After Project Bluebell, I got to thinking about generative music again. It's the second time this topic has come up for me in the last year; at Mobile 2.0 I was on a panel which rambled across it. We mused about the rights issues lurking within, with particular reference to software like RJDJ.
At Over The Air, Team FP did an installation-type piece which involved turning Bluetooth phone names into music. Once you have the basics of text-to-music, there's a lot more you can do with it, and a walk across town got me to thinking about rights issues and what else I could use as source material. Yesterday afternoon I got together with Adolf Hitler and we've made an EP. It has 4 tracks on it, all generated programmatically from an English translation of Mein Kampf.
There are two things I was thinking about when I did this: firstly, what happens to the original context of a piece of work when it's translated so obliquely? And secondly, who is the ultimate creator of a work that's put together in this way? Turning such an unpleasant piece of source material into a potentially calming soundscape seemed to be appropriate, so I generated the tracks from the most offensive bits of the text that I could find with a cursory run-through. I'm entirely unfamiliar with the book itself, so can't be sure that I've really plumbed the depths.
Each piece is created by taking a small number of sentences from the book, algorithmically turning them into tunes, and having these tunes run and loop concurrently. The resulting pieces are as follows, titled after the chapters I sourced sentences from:
- Nation and Race (piano and pads), generated from four fragments: "The result of all racial crossing is therefore in brief always the following", "Lowering of the level of the higher race", "Physical and intellectual regression and hence the beginning of a slowly but surely progressing sickness" and "To bring about such a development is, then, nothing else but to sin against the will of the eternal creator";
- War Propaganda (marimba), generated from three fragments: "The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion and feeling", "And this sentiment is not complicated, but very simple and all of a piece", and "It does not have multiple shadings; it has a positive and a negative; love or hate, right or wrong, truth or lie never half this way and half that way, never partially, or that kind of thing";
- Philosophy and Party (duet on steel drums), generated from two fragments: "On this planet of ours human culture and civilization are indissolubly bound up with the presence of the Aryan" and "If he should be exterminated or subjugated, then the dark shroud of a new barbarian era would enfold the earth";
- The Strong Man is Mightiest Alone (vibraphone and woodblock), generated from four fragments: "And, above all things", "the People's State will never be created by the desire for compromise inherent in a patriotic coalition", "but only by the iron will of a single movement", and "which has successfully come through in the struggle with all the others";
Set your artistic expectations low: neither Hitler nor I are renowned for our musical prowess (particularly with marimba), so this is uncomfortable listening in many ways. That said, there's something attractive to me in taking this unpleasantness and turning it into something soothing or even beautiful. OK, momentarily beautiful. Maybe. And I like the fact that this transformation is one-way: it can't be reversed, once you've made the music you can never turn it back into text. This feels to me a little like burying a decaying corpse and having it fertilise the surrounding soil, or perhaps a positive spin on book-burning with a side-order of swords into ploughshares. Maybe we should do more of this, defusing our species' darker tendencies into art and whimsy?
The other aspect of this which I wanted to consider was that of rights: is Hitler *really* the creative force behind these songs? I can't see a clear delineation between his input and that of the algorithmist (in this case Thom Hopper of Future Platforms, who's also not a nazi) began. The choices of what individual characters map to musical notation is certainly one which affects the output, but not in any sort of predictable way, and not abstract from the input. Who is the creator here, and what legal structures if any, could or should we put in place around these sorts of creations? Copyright on the English text has been relinquished (according to Wikipedia), but the book itself is banned in many countries. Are derivative works of the book similarly affected? Would music derived from the book count as a derivative work? What if I used Mark V Shaney to programmatically generate further text from the original book, would that be a violation of law?
Does anyone know of any legal precedents, guidelines or further reading on how we might handle these sorts of issues with generative art?
I'm releasing the resulting EP through TuneCore, who tell me there's a 4-6 week delay between my submission today and its being available - hopefully through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon and a host of others. I'm curious to see if it gets through, given its provenance, but in the meantime you can download MP3s from the links above.