I asked Ron Herrema, who is a generative artist and developer a key question:
WHAT IS GENERATIVE MUSIC AND ART AND HOW ON EARTH DID YOU GET INTO IT?
He kindly blew my mind with his reply:
For the moment, I’ll assume that ‘generative’ is synonymous with ‘algorithmic’, though I suspect some people would make a distinction. Generative has become the more fashionable term in recent years, and I do like it better, as it suggests a system that gives birth, as opposed to one that functions as a rigid machine. On the other hand, I’m quite intrigued by the relationship between what we consider ‘organic’ and what we consider mechanistic, but that’s for another discussion.
So to answer your question, I suppose it started in 1985, when I first saw a demonstration of a personal computer controlling the playback of a synthesizer. At that point, it was the ‘one-man band’ dimension that appealed to me; but to be honest, I didn’t really discover the value of the computer algorithms until 1998, when I began writing my doctoral dissertation, which was a composition for orchestra. At that point it became very clear to me that my aural imagination, i.e. my inner ear, wasn’t up to the task when it came to filling in some of the details of the musical gestures that I was hearing. Also, by that time I had learned the rudiments of Forth and had done some scripting in HyperTalk. So it occurred to me, why not use code to fill in those missing details? In addition, in 1998 I had worked with Xenakis’ UPIC graphic synthesis system in Paris, so the idea of sketching gestures on the computer was settling in with me.
I tried to accomplish what I wanted to do in HyperTalk, but it was clear that that was really not the right tool, so I asked my teacher, Mark Sullivan, what he recommended I use. He suggested a few things, and after some experimentation, I chose AC Toolbox, a Lisp-based language and UI created by Paul Berg from the Institute of Sonology in The Hague. As a way of learning the Toolbox, I wrote a short eight-movement piece entitled Delicate Outbursts for sampled piano, which was based on a combination of code and gestures that I drew on the computer. Mark was very enthusiastic about that piece, so it was clear to me that I had stumbled on something potent, and in fact I composed my entire dissertation using AC Toolbox to flesh out the details either of gesture-based work or of seed concepts.
So it just turned out to be a very efficient way of accomplishing the compositional goals I had set for myself. And from there it was a simple step to begin to wonder about the potential of such a system, and to ask, for example, as did Herbert Brün: what is the minimal amount of constraint that needs to be placed on a random field in order to create meaningful musical distinctions?
Many years later, it was again Mark Sullivan who got me involved in digital photography as an art form, and I suppose it was this involvement in digital graphics that partly led me to begin to wonder how I could apply my algorithmic skills in the graphic world. One of my former colleagues at De Montfort University, Bret Battey, is both a composer and an amazing generative animator, so he served as a good model, and eventually one of the Masters students who I was supervising, Joe Turner, convinced me that I should try Processing. So in the late summer of 2009, I taught myself Processing and found it very accessible and powerful.
So yes, one does have to learn new skills. One has to learn how to program, at least if you want to work on the computer. But it helps to have tools available that make it easier for an artist to bring artistic skills into the world of coding without being completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the jargon of programmers. AC Toolbox and Processing both fit that bill. And yes, I think there is a paradigm shift, moving from the old ideal of the composer as the total master to a model in which the composer employs an algorithm as kind of assistant or collaborator, giving up a certain amount of autonomy without relinquishing it completely, and without relinquishing personal expressivity. At least, that’s how it works for me.
For Rons excellent apps and work go here: