James Blake turns to background music
In the age of streaming, music has become the fuel for the internet’s endless white noise machine. Lo-fi ambient music—much of it extracts and dilutes hip-hop’s most engaging sounds—has become a big business for wellness companies selling increased productivity through sound curation; platforms like Spotify and Apple use it as a feed for playlists with names like “Apply Yourself” and “Back to Work.” (For those who prefer the more traditional relaxing sounds, there are also white noise podcasts, which allow their owners to raise thousands of dollars a month for delivering static and nature sounds.) Between the Lofi Girl channel on YouTube and apps like Portal, Tide and Brain.fm now have an endless stream of music for passive listening, mostly to be ignored as it quietly affects your sanity. It is inactive music, intended to isolate an active mind, to help the listener concentrate, sleep and live better.
These are the goals guiding electronic singer-songwriter James Blake’s new album ‘Wind Down’, created in collaboration with AI-powered app Endel, which collects data about individual users from devices such as the Apple Watch and generates personalized ambient music in real time. (The company claims to “deliver faster, more consistent focus” than pre-programmed music from streaming providers.) Blake, best known for his moody, self-titled debut from 2011 and Mercury Prize-winning “Overgrown” , from 2013, is only the latest artist to “collaborate” with Endel; others include R.&B. singer-songwriter Miguel, avant-pop artist Grimes, and minimalist techno musician Plastikman. “Wind Down”, created by processing Blake’s original voice and music through Endel’s artificial intelligence technology, is intended to prepare the listener for bed. Composed almost entirely of chiming keys, airy synths and disembodied vocals, the album sounds like much of Blake’s solo music, but without structure, meaningful phrasing, drum programming or lyrics. The listening experience is soothing, meandering and trippy, like navigating the strange architecture of the smartphone game Monument Valley.
Endel cites ambient music pioneer Brian Eno as inspiration, who is credited with coining the term “generative music” to describe compositions that iterate and evolve over time. Over a decade ago, Eno created, along with musician and software designer Peter Chilvers, a kind of precursor to Endel called Bloom, which allows users to create a cascade of tones by touching a screen. With settings to listen or create, the app allows the user to interact with auto-generated music – each new press produces a chime note of a different pitch, depending on where the screen is touched , which repeats in the system shift sequence. Even when left alone, the app continues to generate its endless composition. If Bloom makes music that reacts to touch, Endel makes music that reacts to all other available data. But whereas Bloom – and similar Eno-Chilvers projects such as Trope and Scape – were envisioned as a tool for musical discovery and creation, Endel sees music as secondary to what sound can provide to the body: the artists only serve as inputs. “It’s fascinating to hear how my music blends with Endel’s AI science-based sounds,” Blake says in a bit of ad copy. “I think we’ve come up with something that’s not just beautiful or even meaningful, but really practical.”
The sounds recorded on this album are not songs per se, but they have surprising reflections of melodic elegance. There are silent, buzzing passages interrupted by loud vocals and busy riffs that streak like marbling. The album’s fifth track, titled “5th Soundscape”, is representative of the album’s balance of calm and activity: a synth line holds like the horizon as piano arpeggios dance along the surface. . The record is soothing and even pretty, but it also has a certain side to it that simulates restlessness more than rest. The highly functional feel-good music is often arranged to hang on from a distance, never threatening to disrupt, but these scintillating tracks seem to be coming closer and closer, like a rolling fog.
Blake’s art style is well suited to the sounds of nightfall. It’s easy to hear the stuff of these soundscapes in the spectral voice and piano intro of a song like “Radio Silence,” from Blake’s 2016 album “The Color in Anything,” or the muffled coos and undertones of “Life Is Not the Same,” in last year’s “Friends That Break Your Heart.” All of the soundscapes of “Wind Down” feel slightly haunted in this way, and even when they take the listener into a meditative space, they never completely let go of the sense that the world looms beyond.
Yet, listening to “Wind Down,” one gets the feeling that the soul of Blake’s music has been severed from the machine and drifts on its own. Instead of layered, propelling songs, these arrangements seem suspended in the air, untethered to any semblance of personality and instinct. While often charming, it’s by far Blake’s least interesting album – and it’s disturbing that it’s on purpose. Projects like this exemplify one of the most concerning developments of the streaming era: a pivot away from song-based music that stimulates the senses and toward formless music that dissolves into the atmosphere. In some ways, Endel and his collaborations seem contrary to Eno’s vision for generative music – instead of a system that creates unique, haunting music with something akin to human intelligence, here we have the music of a human artist, stripped of spontaneity and transmuted into data. .