Musical Ai

On Nitch, the Instagram page with enough scrolling power to prod you out of bed in the morning, there’s an image of Banksy sitting in a chair, his face cloaked behind an oversized hood and his fingertips welded together as if in prayer.

The caption reads, “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a super power.”

Sometimes this idea prompts me to hang back. To watch while others spread themselves thin. But when I discovered Spotify and the opportunity to be totally transparent about my listening habits, I leaned in.

Spotify gives me a heightened awareness about people’s connection to music. A track off Bon Iver’s For Emma might signal a rough day. ODESZA’s Divinity Remix hints at a moment of teeth-gnashing action. And when my grandfather, a man dedicated to his vinyl records, joined Spotify, I watched as he suddenly transitioned from Bach, Handel and Arthur Rubinstein to Frank Zappa, revealing a rare glimpse at a subterranean rebellious streak.

Maybe it was naive to overlook that all this public data could be harnessed for something besides interconnectedness. With great data comes great responsibility and recent news is uncovering a growing suspicion about how Spotify may be using that data.

Journalists and bloggers are accusing Spotify of creating songs by “fake artists” to fill in some of their ambient playlists to save money on royalty fees. Several artists stepped forward, others like Deep Watch remain eerily quiet.

Then there’s the potential connection between Echo Nest, Spotify’s data collection hub that tracks user’s listening habits, and the recent hire of Francois Pachet, a revered French professor and machine learning guru.

Bloggers speculate that Spotify is accumulating listening data so that they can use machine learning to create customized music. With millions of hours of listening data, Spotify’s algorithms could pinpoint the chord progressions, rhythms and styles that resonate with users. They could theoretically customize music for a specific moment in time.

The goal is awesome. And for me it would be the end of a long journey after stumbling on the crowdsourcing capacity of Hype Machine. I’ve always fantasized about a sixth sense for what song belongs in the current moment. An algorithm would take out the guess work.

We may not even be that far off. The glowing boards laid out in front of a D.J. and the prevalence of pro tools has introduced a new member of the band – a formula, a computer, or whatever cuts and hems raw tracks.

It’s hard to resist that mathematical precision. By definition technology makes things easier. Venmo means you don’t have to take cash out. Uber Eats means you don’t have to leave your couch to eat sushi. But I’m of the belief that easier doesn’t always mean better in the long term.

Take Dave Grohl for example. As a kid he couldn’t afford a drum set so he’d beat wooden sticks on pillows, hitting the fabric as hard as he could to make an audible sound. That produced a breakneck style that drove Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. No one brings Dave Grohl on to play drums for a soft jazz track – they hire him to shatter snare drums.

My concern with AI generated music is that we will lose the ‘fuck you’ types. The narrative behind the music will become less important as it becomes a more streamlined experience. We will settle into a cyclical feedback loop, thoughtlessly mainlining the musical stream. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Our past would prescribe our future.

But as we get further into AI territory, we may find that our experiences with music aren’t as transactional as listening data suggests. A friend recently told me that he associated Father John Misty’sNancy From Now On” with a second-hand surfboard he’d found in the back room of a well-lit surf shop. When he called the previous owner, the man told him that he’d shaped it for his wife, who was uninterested in the alternative design (it’s round like a pill or a bar of soap). As my friend twirled around the board he noticed a note on the bottom channel. Inscribed in pencil it said, “For Nancy.” The moment was cemented and the board became one with the song.

Algorithms are designed to root out randomness and chance. For an equation to work, you need a closed system. A self driving car can’t function if the roads are forever changing direction. The same would be true for AI generated music. You would need to construct a limit. A known quantity. Random chance would be deadly.

But music needs randomness. It needs chaos. It needs Death Grips. It thrives off leaps and bounds – unpredictable moments of improvisation. And for that, there’s no one better than a human.

Morale is High (Food is Low)

Sorting through my pack for a water bottle, I feel a puddle of sticky liquid at the bottom. I lean closer and inhale. It stinks and my lips feel numb and blue.

I go into damage control, slower than usual after repeated tugs from a whiskey bottle. Luckily, a pair of boxers and bag of bagels are soaking up most of the gas. After pulling everything out of my backpack, I toss the bagels into the fire and watch a fiery plume spike into the night sky.

The flame wilts a bit and I retreat back to the tent. It’s dark and my brother breathes deep in his sleeping bag. I shift to get comfortable but a looming paranoia has loosened my brain cells. They fire off a laundry list of potential disasters… Rattlesnakes! Ticks! Bad water! Food shortage! A field of poison oak. Death by combustion.

