Podsurfing and the future of music

I have over a week’s worth of music on my iPod, and yet I increasingly catch myself idly clicking through my playlist, thinking that there is nothing I want to listen to. And even when I find something I like, I rarely listen to the end of any song, instead clicking on to the next tune after a few moments of listening. My once symphony-sized attention span has shrunk to the size of a downloadable ring tone jingle. I flit from fragment to fragment, utterly jaded by the once-dizzying prospect of carrying every song I loved in a pocket-sized audio vault.

I have become an unhappy podsurfer, idly wading through a sea of music, desperately looking for something new. Not merely a new song, but an entirely new experience. The iPod’s mainstreaming of MP3 isn’t merely smashing CDs into oblivion and reshaping the music distribution system; the iPod experience is pushing us towards an entirely new form of music, a world in which the very notion of a song as a single identifiable work that is played and replayed will seem quaintly old-fashioned. Idle podsurfing is the first sign that we desperately want something beyond the static, predictable, repetitive song. Podsurfing is a sign that an entirely new musical experience lies just over the horizon and it will make the very notion of a tune obsolete.

Instead of writing tunes, musicians will write algorithms that in turn will generate musical compositions. The resulting experience is one in which the algorithm delivers a thematic experience, but without ever repeating the same specific sonic work twice. And this is not entirely a forecast because it is already happening in the videogame world. In fact, the first algorithmic music was created by Jaron Lanier back in 1982 as the sonic wallpaper in his elegant game, Moondust. Today, likely as not, the music you hear in your favorite videogame wasn’t composed, but algorithmically confected.

Algorithmic music remains in its infancy, but its appeal is obvious: the listener will never hear the same piece twice, and the best algorithmic compositions will create an experience that comforts with its familiarity, while also capturing the listener with its endless, generative novelty. The composition becomes the sonic equivalent of Heraclitus’ river — each time you return, is seems like the “same” river, but in fact you never step into the same river twice.

One day, algorithmic music will become a huge star-making machine, and in fact musical infonauts already are exploring the space. In 2003, composer and musician Brain Eno released the CD “Bell Studies for The Clock of The Long Now,” a collection of compositions exploring what the carillons of a 10,000 year clock might sound like. Included on the CD are two numbers built using an algorithm written by computer scientist Danny Hillis. Though the resulting compositions are traditional static compositions, they offer a glimpse of what algorithmic music can deliver.

So where does this leave me with my iPod? Algorithmic music doesn’t need vast memory to store tunes, for there are no tunes to store. A single algorithm taking up a few tens of k-space could generate centuries of music. I could store a vast library of algorithmic themes in a fraction of the space contained in my iPod. Instead of being memory-centric like today’s MP3 players, the player of the future will be defined by processing power and specialized synthesizers capable of reproducing every known instrument plus myriad others that exist only in composers imaginations. I’ll bet that eventually, the new devices will have extras like 3-dimensional sound capable of recreating sonic landscapes from vast symphony halls to intimate jazz clubs, all the while delivering perfectly registered 360 degree directional sound.

And what of traditional static compositions? Traditional music won’t disappear (old media rarely ever disappear entirely) but over the course of this century (or sooner) it will become like ballet, a treasured but rather musty form of experience patronized by high-brows. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be swapping algorithms and admiring the stars who coded them.