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Generative Music

"Evolving metaphors, in my opinion, is what artists do."

A talk delivered in San Francisco, June 8, 1996
by Brian Eno

Brian Eno (photo by Nic Paget-Clarke)The following talk was given by Brian Eno at the Imagination Conference in San Francisco, June 8, 1996. Billed as a progressive interactive event featuring original multimedia presentations the Imagination conference featured musician and artist Brian Eno, movie producer and director Spike Lee, and performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson. Each of the three presented their work and ideas in their own way. Brian Eno spoke about a new form of music - Generative Music - and traced its roots and the development of his ideas on it from the mid-sixties until now. For a biography of Brian Eno and description of some of his current work - click here. For Spike Lee's talk click here. Laurie Anderson played music and sang/performed a set arranged for the evening. In Motion Magazine thanks Capretta Communications in San Francisco for all their help in getting us into the conference and providing materials for this coverage. If you'd like to listen to these talks go to HotWired magazine.


What I am talking about tonight is an idea that really began for me about 25 years ago and has pretty much obsessed me ever since. It began as a musical idea, it began as something I heard in music and gradually I realized that in fact it was an idea that was occurring in all sorts of areas. In the course of this talk what I would like to do is to trace the history of that idea in my own work and in the work of some other people and also to show how the idea suddenly branches out, opens up, and becomes a metaphor for what I consider a very important new body of thinking. I have 45 minutes to do this and I have a clock here as well.

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.

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In the mid-sixties, 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.

At the time, the distinguishing characteristic of that music seemed to be that it was tonal, as opposed to atonal. Over the course of time, since then I think another important characteristic has emerged. It was very clear in the first major piece of Terry Riley called In C. Most of you probably know of this piece or some of you probably know it, and many of you may have played it. It's a very famous piece of music. It consists of 52 bars of music written in the key of C. And the instructions to the musicians are "proceed through those bars at any speed you choose". So you can begin on bar one, play that for as many times as you want, 20 or 30 times, then move to bar 2, if you don't like that much just play it once, go on to bar three.

The important thing is each musician move through it at his or her own speed. The effect of that of course is to create a very complicated work of quite unpredictable combinations. If this is performed with a lot of musicians you get a very dense and fascinating web of sound as a result. It's actually a beautiful piece and having listened to it again recently I think it's stood the test of time very well. That piece however was not the one which blew my socks off.

That dubious credit goes to another piece of music by a composer called Steve Reich. I think it was his earliest recorded piece. It's a piece called It's Gonna Rain, and I would like to listen to a bit of that now.

(It's Gonna Rain played.)

For many years I was the only person I knew who thought that was a beautiful piece of music (laughter). It's quite a long piece, it's about 17 minutes long. It's produced by a very, very simple process. It's a loop of a preacher saying "It's gonna rain". Identical copies of the loop are being played on two machines at once. Because of the inconsistency of the speed of the machines they gradually slip out of sync with one another. They start to sound like an echo. Then they sound like a cannon, and gradually they start to sound like all sorts of things.

The piece is very, very interesting because it's tremendously simple. It's a piece of music that anybody could of made. But the results, sonically, are very complex. What happens when you listen to that piece is that your listening brain becomes habituated in the same way that your eye does if you stare at something for a very long time. If you stare at something for a very long time your eye very quickly cancels the common information, stops seeing it, and only notices the differences. This is what happens with that piece of music.

Quite soon you start hearing very exotic details of the recording itself. For instance you are aware after several minutes that there are thousands of trumpets in there - this is without drugs. With drugs there would probably be millions (laughter). You also become aware that there are birds, there really are birds -- in the original loop of tape there are some pigeons or something and they become very prominent as the thing goes on. Most of all, if you know how the piece is made, what you become aware of is that you are getting a huge amount of material and experience from a very, very simple starting point.

