“They just have a different reality tunnel, and every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world, if we are willing to listen.”
— Robert Anton Wilson
What if the predicaments of our age were better faced, not by vain imaginings of being bailed out by a vague someone “who will think of something” but instead by looking to the treasure trove of the past? We are currently stuck staring at a wall inside of a dead end reality tunnel. What if instead we retraced our steps backwards until new choices in the reality labyrinth opened themselves up again? What if we turned around and looked for another solution to solve the next section of the maze?
Now is as good a time as any to choose to use our abilities as mental time travelers and meta-historians to explore who and what got tossed aside into the discard bin of history.
Let us now turn our attention to all the good weeds that were pulled out in favor of cultural monocrops. What if we set up a shop where the best ideas of the past were glued together in a synthesized bricolage? What if the universities were shut down in favor of coffee houses and salons? The supposed trickle down effect of higher education would be returned, along with the student debt, in favor of drip brewed and percolated knowledge.
These are the voyages of the intellectual traveler discontent with empty promises of going to Mars. Hell, we haven’t even been back to the moon since 1972. Meanwhile Musk has polluted the light of the stars in exchange for making a mere Faustian gesture. Technocracy continues to offer only diminished returns and increased surveillance. Let the silicon crumble into the dust of Janus’ ossuary. Let us reach further back, but instead of going faster, let us take our time and pirouette around forgotten avenues and the dreams of canceled inventors to piece together and assemble a collection of artifacts and use them to re-energize local intransigent cultures.
There IS a way to escape the stuck needle of the same old shale conundrum humanity has acquiesced to. What is needed is a logic defying devolutionary leap backwards. The new old primitives of tomorrow will shake off the manacles of reason and scientism and will be much happier than you or me. With an injection of slack jawed optimism, an appreciation for possibilities hedged out and hedged against by the luxury elite we can comb through the entries of the history books that others are forgetting to read and find ourselves holding those ancient relics of heresy that can restore the balance between Law and Chaos throughout the multiverse.
So let us travel backwards through Janus' ossuary and see what and who might be resurrected from saturn's crypt and returned to the stream of time.
It is with this in mind that I introduce a new series of posts with the working title of Great American Eccentrics.
In looking backwards to the past for inspiration on how to live now, those of us in America can do well to read up on the lives of those who have flourished living eccentric, weird, individualists and iconoclastic lives. (If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
THE ICONOCLASTIC SHENANIGANS OF HENRY FLYNT
In the world of philosophy, art and music there is no one to compare Henry Flynt with. Henry Flynt is an original philosopher and opponent of traditional science and mathematics. He is also the guy who created the term "concept art" but thinks that what other people have called "concept art" isn't really "concept art". As a nihilist philosopher and cultural tinkerer he is also a proponent of Anti-Art. What a concept.
Flynt's conception of concept art was conceived for the proto-Fluxus book An Anthology of Chance Operations, co-published by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low. All of this evolved from his highly intellectual background in such fun subjects as logical positivism that he pursued as a teenager. Later when he went to college at Harvard and started hanging out with Tony Conrad he studied deep mathematics and started listening deeply to jazz and the music of John Cage. He'd been raised in North Carolina where he'd heard all kinds of hill music, but while at school he read (and probably listened to) The Country Blues by Samuel Charters. This book/album was to have a lasting effect on him. Armed with music and math he dropped out of college and went to New York to hang out with La Monte Young and take in the monthly concert series in Yoko Ono's loft.
All of these influences were brewing inside him and he crystallized them in his essay. The ideas were like lifeforms that grew out of cognitive nihilism and described an art in which the only material was concepts. Flynt drew exclusively on the syntax of logic and mathematics for his essay, and his concept art was meant to supersede both mathematics and the compositional and stylistic practices then current in the ever so "serious" art music circles. This thinker of deep thoughts maintains that for something to be considered concept art it has to be a critique of logic or mathematics in which the material itself is a linguistic concept. Since this quality is actually absent from most things that subsequently claimed to be "concept art", by his definition he says they are not concept.
Following this he moved on to hold a position as an anti-artist. Being an anti-artist isn't always the greatest career move, but in Flynt's case, it allowed him to forge his own path. To him the avant-garde, in associating with institutions such as MoMa, had become just another brick in the wall of the establishment. In 1963 he protested with Conrad and others against Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom he believed harbored totalitarian tendencies. In rallying and ranting against all this he created the neologisms veramusement and brend that he associated with pure instinctual recreation -art as an act of play pursued for its own sake outside of economic and market forces.
As part of Flynt's own recreation he liked to play music. His was an interesting mixture of contemporary compositional techniques, non-standard tunings alongside a healthy heaping of folk, country and blues music. Flynt was also student of classical Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath along with Young, Terry Riley, Don Cherry, Catherine Christer Hennix and a slew of others. Nath was a huge teacher of traditional raga and in particular the Kirana gharana singing style. Flynt took all this into himself and used it to play the strangest kind of hillbilly music I've ever heard. For these forays that merge the hollers of North Carolina with the dens of New York's freakiest musicians Flynt played guitar and violin and used tape techniques and a bit of minimalist sound processing. Some of his material has been recorded and released despite his anti-market stance. Albums like New American Ethnic Music, Hillbilly Tape Music, and Spindizzy are all worth checking out.
He also formed some bands in the 70's. NovaBilly was a rock, jazz, country and funk group. He also had the avant-jazz group Dharma Warrior that Catherine Christer Hennix and Arthur Russell were members of.
The work of Henry Flynt exists in its own orbit, forever on the fringe and over the edge of mainstream sensibility. If you find yourself in the mood for a bit of jazzed out minimalist country twang raga rock, you can do no better than seek out one of his recordings. If you should want some light reading to break open your head to the world of linguistic, mathematical and logical concepts his prolific essays on these and other matters are going to be what you want to dig into.
As the man said it himself, "A fully open mind could shatter the skull in both directions." I've found it quite pleasurable to open up my mind to his.
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As I sit in quarantine in a bunker on Howland Island my mind turns to my favorite things to occupy myself as the tedious days pass by. With the barrage of news misinformation and the deluge of disinformation it can be hard to stay positive and optimistic when all around me corporate and state surveillance collect my data to throw back at me in algorithm designed to make me buy. Yet happiness isn’t just a click away on the great big catalog of the Clouded sky. It isn’t a brand new Cadillac or the sound of cracking open a can of Pepsi. Happiness isn’t doing what the media tells me I should want to do. Questioning what my actual needs are versus mere or simple crybaby wants has also been known to cause cognitive and emotional dissonance once withdraw from corporate media is attained.
That’s how I first arrived on Howland Island in the first place. I’m not quarantined from covid-19 but from the media virius that has infected my thinking and way of life. Yet I’m lucky to have become acquainted with an antidote to mediated reality and that has been the music, radio and other media works of the multimedia collective known as Negativland. In this essay I want to share some of the joys I’ve had listening to Negativland over the years. They are one of the bright spots in the annals of American music and I want to open up their works for others who may need relief from the constant onslaught of sound bites and over interpreted reality. I’ve written about their Over the Edge (OTE) radio show in another piece, so here I am going to be focusing in on their studio albums.
Negativland are known best for their visceral reinterpretations of the media sphere. Their sample-based masterpieces, heavy on the spoken word, are gathered from every conceivable source: broadcast radio, television, movies, commercial and promotional recordings, homemade family tapes, old records, and found sounds from a plethora of obscure sources. In their most recent work they have taken to sampling the supersaturated mediasphere of the internet: podcasts, youtube, and who knows what all else. These snippets of words are handled with the same meticulous precision as a surgeon or forensic pathologist. The metaphor of pathology is an apt one as much of their creative energy has been used to dissect the psychotic and antisocial tendencies of gun toting capitalists, corporations, and media conglomerates. They’ve been at this game for four decades now. The time has taken its toll: in the last decade alone they have lost four members of their collective.
But who -and more importantly, where- is this Negativland of legend? What were their origins? How did they come to public prominence? And just what happened to snuggles? Walk over the edge with me into Negativland and you will find out the answer to all these questions and more. Settle in with a bottle of Nesbitt’s lime soda, and turn your radio ears, because you are about to be whisked away on a strange journey into some of the most Negative musical minds ever to cut a record in America.
It was out of the bowels of Contra Costa County that the beast first emerged. Two teenage kids had hatched a plan to rearrange the bric-a-brac of the media space into something more delightful, menacing, humorous, and true. Two highschool kids named Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons sat around listening to Neu! and looking for cheap kicks wherever they could get them found inspiration by looking at the everyday world with a skewed vision. They figured, being alive, and creative beings interested in sound they might as well make a record. And look where it got them today! Their self-titled album came out in 1980. They took the DIY approach of having it pressed and making and numbering the covers themselves.
For such pessimistic youth they were full of the necessary vim and vigor and pluck it takes to get shit done. Living on the edge of America, in California, they had no one to answer to artistically. Doing it themselves they had no one to answer to financially. Making records was just something they did. I’m glad they did, and you will be too, once you sit down and listen to the records.
But in a discography so vast and varied where do you start? Why not at the end, and work backwards to the beginning. By first listening to where they went, we can ultimately see the seed out of which they grew.
