FEATURES Mark Harwood Wants to Be Your Personal Music Generator By Alec Holt · February 27, 2024

“I don’t think I can handle at this point in time, at this state of the world, artists who take themselves too seriously,” says Mark Harwood. Having returned from DJing at a “pseudo-private” festival in the German countryside, organized by his old pal and new Berlin neighbor, techno pioneer Rashad Becker, Harwood’s a bit tired. Still, no amount of exhaustion can suppress the excitable afterglow of a weekend that was, in his words, “a bit less predictable” than your average avant get-together. Gleefully enumerated high points include saxophonist André Vida’s “really authentically funny” show, an impromptu tuba session over breakfast courtesy of a 9-year-old girl (“fucking killer”), and a young boy eschewing more metaphysical stumpers to ask the resident psychic why penguins slide downhill on their bellies. 

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This predisposition towards the absurd and the “accidental,” as he puts it, is a fixture of Harwood’s own practice, from solo shows that have (d)evolved into “really stupid improvised comedy” to the playful impetus behind a series of recent projects on his label, Penultimate Press. In early 2023, he pulled together a 28-song Elvis-themed compilation in two weeks as a response to a €900 penalty received for illegally streaming 15 minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of The King. An impending financial emergency may have been the immediate catalyst; the compilation successfully covered the cost of the fine. But the result, a truly bizarre auditory junk drawer of catatonic twangs and piss-take crooning (“Seeing as my baby left me/ I’m left without a baby”), made Harwood happier than anything he’s worked on in years.

His MarkGPT ploy is zanier still. For £40, or roughly $50, MarkGPT (a play on the GPT family of AI models, if there was any doubt) will respond to your prompt with an original work of music, a drawing, and a piece of writing. Droll framing notwithstanding, the idea reflects a very genuine interest in the ways humans might employ this dramatic new cohort of technologies. “I’m being facetious, but I’m not being critical,” he clarifies. “Just as a completely detached outsider, I would love to see what happens in 100 years’s time because whether we’re doing a good thing or a bad thing, it’s definitely going to be something. It’s radical, which is why I wanted to make my shitty little joke at this point in time, at the advent of it.”

Mark’s immediate worry, however, is that “artists are just going to run into [AI technology] to smooth out the edges, to ensure there are no mistakes.” Having fed his own music into Meta’s MusicGen platform and found the results “really fucking great, actually,” he can understand the temptation. But with MarkGPT, the gag stems from the source code; what you get comes entirely from the thinking, feeling, wisecracking man himself, stamped with all his peculiar proclivities and imperfections. 

I asked MarkGPT to reconstruct the famous siren song from Homer’s Odyssey, curious to hear how he would navigate the episode’s forest of associations, the sum of which would probably suggest a stultifying “Enya ambient” (Mark’s phrase). Two weeks later, 18 minutes of music appeared in my inbox, accompanied by an amusing poem and cover art. MarkGPT’s six-track suite traces the episode’s narrative: from tense nautical ambience into a siren song centerpiece which channels Nocturnal Emissions at their most maleficent, pallid soughs ghosting into earshot before fading away across an unsettled wine-dark seascape. Samples from Harwood’s bank of field recordings—the gentle squeaks of anchor rodes rubbing against boat hulls in a Venice waterway, for instance—fleck the recording with an arresting specificity. It’s a package I will treasure.

The MarkGPT commissions have made for an equally gratifying change of tack on his end: “If I got an enormous amount, I would do them all, and that would be fantastic, and I’d pay my rent by spending the rest of my year doing these. I would be an incredibly happy person because it’s a lot of fun. It’s not deliberately trying to be progressive or avant-garde, but I do find manufacturing vinyl and all the process and the post to be such a huge burden. It’s just me trying to have fun with what I do, because it’s been a bit shitty in recent years.”

This informal chain of digital experiments gains a third link with Inverse Prompt, an open invitation for pieces responding to two visual prompts: the front and back cover of an ongoing compilation showcasing “the most endearing, entertaining, and unique” submissions. Mark tells me he’s unfamiliar with the creators of the eight skew-whiff drifters that have made the cut so far; notable among them is West Coaster Max Nordile, whose sundry DIY endeavors possess a particular affinity with the Penultimate Press ethic. 

Inverse Prompt’s unshrinkingly antagonistic product description restates the exasperation Harwood expressed at the overabundance of “generic experimental music” (take cover, peddlers of conceptual ambient). “I wake up in the middle of the night screaming for a genuinely new, wildly different thing that I’ve never heard before,” he cries, just a little hysterically. In his own work, that’s something he increasingly strikes at through a comic unpredictability woefully absent from much of the “avant-garde.” But even if Inverse Prompt makes a snug capstone for one such set of experiments, Harwood foresees a future rich with opportunities for further snark: “And when they get quantum computing, I’ll make a gag, a really hilarious flexi-disc or three-inch CD, and then I’ll give it all up.”

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