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date: 15 July 2020

Introduction: The Many Futures of Computer Music

Abstract and Keywords

Computer music offers possibilities for music-making that can hardly be achieved through other means. These possibilities commune between real-time creation in improvisation or other forms of interactive performance, production of scores for others to perform, and acousmatic composition. This article gives some perspectives on the scope and futures of computer music. Computer music has passed its fiftieth anniversary and is part of a slightly longer tradition of electroacoustic music. This article provides a broad introduction to the whole electroacoustic field and its history, but its explicit emphasis is on computer music in the period since the 1980s during which the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and the availability of desktop (and later laptop) computers at prices individuals could afford meant that the practice of computer music was no longer restricted to those who could access a mainframe computer.

Keywords: computer music, electroacoustic music, Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, desktop computers, mainframe computer

Computer music offers possibilities for music-making that can hardly (if at all) be achieved through other means. These possibilities commune between real-time creation in improvisation or other forms of interactive performance, production of scores for others to perform, and acousmatic composition. Broadly, we use acousmatic to refer to pre-fixed digital sound structures ready for acoustic diffusion through loudspeakers without performers energizing conventional musical instruments to make sounds.

In this brief introduction, I give some perspectives on the scope and futures of computer music, indicating how the topics are addressed within the book. Computer music has passed its 50th anniversary and is part of a slightly longer tradition of electroacoustic music. This book provides a broad introduction to the whole electroacoustic field and its history (see part I and the appendix in particular), but its explicit emphasis is on computer music in the period since the 1980s during which the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and the availability of desktop (and later laptop) computers at prices individuals could afford meant that the practice of computer music was no longer restricted to those who could access a mainframe computer. Many composers and improvisers, like myself, first gained access to computer music opportunities in this period of the 1980s. Hence, the breadth of activity expanded until the present in part because the field of participants widened (p. 4) and in part because of the rapid acceleration in central processing unit (CPU) speed and therefore of the power of computers for real-time sound generation. Chapter 2, by Douglas Keislar, and the appendix, by Paul Doornbusch, provide interesting timelines of these issues of CPU speed.

1. The Appeal of Computer Music

A. For Musicians

For many years, it seemed as if computer music could only usefully be the domain of the composer willing to await the generation of the sounds programmed (as described in chapters of part I). Such a composer can be said to operate “out-of-time,” in contrast to those who use computers in “real-time” performance. But, these out-of-time composers also used the computer to assist the generation of scores for live instrumental performers (see Chapter 5) as well as for the making of acousmatic sound. One of the appeals was the apparent potential of computers to generate any conceivable sound and to realize performances of precision or complexity not feasible as a human performance. Many parts of the book address computer music composition, notably chapters 5, 7, and 9, by James Harley, Trevor Wishart, and Simon Emmerson, respectively. Possibly the most influential composer within computer music was Iannis Xenakis, and Harley discusses his works, juxtaposing them with contributions from Karlheinz Stockhausen and other pioneers. The long-standing prejudice that electronic music did not sound sufficiently “human” was progressively overcome; furthermore, computational and perceptual analyses of what those prejudices identified (e.g., slowing of tempi at phrase boundaries, relationships between pitch and performed intensity) could then be applied in software for composition and its realization, such as Director Musices. So when desired, aspects of this particular range of human features could appear in computer music. The realization of computer music scores is discussed here particularly by Emmerson and by Douglas Keislar (Chapter 2).

However, some remarkably powerful real-time performing vehicles, such as the Music Mouse, appeared along with the Macintosh computer in the ʼ80s; by the ʼ90s, real-time midi-manipulation (e.g., using the software MAX on such computers) and later digital sound manipulation (using MSP or many other platforms) became widespread, fluent, and stable. One of the appeals of computers in real-time music-making is the possibility that the computer can itself enter a dialogue with other musicians, as discussed in chapters 6, 18, 19, and 20, and in chapters 8, 21, and 22 by Tim Perkis, George Lewis, and Pauline Oliveros, respectively. Another is that the computer can generate or manipulate events long after some initiation point, and that this can be done either in a way that the performers control or without their foreknowledge of the nature of the impending events.

(p. 5) Some contemporary opportunities in computer music include “soundspotting” (see Chapter 20by Michael Casey), in which rapid identification of features of incoming streams of sound is used to find related features in stored databases of other sounds so that the stored materials can be used in performance in a variety of controlled and performable ways. Such principles of relating different materials can operate in real-time intermedia performance also and are among the topics discussed by Nick Collins, in Chapter 17on laptop music-making; by Jon McCormack and colleagues, in Chapter 18's context of A-life (artificial life) and generative approaches to computer music; and by Noam Sagiv and colleagues in Chapter 15. In Chapter 10, Wayne Siegel considers dance and computer music, on the basis of long experience, and other aspects of the conversion of bodily or other gestures into computer music are considered by Garth Paine (Chapter 11) and by Atau Tanaka (Chapter 12).

Although all the chapters in this book operate at a sophisticated technical level that should not offend the sensibility of a professional computer music composer, the book is not focused on computer music techniques, software, and so on. It is about computer music itself; thus, it is throughout intended to stimulate the listener at large, especially those with modest prior experience of the work.

