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Doris Norton: “Machine Language”

From the album Artificial Intelligence (1985)

Italian-born composer-producer Doris Norton is one of the unheralded champions of early electronica. Norton’s music from the 1980s occupies the stylistic intersection of synth-pop, industrial, and techno music.

Long before launching a solo career, Norton was the voice of the Italian progressive rock band Jacula, led by her husband, Antonio Bartoccetti. The group released two albums in 1969 and 1972. Norton’s own work began to appear in the 1980s. Some of her earliest tracks, such as “Eightoeight” and “Underground” (both 1980), with their syncopated drum machines and clockwork sequencer lines, strikingly anticipate what would later be known as techno. (These tracks bear comparison to Charanjit Singh’s legendary 1983 record Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat). 

Norton’s mid-decade releases are classic musical documents of the dawn of the PC era. She embraced the personal computer as a musical instrument uniquely capable of realizing her artistic visions: 

In the late sixties I had already conceived computers as “personal.” I have always trusted in the benefits of  solitude; [being] alone means freedom… What’s better than a “personal” computer for materializing ideas, by oneself? [source]


Albums such as Personal Computer (1984) were sponsored by Apple (and featured the company’s logo prominently on the cover) while Artificial Intelligence (1985) was purportedly created entirely via computer keyboard, whence the MIDI information was fed to a Roland JX-8P synthesizer. Later albums Automatic Feeling (1986) and The Double Side of Science (1990) were underwritten by IBM. 

While the beat-oriented style of Norton’s music aligns her with such global fellow-travelers as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk, her championing of the PC as a tool for self-sufficient musical creativity also connects her to more artsy musicians such as Pietro GrossiLaurie Spiegel, and the League of Automatic Music Composers. Norton’s predilection for the bright, glossy timbres of early digital instruments also recalls Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader’s bizarre 1982 one-off Erdenklang.

While her music remains largely out of print and inaccessible, Norton’s early records have recently begun to receive the inevitable rediscovery treatment. Her 1981 album Raptus was re-released in 2011 by Italian label Black Widow Records, and her other albums from the early 80s are likely soon to follow.

Played 503 time(s).

May 01, 2013, 7:00am

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American composer and installation artist Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) speaking at Ars Electronica 1989 in Linz, Austria

February 24, 2013, 3:34am

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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 203 time(s).

January 17, 2013, 4:26pm

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Present: “Ram ram va faire ‘pif paf’”

From the album Le poison qui rend fou (1985)

Beginning in 1969 with the founding of the groundbreaking “concept band” Magma, France and Belgium became the breeding ground for a distinctively continental take on the originally Ango-American phenomenon of progressive rock. Ditching operatic vocals in favor of a primarily instrumental mix and integrating contemporary influences from jazz and metal to contemporary classical, groups such as Univers Zero and Art Zoyd forged a unique sound that is to my ears among the most valuable contributions to the music of the late 20th century.

One of the second-generation manifestations of the Franco-Belgian “avant-prog” movement was Present, a group founded by guitarist Roger Trigaux, in 1979. After contributing to the first two albums of the pioneering chamber rock group Univers Zero, Trigaux broke off in order to pursue a more electrified, guitar-based sound. Present has released 10 albums over three decades of existence and remains active to this day. 

The opening track of the band’s sophomore release, Le poison qui rend fou, shows the group in prime form. While the rhythm section hammers out short, syncopated riffs whose sudden juxtaposition recalls the ostinato patterns of early Stravinsky, Trigaux’s guitar and Alain Rochette’s keyboard unfold a melodic polyphony at once jagged and elegant. The track also features a rare vocal element in the first few minutes, with singer Marie-Anne Pollaris belting out an angular atonal melody over a tripping funk groove. While the band’s hectic interplay at times approaches a state of collective noodling, at their best they display the exhilarating potential of rock-influenced music freed from the shackles of conventional song form.


Played 189 time(s).

October 29, 2012, 4:47pm

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Pierre Barbaud: “Saturnia Tellus” (1980)

From the album Musique algorithmique

Another piece in the archaeology of computer music comes into focus with the music of the Algerian-born French composer Pierre Barbaud (1911-1990), who was previously featured in a joint post between Acousmata and Continuo’s Weblog. Among the first to make intensive use of the computer as a musical tool, Barbaud pursued the goal of “automatic composition” for three decades, developed a number of early programming languages, and collaborated with like-minded figures in a manner more typical of scientific research than of artistic creation. And yet Barbaud remains a non-entity in stubbornly provincial English-language musicology, meriting not even a token entry in the illustrious Oxford Dictionary of Music, nor in Gerhard Nierhaus’ recent book (to my knowledge the first of its kind) on algorithmic composition.

