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Will AI Lead to New Creative Frontiers, or Take the Pleasure Out of Music?

Endel, another app geared toward self-improvement through sound, is even more insistent in its message of better living through circuitry. “We’re not evolving fast enough,” proclaims a manifesto on the company’s website. “Our bodies and minds are not fit for the new world we live in. Information overload is destroying our psyche.” Like, Endel uses AI to generate evolving soundscapes geared to working, meditation, and sleep; Endel’s differentiator is that it factors in variables like weather, time of day, location, and even heart rate in order to tailor its audio streams to each user’s situation.

But on a recent weekday afternoon, when I Zoomed with co-founder and chief composer Dmitry Evgrafov, he was at home in Berlin, wearing not a lab coat but what looked like a very plush, comfortable robe. Where Endel’s marketing stresses hard numbers, Evgrafov came across more like a philosophical ambient musician. Which, in fact, he is.

Active since the early 2010s, Evgrafov has released over a dozen recordings of delicate ambient music on labels including the hallowed classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon. But around the time that Endel’s six co-founders were launching the company, in 2017, he found himself burning out on the whole idea of being an artist. Putting so much focus on the recording felt precious, he thought. He wanted a sense of accomplishment from his music, but it seemed unlikely that his contemplative instrumentals could have much impact on the world. “The only answer I found,” he told me, “is functional music. The catch is that you have to leave your ego at the door. This music has to put people to sleep.”

How Endel works is pretty simple, as far as AI goes: Evgrafov and his fellow sound designers create discrete stems, or musical parts—looping basslines, wafting synth pads, shimmering chimes—which Endel then remixes on the fly, ad infinitum. I spent a few days listening to it, and the results are absolutely unremarkable, although that is the point. Its muted keys and heartbeat-pulse rhythms are meant to be unobtrusive.

While Endel is helping listeners to tune in and chill out, the company has loftier goals, like enabling musicians to plug in and scale up, using AI to create infinitely regenerating artworks in their own signature style. As luck would have it, Grimes was already a fan of the app; having recently given birth to her first child, she designed a continuously evolving sleep soundscape of her sighing, cooing, and chirping “I love you” over gently undulating synthesizers—a lullaby for exhausted mothers as much as their restless progeny. Since that initial experiment, Endel has collaborated with musicians from across the spectrum: R&B visionary Miguel, minimal-techno pioneer Richie Hawtin, sad-soul singer-songwriter James Blake. “Even though you Endelize the thing, and it doesn’t sound like the original stems at all, on a very deep level, the core of the artist remains,” says Evgrafov.

When I ask Evgrafov what he thinks the next five years of AI will bring, he sounds surprisingly doubtful. “I’m a bit pessimistic,” he says. “Our priority is to shatter stereotypes about AI being low quality,” Evgrafov continues. “We’d like to do something that stands alongside the godfathers of ambient music, like Brian Eno and Laraaji.” Yet his fear is that the proliferation of AI-driven audio will lower listeners’ standards. “The problem is not that AI will take over and steal musicians’ bread and butter,” he says. “It’s that people will get used to the shitty sound of AI.” The hypothetical he describes sounds a lot like the one we’ve already seen at work on mood-based streaming playlists, which have filled up with no-name artists cranking out functional music designed to blend into the wallpaper—and bolster the platforms’ bottom lines.

Ironically, Endel may be contributing to that same process. As part of the company’s artist outreach program, they have begun releasing collaborative albums on streaming services—an hour-long snapshot, essentially, of what the artists’ endlessly recombinant compositions might sound like at any given moment. “We’re able to create albums with the push of a button,” he says, telling me about an upcoming long-player from an unannounced artist. “We just pushed a button and created this thing and called it a day, and now it’s being released.”