IN THE 1950S, the experimental composer John Cage began to explore what would happen if some parts of a musical composition were left to chance. Music-writing, as he saw it, was doused in ego—like an artist’s self-portrait—and he imagined a new form that could essentially compose itself. Cage began by surrendering the structure of the piece’s sound or tempo to the I Ching, letting the Chinese divination system instill in the composition a randomness akin to flipping a coin.
His efforts paved the way for a new genre called generative music, which largely removes the composer from the process and instead relies on rules-based systems to write music in real time. Generative music has flourished in the digital age; today’s composers use algorithms to create streams of original sound, unleashing their laptops to riff continuously like improvisational jazz musicians.
Now, a number of mobile apps create a similar experience right on your phone. Endel, for iOS and Android, builds on the concept of generative music to create sound environments based on your surroundings. The app pulls data from your phone like the weather, the time of day, and your GPS location, then adjusts the sonic output to match your activity and state of mind, whether you’re at home, out walking, or driving in rush-hour traffic. It can siphon heart-rate and step data from your smartwatch and build a beat to match your pulse or footfalls. The algorithm composes a truly endless tune, using familiar chord progressions to keep things from veering into sonic chaos.
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