Barbaud’s early works, written in the 1940s, adopted the dominant international style of neo-classicism and frequently bore ironic titles such as Cinq minutes de mauvaise musique (“Five Minutes of Bad Music”). Beginning in the late 40s, he began composing film music, and that genre became his primary source of income in the following decade. His scores include soundtracks for major French art-film directors such as Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. (He also made appearances as an actor in a number of Resnais’ films, including Hiroshima mon amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad.) A vigorous autodidact, Barbaud also taught himself advanced mathematics and several foreign languages. Toward the end of the 1950s, he struck upon the idea of employing probability calculus to lighten the labor of composition.

Around 1960, Barbaud founded the Groupe de Musique Algorithmique de Paris (GMAP), joined by Roger Blanchard, Jeannine Charbonnier, and Brian de Martinoir. In the same year the group produced a collective composition called Factorielle 7, which was one of the first computer-generated scores. The piece was built around 5040 (7! = 1x2x3x4x5x6x7 = 5040) combinations of a twelve-tone row, devised using aleatoric techniques.

From 1959, to 1975, Barbaud found an institutional home at the French computer company Honeywell Bull. In exchange for unfettered access to the firm’s powerful mainframes, Barbaud was tasked with promoting the company through conferences and musical events—in essence, the international computer conglomerate took on Barbaud as a composer-in-residence, a uniquely 20th-century form of musical patronage! 

In 1975, financial difficulties at Honeywell Bull led Barbaud to seek a new sponsor, which he found at the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), where he worked in close collaboration with computer scientist Geneviève Klein and electrical engineer Frank Brown. In the spirit of scientific collaboration, the three released a number of works under the collective moniker BBK (Barbaud Brown Klein). Barbaud also corresponded with visual artists such as Vera Molnar and Manfred Mohr, who pursued analogous paths in their work. 

Barbaud remained with INRIA until his death in 1990. During this final creative period he produced a number of tape compositions with evocative Latin titles, such as Terra ignota ubi sunt leones (Unknown Land Where There Are Lions, 1975), Vis terribilis sonorum (The Awesome Force of Sound, 1976) and Saturnia Tellus (Saturnian Land, 1980). Sadly, apart from the LP shared by Continuo and the recent release on the French label Terra Ignota, little of Barbaud’s music has seen the light of day.

Barbaud’s compositional and theoretical work centered on the effort to automatically generate musical structures from sets of rules encoded in algorithms and executed by computer programs. He formulated his project of musique algorithmique in a number of highly technical (and, alas, untranslated) books, including Initiation à la composition automatique (1965), Musique, discipline scientifique (1968), and Vademecum de l’ingénieur en musique, which was left unfinished and published posthumously in 1993. In addition to his theoretical works, Barbaud wrote monographs on Arnold Schoenberg and the Viennese classical composer Joseph Haydn.

For Barbaud, algorithmic music embodied the rational spirit of modernity, whose goal was “to submit the appearance of sound events to calculation, to demolish what is conventionally called ‘inspiration,’ to channel chance into charts and graphs—in short, to replace the mystical passivity of the composer in the presence of the ‘muse’ with lucid and premeditated activity.”

But far from being a “divine clockmaker” overseeing a perfect musical machine, Barbaud was a musical gardener, surprised by the unexpected flowerings of his botanical experiments. There is an incongruity that lurks in many algorithmic, mathematical, and formulaic approaches to composition: hyper-rationality of construction is paired with indeterminacy of sonic result. In this, Barbaud’s project resembles the “cybernetic music” of German composer Roland Kayn, whose vast, recursive modular synthesizer patches were meticulously built yet took on an unpredictable and quasi-sentient life of their own. (Indeed, Barbaud originally called his music “cybernetic” before settling on “algorithmic” as a more fitting descriptor.) But unlike Kayn, Barbaud is uninterested in feedback as a generative principle and focuses on tonal and rhythmic relations as opposed to textural metamorphoses. His music is closer in spirit to that of Iannis Xenakis, with whom he maintained a relationship of amicable rivalry.

Composed entirely by algorithm, Barbaud’s 1980 composition Saturnia Tellus gives witness to the composer’s quasi-metaphysical quest for self-creating “infinite music.” (His fascination with musical automatism stems from an unlikely influence: the Viennese composer Josef Matthias Hauer, who developed a mystically tinged and highly idiosyncratic form of 12-tone composition in the first half of the 20th century.) As Pierre Mariétan explains, the work is the result of a process whose outcome is unforeseeable but whose initial state is absolutely determined by the composer. Barbaud sets in motion a musical process which runs its course without intervention. He forbids any ad hoc modifications of the musical output; if it is found aesthetically insufficient, the composer must adjust the “controls” of the generative algorithm and then let it run again. 

An example of Barbaud’s code, using the language ALGOM 4

October 13, 2012, 12:17pm

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Richard Pinhas: “The Western Wall, Part 2”

From the album: L’Ethique (1982)

Richard Pinhas, the Sorbonne-educated student of philosophical rock star Gilles Deleuze, is best known as the prime mover behind the pioneering instrumental rock band Heldon, featured previously on Acousmata. Pinhas first began releasing records under the name Schizo in 1972. The first Heldon album appeared in 1974, and Pinhas put out his first solo LP in 1977. These projects are all characterized by powerfully evocative instrumental tracks laden with pulsing sequencers and Fripp-esque guitar filigrees. Though heavily influenced by the German Krautrock phenomenon, Pinhas’ music is more dramatic and developmental, and at times approaches the large-scale formal ambitions of progressive rock. Taken together, Pinhas’ albums from the 1970s and early 1980s represent an ambitious attempt to unite the experimental tendencies of rock and electronic music—the guitar and the synthesizer. 

The ensemble Pinhas put together for L’Ethique could be seen as a kind of supergroup of 1970s French avant-rock, featuring three alumni of the legendary “concept band” Magma: Clement Bailly (drums), Patrick Gauthier (synthesizer), and Bernard Paganotti (bass). In “The Western Wall, Part 2,” the group delicately constructs a wall of sound around a single, repeated synthesizer melody, creating a musical mise-en-abyme that summons a mood of epic melancholy.

Played 493 time(s).

September 20, 2012, 9:49am

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Arcane Device: “Pink Porous Rock”

From the album Engines of Myth (1988)

One could write a history of experimental music through the lens of feedback as an acoustic principle. Perhaps the best known exponents of this technique are David Tudor (particularly in his 1972 composition Untitled) and Toshimaru Nakamura, who in 1997 gave up his guitar in favor of a “no input mixer.” Another prolific and little-known musician to explore the world of feedback is the New York-based musician and visual artist David Lee Myers. Between 1987 and 1993, Myers led the solo project Arcane Device, in which he used custom-built feedback circuits to create unique, otherworldly sonic organisms.  

Instead of electroacoustic feedback—think of the microphone picking up the output of its connected loudspeaker—Myers employs what he calls “purely electronic” feedback, in which the signals of effects circuits are doubled back onto themselves in recursive configurations. There is no “original” acoustic source, only the electrical fluctuations bouncing around and redoubling within the system. When amplified, the result is an unpredictable and always changing sonic output that Myers gradually tames, molds, and whittles into musical objects, both through studio recording and live performances. 

The outputs of electronic devices - particularly those intended to create a modification of some kind to an audio signal, such as time delays - are fed, via custom-built mixers, to their own inputs. In this way, these devices never receive signals from the ‘outside world’, and instead feed on a diet of their own product. A whole new function of these devices appears, bearing little relation to their intended purposes. The way I envision it, the devices are provided the opportunity to ‘sing their own songs’; the resulting sounds represent nothing other than the free circulation of electrons within. In effect, these sounds come from nothing, and more than one observer has proclaimed them to arise ‘from the ether’.

Myers views feedback and self-oscillation as means of unleashing the latent acoustic energy of the universe: he does not compose music so much as create the ecosystem in which it can arise. He seeks the liminal zone between nature and humanity, where music is neither “random science” nor the “gesture of an artist’s hand.” Since 2000, Myers has pursued these ideas into the optical domain as well, exploring the visual expressions of electrical feedback through the digital processing of patterns generated by an oscilloscope.

Played 323 time(s).

August 10, 2012, 11:08am

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Severed Heads: “Adolf a Karrot?”

