A Monday read featuring excerpts from articles on Culture, Art, Music, Film, Books, Architecture and various pop and avant-garde creations.
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Brian Eno on music that thinks for itself
When you think about it, recorded music is something of a historical oddity. Imagine telling a visitor from 1650 that we like to listen to the exact same performances, over and over again, without any variation -- they might well be baffled. Or, as Brian Eno once said, perhaps it is our grandchildren who will be the baffled ones.
Scape, a musical app developed by Eno alongside composer and programmer Peter Chilvers, is a kind of album that will never sound the same twice. It's a continuation of Eno's work with generative music, compositions which change every time they're played as the systems behind them introduce some kind of randomness. Starting with an empty screen, shapes can be arranged to create literal "soundscapes" where they each represent a different sound. Their positions relative to each other dictate their behaviour.
Eno, one of popular music's most important and influential figures, has used generative techniques to compose music for many years, popularizing the term with the album Generative Music 1 in 1996. Chilvers and Eno first worked together on the soundtrack to Spore, where the generative music matched the sandbox evolution of the gameplay. They then worked together on apps called Trope and Bloom, both more primitive versions of the "soundscape" idea behind Scape.
We're used to the ideas of live music versus recorded music, and the different expectations they bring, but generative music introduces the unpredictability of live playing to machines. The description of Scape as "music that thinks for itself" imbues computers with a kind of creative responsibility, which might seem a contentious notion. Can an algorithm be creative in a way that we would recognize?
Wired.co.uk met with Eno and Chilvers at Eno's studio in Notting Hill to discuss the development of Scape, and what it means for the future of generative music as a popular art form.
Wired.co.uk: You two have worked together before on similar apps, but this seems a much more elaborate setup -- to what extent is this a progression of those same ideas?
Eno: They're progressions from Spore, where we wanted to make music that wasn't repetitive or based on simple loops going around, but was based on the idea that any scene could have a sonic character -- but it wouldn't be exactly the same each time you visited. So we came up with this idea of loading the game with what we called "shufflers" -- now they're called "elements". There were simple rules for how those things combined and played out -- this thing only happens when these other two things are happening -- and so on. This worked quite well in Spore, and Bloom was one of the spinoffs from that. Bloom used one sound that we used in Spore. I think it was a big step forward, actually, that you could create a piece of art and not just an interesting technical curiosity. [Scape] is another step, to say, "what if we used a bigger family of elements?"
So where do you come up with those different elements, and how they interact with each other?
Chilvers: A lot of the sounds came out of a mixture of existing pieces by Brian, so there was already an existing combination that would sit well together. I think it's partly down to the nature of the kind of music that Brian has been creating that they actually sit well with most sounds in this universe.
Eno: That's right, it's a kind of universe of sounds that work well together, and they can have quite ambiguous tonal relations with each other. You couldn't imagine doing this if you took apart, say, a Clash album, and you took apart the drum parts, and the guitar parts, and the bass parts, and let them float freely and recombine. It probably wouldn't get you a very interesting result. But this music was made from the beginning in that way. It was made on the idea that the elements within it were not in a fixed relationship to each other, they didn't have to be in just one relationship. The discovery that we made was that you could take three or four of those elements from one piece and three or four from another piece and -- ah! -- they can work together. It's been treated like a composition process from the beginning really.
I've seen you talk about it generating its own compositions -- that it has its own creativity. Do you think that a machine can generate real music without human input that we would still value?
Eno: It's not without human input.
Chilvers: It's not realtime human input, I suppose. To come back to a metaphor that Brian often uses, it's more like gardening; we're providing a set of seeds more than anything else, but those seeds were already designed elsewhere and they were already given that initial kickstart of creativity there. It's a very unusual type of creativity, it's quite open-ended.
The interface adds to that. I don't want to call it messy, but it's not rigid. You can place things wherever you want. That's very deliberate I imagine?
Chilvers: In fact it's something I found slightly alien. We actually bent the rules slightly so you can place things just off the screen, so they're just spilling out over the edge.
Eno: It also gives you a different way into the composing process because you can compose a piece just by making a picture that you like, which I find quite interesting.
Chilvers: There's an interesting example of that actually. If I just load the very first one, "Icon", the name isn't a coincidence. We have a graphic designer, and he wanted some sort of suggestion of what the icon for the app would look like, so I mocked something up with Scape. All I was trying to do was get one of each type of element, and by the end of it we thought "that's a really nice piece". So it ended up becoming the opening. So this is a great example of something with no real sense of what the sound will be, just trying to do it naturally.
It's almost like a 21st century version of Oramics isn't it?
Both: [Laughter] Yes, yes.
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