Andrew Paley first appeared on music radars in 2002 with his Burlington, Vermont-based post-punk band The Static Age. But the musician has another life in tech – and this year he’s combined the two to surreal effect.
Paley is studying for a PhD at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he’s exploring how AI can democratize access to data. But during the research the musician began looking into approaches to generative art with some of the most sophisticated tools on the market. “I was just dabbling,” he says. “It wasn’t a primary research focus. But it was a blast.”
Paley was already working on a solo album project called “Scattered Light,” working all hours to record, study and tour. He’d already shot a couple of “human-generated” videos for singles. For the next ones, he says, “I wanted to try something else.”
Paley searched around for inspiration. He loved visual generator Artbreeder, which creates images based on call-responses from humans. BigGAN (the GAN stands for ‘generative adversarial network’), an algorithm created by two researchers and an intern at Google that makes photo-realistic images, was another major draw.
“I got it in my head that it would be cool to take some form of that collaborative exploration approach and meld it with what I’d seen from libraries like the Deep Music Visualizer – an experimental library for music visualization via generating animations on top of BigGAN,” Paley says, “though one that doesn’t provide real control over the imagery itself, keyframing from already blended images, or any controls for guiding evolution of imagery across a song.”
Eventually Paley developed what he calls Pixie, a platform to create realistic images, with direction from a human but with AI at its core. “The notion of collaborating with a machine to generate a visual component to “Scattered Light” felt like it both fit the moment and fit the album,” he says.
The results are two mesmerizing videos for songs from “Scattered Light.” For “Give Up” Paley created keyframes for words, chords and beats so that the AI would morph and blend images alongside the music and lyrics. The result is a a nebulous, unsettling collections of pictures that blend into each other with Paley’s lullaby-like voice.
For “Stay Safe,” meanwhile, Paley wrote an add-on for Artbreeder that “does a subset of my own platform’s functionality—namely, the song analysis and the ‘script’ mechanics, and then automatically creates the full video script within Artbreeder’s platform such that I can just hit generate and see what comes out.”
Both videos are unique and beguiling, melding the physical and digital worlds. Using Pixie was a little like learning to play an instrument, Paley says: “The technical stuff was all up front in pursuit of putting enough of that complexity in the system such that I could have fun with the sparks later.”
Paley doesn’t want to turn Pixie into a business. He wants it to be democratized; put into the hands of as many people as possible. “Though much of applied AI has sadly been put to use thus far for various forms of distraction, influence, coercion, and control, I think the democratization of access to information, exploration and creation should be core tenets of AI development going forward,” he says.
Paley will release “Scattered Light” on October 16 this year. He hasn’t stopped conjuring ideas for more AI-based videos. “I have some ideas about tangentially related approaches to collaborative creation too, and I would love to try folding those in as well,” he says.
Paley wants to add a visual element to the entire album before its release. That’s a lot of work. “Wherever I want to go with that will be the primary driver of wherever Pixie goes next,” he says. “There’s certainly no shortage of ideas to explore.”