Perpetual Nirvana

MassArt Foundation Fellowship - Work in progress, 2018

Perpetual Nirvana is a live composing and performing multimedia installation in which a complex computer program attempts to continuously create and play new songs in the style of the 1990s band Nirvana. The piece uses Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning systems that study and analyze large sets of data in order to create algorithms for the continuous production and performance of text, instrumental and vocal tracks.

Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
In mid-1993, Nirvana was the most popular band in the world and possibly in history. The trio had finished the production of “In Utero” and although the spirits were good —Kurt Cobain had finally created the album that he “could happily listen to at home”— an air of uncertainty surrounded the conversations that the leader of the band maintained with the biographer Michael Azerrad about the sustainability of his music and rock in general: “It’s sad to think what the state of rock and roll will be in twenty years. It’s already so rehashed and so plagiarized that it’s barely alive now. It’s disgusting. I don’t think it’ll be important anymore”.

Nirvana’s first album on a major label, “Nevermind” (1991), had emerged from the obscurity of the American underground and forever changed the record industry. This disruption positioned underground culture as the aesthetic north of a network of global industries that quickly re-organized to captivate a new generation of consumers. The world asked for more of what it had been given in 1991 and at this time everything was in place to provide it. In a post-Nirvana world, the future was confusing. Even for the band itself.

In a final act of sabotage, Kurt Cobain walked away from this new scenario in April 1994, leaving an industry without its “golden boy” and millions of fans in mourning. The music industry went hunting for the “next Kurt” while hundreds of Nirvana clones appeared in different parts of the world. Thus, the nineties moved on as an amalgam of different versions built in the image and likeness of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.

Endless, Nameless

“I think they’ll use sounds and tones and use it in their virtual reality machine and just listen to it that way and get the same emotions from it and then go to a party —there will be a virtual reality machine there with a whole bunch of headphones and if you want to talk to people and listen to the virtual reality machine you can do that or you can go into the bedroom and fuck and drink, but actually I think virtual reality machines will get you high. Technology will be that good. And then there will be virtual reality junkies and you’ll find them dead on their couch from OD’ing.”

- Kurt Cobain

It’s 2018 and the record industry has directed its focus towards the production of content for digital platforms —virtual and endless consumer spaces. Instead of albums, Spotify, Apple, and Tidal promote curated lists for every moment of contemporary life: from waking up to the gym, to driving, studying, eating, and sleeping. Nostalgia appears in the form of a stream as well: generations and entire genres are reduced in these lists and complete discographies of “classic” artists are distilled anachronistically within the digital torrent.

Our lives are also developing more and more in these virtual spaces: instead of going to shopping malls we navigate Amazon, and many of us deprive ourselves of the potential disaster of a party to stay at home binging on Netflix and flirting randomly through mobile apps. Thus, today listening to music is an exercise without any friction, an aesthetic experience transformed into rituals of mass consumption, with no effort and no end. We are being conditioned to overdose.

Perpetual Nirvana

“It’s just mathematics, that’s all rock and roll is. Everything’s based on ten. There’s no such thing as infinity —it repeats itself after ten and it’s over. It’s the same thing with rock and roll —the neck is that long on a guitar, there are six strings, there’s twelve notes, and then it repeats. It can only go a certain point and it got to that point ten years ago.”

— Kurt Cobain

In recent years a new political and aesthetic figure has formed: The postdigital person —a semi-autonomous construct built upon our digital archeology and operating independently from our own governance. The traffic of these entities, their cloning, and potential use is source of constant speculation, online and offline. The emergence of this figure has coincided with the development of virtual generative programs in which ‘writing machines’ and ‘deep learning’ technologies replace key processes of human creation. At this intersection, a set of philosophical questions arise about the role of humanity in cultural production and about the artist’s role in this new scenario: How do we, as a collective, assign value to contemporary cultural production? Is the “creative genius” a machine that can be hacked? What is the value of a historical cultural artifact when it can be pirated and continuously altered? Could we identify genius in an automated creation? These questions become highly relevant in light of the history of Rock and Roll —and especially of Punk. This genre reveals itself traditionally ambiguous when it comes to establishing, perpetuating and subverting its own forms. On the one hand, its popularized image as a revolutionary and rebellious expression implies a systemic challenge in terms of the reinvention of a tested and approved format. On the other hand, the transmission of a genre and its preservation within the market of ideas depends highly on the perpetuation of its aesthetic codes. If the matrix in which rock music —and in its most minimalist version, punk rock— is produced can be mapped in its entirety by a machine, what is the future of its form, its formats, its contents, and its culture?

“Perpetual Nirvana” aims to create an immersive space in which these questions become the focus of the aesthetic experience, highlighting Nirvana as the last representative of the global phenomenon of rock and Kurt Cobain as the timeless generational genius. By processing Nirvana’s discography as a data set through a Deep Learning network and generating an automatic musical composing and performing program based on this material, the installation tries to constantly reproduce a new and self-generated version of the sonic phenomenon that was Nirvana. In this space —and using this specific cultural marker as reference— the piece intends to incite a reflection on contemporary originality, stylistic innovation, subcultural forms and their mainstream representation, and generative authorship. “Perpetual Nirvana” also aims to articulate a metaphor for the stream and its contemporary cultural connotations: the endless consumption of media curated by algorithms, the millennial lethargy, the end of history, and the computational phantasmagoria that governs our private lives and our public behavior.

First Tests, Early Summer 2018

Late Summer, 2018

More than creating songs with a beginning and an end (like in an album), the system seems to work best when the three main instruments "roll free" and are directed by the universal composing program to "look for each other", almost in the same way that a band will do while jamming. This means that while a global program sets universal rules of composition, tempo, volumes, tones and keys, there are three other individual programs regulating the behaviors of each instrument. Here are some samples of the instruments playing by themselves:

This a sample of the three instruments jamming, including a synthesizer with vocal samples trigered by the program as well: 

It is worth noting that in the above sample, for previewing purposes, the transitions between riffs and song parts is very quick. In a live situation the instruments would be jamming for longer periods until finally locking into a groove, attempting to sustain it, and then working on creating a following part, and so on.


Installation Proposal

4 Audio Channels, floating projection screen with automated video, custom furniture (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Possible Activations and Events

  • Collaboration with local/college radio to air parts of the show

  • Creation of a 24 hour radio station / website that allows experiencing the piece in real time

  • Merchandise with sets of lyrics generated by the system

  • A closing event for the release of a limited-series record containing parts of the performance