Thursday, October 15, 2009

iPhone as infinite music generator

Many years ago I discovered Brian Eno’s ambient music through vinyl LP releases like Discreet Music, Music for Airports, and others. The generative aspects of these pieces were appealing to me, and I found the results to be quite beautiful. The only weakness in the pieces, for me, was the limitation of appearing on vinyl albums in short segments. I wanted the pieces to play uninterupted for much longer.

In the mid-eighties, the introduction of the compact disc provided an option that supported longer playing times, and Eno took advantage of that with Thursday Afternoon, a CD-specific version of music he had composed for a video project. That was a CD that I repeatedly played for hours at a stretch while I worked on various design projects. (More recently, the videos from the series have been released on DVD.)

Skipping ahead to the current millennium, last year Eno collaborated with Peter Chilvers to create Bloom, an iPhone app that provides an essentially infinite number of possibilities for ambient pieces. Bloom relies on the computer at the heart of the iPhone to generate music based on minimal input from the user/creator/listener. The results are wonderful, though I did notice that Bloom runs the battery down more quickly than simply listening to Thursday Afternoon does, for obvious reasons. Bloom feels like the ultimate realization of the promise of Eno’s earlier ambient pieces, and has the great advantage of working on a mobile device. As an aside, I think Bloom was the second app that I bought for my iPhone.

Recently I discovered that there was an update to Bloom available. I downloaded it right away, and discovered a few enhancements to the app. More intriguingly were the links to two new apps with a similar heritage: Trope, by Eno and Chilvers again, and Air, by Chilvers and Sandra O’Neil. I’ve bought both, as they are ridiculously inexpensive, and am slowly working my way through them.

What is that I find so striking about these apps? First, as I’ve already written, they seem to deliver on what has in the past felt to me like the unrealized potential of Eno’s generative music. Second, they play to the gestural strengths of the iPhone user experience to deliver a simple application that anyone can use to make music in collaboration with the creators of the apps. Finally, the simple update to Bloom provided a great way to let me know about the newly available Trope and Air.

A lot has been written in recent years, by more thoughtful observers than me, on the state of the music industry and its struggles with new technologies. These three apps feel to me like one way to address a new technology head on and create something new and vital in the process.

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