Brian Eno is a composer who doesn’t necessarily want to compose. He’s interested in music that writes itself.
The summer 1994 issue of Whole Earth Review included the following piece by Eno. As explained in the small note in the margin, it was his response to a proposal; a rough sketch of a new theory of music. It was addressed to Eric Iverson and Mark Davis at the computing Research Lab in New Mexico.
I was fascinated by Eno’s thoughts about music that creates itself. I found him on the WELL, going under the barely-disguised handle of “Brian One”, and engaged in an email conversation with him. Our email exchange follows the article.Eno-Resonant-Complexity
To: Brian One
Date: Thu 14 Jul 1994
Subject: Resonant Complexity
Your “Resonant Complexity” in the current WER put forth a lot of
interesting ideas and sparked my thinking along several lines. I’d
like to pass on a few thoughts to you.
Your theory that the interesting complexity of music is mostly in the
listener makes perfect sense to me. This is a characteristic that
music shares with language. In terms of information theory, a
sentence can’t carry many bits of information. I believe someone
calculated that English only carries about 5 bits per word, on
average. But a sentence can still communicate a very complex idea
because we can integrate each new message with a huge store of
knowledge already in our heads. Every word has the power to awaken a
complex web of associations from past experience. I’d guess that, if
you could somehow measure the amount of information it takes to fully
represent a sentence in our brains, maybe 1% of it is the actual
content of the message received, 10% is assumed from the immediate
context, and the rest is general background knowledge. (Don’t quote
me, I’m just making up these numbers as I go along! But they feel
Music must work in a similar way. The experience of music is very
different, though. Words mostly seem to rattle around in your head,
but music seems to wash through your body. It feels “deeper”. I
wonder if music evolved before language? It’s pretty clear what
adaptive advantage language gave us; less clear (at least to me) why
we developed music. Could it possibly be just gravy, a byproduct of
other capabilities? If so, that’s some gravy!
Anyway, now we’ve reached the point in evolution where human creators
of music are trying to find ways to make music create itself. I
guess this has been going on for a while now. I’m really not a music
scholar, but my impression is that John Cage pushed this idea
forward. He certainly made the point that music exists mainly in the
listener’s head. Putting a bunch of randomly tuned radios on a stage
seems like the musical equivalent of Duchamp’s urinal.
But what you’re contemplating now is a big leap beyond random music.
When you write “I don’t want to have a God in this universe”, it
strikes me that from another point of view, you’re actually putting
*another* God into the universe.
I don’t know what your concept of God is, and I’m not even very clear
on my own, but let’s just say God is the organizing principle of the
universe, the reason there is something rather than nothing. God in
this sense is not a selector, but the creator of the initial
conditions from which all the complexity of the universe emerges. As
a human, you’re one of the (A?)-life-forms that has emerged
spontaneously from God’s soup. And as a composer, you select and
organize sounds, and thus create music that God could not have
predicted at the moment of the Big Bang. (Maybe God was tired of all
the old tunes and set the our cosmos in motion just to see what music
*this* universe would come up with.)
By trying to make your music select itself, you’re no longer creating
music, you’re creating composers. Rather than removing yourself as a
God, you’re stepping into God’s shoes for the first time. A bit
blasphemous by old-school standards, but it sure sounds, well, fun.
And really, how could things *not* have gone this way?
Whether or not you succeed, it seems to me that this line of
experimentation is likely to lead to insights into some big
mysteries, like “why is there music?”
Assuming you do succeed, when your A-Life creations reach the point
of deciding to become Gods themselves, I wonder what we will all be
I have more thoughts related to the challenges you face, but this is
already twice as long as I intended. Good luck, and I hope you’ll
keep the rest of us posted.
Date: Fri, 22 Jul 1994 01:32:40 -0700
From: Brian One
Subject: Re: Resonant Complexity
The connection you’ve drawn with language is very pertinent, and I wish I’d
thought of it myself – it’s so obvious that, with words, we understand far
more than is actually being ‘said’, and that most of that understanding comes fr
from our appreciaiton of context and history.
