Not just ear candy

Updated: Sep 30, 2019, 18:46 IST | Karishma Kuenzang

Before he flies to Armenia for a performance at the first ever concert written by AI, multi-instrumentalist Shirish Malhotra says this could mean the end of music as we know it. Or maybe not

Saxophone, violin, viola and clarinet player Shirish Malhotra, will be playing the flute at the WCIT concert
Saxophone, violin, viola and clarinet player Shirish Malhotra, will be playing the flute at the WCIT concert

Ever been to a club where every song sounds the same? Sure, the melody is catchy, but it doesn't stir any emotion. "You tend to like what you hear a few times and this familiarity over time makes you comfortable with it. Maybe we're already listening to music written by Artificial Intelligence (AI)." This statement, made perhaps in jest by Mumbai-based multi-instrumentalist Shirish Malhotra — days before he heads to Armenia to be part of the first-of-its-kind 100 plus-member WCIT (World Congress of Information Technology) orchestra in Armenia — makes us question the songs we've been browsing through in the recent past. What if?

Well, 33-year-old Malhot­ra, who will be one of the In­dian representatives at this concert compri­s­ing musicians fr­om 14 countries and the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, will get a taste of AI music as they perform an AI pre-composed WCIT anthem and a real-time composition on October 6.

Master of many

"A fellow SOI musician recommended me to the WCIT, and they got in touch," explains Malhotra. The sax, flute, violin and clarinet player, who's been a part of the city's SOI since its inception, will also be playing pieces unique to the participant countries, including I am a Disco Dancer from India. Having played with Arijit Singh, Mikey McCleary and The Ska Vengers, Malhotra has been helping build the non-commercial music scene in Mumbai, balancing his commercial gigs with passion projects.

Not just ear candy

Having joined the Bombay Chamber Orchestra at the age of 13, Malhotra grew up in Borivali, getting hooked to the recorder after his mother unsuccessfully tried to get him to learn the keys. But it is the nuanced sound of acoustic instruments that mesmerised 11-year-old Malhotra when two years earlier, he chanced upon a wooden German recorder. "I wanted to play the saxophone, but my parents couldn't afford it. So, they got me a violin instead," he reveals. By the time he was 14, a concert at NCPA diverted him towards the flute; it's the instrument he will be playing at the upcoming AI concert. "The flute was the logical progression from the recorder, as they are kind of from the same family of wind instruments," he shares. He managed to buy a secondhand saxophone in his final year of college for `5,000 and taught himself, besides progressing to the clarinet. After he left SOI in 2009, where he had been playing the violin and flute, he took to playing the saxophone, and working with Arijit Singh for five years. This is how he funded his post graduation in jazz saxophone from Trinity College London in 2015.

What sets AI apart

When he returned to Mumbai two years ago, he wanted to be a part of and build the music scene, inspired by people such as the late pianist Karan Joseph. "What people thought about him or his music didn't stop him from being who he was. It used to frustrate him that it was difficult to find people who even had the mental space to listen to what he loved most," shares Malhotra. And it's perhaps this personality and emotion-driven element in songs that breathes life into them. Or at least makes them pieces of art. Which is what may set music composed by AI apart from those made by flesh and blood in the near future.

Not just ear candy

"Art is subjective; there's nothing objective about an artistic statement. It comes from a place, time and an emotion, and from the want to express something. It doesn't originate from switching on a machine that defeats the whole purpose. The concept of robots and mechanism playing music is over a century old because music boxes have been around for years, as has the pianola. What's new is the algorithm coming into the creative aspect. But, AI can only express what it's programmed to express. Music is communication and we can get AI to make music like ear candy which will sound great but what is it trying to say?" asks Malhotra.

He's quick to add, "But who knows, I might be surprised."

Early appreciation

This battle between giving in to commercial music and perceiving music as art can only be resolved by introducing music in school curriculums, he opines.

"The first exposure to music is usually commercial as few kids have access to an organic artiste-driven music scene. This introduction has to happen at a young age because only then can its demand be sustained. Commercial music is a quick fix like junk food. Once you get used to it, you think it is fine and you even find yourself craving that. And even though technology has given kids access to all kinds of music, you still have to seek it out," shares Malhotra.

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