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AI Composition Technology

 

It feels like technology is developing at an incredible rate with every year that passes, and in the music world, these changes continue to push the boundaries of what is possible for creators as we approach 2020. Several companies specialising in AI music creation have been targeting composers lately, headhunting and recruiting them to develop the technology behind the artificial composition. So who are the AI companies and what do they do?

AIVA

One company called ‘AIVA’ has been the most prevalent that I’ve been aware of this year, and they have reached out to recruit composers stating they are ‘building a platform intended to help composers face the challenges of the creative process’.  Their system is based on preset algorithms, simplified and categorised by genre as a starting point.

I set up an account to experiment and found it to be quite different from the demo on the landing page led me to believe. The demo video demonstrates how the user can choose from a major or minor key, instrumentation, and song length to create a new track, and that is it – the piece is created! The playback of the piece has overtones of the keyboard demos of my youth in its overall vibe however I have to admit I am genuinely impressed with the functionality of the melody, harmony, and rhythms as well as the piano roll midi output that is practical for importing into a DAW – it’s really not bad at all.

The magic happens while watching the rest of the demo and seeing how the composer modifies the melody to make slightly more technical sense and sound more thought-out and playable, they shift the voicing and instrumentation of the harmony and add their own contributions to the AI idea. I have to admit that I have similar methods for composing parts when inspiration is thin on the ground, but my methods are not so fast, slick or lengthy and I can completely see the appeal of AIVA being used as a tool for overcoming writers’ block or getting an initial idea that develops quickly.

On the argument against, I was pretty stunned how little input was required from the user to generate the entire piece, which has fundamentally been created by someone else. The biggest musical stumbling block for me was that the melodies sounded obviously computer-generated and a little atonal, not always moving away from the diatonic in the most pleasing ways and transported me back to my lecturing days marking composition and music theory of those learning the fundamentals.

In generating a piece in each of the genres on offer, I generally liked most of the chord progressions and felt this was a high point that would probably be the most useful to me for working speedily, arranging and re-voicing any unconvincing elements with relative ease. While I’m still not 100% sure where I stand morally on the whole thing, my first impressions are that the service is extremely usable, does what it claims to do, and ultimately has been created by composers for those who need help to compose.

Track 1 – https://soundcloud.com/michelle_s-1/aiva-modern-cinematic-eb-minor-strings-brass-110-bpm

Track 2 – https://soundcloud.com/michelle_s-1/aiva-tango-d-major-small-tango-band-90-bpm

Amper

‘Amper’ music is a different yet interesting AI composition site that assists in the creation of music, and the company states that the technology has been taught music theory and how to recognise which music triggers which emotions. The nerd in me disagrees with this concept profusely (the major key ukulele arrangement of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is just one example of why music is far more complex than key and instrumentation assumptions) however in looking at the target market for Amper, this makes far more sense – they provide a service primarily aimed at non-musicians who are faced with the prospect of trawling through reams of library music as a means to support concept such as a corporate video. In a similar vein to AIVA, Amper creates fully-formed ideas to the brief of set parameters such as timing length and tempo with the addition of incorporating a video to the music creation stage, making this a really practical tool for those looking for supporting music. I loaded a piece from the given options and found it to be very usable and accessible to non-musicians. While the price tag to own and use the pieces seems steep, it’s also reassuring that the composers should have been paid a fair fee.

IBM

Similarly, IBM has created compositional AI they have named ‘Watson Beat’ which its creator Janani Mukundan says has been taught how to compose. The website states:

“To teach the system, we broke the music down into its core elements, such as pitch, rhythm, chord progression and instrumentation. We fed a huge number of data points into the neural network and linked them with information on both emotions and musical genres. As a simple example, a ‘spooky’ piece of music will often use an octatonic scale. The idea was to give the system a set of structural reference points so that we would be able to define the kind of music we wanted to hear in natural-language terms. To use Watson Beat, you simply provide up to ten seconds of MIDI music—maybe by plugging in a keyboard and playing a basic melody or set of chords—and tell the system what kind of mood you want the output to sound like. The neural network understands music theory and how emotions are connected to different musical elements, and then it takes your basic ideas and creates something completely new.”

