Music by VICE

Harness Brian Eno's Soundscapes on Your iPad

Brian Eno's software partner Peter Chilvers talks to us about the recent redesign of their Trope music app.

by Jonah Beyer
12 July 2015, 12:30am

Images courtesy the artists

Trope is a generative music app on iTunes that allows you to move abstract shapes that vary in tone. Designed by composer Brian Eno and musician/software engineer Peter Chilvers, Trope blends visual and sonic technology. 

To-date, the musically-inclined design duo has released three music apps since 2008, including Bloom and Scape. To celebrate the recent redesign of Trope, The Creators Project caught up with Chilvers to learn more about how he approached this new version, how hardware advancements influenced it, and what the future of music might look like. 

Chilvers began working on Trope in 2009—about six months after they'd released Bloom—but the app's initial breakthrough came in an unexpected way. "Brian had visited me in Ely; it was an extremely hot day, and we were sitting outside the vast cathedral that forms the centre of the town looking at the app," Chilvers recalls. "Brian realised that he was focusing less on the graphics and more on the smudge lines on the screen. It was also a day when the sky was full of contrails and the combination suggested a new look using spreading, dissolving lines. I went home and came up with some graphical processes based on feedback loops and drying paint. If fit the app perfectly and I think it rather surprised us both!" 

The Creators Project: First off, can you tell us about the redesign? 

Peter Chilvers: The underlying functionality hasn’t changed beyond an improvement in responsiveness. Most of the credit for the new menu layout should go to Brett J. Gilbert, who has worked on all of the apps I’ve done with Brian, as well as Quarta, a digital board game app with a generative soundtrack, which we’ve created together and just released.

First, I spent awhile playing with the original apps (which were designed for iOS 2!) and separated functions involved in playing—changing the mood or sound—from more rarely used functions such as "Settings," which users would rarely use. Stage two was for Brett to look at that and challenge whatever elements didn’t make sense, a rare and extremely useful skill. Then he did that mysterious bit of magic that good designers do, altered a few fonts, adjusted some spacing and suddenly everything balanced and breathed

What do you think separates Trope from your other apps such as Bloom? 

I think Trope is visually stronger and more inventive. Sonically, it’s in more challenging territory; I like to think of Trope as Bloom's strange little sister. Trope benefitted from experience, too. We hid some processes that had been in the control of the user—the interval until a tone repeats, for example.

What specifically were you able to improve utilising iOS 8? 

The primary influence came from the design aesthetics introduced with iOS 7—we’ve removed borders, let images take over as much of the screen as possible and introduced plenty of space.

How do you think having Trope available on the iPad enhances it? 

The iPad hadn’t been introduced when Trope came out, nor had the Retina display. I loved the way it looked on the iPhone, but when I saw it on the larger, clearer display, it was like jumping from television to cinema. I hope it encourages the user to slow down, step back, and appreciate what they’ve made. I’d encourage anyone who’s only ever used Trope on the iPhone to try it out on a Retina iPad, it’s another experience altogether.

Can you explain what "Sonema" means, and how it figures into the app? 

Sonema was a word Brian coined as a response to the limitations of the word “music." We distinguish between theater and film, but there isn’t the same distinction between live and recorded music, even though they’re often very different processes. Trope certainly has no analog in live music and the listener is involved more actively in the experience than most forms of music usually allow.

Do you think generative music is the future of composition or just another tool at our disposal?

I think it’s a future, but as film, theater and computer games all coexist and offer different experiences, I’m sure the same will be true for all strands of music, whether live, recorded, generative or something Brian has not yet coined a word for.

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Click here to check out Trope on the App Store. 


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Brian Eno
generative music
Generative Design
ipad apps
Peter Chilvers
music app
music apps