The Philosopher Jock

Courage, Pilgrim, courage.


I’ve mentioned Brain Pickings many times. I not only subscribe to this weekly blog, I support it with a monthly contribution.

One of this week’s topics is music.

For many of us, it was love of music that brought us into Radio in the first place.

We collected albums, thousands of albums, and we played them for our own enjoyment, away from work, no matter how many times we’d heard the same songs in the same order, a bit like young children never tire of seeing “Big Bird Goes To China” over and over again.

When playing certain songs on the air, we would crank up the volume in the studio, ignore the flashing lights of the incoming calls, and lose ourselves for a few moments.

What happened to that passion?

Now, most air talent is as removed from the process of sharing music they love as it is possible to be. I’m not certain that’s a good thing. Computers rotate the songs in precise order. Computers load the songs from a digital “bin” and when the songs are playing, more often than not, we’re staring at our telephone screens or watching TV screens.

Is it the same for listeners? I hope not. I think not because all of the music streaming services offer a way for listeners to share that new song they adore with their closest friends and followers.

Do you see the problem?

There’s a huge gulf between not hating something and loving it with all one’s heart, of hearing something so profound that it forever changes you in relationship to everything else in your life. I think this tries to describe what many of us felt that drew us into our business.

In answering the question, “Can AI (artificial intelligence) create music as transcendent as humans, Nick Cave answers:

Dear Peter,

In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes that Artificial Intelligence, with its limitless potential and connectedness, will ultimately render many humans redundant in the work place. This sounds entirely feasible.

However, he goes on to say that AI will be able to write better songs than humans can. He says, and excuse my simplistic summation, that we listen to songs to make us feel certain things (my emphasis added) and that in the future AI will simply be able to map the individual mind and create songs tailored exclusively to our own particular mental algorithms, that can make us feel, with far more intensity and precision, whatever it is we want to feel. If we are feeling sad and want to feel happy we simply listen to our bespoke AI happy song and the job will be done.

But, I am not sure that this is all songs do.

Of course, we go to songs to make us feel something — happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever — but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential (my emphasis added).

It is perfectly conceivable that AI could produce a song as good as Nirvana’sSmells Like Teen Spirit,” for example, and that it ticked all the boxes required to make us feel what a song like that should make us feel — in this case, excited and rebellious, let’s say. It is also feasible that AI could produce a song that makes us feel these same feelings, but more intensely than any human songwriter could do.

But, I don’t feel that when we listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it is only the song that we are listening to. It feels to me, that what we are actually listening to is a withdrawn and alienated young man’s journey out of the small American town of Aberdeen — a young man who by any measure was a walking bundle of dysfunction and human limitation — a young man who had the temerity to howl his particular pain into a microphone and in doing so, by way of the heavens, reach into the hearts of a generation.

We are also listening to Iggy Pop walk across his audience’s hands and smear himself in peanut butter whilst singing 1970. We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.

What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it.

Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all.

Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential?

So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.”

Love, Nick

We work in a medium that is so fearful of mistakes, we test almost every song we play, lest we be challenged and fired for taking such risk.

Maybe it’s time to spend a bit more time thinking deeply about this and the way this fear has permeated every aspect of our content, excluding the very ones that should be the most fraught, commercials and branding liners.

Maybe it’s time to put a bit more passion into our offerings.

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