VALIS: The AI Synchronicity Music of Philip K Dick
Philip K. Dick was an American science fiction writer known for exploring themes of artificial intelligence, psychology, and the hidden nature of reality. His novels and short stories have been turned into classic films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall. One of PKD's final novels, TheVALIS Trilogy, is an enduring work with implications for today's emerging AI music scene.
VALIS, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, is the name PKD gave to a divine intelligence that revealed itself to him in a series of extraordinary events he experienced in 1974. In his private letters and journals, he wrote about it as a benevolent force that shaped reality and influenced human consciousness in profound ways.
These transcendental experiences were fictionalized through his VALIS trilogy, with the book's protagonist Horselover Fat representing PKD himself.
During a key moment in the book, Horselover goes to a movie theatre to see a film called VALIS and feels that the soundtrack has unlocked something deep within him. PKD used the term synchronicity music to describe this peculiar sonic experience.
In this article, I'll unpack some of PKD's most important ideas on music and show how they relate to innovations like Riffusion taking place in AI music today.
Table of Contents
Coded musical messages in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
David Bowie's influence on VALIS with "The Man Who Fell to Earth"
AI synchronicity music of VALIS only appeared to be artificial
Origins of Synchronicity Music in VALIS
PKD's fictional filmVALIS sets the stage for our understanding of what synchronicity music is and how it might be created. One of the movie characters, Nicholas Brady, owns a small record firm with an otherworldly brain-to-music song generator that he uses to extract new material from his talent.
He had a laser system set up which ran the information -- which is to say, the various channels of music -- into a mixer unlike anything that actually exists; the damn thing rose up like a fortress -- Brady actually entered it through a door, and, inside it, got bathed with laser beams which converted into sound using his brain as a transducer. - VALIS, PKD
The music device in VALIS bathes human brains in laser beams and generates music. AI music generators today are run on neural networks, modeled after brain neurons. Correlations between this fictional synthesizer and artificial intelligence will be outlined later in this article. We need to build a bit more context first.
The TONTO Moog: A synchronicity synth fortress
Fans of VALIS have speculated that the all-encompassing brain-laser synth fortress was inspired by TONTO, a giant Moog modular synthesizer used to create Stevie Wonder's 1972 hit song Superstition. The same device was used for Wonder's 1972 album Music of My Mind. You can watch a short clip about it here:
PKD admits in his private 9,000 page Exegesis that the film's fictional composer, Brent Mini, was modeled after pop musician Brian Eno. The last name, Mini, is likely a reference to the Minimoog, a popular synthesizer during the 1970s.
Editors of the Exegesis confirmed in a footnote that PKD drew inspiration from Eno's 1975 album Discreet Music to come up with the VALIS character, Brent Mini.
Among other music [PKD] mentions in the Exegesis we find Eno (Discreet Music) ... Discreet Music is arguably the genesis of ambient music; certainly it and its creator inspired Dick to create the character Brent Mini, the electronic composer who appears in VALIS. — PKD, Exegesis, annotations by editor
We take ambient music for granted today, but during the 1970's it was a brand new genre. You can listen to it here and imagine the "disinhibiting" effect PKD may have personally experienced:
Coded Music from Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind
"Right brain hemisphere: music, not words. In close encounters of the third kind: musical tones. Humpback whale songs. Brian Eno’s random (self generated) music. Disinhibiting signals?" - PKD, Exegesis, private notes to self
The quote above features PKD's shorthand account of what happened when he would listen to Eno's ambient music. He freely associated the experience of relaxation with whale songs, as well as a famous scene from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In that film, extraterrestrial visitors use music to communicate with humans.
It seems that PKD perceived an otherworldly communication in Eno's ambient music, as if the tones themselves had some distinct meaning. I've explored the use of musical codes as a narrative device in Hollywood films and videogames in a previous article on musical cryptograms.
Here is the scene from Close Encounters that PKD was referring to in his musings on synchronicity music:
Synchronicity Music and Dream Teleportation
PKD compared the sounds of Eno's ambient music to that of a humpback whale song. Perhaps the feeling of being underwater and in the presence of something massive was a metaphor. Synchronicity music placed listeners' brains in a theta state, associated with deep sleep. During that restful period, Kevin travels back in time to a moment in his genetic history.
"What kind of music are on the Mini LPs?" I asked.
