What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Listens to John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space & Starts to Create Its Own Free Jazz


Some enjoy free jazz as soon as they first hear it; others think it sounds like music from an alien civilization, a listening experience fit only for a jazz fan as high as a kite. But how about as high as a space probe? Outerhelios, a 24/7 stream of artificial intelligence-generated free jazz, comes designed for broadcast into outer space by Dadabots, a collaboration between musicians-turned-programmers CJ Carr and Zack Zukowski (or, according to their about page, "a cross between a band, a hackathon team, and an ephemeral research lab"). Having previously built an AI-generated death metal stream (about whose creation you can read in this computer science paper), they've looked to the skies and trained their neural network on John Coltrane's Interstellar Space.

"These duets between Coltrane on tenor (and bells) and Rashied Ali on drums sound like an annoyance until you concentrate on them," writes Robert Christgau in his original review of the 1974 album, "at which point the interactions take on pace and shape." The neural network "listened to the album 16 times," says the official Databots description on the Outerhelios stream, "then continued to make music in the style."

The project draws inspiration from NASA's probes Voyager 1 and 2, which "launched in 1977 carrying a mixtape Carl Sagan made called The Sounds of Earth. It featured Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry, recordings of laughter, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, along with diagrams of human reproductive organs," all "intended for an audience of intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms."

Whereas The Sounds of Earth "used a static music format previously recorded by people," Outerhelios follows on Brian Eno's ideas about generative music by inventing a Coltrane album that never sounds the same twice. "For a few minutes, it’ll produce plausible-sounding free jazz," writes Futurism.com's Jon Christian. "Then the drums will segue into an inhuman trill, or the horns will disintegrate into a cacophonous wash of sound. Let’s just say that it’s not your dad’s jazz" — even if your dad happens to be John Coltrane, or indeed Brian Eno. But perhaps it will give NASA just the inspiration it needs to get the next Voyager launched. The sound of the original Interstellar Space got Christgau thinking beyond nations: "European, Oriental, African — I don't know. But amazing." Could the likes of Outerhelios get us thinking beyond the solar sytem?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.