Wish 'n' Chips

Laura Lee Davies on PCs, Eno and random music, from Time Out, April 21 - May 1 1996

"I'm sure I'm in severe danger of falling into middle-aged nerd-dom," confesses Brian Eno, full in the knowledge that it's only a cool number-one haircut and a good jacket that stand between him and the thousands of PC boffins whose idea of a good time after a hard day's programming, is playing golf or chess or something... on their computer.

Okay, okay, it's the shaved head, the jacket plus the fact that he has been involved in the production and writing of some of the most innovative music created over the last 25 years, that spares him this terrible fate. But now, as he stands in front of two computers in the offices of his Opal record company, he he almost bursting with pride at being the frontman for The Nerds' latest development in computer-generated music technology. In fact, he's almost glowing, like a Moonie about to grab their first tourist in Oxford Street.

The beginnings of what Eno tells the gathered throng, in as little technospeak as possible, is the history behind the spontaneously produced, randomly composed music that we're about to hear. We all try to keep up with Professor Pop's history of computer-generated visual patterns (Conway's "Life", for example, which set off various exploding patterns by thre simple rules about dots sitting next to each other on a screen), and the musical developments of Steve Reich and Eno himself, in repeated loop tracks which multi-layer just out of sequence sufficiently to create an evolving music rather than a repetitive one. In their cyclical form, such projects would produce music that only repeated itself say, once every few years, but even Eno had to admit that not everyone would be as enthused as he was about the concept of going into the Virgin Megastore, buying five different tapes and several players and setting up their living room like a sound laboratory for more years than were left on their lease. And these ideas were put on a shelf marked "wait a few years until we've all got cleverer".

Obviously, in the meantime, Eno helped shape the sounds of stadium-filling pop bands, got back in the studio with David Bowie, created art installations of varying worth with Laurie Anderson, and got involved with CD-ROM type things that those who aren't the least bit interested in donning a surf-suit for the information superhighway need not bother themselves with. Then he says he "spent a lot of time thinking about screen savers," in such a casual manner as to suggest that this statement is in no way utterly sad. The fact that you could form such beautiful images from random (or as he prefers to describe it, "probabilistic") rules fed to the computer, seemed only a step away from devising a similar method by which music could grow. Rather like turning your PC into a big aural crystal set and watching it develop in superfast time, with no two creations ever being identically reproduced.

Working in collaboration with a computer company called SSEYO, Eno has brought about Generative 1, a system which can either be bought in a pre-prepared form, where Eno's rules are the starting point for music to grow on your computer, or in a more advanced state where you can lay down the rules yourself. Naturally, Eno's taste tends towards what has become known as "ambient" music, more fluid and machine based than yer average burning blues number, but this system throws up some pretty nifty techno soundscapes too. In fact, when Eno fed the relatively strict rules of early twentieth-century music into the system, the results could, as he pointed out, almost have been the work of one of Schoenberg's contemporaries.

Although you could imagine that Eno is to Generative 1 what Rolf Harris was to the Stylophone, he is clearly more taken with the concept of what such a development could mean to the art world in general and the new possibilities for music-making, especially once advancements free such devices from the consticts of huge computer terminals. In fact, it's quite big of him to associate with this project at all. After all, what this boils down to (admittedly, with the help of some jolly complex programming) is making much more sophisticated versions of the kind of music Eno has painstakingly crafted for years, by simply pressing the space bar on your keyboard. Doh!

Generative 1 is released in May, available from Software Warehouse or by mail order on 01675 466 467. It plays on any IBM-compatible PC equipped with the appropriate soundcard (Creative Labs Sound Blaster 32 and AWE 32 sound card or the TDK MusicCard for Laptop computers).

Transcriber's notes: The release is called Generative Music 1, not Generative 1 as stated in the article. The software that allows users to create their own compositions is called Koan Pro. Minimum spec is a 33MHz 486 IBM-compatible PC with 8MB RAM and 3MB hard disk space.