At first glance, Laurie Spiegel might seem like an IBM programmer tinkering on her day off. Her Lower Manhattan loft is a miasma of electronic high technology There are tape recorders a projection television screen, an Apple 11 computer with a video display, and a workbench littered with solder, wire, voltmeters, oscilloscopes, transistors, and circuit boards. But Spiegel doesn't belong to the button-down collar crowd. She is a composer, schooled at Juilliard who uses computers and a polyphonic synthesizer to create something that is simultaneously music and art. Her compositions are contained in magnetic discs of binary computer coding. She slips one of them into her Apple and flips some switches.
From the stereo emerges a series of simplistic, repetitive musical phrases, while the room's TV screens display an analogous pattern of thin, fleeting colored lines Gradually the music grows richer and more dense, the pace and variety of sound expand. On the screens the images intensify in color and movement. Soon the loft resounds in a riot of visual harmonics, images flashing in unison to the composer's creative musical desires.
In a stark, windowless California room Craig Hundley builds unique instruments that explore pitches and timbres he couldn't experience in his formal music training. One of them is a 1 7-foot steel beam with 24 brass and bronze strings stretched along its length It looks like the world's largest and strangest steel guitar Hundley slides a shining steel cylinder along the strings Eerie bass moans ricochet off the cold walls He replaces the bar with a pair of fat mallets, and the room rumbles like the heart of thunder.
Craig Hundley (left) and his Blaster,
an instrument that
Young composers like Spiegel and Hundley personify a musical renaissance that promises to change the way we hear, think about, and compose music in years to come. The computer is central to this expansion of aural awareness, but the rebirth encompasses many other elements. For instance, several West Coast composers known as microtonalists are using rediscovered mathematical ratios to invent new scales with many more tones and musical options than the traditional 12-note octave.
A host of new music-making machines, including fine-sculptured stringed instruments, resonating aluminum beams, and primitive ensembles made entirely from ' junk, have emerged. These unusual instruments can play sounds infinitely more varied and dynamic than any we have ever heard before.
Exotic performance concepts are blending music into the landscape, broadening the definition of something called sound sculpture Music is even generated under-
water by the brain's alpha waves and by the movements of dancers Throughout music's 6,000-year history, every available substance in the natural world has been used to produce new sounds. Today the computer stands at the forefront of musical progress, because it can produce an infinity of sounds beyond the realm of the real world.
Computers have successfully broken music and vocalization into their component parts and reassembled them as new, hybrid sounds Voices have been transformed into emotionless tonal instruments, and trumpet and trombone sounds have been converted into speech before your ears, a clarinet playing a single note can metamorphose into a percussion instrument.
Computers even have the potential to write their own music Cyber-composers may not be Beethoven, but they might be truly creative. "I don't hold out any great hope for a computer to write a masterpiece," says Douglas Hofstadter, an Indiana University computer expert and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, "but for someone to say that all a computer can do produce Muzak, you've got to ask, What is Muzak?"
Spiegel uses her computer for a variety of musical tasks: composing, improvising, or overdubbing (the machine can play melodies while she plays bass, or vice versa), and a wide range of experimentation. "It is an incredible labor-saving device," she says. "I can compose in computer memory and have the final score printed out. The computer can also play the music as I'm composing, in case I want to change something right away With traditional composition, you have to hear all the elements of the works in your head."
But you don't need Laurie Spiegel's knowledge of theory to play a computer Someone who is all thumbs can do it without hitting a wrong note "You use your intelligence, not your reflexes," Spiegel says. "It's like one-finger typing. You can hit three hundred notes with one push of the button. As a musical tool, the computer will parallel the invention of musical notation."
Most musical experimentation today centers on the collaboration between computer and musician. Dr Max Mathews, thought by many to be the father of computer music [see Omni, May 1980], first wrote a program to synthesize music in the late 1950s. He played his composition, entitled Music I, on an IBM 707, a room-sized behemoth that would befuddle today's microchip composers. Mathews recalls that musicians at first used the computer purely as a storage device, packing their complete score into the memory banks, then blithely pushing a button while the computer simply played by rote. This is now changing. Musicians are looking more ambitiously at the computer as a tool. "What we need is some way of having the performer interact with the intelligence of the instrument, as if the instrument were another performer"
This attitude inspired Mathews's invention of such computer-instrument combinations as the sequential drum, a rectangular piece of plastic that resembles a small, tightly stretched trampoline. Beneath the skin, three sensors initiate commands to r the computer One sensor controls a note's ~ volume, much as in an ordinary drum; the t harder you hit, the louder the note sounds. The two other sensors control timbre (sound quality) and sound decay (the duration of a note or musical phrase). A preprogrammed musical pattern is stored in the computer memory Mathews activates the pattern and strikes the drum to add flavor and nuance to the overall rhythm.
"I tend to play a Bach sonata accompanied by a violin," he says, "but it can sound like anything I want." He is currently developing a sequential violin
Programming music through a computer does not require keyboard pyrotechnics or one of Matthew's digital analogs Joseph Pinzarrone, director of electronic music at Northern Illinois University, transforms dancers into musical instruments. First he devised a 'movement-sensitive costume" with 64 mercury switches attached to various spots on the arms, hands, legs, and feet These switches are fed through a computer to a synthesizer During a performance, Pinzarrone sits at the computer console and works with the dancer. whose body movements open and close circuits that control the synthesizer sounds.
While the future of musical performance will undoubtedly owe a huge debt to the computer which will always be around to play and compose upon, it may be equally dependent upon a school of musicians, composers, and instrument builders who are reshaping the mathematical concepts of scales and notes microtonalists They ignore the musical notation that has been accepted for centuries by Western culture, n favor of a new, more scientific approach to sound.
The bulk of our familiar melodies stern from a 12-tone octave the seven white natural and five back sharp/flat keys found on the piano The microtonalists, however, have learned how to play "between the cracks of the keys. For example, C-sharp and D-flat actually have slightly different frequencies despite common belief, they are not the same note By distinguishing between sharps and flats, and by adding F-flat and C-flat (where there are no black keys on the piano), the microtonalists designed a 19-tone scale And that was just the beginning Using slide rules and calculators to find exact ratios and frequencies, microtonalists quickly discovered they could play musical scales with 31, 43, or even 55 notes in the octave.
Cris Forster, a young microtonal composer in San Diego, began his musical career as a piano scholar, hoping to become a traditional musician Then he grew interested in exploring new sounds On his own, he augmented his musical know edge with mathematical theory, and today he'll usually have a slide rule or a pocket calculator within reach while he writes music
"Our twelve-tone scale was firmly established by Johann Sebastian Bach over two hundred years ago when the old man was considered a revolutionary,' Forster says 'and since I cannot walk into a music store and buy instruments for an exploration outside of this scale, I must build them myself "
So Forster began building instruments. The Chrysalis has 82 strings stretched like spokes around a hub. He plays it by rotating the strings past his fingers Then there's the Harmonic Melodic Canon, a grooved sound board that resembles a drafting table with 48 strings each one meter long running across it, which Forster strums standing up Another instrument, the Diamond Marimba, has a series of glass tubes suspended from its bars. The tubes serve as sound chambers for vibrations made by striking the bars with mallets. Forster is working on a glass harmonica, which will contain a rotating wheel and produce continuous sounds like those of an organ.
He is resigned to playing the somewhat martyr like role of musical carpenter to the new age 'As instrument builder, I am becoming a resident of the land of 'dirty hands' and hardware stores," Forster says without a trace of bitterness. "I have sacrificed a possible career as pianist, teacher, and historian in an attempt to bring opposites like lumberyards and music, calculators and Indonesian scales, together"
The grand old man of the microtonalists is Ivor Darreg, a composer, instrument builder, and piano tuner who lives in Glendale, California. The former child prodigy, now sixty-three, is a leading authority on musical far beyond the 12-tone scale
"I've tuned organs, pianos, and harpsichords for forty years,'' Darreg says "I've always wanted to escape the music establishment's squirrel cage. Think of what it's like to be a concert pianist and practice the same old scales day after day Those horrible exercises were so boring."
In 1936, when he realized he wasn't using his ears to "hear efficiently," Darreg constructed his first instrument, one electronic musicians would envy for its prescience He found an old accordion keyboard in a music shop in San Francisco and, adding parts from a short-wave radio, created an electronic keyboard oboe. A musician with a conventional background could play it, but Darreg added several buttons that produced pitches not heard on the ordinary 1 2-tone scale they were, to an extent, new notes.
Since then, Darreg has built five contrabass steel instruments, ranging from six to eight feet long, which he calls Megalyras. He has also modified and refretted many guitars, so musicians can play in 19, 22, or 31 tones per octave. " It changes the mood profoundly by adding four or five new musical moods to t vocabulary," Darreg says of the Megalyrc "There are certain chords and combinations of sounds that are impossible in ordinary twelve-tone system. Until t guitar took over from the piano as our main instrument, it was financially and mechanically impractical to increase the number tones. It's been attempted for two or the centuries, but it simply costs too much '
Perhaps the piano has been supplant by the guitar, but other microtonal is dreaming of new sounds have succeed in modifying the keyboard The most successful designs use a series of odd shaped buttons to accommodate 19 tone Composers call this the generalize keyboard, and there are very few of them this country, for precisely the reason Darer mentioned, cost.
Ervin Wilson and Scott Hacklemen applied the generalized keyboard to clavichord they co-designed, and Motorla produced a microtonalist organ, called it Scalatron. There are only two exist Scalatrons, one used by George Secor California and another at Queens College where Professor Joel Mandelbaum uses as a composing and teaching aid.
The Scalatron is an amazingly versatile instrument, with five octaves of 50 keys each and 31 programmed pitches It loci as if only an octopus could find its w~ around the keyboard, but once you lea the color coding, Mandelbaum says, the instrument is almost as easy to play as piano. The white keys are the naturals: the blacks are the sharps: the reds are the flats the greens are the half-sharps: and the blues are the half-flats.
As a serious composer who spent more of his time in the musical mainstream Mandelbaum is still discovering the Scalatron "There's an awful lot on that instrument I haven't heard. or f I've heard it, I have yet internalized it," he says. Yet he is °l optimistic about the legacy the microtonal school will leave. "When I m writing nor microtonal music, I feel like I'm gathering wood n the forest,'' he says "When I' writing micro-tonal music. I feel like 1' planting the seeds of the future''
Those musical seeds are a so being nurtured by researchers who are expanding the computer's ability to generate truly radical sounds Charles Dodge, the dedicate young composer who runs Brooklyn College s four-year old research mind computer music department, is quiet pushing the computer's musical abilities their full potential. Dodge's work focuses on vocoding, complex method of musicalizing the human voice following an apprenticeship with Mathews at Bell Labs, Dodge carted an ancient, discarded Bell Labs Honeywell computer with him to Brooklyn. The electronic beast befits the atmosphere in Dodge's lab a throwback to a 1950s recording studio where he puts the old fashioned unit to work creating never before-conceived aural sensations.
The process is painstaking and slow A spoken voice, if first digitized at 15,000 samples per second, and an analysis program reduce the speech data to a more manageable 120 frames per second Each frame can then be altered according to desired pitch, amplitude, time, and several filter coefficients that take into account the sound generated by windpipe, tongue, jaw, mouth, glottis, and vocal-cord movements.
The tape of Dodge's composition "In Celebration," a rendition of the Mark Strand poem, contains words that are often inaudible, but the musical range is enough to make an opera singer envious From simple melody to complex, eerie harmonies. the musical breadth is as if the Andrews Sisters had suddenly become baritones.
The Brooklyn College team says the computer makes it possible to run the pitch and amplitude from one voice through the vocal track of another voice. The result is a sort of musicalized speech grafting "It's like taking one person s vocal cords and putting them in someone else s mouth,' says music professor Tom Jerse, laughing at the possibilities. "It means you can mix Mick Jagger and, say, Luciano Pavarott onto one voice track, a literal, if somewhat bizarre, form of rock opera
Three thousand miles from Brooklyn, in Stanford University s music department, computer experts are charting the first paths along different musical frontiers: combining computer analyses of various instruments with the human voice they can. for example, mix the sound produced by a trumpet mouthpiece with the voice of a singer into one mode of expression Stanford calls this process cross-synthesis Researcher John Serawn says the resulting harmonics are quite spooky "You can get a flute that sounds as if it were talking," he says
Serious composers will probably not latch on to cross-synthesis for writing orchestral symphonies, but there is unlimited appeal for those scoring music for science-fiction movies. "In the 1980s and 1990s you will hear sounds of instruments playing voices, probably in Star Wars-like movies,'' one noted Stanford computer music researcher predicts The sounds of the future, whether generated by computers or microtonal composers, may be presented to us in forms being created by artists who are exploring the aural sensations of sound sculptures or sound environments
Max Neuhaus, a percussionist who has played with famed experimental conductor Perre Boulez, is one of the leading practitioners of the theory that sound creation has absolutely no boundary Neuhaus once made a structure called Water Whistle A series of rubber pressure hoses, with whistles attached, whipping around underwater in a pool, created music that existed only in the water You had to listen with your ears submerged. Since then, he has constructed Times Square, a set of resonating chambers under a subway grating at that location. It produces a humming bass blended with a pleasant high-pitched sound when activated by the computer wind Most recently Neuhaus put 64 speakers in a greenhouse filled with shrubbery at the Walker Art Center's New Music America festival in Minneapolis Each speaker was connected to its own synthesizer, producing an ever-shifting aural montage.
