Visions

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Digital media is slippery because it’s mutable, and if it’s mutable, it means new forms — new ways of relating — are always possible. Why not take the time, and do the work, to imagine something new?

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Here’s my tale of an odd discovery online, which offers

  • a puzzle,
  • a naturally-occuring Borges story, and/or perhaps
  • a preview of media ecology in the decade to come.

I was listening to Spotify’s recommendations, an algorithmic radio station that had picked up where my short playlist left off, when an interesting track came on. Its whompy brass reminded me faintly of Too Many Zooz.

Nice sound, I thought. I wonder what else this artist has produced …

The answer was: virtually nothing. “Danni Richardson” appeared to be one of those artists with just a handful of tracks available on Spotify, of which this one, titled Romilda Gebbia, was by far the standout hit, with 91,000 plays.

Oh, well, I thought. Back to the algorithmic radio station.

Except: the next track was the same. I don’t mean that it was Romilda Gebbia again. This one was nominally different: Veneranda Caputa, by Brett Byrne. The track’s particulars, its timings and timbres, sounded … reshuffled, somehow. But its core was unmistakable.

Both tracks a mere 45 seconds long — more vibes than songs.

That’s very weird, I thought. Onward.

Except: the next track was the same. And the next! AND THE NEXT!

I’ve collected these tracks in a playlist so you can listen for yourself, and hear the strange repetition. There are far more versions than the ten I’ve pinned here — definitely dozens, possibly hundreds — and Spotify’s algorithm will obediently deliver them to you in the Recommended section, down below the playlist.

In all of them, you can detect the underlying composition, its essential elements: call that Romilda Prime.

Part of the story here is clear. Some mystery producer developed a scrap of a song that sounded appealing, and rather than put all their wood behind a single arrow, they decided to make dozens — hundreds? — of variations and inject them all into the system, all in different places. The artist names and track titles are nonsense; to me, they carry the clear flavor of AI text generation. For album art, our mystery producer has used the most banal stock photography you have ever seen — almost impressively boring.

Beyond that, it’s all questions.

How did our mystery producer make these variations? Was it a long afternoon with Ableton Live, swapping out instruments, fiddling with the piano roll? Or is this an automated, industrial process? Do they have the ability to run a command, python generate_vari­a­tions.py --base=romilda-prime, step away, and return to a folder of crisp new MP3s?

What are the economics of this project? These variations have done pretty well; the ones I inspected each have somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 plays. If Spotify pays a third of a cent per stream, and there are 30 variations with those numbers, that’s in the ballpark of $10,000. (Of course, a mystery producer capable of puppeteering all these fake artists is also capable of buying fake streams … )

One presumes our mystery producer would not just do this once. So, have they dispatched a whole fleet of these hazy “song clouds”? Are there other “primes” lurking in Spotify’s catalog, with dozens or hundreds of variations? How could you possibly find them? You couldn’t, except by accident.

I wonder, at last, about the relationship of this particular “prime” to Spotify’s algorithm. I’ve never seen the recommendations settle so quickly into such a deep groove; once the algorithm got the taste of Romilda Prime in its mouth, there was no getting it out. Is that a matter of chance? Maybe our mystery producer has spun this wheel many times, and it’s only with Romilda Prime that they hit the jackpot. They found a sound that is perfectly seductive, not to humans, necessarily, but to the one listener who counts most: the algorithm.

So … like a lot of things in 21st-century media, I both love this and hate it.

I love it, because it’s so strange, so dizzying, and — credit where due–because our mystery producer is truly going with the grain of the medium, in a way that no one merely “making albums” does, at all. What could be more 21st century, more “liquid modernity”, than releasing your music as a haze of variations into the swirling currents of the algorithm?

I hate it, because of course it troubles every intuition I have about what it means to be an artist — the very idea of authorship! There’s something especially cynical about the specific execution here, too. I can easily imagine another version of this project that uses interesting track titles and generative album art, so that groping around for the hidden “prime” might feel more like piecing together a puzzle, less like leafing through junk mail.

It’s the media version of a phenomenon that’s common across the food delivery services. Here’s a picture snapped in my neighborhood:

Yeah, those are all definitely the same place

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A single kitchen operating under many names to increase its algorithmic “surface area”; another shape of things to come.

If you have ever stumbled across a hazy “song cloud” like the one I encountered, the emanations of a hidden prime, I’d love to know about it. Drop me a note: robin@robinsloan.com

My band The Cotton Modules, formed with the composer Jesse Solomon Clark, also goes with the grain of the 21st century: our process combines AI tools with human skill and imagination, metabolizing a huge archive of recorded music into something genuinely new and exciting.