Now this completely intrigued me. Partly because I've always been lazy, I guess. So I've always wanted to set things in motion that would produce far more than I had predicted. Now the Reich piece is really a ... what would be called visually a moire pattern.

Can I have the over-head projector please?

Now a moire pattern is when you overlay two identical grids with one another. Here's one, here's the other. Now when I overlay them, see what happens, you get a very complicated interaction. You get something that actually you wouldn't have predicted from these two original identical sheets of paper. This is actually a very good analog of the Steve Reich piece in action. Something happens because of one's perception rather than because of anything physically happening to these two sheets of plastic which produce an effect that you simply couldn't have expected or predicted.

I was so impressed by this as a way of composing that I made many, many pieces of music using more complex variations of that. In fact all of the stuff that is called ambient music really -- sorry, all the stuff I released called ambient music (laughter), not the stuff those other 2 1/2 million people released called ambient music, -- all of my ambient music I should say, really was based on that kind of principle, on the idea that it's possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you.

Now the wonderful thing about that is that it starts to create music that you've never heard before. This is an important point I think. If you move away from the idea of the composer as someone who creates a complete image and then steps back from it, there's a different way of composing. It's putting in motion something and letting it make the thing for you.

One of the first pieces I did like that is called "Music for Airports" (applause) , thank you very much. (Shows graphic of Music for Airports). This is in fact a picture of the alien fleet that abducted me last time I was in San Francisco (laughter), and that's the mother ship just there. It was an awful experience because they stole all my hair (laughter). In fact this really a diagram of Music for Airports.

Music for Airports, at least one of the pieces on there, is structurally very, very simple. There are sung notes, sung by three women and my self. One of the notes repeats every 23 1/2 seconds. It is in fact a long loop running around a series of tubular aluminum chairs in Conny Plank's studio. The next lowest loop repeats every 25 7/8 seconds or something like that. The third one every 29 15/16 seconds or something. What I mean is they all repeat in cycles that are called incommensurable -- they are not likely to come back into sync again.

So this is the piece moving along in time. Your experience of the piece of course is a moment in time, there. So as the piece progresses, what you hear are the various clusterings and configurations of these six basic elements. The basic elements in that particular piece never change. They stay the same. But the piece does appear to have quite a lot of variety. In fact it's about eight minutes long on that record, but I did have a thirty minute version which I would bore friends who would listen to it.

The thing about pieces like this of course is that they are actually of almost infinite length if the numbers involved are complex enough. They simply don't ever re-configure in the same way again. This is music for free in a sense. The considerations that are important, then, become questions of how the system works and most important of all what you feed into the system.

I think that the classical composers who came to this way of composing have not thought it about very much. They accepted given instruments and invented systems to reconfigure them. To me that was an important part of it. I think coming from pop music, which of course is a music more than anything else about sound, and about the possibilities of sound in studios, coming to doing this from that background, I think I was well equipped for that.

Music for Airports came out in 1978 to howls of neglect (laughter) in fact it didn't do at all well in England. But it did do quite well here by comparison. I have an eternal debt to the United States for actually cheering me up a little bit when that record came out. In fact I was so depressed about the response to the record and the other stuff I'd been doing in England that I decided to move to America for a few years, which might be the sign of a weak-willed person who lives off flattery but, you know, there you go (laughter).

One of the first places I came to was San Francisco, I lived here for a while. In fact I practically lived in the Exploratorium. (Laughter and applause) I have my Exploratorium. instant moire in my pocket (laughter). If you haven't visited the Exploratorium. in the last month you should go -- it's really a good place. If every city had one of those the world would be a much better place.

In the Exploratorium. the thing that absolutely hooked me in the same way as the Steve Reich piece had hooked me was a simple computer demonstration. It was the first thing I'd ever seen on a computer actually, of a game invented by an English mathematician called John Conway. The game was called Life. Modest title for a game.

Life is a very simple game, unlike the one we're in. It only actually has a few rules, which I will now tell you. You divide up an area into squares. You won't see the squares on the demonstration I'm about to do. And a square can either be dead or alive. There's a live square. Here's another one. There's another one. There's another one there.