B. For Listeners and Users

Is computer music just another form of music, like Balinese music or Western classical music, or does it have some particular appeals or difficulties? As mentioned, it is unlike all previous musics in at least one respect: its capacity to generate and utilize, in principle, any sound. For most people even now, computer music thus presents unfamiliar components, articulated into meaning structures that need to be penetrated or, according to your perspective, that the listener is free to envisage. Broadly, there is similarity between the process of an Indian classical musician becoming engaged with the music of John Coltrane and of someone approaching computer music from a position of unfamiliarity. What is required is the capacity to recognize sonic features and their recurrence, since music is one of the most repetitive of the temporal arts, and then to construct meaning therefrom.

As Freya Bailes and I have shown recently (Chapter 23), most listeners have a remarkable ability both to recognize and to co-relate computer-manipulated sounds. For example, we found that they identified close connections between speech sounds, manipulated speech sounds, and what we call NoiseSpeech, which is manipulated so extensively there are no remaining detectable phonemes: all these sounds are readily perceived as speechlike. Speech is characterized by vast rates of change in spectral quality compared with classical music or even with computer music at large. Yet, we even found that noise on which an invariant set of speech formants is superimposed is still heard as speechlike and qualifies as NoiseSpeech. Identifying sonic continuities and categories is an important facility for the listener seeking to gain meaning from their sonic exposure.

(p. 6) Such listener ability for construction of semiotic fields is useful in our approach to the long tradition of computer music using the voice, as discussed by Hazel Smith in Chapter 14. It will also be useful in the more practical aspects of sonification, the representation of data for informational purposes of more objective kinds, as discussed by David Worrall in Chapter 16. As he notes, an extension of these informational intents provides ideas by which the traditions of sonification and of computer music can interact.

Even given these widespread capacities to hear structure and extract meaning from sound, our involvement and enjoyment of computer music is necessarily influenced by our cultural and educational experience. Thus, Mary Simoni discusses gender discrimination within and about the music (Chapter 24), and Jøran Rudi and Palmyre Pierroux analyze current processes in computer music education, with particular reference to their decade-long experience with interactive school study in Norway (Chapter 26). Leigh Landy provides an optimistic outlook on the future for creation and appreciation of computer music and does so in the broadest possible artistic and sociopolitical contexts of digital culture (Chapter 25).

2. Some Editorial Principles and Practices in This Book

I have invited (and cajoled) authors always from the ranks of those highly qualified to write on their topics, but also, in a few cases, in such a way as to create interaction among them. Thus, we have an expert on the psychology of synesthesia contributing to an article on algorithmic intermedia processes; one on the processes of imaging and imagining music joining a discussion of empirical approaches to the perception of computer-generated sound; and several contributions involving exchanges between computer science, modeling, generative algorithms, A-life, and music. Chapters also address sociocultural and educational issues. The authors originate from most parts of the world in which computer music has been important (notably North America, Europe, Australasia, and Asia), with the exception of South America.

As some of the authors may have lived to regret, I have interacted closely with them: first in providing some specific suggestions on which to base the range of ideas they cover and then in proposing editorial changes and additions once a draft was received. The authors have also had to put up in some cases with incessant pressure from me such that all articles could be completed reasonably efficiently. Timely book production has also been a consistent objective of our enthusiastic and supportive commissioning editor at Oxford University Press, Norm Hirschy.

I was quite clear in my approach to several authors, such as those writing in the opening part, that there would and should be overlap in the topics they addressed with those of other chapters. By seeking distinct approaches from these authors, I am happy (p. 7) that we achieved complementarity in the descriptions of individual events or developments. Thus, Keislar provides a perceptively conceptualized analysis of the development of computer music in the broad context of music at large; this is complemented by the “machine” emphasis I requested of Doornbusch and the “software” emphasis I asked of Peter Manning. I take responsibility for the points of overlap, of which I edited a few (with the authors' approval), cross-referenced some (as editor, I added several of the cross-references in the book), and purposely retained several more.

Another set of tangential and occasionally overlapping views are provided by the four personal statements (in the two sections titled “Sounding Out”), which complement the more conventional thematic review chapters. In inviting these informal statements, I indicated that I was seeking some expression of the most pressing thoughts about computer music these eminent musicians were digesting and developing at the time. They were given complete freedom regarding minimum length or breadth of topics to be addressed. I think you will agree the results are a distinctive and stimulating component of the book.

I would also like to thank Paul Doornbusch for his unstinting work on the chronology in the appendix, which I believed should be a component of such a book but which I anticipated researching and compiling myself, with some trepidation. I was very glad that he agreed to develop this into what I consider a useful and informative document. No chronology can be complete, and every chronology in an area of interest should be seen as challengeable. Paul's is already the most substantial and probably the most balanced currently available, and it is hoped he can develop it as a continuing resource.

3. Outlook

My purpose in editing this book has been to facilitate access to computer music for the listener and for the future and to bring together the range of compositional, theoretical, and practical issues that a practitioner can always benefit from considering. We are at a point in the history of this endeavor at which the opportunities are endless, and in most cases, one can actually readily envisage a means to fulfill them (the fulfillment of course may take immense effort). This has not always been the case in music composition and improvisation, and I hope some of the excitement of this moment will come across to our readers. If so, my contributors deserve the highest credit. You will not have great difficulty in finding substantial works by all the composers and improvisers discussed in the book, legitimately available without charge on the Internet, or finding examples of all the creative techniques and technologies described. Again, such an opportunity has not always existed in relation to music. I hope you enjoy the exploration the book encourages, and that it leads you to experience future performances and the many high-quality commercial recordings now available. (p. 8)