- The US artist has made another transportive LP. But does her AI collaborator point to a sinister trend in modern ambient?
- An algorithmic AI is signed to Warner. Grimes believes human art is near extinction. Holly Herndon created an AI baby to join her vocal ensemble. Artificial intelligence in music is having its day in the sun. On her new album, Julianna Barwick explores what algorithms and daily rhythms can create when playing off one another. Barwick installed a sky-facing camera on a hotel roof in New York, and, using Microsoft AI in combination with a custom-coded program, had the camera detect movement, which would trigger sounds crafted by Barwick from a sample bank. The results are environmental music not just inspired by a blazing orange sunset or flock of flying birds, but composed in tandem with them.
Because each track is tied to the lackadaisical pace of the sky, Circumstance Synthesis has a meandering quality. With "Afternoon," vaporous vocals float by like thick sheets of clouds. "Night" is scattered with reverberating synth lines that melt into pillowy pads, fizzling to the end. Examples like this validate the album's concept as more than just a thought experiment. Barwick's approach is integral to what's great about the release, a lush score to the day's airborne activity.
While the production process lends the album a unique backstory, Circumstance Synthesis also raises some tricky questions. That AI Warner Records signed? It's making ambient music, too. Its first few albums share eerily similar titles to Barwick's: Rainy Night, Cloudy Afternoon and Foggy Morning, among others. On the one hand, Circumstance Synthesis is a compelling project that tests the collaborative potential of nature and technology. On the other, it overlaps with sinister trends in music. As the algorithms behind streaming platforms like Spotify funnel listeners into chillout or wind-down playlists and robots hone their atmospheric sound-design skills, it feels like modern ambient is drifting into a neoliberal twist on muzak—a tool to placate us in our coworking spaces and home offices.
It may be a cop-out to say that the album lacks some of the the intimate and personal elements of Barwick's previous work, but I will anyway. Even though all the right elements are there, and it follows Brian Eno's criteria for the genre to "induce calm and a space to think," I can't help but miss the secrets and intentions I normally perceive to be hidden in ambient tracks. But sentimentality aside, Circumstance Synthesis reflects an innovative approach to biomusic, and is a beautiful reminder to take pause and notice all the things traveling above, around and below.