What do recent trends in generative art mean for music?

Dom Aversano

Manu #34 by artist Rich Poole

In his provocative and fascinating book, Noise, the French musicologist and economist Jacques Attali wrote the following about the prophetic power of music.

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code.

For a long time I considered this flattering statement about music to be true, but the more I learned about visual arts the more I saw that at various points in history it seemed to push ahead of music. Decades before Brian Eno used the term Generative Music the term Generative Art was being used, which does not mean there were no generative processes in music before then — there certainly were — but the terminology helped articulate a theoretical framework through which the art could be understood and developed.

In the last few years a big shift occurred in visual generative arts, somewhat obscured by the huge attention given to advances in machine learning and large language models, but worthy of examination for anyone interested in digital arts.

This innovation was fuelled by NFTs or non-fungible tokens (you can read more about them here). Putting aside the controversial ethical and technological aspects of cryptocurrency and NFTs — which I hope to cover in a future post — the economy it produced provided many generative artists with a living, during which the technical aspects of the art grew more sophisticated and publications like Right Click Save emerged to document the movement. This year the NFT economy fundamentally collapsed, making for an opportune moment to review what happened during its boom, and its relevance to musicians and composers.

In 2021 the generative artist and writer Tyler Hobbs wrote an important essay called The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art, which helps make sense of the recent changes to generative art. Within it, he describes two broad categories of generative art: short-form and long-form.

Generative art has traditionally favoured short-form, which he describes as follows.

First, there was almost always a “curation” step. The artist could generate as many outputs as they pleased and then filter those down to a small set of favorites. Only this curated set of output would be presented to the public.

The result of this is often small collections ranging from a single image to about a dozen. The artist is still largely in control, creating art in a manner that does not radically deviate from tradition.

In a jargon-dense paragraph Hobbs describes long-form art, with the last sentence being especially significant.

The artist creates a generative script (e.g. Fidenza) that is written to the Ethereum blockchain, making it permanent, immutable, and verifiable. Next, the artist specifies how many iterations will be available to be minted by the script. A typical choice is in the 500 to 1000 range. When a collector mints an iteration (i.e. they make a purchase), the script is run to generate a new output, and that output is wrapped in an NFT and transferred directly to the collector. Nobody, including the collector, the platform, or the artist, knows precisely what will be generated when the script is run, so the full range of outputs is a surprise to everyone.

This constitutes a fundamental change. The artist no longer directly creates the art but an algorithm to create art, renouncing control over what the algorithm produces from the moment it is published. It is a significant shift in the relationship between the artist, the artwork, and the audience, that calls into question the definition of art.

Manu #216 by artist Rich Poole

Within the same essay, Hobbs describes a concept for analysing long-form art that he calls “output space”.

Fundamentally, with long-form, collectors and viewers become much more familiar with the “output space” of the program. In other words, they have a clear idea of exactly what the program is capable of generating, and how likely it is to generate one output versus another. This was not the case with short-form works, where the output space was either very narrow (sometimes singular) or cherry-picked for the best highlights.

This concept of an algorithm’s spectrum of variation is valuable. After all, scale without meaningful variation is decorated repetition. Paradoxically — in a superficial sense at least — algorithms can simultaneously have infinite permutations and a great sense of predictability and monotony. The notion of output space is perhaps a more accurate way to evaluate generative works than their literal number of iterations or other quantifiable measures.

In reflecting on how the concept of long-form might exist in music, two works sprung to mind.

The first is Jem Finer’s Longplayer. The composition was created with the intention of being played for a millennium and is currently installed at Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London. For almost a year I worked part-time at the Longplayer and had the opportunity to listen to the installation for hours on end. It struck me as a novel and ambitious idea with an attractive sound, but I was not able to detect any noticeable variation or development from one hour, week, or month to the next. To use the language of generative art, its output space felt narrow — at least over a duration that is short in comparison to its intended length.

I should point out this might well miss the point of the composition, designed as it is to make one reflect on vast time scales and to invite intergenerational collaboration.

