How will we listen to music in future? In an age where we have watched technology develop to allow us to create music in new and innovative ways, it seems strange that a stereo bounce of our finished work remains the primary way we choose to distribute it to our listeners. There's a quote in Brian Eno's diary from 1995 in which he imagines a future conversation about listening to records with his grandchildren whereby one of them incredulously asks: "You mean, you listened to exactly the same thing over and over again?!" When you stop and think about it, it does seem remarkable—as the live experience of listening to music guarantees a subtle or dramatically different experience each time, is it really the case that recorded music should be so different?
Seemingly not. While the confines of playback devices such as CD players and iPods faithfully replay the information they're given, touchscreen devices are capable not just of allowing us to interact at the creative, music-making stage but also at the playback stage. Most people reading this will be familiar with the concept of "stem mixes"; which are either individual tracks or small groups of tracks bounced separately from a larger multi-track session. These are often prepared if a track is to be mixed or remixed in a different studio to that in which a piece was originally conceived. Imagine if the same preparation was applied to commercially available music which could be downloaded not in CD or mp3 form but as an app instead. Suddenly you'd be able to interact with the elements of a track directly, pulling them around in volume, tone, space or even randomizing such parameters to ensure that each listening experience is completely different.
Well, imagine no longer. This is exactly the approach Björk is taking with her latest record Biophilia, whose tracks are presented as a collection of separately-designed apps (screenshot of Biophilia's Virus app above), whereby each has seen her collaborate with a different developer to create a new listening/watching experience. It's brings together aspects of gaming (you can manipulate the screen to change the narrative and thereby the music) alongside the popularity of mobile touch-screen technology and, of course, each app provides the thrill of interacting musically with the sound of a visionary artist.
There are aspects of remix culture here too. Conventional wisdom suggests that if you commission a remix from an artist who works in a different musical field, the appeal of your project can grow. Again, DJs and producers have moved beyond this simple concept with uncommissioned and mash-up mixes often proving more popular than those an artist or label might have paid for. The fact that remixing in this way has become common practice means that Björk's approach should prove popular—we're familiar with the idea that the elements of a track don't have the "untouchable" status they might have had a few years ago and that our interactions with musical parts are more sophisticated. When I was a child, I was fascinated by the "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories which provided not just one ending but a whole series of possible outcomes, depending on the personal choices of the reader. Perhaps it's time for us to leave the idea of the stereo bounce behind and play a similar role in our musical playback experiences.