Laying there I think I sense a sudden heat-spike. Maybe it’s just lighter. The clouds have moved to reveal the moon. But in my heightened state of awareness I can hear the pop of old redwoods and sand nearing its melting point. I will the tide to swell – to surge – to put out the fire.

The next morning I wake to a moral hangover. The clouds have us socked in and the waves are grey and lifeless. My brother and I start to make breakfast, but I swear it tastes like gasoline. He seems to not notice.

We pack our things. My sleeping bag goes first. Then, the rain fly, a can of beans and a roll of toilet paper. I clip the fuel bottle into a carabiner and attach it to the side of my pack.

**

We walk with everything on our back and already we’re making progress. I skip from rock to rock, trying to avoid stepping in tide pools. The act of placing one foot in front of the other gives rhythm to the day. We’re moving which means we’re closer to something.

I pull away from the group, to conduct a check-in of sorts, wondering why through all of this I haven’t once wished to be anywhere else. The muscles in my legs are warm and my pack fits nicely against my back.

The rest of the group catches up and I silently join the ranks. Nothing is said about my retreat and we begin to walk again, eager to get to our next destination before the tide covers our tracks.

One Fast Move or I’m Gone

“Duncan?” said a voice in the doorway.

I turned to see a young, Asian man wearing a black leather jacket. His hair was spiked like a mountaintop and his leather boots were worn and dusty. He moved into my room and introduced himself as, “the guy moving in.”

I welcomed him. Surprised he was here so early. My lease wasn’t up until the next day. But he set his motorcycle helmet on a dusty dresser and began surveying the room.

**

There was a leaning tower of clothes, a stack of valuables (my passport, a knife wrapped in a stuff sack and a collection of birthday cards) and a pile of uncategorized stuff – dusty soccer cleats, an expired ID and an orange t-shirt with a rip through the chest.

The move was a chance to embrace minimalism. To enter a headspace where possessions were just material things, like empty beer bottles. But by grouping everything into piles, I’d magnified the emotional impact. I was no longer just throwing away a pennant flag but the entire 2004 Red Sox World Series.

“What’s the plan for the dings on the wall?” said the new guy, running a fingernail over one of the divots.

There were a network of scratches, mostly from tacks and nails jammed into the wall to support a string of prayer flags stretched across the room. I told him to take it up with the landlord. The larger dents in the wall weren’t mine though. I’d inherited them. The new guy snapped a few photos, muttering something about, “due diligence.”

He moved towards the window and eyed a reddish stain. I’d tried scrubbing it off but the wine must have set into the wood. Years ago, I’d kicked over a bottle of red while eating dinner with my girlfriend. I didn’t own any furniture at the time so we sat on the floor, legs crossed like Indian chiefs.

I offered some of the remaining furniture to the new guy. I’d found most of it on the sidewalk. But he shook his head and clasped his hands behind his back. He had blueprints for a new layout and as soon as I left, he was going to cover the walls with a fresh coat of grey paint.

The new guy motioned towards the leftover dresser and offered to help move it out to the street. So we took out the drawers and lifted, using the edges to maneuver through the front door, dropping the dresser by the trash.

“It’ll be gone in minutes,” I said. “Nothing lasts long in this neighborhood.”

It was true. Earlier I’d left thirty pound dumbbells by the curb to load into the car. Five minutes later they disappeared.

“How is the neighborhood around here?” the new guy asked, glancing at the apartments across the street.

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I told him it was ok and thought about the night someone threw a vodka bottle through our front window. The house had also survived two shootings – drive by’s that chopped up our front door with pockmarks. And most mornings the ground shimmered with broken glass from car windows getting beat to a pulp.

“Well, I have a scooter so I should be fine,” said the new guy. He must have seen me eyeing a shattered window.

The sun was getting low and I sensed that I only had a few more minutes, maybe seconds left. Cars sped up the hill, drivers squinting as they accelerated. Turk Street framed the setting sun, cradling it like a pearl.

I turned and jogged back inside to grab as much as I could from the three piles on the floor. I stuffed the Red Sox pennant and prayer flags into an empty guitar case. Out in the hall I could hear the new guy breathing steadily. He leaned on a squeaky floorboard and repeated something about a safety hazard. I heard the click of his camera.

He shook my hand as I walked out of the front door for the last time. A car pulled into the driveway next door. I leaned down to see if it was my pot smoking neighbor. He liked to sit out there rolling doobies. We usually exchanged head nods. My way of letting him know I wasn’t an asshole. Then, one day he rolled down his window as I climbed on my bike, and shouted something through a smoky haze.