From the album Blubberknife (1982)

The fragmentary and fascinating global history of early industrial music becomes richer with every rediscovery of once-forgotten pieces of the puzzle. One recent find for me is the seminal Australian act Severed Heads. Founded in Sydney in 1979, the group existed in various forms until its ultimate dissolution in 2008. Like many other acts of the period, Severed Heads skirted the fluctuating boundaries between industrial, experimental, and electronic dance music. Earlier records exploited tape loops and gritty, distorted synthesizer textures, while later releases took on the polished, sequencer-driven sound of 80s electro-pop.

"Adolf a Karrot," a noisy, bouncy, and strangely upbeat little anthem, originally appeared on Blubberknife, the group’s third album, which was issued on cassette tape in 1982. The track was re-released on the 2008 compilation Adenoids 1977-1985, which collects Severed Heads’ early recordings on a 5-LP set.

Played 219 time(s).

July 09, 2012, 3:01pm

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Flying Saucer of Sound: The Omni


Behold the “Omni,” a fantastically futuristic musical instrument conceived by Guy Reibel in 1985 and designed by Patrice Moullet three years later. The gently curved surface of the instrument consists of some 108 colored plates, each with its own MIDI channel, which are connected to an octophonic computer audio interface with 20,000 sampled sounds. If this video of a duo performance is any indication, the Omni is basically used as a massive drum machine in the round.

June 13, 2012, 9:57pm

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Pierre Bastien: “Musc exquis”

From the album Mecanium (1988)

French musician Pierre Bastien (born 1953 in Paris) is best known for the invention of the Mecanium, an automated orchestra in which a heterogeneous assortment of instruments is played by custom-made contraptions built from a sophisticated construction set called Meccano (known in the United States as Erector Set).  Bastien traces the concept back to 1968, when he altered the sound of his metronome by placing kitchen pans on either side of the device. In Bastien’s words, “tick-tock” became “shpling-bonk,” and an idea was born.

A typical song features a short repeated pattern played by the Mecanium accompanying Bastien’s on his miniature trumpet. The resulting style can be described as quirkily melancholy mechano-jazz. (Bastien’s jazz influence is made explicit on this album in what is surely the strangest cover version of the song "Caravan" ever to be recorded.) Tracks such as “Musc exquis” show a more experimental side, and Bastien’s earlier work, under the title of Nu Creative Methods, is often quite noisy, though still based on a textural duality of mechanical loops and improvised material.

Interestingly, alongside his musical activities, Bastien has moonlighted as an academic, writing a doctoral thesis on the early-20th-century writer Raymond Roussel, whose idea of a “thermodynamic orchestra” driven by changes in temperature helped inspire Bastien’s project. The experimental musician/PhD career path seems to be a uniquely French phenomenon, also undertaken by the likes of Richard Pinhas and Jean-Marc Vivenza.

Like many other 20th-century artists, from the Dadaists to Jean Tinguely, Bastien plays with the imperfection of the machine, its capacity for unexpectedly transcending the intentions of its human masters. ”I like the way the machines don’t always play what I want. In fact, sometimes they play something better. They escape the creator in a way.”

Played 345 time(s).

May 21, 2012, 9:23pm

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Jean Tinguely: “Sculpture IV” / “Sculpture XII”

From the album Sculpture at the Tate Gallery (1983)

The Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) won’t be found in any history of experimental music. But his characteristic Rube Goldberg contraptions, often built from refunctioned industrial detritus, are as fascinating for their sounds as for their visual appearance. Each of his kinetic sculptures is a miniature symphony of mechanical noises, an enchanting ensemble of whirs, clatters, clicks, and clanks.

Tinguely’s most famous work, Homage to New York, was a huge assemblage that self-destructed in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Though such pieces can of course be read as a dark commentary on Western civilization’s industrial nihilism, Tinguely was no technophobe or Luddite. The target of his artistic critique is not technology itself, but its destructive role in the routinized, joyless culture of mass production and consumption. For Tinguely, the machine stands as a reminder of technology’s playful and generative potential: “The machine is above all an instrument that permits me to be poetic. If you respect the machine, if you enter into a game with the machine, then perhaps you can make a truly joyous machine—by joyous, I mean free.” 

