According to Over The Bridge, a nonprofit working to “change the conversation about mental health and recovery in the music community,” suicide rates for music industry workers are more than double the national average. That, alongside other issues like drug addiction, have long been grave issues facing the artistic community, but a new project from the group aims to bring better awareness to the situation: The Lost Tapes of the 27 Club project aims to highlight the massive cultural loss stemming from the premature deaths of iconic artists due to these and other mental health-related tragedies.
To do this, Over The Bridge and its partners employed Google’s Magenta program, an AI algorithm system that simulates “new” songs by analyzing artists’ past work. As explained in a recent Rolling Stone profile, “after examining each artist’s note choices, rhythmic quirks, and preferences for harmony in the MIDI file, the computer creates new music that the staff could pore over to pick the best moments.” One such result, “Drowned in the Sun,” was developed to simulate a new track from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and is pretty damn haunting in its accuracy. Check out the track below, along with other entries for Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison.
Over a year-and-a-half of research, tinkering, and review — According to Sean O’Connor, an Over The Bridge board member, the team spent a year in research and development for the songs, during which time the AI program analyzed up to 30 songs from each chosen artist, picking apart “vocal melodies, chord changes, guitar riffs and solos, drum patterns, and lyrics” to then construct new tracks. After that, another six months was spent actually recording the project employing people like Eric Hogan, lead singer for the appropriately-titled Nirvana cover band, Nevermind.
Some artists easier for AI to mimic than others — As it turns out, Nirvana was one of the more difficult groups to approximate for the algorithm. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix often wrote clearly identifiable hooks, but Cobain preferred the “wall of sound,” as O’Connor describes it, that became emblematic of the grunge era. “There’s less of an identifiable common thread throughout all their songs to give you this big chunk of catalog that the machine could just learn from and create something new.”
Straddling the legal and ethical lines — As the Rolling Stone write-up notes, the Lost Tapes songs sound uncannily like their source material but differentiate themselves enough to (hopefully) stay clear of cease-and-desist letters. Likewise, there are a whole host of ethical and moral issues at play here... something that seems to be a running theme within the field of AI “artistry” these days.
Still, the basic goal of Over The Bridge remains unquestionably positive: raising awareness and promoting dialogue regarding mental health issues, especially in a sphere like the arts where they’re are all too common.