Comments on “furniture music”

There’s not going to be anything really new or earth shattering in this post. It’s just me getting a lot of thought on these issues down in writing. (I’ll try to go back later and fill in some references if I’m too lazy to put them in this draft.)

For a long time I’ve been interested in the idea of “music you listen to with attention” vs. “music you listen to while doing other things.” Sometimes for good, but usually not, there is some kind of music playing in the “background” of most human activity.

Furniture music” is an approximate English rendering of the French musique d’ameublement which, according to Wikipedia, was coined by composer Erik Satie in 1917. But the first time I ever encountered the term was on a LP by Bill Nelson called Red Noise.

The concept was of music that was just “there” in the space, much as the pictures that hung on the walls or the furniture that sat on the floor. Brian Eno pursued this concept with some very beautiful ambient pieces; my favorite of which is Thursday Afternoon.

But the whole problem with all recorded ambient music was the fact that a recording has a limited time to play. Back in the early days of 78 RPM records, a composition couldn’t be more than a few minutes long before the record had to be turned over or changed for the next one. The next advance was the long-playing (or LP) record. Now music could last 20 minutes (and possibly a bit more) without interruption. And of course the CD extended this to at least 74 minutes (although you can record up to 80 minutes on modern CD-Rs.)

This is great and has allowed composers to create pieces than can develop exteremely slowly.

But, even as long as a piece can be on a CD, every time you play it it will be the same piece. Even if it’s a piece you love, your ears will start to recognize certain passages, over a number of plays.

Eno thought about this too, and speculated that in the future, it would be possible for composers to release pieces that were just parametric sketches which would take their form from random processes. A little-known project that was heading in that direction was the SSEYO “Koan” system (which in fact Eno was a great advocate of).

  • A digression about the SSEYO Koan system

The Koan software system allowed the composer to “author” a composition by specified hundreds of different parameters, such as the tempo, key, instrumentation, rules for note and chord generation, dynamics, etc., all of which could change during a piece according to either strict rules or random processes. A piece could potentially run for hours, days or more without repeating itself, although it would have a certain “feel” or “sound” since the “rules” or guidelines for the piece were partially specified.

Obviously, to play back such a piece, the listener would have to have the Koan playback engine. This wouldn’t really have to be a very complicated piece of software, and in fact SSEYO seemed to turn its energy more into the web and mobile sonification areas.

I spent many hundreds of hours experimenting with the Koan system and came up with a fair amount of interesting material. But I basically used that as raw material for pieces which I assembled with other tools.

As far as I know, Koan development stopped at version 2.7 in about 2001. Attempting to access failed, and I just read that Tao Group, which acquired the Koan IP,  is no more as of about June 2007. But the founders of the old SSEYO have moved on and apparently are continuing to develop “generative music software” under the name of “Intermorphic” (see )

  • Other generative music options

In 2006 or so I learned about an intriguing device released by music/sound terrorists FM3. This is a little plastic box about the size of a pack of cigarettes, which runs on 2 AA batteries.

FM3 constructed nine drones, varying from two seconds to 42 seconds, which repeat endlessly in the listener’s ear until the “track” is switched to the next drone (or the two AA batteries run out).

I thought this was one of the coolest ideas imaginable, and was delighted when a friend showed amazing insight in buying me one for my birthday.

The coolest thing is that you can download the drones for your own manipulation. I imported them into an Ableton Live set, randomized their playback, and added some fadeins/outs to create my own 70 minute long CD of the material.

The problem is that this still doesn’t do the trick. Once you start a Buddha Machine, it will just play that same track forever. What someone needs to do is build the Vishnu Machine or something that has some knobs and/or buttons on it, that do what Koan does and creates semi-random compositions that can run forever without repetition.

I guess you could argue that an iPod does something like this. You can have potentially thousands of songs in it and just hit shuffle. But that’s still not the same.

One could easily write a little program that accomplishes this. In fact, as I study ChucK and Csound I can see easy ways to do it. But the listener will have to install the same program on their computer, and will only be able to run the piece on it.

Some avant-gardeists have created sound installations where they take a number of loops whose different lengths don’t have common factors. For instance, if you take three loops that are each some different prime number of seconds long, you should be able to play them simultaneously without repeating the composition for the product of the lengths.

Those are some of my thoughts as of this morning. I’ll be revisiting this post and maybe add some more thoughts later…


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