Weird of the Day: Holly Herndon, Jlin and Spawn, “Godmother”


There’s a lot of anxiety in the music business right now over artificial intelligence, which everyone seems to think is going to eventually generate all of our pop music and put a lot of producers, singers and songwriters out of work. This fear probably says more about the state of current pop music than it does about the potential of AI; if the music you’re creating can really be that easily learned and imitated by a computer, maybe the music you’re creating is, oh I don’t know, a giant steaming pile of uninspired, formulaic horseshit? (I’m looking at you, Chainsmokers. But I digress.)

Rather than fear our future AI overlords, some forward-thinking artists are happily enlisting them as collaborators. That’s what experimental electronic producer and vocal looper Holly Herndon has been doing the past couple years with an AI she and her team in Berlin have built called Spawn. They’ve been carefully feeding Spawn various bits of music, including Herndon’s vocals, to “teach” her (Spawn is a she, until she tells her creators otherwise) how to spontaneously generate music in a variety of styles. Earlier today, they released one of Spawn’s first creations, a collaboration with Herndon and Chicago IDM/footwork producer Jlin called “Godmother.” The track features an accompanying video that overlays Herndon and Jlin’s faces in various unnerving ways. Check it out:

Pretty cool, right? In explaining how the track was created, Herndon says they simply fed Spawn a bunch of Jlin’s music, then had her combine it with Herndon’s trademark looped and chopped vocals. Or as Herndon puts it, “‘Godmother’ was generated from her listening to the artworks of her godmother Jlin, and attempting to reimagine them in her mother’s voice.”

“Simply through witnessing music, Spawn is already pretty good at learning to recreate signature composition styles or vocal characters, and will only get better,” Herndon said in a statement accompanying the track’s release. “Are we to recoil from these developments, and place limitations on the ability for non-human entities like Spawn to witness things that we want to protect? Is permission-less mimicry the logical end point of a data-driven new musical ecosystem surgically tailored to give people more of what they like, with less and less emphasis on the provenance, or identity, of an idea? Or is there a more beautiful, symbiotic, path of machine/human collaboration, owing to the legacies of pioneers like George Lewis, that view these developments as an opportunity to reconsider who we are, and dream up new ways of creating and organizing accordingly.”

Separately and more prosaically, on Twitter, Herndon recently noted, “Perhaps the coolest breakthrough in Godmother was that Spawn wasn’t trained on my producing any explicitly ‘percussive’ sounds (beat boxing). She must have constructed them from percussive consonants in my speech data, but it sounds convincing and evolves. It’s almost *too convincing*, which made me nervous to release it in case people thought I might start beat boxing on stage or something.”

Spawn has already made its her debut public performance, in Berlin earlier this year, and will feature heavily on Herndon’s next album, which is slated for a 2019 release.

You can buy “Godmother” or add it to playlists on the platform of your choice here.


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