Rock on by Nigel Roth


By the time the first International Chemistry Congress was underway in Karlsruhe, and the French had begun searching for the mythical planet Vulcan, and American settlers were in the process of massacring as many Wiyot Indians as they could in a single day, something magical was happening in Paris.

It was down to an inventor called Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, who made the first ever recording of a song on his phonautograph. It would be eighteen years until Thomas Alva Edison made his own tin foil recording of an unknown concert.

Edison, who said he couldn’t see much future in the phonograph, would be delighted to know that since that first recording of Au clair de la lune, around forty genres of music have evolved, and within those a further three-hundred or more sub categories.

And I can almost guarantee you don’t want to hear music from most of them. Not because they’re particularly bad, but because you’ve honed your musical tastes (if you have anyway) quite specifically and, some would say, narrowly, and most of these would not appeal to your delicately-evolved ears.

I should reveal here that my own musical tastes have been mocked worldwide and my Spotify playlist is more barren than the Atacama Desert, so a musical expert I am not. And so musically, I don’t know a lot of things.

I don’t know, for example, why the day of my birth should be lumbered with the horrific song Winchester Cathedral, which was number one on the Billboard. It featured a strange man singing through a megaphone, and was said to have been inspired (if that is in fact the correct terminology here) by the 1920s, although which 1920s is unclear.

I do know that a song about having sex in the afternoon could reach number one in the 1970s as “the thought of lovin' you is getting so exciting, sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight” was par for the seventies passion course, but I don’t know how Captain and Tenille’s Muskrat Love could ever have happened in 1976 or any other year ever for that matter.

I don’t know how the abysmal monster called Sussudio was a hit in 1985, as it appears to contain no musical merit whatsoever, but does fit well with all of Phil Collins’ other compositions. He’s always been known to me as the Bad Shadow for the way he follows me in stores with his haranguing tunes, and I also don’t know if he’s still alive.

And then we reach the 1990s and a band called Nirvana, who I don’t know anything about either, other than they hail from Aberdeen, but not the one where Dee and Don meet in stunning granite history. I may have accidentally heard a song or two of theirs while getting my car washed when it was new enough to care.

I know I sound like a real cob nobbler, but I mention them because I read about a new song of theirs called Smother. And a new song from a band that hasn’t existed for more than a quarter of a century and whose lead singer/songwriter died quite a while ago, is always interesting.

So I looked them up like a lamestain and wondered whether the Smother lyrics had been written by Kurt Cobain, or the melody by Krist Novoselic, or the drum pattern laid down by Dave Grohl.

But no, it wasn’t any of those guys. In fact, the latest Nirvana track was created by artificial intelligence and a very clever orchestrator.

YouTuber Funk Turkey created the track by combining a series of sounds from tools that recreate the Nirvana vibe. And at the risk of joining the tom-tom club, I’m going to don some wack slacks and tell you all about it.

In the description Funk Turkey says the words were created using lyrics.rip (via Hal 9000) which ‘scraped’ the Genius Lyrics Database for inspiration. Then, he made a Markov Chain - a mathematical system that evolves based on probability - to compose a Nirvana-esque lyric.

He then performed vocals in his kitchen on a ‘sparkly red cheap Stratocaster’ and ‘a crappy mic’ and mixed and mastered it all on ‘an old copy of ProTools’.

He adds that, ‘the Stratocaster bounced hard left and right. Flanged Stratocaster through a Fender twin is dead center in the mix. Bass is a no-name bass run through amp emulation. Percussion is Superior Drummer 2.’ And if that means anything to you, I'm not going to be swingin' on the flippity-flop with you any time soon.

He clarifies that the vocals are ‘doubled and compressed, and run though an emulated reel-to-reel and tube saturation ...’ Well, duh, of course they are.

And the result is Smother, Nirvana’s newest composition.

It's an impressive track, and an even more impressive mode of creation. And a far cry from de Martinville’s original. You might not have any pens like Pierrot, or any musical sense whatsoever like me, or possess an older copy of ProTools like Funk, but maybe that doesn't matter now.

The leap we've taken from 1860 to now is enormous. And maybe even I can create a track for the new age.

I’m thinking a megaphone, muskrats, and a bunch of su-su-sudios

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