For ‘PROTO,’ Holly Herndon and her collaborators built an AI that was trained on their voices. The music it produced is eerie at times, but it’s full of life.
Holly Herndon presented the defense for her dissertation at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, in the midst of the rollout for her fourth album, PROTO. Herndon’s PhD is “very much intertangled” with the making of PROTO, a joyful and weird, metaphysical whirlwind of experimental electronic compositions, which comes out today, May 10, on 4AD. For her thesis, Herndon—alongside her partner and collaborator, the philosopher and digital artist Mat Dryhurst, as well as artist and software developer Jules LaPlace—built and trained an AI named Spawn to make music. It took a minute to figure out the best technique, but they finally landed on a voice-modeling approach.
First, Herndon and Dryhurst trained Spawn on their voices, and then they invited a “willing public” of about 300 people to perform and record what would be a data set of vocals to feed the AI. The artists Martine Syms, Jenna Sutela, Jlin, Colin Self, Evelyn Saylor, and Annie Garlid also contributed to the making of PROTO. Herndon calls this group of participants “the ensemble.” The resulting work is sometimes eerie, but more often rhapsodic and choral. Its roots are digital, but it’s exuberantly primal.
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