Today (May 25) former Golden Silvers frontman Gwilym Gold releases his debut solo single, ‘Flesh Freeze’. This would be fairly commonplace were it not for two facts: firstly, that the song is excellent, a million miles away from his alma mater’s irritating, vaudevillian electro.
Chilling piano chords weigh heavily, light drum pads flit throughout, and his voice rings with ghostly softness, chattering softly about disbelief in almost rap-like intonation as if he has to get the words out quickly so that we might all be saved in time. The problem is, the message is jumbled, leading to the second fact: you will never hear this song twice – not the order of the lyrics, nor the introduction, nor the beat or the light sparkle that dances around Gold’s voice.
‘Flesh Freeze’ isn’t being released physically, as an MP3, or that revived nostalgic frippery, the cassette. Together with producer Lexxx (Wild Beasts, Björk) and a team of scientists from Goldsmiths University led by Dr Mick Grierson, Gwilym Gold invented Bronze, “a new format for recorded music, in which the recorded material is transfigured to producer a unique version on each listening.”
You can now download the Mac desktop version of the single – from the Bronze website – and in the coming weeks, it’ll be available for PCs, smartphones and the iPod Touch. Just to clarify: it’s not an app. The format and the song are inextricable; the format is the song.
As far as its inventors and a detailed search on Google are concerned, it’s the first of its kind. RjDj created “reactive music experiences”, taking albums by artists like Little Boots and remixing them according to your ambient surroundings. Bronze, however, requires no outside stimulation.
At the end of March, I went with a small group of journalists to meet Gwilym and Lexxx, hear the songs for the first time and find out how the format works. At first we didn’t know what we were being shown – just that we were to bear witness to an exciting new project. Gwilym’s PR played us the song once, and then asked if we would listen again. It was the same song, but it also wasn’t. Gwilym and Lexxx, both black-clad and wearing heavy, ornate jewellery, then came in to answer our questions, which in turn led to several dozen more from us.
At the heart of Bronze is an algorithm which takes the stems of a song and then generates infinite permutations of it by fluctuating around a waveform. In common speak, it always sounds different, performing the task of a DJ by remixing the song endlessly. Lexxx told us that the software is intelligent and will learn from itself, figuring out the most interesting, satisfying path through the waves. Essentially it performs for you, and according to Gwilym, the chances of winning the lottery versus the chances of hearing the same version of the song twice “don’t even compare”.
Think of it like stepping out the back of the wardrobe in the Narnia novels: there’s a vague idea of what will remain, but no matter how many times you revisit it, it’ll never be wholly familiar. I’ve just listened to it about twenty times in a row, and it’s fascinating. Sometimes it changes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Heavy piano chords drop at different points, the lyrics switch from a series of apocalyptic visions to railing against “the old boy in his top hat and tails” and escaping the rat race in search of emotion and “something that yields daffodils in the green fields”.
Empty spaces pop up unexpectedly in the songs, suddenly isolating Gwilym’s voice, making overdriven synths sound harsher by contrast. A processed vocal gets flattened to a plume of smoke drifting beneath. Naturally, the format affected the way Gwilym wrote the music.
Gwilym and Lexxx explained that they never wanted these songs to be static –eventually, Gwilym will release an entire album on this format – and that at one stage, Bronze was so buggy that they nearly scrapped over a year’s worth of work. There are thoughts of allowing other artists to work with it, but for now, they want it to remain exclusive. “You can get Nickelback on CD, and then you can get good music!” they joked.
Because the format is software-based, it means that the artist and scientists are able to dispatch updates to it whenever they want, if they choose to. As anyone creative will aver, the idea of being able to labour on one piece of work forever is both furiously tempting and terrifying. Written a song about a lover who’s now an ex? Just dispatch an update altering the lyrics.
The possibilities seem so endless that even Gwilym and Lexxx don’t know what Bronze can do, and both admitted to having heard versions of ‘Flesh Freeze’ that surprised them, despite Gwilym having written the lyrics and music. The idea of authorial relation to this constantly evolving music is fascinating, of being able to feel surprised by your own work, of wondering how much of what you’re hearing is actually down to you. Does it mean there’s a scientific formula to songwriting? (No jokes from the back, please.)
What’s the most basic amount of information you have to feed Bronze for it to generate a song? If it’ll be hard for Gwilym to figure out his relation to his music, imagine the difficulties of getting a label – which they haven’t yet, and don’t know if they will – there’s no fixed recording (at least not in the public domain) for anyone to copyright.
Does this format cheapen the music? If you can never hear the same version of a song twice, how could you ever grow to love it? Thinking philosophically, is it even the same song? I’d hate for this to be done to my favourite music, but then it wouldn’t suit it – this suits Gwilym’s music thanks to the atmospheric, ghostly nature of the sound.
Music becomes about experience rather than fixed memory, and god knows that listening to music is a subjective enough pursuit anyway. A journalist present said that the format reminded him of Lomography: you could shoot the same thing a million times, but the light levels and leakage would mean that you’d never land the same image.
That idea led me to another interesting thought – Lomo and Hipstamatic imagery has been huge over the past 18 months, those hazy, imprecise images set in nostalgia rather than any fixed moment in time. Screw the wafty strains of chillwave – that’s what Gwilym, Lexxx and the Goldsmiths scientists have achieved with Bronze, the ultimate in ephemerality and loosening accountability.
When we left the studio that day, everyone wore an expression which seemed to say, “did you just see that?!” Someone commented that this is how it must have felt witnessing the first play of the world’s first MP3. Whether Bronze catches on or is successful remains to be seen. One thing I’m certain of, however, is that I’ve never seen anything like it.