Resonant complexity

Brian Eno in WHOLE EARTH REVIEW Magazine

Number : 83, Summer 94

Whole Earth Review is home-base for a lot of the avant-computer-garde from the West Coast. The mag was founded by Stewart Brand who recently published a book called HOW BUILDINGS LEARN. Brand now works with GBN (Global Business Network) a think tank of futurists, engineers, scientists and artists, including Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and recently Jaron Lanier (one of the most outspoken figures in Virtual Reality).

Brand is also the proposed co-author of a book with Eno (about a theory of Culture) an opus assembled from their e-mail exchanges. Finally he co-founded the WELL, the online service/community where Eno (and others) host the (private) conference on _The Futures of Culture_.

Successors to Brand at WER include Kevin Kelly- now executive editor of Wired Magazine, and Howard Rheingold- author of VIrtual Communities and Editor-in-chief of WER Millenium Catalog.

It's a great read. Get subscription and ordering information from:

Resonant complexity - by Brian Eno (excerpt)

-Stewart scrawled "publishable as essay" across the top of this. It's Brian Eno's response to a proposal, a rough sketch of a new theory of music. It was addressed to Eric Iverson and Mark Davis at the Computing Research Lab in New Mexico.-

Your proposal appears to suggest that it ought to be possible to create a way of measuring or assessing musical compositions in terms of their complexity and that you expect this internal complexity to be related, in some way or another, to the composition's "musicalness"---the degree to which we think it's good or interesting music.

This seems like a project that might not succeed in quite the terms you're suggesting because the interesting complexity is not so much in the music as in the listener. By that I mean that music is actually a contingent combination of sounds whose emotional resonances are entirely dependent on the audience's personal and shared histories as listeners. By 'contingent' I mean that it could have been otherwise. Music didn't have to consist of the elements and structures that it happens to consist of ---and indeed it consists of quite other ones in other cultures, as anyone attending a concert of classical Thai music will soon realize. (I once attended such a concert in Bangkok that was totally mystifying. I could see that the audience was utterly enraptured, swooning at moments of apparently overwhelming emotional beauty that made no impression on me whatsoever; not only that, I couldn't distinguish them from any other moments in the piece. You might say that there was too much complexity in the music for me to be able to deal with it, but I'd rather say that there was not enough relevant complexity in my mind to experience it. I had no cultural background against which to set this particular adventure.)

So complexity, I'm saying, has to be present, but present in the whole system---music and listener---as a system. If it's just in the music (whatever complexity would mean in a purely objective sense like that) it makes no difference to anyone. The reason we can be moved by a single voice singing a simple song is clearly not because its has internal complexity, but because we do; we dont just hear sounds, but hosts of associations and historical, social and cultural undertones. A single voice is powerful to us because it is different in particular ways from most of our other musical experiences, and because this particular voice is different in particular ways from other voices we've heard. Aesthetically, what we respond to are differences, not "absolutes". That is why it is possible for a group of Lebanese to become ecstatic about the way Faruz turns a phrase, while a non-afficionado of Arabic music will fail to get the point at all. What those Arabic listeners are responding to is how she does it differently. So when they hear it, they hear it against an enormous repertoire of other possible ways of doing it, of other possible emotional resonances and associations.

(9 or 10 paragraphs deleted; further on Eno rambles about A-life compositions, the brain, evolutionary musical clumps)

Lately, I have become more and more convinced that the clue to making pieces of music that work (because I'm a record maker, that means pieces of music you like listening to as well as find intellectually interesting) is to choose a "rich substrate of combinatoric primitives" as you put it---what I call the basic elements. My own experience is that, if you work with a set of elements that are all compatible in any combinations, then you only have to invent interesting ways of making the combinations happen. I've found that good work can be achieved with very small groups of elements; the substrate doesn't have to be "rich" in numerical terms, but it must be "richly connectable." And being "richly connectable" means not only that the elements can all fit together, but also that when they do we are able to perceive and care about the difference and sequences of them. That means that we have to elicit a sensual involvement with the materials of the piece---which is to say that we have to be richly connected to them.

I've rambled on a bit here, sorry. What I am trying to do is to float a theory of music, I dont know if it's right or not, but I'd like to hear how it sits with you, if it seems to make any sense. You'll notice some inconsistencies in what I've said. I'm still busy figuring all this out myself.

-end of article -

The text is accompanied by a diagram for a cyclic compositional system a la Music for Airports.

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