Apps can help us fall in love with music again

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    The Next List: Scott Snibbe

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By Scott Snibbe, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Scott Snibbe is a media artist, filmmaker, computer app developer and researcher in interactivity. Snibbe’s artwork is on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art. Some of his large-scale interactive projects have been incorporated into concert tours, Olympics, science museums, airports, and other major public spaces and events.

Snibbe was recently profiled on CNN's new show, "The Next List," which airs Sundays at 2 p.m. ET.

For those of us buying music 20 years ago, the process was much like asking someone out on date. We’d carefully look over an album in the record shop, staring down its cover to imagine how the music on the disc inside might sound.

Then, sometimes after hours of deliberation, we'd nervously take the plunge at the till, glancing up at the clerk to see what he or she thought of our choice in his subtle body language: the roll of eyes, a sneer or a nod. If you’ve never experienced it, go rent "High Fidelity."

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    After bringing the album home, we’d walk it into our living room, slip the record out of its sleeve, and press it onto the turntable. Now, captive for an hour, we’d sprawl on the carpet before the speakers and let the sound wash over us. While listening we’d hold up the 12” album, getting lost in the cover art as we tried to decipher its codes, then poring over the liner notes and lyrics sleeve for further clues to its meaning.

    I fondly remember this bonding with an album as the “falling in love” period. If an album was good, we’d become nearly inseparable for the next few weeks, eagerly meeting each other at home each evening, gradually getting to know one another better and better. Only after a few weeks might we tape the album and start toting it around in a Walkman, or in the car, letting it becoming the soundtrack to our daily lives.

    Today, with the digital download, we’ve lost that falling-in-love period and gone straight to the brushing-our-teeth-together-in-the-morning phase. Now the music is more of a backdrop to our lives. Or, even worse, some of us now have “casual relationships” with music where we listen to a track once or twice -- partially, distracted, at work, on the subway -- and then cast the song aside for the next new thing.

    The mobile app gives us the chance to return to falling in love with music. Because an app fills our visual and tactile senses in a way that goes far beyond a cardboard sleeve, we’re able to give it our undivided attention. We can enjoy long stretches where we’re neither regretting the past or anticipating the future, but completely absorbed in an artist’s interactive musical, visual world.

    Some people ask whether music should be interactive. Don’t artists want to carefully craft a song so that it is experienced the same way over and over again? And aren’t musicians interested primarily in sound, rather than visuals and interactivity?

    Yet when you look at musicians today, it’s the rare artist who sees herself as merely creating a one-dimensional stream of sound. Rather, their art encompasses an entire worldview including live performance, videos, costumes, lights, real-time graphics, and, often, strong political and sexual views. Since the birth of rock and roll (and especially in the MTV age), the images and visuals of musicians have become as important as the music itself.

    When we expand our horizons before the dawn of recorded music, back to the nineteenth century, we discover that the “killer app” of that era was sheet music. Musical performers had little role before recordings, and music was instead experienced in interactive form.

    Bringing home sheet music, one could place it on a music stand and play it any way one wished: with a piano, a banjo, the voice, or a flute. People played together socially or alone, and they could extend or compress the song, changing its lyrics and tempo, halting, restarting, and filtering the song through their personalities and tastes.

    And of course, as we look back to the dawn of art itself, back to the thirty-five-thousand-year-old flute  recently discovered in France, we realize that music is first and foremost interactive, evolving person-to-person across hundreds of generations.

    Watching the paleoethnomusicologist in Werner Herzog’s recent "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"  play an ancient vulture-bone flute, our spines tingle as the tones from its pentatonic scale play "The Star Spangled Banner." We see that music is an interactive thread that connects us to our ancestors—the only art form in which we can participate precisely the same way they did.

    Yet apps are not just a return to our interactive past. They also represent something fundamentally new. With the ability to create an experience that is neither as open-ended as an instrument, nor as closed as a music video, apps let us play in a customized, highly designed world created by a musician that never existed before. Like the birth of cinema or opera, musical apps represent a synthesis of formerly separate media—videos, instruments, interactivity, and performance—into a seamless whole.

    Björk’s Biophilia App is the first feature-length expression of this new idea, letting us step into Björk’s mind and experience music the way she does, filling all our senses. We touch viruses to experience generative music, tunnel through crystals to learn about musical structure, ignite lightning beneath our fingertips to produce arpeggios, and dive into seven other unique worlds, song-by-song. By the end, we feel the union of music, nature and technology that flows naturally through Björk’s body and mind.

    We also have a problem now in the music industry, in which recorded-music sales have collapsed for all but the top tier artists due to illegal downloads. So, apps may also represent something more down-to-earth: a way for musicians to make a living off of their work again.

    It’s too early to tell, but we are very excited to be here, with our own small efforts in apps like Bubble Harp and OscilloScoop, and with the universe-encompassing collaboration with Björk. They stretch us to consider the app medium entirely on its own terms, as a new form of art and human expression.

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