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The Guardian SEPTEMBER 26, 2012 - by Stuart Dredge
BRIAN ENO AND PETER CHILVERS TALK SCAPE, IPAD APPS AND GENERATIVE MUSIC
'It didn't start out as a bunch of random, funny electronic sounds...'
"I might retire, now I've found a way to make myself redundant," chuckles Brian Eno, fairly early on in our conversation in his West London studio. Hold the headlines, though. Eno is neither redundant nor packing in the day job. But working with his collaborator Peter Chilvers, he has released an app called Scape that enables any iPad owner to create "generative" music with some of his own compositional tools and sounds.
It launched earlier in September, described on the App Store as an app that "makes music that thinks for itself", as well as "a new form of album which offers users deep access to its musical elements".
The creative side involves creating scenes - 'Scapes' - by choosing backgrounds and colours, then dragging shapes onto them in various combinations. The result is ambient music that's not under your direct control, but rather plays itself based on the scene you've created.
It's the follow-up to a previous app made by Eno and Chilvers, called Bloom, which was released for iPhones in the early days of the App Store: October 2008. However, Scape's roots go a long way further back than that.
"I got interested in the idea of music that could make itself, in a sense, in the mid-1960s really, when I first heard composers like Terry Riley, and when I first started playing with tape recorders," says Eno.
"I had two tape recorders on the floor and one piece of tape connecting the two of them, which effectively gave you a very long echo, and you could build up sounds one on top of the other."
Eno said what was exciting about this was the way he almost "lost control of the music", which became a theme that he pursued.
"I felt that what was very interesting to do as a composer was to construct some kind of system or process which did the composing for you. You'd then feed inputs into it, and it would reconfigure it and make something beyond what you had predicted," he says.
"I worked on things like that for a while: Music For Airports and Discreet Music were examples, but what they represented were recordings of these processes in action. What I really wanted to do was to be able to sell the process to somebody, not just my output of it."
OWNING THE PROCESS
Fast-forward a few decades, and this is the focus of Scape, and Eno's partnership with Chilvers - who'd been working on similar ideas since composing generative music soundtracks for the Creatures series of computer games in the mid-to-late 1990s.
"It led me onto a collision course with Brian," he says. "We were trying to solve the same problems for different reasons."
Bloom as an application existed before the App Store, after Eno and Chilvers got excited about the potential for touchscreen smartphones following the release of Apple's first iPhone in 2007.
"Suddenly you had the possibility of people being able to own the process rather than the results of the process," says Eno, who adds that the pair were working on Bloom as a Flash demo on a Wacom tablet-equipped computer, while hoping that Apple would provide a way for them to port it to iPhones.
"It was a hopeful bootstrapping into the future - 'One day, an app store will exist! And if it does, we've got something they can sell...'," says Eno.
"If you look at it retrospectively, it looks very logical what has happened, given both of our backgrounds, and how it all sort of conspired to reach this point."
"Often, things in here have begun as music, and have then been disassembled into their genes. This is a way of recombining the genes to make new creatures," he says. "It started out as music, it didn't start out as a bunch of random, funny electronic sounds. They all have a history of working in company with each other."
He also stresses that Scape is meant to be a listening experience, not just about flinging sounds onto the scenes.
That's shown in the way it can continue running in the background while you use other apps - "people might use this for reading" - as well as the option to listen to Eno and Chilvers' own individual scapes, and ten arranged into an album.
"One reason we wanted to put some of our own work in there is to show people that this is actually about listening rather than playing all the time," says Eno.
"You're setting up the initial conditions, then letting the thing run. It's meant to be a listening experience, primarily. We wanted to show that you could actually treat these results as music rather than just games."
BORROWING FROM GAMES
Scape borrows from games in other ways, though. When you first use Scape, there is a limited number of shapes, backgrounds and moods. The more you use it, the more elements you unlock for use, one at a time.
It's not quite an achievements system - I mention the idea of gamification to Eno and he politely replies "I haven't heard that word before" - but it does reward you for playing with the app, while also giving you more time to understand the individual elements and how they combine rather than throwing its entire toolbox at you from the start.
"As soon as you get another sound, you spend a bit of time with it: it's like being given a whole extra album, this gradual drip-feed of features," says Chilvers. "We're very curious to see how people react to this. They'll get the most out of it if they are patient. It may take a month to unlock everything."
Some of the sounds are brand new, but others are older. Two of the bass sounds are more than ten years old, and one is more than twenty years old according to Eno - another sign of his desire to give people some of the compositional tools he has used for his own music.
"There are certain sounds that I've found work well in nearly any context," he says. "Their function is not so much musical as spatial: they define the edges of the territory of the music... They are pictorial elements that create the foreground and background, and make the space in the middle. They activate it, and that's the space you can then put things in."
That idea of space is important: you're creating pictures - well, scenes - as well as sounds in Scape. Eno relates this back to his attempts to make "sonic paintings of places" with past albums, and also to the days when recording technology started to become much more accessible to musicians.
He describes this as having taken music "out of time and into space", making it material - something on a record, a CD or in a computer, rather than a live performance that is not preserved.
"Once music ceases to be ephemeral - always disappearing - and becomes instead material... it leaves the condition of traditional music and enters the condition of painting. It becomes a painting, existing as material in space, not immaterial in time" says Eno.
"In the 1960s when the recording studio suddenly really took off as a tool, it was the kids from art school who knew how to use it, not the kids from music school. Music students were all stuck in the notion of music as performance, ephemeral. Whereas for art students, music as painting? They knew how to do that."
Chilvers adds that a lot of musicians - although by no means all - find generative music a challenge, because it means relinquishing control, and the idea of mastering an instrument.
"Scape is more of an act of curation rather than composition," he says. "It's slightly alien, and there's a certain sense of confusion when people come to a music app like this... People have a concept that apps are tools or games, but with music, it's something of a grey area."
Might musicians also feel threatened, or at least a bit defensive, about the idea of apps like Scape letting anyone have a go at music composition (well, "curation") even if they don't have traditional music skills?
You see a similar thing in the way some (again, not all) photographers have the hump with Instagram, for turning techniques that used to require specialist knowledge into a one-tap filter for any amateur snapper to use.
"If you've spent a long time developing a skill and techniques, and now some fourteen year-old upstart can get exactly the same result, you might feel a bit miffed I suppose, but that has happened forever," says Eno.
"It happened with synthesizers, on quite a formal level when string synthesizers first existed. The musicians unions tried to insist that they would never be used because they replaced string players, which of course they didn't. String players have never had more work!"
One last question on Scape concerns its social features. You can email scapes as attachments to friends, who can then open them in the app, if they own it.
Might Eno and Chilvers go further in future updates in terms of helping people share their creations with the wider world? Other music app developers, like Smule, have put an emphasis on sharing in their products.
"It could be adapted to share via Facebook, but I'm always very wary of someone who thinks they sound cool," says Chilvers, who says he prefers the "chain-letter" dynamic of email sharing, where recipients who open the scapes can immediately start changing the elements.
"I'm tempted to put a poll on our Generative Music website asking two questions: would you like to be able to share your scapes, and do you want to actually receive them?" While he's talking, though, Eno appears to be having a bit of a lightbulb moment on the other side of the table - albeit not one to be shared with anyone other than Chilvers for now.
"I've had another idea, but I don't want it to be published yet," he says. "Just as we were talking about social media, I suddenly thought 'I've got it! I know what the next thing is'... I've realised it's a very strong idea."
Which is, at least, another reason why Eno won't be retiring just yet.