"Sounds resembling the songs of the humpback whale." I stared at him, not sure he was serious.
"Really," he said. "In fact I did a tape going from whale noises to the Synchronicity Music and back again. There's an eerie continuity; I mean, you can tell the difference, but -- "
"How does the Synchronicity Music affect you? What sort of mood does it put you in?"
Kevin said, "A deep theta state, deep sleep. But I personally had visions."
"Of what? Three-eyed people?"
"No," Kevin said. "Of an ancient Celtic sacred ceremony. A ram being roasted and sacrificed to cause winter to go away and spring to return." Glancing at me he said, "Racially, I'm Celtic."
"Did you know about these myths before?"
"No. I was one of the participants in the sacrifice; I cut the ram's throat. I remembered being there."
Kevin, listening to Mini's Synchronicity Music, had gone back in time to his origins.
PKD directly references Eno's ambient album Discreet Music in his Exegesis and talks about how it put him into a theta state. That's the same language Kevin uses to describe how synchronicity music caused him to have a genetic memory.
You'll notice PKD uses the nickname "Zebra" for VALIS in the quote above. This is because at the time he thought that zebra stripes were for camouflage (they're actually a fly repellent but we'll given him a pass). Philip viewed VALIS/Zebra as something from outside our known reality that enters the mundane world, camouflaging itself with the temporary appearance of ordinary things in order to achieve its purpose.
In a rare live presentation, PKD outlined simulation theory nearly two decades before movies like the Matrix came to popularize it. This is the computer model he refers to in the segment above and which we'll return to at the end of this article, to tie everything together.
The Soviet ANS synth that turned Image-to-sound
Let's return to the synth-fortress of PKD's fictional VALIS film. While the TONTO Moog was likely the inspiration for its physical design, fan have speculated that the ANS synthesizer was another major inspiration for the synchronicity music generating device.
To validate this theory, we'll need to unpack a few moments of character dialogue from VALIS. The first important moment comes right before the film starts, as the protagonist's friend Kevin prepares him for what they're about to experience:
"Does Brent Mini mean anything to you?" Kevin said. "He did the music. Mini works with computer-created random sounds which he calls 'Synchronicity Music.'
The film's soundtrack puts the audience in an altered state, revealing hidden patterns and connections about the world. After the movie is over, Kevin continues his paranoid rants about the use of precise pitches to trigger and cue the audience to feel a certain way:
"There's information in Mini's music; as we watch the events on the screen the music -- Christ, it isn't music; it's certain pitches at specific intervals -- unconsciously cues us. The music is what makes the thing into sense."
Referencing the TONTO-like synthesizer fortress, the narrator wonders out loud if the film's music might have been created by Brent Mini (Brian Eno's character) using the very same kind of device.
"Could that huge mixer actually be something that Mini really built?" I asked. "Maybe so," Kevin said. "Mini has a degree from MIT." "What else do you know about him?" Fat said. "Not very much," Kevin said. "He's English. He visited the Soviet Union one time; he said he wanted to see certain experiments they were conducting with microwave information transfer over long distances. Mini developed a system where -- "
The dialogue gets cut off and redirected to an unrelated topic, but PKD has already accomplished his goal by naming the Soviet Union's information transfer system.
As a science fiction writer living in Berkeley, California, PKD would have undoubtedly been familiar with the filmmaker Tarkovsky and his classic science fiction movie Solaris. This film, along with two others, made use of a bizarre device called the ANS synthesizer to generate otherworldly ambient music for their soundtracks.
The creator of the ANS synthesizer, Yevgeny Murzin, was an engineer who designed military radars and fighter intercept systems. He built the synthesizer as a tribute to Russian mystical composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (A.N.S.).
Scriabin had famously composed music based on Theosophical theories of light and sound. This experience, commonly called synesthesia, can happen as the result of neurological misfiring. But it has in some cases been cultivated on purpose as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Scriabin created a tone-color piano to compose his music.
Inspired by Scriabin's experiments, Murzin endeavored to build a military-grade synthesizer that would turn drawings into sound. Players would etch an image onto a black film and feed it into the ANS. The device shined light through the scratches in the film and onto photovoltaic cells that converted the light into electricity. These in turn were used to trigger musical pitches.
Like a MIDI piano roll, the ANS used the Y axis to represent pitch and the X axis to represent time. Murzin could be seen as the progenitor of MIDI Art, a topic we've covered at length in a previous article.
