Interactive music


In the build up to Bjork’s Biophilia, Cormac Duffy takes a look at the phenomenon that is interactive music


Last issue, Otwo posited the idea that video games could be considered a legitimate art form, worthy of as much respect as the old guard of literature, music, visual art and film. Now, an upcoming musical release could push the scope of the question to new levels. We now must ask if interactive music is the next leap forward.

Forever the innovator, Icelandic polymath icon Bjork’s upcoming project Biophilia is the latest chapter in a saga of boundary-pushing work. Musically, it’s built on a suitably forward-thinking foundation of non-conventional tonalities and progressive approaches to time signatures, much of it performed on custom-built instruments. For all that, the music has been sharing the spotlight with the revolutionary release plan. Biophilia will be released as an app for the iPad and iPod, produced in collaboration with Apple, as well as multiple designers.

The album app is a suite housing ten individual applications, one for each track. They present various ways to hear the music. Tracks are matched with visualisations that are tied thematically and structurally to the music’s flow and pacing. Also offered are some more benign touches, such as lyrics and sheet music. At a time when music sales are down and few remaining fans still appreciate that music needs some source of income to survive, it’s an ingenious way to offer something more for one’s investment. Touches like this on digital releases could easily become the liner notes of the internet age.

Of all its features, the most intriguing is that it offers the user the ability to interact with the song itself. Several of the apps have small ‘games’ that, depending how they are played, affect the song itself, presenting alternate versions. On ‘Crystalline’, the player guides a crystal-collecting ship through various tunnels. Different turns cause different sections of the song to play, allowing the user to choose the path it takes. In the ‘Moon’ app, moons are moved through the lunar cycle to shift the pitch of the loops in the song’s background.

As an idea, the interactive element can be met with scepticism. It’s all too easy to make the cheap comparison with fantasy novels where one alters the plot by choosing actions and thus different chapters, or even to other simplistic novelty app games. The other way of looking at it is that interaction has the potential to shake up the entire experience of music.

For all the work she’s done in bringing about this discussion, Bjork’s approach to interaction is not without precedent. Max Weisel, a prodigy in the field of app design and one of Bjork’s plentiful collaborators on Biophilia, designed Sounddrop, an iPod/iPad application that generates music through a simple set up involving falling balls bouncing off lines drawn by the player. Brian Eno has long been an innovator in the field of detaching the composer from the composition. Beginning by using randomised processes, he soon began to develop self-generating musical works that followed algorithmically determined patterns. In 2008 he co-created Bloom, an application that turns simple taps of the screen into elaborate, layered ambient compositions. Japanese video game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi is the brains behind Rez and Child of Eden, two sci-fi games in which target shooting causes certain notes and tones to sound. The games are famed for being a deeply immersive experience that draws the player in through synesthesia, wherein sounds become heavily associated in the mind with visual images, the experience crossing senses.

This interactive approach to music is radical, very much outside our common understanding of the function of music. One possible reason that popular music has never served as the basis for a concrete canon of critical theory, in the manner of literature or film, is its limited nature. While film and literature can achieve their greatest successes when distorting the nature of the subject, narrative, or even using self-reference or fourth-wall-breaking to toy with the idea of art itself, music is a simpler craft. Year on year, the works of music that make the biggest impact are generally confessional works, with the critical norms firmly rooted in the idea that they are the works of a singular, concrete artist who possesses a monopoly on their meaning.

Interactive music can give new life to our perceptions of music. Those who buy the standard audio format of Biophilia will be passive listeners, or at most, somewhat engaged interpreters, but those who pursue the interactive apps are something else. The term is difficult to pin down; players sounds too frivolous, users too functional, and something more accurate like co-creators sounds too pretentious. Music excels most when it immerses the listener into a different mindset or environment, and interaction can only extend this. As with any innovation, whether it is art or not will be contentious (let alone whether it is game or music), and whether fans will want music removed from the idea of an authorial composer is still to be seen. Biophilia will test the waters, but it is inevitable that someone will soon pursue its deepest depths.