In anticipation of our online exhibition Sonic Alchemy: Exploring the Art of Generative Sound, we asked long term Brian Eno collaborator Peter Chilvers for his take on why artists employ computers and algorithms to make music.
“Generative musicians are a determined bunch, who choose to do things a difficult way in order to learn, to explore and to approach an idea from many different angles.”
On my laptop, I have some software that can instantly produce a piece of music at the touch of a button. If I press again, another version arrives, similar but subtly different. I haven’t done this to make life easy for myself. I could have made the piece in my studio in about an hour, but writing the software took several days and was built on tools l’ve spent months creating. Why would a musician choose to work in such an awkward way?
Generative musicians are a determined bunch, who choose to do things a difficult way in order to learn, to explore and to approach an idea from many different angles. Sometimes that process is as important as the artwork itself.
When an artist creates a picture, they can buy brushes, paint, canvases, an easel. When a musician records, they can find a world of opportunities inside recording studios and any number of software packages. For a generative musician, it’s not so simple. There are few tools in existence and most of those dictate their own conditions on the artist.
Most of us have to engage with computers. Computers are good at making music that humans wouldn’t. That can be interpreted in many ways; they can play things incredibly fast. They can play very slowly, and with infinite patience. They can play without self-consciousness, without trying to impress. They can get things spectacularly right. They can get things, as anyone who has ever used a computer knows, spectacularly wrong. All of these things can be interesting.
Sometimes we have to hack or subvert existing technology. Brian Eno, who popularised the term Generative Music in the 1990s, came up with an ingeniously lo-fi solution to bypass computers entirely. He created installations using multiple CD players, loaded with CDs of different lengths and set to shuffle at random. A visitor one day would hear an entirely different combination of musical elements to a visitor the next day.
When Brian and I created Bloom together in 2007, we started with a prototype that could only be played on a computer with an expensive drawing tablet and stylus, and we filed it away as a fascinating but impractical experiment. By some massive stroke of luck, Steve Jobs soon after announced the iPhone, the word ‘App’ came into being, and we had our dream platform: a computer that users carried everywhere, played music on and interacted with intuitively using touch. I expected a massive surge in generative music, but was sadly proven wrong. It still feels like a lost opportunity.
All of the artists exhibited in Sonic Alchemy will have wrestled with this technological challenge in their own personal way. Joëlle Snaith bounces her ideas in and out of different types of software packages. Alida Sun and Elias Jarzombek create complex webs of interactive code. One of Boreta’s infinite artworks makes use of self playing electronic pianos to blend the acoustic and the digital. Many of the artists are early adopters of NFTs.
Sometimes that interaction with a new technology alone is what drives an artist; some of the most interesting works are created when an artist is thrown out of their comfort zone by a new medium. Often, we want to tug at a thread and see where it leads, to be surprised by our own creations.
Some of us will work with AI, although whether as master, slave or collaborator remains to be seen. The field is evolving at such a startling pace that something dazzling and unforeseen will have emerged since I started this paragraph.
Ultimately what drives us is to throw the seeds of an idea out into the world, to see where they land and how they grow. Generative music lets us reach out a little further into the audience, offering each listener a unique slice of the experience.
is a renowned musician and software designer. He is notable for developing the generative music iOS applications Bloom, Trope, Scape, and Reflection alongside Brian Eno. Chilvers has toured with Karl Hyde from Underworld, recorded multiple instrumental albums and collaborated with vocalist Tim Bowness on various projects. Many of these were released through Burning Shed, the online label he co-founded in 2001. Chilvers is currently focused on creating instrumental EPs and will be playing live with Eno in October 2023.