Music, technology, utopia: The legacy of Pietro Grossi
Pietro Grossi: Excerpt from Create C (1972)
From the album Bit Art (2010)
On the basis of both his musical creations and his visionary perspectives on the fate of art in the digital age, the Italian composer Pietro Grossi (1917-2002) is one of the most important figures in late 20th-century music. Grossi’s career was dedicated to a radical new conception of creativity and artistic production, as both aesthetic and a social phenomena.
Like most electronic and computer music composers of his generation, Grossi began as a classically trained musician. He studied cello and composition, played in the orchestra for many years, and his early compositions from the late 1950s are for conventional ensembles such as the string quartet, albeit in a probing, post-Webernian idiom, as was the style of the time. Some of these pieces employed a pre-compositional approach known as combinatory analysis, which was inspired by Grossi’s reading of Joseph Schillinger's influential text The Mathematical Basis of the Arts.
His first contact with electronic music came in 1961, when he visited the Studio di Fonologia Musicale (Studio of Musical Phonology) in Milan, which was led by Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna. Here he realized Progretto 2-3, one of his earliest tape pieces, based on slowly changing sonorities formed by superimposed sine waves. Grossi would revisit this concept in an even more fundamental way in his later compositions Battimenti (1965). Another piece from this period, entited PG 4, was an ambient drone work created for a sound installation for an architectural exhibition in Florence.
Grossi founded the Studio di Fonologia Musicale di Firenze in Florence in 1963. It began in his home with a white noise generator and a few oscillators, filters, and tape machines. In 1965 the studio was absorbed by the Florence conservatory, where Grossi began teaching a course in electronic music, the first of its kind in Italy. In 1967, Grossi was given the opportunity to develop a music program for a GE-115 computer, provided by the Italian computer company Olivetti. Grossi programmed a number of pieces, including a fugue from Bach’s Musical Offering and Paganini’s Fifth Caprice. He also created his first original computer compositions, which demonstrated the experimental potential of the computer. All this music was included on a 45-RPM record that was sent as a Christmas present to 20,000 Olivetti customers.
In 1969, Grossi began working with computers on a regular basis at the National University Computation Center (CNUCE) in Pisa. At first the computer was able to output only a monophonic square wave of constant amplitude. Later systems allowed for variation in volume and timbre. The computer stored music as manipulable data which could be affected through a set of commands at the console, such as INVERT (to invert melodic intervals), SCALE (to change tuning), and MODIFY (to make global parametric alterations).
While many composers were drawn to the computer for its ability to perform complex musical instructions with absolute fidelity, Grossi had a fundamentally different conception of the potential of “computer music.” He saw the computer not as a means of precisely realizing the pre-formed music in his mind, but rather of liberating composition from the constraints imposed by human intelligence. Provided by humans with certain basic parameters, the computer can create music of a complexity and richness literally beyond imagination.
Grossi’s music from the early 1970s is to my ears the most exhilarating and original of his work. Pieces such as Monodia (1970) are stunning etudes in synthetic sound, using a single, monophonic sound chip to create skittering blasts of notes, twisted digital distortion, and trompe-l’oreille illusions of polyphony. Create C (1972), presented here, could be humorously described as “Ferneyhough in Super Mario World”: the primal timbres of early computer sound chips are pushed to their limits, creating a music of bewildering complexity and abrasive beauty. For all its intensity, this is still music of breathtaking, childlike directness, far from all pretense or ironic posturing. Grossi’s music not only anticipates but surpasses much of the computer music that would follow it in the 40 years between then and now.
Grossi’s later projects carried his radical aesthetic principles from music into graphic arts. In 1986 he developed “Homeart,” a computer program written in QBasic which created random visual patterns according to basic instructions— a kind of digital interior decoration. He later published a number of unicum books based on the Homeart program. Finally, in 1997, he and Sergio Maltagliati designed an interactive audio-visual composition called NetOper@. (This was a late manifestation of Grossi’s interest in long-distance music-making: in 1970 he established a telephone link between computers in Rimini and Pisa, and in 1974 he organized a “telematic concert” between himself in Pisa and Iannis Xenakis in Paris. This idea would later be taken up by the American computer music group The Hub in 1985.)
The composer at the console
The emergence of the computer as an instrument of what could be called “computer-aided composition” spelled the end of the division of labor separating the functions of performer, composer, and listener. Accordingly, Grossi envisioned a fundamental shift in the meaning of composition. His class at the Florence Conservatory was open to non-musicians: the computer was to de-specialize musical production, eliminating the long, lonely hours of study required under the old regime. The liberation from the drudgery of instrumental training would free students to become more well-rounded and enlightened members of society.
Grossi encouraged his students to do away with the concept of intellectual property, instead thinking of music as a constantly changing work-in-progress of which individuals are merely the temporary custodians. Existing music was not a sacred and inviolable cultural heritage, but rather a reservoir of material for future productions. This was a kind of “remix” aesthetic avant la lettre, but with an important difference: Grossi’s notion of musical re-invention was based not on recordings, but rather on the greater malleability afforded by musical storage in terms of digital instructions. This allows for more abstract transformations. For example, a given composition, when stored as data in the computer, could be analyzed with regard to pitch content, producing a statistical table of pitch-class frequency that forms the basis for a new composition with a similar tonal “color” to the original. Analogous processes could be undertaken with regard to rhythm, dynamics, and theoretically even timbre. Grossi writes:
Already twenty-five years ago, I was in close contact with all the researchers involved in electronic music, and we exchanged taped recordings each with a title and an author. And each time I got something, I was very happy to listen to what the other person had done. But I could also get hundreds of other pieces out of that tape by making use of the technology available at the time: variable speed tape recorders, filters, even scissors. Already we saw the prospect of freeing ourselves from the message, which earlier had been rigorously fixed on music paper and performed according to precise rules. Each tape-recorded phonic message became the point of departure for creating many others… From a set of information making up a classical, contemporary, or even extemporary piece created by the computer itself, it is possible to make an infinite series of transformations.
Grossi’s vision of the dissolution of the barriers between listeners, performers and composers was an outgrowth of the utopian thinking of the 1960s, which foresaw technological progress leading to the minimization of labor, freeing individuals for lives devoted to creative pursuits. As he put it, “[The present gives us] the image of a society characterized both by permanent education and research and by a frequent transfer from one activity to another. And in the fullness of time the leisure deriving from increased automation will give man the possibility of cultural enrichment and refinement. Today, practically speaking we have the possibility of solving our problems; the means are there—only the appropriate structures are still missing.”
Such a vision accorded with the idea of “composing” outlined in Jacques Attali's 1977 book Noise. Attali announced the arrival of a new paradigm in the history of music, characterized by the decentralized production of music outside the orbit of economic exchange. For Attali, as for Grossi, the emancipatory and democratic potential of music, aided by the development of technology, presaged a social order of equality and plenitude: Grossi invoked the words of sociologist Renato Famea, who foresaw a utopian anti-economy of “everything for everybody, effortless and valueless.”
As Grossi foresaw, the development of technology has decentralized and democratized musical creativity. But the old ways die hard. Collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to composition are still the exception, rather than the rule. Popular conceptions—and following them, money and power—are still in the thrall of a conservative mentality that favors marketable products above experimental processes, individual geniuses above creative collectives, and technology as a means of repeating what we know, rather than discovering what we don’t. At a historical moment in which the idea of progress threatens to wither into the private accumulation of consumer gadgets amidst the general destruction of the commons, Grossi’s vision of musical politics is as distant as it is pressingly relevant.
Still image from Grossi’s Homeart program
Played 220 time(s).
October 23, 2011, 3:49pm