspect of it. There’s always a human component. We were working on AI in parallel.

Your daughter is way smarter than Spawn. Probably way cuter. It was more of a research thing. We didn’t even know if it would be usable or interesting. The first six months were pretty uninteresting. After six months, we got more interesting results. We started training with my voice and Mat’s voice. And then we opened it up to the ensemble. My approach to technology is how can technology make us more human. People misunderstand the Cyborg Manifesto or what Donna Haraway is saying. The cyborg is a metaphor, how women can be liberated from a past gender role. It’s not about trying to erase the human body or dehumanize ourselves at all.

To the contrary, it’s allowing a flexible definition of humanity so that we can allow ourselves to evolve. If a computer is doing all this heavy lifting and repetitive legwork, if the computer is doing all this crazy automated stuff, what’s left for us to do onstage? You could look at it and just say, “I’ll just leave the stage.” I see a lot of electronic music going that way. The computer is freeing us to be more human and deal with other performative parameters and to celebrate each other on stage even more. It’s two visions.

What does it mean when Spawn is trained on Jlin?

HH: Jlin has been involved very early on. She declared herself the godmother really early on. We tried her music on all different forms. The voice model was most interesting. When we put her music through Sample RNN, the outcome wasn’t very interesting. Her music is repetitive, but with nuance and inflections, that’s what makes it interesting. It’s the groove and small inflections that make it interesting. The neural network didn’t understand that. It was just trying to guess the next sample. It’s both super-impressive and like…terrible. It’s like ‘God, you’re so dumb!’ With the voice model, it made way more sense.

Spawn has such a limited perspective. People talk about AI vs. AGI (artificial intelligence versus artificial general intelligence). AGI is what we are, we’re not artificial, but we have a general intelligence. I can apply what I learned from this coffee cup to the next thing. Spawn will just be trained on cup and just see cup and doesn’t understand where cup lives in the world.

Human bodies are such sophisticated sensorial machines. With AI, that’s going to really be hard to replicate. Do we even want to replicate us? And why does it have to always be tied back to us? Even though we refer to Spawn as a child, we don’t see her as a human child. She’s an inhuman child, it’s a different kind of intelligence.

How does Spawn hear the music?

She gobbles up WAV or AIFF files, you can feed her an iPod. Right before we left, we fed her an insane stream of music and every once in awhile you’d hear her gargle something out. She was chugging music (laughs). We’re now trying to figure out this real time system.

The people who trained the AI, we wanted it to be audible. We wanted to use peoples’ voices, so that then you can hear them going into it. Instead of a huge data pool, we limited it to a specific community. That’s why we used sound as material rather than MIDI and statistical analysis. There’s an oral history there, a storytelling.

We were deliberate about not using material that we didn’t have permission to use. We wanted it to be our community. That’s going to be one of the big problems coming up with AI. If you look at how sampling has been treated over the last 40 years, and all of the ethical issues around that and we haven’t dealt with that well. There are people who still aren’t compensated. It’s a total quagmire. How much did Moby pay the Alan Lomax Archives for the voices on Play? Did the vocalists’ families get paid? We don’t know how that was dealt with.

There has been a historical entitlement towards sound material as just material. (we sing Enigma to each other) Those are Taiwanese farmers and Enigma just sampled them with no permission. People just like taking in a way without context or attribution or naming someone. People are so entitled when it comes to other peoples’ voices. On one hand, there’s something beautiful about remix culture, but there’s also something fucked up about that sense of entitlement and not understanding it. Even with a legal framework, we are still fucking up all the time with it.

AI has no legal framework. If we can’t figure out sampling, we’re in trouble with attribution and appropriation with AI. It’s going to open up a minefield for people.

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What does Spawn look like?

HH: It’s a souped-up gaming PC, a tower. A laptop wouldn’t be strong enough. We have a GPU unit, we could have a stack of them. Mat wants to get some souped-up casing for it. You just need power, sound card, and a cooling system. She’s an old-school tower.

How far is AI from being integrated into popular music-making?

Not far at all. I think it’s just around the corner. It just depends on how that’s going to look. The sound as material approach that we took is still pretty rough. We compared early 1900s phonograph recordings to digital recordings today and it’s insane how that’s developed over a hundred years. We’ll have very accurate voice models of past vocalists pretty soon and that’s going to open up a new quagmire of questions about what we do with our forefathers’ and foremothers’ voice models. Who has the right to do whatever they want with them? The voice model will come a long a way. I used to say we’ll have infinite Michael Jackson records, but that probably won’t happen anymore (laughs). There will be infinite Aretha Franklin records is maybe the better example. But there’s no opt-in or opt-out for that. She wasn’t able to say you can’t make a model of my voice. That’s coming.

