EōN by Jean-Michel Jarre

I’ve said before that a computer can never write a song because it has never experienced human emotions such as love and loss. But—and it’s a big but—that’s not to say a computer couldn’t generate music. More than a decade ago, Brian Eno released an iPhone app that could randomly generate ambient music. It blurred the boundaries. Was the music you were hearing his or the computer’s? He may have programmed the algorithm behind it but the music you were hearing at any given time was unique and Eno wouldn’t have heard that same sequence himself. So it’s a grey area. That said, all the iPhone was doing was juggling bytes around in its memory. It was in no sense aware of what it was creating, nor was it applying any of its own feeling or emotion to the creative process. And this is where a quantum leap will be required before a computer can create music by A.I. It may never be able to. Robots, or androids, may fare better since they will be constructed as autonomous entities, able to ‘see’ the world. They’ll also be able to hear and have tactile feedback, as well as inputs that humans don’t have such as thermal and infra-red. That will mean each android would have a unique experience of interaction with the world, just as humans do, and that could be enough to allow them to create art or music in a way that their creators never anticipated. That is still a long way off though.

Jean-Michel Jarre seems to be marmite with people. Some hate electronic music in general and think of it as cheesy lift music or whatever. Others, and I include myself among them, were utterly blown away by Oxygene in the 70s and fell madly in love with Jarre and other pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and many modern ambient music giants such as Marconi Union and Carbon Based Lifeforms are influenced by them. It was Jarre who opened a door in my brain to a world of sonic possibilities and now forty years later he has done it again. EōN is not a new album, it is a new app for iPhone and iPad. And it is astonishing. You could even describe it as the missing link—it provides a glimpse of what AI music might one day become. Eno’s Bloom app was innovative but the variation was too limited. In theory you may never have heard the same thing twice but it quickly all began to sound the same and the novelty quickly wore off. Jarre has adopted a similar concept but he has really nailed it. When you launch the app it plays like an album with each track lasting three or four minutes or whatever, with a slight pause between them. And each new track sounds different. There are enough variations that you never think “didn’t I just hear that a few minutes ago?” It plays like a Jarre album. The difference is, you’ll never hear the same thing twice. Every time you launch the app it’s like listening to a new album. And what you hear is so good you quickly wish you could hook it up to a digital recorder because it begins to bother you that you might never that same sequence again. It is billed as an infinite musical creation, an endless album, and it is exactly that. The app costs the same as a CD but it is in effect free because what you are getting is unlimited free music forever (well, at least until Apple muck about with iOS to a point where it won’t run anymore—it will rely on the developers keeping it updated in future.)

If you are at all a fan of ambient music you really need to give EōN a go. It may not be true A.I. music but it feels like it could be, and that is pretty exciting. This app is art. Indeed, the screen doesn’t just sit idly be like a lemon while you’re ears are being treated—your eyes get some fun too with a never-ending, never-repeating display of evolving digital art. For a writer, it is a perfect source of background music to keep your creative juices flowing without the annoyance of repetition creeping in. Jarre has changed my world once again.