The second example is Brian Eno’s composition Reflections, released both as an app and a series of musical excerpts. Eno describes it using the metaphor of a river.

It’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.

Having discovered this piece relatively recently I have not listened sufficiently to have an opinion, although there are many glowing online reviews about its ability to transform and change mood, and people listening to it extensively.

The requirement of extensive listening highlights an important difference between music and visual art. It is much quicker to scan over a collection of 1,000 images than to spend, hours, weeks, or even months attentively listening to an algorithm unfold, which helps explain why long-form generative art is currently more popular than long-form generative music, though there may be another reason too.

You might ask why has long-form generative art become so popular recently as it is by no means a new concept. In 1949 the abstract artist Joseph Albers began a 25-year project working on an iconic and influential series called A Homage to Squares, comprising over 100 paintings that combine squares of different sizes and colours in a variety of ways. By contrast, you now have artists developing algorithms in a couple of months to create ten times more images than Albers’s series. Is this meaningful art, or a hi-tech example of the philosophical more is more?

While it might be cynical to reduce an art movement to a single economic factor, it would also be naive, to ignore it. A significant number of people were made wealthy in a very short time by the boom of NFTs, and the supply and demand relationship was transformed as digital art can be produced with dramatically less time and cost than traditional art. Huge demand could be met with huge supply with little more effort than adding a couple of zeros to the number of iterations.

The rates that certain pieces sold for at the height of the hype are astonishing. A single image in a collection of Cellular Automaton sold for 1,000,000 Tezos (£537,000). I do not know whether this was motivated by some murky financial practice or credulity on the part of the collector, but to have a single work in a collection of 1,000 — composed from an 80-year-old mathematical concept — selling for such a huge price indicates that money significantly shapes the culture. Despite the rot, some art that emerged from this movement is genuinely inspiring and thought-provoking.

Take Dreaming of Le Corbusier, by the Norwegian artist Andreas Rau. It is an impressive algorithm that generates a new ‘architectural’ abstract artwork each time you click on it. Some works have the appearance of having been designed deliberately, with the consistent quality of the compositions being remarkable.

There is also the work of Rich Poole which is featured in this piece. The series feels musical in its composition — reminiscent of a beautiful music sequencer, where colour, height, and length correspond to some musical parameters. The owners of the NFTs choose from iterations of an algorithm what work they would like, meaning the series is ‘collector-curated’.

What happens to generative art now that NFTs have collapsed? That is anyone’s guess. It is hard to envision the sudden emergence of an economy remotely comparable to the over-hyped NFT market. Yet there has been a shift and a new potential glanced at, not just by the artists involved, but by all of us.

The artworks featured in this article are shared with kind permission by the artist Rich Poole. You can view his entire series for Manu here

How to design a music installation – an interview with Tim Murray-Browne (part 1)

Dom Aversano

How to design a music installation - an interview with Tim Murray-Browne (part 1)

I met artist and coder Tim Murray-Browne just over a decade ago, briefly after he was made artist in residence for Music Hackspace. Tall, thin, with a deep yet softly-spoken voice, he stood up and gave a presentation to an audience of programmers, academics, musicians, and builders, in a room buzzing with anticipation. The setting was a dingy studio in Hoxton, East London, prior to the full-on gentrification of the artistic neighbourhood.

Tim’s idea for a project was bold: He had no idea. Or to be more precise, his idea was to have no idea. Instead, the idea would emerge from a group. There were quizzical looks in the audience and questions to confirm indeed the idea was to have no idea. For an artistically audacious idea, this was a good audience, comprised as it was of open-minded, radical, and burningly curious people. By the meeting’s end an unspoken consensus of ‘let’s give this a go’ seemed to have quietly been reached.

Tim’s faith in his concept was ultimately vindicated since the installation that emerged from this process, Cave of Sounds, still tours to this day. Created by a core group of eight people — myself one of them — it has managed to stay relevant amid a slew of socio-political and technological changes. As an artist, Tim has continued to make installations, many focusing on dance, movement, and the human body, as well as more recently, AI.

