Ambient software

I’m a sucker for soundtracking experiences. In the past few weeks I can recall listening to music (Mogwai on a train at night, LCD Soundsystem while running) that was intentionally chosen to shamelessly, blatantly augment the atmosphere of the moment. Movement plus music creates my own personal tracking shot. Like most people, I strongly associate certain music with a place and time too, and I’ll grab onto that as an indulgent cinema of the self.

Related to the Brian Eno stuff from the other day, RjDj [via] is a new iPhone app that would seriously tempt me to go out and buy an iPhone. It listens to the sound of your surroundings though a microphone, and on the fly transforms those sounds into ambient Eno-esque music. This sample video gives a clearer picture. I showed this to some people at work and they were thoroughly unimpressed, but I would marry this idea, and not just as an abstract concept – I can totally see myself actually using this, walking around town with this software as a soundtrack.

In the Eno book notes I mentioned Bloom, the new iPhone app that he just released. I tried it and was pretty disappointed. It claims to produce generative music and visuals, but really it just seems to act as nothing more than a simple 2D keyboard. I was surprised at this, because in the diaries Eno goes to great lengths to make the distinction between generative (grows from a crafted seed) and random (sprawls without guidance). Maybe I’ve missed something; I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

I’m reminded of two other art projects. RjDj is very reminiscent of Ambient Addition, a 2006 project that does pretty much the same thing and seems like a really beautiful implementation. The Interruptor from this year is a wired notebook and camera that intermittently prompts you to document your surroundings. I love the physical design of the object in this one.

Last year I made an art project called Adaptive Spaces that records audio as you walk around, and plays back audio that other people have already recorded in the same place. Even though I vaguely knew they were coming, there was no such thing as an off-the-shelf, programmable, networked, GPS-enabled camera and sound recorder iPhone available at the time, so I made it work by shoving a laptop and a bunch of peripherals and wires into a rucksack. And now I get to sound like an old man because the kids nowadays, they get all of this in their front pocket. Maybe my project was a very rudimentary precursor to RjDj (in my mind I can also draw a line from another old project I did to The Interruptor), or at least was attempted in a similar spirit. My point is, the short history of this type of thing – intimate software – has reached a point where the means of producing a thing that can integrate seamlessly into a person’s everyday activities is widely available and popular.

There’s now an opportunity for software like these examples to develop into something we think of more like music, as an ambient addition to personal experiences. Most software requires you to be actively up to your elbows in it, fully engaged without leaving space to do much of anything else at the same time. Contrast this with the affordances that music permits. You let your guard down with music, and that’s how it gets in. I suppose a lot of its formality and directness comes from the workplace origins of software, and as a result we probably still have a fairly primitive concept of what interaction with software can be (in fact, Eno rejects the label of “interactive” for a certain type of art, suggesting instead the more affording “unfinished”). I recall reading somewhere that creative thinking flows much more freely when attention is not focused directly on a problem, but rather when the mind is allowed to wander (think of racking your brain to remember someone’s name, only to have it come to you later while thinking about something else entirely). There’s sometimes a benefit to doing two things at once, or at least to allowing your mind the freedom to not try so hard all the time, and instead marinade itself in surroundings that may provoke a new idea or mood.

So that’s what I would like: software you can live with. Software that feels like music.

Paula has mild tinnitus, and she puts on the same album almost every night while going to sleep to distract from the ringing sound (and honestly, I just stumbled to this realisation now, perhaps because I don’t even notice it any more). The music has to be something you can fall asleep to, so it can’t be too noticeable or attention-grabbing. It can’t be unfamiliar, so it has to be the same album every time. So I’ve probably heard Brian Eno’s Music For Airports many, many more times than any other piece of music.

— 07 Nov 2008