The Revolution Will Be Computerized

These notes from a 1979 album of computer music speculates that with the proliferation of the personal computer, everyone would become “sound explorers”.

Before the advent of the PC, “computer music” was largely an academic endeavor because computers were large and expensive and university was the only place most people could use one.

In 1979, the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore Pet were all available, though their sound capabilities were fairly limited. By the mid 1980’s that the personal computer fulfilled its promise of being a the musical instrument that Edgard Varese could have been describing when he said “I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.”

But just because everyone with a $400 discount PC has the most versatile musical instrument in the world and can create as much music as the imagination allows, does that make them a musician?

I would like to argue yes, if only because that’s what I do.

“Musician” is such a loaded label. It implies performance of a musical instrument, and most folks think of guitars and pianos as musical instruments, not computers.

Despite lessons on piano and saxophone, and tinkering with guitar, real-time performance is something for which I have little aptitude. Getting a computer to make noises doesn’t have to be a real-time thing, and something I have a much better intuitive understanding of.

I describe what I do as computer-generated noise, mostly to avoid setting undesirable expectations. Everyone seems to assume that music created on a computer must be techno music.

Jeff Smith is a composer and is in the Computer Music Ph.D. program at Stanford. He wrote a mass for my wife’s late sister, and a few weeks ago we attended a performance of it in the Stanford Memorial Church.

I asked Jeff what he considered to be “computer music” because it is a pretty broad term and I am curious how other people define it, particularly those actively involved in it.

He saw the computer as a relatively new musical instrument, just as the piano was new in the early eighteenth century, and musicians of the day had to explore what could be done with it.

To my mind, there is much more to explore with the computer than with other instruments. It is such a versatile instrument, capable of any sound one can imagine. It can emulate an electronic oscillator, analog synthesizer, tape recorder, mixing board, and any number of audio filters.

I am fascinated by the pioneers of electronic music. Those who saw reel-to-reel tape recorders as a musical instrument. Those who pieced together music from bits of noise recorded on audio tape. Computers would have made the work of Steve Reich, Perrey-Kingsley, Kraftwerk, John Cage, and Edgard Varese much easier, and if computers had been available, they would have used them.

Given that this sort of music is 100 years old, one might assume that it was played out. However, one would hardly say that keyboard music was played out after Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The field of computer music is so vast that it will never be played out. Needless to say, I will never explore every aspect of it myself. And if I find some aspect of it interesting, I will not be satisfied by someone else’s experiments – I will want to try it out myself.

Now, whether anyone finds my experiments interesting is a different matter.

One Comment

  1. Posted 20 December 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Wow, I would have never thought about writing this post. How did you think of it? I’d have problems writing something this good.

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