Last winter, the Yamaha musical instrument company introduced an extremely odd gadget called the Tenori-on. A self-contained sequencer that looks like an extremely upscale LITE-BRITE and sells for $1,200, it was produced in a limited U.S. edition of 60 units, 17 of which were still available as of a few months ago.
The Tenori-on is the brainchild of media artist Toshio Iwai, who two years earlier had created Electroplankton, an interactive Nintendo program in which artistically inclined gamers click on fish to make music. For Iwai's new invention, Yamaha videotaped a bunch of fairly cutting-edge musicians (including members of Tortoise, the Books and the Pastels, as well as Wilco producer Jim O'Rourke) as they "experienced" the Tenori-on.
Unfortunately, their creations sounded sufficiently indistinguishable that some began to wonder if the instrument would have any use beyond being novel. In fact, the only really listenable example I've found so far is a YouTube video by the improbably named Little Boots (British musician Victoria Hesketh), who uses her Tenori-on to cover Hot Chip's "Ready for the Floor." The Tenori-on is not likely to join the ranks of musical innovations like synthesizers, turntables, electric guitars and washboards.
Happily, would-have-been Tenori-on users do have another option. Bloom is a musical invention created by Roxy Music founder, U2 producer and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno. It sells for $3.99, as in less than $4. There's just one catch: You need an iPhone to use it.
Yet Eno's powerful little creation is so intriguing, so absorbing, so downright creative, that it practically justifies the cost of the iPhone itself (if not the two-year plan that comes with it). Basically, you use your phone's touchscreen to trigger sounds, which are a bit like piano notes might sound if you were to push the sustain pedal through the floor. Where you touch determines the pitch, you can play several notes at once, and the results are all looped so you can accompany yourself for hours on end.
The experience is intuitive, immersive and pretty damn Zen, although its simplicity doesn't preclude a few controls, including variable loop length and a choice of nine shifting drones that subtly color the overall musical experience.
Visually, Bloom is no less hypnotic or beautiful. The notes trigger splashes of color, like raindrops in a lake, as visual accompaniment. If there were still raves with chill-out rooms, a Bloom-enabled iPhone would be the perfect accessory. But you don't need a hit of ecstasy or a bunch of moon-eyed zombies drooling on you to appreciate it.
Nor is Bloom the only music app available. There are more than 200 so far the theremin and koto apps are both amusing with lots more on the way. Some just give you Mini-Me versions of guitars and pianos, which are kind of pointless, though not unexpected.
After all, technological shifts tend to spawn futile attempts to emulate what's already familiar, as when the first wave of commercial synthesizers came loaded with presets mimicking every traditional instrument imaginable. Eventually, technologies do come into their own (or don't), and something new results.
Of course, all of this is unlikely to create a revolution in music, technology or anything else. But at a time when culture is often reduced to passive consumption, Brian Eno and others just might help Joe Cell-Phone get in touch with his Inner Artist. And who knows where that could lead?