When the Toronto-based non-profit group Over the Bridge recently posted new songs eerily in the styles of dead musicians Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison, interest was widespread. In a feature piece, Rolling Stone magazine detailed the algorithmic process used to create the digital homages. National radio in Canada spoke to the Frankensteins who used artificial intelligence to bring the four icons musically back to life.
Not all the reaction has been positive, however.
“I know it upset a few people,” says Ace Piva, co-founder and executive director of Over the Bridge. “Some of the social media commentary was harsh, but that’s okay. Sometimes you have to shake the tree to make a difference.”
Over the Bridge is dedicated to the support of musicians and workers in the music business who suffer from mental health or addiction issues. The songs are the key part of a project it calls the Lost Tapes of the 27 Club. The ad hoc after-death “27 Club” is so named because its posthumous members (including Hendrix, Cobain, Winehouse and Morrison) all died prematurely at age 27.
The Lost Tapes initiative was developed to show music fans the kind of art that was lost with the deaths of the four creators. “We’re pointing out that music should not be made like this,” says Piva, referring to songwriting done by algorithms. “These artists should be alive.”
It’s an age-old parlour game to wonder what a Hendrix or Cobain would have gone on to achieve if they had not died so young. In its own attempt to answer the question, Over the Bridge submitted MIDI files (a digital blueprint of the music) to the Google-developed AI program Magenta. The components of 30 songs by each artist were fed into software that studied vocal melodies, harmonic structure, drum patterns and guitar riffs to spit out something approaching a brand new, if completely derivative, song.
The Hendrix-like track You’re Gonna Kill Me riffs psychedelically in Foxey Lady ways, while the Nirvana-ish Drowned in the Sun is an exercise in nineties grunge-rock moroseness. The two other songs channel the spirits of Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison and the Doors. While the musical arrangements and audio were produced by software, they feature live vocals by sound-alike singers.
All four songs are available on the Lost Tapes website and on YouTube. The names Hendrix, Nirvana, Winehouse or the Doors are not used, for fear of copyright infringement “We have to be careful,” says Piva. “We understand we’re straddling the line legally.”
One expert The Globe and Mail asked thinks Over the Bridge is guilty of making bad music, but not unlawful copying. “These are stunningly poor simulations,” says Rob Bowman, a Toronto-based musicologist. “But it’s not plagiarism.”
During his interview with The Globe and Mail, Piva purposely avoided using the names of the four musicians. There is no affiliation with the dead musicians or their estates; any money raised will fund Over the Bridge’s cause.
Despite the altruistic intentions, the Lost Tapes project does raise concerns when it links the artists’ legacies with substance abuse or poor mental health. Unlike Nirvana’s Cobain, who endured profound depression and died by suicide, Hendrix was not known to suffer from mental illness. His song Manic Depression is thought to be an expression of romantic confusion, not a psychiatric self-diagnosis.
Attempts by The Globe and Mail to contact the Hendrix Estate for a comment on the Lost Tapes project were unsuccessful. A displeased former Hendrix associate did speak on the record, however.
“I’m fine with the premise of what Over the Bridge is trying to do, because it’s a good cause,” says Eddie Kramer, a friend of the I Don’t Live Today singer who engineered and produced the guitarist’s best-known recordings. “But when you bring in Jimi Hendrix as part of this. you’ve gone down the wrong path. His was an accidental death.”
Hendrix’s late-sixties lifestyle included an enthusiasm for psychoactive drugs. He died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates on Sept. 18, 1970.
“People who abuse substances often have mental issues,” says Piva, when asked about Hendrix. “And drug and alcohol abuse is something that’s romanticized in the music world. I mean, in how many industries is alcohol considered a form of payment?”
As for the computer-produced Hendrix-styled song, Kramer was blunt in his condemnation.
“It’s bloody awful,” he says, speaking from his home in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. “I don’t think AI technology will ever take the place of the human being in a room making music with other human beings.”
On that point, Piva agrees.
“That’s the whole idea behind this, and that’s why Over the Bridge is here, to support artists while they’re struggling,” he says. “Nothing replaces the real deal.”
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