Brian Eno Once Composed Music for Windows 95; Now He Lets You Create Music with an iPad App

Now run­ning through my speak­ers, even as I write this: Bri­an Eno’s lat­est album, Lux. The disc offers four pieces of ambi­ent music, a style that, even if Eno did­n’t tech­ni­cal­ly invent it, he cer­tain­ly took it to a new lev­el of fas­ci­na­tion and pop­u­lar­i­ty. He com­posed these tracks — if “com­posed” is indeed the word — as gen­er­a­tive music, a process rather than a style, but one he named and has pro­mot­ed since the nineties. For a def­i­n­i­tion of gen­er­a­tive music, I turn to Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appen­dices, a book that does not leave my night­stand. “One of my long-term inter­ests has been the inven­tion of ‘machines’ and ‘sys­tems,’ ” he writes, “to make music with mate­ri­als and process­es I spec­i­fied, but in com­bi­na­tions and inter­ac­tions I did not. My first released piece of this kind was Dis­creet Music (1975), in which two sim­ple melod­ic cycles of dif­fer­ent dura­tions sep­a­rate­ly repeat and are allowed to over­lay each oth­er arbi­trar­i­ly.”

In Lux, we have the lat­est iter­a­tion of that musi­cal mod­el. But even if this new record or its pre­de­ces­sors won’t make your playlist, there’s at least one Bri­an Eno com­po­si­tion with which you’ll already feel inti­mate­ly famil­iar. I refer, of course, to the Win­dows 95 start­up sound. Eno describes the musi­cal chal­lenge as fol­lows: “The thing from the agency said,‘We want a piece of music that is inspir­ing, uni­ver­sal, blah- blah, da-da-da, opti­mistic, futur­is­tic, sen­ti­men­tal, emo­tion­al,’ this whole list of adjec­tives, and then at the bot­tom it said ‘and it must be three and one quar­ter sec­onds long.’ ”

From that list of 150 vague words, Eno craft­ed 84 minia­ture pieces of music. You may have heard the one Microsoft ulti­mate­ly went with hun­dreds, or thou­sands, of times. Obvi­ous­ly they’ve sound­ed the same on every play, and this very fact dis­pleas­es their cre­ator, espe­cial­ly when he cre­ates with gen­er­a­tive sys­tems in the first place. “What I always want­ed to do was sell the sys­tem itself, so that a lis­ten­er would know that the music was always unique,” Eno con­tin­ues in A Year. “With com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy I began to think there might be a way of doing it.” Com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy, which has come a long way since the days of Win­dows 95, has brought us to the release of Scape, the first gen­er­a­tive music iPad app ($5.99) from Eno and Peter Chil­vers. “The idea is that you assem­ble pieces of music out of son­ic build­ing blocks — we call them ‘ele­ments’ — which then respond intel­li­gent­ly to each oth­er,” Eno says in the intro­duc­to­ry video just above. Scape fol­lows Bloom and Trope, the duo’s pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tive music apps for the iPhone. Does it strike you as strange that the man behind such an icon­ic Microsoft theme now releas­es apps only for Apple devices? It’s no big sur­prise: Eno even com­posed the Win­dows 95 sound on a Mac.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How David Byrne and Bri­an Eno Make Music Togeth­er: A Short Doc­u­men­tary

Bri­an Eno on Cre­at­ing Music and Art As Imag­i­nary Land­scapes (1989)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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