The World Will Decide (2020)
The World Will Decide is an album that steps away from reality to focus on our very human inability to define anything, even what so called reality is. This is the music of technology run rampant across irreality and surreality, a massage from the medium that keeps on instant messaging you.
This album asks all kinds of questions. Did that firefly really land on your finger? Would you like to be arrested? Does this app connect you to people, or replace them? Is this article an example of inauthentic behavior? Do people have to die?
We have to ask these questions now because sorting true from false has become a full time job, and not only in our own freak-fracking minds, but now that we live life alongside machines whose AI algorithms seek to collect all of the data, dada has become an objective response in the face of “too much”.
The Weatherman is back in his role of asking questions of Siri, Alexa and Ok Google, as a kind of lead singer vocalist, not to mention sound fanatic who has his house wired up with microphones. It’s a strange trip and only one the dumb stupid Weatherman could pull off. With lots of help from various cleaning supplies.
The second track on the album, “Content” sums up the total sourcecode from the album. “Once you have these inspirational provocations / your content / data whisperers will become the new messiahs / my content / to create ideas so contagious they cannot be controlled.” It’s the sound of a media vortex imploding in on itself, sucking everything in, and spitting it back out.
“Don’t don’t get freaked out” brings one of the central ideas of the album home: copying. Negativland has long questioned aspects of copying, being copied, copyright and copyleft. Now they are looking at the simulacra’s and avatars of ourselves occupying the online world. And the question of when we are online, who are we talking to, chatting with? Are these just other computers having copied humanity? Are they Russian web-bots posing as your friend from Alaska or Leeds, England? These are just some more of the questions that get copy and pasted around.
Jon Leidecker, Peter Conheim, David Wills and Mark Hosler, along with the rest of the band now only alive in their audio soundbites and errant memory, craft a slice of netweb media history that is so close to the cutting edge of technology and music that might even be danceable. The album features sound contributions from Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt of Matmos among many, many others.
This album then is the false positive mirror image of 2019’s True False. A la la land, of densely sampled voices culled from the cloud, whose textures evaporate into music before drizzling back down on a landscape experiencing the drought of human to human interaction. On this record they’ve achieved breathtaking levels of jaw-dropping genius in turning popular internet memes and youtube conspiracy channels, truth-in-advertising and the American way into an hallucinogenic, non-stop traffic accident of commerce and hyper-reality. It’s funny – the way the horror channel is funny – and it’s genuinely satirical; I mean it doesn’t secretly love the thing it disembowels. Dense and excoriating. And technically sans pareil. In the world as it is today, now seems to be the perfect time to face up to Negativland’s aesthetic and acclimatize to it, while you can. No one does this better. Not even the people who do it for real.
All in all the extent of mined data, internet surveillance, and copies of humans talking to human copies on the internet is not nothing to get freaked out about.
True False (2019)
How did the band get to this point? And how did so many of the members end up dead? Some even had their ashes distributed as merch on the Over the Edge vol. 9 Chopping Channel release. It was after a searching and fearless moral inventory that they decided upon making an albumatic inquiry into the very nature of misinformation itself. FOX news hosts, ecoterrorists, and your own sanity are all on full display here in this voyeuristic jaunt through a deeply divided internet called America. This is the true negative reflection of 2020’s album of not the same name, The World Will Decide. Have you decided?
True False was also the bands 13th studio album. Perhaps it was this number that exposed them to all the luck they had in the recording process. It was also the first album of the band to have a lyric sheet, including not just words sang or spoken by band members, but all the lyrics from the samples themselves, all congealed into one harmonious beautiful mess.
Any fans of the group who have survived this long, and are actually still alive, able to listen to it, and aren’t just social media memories in a cloud-based afterlife, would recognize many of the familiar concerns and touch points that reach back further into Negativland’s earlier discography. Shootings, bees, the right's rules for radicals, climate control, dogs pretending to be children, the oil we eat, capitalism, and the right of every American to believe whatever they want to believe. All part of the new normal. “The Fourth of July” from Free is revisited. The nervous system of reality making all of us nervous is explored. Juxtaposing Occupy mic checks with US militia rallies the internal divides of the united states never sound so appetizing.
As the entrenched political beliefs of the alt-right and the ctrl-left cleanly flip sides in under a generation the esc-center starts to reveal itself as a viable third option. When you put the word 'True' next to the word 'False' a dichotomy reveals itself. Outside the binary world of digital computers other options exist. This album explores all of this, and songs like “Mounting the Puppy” make me glad I live in the Midwest and not Silicon Valley.
True False and The World Will Decide were the first two albums to be released following the passing of band members Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, and Ian Allen.
It’s All In Your Head (2014)
I was lucky enough to be able to see Negativland when they were touring the material used on It’s All in Your Head. This material itself had been pulled from the hours materials used by Don Joyce on his radio show Over the Edge, which was a parallel universe for Negativland that all of the band members participated in over the years, even though it was Joyce’s own distinct entity.
The concert for It’s All in Your Head was presented as an actual episode of Over the Edge. When my wife and I walked into the ballroom of the Southgate House for the evening we were given piñata blindfolds and encouraged to wear them during the performance so as to experience the music as an OTE episode. Before the band went on and during the intermission they even played the opening theme for the show, the Vangelis song “12 O’Clock “from the album Heaven and Hell. While the song is a touchstone of OTE, it was doubly fitting as a precursor to an evening that saw Negativland and Don Joyce in his guise as Dr. Oslo Norway, exploring the psychological and social ramifications of monotheistic religion, one of the bands favorite topics.
During the set familiar samples often appeared, notably from their hit song “Christianity is Stupid”. All of the material used from the 35 stops on their “Bible Belt Tour” was then taken into the studio to make this album. Here they questioned everything and even attempted to tackle the subject of why humans believe in God. A voice kept popping up out of the sonic debate declaiming “There is no gawwwwwd!”
Followed by the sound of exploding suicide bombers. Other topics included more Christianity, more Islam, more Judaism, more monotheism in general, neuroscience, 9/11, cola, war, shaved chimps, and the all-important role played by the human brain in shaping our own beliefs.
Physically, it was an ambitious release. The double CD was packaged inside of a bonafide King James Bible that had been repurposed into a "found" art object. Combined with the found sound of all the different voices, music, dialogue, and the sounds of their blistering Booper’s this album ends up as an uneasy essay. Listening to it is akin to reading a dense, intellectual and highly entertaining text. I find this to be the case in general with OTE episodes and their albums. I always come away from them having learned something, and questioning the matrix of man mediated religion.
Mark Hosler has always been one of Negativland’s key songwriters, and on Thigmotactic he wrote all the material but had some contributions from other members. It’s also the first album by the group to be entirely organized around songs. Songs are even one of the conceptual structures around which this album coalesces. The name is a reference to thigmotaxis, an instinctive reflex in response to physical touch, as mentioned in a passage from Ann Zwinger's book on the deserts of the southwest, The Mysterious Lands. The reference was about a desert lizard with this thigmotactic ability. Sentences from this section of Zwinger’s book are excerpted on the inside CD cover.
Though Negativland has specialized in creating mind bending audio collages, this album showcases their catchy side, their kitschy side, which does also appears at frequent intervals throughout their oeuvre. It’s a perfect escape from noise for those negafans who enjoy the other song oriented pieces from the band, such as the “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song”, “Drink It Up”, and others. It also shows that Negativland aren’t afraid to twitch around and try other tactics, and do new things.
No Business (2005)
2005 was the 25th anniversary of the band’s first album. For this venture they wanted to explore and interpret the world of sampling from the copyrighted terrains they had so nobly trespassed on many times before. Yet there was something new to add to the mix, the record industry trying to put the kibosh on every music fans favorite internet fueled hobby: downloading.
According to the group “No Business is not only a term Negativland’s accountant can identify with, but is also a tenaciously pure attempt to make new music out of old, or old music out of new, whatever anyone cares to decide this dubious case may be. No Business may be a race with Walt Dizzy to commit legal suicide”.
Among the many tracks on this album are “My Favorite Things”, their reel-to-reel cut up of the song from the Sound of Music as sung by Julie Andrews. Here it is rearranged to say things that never would have come out of Julie Andrew’s mouth.
The elaborate release came with a very serious and stodgy 56-page essay about the cultural public domain. Also include was a rubber trademarked Copyright Whoopee Cushion. The enhanced CD also included a video of “Gimme the Mermaid”, from their Fair Use / Dead Dog Records book and CD release. The video for this gem of criminal music was made with a little help from a friend and former Disney animator who infringed on Disney by using Disney’s own computers to create and render it after hours when they weren’t looking.
This video was later included on their 2007 video retrospective Our Favorite Things which could also be viewed and listened to as a kind of greatest hits release. For these videos, Under 17 not admitted without adult, and might not be the best thing for people prone to seizures. For everyone else it’s a mesmerizing document of a prolific group of multimedia artists. (Videos from that DVD have been used in this post whenever possible.)
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak (2002)
For Negativland there is no putting on the brakes of creativity. This album also came with a book of found material. It is also Negativland’s only purely instrumental album. Gone are the sampled and smeared voices. Gone are the surrepititiously sampled soundbites. For those familiar with the work of used car salesman Dick Goodbody, aka Richard Lyons, the album seems to follow a natural inclination. The book is actually a 64-page owners manual of material the group found on “scrapping” ventures at junk and auto wrecking yards. From these field trips they collected material out of the glove compartments, underneath the seats, and from the trunks of America’s disposed vehicles.
