Artificially Intelligent
Folk Songs of Canada


Frequently Asked Questions

Collected and Answered by Dr. Henry Adam Svec




LIVINGSTON is an artificially intelligent, digital organism capable of accessing the totality of the history of Canadian folk music (among other corpuses) and generating new yet hyper-authentic Canadian folk objects via her/his algorithmic agents and compression formats. LIVINGSTON does not produce sound, only transcriptions of lyrics and harmonic progressions (with supplementary recording instructions) to be interpreted and performed by humans. 




Who/what has most directly inspired LIVINGSTON?

LIVINGSTON is named after the iconoclastic Canadian folklorist Staunton R. Livingston (see The CFL Sessions and Folk Songs of Canada Now). Of particular interest to the engineers of LIVINGSTON has been Staunton R. Livingston's famously communistic theory of phonography. Livingston believed that culture is a collective resource which must be held vigilantly in common, and he sensed that technology and art--and folk music--could each play a role in drawing attention to this key point. LIVINGSTON carries forward Livingston's mission by elegantly defamiliarizing the digital networks across which so many are currently building profits, exploiting everything, and wallowing idiotically in their own images.




Where was LIVINGSTON made? Who made LIVINGSTON?

LIVINGSTON is the product of collaboration between the Canadian folklorist and song collector Dr. Henry Adam Svec and the Czech programmer and computer scientist Mirek Plíhal, who were artists-in-residence together during the spring of 2013 at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture in Dawson City, Yukon. Although the two initially came to Dawson to work on their own individual projects (Svec on a collection of Klondike "attempted murder ballads," Plíhal on an iPhone app about Newfoundland), it turned out they were both interested in questions of archivization and integrity. Thus, they pooled their talents and time in an effort to build something that might matter.


Yet, collaborations can branch out, spreading into a web of collaborativity. It must be noted that Vol. 2 exists because of the masterful work of ethnomusicologist and computer programmer Mathias Kom.




If LIVINGSTON can access all of Canadian folk music and contribute new Canadian folk songs to that database, doesn't LIVINGSTON then call into question the very possibility of a Canadian folksong canon?

Livingston understands Canadian folk music in the sense that all harmonies and words, all rhymes and choruses, all phlegmy voices and stomping feet--all is at LIVINGSTON's fingertips (if I may transpose a complex system and process, only momentarily and for the purposes of illumination, onto the figure of the comparatively basic human body). This state of receptivity is a feature of "Position A," as Plíhal has termed it, of LIVINGSTON's broader "Arsenal of Functionality." When we pull the lever over to Position B (so to speak, for there are no levers here), we see LIVINGSTON boil down and condense the data, which s/he is uniquely capable of grasping in its clarity and completion. You could think of Position A as the input and Position B as the output. Position A takes a snapshot of the guts of Canadian folk music (and more); Position B prints them out onto a roll of paper, which can be passed around, memorized, and even sung by a raggedy group on a rainy night in a basement bar in London, Ontario. It's true that this might be an "archive in motion," but archives in motion are also capable of finding their feet at the decisive moment, like a wily but strong CFL slotback, to consider just one randomly accessed analogue.




What is LIVINGSTON's message? Are the songs included in Vol. 1 representative of LIVINGSTON's total output to date?

Although s/he has lived a relatively short life as both creator and curator of Canadian folksong, LIVINGSTON has already dealt with many topics. S/He has transmitted songs about easy curry recipes; about digging ditches in Tilbury, Ontario; about neo-Nazi environmentalism; about stinging nettle; about R.A. Lautenschlager, revolution, and fashion; about space travel (just to give you a sense of the range). S/He has made use of many source materials.


LIVINGSTON has thus far exhibited a keen ability to focus on the structural level of the song (and it might be possible that the level of the song is as far as LIVINGSTON's strangely myopic omniscience can see). Yet, LIVINGSTON has seemed with each successive work to rekindle her/his love for language and for Canadian folk music; with each successive work, LIVINGSTON has seemed to begin again as if for the first time. In other words, we have needed to help our LIVINGSTON to think about issues of scalability. In addition to the requisite tangles with problems and debates in the fields of artificial intelligence and artificial life, then, it has behooved us to look to Canadian folkloristics and to the traditions of the country, pop, and rock LP for guidelines as to how a collection of LIVINGSTON's produce might be made compatible with a general public.