I wanted to reflect back on this last decade, to see what had been learned, what had changed, what the future might hold, and above all else, how one goes about creating an installation.

What do you think are the most important things to consider when building an interactive installation?

First, you need some kind of development over time. I used to say narrative though I’m not sure if that is the right word anymore, but something needs to emerge within that musical experience. A pattern or structure that grows. Let’s say someone arrives by themselves, maybe alone in a room, and is confronted with something physical, material, or technological, and the journey to discover what patterns emerge has begun. Even though an installation is not considered a narrative form, any interaction is always temporal.

Second, has to do with agency. It’s very tempting as an artist to create a work and have figured out exactly what experience you want your audience to have and to think that that’s going to be an interactive experience even though you’ve already decided it. Then you spend all your time locking down everything that could happen in the space to make sure the experience you envisaged happens. I think if you do this you may as well have made a non-interactive artwork, as I believe the power of interactivity in art lies in the receiver having agency over what unfolds.

Therefore, I think the question of agency in music is fundamental. When we are in the audience watching music a lot of what we get out of it is witnessing someone express themselves skillfully. Take virtuosity, that comes down to witnessing someone have agency in a space and really do something with it.

How exactly do you think about agency in relation to installations?

In an interactive installation, it’s important to consider the agency of the person coming in. You want to ask, how much freedom are we going to give this person? How broad is the span of possible outcomes? If we’re doing something with rhythm and step sequencing are we going to quantise those rhythms so everything sounds like a techno track? Or are we going to rely on the person’s own sense of rhythm and allow them to decide whether to make it sound like a techno track or not?

It all comes down to the question of what is the point of it being interactive. While it is important to have some things be controllable, a lot of the pleasure and fun of interactive stuff is allowing for the unexpected, and therefore I find the best approach when building an installation is to get it in front of unknown people as soon as possible. Being open to the unexpected does not mean you cannot fail. An important reason for getting a work in front of fresh people is to understand how far they are getting into the work. If they don’t understand how to affect and influence the work then they don’t have any agency, and there won’t be any sense of emergence.

Can you describe music in your childhood? You say you sang in choirs from the age of six to twelve. What was your experience of that?

At the time it burnt me out a little but I’m very thankful for it today. It was very much tied to an institution. It was very institutional music and it was obligatory. I was singing in two to three masses a week and learning piano and percussion. I stopped when I was about 13. I had a few changes in life, we moved country for a little bit and I went to a totally different kind of school and environment. It wasn’t until a few years later that I picked up the piano again, and only really in the last couple of years have I reconnected with my voice.

Your PhD seemed to be a turning point for you and a point of re-entry into music. Can you describe your PhD, and how that influenced your life?

I began doing a PhD looking at generative music, and as I was trying to figure out what the PhD would be I had an opportunity to do a sound installation in these underground vaults in London Bridge Station with a random bunch of people in my research group. They were doing an installation there and someone had some proximity sensors I could use. There was an artist who had some projections which were going up and I made a generative soundscape for it. Being in the space and seeing the impact of that work in a spatial context really shifted my focus. I felt quite strongly that I wanted to make installations rather than just music, and I reoriented my PhD to figure out how to make it about that. I was also confronted with the gulf of expectation and reality in interactive art. I thought the interactivity was too obvious if anything, but then as I sat and watched people enter the space, most did not even realise the piece was interactive.

How do these questions sit with you today?

From an academic perspective, it was a really terrible idea because a PhD is supposed to be quite focused, and I was questioning how can you make interactive music more captivating. I had this sense in my head of what an interactive music experience could be, and it was as immersive, durational and gripping as a musical experience. Nearly every interactive sound work I was finding ended up being quite a brief experience – you kind of just work out all the things you can do and then you’re done.