Disturbed is one way to look at this material. A negatively inclined voyeurism was also certainly part of it. For a glimpse behind the wheel it is an eye popping document.
The music on the CD could be described as ambient noise. There were no bass lines, no melodies, not a word of dialogue, no mangled singing, no beats to speak of. The Booper is present, and all manner of other sounds. Listening to it is akin to watching a car wreck in slow motion and is therefore perfect for fans of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, and those who enjoyed David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the book. Hell, couples who are into that sort of thing might even use this as a soundtrack for their lovemaking.
Deathsentences is the most fetishistic exploration of the dark side of car culture and driving the band have explored. These themes have popped up again and again in Negativland’s music, from the album Free to True False, and here are zoomed-in on in a focused and unique fashion.
This album was also the inspiration for Found Magazine, created by Davy Rothbart, after he got all juiced up from this essential release.
The ABCs of Anarchism [with Chumbawamba] (1999)
While the perfume of Dick Goodbody’s car tree air fresheners hung around Deathsentences, the strong scent of the Weatherman’s favorite 409 cleaner is all over this EP that explores the anarchistic philosophy of Alexander Berkman, the title being a nod to one of Berkman’s tracts.
The EP is a collaboration with British anarcho-punk band Chumabawamba. Whether or not they actually had anything to do with it, other than be sampled and have their name put on the album by Negativland is a matter up for debate. For fans of both groups it’s a match made in heaven (or hell) and the result is certainly one of the more unique audio documents from the group. It could have also just been a way for Negativland to get themselves into the larger record stores.
At the time ABCs came out, Chumbawamba had gotten themselves a major chart topper “Tubthumping” out and it was being blared on the radio. However Negativland were most certainly familiar with Chumbawamba’s foray from punk into sampling and techno in the early 90’s on the never officially released album Jesus H. Christ. Chumbawamba's Jesus H. Christ was meant to be released in the early 1990's (possibly 1991?) as their follow up to 1990's Slap!.
Christ was never formally released because it was a collage that combined original material with riffs, lyrics and choruses ‘poplifted’ from other bands’ songs, and Chumbawamba were unable to persuade either the copyright holders to grant permission, or distributors to handle a record that would have been vulnerable to multiple copyright claims. It’s not that hard to believe the band thought they could have distributed the album in the version they first recorded it. After all, Vanilla Ice used samples of David Bowie in “Ice Ice Baby”, and countless other artists had samples cleared and used. But perhaps because they were anarchists, and their message was critical of capitalism and other western social norms, their record label wouldn’t stand by it, and the artists they sampled wouldn’t agree to letting their material get used. In any case, the brick wall they faced forced them to re-record the songs in new arrangements that excluded (most of) the copyright material. It was eventually released in 1992 as Shhh, with all the samples removed, and the accompanying artwork contained images of the rejection letters the band recieved from their sample requests.
The first track of this collaborative EP is the 13-minute long "The ABCs of Anarchism" – a train hoppers romp through the twisted railyard of an often misunderstood political point of view. By the time you’ve finished experiencing this ride, you’ll know what the world of anarchism is, and what it is not. This track is a great way to experience the outdoors and discover if anarchism is something that you want, that you want, that you really, really want.
The second track, "Smelly Water", is where all the pop punk anarcho fun happens, alongside some creatures known as the Teletubbies. It’s a very liquid experience. The collaborative effort finishes off with “© is for Stupid”, where the Weatherman finds himself in a faceoff with none other than the cookie monster.
In 2000 Chumbawamba used Negativland’s 1989 Helter Stupid album as one of their main sampling sources for their album WYSIWYG, in a kind of reply to the ABC’s of Anarchism. WYSIWYG is a computer and hacking acronym for What You See Is What You Get, a system where editing software allows content to be edited in a form that resembles its appearance when printed or displayed as a finished product; it’s a perfect name for an album that has much to say about the practice of sampling and editing various forms of media, and a band that despite their success with “Tubthumping”, refused to be sucked in to the more vapid aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle.
Happy Heroes (1998)
The Happy Heroe’s EP came out of black hole a tube and into this universe from a parallel world and was originally crafted in the laboratories of C. Elliot Friday. It comes with a dose of Mertz so you can make up your mind, because too many choices is no choice at all! Alongside the Mertz tablet comes a generous side helping of corn, green beans, Orson Welles, and the cult of celebrity.
The team at One World Advertising who helped put together the 1997 album Dispepsi worked behind the scenes on this album. The use of celebrities in advertising goes full tilt boogie in the Re-Media Mega Mix of the song Happy Hero. This tune has an almost country-western vibe that casual listeners would find appealing. The lyrics, however, reveal a deep concern with how superstars and other famous people can be convicted of atrocious crimes—both public and private—while still retaining the naïve loyalty of a fan base who are always willing to overlook the fact that these people beat their wives, have sex with underage children, or commit murders.
One of the more chilling Negativland pieces is on this release, "OJ and His Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole.” Sitting side by side with songs about canned peas, the whole thing makes for an essential audio platter. But you’ll have to make up your own mind about what it all means.
The album starts with a soda can being opened: the click of aluminum as the tab is pressed down, the tsssh sound of carbonation being released into the air, the hissing fizz of cola. It ends with the sound of the can being crushed and thrown to the ground with a rattle and clunk. In this caffeine-fueled, densely layered and politically charged audio collage, we are taken on a ride through the billion-dollar advertising campaigns for Pepsi and Coke, the vagaries of the cola wars, celebrity endorsements, and torture. With its catchy hooks, upbeat rhythms, and memorable lyrics, Dispepsi remains a great “pop” album.
On the cover and spine of the album the title “Dispepsi” is not displayed coherently. The letters making it up were discombobulated into anagrams including "Pedissip" and "Ideppiss." A 1-800 phone number was given in the liner notes that had a recording where the proper name of the album could be heard. All this was a safeguard, albeit a thin one, against trademark infringement and the possible law suits that might ensue had they shown the actual title. Amazingly enough this is one album the copyright critics didn’t get sued for.
While there are plenty of moments of noise, weird sounds, and chaotic collusions on the record, the majority of songs are marked by strong hooks and catchy melodies that get stuck in my head as easily as the advertising jingles they mimic and mock. I am glad Negativland are engaged in subverting corporate messages. They have spent so much time denouncing the culture of advertising that they have a thorough grasp of its mentality. This psychological knowledge could have been more profitably channeled towards selling useless products but instead they spent two and a half years crafting an album that has given me countless hours of pleasure. I listened to it repeatedly just after it came out, and I still put it on a few times a year even now. When initiating new listeners to the vast territory that Negativland has explored this is an album I always start with.
“Drink It Up” paints in the greater landscape of pre-packaged beverages with lines like “when Diet Rite to me is wrong, my Country Time’s expired, my Minute Maid is an hour long, my Maxwell House won’t get my wired, when my pet milk turns on me, and my Five Alive is dead…” on through numerous other permutations. Then the triumphant chorus rings in, “and my mind just turns to Pepsi, and I think of it a lot, my Swiss Miss wasn’t pure, and Kool Aid isn’t hot, when a wall of smoothies rough me up, I’ll turn to a bigger cup of Pepsi, drink it up.” One of the main themes on the album is the use of celebrities in advertising to sell products. This starts on “Why Is this Commercial?” with the voice of Michael J. Fox saying, “Hi I’m me, I’m using this to sell you this.” It loops and repeats, lodging deep in my mind. The song continues to describe the corporate policies that determine how advertisements tend to use African-Americans in only traditionally perceived roles that are by extension racist—hence Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima—that white people can remain comfortable with, but not in those that expand the parameters. It continues with a sample of athlete Herschel Walker and ends with a quote that Michael Jackson was paid five million dollars to star in two 90 second ads.
“The Greatest Taste Around” has a wonderful children’s rompous room beat as the voice of Dick Lyons, reads out fun lines like, “I got fired by my boss” and then a loudly sampled “Pepsi” interspersed, before saying “I nailed Jesus to the cross” all in a happy tone that makes me thirsty for soda. Another highlight of the album is “Aluminum or Glass: The Memo,” where the Weatherman poses as an ad exec coaching his underlings on how to shoot the perfect commercial, or what he calls “a heightened reality vignette.”
At times the music of Negativland can feel suffocating as it is so saturated with media samples. I can only imagine how painstaking the process assembling it all together was for the band, but it was certainly worth the effort. Other ambitious concept albums have floundered, this one remains strong, and its artistic statement ever more pertinent in a world flooded competing commercial messages. Dispepsi has a smooth and satisfying finish that has yet to go flat.
Fair Use (book) / Dead Dog Records (CD) (1995)
The CD that accompanied the Fair Use book was my initiation into Negativland. With classic cuts like “Gimmee the Mermaid”, and “Please Don’t Sue Us”, it tilted my brain toward a love for skewed audio and skillful appropriation. The CD is an extensive example of copying, pasting, editing it, taking whatever you can and using to create something of your own- plus a 26-minute “review” of the U.S. Copyright Act by Crosley Bendix, Director of Stylistic Premonitions for the Universal Media Netweb.
Among the many samples used are some from members of Chumbawamba talking about how Led Zeppelin didn’t want them to use their music, even though a lot of what Led Zeppelin had done was copied off of what black blues musician’s had done years and years before. The phrase “copying is a criminal act” is used to great effect.
The overwhelming (and very funny) text of Fair Use takes you deep inside Negativland’s legal, ethical, and artistic odyssey in an unusual examination of the ironic absurdities that ensue when corporate commerce, contemporary art and pre-electronic law collide over one 13-minute recording. In 1991, Negativland’s infamous U2 single was sued out of existence for trademark infringement, fraud, and copyright infringement for poking fun at the Irish mega-group U2’s anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” In 1992, Negativland’s magazine-plus-CD "The Letter U and the Numeral 2" was also sued out of freaking existence for trying to tell the freaking story of the first freaking lawsuit. So there was no other possibility but for them to write Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, a 270-page book-with-CD to tell the story of both lawsuits and the fight for the right to make new art out of corporately owned culture.
The book presents the progression of documents, events and results chronologically, contains the suppressed magazine in its entirety, and goes on to add much more that has happened since, to illuminate this modern saga of criminal music. Also included is a (at the time) definitive appendix of legal and artistic references on the fair use issue, including important court decisions, and a foreword written by the son of the American U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
It’s hard to pick favorite’s from a band as gleeful and full of joy as Negativland. The album Free ranks up there with their best creations. It is a Freewheeling exploration of car culture, drunk driving, guns, bibles, more guns, more bibles, Cadillacs, liberty, freedom, the right to bare arms hanging out of an automobile after an accident on the freeway, torture, convenience stores, and the fact that freedom is waiting for you at the nearest 7-11. It’s also about shotguns, pistols, bayonets, knives, brass knuckles, submachine guns and an army.
Tracks like “The Gun and the Bible”, “We Are Driven” and “Our National Anthem” continue to hit home for listeners here in the land of the free, free to choose between Pepsi and Coke anyway. In the last song of the album the haunting truth that the tune for the “Star Spangled Banner” was lifted by Francis Scott Key from an old English drinking song in a blatant copyright rip off is revealed.
This was the first album to be self-released on their revived Seeland record label in the aftermath of their termination of association with SST following the bitter U2 disputes and lawsuits.
Guns is an EP that was created for a commission from NPR. It’s hard to underestimate the influence radio has had on Negativland’s music. The collection of audio media curated by the band over the years, including Don Joyce’s extensive archives that he built up for use on OTE, and all of the members deep skills in editing audio mean that their “musical essays” are perfectly suitable for transmission over the air and into listeners homes who could enjoy them as a theater of the imagination. And while some bands break new material while on tour, it has long been Negativland’s to work on their albums in progress over-the-air on OTE. Here a concise ballistic was formulated and aimed at NPR, as per their request.
The fact that the group continuously tackles difficult and controversial subject matter in a way that satisfies the intellect and does so with an ironic sense of humor is also one of the calling cards of the Negative generation. This EP was crafted before the Columbine shootings and the school shootings, and many other shootings like them had become a normal part of American life, much like the second amendment itself. It makes no statement over whether guns are good or bad, but presents material on six shooters, rifles, submachine guns, pistols, glocks and toy guns in a manner that lets the listener make up their own mind. In crafting this piece Negativland have shown that they are sharp shooters and gives ammunition to both sides of the gun debate.
Whoever sent Negativland the tapes of Casey Kasem cussing and screaming about a dead dog named Snuggles and a strange dedication request from a man in Cincinnati, Ohio was a genius. From these tapes, and Kasem’s belligerent quotes about the Irish band U2 saying “these guys are from England and who gives a shit?” a legend was born. When the song was released it put Negativland in the spotlight.
The two tracks include outtakes from American Top 40 host Kasey Casem over top of a parody of U2’s well known song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", including kazoos and extensive sampling of the original song. The song “Special Edit Radio Mix” version features a musical backing to an extended profane rant from aforementioned disc jockey lapsing out of his more polished and professional tone during a frustrating taping, which was captured by several engineers, who had been passing it around for a number of years.
In 1991, Negativland released this EP with the title "U2" displayed in very large type on the front of the packaging and "Negativland" in a smaller typeface. An image of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane dominated the cover.
U2's label Island Records was quick to throw a lawsuit at Negativland, claiming that placing the word "U2" on the cover violated trademark law, as did the song itself. Island Records also claimed that the single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, then awaiting the impending release of Achtung Baby.
With the lawsuit in place the punk rocker Greg Ginn and head of SST record didn’t want to have to pay to help out the band, and so they kicked Negativland off the roster in a way that can only be described as cowardly and acrimonious. Another legal battle ensued between SST and Negativland. This case was settled when Ginn/SST agreed to fully release most of Negativland's masters (mainly their OTE series of cassettes) in exchange for completing work on a live album that had been planned long before the legal battles began, as well as keeping Negativland's three SST releases on the label for a short period. Funnily enough these copyright have since reverted back to Negativland who are now famous for the use of “copyleft” and “N©” on their releases. One bit of detournement they aimed at back at their former label took the bumper sticker "SST: Corporate Rock Still Sucks" and made it into "Corporate SST Still Sucks Rock"
Several artists had already left SST in the late 1980s so Negativland was in good company. By 1987, just a year after signing with the label, Sonic Youth had grown disenchanted with it. Guitarist Thurston Moore said, "SST's accounting was a bit suspect to us", and the group's other guitarist Lee Ranaldo criticized the label's "stoner administrative quality”. The band was also dissatisfied with Ginn's newer signings. Unhappy that income from their records was ultimately helping to fund "lame-ass records", Sonic Youth acrimoniously left the label and signed with Enigma Records in 1988. Dinosaur Jr left SST for Blanco y Negro Records in 1990. Frontman J Mascis said, "I like Greg Ginn and stuff, but they wouldn't pay you."
In the end leaving SST became a good thing for the group, as they rebooted Seeland Records to release and distribute their music on their own, fully embracing the DIY spirit displayed so strongly throughout their work and catalog.
Helter Stupid (1989)
The role of the hoax is fully embedded within the works of the band and Helter Stupid remains a fine example of the power of a press release and a prank. It was also a bloodshed moment. High on the feeling of their hit song “Christianity is Stupid” from 1987’s acclaimed album Escape from Noise, the band was finally feeling like things had taken a positive turn.
The band had arrived. They had made it. SST was distributing their album and the future was looking rosy. A tour would be in order to play their music live in front of all the fans they were earning across the alternative music scene. The success of the album on the network of college radio stations had earned them endearing groupies all across the land whose couches they could surf and sleep on during the tour.
Little did they know but they were only just then entering the world of trials and tribulations. For an inconvenient ax murder had set the stage for hijinks and shenanigans.
Fast-forward to the beginning of March 1988: Lyons is working nights as a security guard. Two weeks earlier a teenager named David Brom in Rochester, Minnesota had chopped up his family with an axe. The story was still all over the newspapers. An article in the New York Times had made brief mention of an argument over a cassette tape that Brom had been listening to that had somehow offended his deeply Catholic family. Brom's frequent arguments with his piously Catholic parents over what music he was allowed to listen to as a teen possibly led to his despicable deed.
Reading about the case Richard Lyons got the bright idea that the tragedy could become a source of Free publicity for the band. He was at work after all and was thus deeply bored. So he decided to dash off a press release, a media art form in and of itself. In his missive he created the fictional “Federal Official Dick Jordan” who ordered the group to stop and cancel all concerts pending an investigation into the role “Christianity is Stupid” may have played in the Brom murders.
Slowly Dick’s deft PR spin caused a trickle of stories to start appearing. The underground zines were first to propagate the tall tale and it eventually got picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. Once the virus had been released it could not be contained and the news media banged on their door-- with the band usually declining to comment and the reporters too lazy to fact check. Whatever band interviews commenced were sexed up and edited to fit the news.
Eventually their coup hit pay dirt when the local evening TV news for CBS wanted to run a story on the band. Negativland then had the genius to record the TV news segments about them and use the whole escapade as the basis for the first half of their next album, Helter Stupid, an investigation of the intersection of murder and music. The title cut is a sprawling inquiry into backwards masking, the Negative influence of heavy metal on impressionable youth, the ease with which the media can be manipulated and how that in turn manipulates the perceptions of those who take the media at face value.
It’s an album that raises thorny ethical questions. Don Joyce didn’t find any problem between the stunt and his conscience. “We always felt that anything out there in the mass media was fair game for artistic tampering. It didn’t seem to give us pause.”
Mark Hosler disagreed with his bandmate and expressed feelings of discomfort in “exploiting a real human tragedy.”
Many years later, Hosler would be confronted at a party in Olympia, Washington by a guy who went to school with David Brom. “This guy at the party was telling me how horrible we were for exploiting the murders and how our hoax affected their town,” he posted to an online message board that night. It seems that their hoax was more successful than the group could ever have imagined – to the extent that even in the town where the murders happened it remained widely accepted as the truth even many years later. “Our prank fueled the town and the parents’ fears that MUSIC was making their kids crazy and violent. This led to weird kids being kicked out of school (including the guy who was confronting me), being persecuted, beat up, etc.”
"Our act of creating a false association with such a tragedy will remain open to ethical interpretation," the band concluded in its liner notes for the 15th anniversary reissue of the Helter Stupid.
