Alexa Woodward and Jane Adams team up on AI-inspired music videos | Music function | Seven days
It all started with something small: a suspicious spot so small it fits inside a freckle. In late 2019, the Burlington singer-songwriter Alexa Woodward noticed the strange mark on his shoulder and sought medical attention. It was soon diagnosed as a malignant invasive melanoma, one of the most insidious cancers. Emergency surgery followedthen a painful convalescence.
After the operation, Woodward, now 38, found she had cleared the margins, meaning the operation had successfully removed the melanoma. In early March 2020, when she felt well enough to return to the world, the world turned off.
“In March, when I was mobile enough to hold my ukulele and banjo again… the pandemic hit, and we were just hunkered down,” she recalls.
The pandemic has been a productive time for many artists. But the South Carolina native explained that she’s been creatively stagnating for years — her latest record, May bewas released in 2014. Not coincidentally, at the time of this album’s release, Woodward was seven months pregnant.
“Having a child was a very intense creative experience,” she explained. “I had, I guess, writer’s block for a few years, putting all that creative energy into [my] child. There was no room.”
But just before his melanoma diagnosis, Woodward had started writing again in small bursts. Chunks of songs lived like voice memos on his phone. With a renewed sense of purpose after her battle with cancer, not to mention the heartbreaking reality of the pandemic, she reached out to former collaborators to record remotely.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I feel it,'” she recalled. “‘I’m going to let these snippets become songs.'”
The resulting EP is an indie-folk exploration called Traveler. But what sets the project apart are its music videos. For those, Woodward teamed up with fellow data visualization artist Jane Adams, to bring its six songs to life through AI-derived visuals that enhance the deep, introspective statements of its lyrics. The videos incorporate familiar natural elements, such as fire, landscapes and the cosmos. But the way they are presented – some like the impressionist oil paintings come to life, for example – is bewildering and beautiful.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, Woodward was a full-time, internationally touring musician. She was prolific during this time, releasing four albums between 2008 and 2014. But she ultimately opted for a more conventional career path, citing exhaustion, the need to repay student loans and, she said, “feel like a trucker”.
Woodward has a law degree from the City University of New York and Adams, 26, earned a master’s degree in emerging media from Champlain College. Both are currently working at the University of Vermont. The former is the Assistant Vice President for Corporate and Foundation Relations and Principal Giving, and the latter is the Data Visualization Artist-in-Residence with UVM. Vermont Complex Systems Center. Adams is also the lead organizer for Womxn’s Vermont Chapter on Machine Learning and Data Science.
The two met through their work with UVM MassMutual Center of Excellence for Complex Systems and Data Science. Announced in 2018, the insurance company’s $5 million endowment is funding projects and research related to health and wellness trends, using exploratory visualization tools to understand the dynamics population health over time.
After many conversations, work dinners and socializing via Instagram, a friendship blossomed between Woodward and Adams. Woodward quickly became intrigued by some original digital artwork that Adams had posted online.
“They almost looked like hand-drawn animations, but had obviously been generated by something else,” Woodward recalls.
Adams creates digital art using artificial intelligence machine learning tools called Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs. Although popular with artists, GANs can be widely used in many scientific and engineering applications, such as mapping dark matter in the universe.
“I don’t think the creators of the GANs…really had in mind what applications people are using them for with art these days,” Adams said.
Although she manages on a certain level of crude simplicity, Adams explained GANs in the following terms: two neural networks, called “the generator” and “the discriminator”, engage in a cycle of creation and rejection until the desired result is obtained.
For example, let’s say the discriminator asks the generator to draw an image of a duck for it. (It’s not interrogate, exactly. But, again, simplicity.) The discriminator knows what a duck looks like because it was trained on thousands of duck photos. The generator does not know what a duck looks like and tries to produce images that match the data points of a real duck. The discriminator rejects ducks from the generator until it manages to draw one.
The results of these processes can be viewed on websites such as this person does not exist.com. The site displays portraits of people of average appearance. But, as the URL indicates, these seemingly real faces are complete fabrications created by GANs.
“My design background definitely helped me create something that was irresistible, eye-catching, and simple,” Adams said. “I have a thing for distilling things down to their essence.”
That’s a good way to describe the Traveler music videos.
“We realized we could look at the lyrics to each of the songs and find image databases related to some of the main lyrics,” Woodward explained.
For example, “Waiting on You” is about Woodward’s struggle with belief in God as a former Christian. The song lists his thoughts on the ultimately unknowable enigma.
“I’ve been waiting for you / If you’re here / Could you say something?” she sings.
The vaporous acoustic melody drips with reverb, as if Woodward were playing it from a cathedral podium. The track features a Texas-based singer-songwriter Linky Barmore and Daniel Machado of the South Carolina outfit Restorationwho contribute vocally and instrumentally throughout Traveler.
The video features hyper-realistic images of forests and deserts. They melt, swirl, recoil and merge with each other, coiling and spreading out in one fluid motion. He seems to consider the vastness of the Earth and its extremes – much like the difference between heaven and hell.
“I’ve always loved how [Woodward’s] the lyrics relate to the natural world,” Barmore wrote in an email. “These patterns are reviewed on Traveleralthough here she has focused her words more inward.”
Other videos follow. “Survival”, the EP’s opening track, is represented by an elemental force: fire.
“It’s your only chance to live / The world is a story and you write it,” Woodward sings as the flames come alive and go out. Given its recent confrontation with mortality, not to mention the summer of protests that inspired the song, the music and its visual representation work in tandem, reinforcing each other.
Currently, the videos are all available on YouTube. But Woodward and Adams want their work to be seen in a more traditional art space. Barring any pandemic-related delays, they will perform in City Hall Park as part of a new Burlington City Arts series of events called Flicks in the Park. The film-centric run begins in early June. Woodward and Adams are scheduled for Thursday, June 24.
Corn Traveler was born out of a terrifying reality, it ultimately realigned Woodward’s creative mojo.
“It brings you to a different way of thinking about the time you have to be here, to be with people, and to create things,” Woodward said.