Generative Music

Each month I will be discussing a new release which wouldn’t necessarily make it onto my playlist but has nevertheless caught my attention.

Ales Tsurko – Microscale

January saw the release of Brian Eno’s Reflection, a generative one-track album and app accompaniment. Not unlike previous canonical work Generative 1, the album encapsulates 54 minutes of finely tuned algorithms set loose on a sonic palette provided by Eno – a snapshot of a random sequence of events preserved in mp3 or vinyl format. Paradoxically, the accompanying app allows the same piece of music to ‘last a lifetime’. Eno’s subjective influence is further removed as algorithms take over entirely from the musician, perpetually permutating the materials provided.

The album, as ambitious as it was, was not without its criticisms; Eno’s desire to create ‘endless music’ was dismissed as ‘pompous’ and ‘not exactly worthy of eternity’. However, as with many of his previous seminal ambient works, Eno’s goal was to create music that is as ‘ignorable as it is interesting’. Do I believe Eno wanted to create a piece ‘worthy of eternity’? Certainly not. If anything, what one might consider to be the average lifespan of a piece of procedurally generated music to a person within their lifetime is likely to be considerably less than a piece of ‘canned’ music. After all, music, when reproduced, is as much about previous experiences and associations as it is about new ones - something which procedural generation is unable to emulate.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ‘reflections’ this album encourages concerns the ‘Death of the Author’ – if music can, like literature, be a place ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’ then generative music takes this literally. Even more so when the Reflections app allows for the perpetual removal of the artist, with real-time generation removing arbitrarily imposed distinctions between beginning, middle and end.

Thus, the “intentional fallacy”, that a work is ‘detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it’ has in this case a double meaning. Any one piece of work is subject to reinterpretation, but when the piece itself is liable to proliferate a near-infinite number of variations of itself, the potential for reinterpretation or indeed for the piece to be entirely misconstrued increases exponentially – a domino effect which has become all too familiar in the post-truth age of ‘fake news’.

Tsurko’s Microscale is an album which I believe explores this issue. As a web-based generative album intended for online listening, it operates in a largely similar fashion to Reflection, utilising a web-page instead of an app as its outlet. The album is rendered in real-time, and while streaming services offer a singular version for streaming, individually rendered tracks can also be downloaded. The tracks are compiled using a ‘hackable’ code which takes 6 randomly selected Wikipedia articles and utilises them as step-sequencers. Track titles become switches, as Tsurko explains:

‘in the expression “[module]”, it’s the letter “m”, “o”, “d”, “u”, “l” or “e”. When the sequencer position lands on any of these letters, it fires an event and plays a sound’.

Each article has its own significance, while the music generated from each article has another; when the music generated from each article is combined there are yet more meanings. A single webpage becomes a microcosmic representation of the heterogeneity of the web; an algorithm makes lucid our propensity for cherry-picking facts in the post-truth age. The ‘Death of the Author’ is the multiplicity of meanings; It is the collapse of meaning.

Tsurko also makes clear that those with a basic understanding of code can alter the parameters, essentially making this a freely accessible generative instrument.

An unassuming comment on the internet age, never has it been more clear - The ‘Author-God’ is dead.

The web-based generative album can be found for free here:

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