PROTO

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Exploring the potential of AI enhanced composition, Holly Herndon’s new album PROTO delivers a mix of humanised machines and mechanised humans so enmeshed it is impossible to spot the difference.

For the past couple of years Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst, with assistance from AI pioneer Jules LaPlace, have been working on an “AI baby” called Spawn. This AI has been musically “trained” by listening to Herndon’s work along with the music produced by the ensemble she has put together in Berlin, as described by Herndon in this statement on Twitter.

Spawn has been instrumental in the creation of this new album, and Herdon talked extensively about how she works with Spawn in this recent Guardian interview. Given the current state of AI technology, machine learning systems tend to take on the biases and behaviours of their creators, so the use of an AI is an enhancement rather than an abdication of Herndon’s compositional process.

First unleashed upon the world with the release of "Godmother" as a single late last year and also featured on this album, this collaboration with Jlin saw Spawn “listening” to Jlin’s previous tracks and trying to emulate them using Herndon’s vocal style. The result was a strangely inhuman mix of beats and vocal percussion.

The album was created by Herndon and her ensemble performing her traditionally composed works, then feeding them through Spawn and re-recording the output. Herndon then edited and mixed the music that Spawn had produced to create the final tracks. The album even includes two tracks ("Canaan” and “Evening Shades") that are recordings of Spawn training sessions, feeding it a selection of voices and musical styles.

You would think that all this computational interference would result in a sterile untextured output, but against all expectations it has produced an album with a more human warmth and melodic feel than Herndon’s previous work, with some tracks being positively danceable.

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