Meta-Harmony II (1979)

Tinguely’s form of mechanics is a “meta-mechanics,” which suggests an analogy with physics and metaphysics. From a machine one demands order and precision, reliability and regularity. Tinguely’s point of departure is mechanical disorder. In his early works, change and movement obey only the laws of chance. He pits the emancipated machine against the functional one and gives creations a glorious life of improvisation, happy inefficiency, and shabbiness, expressing an enviable freedom. (K. G. Pontus Hulten, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age)

This excerpt, and many more recordings of Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures, are available for download at the always amazing Continuo’s Weblog. As Continuo notes, the sound-world of these remarkable constructions can be compared to the (admittedly very different) work of Jean-Marc Vivenza and Pierre Bastien.

Played 325 time(s).

May 06, 2012, 10:28pm

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Tom Johnson: VI3

From the album Rational Melodies (1982)

Using a variety of compositional techniques based on mathematical and algorithmic manipulations, the American composer Tom Johnson has devoted his career to exploring musical analogs to fractal self-similarity, first described in the mid-1970s in the groundbreaking work of Benoit Mandelbrot. One simple example of this kind of technique is to define a set of rules for replacing individual elements with sets of other elements, and then applying these rules repeatedly to create nested self-similar structures. An excellent overview of Johnson’s compositional techniques can be found in his paper "Self-Similar Structures in My Music: An Inventory," presented at IRCAM in 2006. Johnson has also described his methods in greater depth in a nearly 300-page tome entitled Self-Similar Melodies.

Johnson was a student of Morton Feldman, whose own highly idiosyncratic form of minimalism I have described elsewhere. You might not guess the master’s influence: while Feldman’s music is typically spare and laconic, Johnson’s is often playful and garrulous. Moreover, Feldman was famously dismissive of formalist and mathematical techniques of composition, advocating intuition above all.  But both composers shared the desire to create music free from the dominant Romantic/expressionist paradigm— to create, in Johnson’s words, “something more objective, something that doesn’t express my emotions, something that doesn’t try to manipulate the emotions of the listener either, something outside myself.” 



Excerpts from Symmetries, a series of graphic scores begun in 1979 and created with a musical typewriter

The pieces comprising the collection Rational Melodies are fascinating miniatures of algorithmic composition. Johnson’s music as a whole, while characterized by a systematic and rationalist approach, is aesthetically quite diverse. Nine Bells (1979) is based on the ritualized movement of the performer in a 3 by 3 matrix of hanging bells. The maniacally systematic Chord Catalog (1986) presents “all 8178 chords possible in one octave.” In Music for 88, which features pieces such as “Pascal’s Triangle” and “Euler’s Harmonies,” various numerical phenomena are demonstrated at the piano, with the idea being that one can “hear” the otherwise abstract principal at work. Here the didactic slant of the music gets a bit heavy-handed for my taste. Still, Johnson’s work contains some of the most fascinating investigations of algorithmic and formulaic compositional strategies of the last 30 years.

Rationality, or more precisely, deductive logic, has seldom been the controlling factor in musical composition. Composers are usually more interested in inspiration, intuition, feelings, self-expression. Lately, however, there has been a tendency for composers to give up individual control over every note, and rely on factors outside themselves. Pieces have been controlled by the wind, by chance, by the idiosyncrasies of tape recorders, or by unpredictable variations in electronic circuity, for example, and it seems to me that composing by rigorous adherence to logical premises involves a similar way of thinking.

Alongside his work as a composer, from 1972 to 1982 Johnson was also an influential music critic for the New York paper The Village Voice. His collected writings were published in 1989 as The Voice of the New Music, now available as a free download.

Played 239 time(s).

April 17, 2012, 2:29pm

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Morphogenesis: Excerpt from “Improvisation 11.11.88”

From the album Prochronisms (1989)

Formed in 1985 as a spinoff of a seminar on “New Music” taught by Roger Sutherland at City University in London, Morphogenesis was a collective of experimental musicians who developed a distinctive approach to collective improvisation. The group included among its ranks a number of veterans from the far fringes of the British musical avant-garde: Sutherland was an alumnus of Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, Clive Graham was an occasional contributor to Nurse with Wound, and Michael Prime had worked with David Jackman's project Organum.  

Morphogenesis extended the “live electronics” tradition initiated in the 1960s by such figures as John Cage, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the performer/composers of the Sonic Arts Union. More particularly, they worked in the lineage of pioneering ensembles such as AMMMEV, and Gruppo d’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Like those groups, Morphogensis practiced improvisation using experimental sound sources to create emergent, highly textured musical performances. However, the group’s aesthetic is far removed from the spontaneous sensibility of its forebears. Their sound is darker and more concentrated, closer to ambient and drone than to the free-jazz influences of the earlier groups.

