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David Dunn: Excerpt from Gradients (1999)

From the album Autonomous and Dynamical Systems

Born in 1953 in San Diego, California, David Dunn is an American composer whose music has explored the domains of environmental performance, field recording, and electronic sound synthesis. Working at the boundaries of contemporary experimental practice, Dunn has devoted his career to overcoming what he calls “music’s insufficiency as a discipline.” Making modern composition relevant, according to Dunn, means embracing the formative possibilities of new sound technologies, integrating the findings of post-Newtonian science, and approaching creative activity from a position of ecological awareness.

Dunn’s teachers include Harry Partch, with whom he worked from 1970 to 1974, and Kenneth Gaburo, to whom Dunn dedicated his beautiful 1993 composition “…with zitterings of flight released.” Although his own work explores avenues far from the mainstream of electronic music, Dunn is well versed in its history. His 1992 pamphlet “Die Eigenwelt der Apparate-Welt (Pioneers of Electronic Art)”—now 20 years old—is still an excellent overview of the technological and aesthetic developments of the genre’s first hundred years.

In the year 2000, Dunn founded the Art and Science Laboratory in Sante Fe, New Mexico, an organization devoted to (among other things) “electronic arts history and practice, post-cinematic aesthetics, robotics and haptics, sound art, chaos and nonlinear dynamics, bioacoustics, and environmental conservation and education.” Through these various activities Dunn pursues the vision of an integrated, post-disciplinary union of knowledge and practice whose purpose is, in his words, “to creatively put forth alternatives to the existing order.” 


Though he acknowledges the ubiquitous influence of John Cage, Dunn also draws a sharp distinction between his own work and much of the post-1950 experimental tradition. Following the logic of Cage’s radical reconception of music, Dunn presses the question, “What is the meaning of sound-making activities if they are not traditional music and are not intended to be?” His answer is that music (and art more broadly) cultivates the discipline and focused engagement required to reorient ourselves to the spiritual and ecological realities of the 21st century. Music is a kind of survival training for the existential crisis of late modernity.

Music is not just something we do to amuse ourselves. It is a different way of thinking about the world, a way to remind ourselves of a prior wholeness when the mind of the forest was not something out there, separate in the world, but something of which we were an intrinsic part. Perhaps music is a conservation strategy for keeping something alive that we now need to make more conscious, a way of making sense of the world from which we might refashion our relationship with nonhuman living systems. 

Dunn’s music can be broken up into three broad categoriessite-specific works intended for outdoor performance; electroacoustic works using field recordings; and “pure” electronic works based on mathematical models.

In his environmental performance works, Dunn orchestrates interactions of human beings, machines, and the natural environment in order to musically invoke the “spirit of place” (genius loci) of particular locations. In Entrainments 2 (1985), three performers record stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the environment from three peaks in the Cuyamaca Mountains of California. These recordings are played back over loudspeakers during the performance, along with drones based on the astrological charts for the current time and location. In addition, ambient sounds are gathered, processed, and fed back into the mix by a parabolic microphone carried by a performer walking slowing around the perimeter of the performance space. A very different approach to site-specific environmental music is found in Mimus Polyglottos (1976), in which Dunn uses synthetically generated tones to initiate a musical “conversation” with a group of mockingbirds. (To hear the piece, check out my related post at Data Garden.)


Image from Dunn and Crutchfield’s Theater of Pattern Formation

With regard to field recording, Dunn has nothing but scorn for “preservationist” soundscapes that purport to capture the untainted sounds of nature. His own works in this genre, though based largely on unedited recordings, acknowledges his role in framing the acoustic image. Field recordings don’t so much capture the sounds of nature itself as they project our perception into what Gregory Bateson called the “fabric of mind” that connects all of reality. Recording is a human intervention; like composition it is a “strategy for expanding the boundary of reality itself.”

