George E. Lewis: “Voyager Duo 8”
From the album Voyager (1993)
The impact of the digital computer on music-making in the late 20th century goes far beyond the function of a perfectly docile performing robot to which it is typically reduced in the textbook history of electronic music. Some of the most creative composers of the past few decades have used the computer as a means of facilitating, complicating, or even participating in musical improvisation. (I’ve touched on some of the earliest efforts in this vein in earlier posts on the League of Automatic Music Composers and The Hub.) This is the approach taken by American musician and polymath George Lewis in his pioneering computer music program Voyager, developed in the mid 1980s.
The music is produced by the interplay between a 64-voice computer-controlled “virtual improvising orchestras” and two human musicians whose playing is converted into MIDI data by devices known as “pitch followers.” Every 5 to 7 seconds, a program subroutine shuffles the 64 synthetic voices, determining how many will be activated and whether they will carry over from the previous grouping or be brought in “off the bench,” so to speak. Further subroutines determine a bevy of musical details such as timbre of the active voices, the scales from which they draw pitches, their melodic behavior, dynamics, tempo, and many other parameters. Finally, with each run of the subroutine, a new kind of response to the players is decided: whether to “listen” to one, both, or neither, and how exactly to react to the musical input they provide. The result is what Lewis describes as ”multiple parallel streams of music generation, emanating from both the computers and the humans—a nonhierarchical, improvisational, subject-subject model of discourse, rather than a stimulus-response setup.”
Lewis emphasizes that his code is capable of generating music on its own; human input is entirely optional. By making the machine musically self-sufficient, he attempts to ”de-instrumentalize the computer”—to treat it not as a passive means of producing sound, but as a sentient musician in its own right. Guided by a “technologically mediated animism,” Lewis seeks to endow the computer with its own distinctive musical behavior, comparable to the sense of personality projected by human performers in the act of improvisation.
The dizzying variety of timbres, rhythms, and tones heard in a typical performance of Voyager was inspired by the concept of “multi-instrumentalism” developed by the members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose usage of many different instruments in a single performance allowed for a prismatically shifting ensemble sound “exceeding the sum of its instrumental parts.” (Lewis, who joined the AACM in 1971, tells the group’s story in his critically acclaimed 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself.)
What the work is about is what improvisation is about: interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations, and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect.
Lewis sees Voyager as an expression of African-American cultural practices that challenge the Eurocentric biases of much avant-garde music. Favoring a maximalist aesthetics of surplus over the austere classical ideals of balance and equilibrium, Lewis quotes the scholar Robert L. Douglas, who writes that African artists want “to add as much as possible to the act of creation…to add to life is to ensure that there is more to share.”
The code for Voyager was begun in 1985 at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam and finished two years later in New York. It was written in a programming language called Forth, which Lewis described as “appealing to a community of composers who wanted an environment in which a momentary inspiration could quickly lead to its sonic realization—a dialogic creative process, emblematic of an improvisor’s way of working.” This performance, featuring Lewis on trombone and Roscoe Mitchell on alto and soprano saxophone, was recorded in 1993 in Berkeley, California.
Played 155 time(s).
January 17, 2013, 4:26pm