Side two of the album is an entirely different matter. It draws a lot of samples from "The Winning Score", a 1977 presentation by TM Century, producers of radio jingles and imaging. It was an expose on the collusion between record companies and radio stations, as well as commentary on the short sightedness of the imagination of those in radio who were then limiting their use of the medium (and still are for the most part) to formats that suck, playing music that sucks. Between jingles, commercials, and call-ins Negativland points the finger at the disc jockeys, record executives and radio stations who are only in it for the money.
Escape from Noise (1987)
1987 saw the release of their seminal (and best selling) fourth album Escape From Noise, which contained the track “Christianity is Stupid.”
About a year earlier Richard Lyons was crate digging in a Bay Area thrift store when he came across a record with the wonderfully off-the-wall title If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? It was a privately pressed recording of a feverish sermon by the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle. It presented a southern Baptists vision of a commie fueled apocalypse, a surreal narrative in which Communists take over America and set about brainwashing its citizens. In one particularly passage filled with brimstone and ire Pirkle foretells of loudspeakers throughout the country broadcasting the same message over and over again: “Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!”
Pastor Dick and the other members of Negativland were immediately taken by the peculiar musical quality of Pirkle’s voice. “Not just what he was saying, but how he was saying it” Mark Hosler explained. The band knew right away, that like their Californian forebears, they had struck gold. So they created their own piece of what Hosler called “brainwash music.” Pirkle’s rant became the lead vocal for the piece amidst a dirge of thudding four-four beats and crashing guitars. The song became an anthem for an entire generation of misfits.
The original album came with a yellow bumper sticker with black letters reading "Car Bomb" the name of one of the albums many classic cuts. It also contained a booklet outlining the history of the band, along with photos of band members and reviews of previous releases. In the booklet, Crosley Bendix describes how Negativland's studio/apartment and recording equipment were destroyed in a two-alarm fire discovered by Hosler at 11:50 pm late on "Friday the 13th of February, 1987".
The fire started in Smart Laundry, a dry cleaning business located at street level below Negativland's apartment, 10028 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, California. When he saw flames leaping up past their kitchen window, Hosler yelled to his friend Tera Freedman in the next room to call 911 to notify the fire department. Hosler and Freedman collected the finished master tapes and artwork for Escape from Noise and quickly left the building, just as fire crews arrived. Cleaning solvents in the laundry accelerated the fire and caused extensive damage to the building before fire crews gained control. Afterward, the band grimly assessed the total destruction of the recording equipment and the materials from previous releases. Together, they traveled to Los Angeles to meet with SST executives (aka Greg Ginn) and "reaffirm their album commitment".
Escape from Noise is a gem of American underground music. With catchy tunes like the “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song” and more insidious cuts such as “Michael Jackson” and the humorous narration of the Weatherman on “The Playboy Channel” it truly has something for listeners of every stripe.
A Big 10-8 Place (1983)
A Big 10-8 Place was the groups third record and their first to be a concept album, a format they have more or less stuck to ever since. It was a tape splicing extravaganza that was three years in the making and came in a wrap-around sleeve with poster, bumper sticker, inspection cards, hand embossed inner sleeve, and a baggy of lawn clippings with a bright yellow HAM OPERATOR CONVICTED card inside the bag.
It's an audio odyssey through a day in the life in Contra Costa County, Negativland’s home turf. Made out of painstakingly assembled sounds and ideas, as sheer sound collage it remains unlike anything else they've ever made.
The 10-8 in the title will be familiar to radio geeks who’ve happened to cut their teeth rag chewing on the citizens band. If you hear a CB operator say "10-8" it's just another way to say "In service, and taking calls."
The lyrics and sound clips on the album make frequent reference to the CB and amateur radio hobby, as well as mischief like jamming. This was the first album of the band to feature the talents of Don Joyce, who coined the now familiar phrase “culture jamming” which was directly related to this album and the OTE broadcasts that went on to make up the JamCon ’84 release.
The phrase comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or as way of disrupting dominant frequencies with counter broadcasts. In a Crosley Bendix radio review featured on JamCon ‘84 Bendix stated, “As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skillfully reworked billboard... directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.”
Thus was born a practice Negativland pioneered and mastered.
The efforts of Ian Allen were also a major influence on this record and the band as a whole. “His impact, inspiration and influence on the group is impossible to overestimate,” the group wrote in a statement after his death at age 56. “There would be no group as we know it today, no Over The Edge radio show [on KPFA], no ‘culture jamming’ and no A Big 10-8 Place LP without him.”
“He was part of creating Negativland’s Points LP in 1981, introducing to the rest of us, on the track ‘BABAC D’BABC…,’ the idea of using tape splicing not just as a way to make loops and connect tracks but as a compositional tool unto itself. This revelation led to the exploration of this technique full-on in 1983’s A Big 10-8 Place, and he played a major role in the creation of that record and its unique packaging.”
Negativland also credits Allen for his contribution to the very concept of culture jamming. He also introduced the other members to artist and radio DJ Don Joyce who then became a member of the band. Allen was also an inspiration behind the collectives radio show Over the Edge.
It was Allen who pushed the band members in creative ways and suggested their 1983 LP should be a concept album. He also had a more unordinary influence on the group: “Ian was obsessed with the number 17, which is why it appears in various ways on so many Negativland projects and texts in the Eighties and Nineties.” He left this planet for the great culture jam of the beyond on January 17th, 2015.
The groups second album sees the group practicing with the forms that would become part of their basic toolkit: noise/music/text/loop pieces made in the bedrooms of California suburbs.
It also shows the influence of the group member David Wills, aka the Weatherman. David is an avid home recorder and had played with tapes and microphones since he was a kid. When he joined the group with then teenagers Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons he’d been working as a cable TV repairman, an occupation he held for a long time.
David is the quintessential radio, electronics, and recording nerd, and otherwise all around fascinating and strange individual who has OCD and obsessions with cleaning products. In his current home he has microphones wired throughout the house so he can make recordings from inside and outside at will. He has also been very interested in the radio monitoring and scanning hobby and collected many recordings off the airwaves that were used in various capacities on Negativland albums and on OTE.
So we return to the beginning with Negativland’s first release a project by some teenage kids bored in the suburbs and looking for something to do, something to make, something to create. Now their tactics and art practices are something any teen can do with a few clicks on their smartphone. The kind of sampling and appropriation of existing corporate cultural materials they pioneered in the audio realm is now being performed by grade school kids across the land who upload their creations to Youtube and other platforms.
This album also appeared on the infamous and influential Nurse With Wound list.
As Negativland enters their fifth decade as a subliminal cultural sampling service they are more than capable of making noise and of subverting mass media transmissions. That they do so without preaching a specific ideology allows them to find humor in all those things we usually don’t pay attention too, helping us to question the standard narratives, all the while laughing merrily along the way.
Need to hear even more Negativland? I can't blame you. Here is a two hour mix of Negativland's Top 40 Hosted by K. C. Cuss'em when he filled in for Ken Katkin on Trash Flow Radio back in November of 2019.
Not all the musicians who use radios to make music take the output from the transmission directly into the input of the mixing board or microphone to capture the voice of the aether. And not all of them used it as a source of direct audio sampling either. Some have trawled the megahertz and found inspiration in the voices they heard on the radio talk in shows, in the banter to be heard on the citizens band, and in the back and forth between hams in long distance rag chews over the shortwaves.
Paddy McAloon found so much inspiration listening to the radio, he created an entire album and the based the lyrical elements off of the various conversations he had heard and taped at his listening post. Paddy had been writing songs since he turned 13, but in 1999 at the age of 42, the ease with which he could write songs suddenly changed. Not from the level of his mastery of melody, hooks, and poetic pop lyricism, but on a physical level, when he suffered from the detachment of both his retinas one right after the other. Suddenly blind, he was bound to the house with nothing but free time.
Not only had Paddy been writing songs since he was 13, but he’d been in the habit of making chart topping albums with his band Prefab Sprout, started with his brother Martin, in Witton Gilbert, County Durham, England. The band played in a down on its heels gas station owned by their father, and were joined by a friend down the street, Michael Salmon drums, forming in 1977. Five years later after forging some musical chops they went into the studio to record their first single, Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone) with a b-side called Radio Love. The lyrics are seemingly innocuous but hide a tragic undercurrent, and it’s hard not to read an eerie prescience into the tune for Paddy’s later album Trawling the Megahertz. It starts with the static and whine of a shortwave set, and ends with the same, and the voice of a distant announcer.
“Requests for everyone / Love is on / Radio love is strong / Radio love / Shortwave for everyone / It was on the news, someone had drowned / She keeps hearing it over / All night long / All night long”.
All the years spent listening to everything from David Bowie, to Igor Stravinsky, to T. Rex, put the band in good stead as Paddy continued to refine his craft of songwriting. Having written most of his songs using guitar Paddy had a crisis around the instrument, thinking he’d exhausted it, picked up a Roland synth, and started using that to write songs with just as they were poised to start making albums. It was around this time that vocalist Wendy Smith was recruited for the band.
In 1984 came Swoon followed by 85’s Steve McQueen. This was followed by another string of album leading to Jordan in 1990. The band then went on hiatus until work began on Andromeda Heights, the last album to feature Wendy as vocalist. It was released in 1997.