"The group’s aim is to unify and integrate many diverse sound elements, (electronic, vocal, instrumental and environmental) within a context of continual evolution and group dialogue. We construct some of our own instruments in addition to using adapted or prepared conventional instruments - usually violin, piano and acoustic guitar. The range of sounds are further extended by means of filtering and other forms of signal processing. Contact microphones are used to amplify the sounds of bubbling water and other small sounds. All these acoustic sounds are enhanced by electronic filtering etc. One electronic instrument we use is a bioactivity translator which is used to measure the voltage potential of living organisms — including plants, fungi, and the human nervous system — and translate the biological rhythms into electronic sound. Other electronic instruments include a 4 speed portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and a multi-speed CD player, both of which are used to work with short sound samples. We do not use laptops or pre-recorded material for playback." [source]

The group’s unique aesthetic derives from their characteristic use of synthetic and processed instrumental sounds to generate undulating sonic processes evocative of the primordial phenomena of nature. This biological/telluric coloration is reinforced by the group’s titles for its albums and compositions, such as “Deep Virus,” “Solarisation,” and “Entelechy.” (Some of these titles are inspired by the speculative scientific writings of the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake.) According to Prime, Morphogenesis sought to distance itself from the cerebral associations of avant-garde music, striving instead to address the auditor on a purely sensory plane: ”I don’t think any conceptualization is necessary to appreciate our music. The listener can easily relate to it on a basic level of feeling and emotion, an appreciation of interesting sonic textures and soundscapes.”

Played 162 time(s).

February 14, 2012, 9:45pm

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Francis Bebey: “Akwaaba (Welcome)”

From the album Akwaaba: Music for Sanza (1985)

Born in Cameroon in 1929, Francis Bebey was a brilliant musician and public intellectual, and a powerful advocate for African music in the wake of the decolonialization of the mid-20th century. A cosmopolitan who lived for a time in France and the United States, Bebey was an important figure in the global music scene from his first albums in the 1960s until his death in 2001.

Before settling into his career as a globetrotting ambassador of “world music” fusion, Bebey wore a variety of professional hats. During the 60s and 70s he was a radio journalist in France and worked for the information service of UNESCO. Bebey was also an active writer, producing a number of highly successful novels, as well as collections of essays and poems. In 1969 he published an important musicological study entitled Musique d’Afrique.

Bebey’s compositions fused traditional central African elements with aspects of American popular music and, occasionally, European classical music, such as “Kasilane” for the crossover-happy Kronos Quartet. His primary instrument was the guitar, but the sound on many of his records is dominated by the sanza, a plucked idiophone popular throughout Africa, where it is has many different names and variations. It is commonly known in English as the “thumb piano.”

"One day God, dying of boredom in a world where He so far had created nothing, built a sanza according to the counsels of Imagination. When He began to play it, He found that each note created something around Him: the sun, the moon, good weather and bad, the forest, the savannah, the desert, the village; then man, followed by woman, and by hundreds of millions of children of all colors." (Francis Bebey)

Played 199 time(s).

October 01, 2011, 11:22am

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Charanjit Singh: “Raga Madhuvanti”

From the album Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1983)

I’m famously ignorant when it comes to the history of beat-oriented electronic music—which is, after all, what most people mean when they talk about the genre. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the electro/techno wing of electronic music, even less that I dismiss it with Stockhausen-esque disdain (however valid some of his points may be). For whatever reason, I just haven’t absorbed the stylistic lineage, which is much more complicated than an outsider might guess, as shown by the exemplary Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music.

Still, in spite of my ignorance of the finer points of history and genre-development, I know what I like. And this album by the Bollywood session musician Charanjit Singh has absolutely blown my mind. 

Created using the cutting-edge technology of a Roland Jupiter-8 analog synthesizer, a TR-808 drum machine, and a TB-303 bass sequencer, Singh’s album is a visionary fusion of the sinuous melodic improvisations of Indian traditional music with the pulsing rhythms of electronic dance music. Though not entirely without precedent (the Italo-disco of Giorio Moroder is cited as a likely influence), Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat was a formative moment in the global development of techno. 

The album was re-released by the label Bombay-Connections in 2010.

Played 209 time(s).

September 15, 2011, 10:19am

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