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3D Kurt Cobain

AI REVIVED NIRVANA & THE DOORS

Computer-generated artificial tracks by Nirvana Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Jim Morrison highlight a new project that seeks to raise awareness about mental illness.

Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Jim Morrison’s songs have been computer-generated artificially to promote a new project that raises awareness about mental illness.

Since Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Nirvana fans have speculated about what kind of music he would have created if he had lived longer. Other than the scabrous, throat-shredding meditation on confusion that Nirvana recorded a few months before his suicide and a few comments he made to confidants about the possibility of working with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe or going completely solo, he primarily left behind question marks and unanswered questions.

To commemorate the anniversary, an organization has written a “new” Nirvana song, utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms to resemble the singer-creative guitarist’s style. A wide range of guitar riffs are used, ranging from calm “Come as You Are”–style plucking to screaming Bleach fury in the vein of “Scoff.” The song’s lyrics, such as “The sun shines on you but I don’t know how,” and its surprisingly anthemic chorus, “I don’t care/I feel like a drowned man in the sun,” have evocative, Kurt Cobain-like elements about it.

However, except from the vocals, which were performed by leader Eric Hogan of the Nirvana tribute band, the song’s authors claim that practically everything on the song, from the turns of phrase to the reckless guitar play, was created by computer programs. Their goal is to call attention to the tragedy of Cobain’s death by suicide as well as to the fact that live musicians may obtain therapy for depression and anxiety.

Drowned in the Sun is one of the songs on Lost Tapes of the 27 Club, a collection of songs written and mostly performed by machines in the styles of other musicians who died at the age of 27. These musicians include Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse, among others. In order to create each track, artificial intelligence programs analyzed up to 30 songs by each artist, granularly analyzing the records’ vocal melodies, chord changes, guitar riffs and solos, percussion patterns, and lyrics in order to guess what their “new” compositions might sound like. Those involved in the initiative are members of Over the Bridge, a Toronto-based nonprofit that assists individuals of the music business who are suffering from mental illness.

NIRVANA: Drowned in the Sun

According to Sean O’Connor, who serves on the board of directors for Over the Bridge and also works as creative director for the advertising agency Rethink, “What if all of the musicians that we adore had access to mental health support?” “Somehow, [depression] has become acceptable and glorified in the music industry… According to some, their music represents genuine suffering.”

To compose the songs, O’Connor and his team sought the help of Google’s artificial intelligence tool Magenta, which learns how to compose in the style of specific artists by studying their previous work. The program has already been utilized by Sony in the creation of a “new” Beatles song, as well as by the electropop group Yacht in the creation of their 2019 album Chain Tripping

While working on this project, Magenta examined the artists’ songs as MIDI files, which work in a similar way to a player piano scroll by converting pitch and rhythm into digital code that can be input into a synthesizer to recreate a song. In the MIDI file, the computer analyzes the note choices, rhythmic quirks, and harmony preferences of each artist. The computer then generates new music, which the staff can listen to and pick out the best moments.

“The more the number of MIDI files you input, the better,” O’Connor explains. “So we took 20 to 30 songs from each of our artists that were MIDI files and broke them down into just the hook, solo, vocal melody, and rhythm guitar, and then ran them through the machine one at a time,” says the producer. If you run entire songs through the program, [the program] begins to become quite confused about what [it] is meant to sound like. However, if you only have a collection of riffs, it will generate approximately five minutes of new AI-written riffs, the vast majority of which will be terrible and unlistenable. As a result, you begin to listen through and simply look for little bits that are interesting.”

O’Connor and his team employed a generic artificial intelligence program known as an artificial neural network to create lyrics in a manner similar to that described above. They were able to input the artist’s lyrics and begin with a few words, and the program would guess the cadence and tone of the poetry to complete it. They also had the option of submitting their own lyrics. O’Connor describes the process as “a lot of trial and error,” adding that the team reviewed “pages and pages” of lyrics to find turns of phrase that syllabically matched the vocal melodies created by Magenta, which they found.

AMY WINEHOUSE: Man, I Know

An audio house arranged all of the individual sections in order to conjure the artist when the compositions were completed. In terms of the finished recordings, O’Connor states that “a lot of the instrumentation was MIDI with various effects layered on top of it.” Then they started looking for singers to join them. “The majority of the people we got in were working tribute artists for these bands, so they were able to kind of do the inflections and make it sound as accurate as possible,” O’Connor says of the performers.

Nevermind: The Ultimate Tribute to Nirvana, which has been performing in Atlanta for the past six years, is fronted by Eric Hogan. The band began as a one-time prank for Halloween, providing an opportunity for Hogan and his buddies to perform tribute concerts to bands such as the Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nirvana. However, when they witnessed the overwhelming response to their Nirvana tribute, they went into full grunge mode. Upon hearing that he would be singing on the Over the Bridge track “Drowned in the Sun,” he thought the project sounded incredible (in the most literal meaning of the word) and cool. According to him, even after the chat, he was still skeptical that it was a genuine phenomenon. “And then they sent me files and money,” says the author.

