Brian Eno’s influence on music, particularly music termed “ambient,” is such that it might itself blend into the background. But make no mistake, work like Music for Films and Music for Airports has left an indelible impression on the sound of a lot of music, and moreover in how we think about sound and structure.

A newly-announced album on Warp promises to return to the long-form, expansive compositional ideas of those works, in a 75-minute opus called LUX. (More on that at bottom, though we can’t hear it yet.)

But perhaps it’s even more appropriate to look at Eno’s work that is post-album and generative, an idiom he has long championed. Once you hear LUX, each repeat listen will be exactly the same, at least as far as the piece is concerned. Not so with these generative applications.

Eno and Peter Chilvers, a musician who has turned his talents to code, have produced software that can be different with each play. They can be turned on as easily as a light switch, but each time are transformed in repeat “performances,” and adjusted in combinations of dynamic building blocks you shift around on the screen. They are, in some sense, an extension of the imaginations and musical logic of Chilvers and Eno.

The duo of Chilvers and Eno were some of the first to take advantage of iOS as canvas for interactive musical arts in app form. Bloom led the way for a bumper crop of new musical toys on Apple’s mobile marketplace. One other app, for instance, can act as an always-on “Music for Airports.”

Scape is the most sophisticated apps of these yet. Dubbed “music that thinks for itself,” it’s a broad canvas for generative elements. Drag colored symbols to the central playing field, and these objects unfold into musical structures, combining into new sound environments.

Eno and Chilvers are ambitious in the questions they hope the software will raise:

Can machines create original music? Scape is our answer to that question: it employs some of the sounds, processes and compositional rules that we have been using for many years and applies them in fresh combinations, to create new music. Scape makes music that thinks for itself.

– Brian Eno, Peter Chilvers

The interface involves what they call “elements.” These combine onto a two-dimensional plane; they’re flat, colored glyphs that hide encapsulated algorithmic behaviors. It might simply look like a shaded triangle or a stylized letter “E,” but layered atop the central interface, the mysterious objects eminate musical pattern. They’re non-deterministic, producing different music each time, but obey rules that prescribe musical outputs. (A demo intro, and the video above, explain the concept nicely.) Some even shift depending on the time of day.

Scape uses a notion of foreground and background, with background textures filling the scene and producing ambient washes, and foreground shapes making the more soloistic musical gestures atop that foundation. The UI is nothing if not abstract, with colored controls on the right switching between so-called “tones” for larger, scene-wise changes, and on the left draggable tools that make up the skeleton of the musical framework.

You can also save and string scenes together into playlists, making an ambient world for yourself – you could switch on your iPad and listen to near-endless, never-repeating music.

A long-term test is in order here; supposedly, with time, new elements appear. That could mean greater longevity, and a gentler learning curve.

The results are musically beautiful; the software has unquestionably translated the aesthetics of Eno’s ambient music into something that, rather than playing end-to-end in linear form, is freed of those restraints and lives in a purely dynamic form. The visuals are perhaps more misdirection than anything else; the elements can seem a bit raw rather than producing any particular immersive visual sense. But the musical landscape is beautiful. While the app doesn’t give you much in the way of compositional controls – or, at least, the results tend to the same ground – the internal compositional idea itself is mesmerizing. It clearly represents the vision of these two men; you simply get a chance to experience that vision in whatever fragment of time, big or small, you choose, and always with new details to hear.

I tested this on a first-generation iPad without any issue. Specs:

Includes 15 original scapes
Scapes can be saved into a gallery and added to a playlist
Plays in background of other apps (excluding iPad 1)
Generates random scapes
Scapes can be shared by email
Supports AirPlay and Retina display
Headphones or external speakers recommended

Email-only sharing means you send ideas to people one at a time, who then make modifications.

Brian Eno, by Hugo Glendinning. Photo courtesy Warp Records.

The creators Eno and Chilvers talked to the Guardian:
Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers talk Scape, iPad apps and generative music [Apps Blog @ theguardian]

Curiously, that article raises the question of skill level and the apps. Yes, of course, I would concede that a small child (or a cat) can play with this app. But the musical structures are all Eno and Chilvers. Unless the cats begin making their own apps (that’s a Music Hack Day I’d like to see), I get more of the sense of delightfully navigating these musical edifices as a kind of game.

And it is possible to listen as an album, too. Scape includes an “album” mode with a set of scenes tastefully assemble into something more like a conventional record. If you want to simply tune in to the structures and hear them as they were created by the artists, you can.

And about that conventional album…

Speaking of things cats perhaps can’t make, Eno is returning in solo form. LUX is, according to the composer, a continuation of a thread started by his ‘Music for Thinking’ project, including Discreet Music (1975) and Neroli (1993).

That attention to the mood-altering quality of music could have nice fruits, in the first solo album from Eno in eight years (Another Day On Earth). Since then, we’ve seen more collaborative outings, joining Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams (Small Craft on a Milk Sea) and Rick Holland (Drums Between The Bells) on Warp.

