Should we be paranoid about the androids?

The early pioneers of AI music were derided and feared. Does it deserve a revival?
Musician Lois Kendall plays the cello while a mechanical man named Elektro 'conducts' on stage as part of a Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co demonstration at the World's Fair, New York City, 1939. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Musician Lois Kendall plays the cello while a mechanical man named Elektro 'conducts' on stage as part of a Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co demonstration at the World's Fair, New York City, 1939. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
I am lost when I’m with you, 
There’s no hesitation in your eyes. 

–       Blue Jeans and Bloody Tears (Feat. Izhar Cohen), by Sweaty Machines

Feed a computer enough Eurotrash and it can write something just about as bad, if not better, than a human original. That was supposed to be the story of ‘Blue Jeans and Bloody Tears’, a song developed by artificial intelligence in 2019. The ‘music video’ – which shows a Viking-horned pink slot machine churning bit-tape – has been watched over six million times. 

Next month, the second annual AI Song Contest takes place in an undisclosed location. In 2020, ‘Beautiful the World’, Australia’s entry, won first place. The judging panel noted that Uncanny Valley, the group who ‘wrote’ it, ‘not only pushed the boundaries of their personal creativity’ but ‘gave the audience a look into the exciting future of human-AI musical collaboration’.

How far we have come from the days of poor old David Cope. It was he who argued, when building his artificial composing machine, Emmy, in the nineteen-nineties, that ‘good artists borrow while great artists steal’. Did it matter, therefore, if a machine did the leg-work for us? 

Before Emmy was ‘decommissioned’ Bladerunner-style in 1997, it processed thousands of musical scores and imitated the style of classical composers. In 1994 Cope released Bach by Design: Computer Composed Music, fifty-four minutes of score produced by Emmy but – and this was Cope’s creative defence – selected by him. Cope also wrote the programmes which he fed into the machine.

Back then, no one took Cope or his little toy seriously. He was derided by fellow music scholars as a cheat. But Cope argued that computer algorithms were no different, in principle, to the learning process of the classical musician. For them, he said, ‘so many parameters [were] clearly predetermined’. And artists imitated before they invented. Chopin took the Nocturne form from John Field; Mozart knicked phrases from Haydn.

Cope called Emmy an ‘intermediary’. It leveraged its extraordinary processing power to offer new possibilities for the musician. Next month, nearly three times as many teams, from Nepal to Catalonia, will try to do AI composition justice in that way – using it as a tool to create new possibilities.

There is still a long way to go. Blue Jeans and Bloody Tears is a laughable song. It changes key not once, but twice. And the lyrics are the most entertaining feature:

There’s no life without your life in misery
Blue jeans and bloody tears
Don’t give up on a precious summer
Rolling in the moonshine 
Baby by bye-bye

Yet, against my better judgement, I heard the voice of a self-aware intelligence in the lines:

Don’t break my heart - It’s powerless 
This magic is in spite of me.

Is there a ghost in the machine? Probably not. Listening through the top entries at last year’s Contest, however, I detected traces of one. There was French group Abbus’ Can AI Kick It

I tried to write an honest song
About the things that I do.
And I pray to God that I be a success,
And they all said,
That the Lord would soon answer,
But it wasn't to be.

And German entry DadaBots x Portrait XO, with a Terminator-inspired metal mash:

Death is the norm in this world –
Only now humans are brought to the slaughter.
Losing your life, every day,
Extinction is the only way.

Cope had a way of selecting from the thousands of samples produced by Emmy. It was about finding ‘the most convincing’. The task of today’s musical engineers is a little different. It’s about letting the machines take us somewhere we otherwise wouldn’t have gone.

I can understand, therefore, why some might feel a little uneasy about the whole thing. The application of machines to the labour of human genius, after all, throws up unsettling questions. 

The year Cope published Bach by Design was a big one for the philosophy of human consciousness. It was the year Francis Crick published his Astonishing Hypothesis, using the latest advances in neuroscience to challenge whether human free will really existed. American philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote that year that human consciousness ‘can be best understood as the operation of a… virtual machine’. The image suited the times. It spoke not only to a species recognising, too late, of its programmability, its capacity to commit terrible, mechanical crimes.

Yet computers also came to symbolise a more general technological malaise. What made Radiohead’s 1997 Fitter Happier so haunting was the use of a voice synthesiser, familiar from the speech system used by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. In lines such as ‘getting along better with your associate employee contemporaries’, the band ventriloquised the artificial intellect’s view of society: consumerist, conformist, and ‘more productive’. This pessimism unfolded into the question: if we let the machines in, will we become them – and so lose the chaos inherent to human creativity?

There is a beautiful scene in Bladerunner when Roy Batty, a rogue android, ponders on the meaning of his artificial experience. It will disappear, he says, ‘like tears in rain’. It took a human genius to write those words. But even our cruder artificial intelligence offers the musician what travel offered the painter: a new landscape. Much of the crudeness will be rejected. And sometimes we will be able to cherish the bizarre; recognise the ever-improving, alien beauty of the inhuman. As the Sweaty Machine says: ‘Tears will always have wet eyes’.

Oliver Rhodes

Oliver Rhodes is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.