I saw this pattern in my own work too. My experience in making interactive sound works was much more limited back then, but I saw a common pattern of taking processes from recorded music and making it interactive. My approach was to ask ‘Well what is music really? why do we like it?’ and all kinds of answers come up about emerging structures, belonging, and self-expression, so then the question was how can we create interactive works that embody those qualities within the interactivity itself.

What it left me with was not such a clear pathway into academia, because I hadn’t arrived at some clear and completed research finding, but what I had done was immersed myself so fundamentally in trying to answer this question, how can I make captivating interactive music experiences?f

What did you find?

On the question of interaction with technology, I think the most fundamental quality of technology is interaction, human-computer interaction. How is it affecting us? How are we affecting it? How does that ongoing relationship develop?

There is so much within those questions, and yet interactivity is often just tacked on to an existing artwork or introduced in a conventional way because that is how things are done. In fact, the way you do interactivity says a lot about who you are and how you see the world. How you design interaction is similar to how you make music, there are many ways, and each has a political interpretation that can be valuable in different contexts.

Who has influenced you in this respect?

The biggest influence on me at the point where I’d finished my PhD and commenced Cave of Sounds was the book Musicking by Christopher Small.

The shift in mindset goes from thinking that music is something being done by musicians on a stage and being received by everyone else around them, to being a collective act that everybody’s participating in together, and that if there weren’t an audience there to receive it the musician couldn’t be participating in the same music.

What I found informative is to take a relativist view on different musical cultures. Whether it is a rock concert, classical concert, folk session, or jazz jam, you can think of them as being different forms of this same thing, just with different parameters of where the agency is.

For instance, if you’re jamming with friends in a circle around a table there is space for improvisation and for everybody to create sound. This has an egalitarian nature to it. Whereas with an orchestra there is little scope for the musicians to choose what notes they play, but a huge scope for them to demonstrate technical virtuosity and skill, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I love orchestral music. I think there is beauty to the coordination and power. I can see how it could be abused politically, but it’s still a thing that I feel in my body when I experience it, and I want to be able to access that feeling.

What I’m most suspicious about are stadium-level concerts. The idolisation of one individual on a stage with everyone in the crowd going emotionally out of control. It is kind of this demagogue/mob relationship. People talk about these Trump rallies as if they’re like rock concerts, and it’s that kind of relationship that is abused politically.

Cave of Sounds was created by Tim Murray-Browne, Dom Aversano, Sus Garcia, Wallace Hobbes, Daniel Lopez, Tadeo Sendon, Panagiotis Tigas, and Kacper Ziemianin with support from Music Hackspace, Sound and Music, Esmée Fairbairne Foundation, Arts Council England and British Council.

You can read more of this interview in Part 2 which will follow shortly, where we discuss the future of music as well as practical advice for building installations. To find out more about Tim Murray-Browne you can visit his website or follow him on SubstackInstagramMastodon, or X.

Gravity Synth Masterclass with Leon Trimble – LIVE Session

Don’t forget to also sign up for the Live AV Performance by Leon Trimble followed shortly after this Masterclass – Live AV Performance by Leon Trimble – Music Hackspace

Masterclass Date & Time:  Friday 16th April 5pm UK

The Gravity Synth is a musical instrument combining the instrumentation used to detect gravitational waves, and a modular synthesiser. The experimentation with the scientific and musical equipment has been a collaboration between researchers at the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at University of Birmingham and audiovisual artist Leon Trimble. This is a parallel journey exploring the similarities between the processes of art and science. Leon Trimble has been working on the gravity synth since 2016 when, having sat down next to Dr.Hannah Middleton (Gravitational wave data analyst). From that moment on they started meeting and Leon & Hannah planned how the sound of a Michelson Interferometer (IFO) could be shaped into a performance. As time went on and the interferometer bedded into the performance, Leon upgraded parts of the modular synthesiser to accompany the IFO and Aaron refined components of the IFO to more accurately make sound.

Link: https://gravitysynth.tumblr.com/

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A Zoom account