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Arts & Culture

What Does It Sound Like When Artificial Intelligence Learns? Granite Hands Finds Out In New EP

Every Granite Hands song starts in the home studio of multi-instrumentalist Sorush Ranjbar.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Every Granite Hands song starts in the home studio of multi-instrumentalist Sorush Ranjbar.

The band Granite Hands has members scattered across Texas, from Laredo to San Antonio and Austin to Houston and Denton. The group just released an EP they’re calling Void. It explores a variety of topics that are as wide-ranging as the geographical separation of the band’s members.

The record takes on geopolitical strife, the future of AI machine learning and more.

On the opening track Smoke Screens, multi-instrumentalist Sorush Ranjbar and drummer Cesar De Los Santos sing together:

Smoke screens for the money fiends Blackmailed its friends for the shiny things

The intentionally vague lyrics hint at broad social critiques. 

“I guess there's a there's a big fixation on money and material things in our society,” Ranjbar said. “You know, having this transactional approach to life where you do something for money.”

The title of the EP is up for interpretation. For De Los Santos, it references the occultist concept of “the void,” which has a rather nebulous meaning. 

“It's everything and it's nothing,” he said. “And it's the beginning and the end.”

The structure of the new EP reflects that concept. 

“You're being taken on this journey, and at first things appear to be peachy,” he said. “Everything's cool, but as you get further along into this album, you start to get thrown into these kind of dark areas, and it seems very chaotic and primal. And at the very end you're coming out of this void born as sort of a new person.”

For Ranjbar “void” refers to the surrealness of the modern world — which he said revolves around vegan ice cream, cat cafes and Teslas for some, and geopolitical strife and suffering for others.  

“We have so much madness in this universe that we live in, in awesome ways and in bad ways,” Ranjbar said. “That in its grand complexity, it's almost like this giant void of infinite craziness.”

De Los Santos is from Laredo and Ranjbar is from San Antonio. They met about a decade ago, when Ranjbar was a tourhand for the Houston-based band Sunrise And Ammunition. The band played a show in Laredo with De Los Santos’ band, Somewhere In Between

Around that time, Ranjbar started Granite Hands as a solo project. It stayed that way for a long time, with Ranjbar writing and recording music alone in his bedroom. But by his senior year at University of Texas-San Antonio, he formed a live band with De Los Santos, who just moved to San Marcos at the time. 

That’s when Granite Hands won third place in the instrumental music category in the San Antonio Current’s 2015 music awards.

The new EP marks the project’s first foray into vocals — and studio collaboration. Ranjbar was initially nervous about giving up creative control.

“At first, you have a lot of anxiety when you let something go. You know, you let your baby go into someone else's hands,” Ranjbar said.

But the result of that collaboration, he said, is beyond what he could have created on his own. 

In addition to human collaboration, the EP features the sounds of an AI machine learning algorithm he coded for his master’s thesis. 

One night, Ranjbar was writing and recording music for the Void EP. 

“And I decided to actually run a machine learning algorithm that wasn't related to the music at all, but was for my project,” he said. “And while it was running, (the recording software) was picking up this weird interference to my guitar pickups because I had simultaneously Ableton open.”

Ableton is a digital audio workstation, and that weird interference was the sound of an artificial neural network learning. The electronic signal flowed to his guitar pickups and into the Ableton software. 

That sound made its way onto a track called It Learned, which depicts an AI algorithm run amok. The algorithm gains sentience, stalks and badly hurts its creator. 

It Learned is kind of about what deep learning means and AI means for the human race in 100 years,” Ranjbar said. “What's the human race — what’s civilization going to be like? Is everything going to be automated? Are we going to have AIs that are sentiment that can somehow be weaponized or something? I don't know.”

The song is dark, but his own outlook is more positive.

“I don't think AI is going to become sentient and become dangerous, and I don't think AIs are going to somehow become physical manifestations and go hunting humans and stuff like that,” he said. “I think for the most part, it's gonna be used for good. I hope.”

The Void EP is now available on all streaming services, and Ranjbar said Granite Hands has tentative plans to play live shows soon. 

Ashton Roberts — the saxophonist heard on the track Space Shaman — said the live shows are a much different experience than the studio material.

“Just because we've got so much more of a rapport with each other as musicians and the ability to communicate and, you know, have more improvisational experiences for the audience,” he said.

He first performed with the band during a two-week tour of the west coast. That’s when the current group started to settle into a more improv-based performance style. 

That improvisational spirit is on full display in Space Shaman. Roberts laid down the sax solo in a single take. 

For information on future live shows, visit Granite Hands’ social media.

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.