On Tuesday Kanye West tweeted that his latest album, The Life of Pablo, was a “living breathing changing creative expression” and affixed the hashtag #contemporaryart.
Figuring out whether Kanye always intended Pablo to be this way or if it’s just the work of a brilliantly indecisive artist who, unlike some, has the power and ability to make snap changes at the drop of a hat remains to be seen. I’m going to wager that it falls somewhere between the two.
Since the release of the album a month ago, West has been updating The Life of Pablo on the streaming service Tidal, still the only official release for the album. The changes include things like new contributions from Sia and Vic Mensa on Wolves, which was originally 3m52secs long but now sits at a significantly altered 5:01. Frank Ocean’s addition at the end of the original Wolves now has its own billing as Frank’s Track, and slight lyrical alterations have been made to Famous (originally titled Nina Chop) , in which the line “She be Puerto Rican Day parade wavin’” has been changed to “She in school to be a real estate agent”.
Even before the release of Pablo, amid Instagram posts of handwritten track listings and three album title changes, there seemed to be a great deal of uncertainty about what record was even going to be released, despite Yeezy’s claims that it was the greatest ever made.
The question raised about the definitive function of art – and specifically music – in a contemporary setting, where most things are distributed and presented digitally and are thus not necessarily burdened by a physical format, is an interesting one. We live in a world where everything is edited live, where our biographies and avatars on all social media networks are a revolving door of updates, where our contributions and musings are constantly reshaped and reinterpreted. Change is the new constant. So surely it stands to reason that new artworks released in this world should be afforded the same malleability?
On a technical level, the technology exists for music to be released in a way that is constantly shifting, and it still seems to be a fairly untapped innovation. Take singer-songwriter Gwylim Gold’s Bronze format, via which he released his 2012 album Tender Metal so it changed the arrangements of songs with every play, offering up an almost infinite number of possibilities for each track. The songs themselves would retain their essence, but the dressing around them shifts based on algorithms at play within the app.
Elsewhere, Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers have been working with generative apps for some time. Bloom, Trope and Scape all allow you to set some parameters and hit go, and ambient music that presents differently with each use will be produced, alongside calming gradients of colour and interactive possibilities to record your own generative melodic loops by pressing the screen in different places.
On both albums I’ve produced as East India Youth, I have used software effects and synthesisers that are programmed to behave differently on each iteration. This randomisation introduces inspiring variations for the user while creating, but on having to decide the final versions of these parts before mixing and mastering the songs for general release, I’ve often had to solve the problem of the definitive version by creating several different versions and compositing them into something that would capture some of the spontaneity I experienced while creating.
While the idea of non-definitive and generative music has existed on the fringes for a while, it’s important that the idea of an album as a changeable object is represented in the mainstream, because it offers an exciting prospect. We have lived with definitive stereophonic versions of songs and albums for a long time now, but the artistic scope that is available in making new and exciting work that is constantly transformed either by whim, committee or algorithm is huge.
In a biography published in 1948 by his friend Jaime Sabartés, Picasso is quoted talking about the nature of an artwork being considered “finished”. “Have you ever seen a finished picture?” the painter says. “A picture or anything else? Woe unto you the day it is said you are finished! To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow: the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture.”
This article was written by William Doyle, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th March 2016 10.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010