Currently, Jesse and I are working on our second album. Last week, we sent a newsletter describing its sci-fi storyline:

Centuries from now, colonists climb aboard a massive spaceship bound for Bethel 66 J, a promising exoplanet. The ship carries an arsenal of terraforming equipment, a living seed bank, and a complete archive of Earth culture. As it crosses the orbit of Jupiter, picking up speed, the ship’s passengers climb into their cryo-chambers. They’ll pass the light years in slumber, watched over by two caretaker AIs.

This is not the first of these voyages, but it is absolutely the worst.

The newsletter continues, explaining (a) the diegetic role our new album plays on this worst of all space voyages, along with (b) the feeling behind the whole project.

The newsletter also includes a demo track that will only be available for a limited time. Fans of colony ships and/or coastal feelings might appreciate the vibe!

Good catastrophes

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I had the pleasure recently of hosting Gabrielle Zevin at Green Apple Books in San Francisco for the launch of her new novel.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a tale of a creative partnership across two decades, set in the video game industry. That backdrop was deeply appealing to me, but/and the contours of the medium are less important than those of the relationship. The book is beautifully done: confident, absorbing, and, in parts, quite experimental.

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Gabrielle’s novel made me think often of the eucatastrophe.

That’s a term invented by Tolkien: the crash of good fortune. He called it

the consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

The end of The Return of the King is a series of eucatastrophes.

I would say that both Penumbra and Sourdough resolve into eucatastrophes, and my new novel is, in some ways, about what lies beyond eucatastrophe.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is richly eucatastrophic. Gabrielle does not (as Tolkien says) deny the existence of sorrow and failure; not for a second. But/and, it is the book’s bursts of kindness and openness — the way those things work in the world of the novel, exhibit real power, bend the plot in surprising ways — that will, I believe, stick with me.

The Great Miyazaki Watch of 2022

I recently re-watched, in chronological order, all the movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki. These movies, along with Miyazaki’s manga version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, have influenced me as much as anything else on this planet, and I wanted to begin to make that influence more conscious and structured, rather than totally unconscious and … blobby?

Accordingly: as I watched, I took notes.

I’d seen all but two of the movies before.

One of those new to me was The Castle of Cagliostro, the first movie Miyazaki directed, before the founding of Studio Ghibli. I slept on this one for too long! If it doesn’t have the emotional and mythic resonances of the movies that came later, it substitutes pure style:

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The unflappability here; wonderful:

Tap or click to unmute.

The other movie new to me was Porco Rosso, which features a dashing pilot cursed to look like a humanoid pig. I noted:

They never tell us how he got cursed! The omission — the lack of pathos — is radical. A rejection of “the trauma plot”. The ambiguity at the end — fabulous.

The American version of this movie would be so much less interesting.

The pig is an ace pilot, and you could be forgiven for thinking the movie’s heart is its fantastical dogfights — but I think that’s wrong. Its core, not only emotional but also moral and aesthetic, is earthbound: the detailed scene in which Porco Rosso’s airplane is rebuilt in Milan.

Tap or click to unmute.

There’s a lot of this in Miyazaki’s movies: the drama and delight of work.

Tap or click to unmute.

Of course … it’s also cool when Porco flies the plane through the canals of Milan.

Tap or click to unmute.

The other thing I noticed, watching the movies in quick succession, was the steady boom-boom-boom of the eucatastrophes going off!

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the key example. I noted:

There is so much kindness in so many of Miyazaki’s movies. Plots animated by kindness. If people were not kind and open: nothing would happen!

The great twists in Miyazaki movies are that people and creatures turn out to be friendlier than you expect. The dog in the big house in Kiki.

Plots animated by kindness: not saccharine or dull, but soaring and magnetic. Stories about kindness that draw potent chemicals into your blood just as surely as the thrillers do! That make your heart thrum, pull your cheeks tight. That tell you about the world, and what’s possible in it.

This kind of art is just as deadly serious as the baddest, saddest streaming TV series you have ever seen. Believe it.

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This newsletter’s illustrations are the work of Theodor Kittelsen, drawn from the collection at the National Museum of Norway. What a range: from rich paintings to moody etchings to drawings almost like cartoons! It’s totally compelling, and there is a LOT to look at; don’t miss the “Show more” buttons, seemingly neverending, at the bottom of the page.

From Oakland,

Robin

July 2022