As to whether music proceeded language – well, I should imagine that grunts and
moans and squeals of delight probably did, anyway, and those would form a
much better basis for music than language. One of the interesting recent
discoveries (via those people who have Tyrrett’s Syndrome) is that the part
of the brain that deals in swearing and cursing is not the same as the part
that deals in language. It’s as though the most primitive utterances form
part of an earlier noise-making system. I’d be interested to know if rap also
My point about self-creating music was not to offer a sort of blank canvas
that turns into sound, but to make a highly-prjudiced environment that would
produce music, but the kind of music I want to hear. A simple analogy would
be to say to someone “play whatever you like, but it has to use only the
notes G, A, C, D and E and be slow”. This is both a prescription (since the
piece will have a strong character even from those simple limitations) but
it will also guarantee you original (i.e. not-thought-of-by-you) results. This
is analogous to what I’ve been doing with machines, and of course my taste
and experience is a big part of the mix. The computer music people think
they should be able to make this work without there being someone like me
setting up initial conditions. Good luck to them – I’d like to see them
As for God – well, that’s a word I generally stay clear of. I know I used it
in the article, but I wish I hadn’t. He’s been introducing confusion all
overe the place since time began. I tell everyone I’m an atheist – which
isn’t to say that I think there are no ‘organizing principles’, but rather
top say that calling them God is a sure way to further confusion.
Thanks for your letter.
To: Brian One
Date: Thu 28 Jul 1994
Subject: Re: Resonant Complexity
So we’ve got a “swearing center” in our brains. Fascinating! I
hadn’t heard about that, but since you mention it, I think the areas
of the brain used in singing must be distinct from the language
centers, as well. I don’t know of any research specifically related
to this, but there’s at least some anecdotal evidence. Several years
ago my wife’s mother had a severe stroke and was left unable to
speak, but she could still sing the words to familiar songs like “Happy
Rap would be interesting to study. It might shed some light on the
distinction between singing and speaking as far as brain function is
concerned; i.e., is rhythm the main difference, or melody? It could
be that the singing, speaking, and swearing areas are *all* lit up in
a rapper’s brain.
Re: Tourette’s syndrome, another interesting tidbit: according to
Oliver Sacks, it’s common for people with Tourette’s to be very
On self-creating music: the difficult part is setting up a system
that can select the “good” parts and use them to build larger
structures which are also “good”. You could fairly easily make such a
selector/builder that operates on some simple rules, and it might
generate some nice music, but it would probably be pretty boring,
If it’s true that most of the interesting complexity of music is in
the listener’s brain, then in order to create a selector/builder that
generates interesting music, you might have to endow it with the same
complexity that is in your brain. Well, maybe not *quite* so much,
but certainly a significant amount – much more complexity than would
be inherent in any particular piece of music you write yourself.
That’s a very rough description of the task, but it might explain why
self-creating music is such a difficult problem.
Obviously, you’ve thought about this far more than I have. Does this
reasoning make any sense?
Date: Thu, 15 Sep 1994 01:58:08 -0700
From: Brian One
Subject: Re: Resonant Complexity
Hearing (via oliver sacks) that people with Tourettes syndrome are musically
talented makes me feel a lot better about my sometimes uncontrollabvle
cursing and swearing. Also makes you wonder about where speaking-in-tongues
(glossalalia) originates. If you’ve ever seen someoone do it really well,
it’s a shocking, chilling experience.
The other alternative to endowing the music-generating machine with such
complexity as you mentioned is to instead endow the context with complexity.
Thiis is much easier – to tell the stroy that surrounds and frames
the ‘music’ being generated. So – the machine makes simple music, but this
music is treated with great preciousness. I realized this years ago when i got
someone to build me a random melody generator. If you just let it run and run,
you very quickly got tired of the whole project. What you had to do, to make
it ‘work’, was to create an almot ritualistic situation which said “the first
melody that issues from this machine when I switch it on is going to be the
one I use”. That rarity creates focus (in general terms, rarity creates focus).
So this suggests machines that involve you in tremendously complex preparatory
tasks and then just make one thing for you…like Alchemy.