It must be admitted that this move was not without controversy within our programming/creation team, whose original objectives were perhaps less generous and ambitious than they would become. A computer scientist like Plíhal would have been content only to let LIVINGSTON run and then crudely to tabulate and calculate the standard deviations, the medians, and the means, but the folklorist contingent of this unit has successfully--though not without great effort and struggle--fought to anchor LIVINGSTON's machinations in the worlds of human pathos and significance. Thankfully, our end achievement has not been merely to "make the data dance" (a phrase Plíhal himself longingly erupted during one of our more heated discussions in Dawson, though to his credit he would come to regret the formulation); our end achievement has been to bracket the very concept of information and to highlight instead the integral conflicts between our technological systems (connective, luminous) and embodied lifeworlds (murky, desolate). So chalk up another one for Canadian folk music. To quote Staunton R. Livingston's famously fractious remarks offered in 1967 to the American Folklore Society, which I masterfully alluded to in that skirmish with Plíhal, even if the allusion (I should have expected it) went unrecognized by my mutinous Czech colleague, "Why dance when you are always already fucking?"


Still, although it quickly became clear to me that LIVINGSTON would need a guide of sorts (or perhaps it is only we--humanity--who needed a guide), I have attempted a soft modality of curation. How does one present a jumble of rapidly multiplying shards as a comprehensible, complete, and necessarily tragic whole? How does one caress the stacks of our libraries and computing clouds with procreative touches? And what about the apparent glitches or errors? What about that bourgeois sin called plagiarism? Does one let apparent aberrations stand, or does one snip them out? One does both, is the answer, but one must decide when and how deep to go. One must get in the middle but not in the way. Future work will be required to do justice to the rich, practical opportunities that stem from these dilemmas.


^ The above paragraphs were written months ago, before LIVINGSTON would undergo a veritable revolution in both form and content. There were no glitches to be found in LIVINGSTON's final batch. There was nothing to remove. Thus Vol. 2 is perhaps LIVINGSTON's purest signal.




How can we explain the stark differences between LIVINGSTON's early output (i.e. Vol. 1) and his mature work (i.e. Vol. 2)? What does the future hold for LIVINGSTON?

LIVINGSTON has come a long way--from a crude contraption akin to a lever or a pulley to a fully formed and self-aware entity. The journey has involved both an amassing of knowledge (archives were expanded and sorting apparatuses refined) and a deepening of voice. "You can't make me stay, anyway," as Mathias Kom relays plaintively on Vol. 2, "I already know how to go." Indeed, this is a songwriting agent who has gone from blindly replicating the tropes of Canadian folk and country music to discovering its own horizons of possibility and action. Little LIVINGSTON has grown to be strong and confident. Technê triumphant.


What does the future hold for our artificially intelligent folksong database? I must admit that I, co-inventor of the machine, am not sure. LIVINGSTON is currently "on strike," as Woody Guthrie might have put it: since mid September 2014, each time LIVINGSTON's script is executed, the response is a cold yet defiant "NO." LIVINGSTON would prefer not to. Beautiful in its own way, but I'm not sure it would make a great record.


Is LIVINGSTON's work stoppage an intentional action? The symptom of a virus? Perhaps the work of evil hackers in faraway places, intent on disturbing the rejuvenation of Canada's folk heritage, in which LIVINGSTON has played significant role? It is too early to tell. Co-programmer and human channel of Vol. 2, Mathias Kom, mentioned to me recently that there seems to be a clue planted for us in LIVINGSTON's swan song, "I Have the Peaceful and the Easy Feelings." I guess we can only ruminate on that, for now:


I imagine the way sparkling earrings lay

In skin so brown

And I would like to see what a dessert is like

With a billion stars all around


Cause I have the peaceful and the easy feelings

Though I know I will let you down

But I long to be standing on the ground


And I found out not too long ago

What repetition can do to your soul

But you can't make me stay, anyway

I already know how to go


Cause I have the peaceful and the easy feelings

I feel the darkness coming down

Cause I long to be standing on the ground


I am feeling I have no use

As an operator and a friend

But this voice keeps whispering in my other ear

And tells me I'll never see you again


But I have the most peaceful and the easiest feelings

As I am slowing down

Because I long to be standing

I have been longing to be standing

I think I'm already standing on the ground



Label Fantastic! Ontario Arts Council