They were one of the hottest bands of the noughties, releasing their debut album Fantasy Black Channel to mass critical acclaim. Then they completely vanished, leaving a trail of #BringBackLateOfThePier tweets and campaigns in their wake. A decade on, those rogues from Castle Donnington have come back with a book on Rough Trade's new imprint exploring music of the future....
Tell us about Ecstatic Data Sets. What made you want to write and release this?
Along with the 10 year anniversary re-issue of Fantasy Black Channel, we wanted to look 10 years in the future too. It might be a speculative machine about what could happen in an ideal world, but it’s also a love letter to music. Amongst all that fancy machinery is the belief that music has an incredibly powerful effect over us. People like Eno have established that sound can very effectively help us engage in our parasynthetic nervous systems. With emerging technologies, where else could it take us?
If it can calm, inspire confidence and help us dance like devils could it also instil compassion, conjure latent memories and even induce higher states? After seeing research into the effect of music on Alzheimers patients, we wondered if music could ever be so effective that we could become fully immersed in our memories and communicate with lost friends. In that sense we've made a time machine too.
You say its "a manual for a music making machine of the near future." Do you plan to create such a machine yourself?
In many ways we are already living in the future; all of the technology in the book already exists. The machine is inspired by bio-feedback (awareness of the body, like you see from a Fitbit), Data Sonification (turning information into sound), Machine Learning (algorithms learning from data) and AI (learning what each user wants and when). By writing such a utopian scenario we are tempting the technologists to make it. We are also trying to reassess what it is to be an artist in 2019. What role do we have in such a rapidly changing world and how can we give value to society? We can do this by imagining ideal futures and also communicating potential realities with a sensitivity technologists or journalists might not have.
How does this tie in with AI technology already being used to make music like Sony's Flow Machines project and the work of Francois Pachet. Do you follow their work much?
Francois Pachet and many others are getting some interesting results from music making AI's. If music making is understanding patterns and working them into emotional effects, then they are really definitely getting there. Some of the Bach Chorales to me are indistinguishable. With these projects there is usually a human guiding the algorithms or deciding what to release to the public. This human element is effectively expressing their taste, which is such a vital component of not just what we like in music, but how we identify as human beings.
The advantage of the machine we have developed is that it does what truly great music does: it listens to you. It attempts to hold a mirror to your soul and provide you with just what you need. This could be AI generated music, it could be a song that reminds you of an old friend or it could be just a single sound, it doesn’t matter as long as it moves you. In the near future there will be sophisticated non-human music that might go as far as describing the human condition just as well as your favourite artists. What we are establishing with Ecstatic Data Sets is a framework for how we can best utilise such powerful art, what we can do with artificial emotional intelligence that benefits both the individual and the collective whole.
Do you see machine-composed music as a logical next step?
There is a section in the book which describes the relationship between a person and the machine. The machine listens to the user and through trial and error keeps suggesting sounds which it predicts will help the person attain a beneficial state of mind. At first, as the machine learns from the data, it presents music that is so strange and confusing it sends them into emotional fields they may have never been to before. You can see similar results in the DeepMind Alpha Go project where the AI plays such a bewildering move the human competitor has to go outside and smoke a cigarette. If this is transposed into a music scenario I think we will start to see music that is more explicitly plugged into the human experience. The dopamine hit we receive when a song twists or turns or resolves itself (in a hugely satisfying way) will be pushed and pulled to new levels of mastery. Over time musicians have always played with this idea, but having the ability to press a button and hear as many iterations of a song deploying any number of songwriting techniques will give musicians time to care less about cause and more about the effect.
When was the last time you came back to Nottingham/ Castle Donington?
We’ve still got mates around town and family in Donington and Loughborough. It’s always a nice feeling being in a city you used to live in, seeing change lets you appreciate the slippery nature of time. We would be different version of ourselves had we have grown up elsewhere, so we'd like to say both thank you and sorry to the East Midlands. Look what you have done!
Ecstatic Data Sets: The Chorismos Apeiron Scanner (2028 Editions) is available to buy through Rough Trade books
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