Euphonic user experience: a look at interactive album apps

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Published:  April 13, 2015

Matilda Edwards tracks the short history of the interactive album app, and where this experimental union of art, sound and digital technology might change the way we consume music.

In late 2010, Björk sat within Apple’s Cupertino headquarters with an unusual idea: she wanted her next album release to take on the extra dimensional form of a music-driven app. “People are getting a lot of music for free by pirating it,” she told Apple’s executives. “But they are going to double [the amount of] shows because they want a 3D, physical experience.”

Her team was ready to start, but they needed Apple’s help. “I showed Apple my project and they said that it was something they were really excited about right now — where apps are not just a superficial layer on top of a song,” she told Wired in 2012. There was a problem, however. “Basically nobody [had] ever done this before, where you have both an app [in the App Store] and a song in iTunes at the same time, and their app department is competitive with their iTunes music department. We were asking them to work together and they were, like: ‘No, they don’t do that’.”

But Björk persisted, and convinced Apple to create a unique page for the release. The result was her 2011 album Biophilia and its accompanying interactive app. It was the first of its kind, and suitably complex. It introduced a new way to think about music in its digital form, and was noteworthy not just for its coalescence of music, art and technology, but also because she thought of it before Apple.

Since then, the idea of the interactive digital album is allowing listeners to experience music and connect them with the artist in new ways. While the potential of the technology is still being measured, the opportunity to experiment has been taken up by bands as diverse as Beck, Philip Glass, Skrillex, Lady Gaga, The Presets and One Direction.

Back in 2011, Biophilia allowed the user to act as the artist — its ten mini-apps, housed within one large ‘mother app’, all corresponded to a track from the studio album. Allowing the manipulation of musical elements, it broke that fourth wall between creator and audience. with each song teaching the user to manipulate a different musical element. ‘Crystalline’ uses visual crystals to allow the song’s complex and delicate structure to be reordered, for example, while ‘Virus’ has phrases that repeatedly multiply and propagate, and ‘Thunderbolt’ lets you ‘play’ the lightning to change the bass line yourself.

Still from Biophilia

Still from Biophilia

Still from Biophilia

Still from Biophilia

Biophilia-screenshot-iPad-Solstice

Still from Biophilia

More recently, Radiohead have released Polyfauna, which exists instead as a standalone download, rather than an accompaniment to a new album release. The app uses tracks from the band’s King Of Limbs recording sessions, along with various images and animations to create what is almost a game, as the user navigates a virtual world. Created by esteemed UK digital design studio Universal Everything, the app utilises the iOS’s accelerometer, prompting the user to spin furiously, duck up and down and contort their body to drive the app’s various ‘levels’, eventually resulting in a raw, organic form of dancing to the music.

Still from Polyfauna

Still from Polyfauna

Still from Polyfauna

Still from Polyfauna

Where the original Polyfauna focused on promoting Radiohead as a modern multimedia brand, an update to the app (Polyfauna I) perhaps hints at what’s next for the band. The September 2014 update features new ‘worlds’ and new tracks, including the band’s frontman Thom Yorke harmonising with his own voice over various beats. Through this experimentation, Radiohead are using openly testing and trialing with their audience, something app ‘updates’ provide over the slick production of a studio album.

Canadian band Metric released an app as an interactive complement to their album Synthetica — putting their audience in the DJ booth, allowing them to remix 11 cuts from the record. While there are many DJ apps already available, Synthetica is outstanding in its visual component and, as the album was recorded using analogue synthesisers, an entirely appropriate extension of the media.

The pre-eminent 2011 release of Biophilia and the more recent Metric Synthetica app were both developed by designer and developer Scott Snibbe. Having been involved in the early emergence of apps, his pioneering work has been fundamental in this digital expression, which — lacking a typical formula or process – was instead informed by his history in filmmaking.

“Our process is to start high-level, with visual inspiration, sketches, and written treatments, and then gradually move towards design and implementation in code,” he explains. “It’s much like making a movie — I was trained as a filmmaker and that’s the approach I take: trying to understand the deepest, most abstracted intent of the artist, and then to re-imagine and interpret that vision in the medium I’m expert in.”

“There’s room for creativity, discovery, surprises, and improvisation at all the steps along the way. Along with things that don’t work out and have to be abandoned.”

Still from Synthetica

Still from Synthetica

Still from Synthetica

Still from Synthetica

Still from Synthetica

Still from Synthetica

These visual, interactive experiences see various new skills and art forms collide to create multifaceted works that may be yet to see their pinnacle unreached. The app might become the favoured choice to lead music sales from uncertainty into a new period of prosperity, but as it becomes more common, the spirit of pure experimentation will be impacted.

For now, it’s a Wild West of creative potential. In 2014, Biophilia became the first downloadable app in MoMA’s (Museum of Modern Art) collection. Design writer and curator Paula Antonelli explains that the Museum’s acquisition of the software represents an exciting new era of design, music, technology and art.

“Collaboration, creativity, open-mindedness, curiosity, and endless talent are the basic ingredients of most great examples of art and design. True innovation — technological, social, performative — supported by great art is a mesmerizing gift to the world,” says Antonelli.

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