Infinite loops and generative arts

Brian Eno used and coined the term “Generative Music” to describe any music that is ever-different and changing, created by a system.  And last year Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers announced a new version of the generative music app, Bloom.  But of course it all started much earlier.

In ambient music, as defined by Eno, the composer, performer, and even the audience become irrelevant to an extent. Song structures, hooks, and chord changes are similarly useless, indicative of how a human being would try to create music, and therefore too predicable. A piece of ambient music could—and should, he thought—loop itself in perpetuity. A listener could choose to pay attention or not. It was a brilliant bait and switch: Eno let us know that the artist wasn’t important, as long as we remembered that it was Brian Eno, the artist, making the remark.

If you go in search of sheet music for either Discreet Music or Music for Airports, you won’t find any. Instead you will find a series of diagrams that look more like the hieroglyphs of an alien language. These diagrams represent the systems used to make the music, which Eno found far more important than any individual notes.

In the mid-sixties, something happened in modern music which really made a division between what had happened prior to that and what was now starting to happen. At the time it was called the new tonalism, or the new tonality. It was a movement away from the classical tradition which had sort of defined progress with becoming more atonal, becoming more chaotic and in a sense becoming less musical in the sense that ordinary people would understand the word music.

Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and several others began working with tonal music again. Simple chords, simple intervals, rhythms that you could follow that weren’t in 15/8 and things like that (laughter). Music in fact you could almost dance to

Generative music is any music where part of the compositional process is delegated to an agent other than the composer themself. This agent is often a computer, but can also be another human (such as an improviser), a machine or any other system capable of processing data and/or providing an output. The video below explores the various forms of generative music, and through interviews and the filmmaker’s own practice, attempts to evaluate the creative merit and overall value of such music.

Minimalism’s breakthrough in the mid-1970s coincided with the height of disco. As Robert Fink notes in Repeating Ourselves, the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians in March 1976 came just a month after the release of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s 17-minute groundbreaker “Love to Love you Baby.” Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach received its premiere that summer in Avignon.

Towards the end of the century, as techno matured and its producers became more self-reflective, a new genre—minimal techno, or microhouse—was born. The Reich Remixedalbum of 1999 may have been devised by Nonesuch records to attract a crossover audience to its Reich discography, but it still struck a chord. Producers had begun to create a new form of techno that was more attuned to minute processes of variation and evolution. Several of them, including Carsten Nicolai, Richie Hawtin, and Nobukazu Takemura, have acknowledged the influence in particular of Reich’s early music. Takemura (a contributor to Reich Remixed) samples Four Organs on his Assembler/Assembler 2 album.

Hawtin’s Concept series of 12 inches focused with Reichian obsession on single rhythmic ideas; these were later “remixed” by Thomas Brinkmann into new rhythmic configurations by using a custom twin-arm turntable to play the record against itself. Brinkmann himself has taken Reich’s phasing technique to an extreme on his X100 record, which consists of just a click, a tone, and a bass kick recorded on two slightly out of phase grooves for the duration of one LP side. The Reich meme had morphed once more, into the validation for a hyper-modern aesthetic of automatism.

A nice run-through of generative music can be found here: