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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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Marcus Schmickler: “New Methodical Limits of Ascension”

From the album Palace of Marvels (2010) 

One of the most talented and creative figures on the computer music scene today is the German composer Marcus Schmickler. His early solo albums, recorded under noms de plume Wabi Sabi (1996) and Sator Rotas (1999), feature delicately spun harmonic drones and textural morphings at times reminiscent of the music of François Bayle. Schmickler’s more recent works, such as Altars of Science (2007) and Palace of Marvels (2010), both released on the esteemed label Editions Mego, move in a different direction, probing extreme states of auditory perception and pushing the envelope of contemporary electronic production.

Apart from his computer music, Schmickler has composed pieces for classical ensembles, such as Demos (2006), for choir, chamber quintet, and electronics, and Rule of Inference (2011), for percussion quartet. He also heads the spacey post-rock outfit Pluramon. Much of Schmickler’s work explores the interface between art and science, or aesthetics and epistemology, as for example his 2009 project The Bonn Patternization, a 10-channel composition based on the sonification of astronomical data.


Palace of Marvels is an ear-bending trip into the phenomenon of the Shepard tone, an auditory illusion which creates the sensation of a never-ending ascent or descent in pitch. (Roger Shepard, the discoverer of this phenomenon, is name-checked in the track “Shep’s Infinity,” as is French composer and acoustician Jean-Claude Risset in “Risset Brain Hammer.”) On this relatively simple foundation, Schmickler constructs a dizzying array of sonic variations—different perspectives on a common perceptual object—each one leading the listener farther down the rabbit hole. This is devilishly difficult music, but there is a sirenic allure in Schmickler’s work that compels you to keep listening even as your scrambled brain begs for silence.

If you dig Schmickler’s music, you should also check out the excellent annotated playlist he recently curated for RadioWeb MACBA entitled "Ontology of Vibration: Economics, Music, and Number."

Played 289 time(s).

January 10, 2013, 8:31pm

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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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Laurie Spiegel: “Old Wave”

From the album The Expanding Universe (1980)

I’d been thinking about featuring the music of Laurie Spiegel for some time now, and Geeta Dayal’s recent piece on the surprising appearance of Spiegel’s 1972 composition “Sediment” in the new movie The Hunger Games convinced me that the stars were right for an ultra-rare Acousmata/pop culture tie-in.

Born in Chicago in 1945, Spiegel came of age as a composer in the 1970s, amidst the transition from old-school tape-and-scissors techniques to the digital interface of the computer. As a musical late bloomer whose early influences included shape note singing and the guitar playing of John Fahey, Spiegel felt ill at ease in the insular and often sexist environment she found at Julliard and other academic institutions. Reacting to these unfavorable conditions, she came to view the computer as an ideal medium for independent compositional work.

Spiegel was among the first to envision the computer as a tool of musical democratization, a new kind of folk instrument that allowed for decentralized musical production free from the constraints of economic and institutional forces. (Around the same time, the Italian composer Pietro Grossi and the Bay Area collective The League of Automatic Music Composers were also highlighting the political dimensions of the new creative technologies.)  Speaking at the dawn of the PC era in 1980, Spiegel stated:

Ultimately, these little computers will make it easier to compose, as well as to play music. There are far too few people creating their own music compared to the number of people who really love music. It’s a much worse ratio than amateur painters or writers to consumers of those media, I suspect, and it’s because until now, there has been only a very difficult technique for composing.

Many of Spiegel’s works from the 1970s—including all the pieces on The Expanding Universe—were created using GROOVE (Generating Real-Time Operations on Voltage-Controlled Equipment), a pioneering computer music environment developed by Max Mathews and Richard Moore at Bell Labs in 1968. GROOVE allowed the composer to use a variety of interface devices, such as keyboards, buttons and knobs, and drawing tablets, along with a computer terminal, to shape musical data in real time. (Previously, making music with  a computer generally meant an asynchronous relationship between the composer’s actions and the resulting sounds.) Spiegel used the real-time capacity of GROOVE to create music at once sophisticated and accessible, patterned yet highly differentiated—in her own terms, she sought an aesthetic middle ground between the two poles of serialism and minimalism.

Played 469 time(s).

April 02, 2012, 9:36pm

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Erkki Kurenniemi: Computer Music (c. 1966)

February 04, 2012, 9:01pm

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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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The Hub: “Waxlips I” (1991)

From the album Boundary Layer 

This Thursday at Vox Populi in Philly, computer music pioneers Mark Trayle and John Bischoff will be playing in a concert organized by my comrades at Philadelphia Sound Forum. Trayle and Bischoff are both alums of the network music collective The Hub, which in turn spun off from the seminal “micro-computer network band” the League of Automatic Music Composers.

The name “The Hub” was first used in connection with a performance by Bischoff and Perkis in San Francisco in 1985. The group appeared in its six-person form for the first time in a pair of concerts curated by Nicolas Collins in New York in the fall of that year. Breaking up into two sets of three, The Hub performed simultaneously at two separate Manhattan venues, connected via modem. (Kyle Gann dubbed this phenomenon, perhaps the first of its kind, “musica telephonica.”) Ultimately, however, the group opted for “in the flesh” performances, which allowed them to better respond to the unfolding algorithmic structure of the music.

This sephirot-like diagram shows one of the group’s MIDI configurations

In The Hub’s first incarnation, the members’ computers were wired together via a central memory unit they called “the Blob.” Around 1990, they adopted a MIDI interface, which allowed each player to communicate to any other directly, rather than through a common data pool. Later in the decade The Hub would abandon MIDI-connected homemade synthesizers for computer audio languages such as Max, and in the mid-90s they revisited the possibility of simultaneous music-making over the internet.

Waxlips, conceived by Tim Perkis in 1991, provides a great example of the group’s approach to computer-augmented improvisation:

The rule is simple: each player sends and receives requests to play one note. Upon receiving the request, each should play the note requested, and then transform the note message in some fixed way to a different message, and send it out to someone else. The transformation can follow any rule the player wants, with the one limitation that within anyone section of the piece, the same rule must be followed (so that any particular message in will always cause the same new message out). One lead player sends signals indicating new sections in the piece (where players change their transformation rules) and jump-starts the process by spraying the network with a burst of requests. The network action had an unexpected living and liquid behavior: the number of possible interactions is astronomical in scale, and the evolution of the network is always different, sometimes terminating in complex (chaotic) states including near repetitions, sometimes ending in simple loops, repeated notes, or just dying out altogether.

Played 129 time(s).

September 19, 2011, 10:38am

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Yasunao Tone: Excerpt from “Solar Eclipse in October”

From the album Musica Iconologos (1993)

Japanese polyartist Yasunao Tone is an alumnus of many major experimental art movements of the 1960s and 70s, including the seminal free improvisation outfit Group Ongaku, the international neo-Dada collective Fluxus, and the Japanese computer art pioneers known as Team Random.

Tone’s most characteristic music involves experimentation with the generative musical potential of digital recording technologies and the process of transduction between different forms of information. In the mid-1980s he began exploring the unexpected sound potential of compact discs, taking advantage of the error correction mechanism triggered by misreadings of the ones and zeros in which sound is digitally encoded. By applying scotch tape with tiny pinholes to the bottom of the CD, Tone scrambled the player’s storage retrieval logic and coaxed a sputtering, crystalline music from the disc’s binary data.


A similar concept underlies Musica Iconologos, a 1993 work commissioned by Thomas Buckner of Lovely Music. Taking as his source material two poems from the Shih Ching, the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry, Tone digitized the images of the poem’s characters and generated histograms from the resulting visual data. These histograms, in turn, were converted into sound via computer software controlled by Tone’s technical assistants at the Electronic Music Studio of McGill University in Montreal. Each of the 187 characters in the poems was turned into a tiny burst of sound merely 20 milliseconds long. These bursts were then elongated and woven together according the verbal logic of the poems to create the music that you hear.

Tone’s experiment resonates with a deep techno-naturalist fascination with the dream of using musical devices to unlock the latent sonic forces inhabiting the world around us. The result is a harsh but beautiful music, an alien language opaque in meaning yet governed by some uncanny syntax. Refracted through the transfiguring lens of computer technology, there glimmers the faint but unmistakable trace of movement, intelligence, life.

Played 119 time(s).

July 12, 2011, 7:04pm

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The League of Automatic Music Composers: Live

Check out this fantastic video of the “world’s first computer network band,” the previously featured League of Automatic Music Composers. (This is the post-1980 lineup of Perkis/Bischoff/Horton.)

May 09, 2011, 9:38am

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A young Raymond Kurzweil shares his musical computer on I’ve Got a Secret in 1965. 

April 29, 2011, 9:03pm

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The League of Automatic Music Composers: “Martian Folk Music” (1980)

From the album The League of Automatic Music Composers 1978-1983

Take the anarchic, self-organizing ethos of free improvisation, add the raw, low-bit waveforms of early computer sound chips, and tie it all together with cybernetic concepts of interactivity and information exchange, and you get the League of Automatic Music Composers.  A product of the uniquely Northern Californian fusion of counterculture and high technology (brilliantly chronicled in Erik Davis’ book Techgnosis), the League pioneered the use of computers in live performance and created music of rare and distinctive beauty.

The League at work: Tim Perkis, Jim Horton, and John Bischoff

The KIM-1, released in 1976 and packing 1152 bytes of RAM, was one of the first mass-market microcomputers (so-called to distinguish them from the massive mainframes that were the most common form of computer at the time).  Jim Horton, an electronic musician who had been active for years in the Bay Area scene, quickly bought a KIM-1 and started exploring the unit’s potential as a musical instrument.  Horton had earlier specialized in building massive, self-generating analog synthesizer patches which he would let run for hours on end— a remarkable parallel with the simultaneous efforts undertaken in Europe by Roland Kayn.  (A late solo work by Horton was previously featured on this blog.)  

It was Horton who conceived the notion of a “silicon orchestra” of human-controlled interconnected computers which reacted to each other’s output in deliberately complicated configurations.  He was soon joined by John BischoffRich Gold, and David Behrman, and this quartet performed for the first time as the League of Automatic Music Composers in November 1978.  

In 1980 Gold and Behrman left the group and Tim Perkis became a member. “Martian Folk Music” is performed by this later lineup of Perkis, Bischoff, and Horton. This track is typical of the League’s trademark sound: pure digital waves spasmodically careening across the sound-field, interacting according to the laws some occult dynamics that lies just beyond the listener’s comprehension.  


A flyer made by Rich Gold showing one of the League’s configurations

Played 160 time(s).

August 02, 2010, 1:00pm

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Newman Guttman: “Pitch Variations” (1957)

From the album Music from Mathematics

It seems appropriate that some of the first pieces of computer music were composed by a man with the fantastically dorky name of “Newman Guttman.” Realized on the state-of-the-art IBM 7090 computer at the legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey, the work of Guttman, Max Mathews, and others helped inaugurate a new age of synthetic sound.

The theoretical foundation of computer music was nothing less than a recapitulation of the 2500-year-old wisdom of Pythagoras:  ”Any sound can he described mathematically by a sequence of numbers.”  From this basic principle, the pioneers of computer music laid out an ambitious program of unhindered musical creativity:

"Man’s music has always been acoustically limited by the instruments on which he plays. These are mechanisms which have physical restrictions. We have made sound and music directly from numbers, surmounting conventional limitations of instruments. Thus, the musical universe is now circumscribed only by man’s perceptions and creativity." (From the liner notes to Music from Mathematics)

But, as Pierre Schaeffer and others were discovering, there was a chasm between the neat equations of pure mathematics and the pyscho-acoustic realities of human hearing.  ”Pitch Variations” explores the nonlinear relationship between frequency and perceived pitch that arises in periodic vibrations too quick to be perceived as rhythm, yet too slow to be heard as tone— the realm of what would later be called pulsar synthesis.  This noisy little piece of electronic music history thus anticipates many later developments, from granular synthesis to glitch.

This wonderful album, first released in 1962 and long out of print, has been graciously immortalized and is available for download from Orpheus Music.

Played 170 time(s).

June 23, 2010, 3:40pm

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Jim Horton: “Rebirth” (1990)

From the album Numbers Racket

Beginning in the late 1960s, Jim Horton (1944-1998) was an active member of the San Francisco Bay Area experimental music scene. In the early 70s he studied at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College under the leadership of Robert Ashley. With Tim Perkis and John Bischoff, Horton founded the “world’s first computer network band,” the League of Automatic Music Composers, in 1978. The League pioneered the collaborative use of microcomputers in live improvisation. Many of their “compositions” were driven by game-like interactions between the players.  Around this time, Horton also began using computers to implement alternate systems of tuning, and in particular various forms of just intonation.

These influences are at work in this piece composed by Jim Horton in 1990 and released on a 1992 cassette by the Just Intonation Network entitled Numbers Racket. The sounds in this piece are vintage 80s digitalia. Although I’m generally fond of these bright, metallic sounds, the timbre of the piece wears a bit thin by the end of it.  The real interest here is on the level of tuning and form.  

72-square gyan chaupar board (c. 1780)

The composer provided the following cryptic notes to “Rebirth”:

The computer, empty of suffering, simulates high-speed attainment of nirvana by playing the medieval Tibetan Buddhist game “Determination of the Ascension of Stages,” invented by Sakya pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (“Whose Banner is Total Joy”). The board shows 104 places of a fantastic cosmic geography.

The game mentioned by Horton is a variation on an ancient Indian board game in which “the player progresses according to the throw of dice from hell states and other inauspicious conditions by way of the Tantric path to Buddhahood and nirvana.” (Amazingly, it belongs to the same lineage as the modern children’s game Snakes and Ladders.) This strange “program” behind the piece resonates with the cyclical quality of the music, which climbs ever upward only to tumble back down again and start anew. Each iteration is slightly different, and the various levels seem always to be slightly out of phase, thus creating the overall sense of motion and vitality suggested by the title.

Played 120 time(s).

June 10, 2010, 2:32pm

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