He was really taken aback when he first heard the music. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to [sing] this,’” he recalls thinking at the time. It was necessary for me to have the person who came up with the AI track mumble and hum [the song]. It would be strange for me to try to predict what [Cobain] would do. “They had to provide me with a little bit of a road map, but after that, everything went smoothly.”

O’Connor and his team spent around a year researching and developing the songs, then another six months completing the recording sessions for the final product. In the course of their study, they sought out superfans of the artists to assist them in policing themselves for possible plagiarism. They were concerned that the Doors-inspired song “The Roads Are Alive” could sound too much like the group’s song “Peace Frog,” but they ultimately concluded that it didn’t sound that way. According to O’Connor, an audio engineer recorded the song “Peace Frog” and played it for the group. ‘This is what “Peace Frog” is doing,’ he says, pointing to the video. “This is what this is doing.” It’s a unique situation. “All right, we’re fine with it now.”

THE DOORS: The Roads Are Alive

Nirvana turned out to be one of the more difficult musicians for the algorithms to approximate accurately. As opposed to Hendrix, who structured songs like “Purple Haze” and “Fire” around plainly defined riffs, Cobain usually utilized chunky, punky chord progressions that caused the computers to become befuddled. With the Nirvana-inspired music that Magenta was known for producing, O’Connor describes it as a “wall of sound.” “There is less of an identifiable common thread throughout all of their songs, resulting in this large chunk of repertoire from which the machine could just learn and generate something new,” says the author.

In Hogan’s opinion, “[‘Drowned in the Sun’] is accurate enough to give you that [Nirvana] vibe, but not so accurate that someone is going to receive a cease-and-desist letter.” “If you take a look at the most recent Nirvana record, which was titled ‘You Know You’re Right,’ this has the same type of atmosphere as that album. Kurt would just sort of scribble down whatever the hell he felt like writing at that particular moment. In this case, that was a song by Nirvana, if he enjoyed it. [In the arrangement of] Drowned in the Sun, I can hear things like, “OK, there’s kind of an In Utero vibe right here or a Nevermind vibe right here,” and other things like that. I was able to comprehend the artificial intelligence behind it.”

Hogan says he was particularly taken with the lyrics that the machine generated for him. In his opinion, Cobain’s words were always “kind of a hodgepodge,” but he believes that these lyrics are more direct while still conveying the same sentiments that Cobain was known for. “It seemed like a whole thought,” he recalls of the experience.

The song, he explains, is a way of stating “I’m a weirdo, but I like it.” “Wow, that’s straight up Kurt Cobain right there. He would have said exactly the same thing if he had spoken it. What a beautiful line: “I don’t know how the sun shines on you, but it does.” I get the impression from the song that I’m F-ed up, and you’re F-ed up,’ to paraphrase. There is a difference between me and you in that I am fine with it and you are not.” In fact, when Hogan first heard the music, he offered to play the guitar himself, but the producers declined, preferring instead to use a machine.

So, is “Drowned in the Sun” some type of Frankenstein’s monster that exists in violation of God and the laws of physics? When it comes to ethics, Hogan admits, “I don’t know if I’m the most qualified person to talk to.” Basically, I go around the country claiming to be someone else.”

JIMI HENDRIX: You’re Gonna Kill Me

As he continues, “I believe you’ll have a lot of people who will despise this and look at it as if it’s the end of true music.” “However, I’m quite comfortable with it. I believe it’s quite fantastic when it’s used as a tool. I’m not sure what will happen in terms of legal consequences in the future. It is possible that once you start down the route where it starts to sound really wonderful, you will have a problem with it.

To increase awareness about mental health resources, Over the Bridge hosts a Facebook group that provides assistance, as well as Zoom sessions and workshops to educate artists and help them feel less alone in their struggles. (There are no intentions to sell the tracks at this time). “Sometimes just the acknowledgement of one other person saying, ‘I’m feeling the same way that you are,’ is enough to make people feel like they have some sort of support,” says Michael Scriven, a representative for Lemmon Entertainment, whose CEO serves on Over the Bridge’s board of directors. Over the Bridge is a non-profit organization that promotes mental health awareness.

Scriven hopes that the project would help raise awareness about how much effort goes into creating artificial intelligence music. According to him, “it takes an inordinate quantity of human hands from the beginning, the middle, and the conclusion to make anything like this.” “A lot of people believe that artificial intelligence will eventually replace artists, but at this time, the number of humans required merely to get to the point where a song is listenable is actually fairly significant.” Each song necessitated the collaboration of O’Connor, a Magenta technician, a music producer, an audio engineer, as well as the vocalists themselves. “We are not going to replace these artists by simply pressing a button,” O’Connor states emphatically.

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