Eno And iPods

Yes, it’s another blast from the past as I manage to get round to posting something based on notes written over two years ago.

It was back in January 2006 when I went to Goldsmiths college with Mira to hear a talk by Brian Eno about, well, Brian Eno and his ways. I like Brian Eno, especially for his work with David Byrne (one of my heroes) and with Talking Heads. Eno has also worked with U2, but he has done lots of good work as well, so I think we can forgive him that. Just. The talk was very interesting, and I took lots of scribbled notes on my Palm, only for them to be somehow lost when I sync’d. My fault, I think. Grr.

But from what I can recall, Brian talked about his college years, a bit about Roxy Music, and the usual stuff. He made a point of the two strands of his life and enthusiasms, namely the pop/rock side, and the experimental side. As part of the experimental strand he described the Koan Pro software he worked on in the 1990’s. He also mentioned briefly the Headcandy CD-ROM, which was a bit shit, but interesting for the time.

After the talk, Eno asked for questions, and I was able to ask him something along these lines, “Your ambient albums were created by setting up tape loops and other mechanisms of overlapping sounds, so that the music created constantly changed and evolved. How did you choose which hour-long section of this generated music to record and release as an album?”. To this Brain One answered (massive paraquote), “This is a neat tie-in to the two streams of my career. The experimental side created the generating system, and the populist rock star listened and decided which bits sounded best to release.”

One thing he talked about was an interesting electronic box he’d seen which would generate music from your pocket, the Buddha Box. I saw these on sale in an achingly hip – and hence empty – “designer” shop in Silver Lake. You switch them on, and they make a kind of ambient music. I think it’s pre-recorded rather than generated, but you can collect the differently-coloured set, which makes it OK.

This got me thinking about generative music as a whole. There is a load of hardware and software out there that will generate music from different sources, ranging from fractal mathematic equations, to simple random numbers, to specially written algorithms (like Koan Pro).  

There have been other experiments in using technology to (semi-)randomly create music. Kenneth Kirschner went a bit up himself with his Music for Shuffling, a series of pieces designed to be played using the iPod shuffle mode, and thus give you a different experience each time. This idea was explored by They Might Be Giants a long time before that in the series of short tracks called Fingertips on the album Apollo 18. The idea was that by playing the CD on shuffle would intersperse these tracks between the other songs. This didn’t work on the UK version, because some dolt mastered Fingertips as one track instead of 21.

I used to have some unregistered shareware on my PC called WinChime which acted as a virtual windchime. It was pretty neat really. You could set the speed and direction of the wind, how many chimes were in the arrangement, and how they were arranged, and what scale to use (pentatonic snuff jazz wasn’t included). It depended on your PC’s sound card to provide the sounds via MIDI, which meant that it could sound a bit cheap and plinky-plonky if you had a cheap plinky-plonky sound card. Quite relaxing though.

A long time ago I saw a music generator chip that came in a transparent CD jewel case. I can’t remember if this was a music generator or a prerecorded piece, like the Buddha Box. Nice idea though, just pluck it from the shelf and listen via headphones.

The most interesting idea for me is the idea of generative music in your pocket. Many people have iPods or equivalent Digital Audio Players. A DAP is basically a simple single-purpose computer, with a processor, digital-analogue sound source, display and input controls. It’s already possible to reprogram an iPod with alternative software (or firmware) such as Rockbox which can improve upon the supplied firmware with additional features such as games. So why not have some software on your iPod which can generate music of a certain style, or at a certain tempo? Instead of creating and then selecting a playlist of a certain length full of uptempo dance tunes to workout to, you could select a automatically generated hour-long mix of the correct speed. You could have a certain setting for walking, one for jogging, one for high-intensity workouts, and a relaxing wash of strings to wind down afterwards.

You don’t have to be exercising either; I have an old Swiss “rave” CD that is ideal for when you’re painting walls, because it starts frenetic to help you cover large areas of the wall, keeps you going while you do the smaller areas, and then slows right down with some dub stuff to let you do the edges and details without going over the lines.

Genre- and tempo-based generation would probably only work for electronic dance music and ambient background stuff. Perhaps deep dub and other styles of electronic music as well. I’m sure with enough intelligence in the software, most of the genres described in Ishkurs Guide to Electronic Music could be created. Not the vocal stuff, obviously, although given time your DAP would contain an AI capable of true artistic creation, so that won’t be a problem. But would it have soul? Well, probably not, and that’s fine by me. I don’t like music to have stuff that I don’t believe in the existence of.