Presenting generative music

01 Oct 2021

Seven-minute read

Exquisite Corpse
Cadavre Exquis with André Breton, Max Morise, Jeannette Ducrocq Tanguy, Pierre Naville, Benjamin Péret, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, 1928

Recently I’ve had the hunch that an ‘album’ doesn’t feel like exactly the right output for my sound work. My working process lately is to create generative music, using physical hardware, live coding, or patching with PureData or other software systems.

An album is nice for ‘freezing’ a moment in time. It captures a listenable segment, and our work as creator then becomes the role of ‘selector’ in a similar manner to how a photographer sets up a shot or captures a scene on the street. Their selection of their output, and presentation in exhibitis, online, etc counts as signficant choices in the work, where that work meets a public. When artists create generative systems we are at least partly craving surprise and evolution. This is partly why so many folks get excited to run the current generation of AI generative website models, which to be clear, are marketed and used as products to produce output, which feels different from what I’m doing to shape my work through iterative design and reworking, even if I don’t know the final output I’ll get each time.

As someone so process-based in the creation of my music and sound I have been thinking about other forms beyond the album as a way to present the unfolding process. In recent years Brian Eno has released ‘app’ versions of some of his albums as well as generative sound-creation software with his collaborator Peter Chilvers for Opal Limited.

I have been performing under the name ExquisiteCorp, a reference to the surrealist drawing game Cadavre Exquisite/Exquisite corpse, which I used to play as a sort of party game in high school and college with my friends. For those unfamiliar, everyone starts by folding a paper into thirds. Simultaneously, all participants draw a (absurd, unique) head on the top third. After a period of time, everyone folds over this area of their paper so it’s hidden and then passes to the next person. The next person draws the center body section without glancing at the top head section. After a while everyone folds over again and passes to another person who draws the bottom section / legs. After a period of time, all drawing ceases and we open the papers and share our drawings of exquisite corpses to the group. The final presentation, informal, shows a form of the entire creation process as output.

I referenced this game because of my love for collage, musique concrete, merzbau, assemblage; all the forms of constructed collage in various media that I enjoy. This ‘exquisite corpse’ recipe I hoped would be an influence on the music and sound that I create. These chunks become raw material for re-working. But in their own right they are also worth presentating ‘running’ live or in other process-based approaches that take advantage of the nature of generative creation’s ability to unspool seemingly-limitless new artworks.

Other ‘shapes’ beyond albums

What are other forms to ‘present’ and share the work that takes advantage of this generative unfolding process? I am beginning to brainstorm and come up with some of my own ideas to carry out. But I thought I’d consider some past ideas and approaches:

The coil, when connected to an audio amplifier and placed in front of a magnet, turns the material of the cover into an active speaker membrane.

Shuffle Drones is a new Eluvium album that is anywhere between 13 minutes and 13,000 hours long, depending on how (and how long) you choose to play it. Consisting of 23 vignettes of orchestral ambience, it is designed to be played on shuffle. There is no end, and no beginning. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, regardless of the order in which they are played. Shuffle Drones is simultaneously intended for and in disruption of modern listening habits. In an era in which the way we listen can profoundly impact both what and how we listen, Shuffle Drones offers a unique and ever-changing path to listen.–Eluvium, 2017

What other output shapes could there be for sharing these music systems?

These are some speculative ideas off the top of the head.

These are just the start. There are many folks working in this realm, and many ways to approach modes of presenting generative music.

Exquisite Corpse at MOMA
Exquisite Corpse by surrealists Man Ray, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, Max Morise
Eluvium - Shuffle Drones - Shuffle Drones on Bandcamp (you’ll have to download and shuffle with your own software) GenerativeFM, “ambient music generators that never end or repeat” Ian Cheng’s Emissaries Generative Unfoldings online exhibition