Songs by Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Jim Morrison have been artificially computer-generated to promote a new project that promotes awareness about mental illness.
Nirvana fans have speculated about what kind of music Kurt Cobain would have created if he had lived longer since his death in 1994.
Except for the gritty, throat-shredding meditation on confusion that Nirvana recorded a few months before his death and a few comments he made to close associates about the possibility of working with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe or going completely solo, he primarily left question marks and unanswered questions.
To mark the occasion, a group has created a “new” Nirvana song that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to mimic the singer-creative guitarist’s sound. The guitar riffs utilized span from quiet “Come as You Are” plucking to screaming Bleach wrath in the vein of “Scoff.” The lyrics, such as “The sun shines on you but I don’t know how,” and the song’s surprisingly anthemic chorus, “I don’t care/I feel like a drowned man in the sun,” are evocative of Kurt Cobain.
However, with the exception of the vocals, which were delivered by Nirvana tribute band leader Eric Hogan, the song’s composers claim that virtually everything on the song, from the turns of phrase to the wild guitar play, was created by computer algorithms. Their purpose is to draw attention to the tragedy of Cobain’s suicide, as well as the idea that live musicians may receive therapy for depression and anxiety.
Drowned in the Sun is one of the tracks on the album Lost Tapes of the 27 Club, which is a collection of songs composed and primarily performed by machines in the styles of other performers who died at the age of 27. Among these musicians are Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse. Artificial intelligence computers assessed up to 30 songs by each artist to estimate what their “new” compositions may sound like, granularly analyzing vocal melodies, chord changes, guitar riffs and solos, percussion patterns, and lyrics. Those involved in the endeavor are members of Over the Bridge, a Toronto-based group that supports musicians suffering from mental illnesses.
NIRVANA – DROWNED IN THE SUN
“What if all of the musicians that we like had access to mental health support?” says Sean O’Connor, who serves on the Over the Bridge board of directors and works as creative director for the advertising agency Rethink. “[Depression] has somehow become accepted and even praised in the music industry… Some say their music portrays true pain.”
O’Connor and his colleagues used Google’s artificial intelligence tool Magenta to create the tracks, which learns how to write in the style of individual artists by researching their prior work. Sony has previously used the technology to create a “new” Beatles song, and the electropop trio Yacht used it to create their 2019 album Chain Tripping.
Magenta evaluated the artists’ songs as MIDI files while working on this project. MIDI files act similarly to a player piano scroll by transforming pitch and rhythm into digital code that can be fed into a synthesizer to recreate a song. The computer examines each artist’s note choices, rhythmic quirks, and harmony preferences in the MIDI file. The machine then makes fresh music that the staff may listen to and select the greatest moments from.
“The more MIDI files you input, the better,” says O’Connor. “So we took 20 to 30 MIDI files from each of our artists and split them down into just the hook, solo, vocal melody, and rhythm guitar, and then ran them through the computer one at a time,” the producer explains. When you run complete songs through the computer, [it] becomes really confused about what [it] is supposed to sound like. If you simply have riffs, it will generate about five minutes of new AI-written riffs, the great majority of which will be horrible and unlistenable. As a result, you start to listen through and simply hunt for intriguing sections.”
To construct lyrics in a manner similar to that described above, O’Connor and his team used a generic artificial intelligence program known as an artificial neural network. They could input the artist’s lyrics and start with a few words, and the algorithm would assume the cadence and tone of the poem to finish it. They could also send in their own lyrics. O’Connor characterizes the procedure as “a lot of trial and error,” adding that the team went through “pages and pages” of lyrics in search of turns of phrase that syllabically matched the vocal melodies made by Magenta, which they eventually identified.
AMY WINEHOUSE – MAN, I KNOW
When the compositions were finished, an audio house assembled all of the different elements in order to evoke the artist. In terms of the finished recordings, O’Connor says, “a lot of the instrumentation was MIDI with various effects put on top of it.” They then began looking for singers to join them. “The majority of the folks 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 Nirvana Tribute, which has been performing in Atlanta for the past six years, is led by Eric Hogan. The band originated as a one-time Halloween joke, giving Hogan and his friends the opportunity to do tribute shows to bands such as the Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nirvana. However, when they saw the huge response to their Nirvana tribute, they went into full grunge mode. When he found out he’d be singing on the Over the Bridge tune “Drowned in the Sun,” he felt the project sounded fantastic (in the most literal sense of the word) and cool. Even after the talk, he remained unconvinced that it was a true phenomenon. “And then they sent me files and money,” the author says.
