Before Riel Roch-Decter and Sebastian Pardo left the house of David Cope, a professor at the University of Santa Cruz in music theory and composition, they made sure to get a wide shot of his ceiling for their film “The Computer Accent.” Dozens upon dozens of wind chimes sit above Cope as he converses with the members of the band YACHT, whose visit to his house is to assuage some of their own concerns about attempting to create new music using artificial intelligence after he once dared to originate compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach predicated on his previous works centuries after his death.
“I wish people could see a 360° scan of that room because it’s all character,” says Pardo. “You would get a very good sense of who he is. There’s a little treasure trove of books he’s written, things he’s collected, it’s incredible. It’s its own library in a way that only he knows where things are.”
For anyone fearing that the discussion is just bringing us one step closer to welcoming our robot overlords, the panoply of knickknacks accrued from a lifetime of experiences that Cope has had is a subtle reassurance that there are certain aspects of human ability and personality that can’t be replicated and Roch-Decter and Pardo deliver an equally entertaining and enlightening chronicle of YACHT’s 7th studio album “Chain Tripping,” where their past work is processed by algorithm, along with other musical influences, to predict what new music could be. A band devoted to doing something different with each new multimedia project since being founded by Jona Bechtolt for better or worse – their previous album “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler” was marred by a promotional stunt gone awry involving an alien sex tape that got confused with revenge porn – YACHT finds that ceding creative control over to a computer is a lot more difficult than they could anticipate, in part because of their own artistic instincts and also because of the sheer amount of information that the algorithm needs to function properly.
With lead singer Claire Evans having a second career as a tech journalist, the band’s flirtation with Magenta, an open source project initiated by Google to see how machine learning capabilities could be unlocked by the arts, is as much research for the future and a consideration of its implications as it is about the album at hand and as frustrating as it can be for YACHT to see what’s possible and what’s not because of the current technology, the ingenuity on both ends of the collaboration to work around what limitations there are proves exhilarating. It is a fitting directorial debut from Roch-Decter and Pardo, who are the partners behind the persistently innovative production company and distributor Memory, and after helping to usher in the boundary-pushing work of nonfiction filmmakers such as Marnie Ellen Hertzler (“Crestone”) and Theo Anthony (“All Light Everywhere”), their own turn behind the camera inventively draws parallels between the messiness of the creative process and the linear approach of the available tech, shifting aspect ratios when the band starts thinking outside the box.
Naturally, when it comes to the release of “The Computer Accent,” Roch-Decter and Pardo are striving to be just as bold, beginning a multi-city theatrical tour this week in New York with further stops in Portland (October 25), Bellingham (Oct. 28), Seattle (Nov. 4), Minneapolis (Nov. 12), Los Angeles (Nov. 16) and San Francisco (Nov. 17) where the band will often join in on the fun. On the eve of opening night at the Metrograph, the filmmakers graciously took the time to talk about the project five years in the making, bringing to light the excitement of the creative alchemy between the band and the equipment they used to make the album and how the film, like so many others they produce, is only the start of a much longer conversation.
This seems like such a perfect vessel for so many of your varied interests – did this happen upon you or were you looking for something like this?
Sebastian Pardo: I think as with everything, it comes to us and it hits us right or it doesn’t. We love things that are investigating new ways of working and new ideas and that felt very fresh. For me personally, there was always this vague understanding of AI in the background, but given the opportunity to actually do a deep dive and learn about the history and how it really works and what’s speculative, what’s grandiose and what’s realistic and to have my own opinions on that, it was too hard to pass up.
Riel Roch-Decter: Yeah, a lot of the films that we end up working on an artist comes to us and pitches us an idea, something that we’ve never thought of or something that gets us excited because we’ve never quite seen anything like it. That usually is the impetus for us to start producing those films and a similar thing happened when we met with [YACHT], but in this case, it wasn’t a director pitching us an idea, it was a group of musicians, so the five of us together and obviously some great editors can come and direct and produce this all together, so it was a different thing, but actually not all that different from how we come on projects normally.
Sebastian Pardo: And credit is very much due to YACHT themselves. They’re such a creative force and we clicked with them very well, so that gave us the confidence that this team of five could really make it work.
This spans quite a bit of time. Was there any idea how long this would take?
Sebastian Pardo: There was a version where we were crazy enough to think this would come out with the album, but that was just not possible and we started to realize as we got closer to it that you actually need the reaction in the film. That to just say this is what happened and to release it robs the film of its human components. It would just be a tedious technical explainer, and while that is important to know, we felt as time went on, their reaction would be one of the more interesting things. It wasn’t what we expected, but it ended up being the most interesting comment on a lot of the things that the film tackles, so it was a blessing in disguise in that way.
One of the strongest elements of the film is how you balance out the technical innovation with how it’s guided by humanity. Was it difficult to structure to show that?
Riel Roch-Decter: That was the greatest challenge was to not get bogged down in the technical details, even though they were incredibly fascinating to us. When [YACHT] first approached us, I didn’t know anything about artificial intelligence besides your layman, science fiction “Matrix,” Skynet scenario. I remember moments when we were doing certain interviews where I was like, “I wish I was in the future. I’m sad I’m going to miss what this person is talking about.” I wanted to be at the place where all these exciting ideas were taking place.
