Breaking the Tyranny of the Algorithm

Back to school with Howie Lee's ravishing Birdy Island

Hey Kids! Spotify’s helping with homework!

The streaming service is doing it as only Spotify can – via thematic playlists with titles that make you think they were designed by scientists (or even ordinary humans!) to enhance concentration and improve study skills. There’s Soul Coffee (sponsored by Starbucks of course), featuring Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and others whose music will “ease you into your day.” There’s “Music For Going Back to School,” which is one of the (alas many) playlists in the service’s sprawling database that doesn’t identify artists, instead offering music tailored to specific moods. I dare you to check out “Moments for Studying,” which is two minutes and 17 seconds of faceless, intentionally generic boom-chink piano and synth, with a vibraphone solo. Click to discover why this one doesn’t have too many plays.

As many others have noted, Spotify takes every opportunity to reinforce what’s popular. Where there are a few alertly curated playlists aimed at music discovery, most of the others serve up music within a fairly limited range governed by what you’ve played or searched for in the past. This is a problem, obviously, for those who engage streaming as a way to broaden horizons. Here we have a vast and mighty operation that seeks to actively downplay its vastness: It likes to slot users into narrow slivers of music fandom, and then superserve them with more of the algorithmically generated same. The popular playlists offer an unspoken promise: You never have to leave your bubble.

Perusing the new fall playlists the other day, I went looking for a recording that shared musical characteristics with titles in the “Music for Study” lane – calm rhythms, placid textures, spa atmospheres. The goal was to find a record that caught the mostly instrumental aesthetic of the better Study playlists but would never get past the software gatekeepers. Something just a bit too imaginative for the room. Something that could illustrate the emptiness of the algorithm.

It took about five minutes, on Bandcamp, to encounter the work of a deep-thinking new Echo Locator obsession: The veteran Beijing-based electronic artist Howie Lee, whose resume includes stints in the London club scene and albums (and remixes) of trap, techno and other dance styles.

Lee’s ravishing Birdy Island, which was released in April, contains pulse-lowering rhythmic currents that are tucked (almost hidden) beneath layers of wonder-inducing delicate sound. Haunting unison choirs singing wordless “ooohs” are punctuated by traditional Chinese stringed instruments and breathy synthesizer swirls. Bits of melody used in Buddhist ceremonies sit in proximity to ticking-clock mallet chords and foreboding metallic chimes. It’s gorgeous and transportive music, ideal for contemplation or deep concentration.

But, crucially, most of Birdy Island is not typical ambient wallpaper. Lee might emphasize texture but he’s got a composer’s mind: His songs evolve. They’re organized in sections, with meaningful recurring themes cresting into wide open spaces. Where most of what Spotify wants you to use for studying is built on numbing repetition, Lee’s work has the quality of a river’s current – lulling and repetitive from a distance and more fitful and varied up close. Its episodes engage the mind at a sweet spot I hadn’t visited often – well below declarative melody, structure and narrative, yet significantly above drone.

In interviews, Lee has said that Birdy Island is an imaginary floating theme park in the not-too-distant future, a sanctuary offering stressed workers the chance to reconnect with nature and spirituality. Using this idea as a kind of programmatic overlay, Lee developed a sprawling and dizzyingly colorful tapestry that draws from ancient folk traditions and elements of clubland yet avoids allegiance to either. His conjuring is so vivid it evokes an entirely alien world – a place where the soul shakes off the unsettling disquiet of urban life to glimpse the elusive stillness and tranquility of the monk in repose on the mountain.

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