Brian Eno has created a new iPad app, Scape, that aims to revolutionise the concept of the ‘album’.”I’ve got nothing against records – I’ve spent my life making them – but they are a kind of historical blip,” says Brian Eno. We’re in his Notting Hill studio talking about Scape, the iPad application that Eno has made with musician and software designer Peter Chilvers. Scape challenges the concept of what an ‘album’ of music can be.
“Until about 120 years ago,” Eno says, “all music was ephemeral in the sense that you would never actually hear the same thing twice. Recording changed that. You could listen to an identical thing over and over and over again and that’s what all of us grew up doing. Most of our experience is of perfectly repeatable music.”
He adds: “Scape is positioned exactly halfway between the traditional experience of music as constantly changing and the last hundred years experience, as a totally fixed thing.”
Scape is a ‘generative’ music app. It contains an album of music by Eno and Chilvers but that’s almost incidental. The real point is to create your own music by arranging icons on the screen. Each icon – an E shape, for example, or a triangle – will play different sounds and each will alter what it plays depending on the other elements you choose.
Chilvers explains: “You’ve not just got every track, you’ve got every instrument on that track and, really, every musician playing them. Every piece in Scape is really like a collection of musicians playing together and they’ve got their own rules.”
Eno thinks this kind of musical experience has the potential to change how we listen to music. Records, he says, will “continue to exist because ideas never go away but they’ll become much less central. They’ll not be seen as the centre of music-making,”
It’s easy to dismiss this as fanciful, particularly from a man with an app to promote, but Brian Eno’s influence on, and understanding of, modern music is immense. His work with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Talking Heads and as a solo artist is among the best pop music of the last 40 years. And he is one of the creators of an entire musical genre, which he termed ambient music.
It’s into that last category that Scape fits. The music that you make with it won’t sound like a top 40 hit and you won’t be creating orchestral music or reggae or jazz. Eno says: “It reflects the kind of things we like. It’s meant to give people the opportunity to create music but a particular kind of music. You’re not going to be able to write a pop song with this.”
That works to Scape’s advantage, Chilvers says, because pop songs require lots of fixed elements to make them work. Ambient music relies more on sounds that generate textures and moods, some that flit past and others that linger for a while.
“This makes music that is much more like a painting: it says ‘here’s this feeling and it’s going to stay in place for a while’. It offers a composer lots of freedom and some constraints,” Eno says. “Conventional composing is like architecture, where you’re specifying every detail of something, and this is much more like gardening, where you have a number of seeds and you plant them and then you see what happens to them.”
It’s also a little like a game. When you first start exploring Scape, you won’t know what each element does or how it will affect the music. As you learn, new elements are unlocked, offering more possibilities.
The result is that downloading Scape gives you an album and the tools that were used to create it. The touchscreen interface turns the iPad into a musical instrument in a way that feels much more personal than it would if it ran on a laptop.
There is, says Chilvers, much more to come. He says: “It does feel like it’s only now that we’re beginning to scratch the surface with this technology.”
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