While this poses the same arguments to me as AIVA and Amper with its pros and cons, it’s clearly advertised as a tool to enhance the skills of composers rather than replace them, which is something I appreciated once again and I am curious to see where IBM takes this technology with their consumers in the coming years.

Humtap

The last piece of software I tried myself was an app downloaded onto my phone called ‘Humtap’ which was a slightly different take on AI for music composition. In a lot of ways, this was the least musical of all the software, yet conversely, it was the only one I tried that required something of a live performance – the app works by singing a melody into the phone and choosing the genre. I hummed a simple two-bar melody and played around with the options of what instrument played it back and where the strong beats should fall in the rhythm. The app then creates a harmonic progression around the melody, a separate B section, and this can all loop indefinitely. It’s really easy to experiment, undo, redo, and intuitively create short tracks of electronic, diatonic sounding music. This app by its nature seems like it’s aimed at young people, and I felt that was pretty positive – if Humtap works as a gateway app in getting youngsters interested in creating music using technology at home, then that’s a win from me.

There’s always a discussion to be had around the role of AI in music composition, and I suspect everyone will have a slightly different opinion on where they stand. Some fear the machines will take over and replace humans, others make the argument that this kind of technology will mean everybody will have to work faster because of it, and there are some who fear it will open up the market to less able composers at the mid and lower end of the scale. On the other side, we have to accept that we all crave new, better sounds and sample libraries to work with, and that the development of technology within music has been responsible for much of the good we can all universally agree has happened through the last 5 decades. My lasting impression in researching and experimenting with some of these available AI tools is that they are useful assets to composers but they are simply not capable of the same things as a live composer. To me, emotion cannot be conveyed in the same way because it needs to be felt by the creator and ultimately, music composition is far more complex and meaningful than algorithms and convention.

Interview with Electronic Music Collective Hyasynth House

Hyasynth House is a Nashville-based electronic music collective for female, trans and non-binary creatives founded in 2018 by Jess Chambers and Eve Maret. The pair have been incredibly productive since the group’s inception, having hosted a wide variety of events like electronic music meet-ups, live shows, and even a live score accompaniment to classic silent films at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. Most of all, the group works hard to foster a community where female, trans, and non-binary artists have a readily accessible platform to express their talents as well as meet and learn from one another.

What inspired you both to start Hyasynth House?

Jess: I was playing shows around Nashville and found myself to be almost always the only female on the bill. The live electronic music scene at that time was mostly made up of cis-men. I was curious to see if I could help change this by reaching out to femme, non-binary and trans electronic artists and helping them get a functioning live setup so we could play shows together! I got excited about the idea of having regular meet-ups to discuss gear and creative process.

Eve: Like Jess, I too longed for a sense of community here in Nashville. Before Hyasynth House, I had considered moving away because I didn’t feel like I was connecting to many people creatively. I’ve always needed to be stimulated and inspired, to make meaningful connections to other artists, and to promote positive change through creative expression. With Hyasynth House, I envisioned a music scene that was more inclusive and diverse; one that centered around the notion of providing a platform for female, non-binary, and trans artists to freely express themselves and learn from each other. At its conception, Hyasynth House represented a microcosm of a healthy society.

Are there other collectives or groups out there that you’ve modeled Hyasynth House from or take examples from?

Jess:  I’m very inspired by Discwoman. They’re a New York-based collective, booking agency, and event platform. They started as three friends putting on a 2-day festival featuring all their female friends who DJ and the response was so positive that they continued as an agency. They have used their success as a platform to be vocal about gender and racial discrimination issues within the electronic music industry.

Can you talk about your experience in the music community in Nashville and how Hyasynth House plays a role within it?

Jess: Our experience has generally been very positive. There is something special about femme, non-binary and trans artists hanging out and making things happen for ourselves. It feels powerful and beautiful, and it’s so much fun!