“Hey cowboy! You riding off into the sunset?”

New York Part 2

D-man went to New York to see old homies and unhinge to the riffs of reverb-soaked guitar; I went to get laid. Too crass? I went to make some love that lasts. Better? Maybe.

h/t flowebro

It was a Thursday and it was snowing. Blizzarding, actually. I think we got two to three feet in as many days. Our bus driver plowed fearlessly through the storm, past rest stop scrums of eighteen wheelers and snow blasted billboards. My mom always says that some people were put on Earth for a reason. Well, I swear our bus driver was put on Earth to pilot Greyhound buses through blinding snow storms. After seven hours of certified rotten movies on mute and the intestinal cramps that accompany brake lock-ups, we were unceremoniously dropped off in the middle of Manhattan. That’s not true, the unceremonious bit, we – us riders – clapped when the bus slid to a final stop. Good job, boss, I got a lot riding on this.

I’d taken the weekend off. Sort of. I told my boss my grandfather was having a procedure done in New York City and needed me to accompany him. ‘Bad juju, man,’ D-man once told me when I pulled the same stunt to beatjuice around San Francisco with him. It’s one thing to drag your brother’s health into the karmic doghouse, but now your grandfather’s as well? Shit. Whatever. I’d had New York and its… colorful potential circled on my mental calendar for months. Girls from college, one in particular. I must have choreographed the reunion thousands of times in my head, during the purgatory of early-morning commutes and late-night, stare-at-the-ceiling boredom. Time to act, BopPop would understand.

 

I am acutely aware that my daydreams often play out less shapely and conclusive than the versions I conjure on the movie screen of my imagination. Especially the sexual ones. Oh, but it played so well in test screenings, my make-believe critics remark after each flop. I suppose that one scene was a little ambitious. The ice cube? That was never going to happen.

I pull my duffel bag from the snowbank where our bus driver had enthusiastically deposited it and begin down the street, blissfully ignorant of my location within the city, unabashed to be lost in the romance of no return ticket. Pulling out my phone, I announce my arrival in the city like a Cessna pilot carving a vapor trail message in the sky. Except by taciturnly worded text, not prop plane.

 

Wait, but that message wasn’t supposed to go out until later tonight, or even tomorrow, when forwardness is blunted by several scotch & sodas. Look at that, I’m already aberrating from the script. This screenwriter sucks anyway, I tell myself, hasn’t written a hit in years. Cars, plows, people, music, shouts, murmurs and light of all colors throb through the streets I tread like blood flow in our veins. Eight million heartbeats or just one? I can’t tell. I’m drunk on New York without taking a single sip. Time to be lucky.

The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.                                                        – E.B. White

Something for Me

***

***

As is often the case, the obvious choice was clear. It was safe. Reliable. Less likely we’d botch a Saturday.

Ocean Beach has a direct line to the Pacific. Highly exposed to South Swells, it picks up the smallest traces of energy. And with its impressive sandbars (two), it amplifies that oceanic power, sometimes opening up passageways for surfers to slip through to some other-worldly place.

OB was the call. It had to be.

At least that’s what the app said. Like most things these days, Surfline’s forecasting tools use data to predict the future. An equation is created, fine-tuned, greased and oiled, until a desired success rate is achieved. The hypothesis matches the outcome. A science teacher shakes with satisfaction.

Screw romantic waxing, adventure ain’t the same! Increased accessibility means more people. More people mean more crowds. And more crowds mean statistically there’s a higher chance of surfing next to an asshole.

So, we went against reason and drove to China Beach, a small sliver of sand East of the Golden Gate Bridge, known more for the elderly Eastern European swimmers that inhabit its frigid waters, than for its surf.

Quietly we slipped into neoprene suits and paddled a hundred feet down the coast. Just out of sight, past black swatches of seaweed, recoiling, swirling, Medusa-like, long and monstrous, was a tiny wave.

It’s a weird wave – the takeoff spot fingertips from the point. You paddle towards barnacles and seaweed, harnessing the tidal energy just before it breaks, swerving left to avoid boils in the water.

At first I was afraid. It didn’t make sense. I was used to the one-dimensional approach of Ocean Beach. I pictured rocks raking out the bottom of my surfboard. But after a few lefts, I began to ease into the routine, moving closer and closer to the point, where the wave first started to break.

Not once did I think about Ocean Beach, which was probably firing amid hoots and hollers from a jacked-up lineup. I’d discovered something far more interesting. Something that was tangibly my own.