We have to wait until 12-13 November for the CD/download and December for the vinyl LP. A preorder is available.
1. LUX 1 (19:22)
2. LUX 2 (18:14)
3. LUX 3 (19:19)
4. LUX 4 (18:28)

  • Robert Chambers

    People tend to speak of Eno’s contribution to music mostly in terms of his ambient work. I might be picking nits here a bit, and this is after all an post about a generative app, but he has covered some remarkably diverse and amazing ground as a musician. My Life In The Bush of Ghosts was a landmark record for electronic music, and his first (particularly three) solo records had a profound impact on what one might call indie, alternative, or college rock. I’m thinking particularly of bands like Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur jr, etc. I’ve been on a fresh Brian Eno bender lately, so perhaps it’s just fresh in my mind, but I tend to get unnecessarily cranky when I see his name and I know to expect it to be followed by the words “Music For Airports” (which I love). What was I complaining about again? Going to listen to “More Songs About Buildings and Food” now and shut up.

    • Peter Kirn

      Oh, I don’t mean by acknowledging ambient music you should ignore the rest. But this definitely returns to some of that vein.

    • Stan Taylor

      Bush of Ghosts is still in heavy rotation, resulting in the pedestrians around me wondering why I break out in a big grin halfway to the parking lot in the evening. It’s just “Jezebel Spirit” or “Regiment” getting underway in the headphones.

  • Superflea

    I felt let down by the previous crop of apps by Chilvers/ Eno. Technically underwhelming, buggy and a huge drain on the battery because of the unnecessary visuals that keep running in the background. They were rarely updated and it took the developer ages to fix bugs. Clearly they were not a priority for anyone and have been left to gather dust in the shop since.

    They are not “generative albums” and they only scratched the surface lazily of the possibilities of the platform, probably just to profit from Eno’s name. They are just 3 audio samples looped at different pitches. That’s all.

    • Peter Kirn

      In their defense, they were also some of the first of these apps to arrive on iOS. Yes, a lot of the apps that followed were far deeper – but I know for a fact a lot of those developers were inspired by what they saw with Bloom, in particular.

      I think this app is worth a try. It goes a lot deeper in compositional structure in the very ways you suggest.

      Unfortunately, there’s not much incentive on the App Store to provide ongoing updates – or fortunately, because the cost is really more of a “disposable pleasure” kind of pricing. So, I think instead, you have a chance to try a new app that does a much better job, and you’re still not out as much money as an album might cost.

    • Superflea

      Agreed that they were the first apps of their kind, and props to them for being on the platform so early. I suppose I just expected more care due to Eno’s involvement.
      On a slightly different note, I often wonder how versed Eno himself is with programming. I know he tinkers with synths/machines, but is he directly involved in the technical aspects of for instance his generative painting program (77 million paintings was it)? Does he code or does he direct other people’s work?

      I feel that with generative art in general, the technical aspects should be directly in the hands of the artist and not relegated to some external team/programmer. Thoughts?

    • James Britt / Neurogami

      “Unfortunately, there’s not much incentive on the App Store to provide ongoing updates”

      This also emphasaizes the problem with Eno et al limiting their work to the strange walled-garden that is Apple and the App Store.

      There a few interesting audio apps available for Android devices, and Android makes it easier to make and share such apps.

    • foljs

      The problem is Android provides even LESS incentive for ongoing updates — not to mention releasing music apps (with far worse support for things like MIDI etc in general).

      Plus, most people doing anything with mobile/tablet music use iPhones/iPads to begin with (and companies too, from Korg to Propellerheads)

    • James Britt / Neurogami

      Releasing or offering an update to an android an android app is as simple as hosting on your site. Far less hassle then going through the app store.

      “Plus, most people doing anything with mobile/tablet music use iPhones/iPads to begin with ”

      Sounds purely anecdotal.

    • Peter Kirn

      Wait a minute here – lots of App Store software offers frequent updates. (In fact, sometimes *too* frequent, I find!) I think the question is whether there’s a financial incentive for a developer of a niche app to provide updates just because users want them to do so. Developers have limited time. This isn’t just an App Store thing – it’s a development thing. I just mean, for an app like this, I’m not sure that there’s a strong reason to go back and add features.

    • James Britt / Neurogami

      “Developers have limited time. This isn’t just an App Store thing – it’s a development thing. I just mean, for an app like this, I’m not sure that there’s a strong reason to go back and add features.”

      That’s true, but for an artists looking to create something and make it as available as much as possible with the least amount of friction (e.g. without needing the approval of some company) being able to put an app up on your own Web site any time you like is a big win.

  • thehipcola

    I think this app is great! Of course, I keep reaching for controls that aren’t there and hoping for a more direct link between my fingered moves and the output. But I’m thinking that’s the point! Certainly the sounds are really nice! I can confirm extra tools opening up with more useage – that’s a neat idea. I wish it had the ability to record my scene development instead f just snapshots of scrapes. Worth more than the $6 I paid.

  • eclectic guy

    I really like Bloom. You have to get in a Zen frame of mind to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of this app.
    Trope is good, but not my favorite.

  • mat

    played with scapes for a few hours and love it! great interactive multimedia album! sure – no tool for composing… but I found out that you can even “play” the app by jumping scapes in a playlist (they fade, and if you make only slight different versions of scapes you earn much more control this way). Miss audio “export” (yeah, I know it is generative, but would be nice to get a mp3). Definitley worth 5 Euro!