What does it take to make an Americana record with artificial intelligence (AI)? Roving caravans of Amazon warehouse workers searching for seasonal labour throughout the American South; rust belt cities desperate to become a hub for tech start-ups, gentrification and all; or maybe Haight-Ashbury tech workers fighting for union recognition.
Holly Herndon’s ’PROTO’ tracks the folk music education of an AI named “Spawn”, and offers a sonic alternative to our tech hellworld. Like any good folk record, there’s ambivalence here. After all, what sensibility would be better to teach an AI, if, like Herndon, we were looking to build a different future together?
It was open-source machine learning code that Herndon, her partner Matthew Dryhurst, and developer Jules LaPlace, used to train “Spawn”, relying on regular improvisation sessions with a choral ensemble feeding “Spawn” vocal input. It then learned to manipulate the material, mimicking and improvising together with the human singers, resulting in a choir made up of both human and AI-generated voices.
‘PROTO’ is stripped down to its traditional roots and then built up again with Herndon’s compositions. No joke: each improvisation session involved a communal meal of soup shared together. “Our vision of technology is that it enables relationships and liberates us to be more human together, which it so often is not designed to do,” explains Herndon, of the approach.
The result is a sort of spacious, algorave glee club. Herndon’s own origins in Eastern Tennessee bring in Appalachian Sacred Harp call-and-response techniques, as well as nods to coal miners’ union songs, church house hymns, and African American field calls. Standout track ‘Frontier’ imports elements of American folk singing and Celtic traditional music over complex percussion. It’s hair-raising, as much a John Cage-esque chance composition as an a cappella ballad.
At times the line connecting human and machine becomes more exacting, as if “Spawn” is pulling at its leash. ‘PROTO’ is operatic but highly tenuous – Herndon stages a radical, tender kind of post-humanism, but she leaves room for the drama of its arrival. The album is full of anticipation. At times it’s ugly and overblown. But it’s a collective vision, one that reflects back on our own inputs into the dataset as well as at our folk stories of survival and resistance.
Words: Josh Gabert-Doyon
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