Piero Scaruffi's
History of Avantgarde Music

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


Computer music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

In 1976 a New Zealand-born computer scientist and composer, Barry Vercoe, who had studied digital audio processing at the University of Michigan and co-founded the MIT Media Lab (1974), hosted the first International Conference for Computer Music. In 1986 the same Vercoe introduced "C-Sound", the first interactive music software.

James Tenney (USA, 1934) was probably the first composer to craft an aesthetic for computer music. Tenney realized that electronic and digital music almost forced the composer to accept noise as "music" and to abandon the idea of absolute control over a composition. While employing and developing compositional algorithms (initially Max Mathews's "digital synthesis" software), he thus came to accept John Cage's passion for indeterminacy, although from a different angle: computer music can be "unpredictable" (rather than "random"). Furthermore, the composer of computer music could better achieve her or his artistic vision by focusing on "stochastic" quantities, the elements that define the overall structure (the "gestalt"), rather than trying to specify each single element of each single second of music. Thus the Dialogue (1963) between pure noise and pure tones, the abstract dissonant soundscape of Phases (1963), For Ann (1969), a mathematical piece of superimposed glissandi.

Charles Dodge (1942) used a computer in Earth's Magnetic Field (1970) to translate astrophysical data into electronic sounds.

One of the early pioneers to investigate the revolutionary role that computers could have on music performance and composition was sound engineer David Behrman (USA, 1937). His Cloud Music (1978), for example, completely removed humans (both composers and performers) from the process: the music was generated by digital machines based on the light in the sky, each cloud causing a variation in the sound. Experiments with interactive computer music such as On The Other Ocean (1977), in which the performers improvise based on the sounds created by the computer, which in turn creates sound based on what the performers play, peaked with the computer-interactive opera My Dear Siegfried (2004).

As If (1982) by Paul Lansky (USA, 1944), for string trio and computer-synthesised sound, seemed a manifesto meant to deliberately contradict every assumption taken for granted by western classical music.

Laurie Spiegel (USA, 1945) reacted to the futurism and dadaism of the early pioneers by developing an original aesthetic borrowed from folk music, creating relatively atmospheric and melodic music via arcane mathematical algorithms. The floating drones of The Expanding Universe (1975) evoke the same awe-inspiring eternity of Klaus Schulze's cosmic music, with masses of static "melodies" (stillborn melodies, that never grow to be one) endlessly repeating their distant wail, echoed from galaxy to galaxy, the same way that Brian Eno's ambient music does not conclude.

Richard Teitelbaum (USA, 1939), who introduced the synthesizer in Europe while playing in Musica Elettronica Viva with Alvin Curran, and partnered with jazz improvisors such as Anthony Braxton, George Lewis and Leroy Jenkins, found his mission at the intersection between chamber music, free jazz and electronic/digital music through works such as Blends (1977) for synthesizer, shakuhachi flute, tablas and percussion, Concerto Grosso (1985) for saxophone, trombone, electronics and robotic orchestra (computer-controlled pianos), Concerto Grosso 2 (1988) for piano, robotic piano, trombone, synthesizers and interactive computer systems, the interactive opera Golem (1995), recorded with Shelley Hirsch on vocals, David Moss on vocals and percussion, Carlos Zingaro on violin, George Lewis on trombone and electronics, and Teitelbaum on keyboards, computer and sampler.

David Rosenboom (USA, 1947) focused on computer-enhanced chamber music: Future Travel (1981) for computer, electronics and acoustic instruments was one of the first albums composed almost entirely with a digital synthesizer; Zones Of Influence (1985), inspired to Rene Thom's catastrophe theory, was scored for computer and percussion instruments with the aim of testing the border between chaos and order; and the electronic dance piece Systems of Judgement (1987) was created with interactive software. At the same time, he wed computer music with the improvisation of free-jazz. Emblematic of his ever more complex processes of composition/performance was the piano sonata Bell Solaris (1998), in which the pianist's playing triggers a piano played by the computer.

Neil Rolnick (USA, 1947) employed digital equipment to enter a different world of sound, for example in Macedonian AirDrumming (1992), that processed samples of folk music into rhythmic patterns, and in Screen Scenes (1996), a computer-processed improvisation for violin, woodwinds, synthesizer, bass and percussion.

John Bischoff (USA, 1949) pioneered interactive electronic and computer music in the 1970s and formed the world's first computer network band (League of Automatic Music Composers). the Hub, an ensemble of six digital improvisors (John Bischoff, Tim Perkis, Chris Brown, Scot Gresham-Lancaster, Mark Trayle, Phil Stone) coined Computer Network Music (1989), performed on computers that are interconnected, thus interacting at the software level. The Hub pioneered the idea of network music ensembles.

Warren Burt (1949) designed "composing machines" and then used them to create pieces such as the Piano Quintet (1983) for piano and string quartet, Voices, Tuning Forks And Accordion (1986) and String Quartet No 4 (1987). He focused on random composition, just intonation and environmental interaction, sometimes all at the same time. He also followed LaMonte Young' lead in exploring drones (often in multimedia settings): the four-part The Animation of Lists and the four-part The Archytan Transpositions (originally devised in 2002), each based on the other one, amounted to a massive exercise in microtonal tuning, with pitches chosen and sequenced by a mathematical process.

Michael McNabb (USA, 1952) was a virtuoso of computer synthesis, crafting a dance piece, Invisible Cities (1985), that continuously referenced the history of western classical music.

Tod Machover (USA, 1953) was one of the early adopters of computer music within the format of chamber music: Light (1979) for chamber orchestra and computer electronics; Fusione Fugace (1982) for live solo computer (the first such composition in history); Valis (1987), an opera for six voices and computer-controlled keyboards and percussion; Hyperstring Trilogy (1993) for hypercello, hyperviola, hyperviolin, and chamber orchestra (the "hyper" instruments are enhanced with the computer); although his best work might be in more traditional formats, such as Nature's Breath (1989) for chamber orchestra.


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.