2006 celebrates the 10th anniversary of a musical revolution that hardly anyone noticed.
In 1996, a company called SSeyo released the first version of their KOAN musical software. An incredible ingenious piece of work that introduced the concept of “Generative Music” – music that chooses it’s own path from a set of rules and parameters, and sounded slightly different every time it is played.
The program literally had hundreds of sets of musical rules built in, from which the composer could choose and build a set of rules from which the program would choose. A simple rule could be something like the length of the composition: a bit like “minimum length is 4 minutes but the range is 6 minutes” (meaning the length of the composition was a different in length each time, duration could be anything between 4 and 10 minutes).
Another parameter, for example, could be the piece root: “when starting the piece, choose between C or D of E, but with a 50% more chance of choosing D than C, chance of choosing E is no more than 10%”.
Or the scale, or the instruments, or the harmony rules…or…or…or combinations of all that….
This definitely was NOT a program for Control Freaks! If you wanted to have it the difficult way, you could easily get lost in the endless possibilities. But on the other hand, one could get fascinating results without exactly understanding what one was doing…
It was no surprise that Brian Eno was one of the early adopters of this system. In fact he had already created his own “Generative Music” for years for his installations: by randomly playing samples on 8 (or more) cd-players playing simultaneously.
Eno’s “Generative Music”, released in 1996 on a single diskette, was a masterpiece that most of his fans have never heard. It’s music illustrates the power of KOAN when used by someone who knew what to do with it.
The good news is: this masterpiece is still available!
The bad news, however, is that you will never hear the music as it was intended, unless you can run a computer using a Creative Soundblaster AWE32.
The music was written to use the MIDI patches that were exclusively available on that soundcard. Newer soundcards, using other MIDI samples, sounded dramatically different – introducing a generativeness múch less appreciated!!
This hardware dependency of the software was one of its biggest mistakes. Later versions could load ‘soundfonts’ or MP3-samples, so the music could still be re-created independent of the hardware. But somehow, in spite of all prizes and recognition the SSEYO company gained, the concept never really catched on.
It simply was way too much ahead of the rest of the world…
SSeyo moved on to the realm of ringtone production…somewhere I have never tried to followed them. But they still exist, which means that the old KOAN programs are still there. KOAN Pro and KOAN X (the “easier” version with a graphic user interface) are still available and still work fine with modern operating systems.
It’s 10 years later now. Maybe it’s time to re-invent the revolution of Generative Music.
Please note that the examples below is a recorded version of the piece, and therefore it is not ‘generative’.
Brian Eno – Methane IV (from “Generative Music I”):