Automated composing is already here. It’s wallpaper, it’s mood music, it’s making opaque past human labor, taking that as a given canon and then creating something off of the back of that without acknowledging that that every happened. Ultimately that creates a recursive feedback loop of aesthetics that I’m not interested in. It gets us into an artistic cul-de-sac, but it’s cheap and functional so we’ll see that. Anything idiomatic, like Hans Zimmer, where you know what’s going to happen, that’s what AI will really thrive in.

“What if I just want my ambient music perfectly attuned to my mood?” people ask. One problem with that is that somebody at some point had to create ambient music. It now seems this chill relaxed thing. At one point, that wasn’t the norm, somebody had to take that chance and create that new thing. We need the next thing to be developed in order for us to develop as a culture and as a society. Music needs to reflect our current times. We can’t constantly be just regurgitating the past.

We are constantly shifting this interest from the composer to the consumer, which is what Spotify does, it’s about pleasing the consumer. It doesn’t give a shit about the composer’s ideas. Even if payment wasn’t an issue, just even representing the music and allowing an album to be an album. Payment aside, how it deals with music as a material, it’s so consumer-focused. There are so many start-ups now that offer to change the music to match your heart rate. If you start jogging, make the music match that. The composer didn’t intend that.

This shift from the composer to the consumer –while that is very lucrative– we lose something in this shift. If I think about my 16 year-old self and if music was trying to please me as a teenager forever, how am I ever going to grow out of these aesthetic immaturities? You have to listen to things you don’t like, things that challenge you, things you don’t understand, things that are different. I’ve had so many conversations with programmers about this. Many programmers don’t see culture in this way, that’s not the problem that they’re trying to solve. We don’t view cultural creators as experts. Musicians have spent years and years and years on how to communicate an idea through sound, let’s respect that as an art form.

Difficult things, emotions that feel bad or different or unacceptable, that’s what music has always been about for me.

HH: And new emotions that we don’t have a Spotify category for! Not everything is so fucking quantifiable in this way. It’s a really impoverished way of looking at culture.

I’m curious how George Lewis and his writings about Voyager informed your work with Spawn.

We took so much inspiration from Lewis because he’s a badass. He has a very different approach to technology than other academics. He approaches AI, the inhuman Voyager from the view of how African-Americans were also treated as inhumans during slavery. He gives this example of Blind Tom Wiggins, this savant pianist, a Mozart-like improviser and composer. He was treated as an automaton. They couldn’t make sense of a black man having this ability. Instead, they would dehumanize him and he would perform in white parlors and the language around him would be “Come see this automaton!” Lewis is careful to not immediately discount an inhuman intelligence because of that history. When he works with Voyager, he sees Voyager as a collaborator, he’s not afraid to dethrone himself as the artist. He’s not afraid of this idea of the human input being the end all be all, there’s something beautiful about that humility. He’s also a rigorous intellectual.

There’s a lot of doomsday tied into AI and worst case scenario aspects of it. How do you see with Spawn and the way forward, what’s going to remain human and what will Spawn replace?

HH: AI has the ability to further entrench already existing inequalities in society. We have to fight against that tooth and nail. What you need to make powerful AI is oceans of data and you need processing power. Who has access to oceans of data? The platform capitalists that we’ve been freely feeding our digital selves to the last ten years without questioning it. Totally not valuing our digital selves at all. No government oversight or regulation. Our digital data is going into these models for training things that we’ll never even experience or it won’t benefit our lives at all. It’s insane. It’s a natural resource that we don’t view as such. Some people compare data to oil. Right now you can’t replace the human performer. Our physical bodies are amazing, how we respond.

Do you better appreciate your physical body?

HH: I love my physical body, but I understand that it has its limitations. My best gift is my mediocre voice because it forced me to develop these digital appendages. If I had been born with a natural Adele voice I probably wouldn’t have done that. I have these cyborgian things to make my voice interesting, to try and transcend that. I really appreciate vocalist’s ability to respond in the moment, with memory and historical training and being present. This human desire to connect through music is innate. The Notre Dame footage featured people together singing and it’s this innate thing to emote together. There’s a reason that there moments on this record that sound liturgical, wherein I found myself craving this public moment of emotion, sharing it together. That’s something I was craving. I don’t think we evolve past that. our technology can evolve, but we don’t need to get rid of what’s wonderful about being human. People who make idiosyncratic music are in less danger of being replaced.

