May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
George E. Lewis, Columbia University


In recent years, the computer has assumed a central role in artistic practice. Digital technology now serves as a critical site for interdisciplinary exploration, encouraging the blurring of boundaries between art forms. Increasingly, new imaginings of history, culture, and human practice are finding the computer at their center. In turn, these new imaginings are being driven by the advent of new and more powerful forms of computer interactivity that challenge traditional conceptions of human identity and physicality.

At the uninterrogated core of common notions of interactivity, as it is practiced in the digital domain, we find the primordial human practice of improvisation. Perhaps the most important unacknowledged lesson the interactive digital arts have taught us concerns the centrality of both improvisation and interactivity to the practice of everyday life. What is more difficult to divine for these arts, as well as the theorizations that attend them, is the nature of the relationship between the two concepts.

To begin, we must interrogate the theoretical and historical discourses that mediate our encounters with computers, including those that condition our cultural understanding of both improvisation and interactivity. Increasingly, theorizing the nature of these two practices is becoming an interdisciplinary affair, centering on how meaning is exchanged in real-time interaction. Such studies, combining the insights of artists, cultural theorists and technologists, will be crucial to the development of new conceptions of digitally driven interactivity.

Canonical new media histories tend to date the advent of interactivity in artmaking to the mid-1980s.1 However, anyone who remembers the period when “multimedia” did not refer to computers may find ironic the historical lacuna separating the notion of interactivity now on offer from the practices that arose in the computer music communities beginning in the early 1970s. This early period produced a number of “interactive” or “computer-driven” works, representing a great diversity of approaches to the question of what interaction was and how it affected viewers, listeners, and audiences.


By the early 1960s, magnetic tape-based music composition was known to offer possibilities for precise control of time and sound, but was also criticized as insensitive to real-time nuances of human expressivity. To many, making electronic music live, in real-time in front of audiences, would revitalize the paradigm of the composer-performer, long abandoned in the West. However, improvisation, a primary practice of the European composer-performer since antiquity, had been unceremoniously dumped from Western music’s arsenal of practice by the late 19th Century.

The recrudescence of real-time music making in the American classical music of the 1950s not only explored chance as a component of composition, but also rekindled aesthetic contention around the nature, purpose, structure, and moral propriety of improvised forms and practices. According to cultural historian Daniel Belgrad, these debates were part of an emerging “culture of spontaneity” that crucially informed the most radical American artistic experimentation in the mid-20th century, from the Beats and Abstract Expressionism to the transgressive new music of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and the musical New York School of John Cage, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff.2

By May of 1968, “freedom” was on both the political and the musical agenda in Europe and the United States. Improvisation was widely viewed as symbolic of a dynamic new approach to social order that would employ spontaneity to unlock the potential of individuals, and to combat oppression by hegemonic political and cultural systems. The rise of “free jazz” in the United States was widely connected, both in Europe and the United States, with challenges to racism and the social and economic order, generally.

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Reference this article
Lewis, G. E. "Live Algorithms and The Future of Music," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/live-algorithms-and-the-future-of-music/

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