For the last 30 or so years, throughout the succession of technological leaps that took us from cassettes to iTunes, the song has gone on relatively undisturbed as the fundamental unit of pop music. Albums have taken a hit, certainly, but songs have persevered. As has our way of interacting with them: We press play, just like we always have. With the new mobile app from the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, though, the song becomes a bit slipperier. Here, you press play, and then press a whole bunch of other things, constructing the song you want to hear, on the fly.
The app, called n, includes three different "songs," each with its own unique interactive schema, though all explore the same essential idea—a sort of musical Choose Your Own Adventure. For one track, an elegant radial menu lets you select which lyrical snippet you want to hear next, moments before the words are sung. Another sends you off on a GPS-assisted scavenger hunt to unlock an orchestra’s worth of instruments, and then lets you toggle which combination you want to hear as the song plays. When the music stops, you can save your creation or take it from the top and build anew.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen people experiment with what music consumption can look like in the age of the app—Bjork’s Biophilia rushes to mind—but Drexler’s is an ambitious and beautifully realized example of it. He refers to n as an "aplicanción"—a portmanteau of aplicación and canción, or song—and it was a hybrid effort from the start. Basically, the songs were composed with the intention of being interactive.
Jacobo Bergareche, a friend of Drexler’s and part of the Spanish outfit Wake App, headed up development, and it was at a party he threw where the app was born. The developer’s partner, Oscar Hormigos, had always been a huge fan of Drexler’s, and when he finally met the musician that night, he took the opportunity to show him a strange and totally singular new iPad app—Bjork’s. "We told Jorge Biophilia was okay," Bergareche recalls, but they thought they could do better. Drexler, who had worked as a surgeon before becoming a musician, was intrigued by the technical challenge and signed on.
The process took nearly 15 months from beginning to end, and the attention to detail shows. The app’s clean, diagrammatic interfaces look like something Edward Tufte would produce, and the designers ironed the interactions out so the songs play fluidly and seamlessly no matter how much you meddle with them.
Still, it’s hard to imagine bespoke apps becoming the future of pop music. Most the time we don’t want to do anything more than press play, and I don’t think that’s something to feel bad about. But the sheer, sparkling differentness of n does make you consider just how zombified our collective consumption of music has become, and how much we all take the Internet’s endless, instant buffet of songs for granted. As Bergareche sees it, something distinctly new is our only hope for reversing the trend.
"Users today don’t value ownership of songs or albums, they just value access to music," he says. Think about your daily drip of Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube. "We thought that songs would be valuable products again if we associate an experience to them." And maybe there’s something to that. Recently, Bergareche moved to the U.S., where he’s in talks with a handful of artists about doing aplicancións of their own.