The Independent JULY 29, 1996 - by Andy Oldfield


The master of ambient music is pioneering a concept that takes computerised sound into an atmospheric new dimension. Andy Oldfield lends an ear.

Concept albums are nothing new. But with the release earlier this year of Generative Music 1 - which comes on floppy disk and plays on IBM-compatible PCs equipped with high-end soundcards - Brian Eno has been making and testing claims for a whole new concept in music. With sales described as exceeding expectations it seems to be a concept he has successfully sold.

In turn, the software he used to create Generative Music 1 - Koan from Sseyo - has also performed well and with the appearance of Koan plug-ins for Netscape Navigator is gaining ground as a method of embedding small, quickly downloadable music files in Web pages on the Internet.

Anyone who has spent expensive minutes downloading megabytes of .wav or .au sound-files will be impressed with Koan files which, although capable of playing more than eight hours of music, take up only 1 to 25 kilobytes.

Eno's starting point was a search for a new form of music, one that was generated by a set of rules so that every time it is heard it is different to any other time and yet recognisable as the same piece. Music generated by rules rather than performed from a symphonic score. What is really interesting, he said, expanding on the concept in a CompuServe conference in July, is the future in generative - generative graphics, generative narratives, generative architecture - forms of culture that are evolutionary, which somehow pay attention to your interests and modify themselves accordingly.

The frisson of the unexpected in improvisation is at the cornerstone of many musical genres. In some ways Eno's generative music extends that idea to new levels. The emphasis is on shifting aural patterns generated within defined musical parameters. It is something he has striven for in the past using over-laid tape loops. With only five different lengths of tape of pre-recorded music he calculated that the music would synchronise every 14 and a half years.

Computers have more potential than a mere battery of tape machines and with the release of Koan, Eno seized it. Koan allowed him to specify the parameters for about 150 elements of each composition: sound timbre, envelope, pitch, range, harmony, rhythm et al. The end result is a small program, or compositional seed as he describes it, which when processed by the computer and played through a SoundBlaster 32 or AWE32 sound-card leads to some nicely atmospheric music. Music with materials I specified, he says. But in combinations and interactions that I hadn't.

The program is easy to use once installed. A simple control panel lets you choose how to play the music, edit your own tracks, tinker around with your soundcard set-up and even launch an Internet connection to call up the Sseyo web-page where you can download Netscape plug-ins.

At the time Generative Music 1 was released, Eno said that until 100 years ago every musical event was unique: music was ephemeral and unrepeatable. Then came the gramophone record, which captured particular performances and made it possible to hear them identically over and over again. Generative music is the beginning of something new. Famously, he cited Edgar Wind's 1963 Reith Lectures: 'In the last analysis, listening to a gramophone or a tape recorder, or to any of the more advanced machines of electro-acoustical engineering, is like listening to a superior kind of musical clock.' I think it's 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?'

Of course, repeatability is precisely what many demand in their choice of music. And in the CompuServe conference, even Eno admitted that he sometimes likes to listen to tapes of generative music, rather than listen to a generative performance on his computer. He was not, he explained, trying to end one form of musical experience, he wanted to add something extra - a generative dimension.

It is a dimension that sits happily on your hard disk. When generative music is running in the background the demands on system resources are minimal, which means that you can happily have it playing through your computer's speakers while you work with other programs. And, unlike playing New Age music on your stereo in the background, there is no need to get up to change CDs in the middle of a spreadsheet.

The music will not disappoint anyone with a kindly disposition to ambient music in general. Followers of Eno's work will find it sits well with his earlier material. The downside is the soundcard requirement. Only serious games freaks or those who have bought top-of-the-range systems recently are going to have the necessary card. A standard SoundBlaster Pro will play the music, but the result is a cross between Rolf Harris in Stylophone frenzy and Bontempi hell from dodgy early 1970s film soundtracks. Upgrading - a concept far from new, sadly - will cost around £100. Steep for one piece of software, but reasonable perhaps if you plan on building up a multi-media or games collection as well.