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


As one group of young American expatriates living in Rome, including electronicists Richard Teitelbaum and Alvin Curran, founded the important free improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva (literally, “Live Electronic Music”),3 two of their stateside colleagues, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma, implicitly advanced the radical idea of a musical composition that could exist purely and entirely in hardware. In this period, scores by the two composers, where they existed at all, often consisted only of a circuit diagram, accompanied by a set of sketchy instructions. The late-1960s live electronic music of both composers also drew explicitly on the practice of improvisation. In Behrman’s Runthrough, performers wielding flashlights interacted in real time with a matrix of photocells connected to a Behrman-built synthesizer.4 In Mumma’s Hornpipe, a “cybersonic” console consisting of an analog computer transformed the sounds of Mumma’s extended horn improvisations in real time.5

In this kind of live electronic work, the “structure” of the piece encompassed both the performance and an interactive environment facilitated by the devices themselves. Unlike conventional scores, the electronics were explicitly conceived as one element in an overall environment that was only partially specified in advance. The composition as a whole articulated a kind of dialogue with the outside world, where real-time music making was central to the realization of the work.

Even as the practice of computer music in the 1970s at US academic and corporate institutions such as Bell Labs, Stanford University, the University of Illinois, and the University of California, San Diego, as well as the Pierre Boulez-founded Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris continued to support the magnetic tape model, the advent of the new, relatively portable mini- and microcomputers signaled a cultural shift in 1970s contemporary music in which improvisative musical practices were being reasserted, if not uncontroversially embraced. These forces led to a new medium that composer Joel Chadabe, one of the earliest pioneers, later called “interactive composition.”

The early “interactive composing” instruments, constructed by Chadabe, University of Illinois professor Salvatore Martirano and others, “made musical decisions as they responded to a performer, introducing the concept of shared symbiotic control of a musical process.”6 These features of the new software-driven landscape blurred the boundaries between human and machine music-making and called conventional notions of human identity into question, while establishing a critical space to explore communication not only, or even primarily, between people and machines, but between people and other people.

Salvatore Martirano’s massive “Sal-Mar Construction” was played by the composer in a live performance, using over 300 touch switches to direct the flow of sound-producing signals. As Martirano later told Chadabe, he was not so much in control of the device as a partner with it. “Control was an illusion,” he remembered. “But I was in the loop. I enabled paths. Or better, I steered. It was like driving a bus.”7 David Behrman, who had worked with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, began to create elegiac pieces for improvising instrumentalists and “melody-driven electronics,”8 while his younger associates Rich Gold, John Bischoff, and Jim Horton, working in and around Oakland’s Mills College, fashioned early networks of microcomputer music machines that interacted with each other to create music collectively.9 The practice of improvisation was crucial to the nature and practice of this work. Chadabe’s later observation that Behrman’s work “was electronic, but it had the feeling of improvised music” stood in sharp contrast and direct challenge to pan-European contemporary music’s widespread disavowal of improvisation.

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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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