Artistic Intelligence: A New Colour in Music

Have you ever dreamed of seeing a new colour? Well, unless there’s a gaping hole in the electromagnetic spectrum, and every rainbow in the world is wrong, it will likely remain so: a dream. But luckily, there may be all sorts of new hues coming soon to the waking world, augmenting a different palette.

Because we cannot yet change our senses. But we are getting increasingly good at controlling what goes into them.

So it is natural to ask: What is the future of art? A century from now, the way in which humankind consumes media may be unrecognisable. In thirty years, we’ve gone from vinyl records to the iPod. My dad has ten thousand records in the attic; you could fit them all on a hard drive the size of small book. It’s clear that technology is having a huge impact on music in particular.

But we’re not talking about software that plays music, or software that stores music. Major change does not linger at the end of straight lines; you have to bend them. We’re talking about software that writes music.

That inexplicable gift of a great composer: the sublime matrimony of imagination’s infinity and infinitesimal detail. Everything we love about music, as a movement at once created and consumed by an entire race, albeit in different ways and places, seems to suggest that there is something inexplicable delivering it. Man seeks to decompose such art, just as a physicist describes the motion of the planets with his tools of analysis, and man gives names to musical devices that form the building blocks of composition. However, just as the physicist can describe accurately the elliptical orbits of the planets, but is at a loss to explain why an inverse square law applies in the first place, the musical scholar can never determine precisely why the particular composition of building blocks in any given piece of music evokes in him the feelings it does. As a result, our scholar cannot paint music by numbers; he may reassemble the building blocks in a novel shape, but there is no guarantee that this will sound good – because the execution of celebrated composition is not to be found in the crude architecture of such rigid blockwork.

And this is the challenge. How can computer-written music ever sound good if the essence, the truth of composition cannot be pinpointed?

And even worse: all computer software is made from building blocks. Is this the gulf between silicone and psyche – discrete memory versus continuous consciousness – or is it just the sense of scale deceiving us? For on the other hand, the fact that machines are now passing the Turing test with ease could lead a provocateur to argue that psyche is made of building blocks as well – just really really small ones.

Fortunately we can sidetstep the AI debate.

Still, imagine a Turing test for computer music! Developments in programming languages and the availability of free software may call for this, and sooner than we think. The salient quality of object-oriented programming is the power to create program structures that mirror the way things work in the physical world. More precisely: object-oriented languages allow us to create program structures that mirror the way we think about things in the physical world. So, perhaps the processes of thought we use in composing a piece of music can be faxed to binary.

At any rate, there is really only one way to illuminate the issue, and that’s where the fun starts. Leave theory to the theorists: let’s build! From this seat, first steps seem attainable. An attractive target slips into view: the 32-bar standard. The scaffolding of this historic jazz song format is already clearly delineated. At the heart of the idiom is a reasonably small pool of chordal notions directing a simple tune, and that’s it: two instruments. It’s doable. The core issue for the designer of computer composer is simple to set down: how to reconcile the notion of structure with the embellishment of probability? Or put another way: how to ensure an intelligible randomness? And the difficulty is that, whereas the question is asked in the language of music, the answer must be supplied in the language of source code.

Progress aplenty abounds in this orchard, and the fruits of recent labour taste promising. Beginning in 1981, David Cope’s project Experiments in Musical Intelligence has demonstrated our combined capabilities. In 1997 he released Virtual Mozart – machine-written music – and later exploited computers to imitate the styles of Beethoven and Bach. Established software like Band-in-a-Box uses stochastic grammar to improvise melody over chord sequences in real time – primarily as a rehearsal aid – but the potential there is enormous, and such methods are easily capable of writing original melodies for our 32-bar standard, once we’ve got the chords down.

From there, all we’ll need is a random-sentence generator to write words! The following is not at all far-fetched: get a dictionary, group words by rhyme, prescribe sentence structures, interpret syllabic meters gleaned from melodic phrasing, write full verses. This is the icing of the project, for it allows the results to be performed in context; by humans, for humans, and for fun. That is, the instrumental results are unlikely to be mind-blowing; they may be interesting. But if the computer is given a voice, speaks to us in our own language, and – most importantly of all – makes us laugh, these compositions can be reasonably aired in the public domain. And hence, no effort will be made to pass the lyrical Turing test!

