Wired OCTOBER 2001 - by Noah Shachtman


Brian Eno, the electronic and ambient music pioneer, thinks today's computer-crafted tunes are lame. With software like Acid, Logic, Cubase and Pro Tools, musicians now have on the desktop a seemingly limitless ability to cut up, affect, loop and rearrange sounds. Altering the tempo, pitch and feel of a beat has become almost as easy as changing the font in this sentence. But that's not necessarily a good thing, Eno said.

These programs lead musicians to attend to details at an infinitely fine level whilst ignoring the macro, said Eno, one of the first popular musicians to experiment with tape loops and electronics. He's worked on such landmark albums as U2's The Joshua Tree, David Bowie's "Heroes", Talking Heads' Fear Of Music and Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure.

Looking back in 20 years, it'll be very obvious that computer music had a particular flavor, just like music of the 1960s with the wah-wah pedal, he continued. It will have the sound of its technology: unfunky, overfussy and dead as stone.

There are, however, a few music-making programs Eno does like to use, including the Koan Pro software synthesizer from Sseyo (pronounced say-oh). Eno figures he's made 400 to 500 songs using the program - including an entire album's worth released only on floppy disk - since Koan's introduction in 1995.

Eno likes the program because he can set general musical rules and parameters for a song within Koan, and the program will then play variations within those guidelines on its own. The style, which Eno has been monkeying with since the early 1970s, is known as generative music, and it couldn't be more different from the ultra-careful, computer-made tunes that Eno so despises.

Ordinary music is like engineering, where everything's built according to a plan, and it's the same every time you play it. Generative music is more like gardening; you plant a seed, and it grows different every time you plant, he said.

In his latest generative piece, Wander, there are several melodic seeds, but they are buried deep within the work. These hidden melodies are imperfectly followed by eight different sounds playing only arbitrary snippets of the whole phrase. Each of these follower tones uses one of three or four different octaves and three or four different timbers randomly selected by the program.

Wander is interesting not only in how it's composed, but in how it's transmitted, too. Entire Koan tunes are just a few kilobytes big - a thousandth the size of a typical MP3 - so Wander and other songs like it can be sent as part of an HTML e-mail. Shorter songs could even be squeezed into mobile phones.

But don't expect to listen to your favorite record from your inbox any time soon. The reason Koan tunes are so small is because they aren't really sound files - they're MIDI-like computer instructions used to trigger the Koan synthesizer. The listener has to download a small, free player in order to hear these tunes - an improvement over the older version of Koan, which required the use of a particular sound card.

That means there will never be a guitar riff or a harmonica hum in a Koan song - only the dreamy, electronic ambience of Eno's Wander or the mechanically fake beat of DJ Spuddy's Spritzer.

The limitations will keep most music makers far away from Koan. Instead, they'll rely on software tools like Logic and Cubase that are now involved in pretty much every record issued by a major or big independent label - the same tools Eno thinks have helped turn composers into sonic surgeons.

Because you can manipulate such minute details, you can move things around to make them sound incredibly funky, Chris Gill, a major advocate of computer-made music and editor at Remix magazine, said.

That's an argument Eno's not buying.

He said, I don't think [computer-reliant producers] are aware of what particularly stilted music they make. You can't do anything interesting with cutting-edge technology except not make it cutting-edge.