Two years later Paddy’s retina detached, possibly from congenital factors. Repairing his eyes required extensive surgery and he was left blind and stuck in the house. Composing hunched over the keyboard had become impossible, and he was starting to twitchy, unable to work on new songs, and unable to read. Radio became his solace.
“I found all this frustating as I've been writing songs since 1971, and am subject to itchy, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if I cannot work. So, unable even to read, I passed the time by listening to and taping all kinds of T.V and radio programmes, concentrating on phone-ins, chat shows, citizen's band conversations, military encryptions - you name it, I was eavesdropping on it.”
McAloon found a lot of what he taped to be boring and banal, but within all the day to day chit chat of people talking on the air, he caught glimpses of the sublime, and started having moments of inspiration. In his mind he began to edit what he had heard into the spoken word lyrics for what would become his next album.
"Odd words from documentaries would cross-pollinate with melancholy confidences aired on late night phone-ins; phrases that originated in different time zones on different frequencies would team up to make new and oddly affecting sentences. And I would change details to protect the innocent (or guilty), to streamline the story that I could hear emerging, and to make it all more...musical, I suppose."
Using the snippets of radio conversation he had recorded, and further riffing off "mental edits" he’d made of these, he found the poetic moments within the plaintive complaints he heard on the radio and mixed these with things he had heard on various documentaries. A specific word like "ether" or "anesthetic" would strike him, and he started using these as launch points for his own writing. All the radio transmissions had been like a fertilizer, seeding his imagination.
“After awhile I got enough of these sentences and radio thoughts, and I thought, well, I’m not going to be able to finish the thought by listening to radio to find the words I need, so sometimes I’ll fill them in.”
He started writing musical parts to go with the words on his 1987 era Atari computer. Paddy had developed a philosophy of not wanting to use all the latest gear. “You find a piece of software you can use, you do it well, and then someone will tell you the computer you've got will break down, it's old now, you'll need to go over to a Mac. Let me tell you - I still use an Atari computer from 1987. I didn't like where the software went after that. Even on the Mac. I don't care how sophisticated it got - I knew how to use the old software in my limited way. And, finally, my eyes are not great. So I resent the learning curve with new equipment. I don't have Garage Band. I don't have a Mac. That’s what it is with me and old technology. I can't be bothered. Nor do I have the money to spend in the way I used to have. I don't have a massive guaranteed advance from a record company. I work very slowly by myself. BUT - I have a message on my studio wall that says: ‘Imagine that you crash landed on a desert island, but you've survived, you've walked away, and there's a small town there, with a recording studio, the recording studio is very old-fashioned. How thrilled would you be, having survived your plane crash and how thrilled you'd be for the most basic recording equipment?’ That's me. That's me in my home studio full of this old gear that's out of date that other people can laugh at.”
Working with the Atari computer to compose the title track on I Trawl the Megahertz, the limitations of the software gave the piece a form to materialize within and determined the length of the title track. “I spent a long time working on that just as a computer piece, using the same old rubbishy synth sounds. Do you know why it is as long as it is? This is a terrible thing to tell you! 22 minutes of music is the length you'll get on an Atari! That's a bad reason for it. But in the end when I figured out the structure of it was just gonna fall within what an Atari could do.”
The piece ends up being something of a movie to watch with your eyes closed, a narrative to listen to if you have been left without sight. Culled from the airwaves, it is also perfect piece to be played on the radio. While Paddy is mostly known for his pop songs, this long player of a track, is in a way akin to the kind of storytelling heard in the music Laurie Anderson and in the operas of Robert Ashley. It is so perfectly suited for transmission itself. While not a radio drama, it can be listened to as a radio drama, these kind of works could form the basis for revivification of radio drama, infused with specially composed music, and a delight to people to near and far, who happen to tune, out of the blue and right on schedule.
And though written on the Atari, the album proper ended up being recorded with a classical crossover ensemble, Mr. McFalls Chamber. Co-producer Calum Malcolm and composer David McGuinness helped Paddy to take his original MIDI versions and produce scores from them for the final recordings. The final result is an breathtaking excursion into neo-romantic chamber pop. Echoes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Leonard Bernstein swirl and coalesce with the tender reading of his poetic text by vocalist Yvonne Connors.
On the second side there are eight more tracks, mostly instrumental. I’m 49 is the only one to use samples of the actual recordings he’d made off the air to deliver a melancholic meditation on one man’s post-divorce mid-life crisis. At a time when Paddy had been suffering from the trials and travails of his own life, and the curveballs it had thrown at him, he plumbed the depths of our shared human condition, and found companionship and comfort in the voices that called out to him across the expansive aether.
Special thanks to One Deck Pete for reminding me of this story.
Read the rest of the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY series.
Paddy McAloon, I Trawl the Megahertz , Liberty EMI, 2003
Prefab Sprout, I Trawl the Megahertz (Remastered), Sony Music 2019
Another way Information Theory has been used in the making of music is through the sonification of data. It is the audio equivalent of visualizing data as charts, graphs, and connected plot points on maps full of numbers. Audio, here meaning those sounds that fall outside of speech categories, has a variety of advantages to other forms of conveying information. The spatial, tempo, frequency and amplitude aspects of sound can all be used to relay different messages.
One of the earliest and most successful tools to use sonification has been the Geiger counter from 1908. Its sharp clicks alert the user to the level of radiation in an area and are familiar with anyone who is a fan of post-apocalyptic sci-fi zombie movies. The faster the tempo and number of clicks the higher the amount of radiation detected in an area.
A few years after the Geiger counter was invented Dr. Edmund Fournier d'Albe came up with the optophone, a system that used photosensors to detect black printed typeface and convert it into sound. Designed to be used by blind people for reading, the optophone played a set of group notes: g c' d' e' g' b' c. The notes corresponded with positions on the reading area of the device and a note was silenced if black ink was sensed. These missing notes showed the positions where the black ink was and in this way a user could learn to read a text via sound. Though it was a genius invention the optophone didn’t catch on.
Other areas where sonification did get used include pulse oximeters (a device that measures oxygen saturation in the blood), sonar, and auditory displays inside aircraft cockpits, among others.
In 1974 a trio of experimental researchers at Bell Laboratories conducted the earliest work on auditory graphing; Max Mathews, F.R. Moore, and John M. Chambers wrote a technical memorandum called “Auditory Data Inspection.” They augmented a scatterplot -a mathematical diagram using Cartesian coordinates to display values for two or more variables in a data set- using a variety of sounds that changed frequency, spectral content, and amplitude modulation according to the points on their diagram.
Two years later the technology and science philosopher Don Ihde wrote in his book, Listening and Voice: phenomenologies of sound, "Just as science seems to produce an infinite set of visual images for virtually all of its phenomena--atoms to galaxies are familiar to us from coffee table books to science magazines; so 'musics,' too, could be produced from the same data that produces visualizations." Ihde pointed to using the tool of sonification for creativity, so that we might in effect, be able to listen to the light of the stars, the decomposition of soil, the rhythm of blood pulsing through the veins, or to make a composition out of the statistics from a series of baseball games.
It wasn’t long before musical artists headed out to carve a way through the woods where Ihde had suggested there might be a trail.
There are many techniques for transforming data into audio dada. The range of sound, its many variables and a listener’s perception give ample parameters for transmitting information as audio. Increasing or decreasing the tempo, volume, or pitch of a sound is a simple method. For instance, in a weather sonification app temperature could be read as the frequency of one tone that rises in pitch as temperature and lowers as it falls. The percentage of cloud cover could be connected to another sound that increases or decreases in volume according to coverage, while wind speed could be applied as a resonant filter across another tone. The stereo field could also be used to portray information with a certain set of data coming in on the left channel, and another set on the right.
The audio display of data is still in a wild west phase of development. No standard set of techniques has been adopted across the board. Do to the variables of information presented, and the setting of where it is presented, researchers in this field are working towards determining which set of sounds are best suited for particular applications. Programmers are writing programs or adapting existing ones to be able to parse streams of information and render it according to sets of sonification rules.
One particular technique is audification. It can be defined as a "direct translation of a data waveform to the audible domain." Data sequences are interpreted and mapped in time to an audio waveform. Various aspects of the data correspond to various sound pressure levels. Signal processing and audio effects are used to further translate the sound as data. Listeners can then hear periodic components as frequencies of sound. Audification thus requires large sets of data containing periodic components.
Developed by Greg Kramer in 1992 the goal was to allow listeners to be able to hear the way scientific measurements sounded. Audification has a number of applications in medicine, seismology, and space physics. In seismology, it is used as an additional method of earthquake prediction alongside visual representations. NASA has applied audification to the field of astrophysics, using sounds to represent various radio and plasma wave measurements. There are many musicians who are finding inspiration in using the sets of data culled from astronomy and astrophysics in the creation of new works. It’s an exciting development in the field of music.
American composer Gordon Mumma had been inspired by seismography and incorporated it into his series of piano works called Mographs. A seismic wave is the energy moving through the Earth's layers caused by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, magma movement, large landslides and large man-made explosions. All of these events give out low-frequency acoustic energy that can be be picked up by a seismograph. A seismogram has wiggly lines going all across it. These are all the seismic waves that the seismograph has recorded. Most of the waves are small because no one felt them, little tiny waves called microseisms can even be caused by ocean waves hitting the beach, heavy traffic of rumbling semi-trucks, and other things that might cause the seismograph to shake. Little dots along the graph show the minutes so the seismic waves can be seen in time. When there is seismic activity the P-wave is the first wave to be bigger than the small normal microseisms. P waves are the fastest moving seismic wave and these are usually the first to be recorded by a seismograph. The next set of waves on the seismogram are the S-waves. S-waves have a higher frequency than the P-waves and appear bigger on the seismogram.