Because after all, music is to be enjoyed. Can we not harness the creativity of programming for that purpose? Imagine a world where intelligent music responds to stimuli in real time, a world where the soundtrack to a party evolves in keeping with the mood, taking its lead from the temperature, noise levels and kinetic energy of the room. The old music was performed, or recorded; the new music participates. We have lights that take cues from sound, and soon we can have sound that takes its cue from lights. Feedback; a regulated loop that makes the whole show evolve like an interactive organism, like a sensory exhibition of colour and sound delivered with the rush of disbelief that only newness can bring.

All of this seeks to endow our lives with an audible new colour. Listening back to the era of repetition could be like watching a film in black-and-white. Here is potential for AI to prove itself, and stake its claim well beyond the grim debates of a species whose average outlook is the ultimate chauvinism.

Perhaps we shall no longer have to argue for or against Artificial Intelligence. Instead, we will just be enjoying Artistic Intelligence.

Nothing Interesting About Grange Moor – Acoustic Club (10/06/2015)

Back at this open mic after a fortnight’s absence and the compere has it sewn up: it’s quiztime. The theme this week is The Villages of Yorkshire. One question is ‘Is there anything interesting about Grange Moor?’. The correct answer is ‘no’ and Michael, in the front row, scores one point.

This is a flourishing garden of banter; new flora emerging weekly, weed blooms timely nipped. But always the purpose is maintained – the lawn is kept because the lawn is a stage.

One guy has a witty lyric about ‘shoving a massive camel through a tiny needle eye’. Someone else has an abstract talent for foot-shuffling, this time demonstrating his abilities from a seated position, in an exhibition that bears the hallmark of sobriety’s farewell. Yes, the Acoustic Club is in full swing, and remains this way until late, at which times uprising musicians litter the stage and jam, paying charming homage to one long-standing attendee by collective cover. That all six or seven on stage knew and could play this song impromptu, written by a member of the audience, pretty much sums up the genuine sense of community that is second nature here. It’s a group that thrives on an unthinking mutual respect, on collaboration and inspiration reciprocated; purely on the enjoyment of one-another’s creativity.

As for me, I first-half debuted and recovered from a first-verse choke, which is a nursery for confidence I guess, and didn’t mind too much my mistakes in the second song because you could hear a pin drop, and I liked that. It’s pretty rare I feel totally at ease on the stage but this was one of those.

And under these circumstances, a day’s work on three hours’ sleep is easy.

Immeasurable Numbers – Acoustic Club (Bar 1:22) 26/08/2014

As a substantial tally of big tunes were metered up by my compering interludes at this week’s club like the filling of some incredibly edible multi-storey arse-burger of a sandwich, I reflected on the difficulty of being the host.

The regular compere makes it look easy. He invents little games to break the ice. He introduces a nugget here for a later comic reference there. He looks comfortable.

For me, it’s about being able to handle the verbal absence. The briefest pause and I’m ready to blurt out the first phrase making itself cognitively available, and hastily get the next act on the stage. But you have to let it breathe; inhale that radio silence. Become calm, start to flow and let the audience in. And that takes balls. I need to grow balls.

As it were.

There’s an instructive dichotomy that manifests to the performer. The performer learns that his show is justifiably termed an act.  At times, you feel a unity between audience and performer (the bond of concert). At others, you could stick a whale between what they’re thinking and what you are. Anyway, I’m leaving Tuesday with the attitude of ‘job well done’, even though this last effort places in the latter category. Big shout out to the guy in the audience who prompted for me a compere’s applause at the end.

And the size of the numbers was outstanding. I literally ran out of superlatives. Songs were enormous; collaborations were colossal. The magnitude of one contributor’s effort was ‘of boundless enormity’. As one bright spark noted, this incremental trend could not continue indefinitely – still, it was indeed a pleasure to play host to such breadth, and remind myself why I love The Acoutic Club.

Which is why I’m happy to be returning next week as performer.


Back at the Shoulder – Shoulder of Mutton 09/08/2014

Saturday night saw a return to the splendid Shoulder of Mutton in Shelf, West Yorkshire.

When first I played the Shoulder, my two forty-fives of originals were reasonably well-received by a smallish group of family supporters. Stakes were raised at my second visit when, switching to cover songs, genuine smatterings of modest applause erupted once or twice from small pockets of regular shoulder-goers. But Saturday’s gig was clearly the pick of the braid; my shoes came off, impromptu Metallica requests were indulged, and an old matey appeared to popular acknowledgement.

Something in the water, me reckons – not that anyone was drinking water. One chap was so enlightened he felt moved to perform the entire Them Bones solo break as a vocally-embellished piece of air guitar, and all this from his seat in the audience. Clearly this maverick trend-setter was leading the way with his slick moves, demonstrating the correct way to proceed and paving the way nicely for his next trick. For in an hour’s time, as Karma Police sounded throughout the venue he was to be found holding discarded footwear over my head while we posed for pictures.

