Generative Music and Video Games


What lies at the intersection of analog and digital sound? What would a “feedback loop” of compositional practices, grounded in digital technologies and experimental musicality, look and sound like? 2014-15 5CollDH undergraduate fellow Andrew Wang asks those questions, and more, in a series of musical pieces he’s developing for his project. In his own words:

Generative music refers to a system in which sound elements with limitless possible combinations are set into place, creating a piece of music that is infinitely changing. Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” is one of the earliest examples, consisting of theoretically identical tape loops that fall out of sync with each other due to imperfections in the tapes and the machines. Brian Eno, who is credited for coining the term “generative music,” has also experimented with generative systems using tape loops and computer software in his ambient music.

In the aforementioned examples, generative systems are used to create a musical space that is somehow detached from the human intent of the original content put into the system. “It’s Gonna Rain” generates continuously changing rhythmic structures from the overlapping tape loops. The linguistic content of the preacher’s voice in the tape loop gradually fades into the background, as the interference patterns begin to occupy the foreground. Brian Eno’s ambient music, on the other hand, occupies a slowly unfolding headspace in which melodies and harmonies are no longer emphasized as they are in traditional songs, but rather are meant to be unassuming and unobtrusive.

The possibilities of generative music systems are being pushed in the soundtrack for the video game “No Man’s Sky.” The game itself is a generative system in which procedurally generated interplanetary environments form the physical setting. The systems that generate the environment also generate the game’s ambient soundtrack, forming a complementary audio visual experience. The sounds triggered in the game are sampled from a soundtrack recorded by the post-rock group 65daysofstatic, who provided the game developers with all of the individual tracks and alternate takes as fodder for the system.

The “problem” with generative music, in comparing it to more traditionally composed pieces, is that there is no “narrative arc.” Whether or not this matters is up to aesthetic debate. However, “No Man’s Sky” is pushing generative music into the realm of scoring, which is a sonic art with entirely different aesthetic goals, that are arguably more in line with the possibilities of generative music.

Andrew Wang
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Andrew Wang (Amherst College '14) is one of six 5CollDH undergraduate fellows for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Andrew Wang
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