One of the most influential musicians of the last forty years who has worked with U2 and David Byrne thinks music can be too one way: Usually, artists create it and your job is to listen to it, over and over. So Brian Eno has released an iPad app called Scape, full of the building blocks of his music that the listener assembles into their own custom compositions. It’s part of something he’s been calling “generative music.”
“If you think of what composing used to mean, it used to mean something sort of architectural,” says Eno. “So a composwer was somebody who designed a piece of music with all of its details, and then brought it into existance. So for instance, Beethoven wrote every single note of every one of his symphonies, and Frank Lloyd Wright designed every door knob of every one of his buildings, sort of thing. What I’ve been doing with generative music is making systems — in the particular case we’re talking about, an app — which generates music. The way it generates, it is somewhat under your control, somewhat under my control, and some part out of either of our control. That’s a move from the picture of the composer as a kind of architect, to a picture of the composer as a sort of gardener. So you now think of the composer as somebody who plants some seeds, and then watches them grow.”
This means the listener’s role is changing, too, when it comes to generative music. Maybe a listener becomes more of, dare we suggest it, a collaborator, as well?
“In a sense, you’re more than a collaborator,” says Eno. “You are using my inputs to make your piece, whatever that is.”
Eno uses the garden analogy again to describe the listener’s new role in generative music, saying we are almost buying his seeds, and growing them on our own patch in our own creative layout. Eno’s new app, called Scape and created with the help of composer-inventor Peter Chilvers, plays a lot with these ideas. You can select different shapes and backgrounds to create ambient music that sounds very much like the esteemed composer — except that they never really come out the same.
“A lot of the individual sound elements have rules attached to them,” says Eno, “like, only play if two other things are playing. Or play quieter in the evening. The rules are very complicated and they all interact with one another, so once it starts going, you don’t really know what’s going on. It’s very intricately interwoven.”
So is Eno’s new app all about “the death of the album” we’ve all been talking about in recent years? No. He’s got a new one, coming out on Warp Records next week, called Lux, and we’ve heard all 70-some minutes of it — an amazing piece of complex ambient music that proves the seasoned composer is far from out of ideas. So not surprisingly, Eno says he isn’t trying to make an argument that musicians need only make apps now. Really, it’s just another medium for his unique ideas and one that works quite well.