Opal Limited’s Bloom, one of the first music apps for the iPhone, released all the way back in 2008, set a high bar for the burgeoning app industry. An immersive musical ‘pool’ that users simply touch to make sounds that echo as they ripple outwards, Bloom ($4) was released earlier this year for the iPad (Bloom HD also $4).
Given his app’s status as one of the first music apps to make a big impression on music fans, we decided to talk with Peter Chilvers, who co-created Bloom with experimental music luminary Brian Eno, to get his take on music apps past, present and future.
First, a little background is in order. Firmly entrenched in music, technology and gaming for well over a decade, Chilvers first collaborated with Eno on so-called “generative” applications (those that generate new music using certain rules and user interactions) working on the Spore videogame series in the ’90s. They co-created Bloom and Trope ($4), as well as albums and soundtracks including for last year’s The Lovely Bones.
Chilvers says the idea for Bloom existed before the iPhone was released, but that when it was, he saw a perfect fit for Bloom.
“We’d discussed a number of generative approaches we could try after Spore, and Bloom came from a prototype I assembled in Flash using sounds from Brian’s extensive library,” Chilvers explained to Evolver.fm. “It was immediately obvious that it suited a touch screen. Almost on cue, the iPhone was announced. It was the perfect home for it — previously any generative music required its listener to sit at a computer, which was never a very satisfying experience. The iPhone was portable, powerful and designed with music and visuals in mind.”
For Chilvers, the key principle of generative music apps is that they must be egalitarian, meaning that they don’t deny users on the basis of their musical expertise the way traditional instruments do.
“The biggest reward for me from Bloom has been the knowledge that people with no musical training can experience the feeling of creation and improvisation, which usually requires years of practice at an instrument,” said the developer. “I’ve had numerous emails from parents with children as young as six months who are using it.”
Bloom and others have achieved this easy, playful quality (see also: LaDiDa), but Chilvers sees the majority of music apps developed to date as orientated towards more complex music creation tools. Too few put that advanced functionality in the hand of ordinary civilians, in his opinion.
“As an experienced musician, I’ve found plenty of quite specialized tools [for iOS] — Looptastic and Korg’s apps in particular — to be quite inspiring to work with, although I’ve had to spend a large amount of time to become completely comfortable with them.”
Unfortunately, he says, “apps from artists and musicians [who] want to add an extra level of dynamic behavior or interaction to their work,” such as Bjork’s apps for her forthcoming album Biophilia, remain “few and far between.”
Exceptions exist, though they failed to gain major traction, indicating that an opportunity still exists for app developers to forge new ground with music.
“Remember Snow was released early on, and is rather charming,” explained the developer. “Blurry clouds swirl and bells chime as you move your finger around the screen. It’s extremely simple, but has a very pleasing feel. Flow: Qin is an extremely eccentric music app, which allows lets its user curate a batch of random guitar sounds and symbols into a coherent sequence. I can’t say it’s the most intuitive interface I’ve come across — actually it’s downright bizarre — but it has real character, and I can’t think of anything else like it.”
The app creator, musician and game developer sees the blurring of those boundaries as crucial to innovation in the music app space.
“At the moment, content is divided into very specific categories: music, books, movies, apps, etc., each with their own rules and restrictions for purchase and playback,” said Chilvers. “I think in time, these will all be seen to be overlapping parts of the same spectrum. Perhaps ultimately all content will end up being some form of app.”