Mumma based the structure and activity of each Mograph around data derived from seismogram recordings of earthquakes and underground nuclear explosions. The seismograms he was looking at were part of cold-war research that attempted to verify the differences between various seismic disturbances. The government wanted to know if it was a nuke that had hit San Francisco or just another rumbling from the earth. For Mumma, the structural relationships between the way the patters of P-waves and S-waves traveled in time, and their reflections, had the “compositional characteristics of musical sound-spaces”. One of the strategies he used to sonify the seismograms into music was to limit the pitch-vocabulary and intervals in each work. This gave Mumma the ability draw attention to the complexity of time and rhythmic events within each Mograph.
With these themes in mind, listening to the Mograph is like hearing tectonic plates being jostled around, here hitting each other abruptly, and there in a slow silence that grinds as two plates meet. It is the sound of very physical waves rumbling through earth and stone and dirt, and beneath concrete, as interpreted by the piano, or pairs of pianos used in some arrangements. In making these pieces from seismograph data Gordon Mumma sketched a process for others to use in future works of sonification.
By the Code of Soil
Another down to earth sonification project deals with the soil beneath our feet. It started out as a commission for artist Kasia Molga from the GROW Observatory, a citizen science organization working to take action on climate change, build better soil and grow healthier food, while using data provided by the European Space Agencies Copernicus satellites to achieve their goals.
Kasia began her project by analyzing the importance and meaning of soil, and she looked at what is happening to the soil now and how that impacts farmers, urbanites, and well, everyone. She listened to the concerns of the scientists at GROW and spent a chunk time parsing the data from the GROW sensors and the Sentinel-1A satellite that is used to asses soil moisture across Europe.
In the course of her background work Kasia wondered how she could get important information about soil health out there to the largest number of people and she hit upon the idea of using a computer virus. The resulting project, By the Code of Soil, ended up working with peoples computers and smart phones. The program didn’t install any malware, self-replicate, or actually infect anyone’s computer, but rather worked as a way to interrupt those people who spend most of their time in front of screens and remind them of the real analog world underneath their feet.
She recruited a few other people to work with her on the project, tech artists Erik Overmeire and Dan Hett, and musician Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner. Their project turns soil data into digital art that appears on a participants’ computer (downloaded as an app) whenever land-mapping satellite Sentinel-1A passes overhead.
The Sentinel satellite missions include radar and super-spectral imaging for land, ocean and atmospheric monitoring. Each Sentinel mission is based on a constellation of two satellites that fulfill and revisit the coverage requirements for each individual mission. This provides a robust dataset for researchers to access here on Earth. Sentinel-1 provides all-weather, day and night radar imaging for land and ocean services. GROW Observatory has gotten involved by deploying thousands of soil sensors all across Europe to improve the accuracy of the observations from the orbiting birds.
Kasia designed the video art for the piece. Twice a day the Sentinel-1 passes overhead in Europe and the artwork and sounds change in real time as driven by the data.
Kasia writes, “The artwork takes control of user’s computer for a minute or two in full screen mode. It manifests itself in a quite unexpected manner – that is it only will become visible on the computer when the Sentinel-1A satellite passes by the computer’s location – approximately twice within 24 hours but never at the same time of the day.” This is how it reacts like a virus, erupting unexpectedly (unless you happen to be tracking the movement of the satellite).
To portray the soil data visually Kasia started with a pixel and a matrix. She thought of these as single grains of soil, from which something else can be created and emerge. She used visual white noise, like that of a TV on station with a channel with no broadcast, to show a signal coming out of the noise when the satellite passes, activating the algorithm written for the piece. “Various configurations of the noise – its frequencies, shapes, speed of motion and sizes – reflect the moisture, light, temperature and texture of the land near to the participant’s computer based on its IP address.”
Meanwhile Scanner handled the sound design for the project. He took a similar approach as Kasia and looked at the granular aspects of sound. “Trying to score data was a seemingly impossible task. How to soundtrack something that is ever changing, ever developing, ever in flux, refusing to remain still. Most times when one accompanies image with sound the image is locked, only to repeat again and again on repeated viewing. By the Code of Soil refuses to follow this pattern. Indeed it wasn’t until I watched the work back one evening, having last seen it the previous morning, that I realized how alive data can really be.
The only solution sonically was to consider sound, like soil, as a granular tool. The sound needed to map the tiniest detail of alterations in the data received so I created sounds that frequently last half a second long and map these across hundreds of different possibilities. It was a like a game of making mathematics colorful and curiously one can only hear it back by following the App in real time. I had to project into the future what I felt would work most successfully, since I never knew how the data would develop and alter in time either. As such the sound is as alive as the images, as malleable as the numbers which dictate their choices. Data agitates the sound into a restless and constantly mutable soundscape.”
He spent many hours designing a library of sounds with Native Intstruments Reaktor and GRM Tools and then mapping them into families. These families of sound were in turn mapped onto various aspects of the data. With the data coming into the satellite from the sensors, and the data collected from the sensors feeding into the program, different sets of sounds and visuals were played according to the system.
The success of this project for Kasia Molga and Scanner has led to them working together again in creating another multimedia work, Ode to Dirt, using soil data as a source code, for content, and inspiration. In this piece “(de)Compositions bridges the source (input) and the data (output) through inviting viewers to take part in a multi sensory experience observing how the artwork - a fragment of the ‘land’ - changes through time - its form, sound and even smell - determined by the activities of the earthworms.”
READING MUSIC: LISTENING AS INFORMATION EXTRACTION
Many musicians know how to read sheet music. For composers it’s a basic tool. But what if average people learned how to read music, that is, listen to a composition and extract information from it as if it were a couple of paragraphs of text, or for really long works, a whole book?
It strikes me that this is a distinct possibility as the field of sonification grows. Just as we have learned to signify and interpret letters and words, we may eventually come to have another shared grammar of sound that allows people to listen to the music of data and interpret that text with our ears.
This new way of reading music as information has the possibility of transforming the field of radio as the imagination is opened up to new ways of receiving knowledge. It would be interesting to create radio that included sonified data as a regular part of news stories.
This project of mapping knowledge to sound is implicit in Hesse’s description of the Glass Bead Game. Sonification is another way to bring it about as a reality. Yet to make the most of this listening opportunity, to listen to music in a way analogous to reading a book, we will have to grow new organs of perception. Pauline Oliveros started the work of carving out new pathways for the way we perceive the world in her Deep Listening workshops, concerts and work in general. This work is being continued by her partner Ione, and others trained in the skills of Deep Listening. Kim Cascone has also taught workshops on the subject of what he calls Subtle Listening. Through a variety of meditation and other exercises Kim teaches his students how to “grow new organs of perception”. Perhaps through techniques such as these we may learn to listen to data in a way that engages the imagination and transforms it into knowledge.
Listening and Voice: A phenomenology of sound by David Idhe, State University of New York, 2007
David Tudor & Gordon Mumma, Rainforest / 4 Mographs, Sections X and 7 from Gestures, New World Records, 2006
Robin Rimbaud (project documentation sent in personal communication, September 29 2020)
Read the rest of the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY series.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera cycle LICHT is many things and as a great work of art it is subject to multiple, if not endless, interpretations. These interpretations are multiple because the opera is made up of living symbols. As Carl Jung taught, it is possible to distinguish between a symbol and a sign. A symbol is the best possible expression for something that is unknown, whereas a sign is something specific, such as the insignia worn by a military officer showing his specific rank.
For this work the specific and very rich symbolism of LICHT will be set aside to look at it from a structural and systems point of view. The way Stockhausen gave his work specific limitations shaped the work in unique ways. His adept and intuitive grasp of combinatorial procedures within the limits of the system gave him a wide ranging freedom to play with the materials he had chosen, shaping the raw ingredients into an astonishing and sensual feast of sound, color, and movement.
Opening up the lid of the opera cycle it’s possible to see how its individual components create a musical engine whose individual circuits sync together in a series allowing for a dynamic flow of energies and psychoacoustic forces. Let’s look under the hood of LICHT to see how its various pieces fit together.
Conception of LICHT: Formula & Super Formula
Great ideas often come as revelatory seeds into the mind of those who are prepared. By the mid-seventies Stockhausen had been composing for a quarter of a century and he had already explored a vast territory of sound implementing new ideas for the arrangement of music in time and space. He had played with intuitive music, aleatory processes, and had mastered new electronic music techniques in the studios of WDR, just for starters. The soil of his mind and spirit were fertile, waiting for the next big idea to be planted.
Another tactic basically invented by Stockhausen was formula composition and it came out of his deep engagement with serialism. It involves the projection, expansion and ausmultiplikation of either a single melody-formula, or a two- or three-voice contrapuntal construction. In serial music the structuring features remain basically abstract but in formula composition properties such as duration, pitch, tempo, timbre, and dynamics are also specified from the formula. By using concise and specific tone succession based on the single melody formula both the macro structure and micro details of the composition can be derived.