Also at the Minneapolis fairground, artist Leif Brush suspended a grid of 200 speakers, each with its own sound source (one even being the strings of a piano floating on a raft in a pond), among the trees at the art center's exhibit.
Boston sound artist Christopher Janney crafted a musical instrument from a stairwell by attaching photoelectric cells to the steps Breaking an individual beam generates a series of computer-stored notes. Though practicing scales might prove exhausting, a group of people could actually "play' the stairs.
In Vancouver, Canada, composer David Rosenboom has gone a step further, creating a participatory sound environment that uses alpha waves generated by visitors' brains. Though it is nice to fantasize about the possibility of playing Haydn with electrodes hooked up to your head, sound authorities say this kind of thing is a long way off
Surprisingly, some of our newest sounds have been produced from scrap Skip LaPlante, a Princeton University graduate who studied Mozart and Schonberg, has made about 60 different percussion and wind instruments using thrown-away materials. Raiding kitchens and farmhouses, LaPlante drew unique sounds from huge cardboard rug tubes, broiler pans, cat food cans, even shards of glass "You can get really clean pitches from cinder blocks broken into L shapes,' he says 'And cutdown wine jugs make excellent cloudchamber bowls" LaPlante hunts for battered and discarded wine jugs on the Bowery in New York City He has even created music by bouncing a Superball on a piece of glass. In contrast to the computer and other slowly crafted homemade instruments, LaPlante's sound generators rarely cost more than $25 to build.
Ivor Darreg, patriarch of microtonalist, splits the octave in ways never before imagined. The confluence of computers and new scales can be seen in the futuristic synthesizer.
Indeed, the homemade instrument appears to be more important than ever as young musicians strive to create new musical forms Hundley, for instance, has had a certain rebelliousness implanted in him, much like Spiegel and LaPlante. Hundley is an eclectic musician with a restless ear who dallied in several genres before directing his attention to film scoring (The Incredible Shrinking Woman and Roadie, among many). He was a prodigy on piano at thirteen and a self-confessed burnout at seventeen Hundley has performed Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto as a guest soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and has been featured on four jazz albums. He has vocoded disco tunes and played clavichord in the jazz movie New York, New York.
Hundley's new project is a 53-tone synthesizer that will feature programmable tuning It will be one of the very few electronic instruments capable of generating microtonal music Perhaps it will allow more classically oriented microtonalists to step into the reverberating studios of electronic musicians. if that is the path of the future, then Hundley will surely be one of the very first to set out
Undoubtedly, in the future greater economic access to new technology will make more of us musicians. "When I went to music school, which wasn't that long ago, they didn't even have an analog synthesizer,'' Spiegel says I think it's a shame that the general public has greater access to this stuff than the conservatory student who is told that it s really complicated and generally useless musically I've had this computer for less than a year It's not that difficult to learn Before I got it. I never heard a single orchestral score that I had written. I never even heard my string quartets played it while I was at Juilliard Now with my computer, I can get instant feedback on what I have written.''
Clearly, computers, mathematical explorations of new scales, and composer-made instruments won't wipe out disco or empty Carnegie Hall Popular music has enormous staying power, and no electronic instrument can exactly duplicate the subtle nuances and rich tonalities of a finely tuned violin in a symphonic orchestra Even if one could, it wouldn't necessarily be desirable. Many people like the idea of variety, spontaneity, and human beings in musical performance.
But the new music won't be merely the avant-garde affectation of a few snobby intellectuals Technology will I certainly open up enough doors to make many kinds of music more accessible to all levels of creator, player, and listener
The music of tomorrow will not limit expression: it will free it of virtually all restraints Our aural experience w 11 be eclectic and electronic Stuart Diamond, a composer who specializes in the lyricon, an instrument something like an oboe wired to a synthesizer, says 'The serious composer is usually condemned to write chamber music, using just three or four instruments. But composing on the lyricon gives me the power of a symphony orchestra maybe not the subtlety, but certainly the volume, force, and scope
"Once any music is in a radio, it's electronic, anyway Even a Beethoven string quartet is electronic at this point. It's been reduced to electrons and reconstructed back into acoustical wave shapes. Electronic music is not some weird idea reserved for the distant future It's a fait accompli .
Article from Omni Magazine