Hyasynth House works to bring together and uplift female, non-binary and trans creatives. We’ve held meet-ups where artists demonstrate their live setups and teamed up with local techno label Tram Planet to run a DJ workshop. We gathered artists to perform at high-profile events such as the Big Ears Festival 12 Hour drone and Science on Screen at The Belcourt Theatre. We’ve hosted shows for local and touring artists. We’ve been proactive in having conversations with local promoters about how we can collectively deal with harassers and curate safer and more diverse live shows across the entire underground/D.I.Y. scene.

What impact do you hope to have on the electronic community in Nashville and beyond?

Eve: We hope to see more gender and racial diversity in the music industry. I feel really grateful for the people I’ve met through Hyasynth House who have touched my life in a really beautiful way, and for the opportunity to bring people together and uplift one another. This ripple effect has the power to make a difference!

What work do you think in this realm is most important?

Eve: Having an all cis-male lineup at a show is not acceptable. Female, non-binary, and trans artists need to be given a platform to be creative. Giving marginalized people a safe space to be vulnerable and share their art is an absolute necessity, both for our individual healing and the healing of the community at large.

How are you tackling these issues?

Jess: Our meet-ups and workshops are exclusively for femme, non-binary and trans people at this time. We believe this is an ideal environment for our collective learning. That said, we are not policing anyone’s gender, and we won’t turn anyone away. We also prioritize calling in talent that is female, non-binary and trans when we have events, so we are directly giving opportunities to the marginalized groups we are focused on.

What challenges has Hyasynth House faced since founding? What kind of regional and local reactions have you received?

Eve: What’s challenged us most has been coping with the behavior of those who don’t understand our vision. Intentionally creating space for female, non-binary and trans artists in our community has sometimes touched a nerve, and certain people have had intensely negative reactions to what we do. It’s hard for them to accept that there’s no “one, right way” to building a diverse music scene. How we’ve chosen to navigate this work is our choice, and we’ve seen a lot of positive changes (individually and collectively) take place as a result. We’ve been offered a great deal of help, and people share their opinions freely with us. We strive to remain open and adaptable while standing by our values. Ultimately, we make decisions based off of what we believe is in the best interest of the people we advocate for. We’ve received a great deal of positive support both locally and across the nation in the form of articles, awards, and the blossoming of mutually beneficial creative relationships.

Can you talk about the artists you have worked with so far with Hyasynth House?

Eve: We’ve been really lucky to showcase the work of amazing artists from Nashville and across the country. Linda Heck, Amaryah Shaye, Erika Glück, Annalyse Clark, Belly Full Of Stars, Adrienne Franke, are a few local artists who’ve been involved in our workshops and shows. Tessa♡ (Cassie Lopez and Edie Babs), Pearl Crush, and Precious Child are non-local artists we’ve had perform at our events.

Favorite piece of gear in your arsenal?

Jess: Roland SE-02 synthesizer

Eve: Ableton Push 2

Best piece of advice you’ve received for your music career?

Eve: Once, at work, a customer came in with a shirt that said, “Quit work. Play music.”

Jess:  This from Discwoman Co-Founder Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson… (not directly to me, but really valuable advice) ”Don’t compete. Try and focus on yourself. People are always going to look like they’re doing cooler shit than you. It’s really just a big distraction and I see that a lot. I know we all experience jealousy and these kinds of feelings….don’t compare yourself to other people.”

Advice you have for other artists?

Eve: Follow your heart! You can do anything you can imagine, just stay true to yourself.

Jess: Aim to touch people’s hearts. Making music isn’t about being clever; it’s about sharing something real. If someone feels it first rather than deconstructs it intellectually, then you’ve tapped into the power of music and art.

What do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

Eve: I’m moving to California in August, and Jess and I are exploring what form Hyasynth House will take once I’m out West. We will continue to expand, connect people and ideas, and host events. I’m most excited about inviting more people to have a hand in coordinating events. We want those who are touched by Hyasynth House to feel welcome to use it as a resource to manifest their creative visions. Reach out to us!

www.instagram.com/hyasynth_house

www.facebook.com/hyasynthhousetn

Jess Chambers aka Dream Chambers

www.instagram.com/dreamchambers

www.facebook.com/dreamchambers

Eve Maret

www.instagram.com/evemaret

www.facebook.com/evemaretmusic