Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 20, 2022 9:58 am 
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A post-pop band tries getting AI to compose their music

The band is called YACHT, that stands for Young Americans Challenging High Technology, and its core members, in their late thirties-early forties, are Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans, who on tour expand to include Bobby Birdman (Robert Kieswetter). All three appear in this nice little documentary about their experiment. Nice, because it's live, it seamlessly follows a process, and it gets somewhere (or seems to, anyway). Little, because despite the earth-shaking potential of computers taking over all human activities and doing better at them, not a lot of people will be interested in a quiet little film about three forty-ish white indie musicians from Portland who make odd-sounding music finding a way to make it sound even odder.

Nonetheless this film has a relaxed feel, in the early segments, anyway, and a neat, understated look that plays with format without being obtrusive. YACHT, who have existed since the early 2000's, are experienced, smart, articulate, and may be actually very good. Rolling Stone, for instance, said of their 2009 debut album that in it they "split the difference between Talking Heads and electro pop, and make a breakthrough album of digital ear candy." We hear little or nothing of their music here, only snatches of work under way.

To embark on this experiment YACHT obviously has computer knowledge, but not knowledge of what will happen. As the camera follows them, they meet with unexpected problems and initial disappointments. And fear all along, of becoming obsolete, one guesses. To have the computer make up lyrics, they have to feed it millions of words of lyrics, so not only their own, but the songbooks of all their influences. They have strict rules. They can subtract from what the computer feeds them, but not add their own notes. The "rubato," the "English" they put on them, is their own, though. They're making this up as they go along, but that's the charm and life of the film.

YACHT are following in the wake of David Cope, initially from UC Santa Cruz, who for many decades has been "teaching" a computer to mimic the compositions of various classical composers - Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Chopin, and so on, a project that started with his own writer's block as a young composer. Two thirds of the way through, this film introduces a montage of magazine and newspaper articles about Cope, and clips of his pseudo-Bach, played by computer sampling a roomful of wind chimes for its sound. Then it shows Jona, Claire and Bobby, who live in L.A. now and not Portland, meeting up with David for a chat.

The computer is "just a tool," he urges them. Really? "But lo! men have become the tools of their tools," Thoreau famously declared in Walden. Cope's example is a shovel. If you see a man digging a ditch with one, you don't say "Wow, what a great ditch that shovel is digging," he suggested. Comparable? Somehow a computer doesn't seem much like a shovel... Maybe Thoreau would say the shovel is doing the digging. Isn't it?

The film shovels in its finale, skipping the step of showing in any detail how the A.I.-assisted songs and album they make are arrived it. The final series of meet-ups between YACHT and some people is the most staged and artificial part of this little film. It skips to Jonathan Galkin, of DFA records, who scoffs at the 7 "titles" for the album the they've chosen from the hundreds of reject nonsense phrases the computer has coughed up. Then some quotes. An old clip of Patric D. Wall of MIT pointing out the computer's slavery to rules, while the great creative minds, Newton and Darwin and Galileo threw out the old rules to come up with their great contributions. A cameo if John Seabrook meeting with the YACHT trio is squeezed in: he's a New Yorker writer who's written a book on pop songs.

Where is the creativity of computers? Claire suggests these composing efforts be called "meta-creativity." Rebecca Fiebenk, of Reader Creative Computing Institute (did a computer make up that name?) puts in her two cents (2¢): a computer program is just part of an "artist's" "Palette of tools." CJ Car, a musician, says for him A.I. is a mirror of himself. Zack Zukowski, also a musician, chimes in. All this is a relief: hey, A.I. isn't taking over anytime soon, after all, not in the world of post-Portland post-pop. But wait! The last word, from a record producer: Drew Silverstein, who's up on computers, thinks their invasion is going to come fast. He says "A.I. will become a critical part of the music-making tool kit." Who is this guy? Does he understand creativity? This rushed, stiff and talky concluding segment of the film, grasping for something dramatic and declamatory, throws away the laid-back, authentic, process-oriented main section, and gropes for a conclusion when there isn't any. This Silverstein fellow is very glib, and one still feels convinced you don't need a computer to compose music, and never will. I remember a friend who told me when the company he worked for began using computers to design labels, the process took much longer. That's the way YACHT's computer-assisted composing process looks here. Nonetheless Sean Patrick, who reviewed this film for BEAT, called their resulting AI-collaborative album "shockingly great."

The Computer Accent, 82 mins., from the studio Memory, debuted at Copenhagen (CPH DOX), also showing at Portsmouth, NH. and in a number of screenings at museums and other venues. opens theatrically Oct. 21, 2022 at Metrograph, NYC, which will include a special weekend engagement with guests that include directors Sebastian Pardo and Riel Roch-Decter, members of YACHT, and experimental Baltimore filmmaker Theo Anthony.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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