In the early 1980s, musicology professor David Cope wrote a computer programme named EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) which imitated the classical compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. Listeners who were not told beforehand, praised these works for their soulfulness and emotional depth. They were shocked and annoyed when informed that the pieces had been composed by a machine.
The fact that computers can be taught to imitate human creativity so accurately is regarded by many as sinister and threatening. Where will it all end? The question as to whether we control machines or they us was once the sole preserve of Sci-Fi novels but it has now become a genuine concern in all walks of life.
The effect of technology on human relations is certainly a hot topic right now. We can read about the intrusions of AI in recent fictional works by British authors Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro; we can watch its impact on sexual relationships in movies like 'Her' and 'Ex Machina'. The example of David Cope's EMI is recounted by historian Yuval Noah Harari's in his thought provoking book 'Homo Deus' (A Brief History of Tomorrow).
All this is the context for the one hour's worth of mind-bending music to be found on the latest Mouse on Mars album. The title AAI stands for Anarchic Artificial Intelligence.
Despite the widespread trepidation felt as technology advances into new realms, the Berlin-based duo (Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma) do not regard machine intelligence as a threat to humankind.
Werner explains: “AI is capable of developing qualities that we attach to humans, like empathy, imperfection and distraction, which are a big part of creativity. We need to get past the old paranoia that fears machines as the other, as competitors who will do things faster or better, because that just keeps us stuck in our selfishness, fear and xenophobia. Machines can open up new concepts of life, and expand our definitions of being human.“
In other words, the themes of this album question the notion that machines should be deemed artificial while humans are seen as the defenders of authenticity.
Rather, the argument here is that technology ought to be identified primarily as a reflection of humankind's thirst for progress and not dismissed or feared as something alien.
The twenty tracks on AAI are partly the fruits of a collaboration with Nigerian-born writer and scholar Louis Chude-Sokei. They also draw upon the expertise of a collective of computer programmers and long-time Mouse On Mars collaborator/percussionist Dodo NKishi.
Part of the music making process involves feeding the voice of Chude-Sokei (and DJ/producer Yagmur Uçkunkaya) into software capable of modelling speech. This enabled Werner and Toma to adjust the speed and tone of spoken words so they could be controlled and played like sounds on a synthesizer. The “anarchic” elements refer to the unpredictable qualities that were discovered.
The repetition and transformation of voice cadences into rhythmic chunks may invite comparisons with the innovative works of Steve Reich although the Berliners have the added benefit of being able to draw upon state of the art technology to achieve their ends.
The words are distorted to the point that they are frequently indecipherable although some do survive the sonic manipulation. For example, "desire is the precondition of knowledge" is one revealing line that leaps out from Speech And Ambulation. Otherwise, the voice is reformulated into a sort of mechanized rap in tracks like Walking And Talking and Go Tick.
Academic concepts underpinning the tracks are sacrificed in order to emphasize how robots can be programmed to develop language, consciousness and empathy. Titles on this album highlight mainstream attitudes towards AI; these include Machine Rights, The Fear Of Machines, and Machine Perspective.
It can be safely assumed that the project was not designed to be dance-orientated although you wouldn't necessarily know this if you listened to the tight grooves of Artificial Authentic or New Definitions in isolation.
What is self evident is that, even after a quarter of a century together, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma are still intent on pushing the boundaries of electronic music and they remain firmly at the cutting edge.
New Life Always Announces Itself Through Sound is the title of the closing track and this also serves as a concise summation of what AAI sets out to achieve.
The future is now.
Mouse on Mars's website