Mouse On Mars. Engineering Systems!

By Audio Pervert - 1/17/2023

Can you tell if a piece of music was composed by a machine or human being? Can we agree as to what makes music feel human? Is speech (voice, syntax, rhyme, body, emotions) exclusive to humans? Can patterns regenerate? Can machine intelligence supersede human presence? These questions are a bit useless when we see scientists, artists and programmers embrace Artificial Intelligent (AI), as a convergence of experiences and knowledge. Stepping stones of a new direction? Emerging electronic music, heading back to it's experimental nature, colored by data, maths, fiction, theories and all that is AI... and yes the artist as well!

One such band is the visionary Mouse on Mars (MoM), a Berlin based duo of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma with collaborator/percussionist Dodo NKishi. MoM has been at the avant-garde of German electronic music, almost as a "signature of joyful experimentation". Given a certain 'German privilege' (tech, institutions, curators etc) ensures continuous innovation and experimentation, Toma and Werner as producers have explored deep and hard, to make sure each MoM album sounds strikingly modern. And so is the case with the new album titled AAI (Anarchic Artificial Intelligence). MoM's 18th album is a collaboration, with programmers, academics and graphic interpreters. The '├╝ber alles' of AI and electronic music are calling the album as a "quantum leap further". The new album by MoM is an exciting 'event' for us, to discuss the emerging paths of composition, collaboration and control, based on AI.

Lead by Prof Louis Chude-Sokei and Dodo NKishi (drummer and percussionist), a group of software programmers explored AI, as a narrative and compositional tool. Most of them inspired by science-fiction. Text which often dwells into existential themes however framed within a technologically superior future. Artwork by Casey Reas, pioneer of computer graphics language processing, an emerging example of code based art. Infinitesimal to be precise!

Fans and fanatics consider Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, to be scientist (wizards) of synthesis and generative electronica. Working with AI tech-collective Birds on Mars and former Soundcloud programmers Rany Keddo and Derek T, lead to the creation of 'bespoke software'. A program capable of modelling speech by learning human input. A new virtual singer? "Allowing Toma and Werner to control parameters like speed, body and even mood, thereby creating a kind of speech instrument that could be manipulated like a synthesizer". The legacy of speech to synthesis, voice modelling, robotization, sampling and all such endless manipulation is decades in the making, going back to the 1960s (Delia Derbishire, Ray Kurzweil, Elaine Radigue, Atom™ etc). In 2022, we are eager to know more about new AI based tools. More importantly, what they may deliver beyond what has already been achieved. Take Emmi (2005) for example, coded by Prof. David Cope which generated Bach like etudes, as sheet music and midi, for classical musicians.

Anarchic Artificial Intelligence as a record, is clearly turbulent and perhaps a potent example of things to come. Divergent and peculiar, staged yet spontaneous, normal (linear) sequencers and popular DAWs do not lead to this sort of ebb and flow. This sort of "differential regenerative music". The multitude of machine generated voices layered across the album, makes it more accessible to people. The singers are artificial and political, poetic yet incoherent, dark and even slightly emotive. However placed within limits, as heard earlier in various types of electronic music. Long time in the making, computation tools have impacted our creativity since the early 1970s. Consequently influencing (deeply) how we think about music, as means to collaborate with and also bear new expectations based on new output. MoM's new album is carrying that legacy forward, facing the future, stoking a decent amount of "anarcho-hope" along the way. Thrill Jockey as a progressive label too boost!

From the sleeve notes of AAI
. "Chude-Sokei’s text, as machine learning advances, robots begin to develop language, conscience, deliver with empathy - also acquire “anarchic” and unpredictable qualities...". Outside the realms of experimental electronic music, that vision does not concur with reality, especially when we see (and feel) the sharp rise of divisive algorithms, digital censorship, AI used by social media, by the police and surveillance states. Does AI serve people? Not so sure as we investigate further. Faith in current forms of AI is clearly detrimental, when it comes to history, identity, ethnicity and political beliefs. But this was about music right? As a new collaborator, AI is definitely an exciting prospect, proliferating rapidly, similar to earlier waves of technology that impacted the previous generations (culture, production, labor, industry etc). The release note of AAI posits that "we must embrace AI and technology as a collaborator to break out of our current cultural and moral stagnation, and to ensure our survival as a species".

At an artistic level one finds inspiration (and hope for regeneration) when composers and music producers speak with such resonance and meaning. At an individual level, this insurgent technology will surely impact the way we imagine music. However this technology, like most innovation and use, is clearly dependent on the given privilege (nation, race, access etc).

AI based music sounds promising, however yet to arrive as a game-changer. AI will impact the incoming generation of music producers, in ways which will be audible in the music. About popular electronic music of today, 3 decades in the making, has arguably gone past it's apex. Every proto-culture follows a meteoric rise and consequent flattening out. Perhaps in the near future, electronic music itself will be 'more intelligent' - however artificial or regenerative. Sounds yet unheard coming from systems yet to be imagined. The first steps, the groundwork towards that transformation, is surely happening now. Mouse on Mars has yet again put out a bold and meticulous sound, a statement, divergent and exciting, far from the mainstream. MoM is "engineering systems" for future hits!

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