The rules are very simple. In the next generation, the next click of the clock, the squares are going to change statuses in some way or another. The square which has one or zero neighbors is going to die, a live square that has one or zero neighbors is going to die. A square which has two neighbors is going to survive. A square with three neighbors is going to give birth, is going to come alive, if it isn't already alive. A square with four or more neighbors is going to die of over crowding.

These are terribly simple rules and you would think it probably couldn't produce anything very interesting. Conway spent apparently about a year finessing these simple rules. They started out much more complicated than that. He found that those were all the rules you needed to produce something that appeared life-like.

What I have over here, if you can now go to this Mac computer, please. I have a little group of live squares up there. When I hit go I hope they are going to start behaving according to those rules. There they go. I'm sure a lot of you have seen this before. What's interesting about this is that so much happens. The rules are very, very simple, but this little population here will reconfigure itself, form beautiful patterns, collapse, open up again, do all sorts of things. It will have little pieces that wander around, like this one over here. Little things that never stop blinking, like these ones. What is very interesting is that this is extremely sensitive to the conditions in which you started. If I had drawn it one dot different it would have had a totally different history. This is I think counter-intuitive. One's intuition doesn't lead you to believe that something like this would happen. Okay that's now settled (looking at screen), that will never change from that. It's settled to a fixed condition. I'll just show you another one. I'll show you this one in color because it looks nice. A little treat. (Laughter).

At the Exploratorium, I spent literally weeks playing with this thing. Which just goes to show how idle you can be if you're unemployed. I was so fascinated, I wanted to train my intuition to grasp this. I wanted this to become intuitive to me. I wanted to be able to understand this message that I'd found in the Steve Reich piece, in the Riley piece, in my own work, and now in this. Very, very simple rules, clustering together, can produce very complex and actually rather beautiful results. I wanted to do that because I felt that this was the most important new idea of the time. Since then I have become more convinced of that, and actually I hope I can partly convince you of that tonight.

Life was the first thing I ever saw on a computer that interested me. Almost the last actually, as well. (laughter). For many, many years I didn't see anything else. I saw all sorts of work being done on computers, that I thought was basically a reiteration of things that had been better done in other ways. Or that were pointlessly elaborate. I didn't see many things that had this degree of class to them. A very simple beginnings and a very complex endings.

At the same time as I was working with Life I was also starting to some new pieces of music that used the moire principle, but in a much more sophisticated way. So now I have go back to the overhead (screen). What I started to do was make moires of different types of elements. Not only of single notes or similar sounds, but moires of basically rules about how sounds were made. This gave me some very much more interesting results. As you can see (manipulating lines and shapes on the overhead) Here's two simple cycles going out of phase, here's a wiggly one going out of phase, and then hallelujah - New Age music (laughter) for which I am consistently being blamed (laughter).

You can start to build very beautifully complex webs of things from very simple initial ingredients. What I would like to do is play you a piece called Neroli which was released five years ago or something which was another version of this way of working. I've only ever had one idea really, and that was this, and everything I'm going to play was a version of this idea. Can you put on Neroli please. I'll leave this running because it's a very good piece to talk over.

Can you now put on this Mac, please.

The next thing I ever saw on a computer that really astonished me was a screen-saver by a local lad called Gene Tantra. I don't now if he's here tonight I really wanted to invite him but I didn't have his number. He made a screen-saver for the aptly named Dim company After Dark. This screen-saver which they only released in one of their files because it's clearly much too good to come out very often was called Stained Glass. Stained Glass unlike almost all other screen-savers looks at its own history. Stained Glass generates images, then it sucks them out, multiplies them, chops them about, collages them together in different ways.

I realized that if you put other screen-savers in the center of Stained Glass, then it would do the same thing to them. What you have is a visual generative piece.

I've got three versions of Stained Glass. There's one along the top there (pointing to overhead screen), this square is another. And then this oblong is a third. At the center of these two is a different screen-saver called Doodles. Now someone in a London magazine, when I said I'd spent a long time looking at screen-savers described this as "rather sad" (laughter) with that infallible cynicism that we English are so good at.

But the reason I was looking at them so closely was because again they picked up that thread of something that uses a tiny amount of information, a minute amount of your computer's processing power, and produces something that for me is thirty times as beautiful as anything I've seen off a huge clunky CD ROM.

I quickly realized that for me this was the future for computers. Computers seen not as ways of crunching huge quantities of data or storing enormous ready-made forests of material, but computers are the way of growing little seeds.

This piece here, this Stained Glass is a very small seed, in fact I think it's something like 25 K, now for those of you who know what a K is will know that 25 of them isn't very many (laughter). This is the kind of precise scientific language you can expect this evening (laughter). Just to give you an impression, a CD ROM is, ohh, very much bigger than that (laughter). I've never actually worked this out. Something like 30,000 times more information on a CD ROM, I suppose, than is needed to make this work. I think this is about 30,000 times as interesting actually. Partly because it never repeats itself. This thing will go on generating like this, and it will stay pretty much the same, but it will never be identical. This suits me fine. I don't want big surprises. *I want a certain level of surprise - I'm too old for big surprises, now. (Laughter) - after those aliens.

I thought this has got to be the future of computer music. I've seen so many things done on computers that were hopelessly overwrought and complicated and in the end sounded like what I call bubble and squeak music. Or on the other hand, sounded like typical sequencer music, sequencer music where everything is bolted together and it's all completely, rigidly locked. It would have been great in the 1930s, I'm sure, that music.

Brian EnoI wanted something that had an organic quality to it. Had some sense of movement and change. Every time you played it something slightly different happened.

So, screen-savers. In fact Gene Tantra's, as I was saying was the first thing that I saw like that. Subsequently I saw another one by another local lad called Greg Jarvit which is called Bliss, which is another very, very interesting system. Both of those things really impressed me. Mostly because they were economical. I am so thrilled my anything economical. It's so easy not to be economical and anything that uses a very small amount of information smartly impresses me.

I came to California a couple of years ago with the idea that the right approach to using this new medium called CD ROM was to actually use it not as a way of, as I said storing forests which you then, tediously navigate through. It takes you four minutes to see another bottom on the Prince video (laughter), but I thought how much more exciting it would be to see something that happened like that, immediately, and furthermore happened in a way that you'd never seen it happen before. It seemed to me that this was the answer. To some how use the CD ROM as a way of planting seeds into your computer, and then using the computer to grow those seeds for you.

In fact, although this abstract, Tai Roberts from ION proved to me that it could also be done figuratively, it doesn't have to be abstract. I don't have an example of that, in an afternoon Tai managed to put together an animation of a figure which was a generative animation, that's to say it didn't rely on calling up a stored video, it relied on having a very small seed and then performing certain operations. They were actually twists and turns from Photoshop performed live on to this seed. In a sense the theory was vindicated, but only in a sense because it never got made in that way.

I went back to England not really having seen the musical thing I'd hoped to find. I had come with a whole proposal for how to make a sort of generative musical system in a computer. It was a muddled proposal because I don't know enough about computers to frame it properly. But it was fairly detailed and fairly accurate to what has since happened.

When I got back to England, about a year afterwards a letter came through from some people called Sseyo, a company called Sseyo, located in exotic, sunless Beaconsfield, which is about 25 miles north of London. I had been imagining that I would find the answer in San Francisco, but in fact these guys were working just up the M1 (laughter).

They sent me a demo of something they had done. It was a music generating system. I listened to this CD and there were a couple of pieces on it that were clearly in my style. In fact it turned out that they were followers of my music. The interesting thing to me was that the pieces that were in my style were actually very good examples of my style. In fact they were rather better than any I had recently done (laughter). I was rather impressed by this.

