01 June 2006
Electroplankton (and at Amazon.co.uk) is the first software I've seen on the Nintendo DS that has impressed me. It's basically a pocket toolkit for creating generative music, divided into ten sections. There's one where you draw lines across the screen and fishes swim along them. As they do, they make a sound which changes in pitch according to how the line is drawn across the screen. There's another section where four fishes swim across the screen and you can record a different sample for each and they're all looped together. The most engrossing module is one where you have fishes bouncing between nodes on a grid. Each node represents a different note and has a pointer to another node, which you can turn to make the fishes go to a different node next. As the fishes bounce around the nodes at different speeds, they make layered music that reminds me of some of Brian Eno's work. In another module, you press different boxes on the screen to play notes. Each melody is looped four times, so you can build up layered pieces that change over time. It's all good fun, and the most accessible way to dabble with generative music.
Some of the levels are little more than toys, but others are sophisticated enough that you could consider them to be instruments. This poses some interesting questions: if I write music using Electroplankton, who owns the rights? The manual (PDF, 6MB) doesn't say, but does invite you to perform using Electroplankton without asking for any money for the privilege. Clearly the designer Toshio Iwai has invested time and creativity in making the level designs, algorithms and sounds that make my music possible. But without my creative input, the music would be random. Electroplankton does feature a computer-plays mode, so perhaps Nintendo would argue that my creative input is unnecessary? In which case, are we all just wasting our time?
We could go around the houses on this for ages, but it does seem amiss of Nintendo not to clarify the issue up-front. Still, if we are all wasting our time, there are worse ways to do that than listening to ambient music while watching cartoon fishes with big grins dancing.