Those of us of a certain age — let’s call it, “creaky” — will be familiar with the body of work of Brian Eno. The electronic music pioneer’s experiments in tone, timbre, structure and ambience have spanned almost 40 years and have entailed collaborations with fellow experimentalist Robert Fripp, Roxy Music and Talking Heads. For a little bit of walking around money, he produced seven albums for some obscure Irish band called U2.
Eno’s latest collaboration, though, is with Peter Chilvers, who develops applications for Apple Inc.’s iPhone.
Their first app, Bloom, is a fascinating experience. The user chooses from a dozen “moods,” with names like Bergamot, Labdanum, Cedar and Neroli. Then, it’s a matter of simply tapping the screen; haunting piano notes ripple over a droning, modulating synthesizer pad, while coloured circles appear where the screen has been tapped and bloom outward and fade. The musical and graphic sequences begin to loop — much like Fripp’s “Frippertronics” experiments with limked reel-to-reel recorders in the ’70s — allowing the user to layer passages over top.
Their second collaboration, Trope, is similar; instead of tapping, users trace their fingers over the screen and produce buzzing synthesizer textures, while the tracks of their fingers produce a mesmerizing firework show on the screen.
I’ve become lost for hours at a time in these applications, completely immersed. But the real joy is watching others use it. No two people approach it the same way. Some take tentative pokes at the screen, slowly building epic soundscapes. Others take a more frenetic approach, drumming their fingers across the screen to make rippling piano lines. And while it may sound different every time, it’s always, unmistakeably, Brian Eno’s music.
This is an entirely new paradigm for consumption of music. Eno doesn’t provide a song that you passively listen to; he provides an interactive musical and graphical context that allows the consumer to participate in the creation of Eno’s music. Application developers are the new rock stars.
Our videographer at IT World Canada, Christopher Guest — no, not Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest, though his in-production webisodes of Job Review With the Vampire promise to be just as funny — tells me this is crazy talk. And to an extent it is. Music consumption is, in many contexts, meant to be a passive experience, allowing an artist to make a statement that the listener enjoys or avoids. I don’t want to see anyone in traffic on the Don Valley Parkway tapping away on a smart phone. It’s bad enough the way some people interact with their car radios, singing, head-bobbing, flicking from station to station (coincidentally, the name of a David Bowie album on which Eno collaborated).
On the other hand, no one listened to Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recordings in the 1870s and foresaw a day when music would primarily be enjoyed outside the concert hall.
It wasn’t the phonograph — which was accessible only to the well-off — that was the turning point in music consumption. It was radio, which was originally a live (or as we call it these days, “real-time”) medium that took music out of the concert hall. Broadcasts of performances by Chick Webb (no relation) and Benny Goodman gave way to 78s played over the wireless. Classic synthesis: recording plus distribution equals a new, more egalitarian channel for consuming music.
Radio has become increasingly irrelevant in the last few years. Vertical channels — Top 40, Album Rock, Classic Rock, Alternative — flourished, then were supplanted by corprock, with Clear Channel syndicated on a plurality of stations, delivering the same corporate-apporoved content regardless of geography and demographic. (I’ll end this particular rant here; I could go on for hours on the subject. But as a parting shot: No one defines the lowest-common-denominator homogenization of radio better than Black Eyed Peas.)
My dear friend Michelle Warren, principal of MW Research and Consulting, once told me that You Tube was her TV. Increasingly, poeple discover new music not by listening to the radio, but by searching online for songs they’ve heard a fragment of in a commercial or TV show. Heard of a Spanish flamenco-chill band called Chamboa? Check them out now. (That is an example of how the online world has made word-of-mouth as significant a channel as any broadcast medium.)
Interactive music applications won’t kill radio, CDs, and concerts. But they will offer another channel for music consumption that will displace them. I’m not putting down the drum sticks any time soon (actually, it’s brushes for the most part; I do have neighbours). Live music didn’t go away because of radio and the CD.
But there’s an object lesson in this from an application development persective. We’ve talked for years now about aligning IT with the business process. It’s time to start focusing on aligning IT with the user experience first. Deliver what the user wants, how the user wants it. Give the user the option to consume compute resources the way it best suits the user, not the infrastructure.