And so the evening passed by with a steadily heightening glow of high spirits, good-humoured banter and athletic codas; from old Kenst tunes like Bill From Above to the themes from Blackadder and Red Dwarf; through Can You Imagine an Imaginary Menagerie Manger Imagining Managing an Imaginary Menagerie? and How Much Wood Would Chuck Woodward’s Woodchuck Chuck If Chuck Woodward’s Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood?; lastly to She’s Electric spliced with Creeping Death, via a double-entendre detour and the claim that I might, if allowed, ‘put one wide’.

Big thanks to all involved in making this easily the most memorable solo gig I’ve done. I think in large parts that’s due to the promotion of the wise heads at the Shoulder. No mean slice of gratefulness goes out to sound engineer Daniel Wilson for taking care of the audio recording and front-of-house.

This is the first show I’ve filmed and selected tasty nuggets are to be sampled here.




Debutants – Acoustic Club (Bar 1:22) 19/08/2014

This post will be in the spirit of artistic therapy via the medium of mass brain data dump.

Debuting a composition is always scary. Seldom does it just flow out nicely first time around, even if it’s been aired to the rehearsal room walls a dozen times in the preceding week. That moment of first presentation always instills within me a sharp sense of panic; it’s the Juggling Effect.

The Juggling Effect: You rehearse a trick meticulously until it’s perfect. You perform the trick. You drop all the balls.

On this night I managed to hold all the balls. Playing Clock Handshake, something unexpected occurred in the old psychological realm, just prior to the third verse. I began to question the worth of the composition. I bottled out, hastily recompiliing the only loosely-defined structure of the back-end of the number, so as to end it with minimum fuss. I am calling it the Third Verse Crash.

Lucidity Indicator, in the second half, went the same way. This was a more severe tumble, during a tune which had been aired once before, in which the whole song suddenly seemed worthless. Even worse than worthless – kitsch; pretentious, forced and over-decorated. A collage of too many intricacies that just looks uniform and bland. Empty. I literally hated the song in that instant. Is that the power of Third Verse Crash? I mean, I had spent many hours lovingly crafting this one, during which times I felt it meant something.

Definitely a confidence thing. I was removing the word ‘I’ from the lyrics where possible, worrying that the song appeared too self-centred. I had revealed too much.

I didn’t sleep well. I resolved to take some positives. At least I had debuted, and pushed myself. I had felt like I couldn’t go on, like I would forget the middle eight when it came, but I had carried on and my fingers and vocal chords had found it. I had held the balls. Perhaps I had even thrown them well.

How to solve the Crash? Is it a problem of structure? I get bored repeating myself; I can’t write choruses. I have always held in high regard my mate Chris Lynn’s principle that as a musician, you have to be comfortable repeating yourself. I know I am not comfortable. Is that because I dislike repetition, or is the discomfort elsewhere? I have been flirting mentally again with the ‘I’m not a natural performer’ train that leads to jacking it all in. I am absolutely not going there again. I have worked hard to get back to enjoying doing this. There must be a solution.

Maybe Lucidity Indicator doesn’t need a third verse, or that elusive bridge that finds it nicely. Perhaps the whole tune can just be sliced in half, curtailed abruptly after chorus one, when all the useful prose has been spouted. And of course, no one’s obliged to perform every song they’ve created.

Accepting the compering duties at next week’s meeting was the evening’s best move. I am looking forward to it!




Introduce Yourself – Acoustic Club (Bar 1:22) 12/08/14

This week at the acoustic club: a fine attendance! Big smiles as I entered, casting eyes over the solid throng of players and watchers, seeing staff members retrieving emergency furniture from back rooms and then searching for a free slice of floor space to add my instrument to the impressive collection already set down.

And a new game; a fresh piece of banter from the compere, inviting individual members of the audience to tell the remainder about themselves, receiving in return a collective greeting. A finely woven piece of intermittent interluditude. This was the gravy to the night’s sausage: it gets the crowd geed up, endowing the stage with a warmth for the whole room to get high off.

A nice mix, methought, this evening. Two solo saxophonists, some poetry and ‘spontaneous interpretation via the medium dance’, a couple of duos and the long-standing 1:22 tradition of good vibes added to the stock of singer-songwriters comprising the acts’ bulk.

A bloody good reason must be found if one intends not to find oneself there next Tuesday.