Brian Eno brings music composition to augmented reality

In an old carburetted water gas plant in Amsterdam, a small group of people wander slowly inside a circle demarcated by six large screens. As they go, they pinch the air in front of them. It’s a precise gesture, thumb and forefinger clasping directly before their faces, sometimes tentatively, sometimes in rapid succession.

This is Bloom: Open Space, a new augmented reality installation by musician and artist Brian Eno and his frequent collaborator Peter Chilvers. The people in the screen circle – “Screen Henge”, Chilvers calls it – are wearing Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality (AR) headsets. As they pinch, they are creating “blooms” – AR bubbles that burst into being with a musical note before floating up towards the ceiling, growing larger and eventually popping.

The “composers” of these blooms can see them appear in front of them in 3D, floating in the air. (As it is AR, not VR, they can also still see the room and other people around them.) External observers can see 2D representations of the blooms on the screens. Each one contributes a note to the overall sound in the hall, which is a gentle, meditative electronic track underpinned with ambient sounds such as cricket-like chirping.

Bloom: Open Space is Eno’s latest foray into generative music, and his first into AR. Generative music, a term coined by Eno, refers to music that is created by a system, so that it is always changing. In this case, the music constantly evolves as different people interact with it. Speaking at the launch of the installation in Amsterdam’s Transformatorhuis venue, Eno described generative music as a system where the composer controls the input but does not precisely control the output.

“Imagine that composing could be something more like gardening than like architecture,” he says. “You make some choices, you plant them, and then they grow. But, of course, you don’t control precisely how they grow. In fact, that’s the excitement of gardening – that things happen in ways you don’t expect.”

The AR installation follows Eno and Chilvers’ 2008 iPhone app, also called Bloom, which allowed users to similarly control audio and visual elements by tapping a screen. The most challenging part of converting the idea into an AR experience, says Chilvers, was taking it from two dimensions to three. On the app, you can touch a higher point on the screen to create a higher note. But with the headset, you can spin around to face in any direction, resulting in a much bigger canvas. When you wear the HoloLens, a small dot appears in front of you. This is your cursor, which creates an AR bloom when you pinch it. The exact note it makes depends on the height of your gaze – looking up so the cursor is higher will result in a higher pitch – and your directional orientation.

It’s more intuitive than exact; you can’t map out an invisible keyboard and play a tune. “The system isn’t set up so that you can replicate a Beethoven sonata,” says Chilvers. In fact, the number of sounds you can make is rather limited. This is a very deliberate choice; Bloom could have been like a theremin. “But if you’ve ever played a theremin, it’s a very hard instrument to play – and it’s even harder to make something you actually want to listen to again,” Chivers explains.

Instead, the sounds are limited such that you can’t really play a wrong note, and rather than descending into a chaotic cacophony as more people join in (six to 12 people can currently participate at the same time), it remains harmonious. The system is also selective about which blooms contribute to the shared experience. “For a note to appear on the screen it’s got to be the right note at the right time, so if you’re firing off thousands and thousands of them, you won’t see them all on the screen,” says Chilvers. “So it’s not just augmented reality; it’s filtered reality, too.”

For Eno, using technology to limit people’s options makes for a more interesting output. “This is also the reason that people still make interesting music on violins and guitars and, very frequently, extremely boring music on synthesisers,” he says. “It’s because with a violin or a guitar, the choices are so limited that you can quickly establish this thing called rapport with the instrument.”

This is why he uses his simplest synth, the EFM1 in Logic, more than any other. With too many options, he says, people just spend their time going through all the different sounds: “You realise after a little while that what’s missing is not the sound, it’s the idea.”

When you put on the HoloLens, you can see your own holographic blooms as well as those of others around you and those on the screens. When you create your own blooms, the visual aid makes it easy to distinguish their individual sounds within the music; it’s harder to tell who is making which sound when you’re observing from the outside.

Chilvers, who developed the piece, says that he initially started testing with a version that played a completely random note whenever he interacted with it. “But I’ve always found that I’ve felt it was playing the note I intended to play,” he says. “I think that’s something in human consciousness – your brain actually retrospectively takes credit for the action.”

Eno agrees. Often, he says, he will put on big light shows that have unsynchronised visual and sonic elements – but people are convinced that they are synchronised. “There is a part of our consciousness that wants to find patterns and wants to think things are related, and will do so, whether they are or not,” he says. “It’s just the way we see the world. We want to find patterns; we can’t bare the idea that it might be chaotic.”

The technology is still in its early days – Microsoft currently markets HoloLens only to developers and commercial organisations – but the installation hints at how AR could be used for artistic applications as well as purely functional ones. It still has limitations, the most immediately obvious being the bulk of the headset, which is lighter than many virtual reality displays but can nevertheless soon start to feel uncomfortable, and the limited field of view. Look to the right or left and you’ll soon see the edges of the display; Eno compares it to “looking through a letterbox”.

But the work achieves the desired effect, which Eno characterises as a “sense of slowness”. Walking around creating holographic musical bubbles with your fingers is quite hypnotic, and surprisingly immersive. Not much happens, but it consumes your focus; I could imagine it as a kind of AR meditation technique.

It’s a nice contrast to many other VR and AR experiences out there, which tend to go for the opposite effect with giant T-rexes and action movies. “I think if people take anything away from the technology, it may just be that sense that things don’t have to be so in your face and so large,” says Nicholas Kamuda, creative director for HoloLens. “I think people have seen probably some dystopian projections of the technology, and I don’t think it has to be like that.”

The Bloom: Open Space installation will be on show at the Transformatorhuis in Amsterdam from February 21 to February 25, 2pm – 10pm daily


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