Music Ally has always argued that artificial intelligence technology, including AI designed to create music, is going to be an exciting tool for (and collaborator with) human musicians, rather than an existential threat.
AI music startup Endel has been doing its bit to prove us right by working with artists. We reported on its collab with Grimes in October 2020, and its latest partnership is with electronic music legend Plastikman (aka Richie Hawtin).
The fruit of this collaboration is a track called ‘Deeper Focus’, although Endel describes it as a soundscape. Designed to “induce a state of deep focus”, it’s available through Endel’s app, and soon also its Alexa skill.
We talked to Hawtin and Endel CEO Oleg Stavitsky for an episode of our Music Ally TV Show. You can watch the full episode below, but this article offers some of the highlights from the conversation. Starting with Hawtin’s explanation of the process behind ‘Deeper Focus’.
“I’ve taken newly recorded Plastikman material, the stems and frequencies samples, and we’ve fed that into the AI algorithm, and that algorithm is the one that’s adapting and making the final performance,” he said.
“We’re basically extracting his DNA in the form of a stem pack, and feeding that into the algorithm,” added Stavitsky, saying that from the first discussions with Hawtin about the project “there was an immediate cultural match: almost an immediate frequency match!”
“A harmonic frequency,” said Hawtin, who was drawn to the visual components of Endel’s app and soundscapes as well as their sound. “I was a fan of Endel as a techie, and I think I can say Endel and the team were fans of Plastikman, and that’s really naturally brought us together.”
Hawtin described the creative process behind working with Endel as almost Lego-like, in terms of providing “building blocks” of sound that the AI could fit together.
Stavitsky stressed that ‘Deeper Focus’ only includes the material provided by Hawtin – “there are no other sounds in this soundscape except for Richie’s sounds!” – and suggested that as a compositional method, it’s not such a strange new thing.
“If you think about it, this compositional method goes back to the 70s and the 80s, when Brian Eno was working on his ideas of generative music, and then the minimalist composers of the 80s like Steve Reich and Philip Glass,” he said.
“This is where we came from: those ideas, and that approach to making music by creating a system. Creating a framework and feeding the building blocks into the framework and stepping back… and watching this system creating something out of those building blocks.”
Stepping back in this way can’t be easy for some musicians, especially when they are used to controlling every bar of their artistic output. However, Hawtin made it clear that he still retained a level of control in this project – he carefully chose which sounds to deliver to Endel.
“What I delivered wasn’t everything I’d done! I gave things that I was confident would mix and match… in order to give the best possible building blocks to the AI,” he said.
“Even if it wasn’t going to be a structure that I would have built, it would still make sense within my sonic language, or vocabulary. The system is only as good as what you feed it, right? So I was very careful in that approach.”
Hawtin, of course, has been using a variety of electronic instruments from the earliest days of his music career, and he sees working with Endel’s AI as not that different a workflow to using, for example, Roland’s famous TR-909.
“The Roland engineers who made the 909 drum machine made some very specific decisions in their design that enable me to create music. They made the 909 kick drum! I didn’t make that, but that is part of my sound,” he said.
“So I see this collaboration as another extension of that: of me collaborating with technology. And maybe I’ve handed it off in a different way, maybe I’ve lost some control in certain places. But [in] the interaction and interplay of man and machine, there’s always a part where I choose or have accepted that the machine does something for me, and this is just a new exploration of that… It’s part Plastikman and part Endel!”
While there’s a creative lineage for this kind of collaboration, it’s legal status – or rather, the legal agreements covering this kind of AI/human partnership – is still being worked out.
“This is uncharted territory for everyone,” said Stavitsky. “We literally had to invent the legal framework for this collaboration. It had never happened before.”
That can mean wrangling with lawyers, not because of distrust between the two parties, but because some traditional concepts struggle to translate to human/AI creations.
For example, an artist might approve a version of a track, but what does that approval mean if the track is going to “sound a little bit different every time that someone is playing it” in Endel’s app?
There are also opportunities here however. Stavitsky said that when Endel and an artist have worked on a soundscape together, it could be exported out as a static (i.e. unchangeable) release for other platforms. “There is a co-ownership concept for that part,” he said. More work for the lawyers.
“This album [‘Deeper Focus’] actually doesn’t exist without my stems or the technology of Endel. Once you take those apart, either I have to finish the album, or Endel has to get new content,” was Hawtin’s take. “So it is a beautiful experiment of shared ownership.”
“What’s interesting looking into the future: we are going into a place where music and samples can and will be appropriated by AIs and other new creative technologies that will give further life, and go beyond the idea of a remix,” he continued.
“It does start to make you think about ownership and how to properly track and sort through all that information, and I think that definitely starts to bring up questions of what else is happening in the world these days, with smart contracts and all the things that we will need in the future.”
Stavitsky pointed out another potential challenge: of what happens if someone records, say, 60 minutes of Endel playing ‘Deeper Focus’ and releases it themselves on other platforms.
“I don’t have a good answer for this currently!” he said. “There’s a lot of very interesting paradoxes, both legal, technological and even philosophical, that we need to challenge, that we do need to think about.”
“The only way to figure this stuff out is to jump right in and push the technology, push the innovation, and then make people – yourself or other people within the industry – say okay, we do need to figure this out. This isn’t a technology that’s just around the corner. This technology is here,” added Hawtin.
Endel and others in the AI music space have always taken care to talk up their technology’s potential as a tool to be used by musicians, rather than a weapon to smash their careers to bits.
There are still sensitivities however, both for musicians and people in the music industry. Naturally, we asked Stavitsky and Hawtin about those fears that AI could still be an existential threat for human musicians.
“I’m just making friends with the AI early on so they remember me in a warm way when they take over the world!” joked Hawtin, before offering his more serious answer.
“Technology is around us, it’s empowered us in every level of society, and I want to explore that,” he said.
“The only way to understand where you fit in to that equation is by exploring, and to say ‘oh, okay, so maybe the AI is better at doing that, and then I’m going to spend more time – my 10,000 hours to learn my craft – on that other thing which AI isn’t good at or hasn’t caught up with.”
“My music is very minimal. There’s not much there! But this has actually given me even more confidence in how I build such minimal music, and how I can give it over to the AI, and how much of me is still there,” Hawtin continued.
“Painters went from using a brush to Anish Kapoor creating things out of ‘Phantom Black’ and having engineers design things and help him. There’s so many things that we’ve let go of, but there’s still artists there. This isn’t a new discussion: it’s been there since technology was introduced and artists started using it.”
Endel once found itself at the centre of the music industry’s conflicted feelings about AI, after it announced plans to release some of the music generated by its AI on streaming services, via a distribution deal with Warner Music.
After that was inaccurately reported as a full label deal (“Warner Music has become the first major label to sign a record deal with an algorithm…”) there was a certain amount of consternation within the music community.
“That was the craziest month of my life. My cellphone literally melted in my hands! But since then I believe, or rather what I feel, is that the conversation has changed. The narrative has changed,” said Stavitsky.
“‘Deeper Focus’ wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Rich,” So I don’t think there is this danger of completely erasing the artist from the equation. It’s impossible! I think there’s always going to be a living, breathing human being behind the machine, either feeding the building blocks to the machine, or teaching the machine, or doing something.”
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