I got in touch with them and the next example is really the center of this talk - which is lucky because I'm about half-way through on the clock. Now I need the PC please (to the control room) - it's only available on PC, I'm sorry to say. (Hissing from audience.) Yes I thoroughly agree, the people from Sseyo are here tonight - hiss louder. We have one supporter of the PC system in the front row here - he's wearing a white t-shirt ... (laughter).

This is a very, very interesting system. It allows you to specify a set of instruments. I should first tell you a little about it technically. This is a computer (laughter). In there there's a sound card -- that's to say a little synthesizer. And this computer tells that little synthesizer what to play according to the rules that I've set in here. Now these rules cover all sorts of things that you might want to do musically. They cover very obvious things like what scale is the piece in. And just to show what that looks like ... this is slightly re-configured since I last looked at it. These are scales. Now if I want to have a little bit of minor second in my scale I can do that. A little of this, a bit of that, and a little bit of that, and some of that, and some more of that, and so on and so on. I show you that to indicate that all of the rules are probabilistic -- that is to say they are rules that define a kind of envelope of possibilities. The machine is going to improvise within a set of rules, which is to say there's a greater chance that it's going to play a fifth, than a flat fifth for example. And so on and so on.

There are rules concerning harmony, that is to say, and a second harmony, play a flat fifth harmony. There are rules concerning how it would move from note to note. Will it move in big steps, or small steps, and in fact in this piece here I have some of the instruments are going to move by big steps, and some by quite small steps. There are a hundred and fifty of these kinds of rules. They govern major considerations like the basic quality of the piece to quite minor ones like exactly how the note wobbles. I'll play you a bit - is this thing up? - He cried to the empty void (laughter).

This piece of music, which is quite unpredictable and sometimes has quite large gaps in it, as it has chosen to do right now, it's embarrassing, this music is making itself now. It is not a recording, and I have never heard it play exactly this before. If you don't believe me I'll start it again. See. It will start.

This piece, I guess I've listened to for a couple of hundred hours or so. I often have it running in my studio, while I'm making records. It's a very satisfying piece of music. It carries on rebuilding itself. It sometimes pulls a surprise, like this. There's one very exotic harmony that can only occur under particular conditions and occasionally it pulls it out. What interesting to me is that again it's very economical. You can use the computer in many other ways while you're doing this. If you want to use it as a word processor, it'll carry on making the music in the background.

I'll play you a part of another piece just to show you that it can do other things. They are so unpredictable, it's very difficult just to play to people because you can switch it on and say listen to this, and nothing happens.

Having started working with this system I am so thrilled by it. I think there are other generative music systems, but I happen to understand this one and I know it's a good one. I'm so thrilled by it that it is very difficult for me to listen to records anymore. Putting on a record and knowing I'm going to hear the same thing I did last time has actually become a little bit irksome. It feels quite Victorian to do that (laughter). I think this has really moved up into a new phase of music.

You know up until about a hundred years ago people never heard the same music twice. Of course it was always different. When recording appeared, suddenly you had the wonderful luxury of being able to play music wherever you wanted to, and control it in various ways. But of course it was always the same thing. And now you have this thing which is kind of a new hybrid where you can play the music wherever you want just like a record, but it won't be the same thing each time. This is actually very thrilling I think.

Now whether you like the music or not is another issue. This just happens to be the music I make. It doesn't have to sound like this, just to console you (laughter). It's very good for making techno and all that sort of thing as well. I was informed on the radio the other day that I was the father of industrial music - which is not something I've been accused of before (laughter).

I started thinking about the differences between generative and what I would call classical or symphonic music - I have not really decided on a name for the rest of it. And these are the differences. It's not either or. Music can be anywhere along a line between these two.

Classical music, like classical architecture, like many other classical forms, specifies an entity in advance and then builds it. Generative music doesn't do that, it specifies a set of rules and then lets them make the thing. In the words of Kevin Kelly's great book, generative music is out of control, classical music is under control.