Dunn’s best known work in this vein, Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond (1991), weaves together a number of field recordings made beneath the surface of North American and African freshwater ponds. The resulting composition is aptly described as “aquatic jazz…a dance between periodicity and chaotic swirl.” In the rich and highly complex rhythmic interactions of the underwater fauna, Dunn hears something more than the merely instinctual signals of senseless organisms. He imagines the insectoid orchestra as a collective expression of a profound sentience residing in the supposedly lowest forms of animal being. “The sounds of living things are not just a resource for manipulation,” Dunn writes, “they are evidence of mind in nature and are patterns of communication with which we share a common bond and meaning.”

More recently, Dunn released The Sound of Light in Trees (2006), an album-length composition based on recordings of beetles inside conifer trees in northern New Mexico. The beetles’ activities, inaudible to the naked ear and even to conventional microphones, are picked up by specially built “vibration transducers” inserted underneath the trees’ bark.


Apparently disconnected from his sonic investigations of the natural world, Dunn has also created several distinctive works of “pure electronics.” Here too, however, his goal is the same: to render in sound the immanent forces of dynamic systems. In all his activities, Dunn isn’t “composing” in the traditional sense, but trying to unleash latent energies and trace their trajectories as expressions of a cosmic order hidden just beneath the surface of everyday experience.

Lorenz (2005), a collaboration between Dunn and scientist James Crutchfield, spins out a dizzying cascade of sound by creating feedback loops between computer-generated chaos equations and a custom-designed audio interface. In another piece, Nine Strange Attractors (2006), Dunn follows similar procedures to explore the peculiar sonic behavior of various mathematical entities with names such as Owl, Pendulum, Rossler, and Van der Pol. As Warren Burt suggests, this piece can be seen as a modern spin on the classical genre of theme and variations, with each attractor offering a different “perspective” on the underlying sound-generation matrix.

Gradients (1999) was created using a computer program to convert the lines of computer graphics into shimmering fields of sine waves. The piece consists of three sections of equal length, each palindromic in structure and possessing elements of formal self-similarity as well. Dunn emphasizes that these works are not simply inspired by fashionable notions of chaos theory, but rather incorporate these mathematical entities into their structure. Computer models of mathematical formulas allow us to artificially recreate the complexity already existent in nature: the networks of sounding digits become self-regulating systems, chaotically ordered in the sense of the ancient Greek word kosmos.

Played 271 time(s).

December 02, 2012, 9:33pm

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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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Godfried-Willem Raes: “Fuga Otto Nove” (1991)

From the album Logos Works

The Belgian composer and polyartist Godfried-Willem Raes (born 1952 in Ghent) is a self-styled muziekmaker (music-maker) whose work spans many different media and creative approaches, including self-built instruments and software, automata, compositional algorithms, and sound installations. Among Raes’ more ambitious innovations is holosound, an “invisible instrument” that translates the motions of a performer into sound via a computer-driven interface. (The idea of controlling sound through bodily movement has a precursor in the remarkable Terpsitone of Leon Theremin, invented in 1932.) 

In 1968, Raes founded the Logos Foundation, a new music organization built around the performances of the Logos Duo, consisting of Raes and his wife and fellow composer Moniek Darge. Raes later designed the Logos Tetrahedron, unique performance space in the Ghent city center. In addition to hosting Raes and Darge’s music, the space is used as a forum for a diverse array of avant-garde, experimental, and world music performances, from Japanese butoh to amplified plants. (Recently, Logos Foundation’s funding from the Flemish government has come under attack. Please sign this online petition to urge the continued support of this vital musical institution.)

"Fuga Otto Nove" is an extract from Raes’ Fugue Books, a collection of compositions created using custom-built software to implement rules of contrapuntal interaction between voices in a polyphonic texture. The goal was to devise a set of compositional rules that would elaborate a polyphonic web purely on the basis of the initial melody, known as the “subject” or dux. On the basis of the software’s analysis of the subject, it offers the composer a number of choices, guiding but not fully determining the process of musical creation. 

Intended as an object of “abstract music” in the tradition of J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, Raes’ Fugue Books leave open such details as instrumentation, tempo, and dynamics. The resulting music is at once rigorous and playful, and offers a distinctive contribution to one of the most storied genres of European classical music.

Played 191 time(s).

June 18, 2012, 1:47pm

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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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Algorithmic Music for the Masses: WolframTones

A brainchild of British mathematician Stephen Wolfram, WolframTones is an online application that creates musical scores from the patterns generated by one-dimensional cellular automata. A few parameters determine the rules followed by the automata, and thus control in a very general way the structure of the resulting music, which can be further customized by adjusting certain musical settings, such as the behavior or voices and the scale.

WolframTones is based on the thesis laid out in Wolfram’s 2002 book A New Kind of Science, that simple sets of rules (algorithms) can generate highly complex results. According to Wolfram, by exploring all possible configurations through computational modeling it is possible to map out the underlying structure of the universe, which is in essence digital. In musical terms, the promise of this kind of program seems to lie in its ability to generate musical forms that transcend our compositional imagination. At the same time, Wolfram suggests, these artificial products might bear a profound resemblance to the deep structures of nature:

In some ways WolframTones compositions are like objects in nature: their features emerge from specified underlying rules. So if the form of a sunset, a tree, or a mollusk shell is meaningful, then so can a WolframTones composition be.

Upon hearing your first composition rendered via your computer’s internal MIDI soundset, you may ask yourself, “Is this it?” The rather limited musical customization options, particularly with regard to rhythm, and the weak MIDI timbres mean that you’re not going to be creating algorithmic masterpieces right out of the box, so to speak. However, WolframTones has great potential as a means of producing musical “raw material” which can be crafted into something more presentable via a software MIDI editor and some decent sound sources.

Two major complaints: Wolfram Research, Inc. maintains a rather draconian degree of control over the music created by WolframTones, preventing you (among other things) from “broadcasting, publishing, or publicly performing” your algorithmic tunes. Second,  to export your work as a MIDI file you have to send it to yourself as an email, which is an extremely cumbersome alternative to simply downloading it directly.

Much more information is available on the WolframTones website


Some algorithmically generated scores, courtesy of WolframTones

February 01, 2012, 6:00am

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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 229 time(s).

October 23, 2011, 3:49pm

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Clarence Barlow: Relationships for Melody Instruments (1974; Version 6, 1986)

From the album New Computer Music

Born into the Anglophone minority of Calcutta in 1945, the composer Clarence Barlow studied math and physics while steeping himself in the musical traditions of northern India and medieval Europe. In 1968, Barlow moved to Cologne, Germany, where he studied for a brief time with Bernd Alois Zimmermann before the latter’s suicide in 1970. In 1984, he was appointed as a lecturer in computer music at the Cologne Music Academy. He currently teaches at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Although Barlow sees the computer simply as a compositional tool, and not the basis of a distinct musical style (“I hate the computer,” he declared in an interview), he was among the first in Germany to use computer languages to build algorithmic structures to guide his music. His particular interest lies in mathematically specifying certain perceptual musical qualities (tonality, metricism, etc.) and using generalized compositional methods to modulate these qualities on command.

Relationships for Melody Instruments, Version 6 is a manifestation of Barlow’s desire to algorithmically steer broad musical parameters. He writes,

This composition was intended for the creation of harmonic and metric fields of variable strength.  The melodic and rhythmic organization employs a limited quantity of pitches and pulses.  In more conventional terms, this implies a music that moves from “tonal” to “antitonal” to “polytonal” to “atonal.” Rhythmically, it moves from “metric” to “antimetric” to “polymetric” to “ametric.”

The resulting music, played by computer-controlled digital synthesizer (probably a Yamaha DX7), bass clarinet, and drum kit, sounds like cybernetic free jazz, or perhaps an extra freaky version of Terry Riley’s 1964 minimalist masterpiece In CThe drums provide consistent rhythmic propulsion, around which the instruments weave strands of sound, gradually coalescing around points of tonal clarity and dispersing again into quasi-statistical disorder. Barlow’s music demonstrates that “intellectual” music can be powerfully visceral and even (gasp!) fun.

Clarence Barlow

Played 80 time(s).

January 20, 2011, 7:44am

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