So we were trying to strike that balance between the humanity of the band and their emotional arc that spans from putting out their previous album to this album, the questions around whether they could actually pull it off and how true to their initial conceit would it would be. We also didn’t want to sensationalize the technology and be like, “We’re the first band to do this kind of thing” or to even say that AI is [all that much of an innovation]. Clearly, it is at a point it’s never been at before, but we’ve said that things are AI since the beginning of the 20th century. Any time we’ve had a breakthrough in computer technology, we call it AI, and part of putting in those archival elements in the film is to let the audience know that [what YACHT is working on is] new and novel, but it’s actually not. We do this over and over again.
Sebastian Pardo: As we went through the process of really understanding AI, I realized how much exists outside the technology and how much it’s shaped by humans. A theme that emerged in the film is AI is mirror. Not only is it trained on everything we’ve made and who we are and what we value, you also see in it what we recognize as useful, so it is a symbiote and to ignore the humans that are engaging with it would be to not tell the complete story, so that’s where we really started to say it’s a two-hander. That technology is human and needs to include the human perspective and work for humans.
That comes across so strongly, particularly in the scene where you leave the audio of the members of YACHT taking on the daunting task of translating their catalog to MIDI files without leaving the computer screen they’re working off of. What was it like showing the tension between those two things?
Sebastian Pardo: Yeah, there are different languages at play and human language has a lot more resolution than the mouse and whatever interface another human made 20 years ago, so there’s always frustration there. The AI researchers are trying to make a world where we don’t speak different languages, and I’m not convinced that’s possible necessarily, but should it ever be, you’re really asking big questions and in general, you’re asking big questions by building this stuff. I maybe more black-pilled about it that we’re degrading humans to meet the machines rather than the other way around, but I think Claire says it best. The whole project is a wormhole. There’s so many tributaries to go down and get lost in, so the challenge for us really was how do you visually represent something that’s a bunch of electrons on a chip in a black box that nobody can see, and that scene you’re mentioning is a great example of that. Then we have the graphic design stuff and [scenes] that are created in the edit of putting screens against actions and using them as transitions and just trying to make them feel a little bit more alive and dynamic than just watching three people look at a screen and hearing the output.
Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?
Riel Roch-Decter: We went through so many different iterations of it, trying to strike that balance between the band’s journey, the technology’s evolution or its history and there were tangents where we were like, “Maybe we need to explore the entire internet section of musicians using technology or old tape recordings in the UK where they started taking tape machines and made new sounds.” There’s so many places it could go and what surprised us in the end is how accessible the film ended up being. There were certainly cuts that felt way quiet and observational. But the screenings we’ve done through festivals and [hearing from] a lot of people we really trust and respect, their level of enjoyment is our biggest surprise. We get lost in the weeds after years of editing, like “I don’t know how this is going to play” and hearing people literally laugh at the band’s trials and tribulations…
Sebastian Pardo: “I didn’t know there was a joke there…” [laughs] We had a tendency to be like there’ll be all this history and you start pulling the thread, like, “Oh, the history of AI could be its own fascinating 90-minute movie” and then “Oh, the history of musicians or artists using technology in new ways to question the status quo or question the medium itself,” that could be its own movie. There could also be a movie just about YACHT. So it was just trying to bring in enough of those things to set the right context and and how could you weave them in a way that keeps all of those plates spinning in a way that’s satisfactory.
And now the film is on tour, which seems as exciting a part of this as any other. What’s it like getting it out there and figuring out a proper release for it?
Riel Roch-Decter: We’ve released films ourselves, we’ve worked with big distributors and we’ve collaborated with other smaller arthouse distributors on different releases, and from the very beginning because we knew the band was involved and they’re going to put out this album, we always imagined a touring element of it [when] a tour felt more organic to having these engaging conversations. So we set out from the very beginning to create that kind of atmosphere, and we are kicking off this weekend, doing a few shows at Metrograph and the band’s doing a performance in Brooklyn and then it goes from there [where] we have certain theaters playing the film [around the country] and then the band plays immediately after. That just seemed like the only way to do it, really.
Sebastian Pardo: Also, the band speaks so well to these things. A lot of times there are brilliant artists who can’t communicate necessarily [what they do]. They might just have a gut instinct. But the band and Claire specifically, who’s a great writer, none of this is trapped in their heads. They can articulate it so well that we knew bringing them to speak to and about the movie and getting them to perform was such a rich thing. This tour that we’re doing now is more focused on the music side, but I think we hope to do another that’s more ideas-based and bringing in more the collaborators that work in this field to have more longform conversations. When we look at projects, a lot of time they really are just the tip of the iceberg as far as what can be explored in those subjects, so if there’s ever opportunities to bring people in and guide them into a much bigger world of ideas, that’s very much what we’re about and we want to do that with this too.
Riel Roch-Decter: Yeah, we realized that a lot of our films have longer tails than the way a lot of the industry treats films, [where it’s] like release week, then it’s out on VOD and then that’s it. We get e-mails from universities all over the world to play films that we’ve done, so [we’re interested] in expanding that conversation over a longer period of time. The technology’s changed so much since we finished the film that creating opportunities to continue that conversation with people who work in it is really exciting to us, so we’re aiming to continue that.
Sebastian Pardo: We love setting our own context and not waiting for somebody else to do that and that’s something that filmmakers need to see more of and need to feel emboldened to do, so that’s also a big part of how we think about things.