Surprising sounds

This is the latest promo from Korg for their synethiser/sequencer program for the Nintendo DS, called DS-10.

I love the fact Korg have turned their attention to the DS but have been underwhelmed by the examples in their videos. To be honest, it reminds me a bit of when I first looked at Reason years ago: beaut interface, crap sounds. (Although I'm told Reason sounds a lot better these days.)

What I am enjoying on my DS is Glitch, a very clever generative sequencer. It lets you modulate five samples and then the program triggers them based on cellular automaton following Conway's Game of Life. So you end up with something that's intuitively adaptable, like through shortening the loop of the game to increase the intensity, and yet surprising in the way of aleatoric compositions.

In short, it's genius IMO.

And, typing of geniuses, it picks up on the work of one of my heroes: Brian Eno. He's been experimenting with generative music since (at least) his 1996 album Generative Music 1.

The works I have made with this system symbolise to me the beginning of a new era of music. Until 100 years ago, every musical event was unique: music was ephemeral and unrepeatable and even classical scoring couldn't guarantee precise duplication. Then came the gramophone record, which captured particular performances and made it possible to hear them identically over and over again.

But now there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music and generative music. Generative music enjoys some of the benefits of both its ancestors. Like live music it is always different. Like recorded music it is free of time-and-place limitations - you can hear it when and where you want.

I really think it is possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: "you mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?"

More recently Eno has developed generative art in his exhibition titled 77 million paintings.

The aleatory aspect of Eno's music owes a debt to John Cage, whose compositions popularised the role of chance in composition. Cage experimented with different 'instruments', such as tuning radios, in his work and was encouraged as these allowed him to be surprised by a composition - even after he'd heard the work performed many times before.

In Cage's most famous piece 4'33", the composition was entirely left to chance as it called for the musicians to sit quietly for four minutes and 33 seconds. I "heard" this piece performed by Craig Schuftan and was surprised at how your ears seek out noise to fill the emptiness. It trains you to hear music in everyday noise.

This is why generative music seems somewhat contradictory. People create it to listen to in preference to whatever noise is already surrounding them. Brian Eno promoted this idea with his ambient albums that were designed to provide soothing sounds with the expectation of being interrupted. These were inspired by Chopin's piano pieces that were designed to serve as a musical wallpaper. There are now computer applications to serve this purpose, either generating white noise or soft chords in the style of new age music. For example.

In some ways this ambient approach to music is the antithesis of contemporary dance music, which has evolved from Detroit techno's emulation of factories via Kraftwerk and the sampling culture of hiphop. These musical forms take the dynamic sounds and rhythms of machines for new textures. An idea first promoted by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo in his Art of Noises manifesto, a remarkably potent text.

Anyway, I digress. The thing that appeals to me about generative music is the sense of surprise that allows you to play both composer and audience in a way. I also like the way it keeps me open to hearing music in unlikely places, I figure it's a healthy thing for someone with wide interests in sound.

The thing that occurs to me is that most humans have interests in sound too. Most I've met have a narrower interest, sometimes only a single genre. It's like fetishism I guess and, where a psychologist could put them in a category and recommend treatment, a generative music technology could create a personalised soundtrack. Imagine if my iPod tallied the data about my preferred BPMs along with the times of the day or the quality of light or the level of ambient noise. Imagine if, magpie-like, it were free to choose bits of tracks and add them together in new ways to create a narrative of where I've been based on what I've heard to recreate the experiences and enhance my memories.

Anyway, you might've guessed, my favourite generative technology is the aeolian harp as it also demonstrates the physics of sound. But that's another blog entry :)