If you think about how pop music is written these days, it’s not artificial intelligence, but you have upwards of 20 writers and they’re basically scanning players and the communities they are involved with, it’s functioning in a similar way.

The first wave is just background music, there’s active listening and there’s passive listening. Passive listening generates money in a streaming society, which is also arrrrgh. Valuing a work of art by how many times it’s played is such a fucked up way of valuing something. The most important music to me and my brain development have not been things I played on repeat at a dinner party. Things I only listened to once are just as valuable.

Writing about David Behrman’s early work, Paul DeMarinis once said: “Electronic instruments are in theory freed from such compromises; they permit as pure a harmony as the human mind can imagine…[Behrman] has been able “to use really rich harmonic material without having to deal with all the weight and forward direction usually associated with harmony. Without gravity.”

HH: What you’re getting at is one of my godfathers of electronic music, John Chowning. You get these timbres that you don’t find in nature. Often technologists are trying to just emulate a piano instead of developing a new sound world. That sound world was entirely new because he came up with it and now you hear it in all these movies. I love this idea of building on the past and progressing things and having things respond to how we’ve developed to today. I love trying to figured out what Spawn can do that we can’t do.

My Deadspin Non-Sports Writing

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I only got to write a handful of times for Deadspin (h/t to Down in Front), but I greatly enjoyed what I submitted over there. At one point in time, I wrote often about cinema (even having a column about soundtracks at Idolator called VHS or Beta) but those outlets slowly evaporated, or rather, stopped paying money. So it was fun to get to write about shitty directors who kept name-dropping John Cassavetes while not taking one aspect of his work to heart and the brain-frying brilliance of Jack Nicholson’s early westerns. Back when Guardians of the Galaxy was a box office smash, I got to wax about the mighty 10cc in all their permutations, from the woolly Consequences box set to Godley and Creme’s godlike “Cry” being used on an episode of Miami Vice, making it “ideal music for a sockless-yet-shoed Don Johnson to shoot a shirtless-yet-sports-coated Ted Nugent to.” And when Roberta Flack was used on the final season of Mad Men, I got to tell the little-known story about how Play Misty for Me actually put Flack in the public consciousness.

My favorite Deadspin piece was no doubt “Big In Jamaica: Why Reggae Fans Mysteriously Love Air Supply,” which explored why the pillow-soft Aussies were revered throughout the Caribbean and plastered on reggae festival posters in my old neighborhood of Crown Heights. The piece touched on the likes of FKA twigs, the Clash, Bread, and Marty Robbins, none of the above sports figures per se, but it was fun and enlightening to cover non-sports for a site that’s getting shittier by the day.

 

 

Journey Through the Secret Life of Neighborhoods

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A while back, I had the privilege and honor of bestowing Best New Reissue upon Ernest Hood’s 1975 album, Neighborhoods, over at Pitchfork. If I were to try and summarize it in one line, it would be: “Hear children shouting out songs, crickets chirping, and the noise diesel engines rumbling past and feel the illusion of time dissolve.” The review has most of the bio/ backstory in it so won’t go into much detail here, save that it was a real thrill to finally hold a physical copy of it in my hands. Freedom to Spend label did an incredible job, even digging up the master tapes for it (a real rarity in this age of the easy-rip reissue).

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To say I had spent many years in search of this neighborhood would be an understatement. Freedom to Spend fellow Matt Werth surreptitiously spun it for me one Sunday morning and it was that rare record that seemed to dissolve into the morning air and suddenly become tactile all around us. Searching for a copy took on the qualities of the former and I never found a copy myself. (Blurbing it for Pitchfork’s Top Ambient Albums List certainly didn’t help with future eBay bids and Discogs searches.) Like most private press records, it’s one person’s undisturbed vision, a singular sound, a path that but one person traveled down.