When he first heard the music, he was taken aback. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to [sing] this,'” he recalls thinking at the time. It was vital for me to have the individual who created the AI track mumble and hum [the song]. It would be weird for me to try to forecast what [Cobain] would do. “They had to give me a little bit of a road map, but after that, everything went easily.”
O’Connor and his crew spent a year researching and producing the songs, then another six months recording the final result. Throughout their research, they sought out superfans of the artists to assist them in policing themselves for suspected plagiarism. They were concerned that the Doors-inspired song “The Roads Are Alive” would sound too similar to the group’s song “Peace Frog,” but they eventually concluded that it didn’t. 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 explains, pointing to the video. “This is what this is doing.” It’s a one-of-a-kind circumstance. “All right, we’re good now.”
THE DOORS – THE ROADS ARE ALIVE
Nirvana proved to be one of the most difficult musicians for the algorithms to accurately mimic. Unlike Hendrix, who built songs like “Purple Haze” and “Fire” around clearly defined riffs, Cobain preferred chunky, punky chord progressions that confused the computers. O’Connor described the Nirvana-inspired music that Magenta was known for generating as a “wall of sound.” “There is less of a recognizable common thread throughout all of their songs,” the author writes, “resulting in this vast chunk of repertory from which the machine might simply learn and develop something new.”
“[‘Drowned in the Sun’] is true enough to give you that [Nirvana] vibe, but not so accurate that someone is going to get a cease-and-desist letter,” according to Hogan. “If you look at the most current Nirvana album, ‘You Know You’re Right,’ this has the same type of mood as that album.” Kurt would simply scribble down whatever the hell he felt like writing at the time. If he liked it, it was a Nirvana song in this scenario. 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 in the arrangement of Drowned in the Sun. I understood the artificial intelligence underlying it.”
Hogan says he was particularly taken with the lyrics supplied by the algorithm. Cobain’s words, in his perspective, were always “a bit of a hodgepodge,” but he believes that these lyrics are more direct while still delivering the same ideas that Cobain was known for. He describes the encounter as “seemingly a whole idea.”
He notes that the song is a way of saying, “I’m a weirdo, but I like it.” “Wow, that’s pure Kurt Cobain right there.” He would have said the same thing if he could have uttered it. What a lovely line: “I’m not sure how the sun shines on you, but it does.” To paraphrase, “I get the feeling from the song that I’m F-ed up, and you’re F-ed up.” There is a distinction between me and you in that I am okay with it while you are not.” When Hogan first heard the music, he offered to play the guitar, but the producers declined, wanting to use a machine.
So, is “Drowned in the Sun” a Frankenstein’s creature that exists in defiance of God and physical laws? “I don’t know if I’m the most qualified person to talk to about ethics,” Hogan confesses. Essentially, I travel around the country pretending to be someone else.”
JIMI HENDRIX – YOU’R GONNA KILL ME
“I believe you’ll have a lot of people who will dislike this and look at it as though it’s the end of true music,” he continues. “ However, I’m perfectly fine with it. When used as a tool, I believe it is rather wonderful. I’m not sure what the legal repercussions will be in the future. It is probable that you will have a problem once you start down the path where it starts to sound very good.
Over the Bridge hosts a Facebook group that gives aid, as well as Zoom sessions and workshops to educate artists and help them feel less alone in their challenges, to raise awareness about mental health options. (At this moment, there are no plans to sell the tracks.) “Sometimes just acknowledging one other person saying, ‘I’m feeling the same way that you are,’ is enough to make people feel like they have some form of support,” says Michael Scriven, a spokesman at Lemmon Entertainment, the CEO of which serves on Over the Bridge’s board of directors. Over the Bridge is a non-profit organization that raises awareness about mental health.
Scriven hopes that the initiative will increase awareness of the amount of work that goes into making artificial intelligence music. “It takes an inordinate amount of human hands from the beginning, the middle, and the end to make anything like this,” he says. “Many people feel that artificial intelligence will someday replace artists, but at the moment, the number of humans required simply to produce a music to the point where it is listenable is actually rather large.” Each song required O’Connor, a Magenta technician, a music producer, an audio engineer, and the vocalists themselves to collaborate. “We are not going to replace these performers simply by clicking a button,” O’Connor emphasizes.