Now, out of control means you don't know quite what it's apt to do. It has it's own life. Generative music is unpredictable, classical music is predicted. Generative unrepeatable, classical repeatable. Generative music is unfinished, that's to say, when you use generative you implicitly don't know what the end of this is. This is an idea from architects also, from a book called How Buildings Learn, the move of architecture away from the job of making finished monumental entities toward the job of making things that would then be finished by the users, constantly refinished in fact by the users. This is a more humble and much more interesting job for the architect.

Generative music is sensitive to circumstances, that is to say it will react differently depending on its initial condition, on where it's happening and so on. Where classical music seeks to subdue them. By that I mean classical music seeks a neutral battleground, the flat field. It won't be comfortable -- with a fixed reverberation, -- not too many emergencies, and people who don't cough during the music basically.

Generative forms in general are multi-centered. There's not a single chain of command which runs from the top of the pyramid to the rank and file below. There are many, many, many web-like modes which become more or less active. You might notice the resemblance here to the difference between broadcasting and the Internet, for example.

You never know who made it. With this generative music that I played you, am I the composer? Are you if you buy the system the composer? Is Jim Coles (?) and his brother who wrote the software the composer? -- Who actually composes music like this? Can you describe it as composition exactly when you don't know what it's going to be?

Why does an idea like this grab my attention so much? I said at the beginning that what I thought was important about this idea was that it keeps opening out. This notion of a self-generating system, or organisms, keeps becoming a richer and richer idea for me. I see it happening in more and more places.

I think what artists do, and what people who make culture do, is somehow produce simulators where new ideas like this can be explored. If you start to accept the idea of generative music, if you take home one of my not-available-in-the-foyer packs and play it at home, and you know that this is how this thing is made, you start to change your concept about how things can be organized. What you've done is moved into a new kind of metaphor. How things are made, and how they evolve. How they look after themselves.

Evolving metaphors, in my opinion, is what artists do. They produce work that gives you the chance to experience in a safe environment, because nothing really happens to you when you looking at artwork, they give you the chance to experience what might be quite dangerous and radical new ideas. They give you a chance to step out of real life into simulator life. A metaphor is a way of explaining something that we've experienced in a set of terms, a different set of terms.

There's a very interesting book by Lakoff and Johnson, that famous thirties singing team, it's a book about metaphor, it's called Metaphors We Live By. They give a very clear example of the effect of metaphor. They say we use in our culture the metaphor, argument is war. All of our language about argument "she defeated him", "he attacked her position", so on and so on, they are all arguments that relate to fighting.

When we think about the process of arguing, we tend to then reconstrue our possibilities in terms of that metaphor. What Lakoff and Johnson say is suppose that somebody had said argument is dance, suppose that was the dominant metaphor. So instead of it being seen you have the process where one person defeats another, it becomes a process where two people together make something beautiful between them. We could have that metaphor for argument, we don't.

But do you understand that a shift of that kind produces an entirely different kind of discourse. How the shift from one way of dealing in activity that we all engage in to another changes that activity. Suddenly our language of possibilities is renewed and different.

What I'm saying, I suppose, when I talk about these things here (on his chart of the differences between generative and classical musics), I'm saying we're saddled with a whole set of metaphors that belong over here. Those are our metaphors about how the world works, how things organize themselves, how things are controlled, what possibilities there are. Generative art in general is a way of not throwing those out, we don't get rid of old metaphors, we expand them to include more. These things still have value, but we want to include these things as well.

My feeling about artists is that we are metaphor explorers of some kind. ... An object of culture does all of the following, it innovates, it recycles, it clearly and explicitly rejects, and it ignores. Any artist's work that is doing all those four things and is doing all those four things through the metaphors that dominate our thinking.

Published in In Motion Magazine - July 7, 1996

Also see: Brian Eno Biography

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