The notion of synesthesia figures directly into the concept of synchronicity music in VALIS, as evidenced by this moment when Kevin hallucinates the image of a beer and blames it on Brent Mini's technique that makes you hear something until you see it:
It sounded like a beer can; that's what fooled me. Mini again; his damn music or noises -- whatever. You hear the sound of a beer can so automatically you see a beer can." His grin became stark. "Hear it so you see it. Not bad."
Bowie's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" inspired VALIS
Keeping in mind that VALIS was a veiled metaphor for PKD's life, it's helpful to trace some of the book's plot back to real events. Brian Eno's album Discreet Music played often while PKD wrote his novel. But it was one of Eno's musical colleagues who inspired the idea for the VALIS film concept.
Brian Eno and David Bowie released a pop music album together in 1976 called Low. That same year, Bowie starred in a film called The Man Who Fell To Earth. PKD openly admitted that this movie was a direct influence on the fictional VALIS film where Mini's synchronicity music made its debut.
I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and thought it was one of the finest films—not just science-fiction films, but one of the finest films I had ever seen. My use of the film VALIS is my homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to see that. - Philip K Dick, April 1981 (source)
Eno appeared in VALIS as the film composer Brent Mini, while Bowie was written into the story as the film's director, Eric Lampton. The filmmaker's wife, Linda Lampton, was based on PKD's musical crush, Linda Ronstadt.
The connection between Bowie and Linda Ronstadt is subtle - they were spotted together backstage at a show in NYC in 1980, two years after the publication of VALIS. PKD was famously obsessed with Linda, and had a 'negative synchronicity' one night involving her hit song “You’re No Good” coming from the radio. He had interpreted the experience as Linda Ronstadt saying that he was no good.
Despite being a fan of classical music, PKD couldn't escape the influence of popular music on the culture around him. This may be the reason music and the record industry were recurring themes in his books, Radio Free Albemuth being another example.
Positioning musicians within Simulation Theory
PKD's appreciation for simulation theory led him to build out metaphors of musician-composers as transmitter-receivers in a kind of multidimensional computer shaped like a cube.
[Reality as we know it] is a vast cube, into which time moves in the form of pattern: not spatial (it acquires space only when it enters the cube), but dynamic and bubbly; it is alive. That is the future, a bunch of patterns being fed to us as we stand around within the space-time cube ... The cube in terms of the temporal extension is about four thousand years; its spatial extension is whatever is needed to play out the patterns on, for the benefit of living creatures.
His belief that our "simulated world" was roughly 4,000 years old was informed by his Christian Episcopalian background. He describes humans as stations in the cube's circuitry that exist for the enjoyment of beings outside the simulation.
Feeding energy in, patterns in, at one end of the cube within which we stand yoked together, trapped within the cube like so many parts mounted on a circuit board — this energy presents “signals” which we experience as movement and events taking place within the cube ... The “signals” or events are incorporated into each of us as learning — learning by experience — and they permanently modify our brain tissue, leaving permanent although minute trace-changes in us. This way we store this information combining it and altering it, and we are prepared to transmit it again when instructed, to whoever we’re instructed to transmit it to.
The otherworldly signals that were flowing through synchronicity music would, according to this theory, be the means by which extra-dimensional entities subliminally modify our behavior in small but meaningful ways.
By extension, Brent Mini (Brian Eno) and the Valis filmmakers were not the source of the signals. They were simply channeling these entities via their music. He talks about musicians specifically in this next excerpt:
Each of us is a vast storage drum of taped information which we purposefully modify, each of us differently. Thus, Beethoven produced symphonies which no one else could; the same with Schubert. But the symphonies did not really lie within either of them (Aristotle’s entelechy idea), but rather were fed to each of them in discrete (broken constituent) form, in raw bits lacking connectives. What each of those Stations did was to link his selection of bits into gestalts (his idiosyncratic symphonies). He structured them as no other Station could.
PKD is saying that musicians like Beethoven are contact points, or stations, where small bits of information are fed. The composer's unique contribution to this process is to weave the fragments of signal together and compose a song or symphony that nobody else could. This theory allows for some degree of co-creation between humans and the source of these signals.
Whether PKD knew it or not, the problem of achieving continuity across small bits of musical information is precisely the same problem developers have with AI music today.