The Portland Art Museum's rebrand of the Northwest Film Center this past spring—to PAM CUT or (deep breath) the Portland Art Museum's Center for an Untold Tomorrow—was met with a fair amount of head scratching and eye rolling at the time, in spite of the organization's laudable goals. And as a result, the center's once regular schedule of repertory screenings have been replaced by experiences and events that, through judicious use of technology like VR headsets and robotics, challenge traditional storytelling methods.
PAM CUT is, then, the perfect place for an event featuring the band YACHT. The electro-pop group, formerly of Portland, is fronted by Claire Evans who has spent the better part of her adult life studying and writing about the history of technology and spotlighting modern artists that are using computers and machine learning as part of their practices. Within the group, Evans—joined by bandmates Jona Bechtolt and Rob Kieswetter (aka Bobby Birdman—has been dancing in a musical uncanny valley where traditional rock instruments jostle gleefully with laptops and synths for over a decade.
With YACHT's 2019 album Chain Tripping, the trio took an even bolder step toward the unreal by utilizing AI technology to produce music and lyrics that they would then edit and adapt into finished songs. The creation of this wild and surprisingly engaging album also became the subject of The Computer Accent, a documentary that will screen at the Whitsell Auditorium prior to a live performance by YACHT.
While the film is fleshed out nicely by a pocket history of the band's formation and evolution, including some downright adorable footage of a pre-teen Bechtolt thrashing a drum kit in his first band and a segment delving into the fallout from the misguided stunt they pulled to promote 2015's I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler, The Computer Accent is at its most fascinating when it focuses on the painstaking work YACHT undertook to bring the album to life.
To generate the tracks, the band had to convert all the pieces of their previous recordings into MIDI files and feed them into Magenta, an AI developed by Google. For the lyrics, they produced 14 million pages of text that included the words to all their songs and those of the many bands they clock as influences (Weezer, Dirty Projectors, and Kraftwerk, among them). Watching them bump up against their human limitations as they tried to replicate the often complex melodies that Magenta produced or to bring coherence to the AI's blank verse poetry made me feel a little better about my constant struggles with iOS updates and the gadgets my son can't live without.
Like the album, the film also did an impressive job demystifying AI—by plainly explicating how these programs could work for YACHT and the larger arts community—while not shying away from the larger dangers of its continued use by tech companies large and small. We may be closer than ever to creating our own Skynet-led apocalypse, but we'll have some fascinating music to enjoy as the drones start clouding the sky.
Music and the Machine: An Evening with YACHT unfolds at the Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park, Tues Oct 25, 7 pm, tickets here, $35, all ages