Piero Scaruffi's
History of Avantgarde Music

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Computer music in the age of the laptop

While the pioneers of computer music (basically from the 1950s to the 1980s) were mostly fascinated by a tool that challenged the pillars of western music (i.e., the relationship between performer and composer, and even the very notions of composer and performer), the wide diffusion of software for composing music on relatively cheap and portable computers (or "laptops") made it possible for a new generation of musicians to simply use the compositional algorithms and the synthesized sounds of a laptop in broader contexts. Fundamentally, computers had contributed to the breakdown of the traditional concept and role of harmony. The new generation exploited that very breakdown to create a kind of music directly referencing "sound". Basically, computers helped musicians focus more on the "sound" that they wanted to produce and less on the process to obtain it.

The eclectic Ikue Mori (Japan, 1953) went through several stages before arriving at computer music: first as a drummer for the experimental rock band Mars, then as a free-jazz improvisor, then as the electronic composer of the five long meditations for drum machines and samplers of Garden (1996), and finally as the laptop soundpainter of Labyrinth (2000) and Myrninerest (2005). Thus she was ideally suited to bridge the aesthetics of dissonance, improvisation and machine music.

David Dunn (USA, 1953) used computers to assemble "environmental sound works", works that manipulate field recordings, such as Chaos And The Emergent Mind of the Pond (1992).

Achim Wollscheid (Germany) used household objects as percussion instruments "played" according to a computer algorithm for Moves (1997).

Lutz Glandien (Germany, 1954) composed the wildly dissonant music of The 5th Elephant (2002) assisted by a computer in selecting and assembling "samples" from recordings of acoustic instruments.

The installations of Michael Schumacher (USA, 1961) often started with field recordings or accidental events that were then processed at the computer to produce long spatial tones, as documented in the Four Stills (2002). A complex computer algorithm generates the sparse sounds that populate Room Pieces (2003).

The "live" laptop manipulations of Kaffe Matthews (Britain, 1961), such as the theremin-based Cd Eb And Flo (2003), yielded droning compositions that are layered to the point of becoming dense mobile textures.

Dimitri Voudouris (Greece, 1961), based in South Africa, crafted the free-form tone poems ONTA (2005) and A Alpha Theta= Phi (2008) during which the narrative, pictorial and emotional elements coalesce in chromatic swamps of digital sounds.

Helmut Schafer (Austria, 1969), who committed suicide in 2007, crafted expressionist nightmares of digital and electronic processing such as Environment Soundscapes (2000), Isolated Irritation (2002) and Noise As A Language (posthumously released in 2009) that followed a quiet but determined logic, the flow remaining very close to an emotional center of mass, and rarely exceeding in either noise or silence.

In 2001 Matt Rogalsky (Canada, 1966) developed his "Kash" software to interact with live performers on traditional instruments. The resulting live performances are subtle and subliminal works, in which Rogalsky toys with fictitious microtonal sounds in a very sparse and desolate soundscape. Another kind of software, "Sprawl", allows Rogalsky to operate on densely layered structures, that yield floating clusters similar to the ones that fuel ambient and cosmic music.

Koji Asano (Japan, 1974) engineered the monumental The Last Shade of Evening Falls (2000), in which a computer processed violin and contrabass, resulting in a nightmarish exercise that runs the gamut from chaotic and wildly atonal to densely droning.

Sound Of Meditation Within the Body (2001) by Fan Wang (China, 1970) blended the Western and Eastern ways of music via musique-concrete collages of subterranean currents and otherworldly noises that slowly grow into om-like cosmic drones, that oscillate between the internal and the external soundscape.

Jun Yan (China, 1973) is one of the artists of the laptop generation who explores the convergence of the noise-sculpting techniques that come from musique concrete and the improvised techniques that come from jazz. His pieces are lengthy creative sequences of artificial sounds, concrete symphonies that can range from quasi-silence to ear-splitting cacophony.

Toronto-based turntablist Mike Hansen (Canada, 1958) used the turntable as one of the inputs to digital improvisation and composition. His abstract soundscapes were driven by the quality of the sounds that he assembled through the turntable as well as other instruments.

Basically, the laptop generation was reenacting the "live electronic music" of the 1960s using a simpler, cheaper and more versatile instrument.

Installation artists Janet Cardiff (1957, Canada) and her husband George-Bures Miller (1960, Canada) were among those who, instead, programmed machines to play "scores". Their "Pandemonium" (2005) turned an entire (ruined) prison into a giant instrument by having 120 robotic arms beat all sorts of objects found in the cells.

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