There’s something about discovering rare or unknown music that gives you a sensation of ecstasy, a feeling of being an explorer in a lost realm, finding hidden gems among the billions of recordings out there in the world. Knowing you’re one of the few people privy to the recording also makes one feel like part of a secret club, with an exclusive ear to the exotic sounds of a culture, scene, or moment of time that has been all but forgotten. These music treasures will always provide the flavor of fresh sounds that we all love, but what if every time you listened to a song, it changed shape, and became something different?
What if your favorite song never ended, but only evolved?
All of this comes back to the notion of what music is, and what our consumption of it means for us and society. Aided by new technology, these ideas are changing rapidly, and with numerous implications for the future of sound and music.
One of the newest trends in recording is to release infinite generative music. Based on algorithms that subtly shift and morph the recording, this technology takes song tracks and turns them into eternal shape-shifting machines. That means that no user gets the same song twice. A bell sound that played center-stage on one listen might disappear completely in another, or a melody might emerge out of the thick haze to totally transform the musical experience. The possibilities, as many artists are aware, are endless, and totally out of the musician’s hands.
Here’s what Brian Eno had to say about generative music being out of control in a talk he delivered in San Francisco in June 1996, detailed in In Motion Magazine:
“Now, out of control means you don’t know quite what it’s apt to do. It has its own life. Generative music is unpredictable, classical music is predicted. Generative unrepeatable, classical repeatable. Generative music is unfinished, that’s to say, when you use generative you implicitly don’t know what the end of this is. This is an idea from architects also, from a book called How Buildings Learn, the move of architecture away from the job of making finished monumental entities toward the job of making things that would then be finished by the users, constantly refinished in fact by the users. This is a more humble and much more interesting job for the architect.”
Many bands ranging from Sigur Ros to Brian Eno have explored this new medium of music in varying ways. Last year, Sigur Ros unveiled a new song called “Óveður,” which used a generative music software called Bronze to accompany a video driving tour of Iceland, which they named Route One. The video played for 24 hours while the song constantly changed form, and fans could tune into the live stream on YouTube as they surveyed the beauty and wonder of Iceland’s landscape.
In January of 2017, Brian Eno released his latest ambient album, “Reflection,” as both a standalone production and as an evolving soundscape via an app developed for the iPhone. With the app, fans can immerse themselves in an infinite transformation of the album, finding something new and exciting every time as music shifts from entertainment to companionship. This idea isn’t new to Eno, though, whose past ambient works, including “Thursday Afternoon” and “Lux,” were crafted in similar ways, populated with sounds and parameters that evolved according to a finely tuned world set in motion by Eno himself.
Despite the wonder and intricacy of this new technology, there is also something particularly unsettling about its power over music. Have we given over creative control to computers? What does this mean for the potential of future recordings, possibly for ones composed entirely by computers? It’s hard to say, but if this is a sign of any possible developments, it is sure to change music forever.
Eno coined the term “generative music” in 1995, when he was using the SSEYO Koan program developed by Intermorphic, a company that just recently unveiled their newest generative app, Wotja 4, for the iPhone. Using Koan during that period, Eno released “Generative Music 1,” which was available to fans on floppy disk for those who wanted to input the files into the Koan software and experience their own generative versions of the music. The possibility of the users becoming the architects had finally come to fruition.
But with emerging technology, what had once been a novelty item for hardcore fans now has the possibility of going mainstream. With their own smartphone, anyone has the ability to experience, change, and journey with a unique, ever-changing piece of music, and through this change the whole idea of ingesting music. Music in this generative world is no longer for entertainment, but for companionship; to cultivate ideas and thought processes. The musician has become the facilitator that lets this relationship flourish.
There are already websites that hint at a world where music is no longer concrete. Infinite Jukebox is a great example of that. It is an online app that lets a user input one of their favorite songs and let it play infinitely, by looping and connecting different sections of the song by decomposing the track into individual beats, then bouncing by chance between identical beats in the song ad infinitum. It’s easy to use and allows people with little to no knowledge of software experience the wonder of generative technology.
As bands, producers, artists, and everyone else explores the generative world, what will happen to music as we know it? It is hard to say, but in this age of information overload, one can feel the weight of stimuli that each person has absorbed. There are more recordings that exist than can be listened to by any person in their lifetime, and the number is growing exponentially by the minute. Is it time to accept the idea of music being infinite? Perhaps it is.