Nort Vlemmix in gesprek met Jan Modaal en Anco Peeters
Nort Vlemmix in gesprek met Jan Modaal en Anco Peeters

Artist in the Machine. On Music, Humanity and AI | Lecture by philosopher Anco Peeters and live act by artist Jan Modaal

Music is emotion. But what if that music was created by artificial intelligence? Does that music then still have value? We think of making music as something uniquely human. But maybe AI can provide new forms of musical expression. Learn from philosopher Anco Peeters and discuss the artistic and ethical issues surrounding AI in music and enjoy a live act of man and machine!

Video| Podcast  | Dutch review

Thursday 21 March 2024| 20:00 - 21:30 hrs | Doornroosje, Nijmegen | Radboud Reflects and Doornroosje

Review - Creativity? On Artificial Intelligence’s Musical Genius

written by Luc van der Gun

Art and Artificial Intelligence (AI), these are the two notions which pertain to the heart of tonight’s discourse. What is art and the art of music? Does it require a certain “soul”? When is something creative? With these questions, the topic of this Radboud Reflects session was introduced. The evening was divided in three parts; a talk by philosopher and neuroscientist Anco Peeters, a live performance by Jan Modaal in coaction with various AI gadgets, followed by a conversation with the host and programme manager Nort Vlemmix

Unravelling the Melodies of AI

Anco Peeters commenced with three questions: 1) What does music mean to us? 2) What is AI able to do with respect to creating music? 3) What does all of this have to say about the making of music? To answer the first question, he started his analysis in ancient Europe. Pythagoras, for example, thought music to be mathematical and harmonious, portraying an essential relation to numbers. However, music, as discipline on its own, has only existed for a few centuries. What’s more, we do not even have access to the historical past of music before the year 1000, because of a lack of archaeological indicators. With this, Peeters placed a critical note on the analysis of music of Pythagoras, arguing that music cannot really be understood from numbers, similar to how paintings have something more to say than a mere analysis of its materials would purport. Music is a primal phenomenon, pertaining to politics, emotions and experiences, Anco Peeters contended. In other words, music is an expression of our inner lives, which allows for sharing and collective enjoyment.

Anco Peeters geeft een lezing
Anco Peeters, foto Ramon Tjan

How then does AI fare in the creation of music? Here, Peeters mentioned many aspects. In the first place, contemporary AI systems are generative, which means that they are able to learn to recognise patterns, and subsequently to construct a certain generalised output. This, he said, allows them to be used with relative ease, even by people who have not created the AI (easier than it would be to learn to play the guitar, for example). But there is also a problematic aspect. Not only do the creations of AI lend themselves to the creation of “fake news” (as AI had been used to make a song that appeared to be created by Drake and The Weeknd), they also seem to lack inner meaning, leaving us with feelings of “Unheimlichkeit”, he explained.

Taking a step back, Peeters then reflected on the process of making music in general, and the influence of AI on this process. Certainly, AI can provide artists with “base loops”, as building blocks from which to create music, which allows the making of music to be more “democratic”, available to everyone.  But, Peeters asked, is that something that we want? Does that make the music made more original? Additionally, he questioned the inherent plagiarism within AI products; must we not speak of its creations as a “stolen voice”? What about remastering old music tracks from the 80s, does it still resound the same emotional ambiance? After presenting this manifold of perspectives, Peeters expressed his final verdict: AI lacking inherent meaning, and tends only towards the familiar and the non-unique. As such, he argued that it is only in collaboration with humans, that AI can be “creative” in any sense of the word.

Jan Modaal treedt op tijdens een lezing van Radboud Reflects
Jan Modaal, foto Ramon Tjan

Jan Modaal’s Musical Odyssey with AI

After this insightful discussion, the artist Jan Modaal put up a performance in which he collaborated with various AI systems. At first, he asked “Chat GPT” to construct a novel song (text and chords) about “feeling algorythms”, for him to perform. Immediately, it could be seen how AI lacks originality, as it simply provided a text on the melody of one of the famous Dutch artist Guus Meeuwis’ songs. After a revision of the prompt given to the AI, a renewed version rolled out – this time less familiar. This gave rise to a playful performance, in which Jan sang and strung his guitar as if this song was his own. Using the AI-application “MusicFX”, he then spiced up the show, with its ability to generate beats and music loops on the fly. Do you want to mix various irreconcilable music styles? That’s no problem. In engagement with the audience he demonstrated that one can even instruct AI to create something that is to sound like a “fact checking” score, whatever this is to mean. Whether the AI was successful in this remains to be seen...

What Do We Want From AI’s “Creativity”?

During the final part, Anco Peeters and Jan Modaal engaged in a conversation with the host and the audience. What made this discussion interesting, is that it allowed for two vastly differing perspectives – that of philosopher and the artist – to meet each other. Jan put forth that AI has passed the “Turing test”, for he really liked some parts of the song text that the AI had generated, but he also recognised that he noticed a distinct “signature” in each of the AI’s creations. All of its outputs inescapably resembled each other. Other topics discussed were that of public fear, and whether artists are and should be worried about AI or AI-enabled competitors. In this light, Peeters expressed his concern for Big Tech companies to reduce the quality of music in favour of an increase of net revenue. What was also questioned is where creativity lies – is it in the intention of the author, or does it belong to the interpretation by the listener? Finally, the audience took part in the discussion, adding additional perspectives: Do we visit musical concerts principally to see an artist perform? Or do we simply want to have a good time, such that the artist itself is not as important? Ultimately, the answer to questions such as these depend on the situation and one’s personal motivation,  both agreed.

Nort Vlemmix en Anco Peeters in gesprek
Nort Vlemmix en Anco Peeters, Foto Ramon Tjan

A review of this programme is also available in Dutch.

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Organizational unit
Radboud Reflects
Philosophy, Behaviour, Innovation, Art & Culture, Artificial intelligence (AI), Society, Science