Space Music: Autechre album art channels Conway's Game of Life

"Exai" Image courtesy Warp Records

"People think that mathematics is complicated. Mathematics is the simple bit, it's the stuff we CAN understand. It's cats that are complicated."

That's a quote from mathematician John Horton Conway (as you'll see in the video below), the man responsible for a fantastic bit of cellular automation called The Game of Life. Conway developed the zero-player game back in 1970 to test the notion that life's complexity arises from very simple rules.

The game serves as a model, in which three limited rules are imposed on a handful of pieces on a grid. As a result of these rules, the pieces live, die or pop into existence on the grid.

The video below and this article provide a more in-depth explanation, but here's the amazing part: Startling levels of complexity arise once this system is set in motion. The patterns appear to move, reproduce and behave almost as if living creatures.

In other words, we see emergent complexity in action.

What does this have to do with the electronic music duo Autechre? Well, as pointed out on the WATMM forum, the album cover for 2013's "Exai" appears to reference the autonomous cell activity in Conway's Game of life. And this makes perfect sense as Rob Brown and Sean Booth frequently engage in algorithmic music composition -- sort of a musical equivalence to cellular automation.

For example, I chatted with electronic musician Richard Devine about algorithmic music composition back in 2011 and he had this to share about the creative process:

"(Rob and Sean) use Max MSP and a lot of the same software and hardware. (...) Max MSP, for example opens up with a blank screen and you basically think of what you want to create. So you can right click and open a menu of options that allow you to drop in an object. From this object you can virtually connect other objects that can do specific operations. You have the ability to create synthesizers, samplers, and sound processing chains. You can freely define how you want to control those oscillators, parameters and functions whether it'll be a live input with your voice or you if you want to control them with a hardware controller, sensor, or touch screen controller of some sort like an iPad or Lemur. With this approach you'll get into these situations that wouldn't normally happen. So you kind of discover these things as you create them and modify them."

In other words you set the environment, the rules and you watch complexity emerge -- and then you're free to intervene and tweak things like a plague-slinging, flood-happy god.

I'm not certain to what degree Autechre utilizes such Game of Life techniques on the latest album, but it's a fascinating notion to take with you into deep complexity of this brooding 2-hour album. Now let's listen to a little of it... [soundcloud url="" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.