Yes, The Sky Is Falling. Paddle Faster. Or Maybe Not.
For all of its “whoas” and wonders, wrangling from each of us a wish list of uses at some point, I know that there are at least a few sounds that A.I. will never quite replicate with complete and total accuracy. Not because it isn’t “able,” but well…
Autumn. 1978. 3:43 p.m. High school music rehearsal. Specifically, Spring Valley, California’s Monte Vista High Marching Monarchs, an award-winning juggernaut at the time, including Best American Marching Band at the world-renowned Calgary Stampede earlier that summer.
There were probably 60+ of us, arranged in semi-circled rows by sections (woodwinds, brass, percussion, and so on…). At center front—and facing us as always—was our esteemed director, Mr. Ed Underwood. Mr. Underwood was a singularly unique character who would come to leave a pivotal and profound influence upon me and scores of others, both through his own teachings and those of his many, many students, myself included. In spite of this, poor Mr. Underwood was still in for a somewhat bumpy ride…I had issues and I needed an adult to banter with. No, against.
On this day, whilst navigating a particularly tricky passage, I again found one such opportunity.
“Mr. Seaholm,” he called.
“Yes, Mr. Underwood?” I replied.
“Are you…aware,” he stammered, “that we are all…all of us…here today…actually playing this piece of music in the key of B flat?”
I paused for a moment, rolling my eyes upward and pretending to calculate on my fingers how he had arrived at that conclusion and then replied, “Uhhhhh, yes.”
“Then why, on God’s green earth would you be playing in a different key than the rest of us?” he asked incredulously.
“Well sir, technically… I wasn’t,” I explained sarcastically. “I was just playing all the notes in that key that nobody else was using.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Seaholm.” He grumbled dismissively looking down at his podium as he rearranged his score. I grabbed my trombone and began to sidle my way out.
He grabbed his baton and raised it high, the whole world seemingly frozen there for a moment within his stern anticipation, before bringing his hands down to dramatically signal the unison downbeat.
This, as it turns out was the exact amount of time it took for me to shout out: “But if I could please screw this up just one more time, sir…”
That’s when it happened. The un-AI-able moment.
A room chock full of musicians, many of them crashing cymbals or pounding drums, the rest blowing into a horn of some sort, spitting, splatting, sputtering, falling out laughing, and just plain losing control of what they’re doing, in perfectly dissonant harmonic chaos.
Admittedly, it wasn’t all that funny a line. But timing is everything, and context is key. Because of this, I’m not sure AI will ever truly master the art of comedy, even though it can probably cobble its elements together into something that looks and sounds a lot like it.
Aye, there’s the rub, Batman.
In just these last three months that I’ve been researching and discussing artificial intelligence here, the chatter concerning living, working and thriving in a post-AI world has risen to a tidal wave-like din of concern: who of the irreplaceable will be replaced? What will become of music, literature, and art as we know them? There’s even a current show I’m watching called Class of ’09, that looks at what AI innovations in criminology might look like in the not-so-distant-future, along with how we might deal with the issues of justice and privacy in an ever-expanding Wild West that is still unknown.
Recently, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan was interviewed by DJ Zach Sang, who elicited this intriguing response to a question regarding AI in music:
“Ultimately, art is about discernment. Somebody was telling me the other day how a famous rap artist would work; they would bring in all these different people and they would pick the beat they were most attracted to. Now, let’s change it to AI. “Hey, AI. Give me 50 beats from the 50 best rap songs of all time. Mmm, I like number 37.” That inspires me. Are they ripping it off? Not really. Because I did the same thing. I just did it analog. I listened to 10,000 songs; so what’s the difference? So, it will really be about those who can discern, even if it’s AI presenting them with choices.
The problem with it is, if you’re an organic artist like I am, it’s going to be really hard to compete with a whole bunch of people who don’t know how to write songs but have good discernment or can’t sing but have Auto-Tune. You think there’s a lot of bad music coming out now, just wait.”
This is a solid take. I do feel that the tools for creative work are always with us, but as we move further into these novel technologies and become more savvy about how to coax art out of 1s and 0s, well…the sky is the limit! Embrace the future.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter, and record producer in San Diego. www.SvenSounds.com