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It speaks to the development of autotune in mainstream pop that the AI voices of Holly Herndon's PROTO, taught to sing with machine learning algorithms run by a DIY gaming PC, don't immediately seem as groundbreaking as they perhaps should.

But just as autotune has long since morphed from a crutch for weak vocalists into an instrument in its own right, PROTO's digital choir isn't just used to mimic human song. Herndon manipulates the range, tone and rhythm of her computerised voices far beyond the capacity of human singers. The impressive part is that the effect is alien rather than robotic, unearthly but still organic.

AI is so new that even its creators often don't know how it works

That's not to say that the voice engine, Spawn, can't be disarmingly realistic when it wants to be. PROTO features both human and inhuman voices and it's often hard to tell them apart, especially when the human voices are themselves manipulated. The first half of 'Crawler' seems like it's all Spawn, but as the track morphs into a seemingly-human modernist acapella, you can't be sure if Spawn isn't still playing a part.

Perhaps the uncanniness can be explained by the influence of folk song and religious choristry throughout. AI is so new that even its creators often don't know how it works. But here it is, seemingly communing with itself in our most ancient, primitive registers.

'Frontier' is the most striking expression of this, a hypermodern Americana hymn reminiscent of the otherworldly hybrid Bulgarian-Japanese folk song in Kenji Kawai's Ghost In The Shell soundtrack.

Michael Hobson

Next article in issue 134

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