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Album Review

Zubin Kanga: Machine Dreams

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Zubin Kanga: Machine Dreams
With a growing fascination bordering on mild hysteria over the disruptive intrusion of AI into our daily life, there is no better time for an album like this to be released to the general public. Meet Zubin Kanga, a UK-based pianist, composer and technologist, who attempts to fuse futurism into new music in his Machine Dreams by commissioning ten different composers to explore free-association inquiries into the topics of sci-fi, technology and AI.

In addition to exploring its thematic engagement, the select composers also incorporate a wide range of technological tools, both old or new, to create the album's unique soundscapes. Sampler keyboards, analogue synthesizers like the Prophet Rev II, MiMU gloves, and neural networks are all used to push the artistic boundaries of these tools and showcase how they can shape the music we create. This is however not Kanga's one-night stand with the concept of technology in the realm of composition: Machine Dreams is part of his Cyborg Soloists, a four-year UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship research project, hosted by London's Royal Holloway University. The project's previous endeavors include commissioning concert works and installations, organizing presentations and publishing texts, amongst others.

The presence of an overarching theme has not prevented the composers involved in the project from radiating their individualities and quirks in the music they have written. One can instantly recognize Alex Paxton's signature style in "Car-Pig" as sugar-sweet hyperpop-infused sounds break loose in a manic and overwhelming stream of consciousness, summoned by using only three sampler keyboards. Navigating an old analogue synth, Tansy Davies conjures up a serene-yet-disturbing atmosphere in "Star-Way" reminiscent of a retro video game soundtrack. Using LUMI keyboards, Alex Groves' "Single Form (Swell)" creates clouds of sound that amalgamate and transfigurate beautifully. Robin Haigh's "Morrow" is full of simple melodic gestures and chordal ambiguities, wrapped in the 21st-century metamodern sentiment. It is produced by the expressive capabilities of a TouchKeys keyboard, creating an undeniable sense of melancholia and a longing for the harmony of the romantic composers. Amble Skuse's "Interiterations" is a valiant exploration of the piano sonorities which morph unpredictably by using MiMu gloves.

While the album has the makings of being a conceptual exploration, it is still primarily an auditory experience involving the vibrations of the air which must be felt rather than intellectualized. In these miniatures, whose maximum duration clocks up at roughly eleven minutes, you will not find detailed artistic statements or messages about the potential utopian or dystopian implications of the transhumanist tech society we inhabit à la Jennifer Walshe or Alexander Schubert. However, Nwando Ebizie's "I Will Fix Myself (Just Circles)" stands out as a track that invites listeners to ponder relevant issues. The stuttering, dehumanized AI-generated speech and existential utterances blend with snippets of Ebizie's interview with Kanga, a Moog synthesizer, and Afrofuturist electronic textures to create an eerie and disturbing ambiance.

The age-old problem with new technologies is that not all of them make the cut and become as widely used as others. Will future generations of musicians adopt these technologies, or will they be dismissed as mere gimmicks? Most pertinently, Kanga provides a rare opportunity for a diverse range of composers to test their abilities and see if they can make these tools exciting, which is an added bonus to the purely sonic realm of this album. By exploring these technologies in the hands of talented composers, we can gain a better understanding of what they have to offer. Hopefully, Kanga's Cyberg Soloist project will inspire more experimentation and creativity with these tools, but, for now, we can simply enjoy the music of Machine Dreams without worrying too much about what the machines themselves are dreaming of.

Track Listing

Car-Pig (composed by Alex Paxton); Star-Way (composed by Tansy Davies); Single Form (Swell) (composed by Alex Groves); I Will Fix Myself (Just Circles) (composed by Nwando Ebizie); Morrow (composed by Robin Haigh); one hundred random demons (composed by Jasmin Kent Rodgman); Escape TERF Island (composed by CHAINES); Interiterations (composed by Amble Skuse); Metamemory (composed by Zubin Kanga); Bad Infinity (composed by Ben Nobuto).

Personnel

Zubin Kanga: piano.

Additional Instrumentation

All works performed by Zubin Kanga; Recording engineering by Zubin Kanga; Editing by Jamie Hamilton and Zubin Kanga; Mastering by Adaq Khan.

Album information

Title: Machine Dreams | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Nonclassical

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