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A few months prior, I found myself going deep on Stevie Wonder’s Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a truly misunderstood album from the man both at the time of its release in 1977 and even in the 21st century. When Slate did their Wonder Week back in 2016, they celebrated nearly every single facet of the man’s career, some 16 features in total. Secret Life of Plants merited one begrudging sentence. Short shrift for an album that was the first to use a sampler, echoes the messiness of creation, touches on the cosmic philosophy of the Dogon tribe, the god Pan, the legacy of slavery, and sending pretty flowers to your sweetie.

secretlifeIt’s the kind of indulgence that few artists can attempt, much less get away with, yet Stevie did it, as I wrote near the end of the Sunday Review: “Rather than attempt to carry on with Key of Life’s trajectory and his own heritage, Stevie had the rare cache to wander down every path, in effect making Motown his own private press label… Wonder literally branched out, reaching upward towards an undetermined new destination, exploring intuitively and fearlessly in a manner that few artists have ever managed to do in the history of pop music.” But I don’t mean to draw a connection between Stevie’s effort and that other private press album about plants, Mort Garson’s Plantasia.

There’s something about the use of field recordings and overheard dialogue on Secret Life of Plants that brings to mind Neighborhoods, and they are like two peas in a pod, to use a garden metaphor. Sure, one is a massive pop star, the other a neglected jazz player, but there’s something about Wonder and Hood’s blending of new-fangled technology and field recordings that resonates. Perhaps there is a correlation in that both men were dealing with debilitating disabilities, Hood confined to a wheelchair from the effects of polio, Wonder blind almost since birth from retrolental fibroplasia. As such, both men oriented themselves in this world via deep listening and conjured a full-spectrum of sound in an attempt to adequately describe these rich worlds they could hear.

Both albums acted like seeds, sinking deep into the subconscious, barely heard for decades, only to come to life in the 21st century. Hearing these albums now in 2019, one also hears an unbridled freedom. No doubt it inspired Solange’s A Seat at the Table (she vocally called out the Stevie album in interviews) which in turn had an effect on the forthcoming Joy Orbison (Joy O) Slipping EP. In a recent feature on Orbison, Gabriel Szatan notes that Solange’s album gave the producer a template for “something supple and introspective without adhering to the usual strictures of a set medium.” While both  Wonder and Hood might have been physically restricted due to their disabilities, they conveyed a real sense of the freedom to roam in their music. Listen to either album and find yourself in the center of the universe.

 

‘Hi, How Are You.”

Daniel JOhnston

“Johnston’s songs were fragile in a way that could disarm even the most cynical of us. His enthusiastic yip and uncanny knack for soaring choruses was undeniable no matter the fidelity. The music could feel silly and sincere, diaristic and voyeuristic, sometimes even in the space of a single line.”

We lost two totemic Texan weirdos this year with the passing of Roky and Daniel. Both suffered from terrible mental disease and mistreatment (even hero worship from non-treatment) but both men somehow turned such suffering into comforting music. In my many hours with their music growing up in Texas, I certainly didn’t understand the ramifications of such fandom, but the one time I saw Daniel perform, it was evident that it was an uneven relationship in a way that was troubling. But it really took seeing the doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston to realize the true ramifications of his suffering.

The genius of “True Love Will Find You in the End” and “Walking the Cow” deserve all the reverence though and they border on being hymns; it’s not hard to imagine them lasting for generations. I also find sweet comfort in the echo between Roky’s “Starry Eyes” (which I now sing as a lullaby for my daughter each night) and Daniel’s line about “Lucky stars in your eyes.”

Daniel Johnston Was a Hero for the Wounded for Vulture.

Yvonne Turner Helped Invent House Music—So Why Does No One Know Her Name?

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I was doing what I loved to do, working in the studio and create. That’s where being a woman in the business really became real to me. I felt like if I had been a man, it wouldn’t have happened in that way, not being called for work. I had to kick the door back down. I felt like I was being a girl, that’s the way it goes.” 

“Music is the Answer,” but the question is who created one of the first house tracks? And why don’t more people know Yvonne Turner’s name? A case made for Yvonne Turner at Pitchfork

Every Nirvana Song Ranked

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“It’s almost impossible to de-program the incestually-established, male oppressor, especially the ones who’ve been weaned on it thru their families…like die-hard NRA freaks and inherited corporate-power mongrels…But there are thousands of green minds, young gullible 15-year-old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they’ve been told of what a man is supposed to be, and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment.” 

A deep dive into the discography of the band that meant everything to me back in 1991. Rather than feel nostalgic, I was shocked to discover that in 2019, Nirvana still feels as eerily powerful, cathartic and prescient now as it did then. And I finally put the best Nirvana song at #1.

Every Nirvana Song Ranked, for Vulture.