The roots of his method of formula composition can be traced back to his once withdrawn orchestral piece Formel where the first basic pattern of notes are gradually transformed over the course of the work. The central pitch is first broadened out before the notes are removed leaving only the low and high extremes. He continued to use serial operations on his next batch of works, Kreuzspiel and Punkte, and then introduced musical pointillism into the methods as explored in Kontrapunkte and Gruppen.
Then for a time he moved on to other musical tactics and explorations but came back to the practice with ferocity in Mantra from 1970. Written for two ring modulated pianos, the pianists are also required to play a chromatic cymbals and a wood block. One of the players also has a short-wave radio tuned to a station sending morse code, or when CW isn’t readily available live on the air, a tape recording of morse code is played. It was the first composition that he wrote where he used the term formula, and was one of many watershed moments in his musical thinking. The formula involved the expansion and contraction of counterpointed melodies.
His next piece to use formula composition was Inori from 1974. By this time Stockhausen had already been working extensively with writing music that incorporated elements of theater. Inori took it to another level and he had the insight that he could use the formula, not just for music, but as a way to compose gestures. This was another component that would become essential in LICHT.
Inori is a long work with performances lasting around seventy minutes. The formula for the piece is made up of fifteen notes using 5, 3, 2, 1 and 4 pitches respectively. When the formula is used on the macros scale for the work these five phrases are split into five segments Stockhausen to create a narrative sequence. Robin Maconie says it “lead[s] from pure rhythm . . . via dynamics, melody, and harmony, to polyphony: —hence, a progression from the primitive origin of music to a condition of pure intellect. The entire work is a projection of this formula onto a duration of about 70 minutes”
In 1977 Stockhausen went back to Japan to work on a commission for the National Theater of Tokyo. The idea for intermodulation of music had come to him in his first Japanese commission with Telemusik and he had played his music alongside nineteen ensemble musicians in the special spherical chamber designed for him at the World Fair in Osaka in 1970 for about five and a half hours a day, 183 days in a row. Japan had been a good country for his musical expression. The piece he came to work on when LICHT was conceived was to being written for traditional Gagaku orchestra and Noh actors. The dramatic elements for the production however came to him in a dream, just one of many dreams that gave him direct inspiration for compositions. While composing what became Der Jahreslauf, (Course of the Years), he had a revelation about a way to represent different levels of time by different instrument groups: millenniums are depicted as three harmoniums, centuries by an anvil and three piccolos, decades by a bongo and three saxophones, and years by a bass drum, harpsichord and guitar. These instrument groups became representations of vast forces and scales of time.
This idea of composing music around the theme of various increments of time stayed with the composer for the rest of his life. While working on this commission, another idea was also transmitted into his mind, the super-formula that became the basis for LICHT. In a flash a small seed became the basis for a work of cosmic proportions. Subsequently he used Der Jahreslauf as the first act of Dienstag aus LICHT (Tuesday from Light).
In LICHT he realized his formula technique could be considerably expanded. The entire cycle of seven operas is based on three counterpointed melody formulas. Each of these is associated with one of the three principal characters that make up the dramatic element of the production. (Stockhausen himself said the formulas are the characters.) The melodies then define the tonal center and durations of scenes, and zooming in, give detailed melodic phrasing to more refined elements. The three characters are Eve, Lucifer, and Michael, and they are each associated with a specific instrument, bassett horn, trombone, and trumpet in turn.
This explains formula composition, but what about a super-formula?
In 1977 Stockhausen had been composing for just over twenty-five years. In the super-formula he synthesized nearly all of his musical ideas into a musical tool that would occupy him for the next twenty-seven years until 2003 when the last bars for Sonntag aus LICHT were drying on the staff paper.
He had the insight to take the three formulas he had come up with for Eve, Lucifer and Michael and layer them horizontally on top of each other to make the super-formula. Now they existed as one, each with their own layer, named after the character, or force, in question. The super-formula then gets subdivided again, vertically, into seven portions, of two to four measures each. These seven vertical rows form the days of the week.
Combined the horizontal and vertical rows make up the rich matrix out of which the overall structure of LICHT is built. To expand the formula in time, every quarter note of the super-formula is equal to 16 minutes of music. This is how the maestro -or magister- used it determine the durations of the opera cycles various acts and scenes.
Stockhausen also decided to create a kind of skeleton key, bare bones version of the super formula for each of the three characters. These he called “nuclear formulas” (kernformel) and consisted of just the pitches, duration and dynamics. Boiling the bones down even further provides the broth that the music is bathed in. When the nuclear formulas are reduced to just the notes what is left is essentially a serialist tone row. These are known as the kernels, central tones, or nuclear tones. Nuclear, because they form the very atoms of the music.
With all of this in place the fun has a chance to begin. The super-formula can now be used in all manner of ways. Sometimes Stockhausen employed it in an inverted or retrograde fashion (upside down or backwards). It is very often stretched out across the time frame of scenes and whole acts. Other times it is transposed vertically. Once the listener becomes familiar with each of the formulas for the characters or forces, it is possible to pick out those forces at work in the music even though the formula is not really used as a recurring theme in the typical sense of classical music. Rather, as Ed Chang said, “In LICHT, the MICHAEL, EVE and LUCIFER formulas are used more as structural forces whose tonal characteristics exert a kind of planetary gravity over the surrounding musical ether.”
LICHT is a complete system. The superformula, nuclear kernels, and nuclear tones form the mathematical and musical parts of the systems ecology. The content of the opera, its symbolism based around the days, and the spiritual realities of Eve, Michael, and Lucifer are another aspect of the system. All of this gave Stockhausen the raw material out of which to craft his magnum opus. The music and symbolism mix together and all are now subject to a remarkable game of combination and recombination. The system of LICHT forms the matrix of possibilities, and displayed within that matrix are an extraordinary blending and synthesis of constituent forms.
The idea of ausmultiplikation, which can be translated as "multiplying-out" bears further looking at in terms of how formula composition creates musical forms mirrored on the macro and micro scales. Stockhausen described the technique as when a long note is replaced by shorter "melodic configurations, internally animated around central tones". This bears a strong resemblance to the Renaissance musical technique of diminution or coloration, where long notes are divided into a series of shorter, frequently melodic, values. But Stockhausen also used the term to refer to when he substituted a complete or partial formula for a single long tone, often as background layer projections of the formula. Formula composition and its various components like ausmuliplikation can be seen as Stockhausen’s way of creating a way to practice the Glass Bead Game in music.
Robin Hartwell had the insight that when this is done at more than one level results resemble those of a fractal. If the formula compositions are fractal like, and he also used the idea of spirals throughout his work, one way of looking at LICHT is as a composed fractal music. Zooming in and out, the same structure is played in both minutely on the microscopic level, and at large on the macroscopic across the range of an entire work. Having boiled down of the musical components to microscopic levels, and having diluted them out to the macro, was one way Stockhausen prevented signal loss and maximized the transmission of his musical information. The super-formula is present and exists on every level and in every moment of LICHT.
Another way Licht can be seen as a musical system is by how it is structured in component modules. First of all, it should be considered that each of the operas is a work capable of being appreciated and understood unto itself, without having to hear or see the other sections. While listening to the whole cycle certainly enhances the experience of individual parts, those individual parts can also be enjoyed one at a time in and of themselves. Each opera, act, scene is self-sufficient. Even some parts of scenes can be extracted as solitary works. Certain other extra-curricular or auxiliary works have also been extrapolated out of the formulas of LICHT and its modular structure. All of these contain the essence of LICHT and give the listener one of many ways of enjoying the various elements of the cycle.
This was all made possible due to the practical aspects of Stockhausen’s life as a composer. After he began LICHT, when he received a commission for a new work from this or that person or cultural institution, prescribed for this or that choir group, string quartet, or other group of instrumentation, he would incorporate the work on that commission into LICHT. It was an elegant solution that allowed him to finish the massive project.
Some of the examples of modular works that can be extracted from LICHT include Klavierstucke XII and Michael’s Reise from Donnerstag; Weltraum is an assemblage of the electronic greetings and farewells of Freitag; Kathinka’s Chant for flute and electronics is an extract from Samstag; Angel Procession’s for choir comes from Sonntag; Ypssilon for flute and Xi for basset horn from Montag; the electronic layer from the second act of Dienstag becomes the piece Oktophonie; and the infamous Helicopter String Quartet is a section from Mittwoch. These are just a few of the pieces he was able to write in a modular fashion to fulfill a commission and thus complete a section of LICHT. Alternately he was able to adapt an already written section of LICHT as a module to fulfill a commission and thereby create a smaller chamber type work.
These smaller modules, extracts and auxiliary works from LICHT represent another fractal like aspect of the cycle as a system. They are separate and yet also a part of the system. The formula and super-formula interact with themselves, alongside the set symbolism of the days of the week, to produce an array of combinations perceived and permutated through Stockhausen’s intuitive imagination. Through this thoroughly disciplined act of creation and applied artistry Stockhausen has shown himself to be a “Magister Ludi” or master of the Glass Bead Game.
He has fused mathematics and music together and along these strands and placed connecting beads from the various religious and mystical traditions of the world. He used traditional correspondences, such as in Samstag for instance, associated with Saturday, and the planet Saturn, and it’s symbolism of contraction, limitation, and death. In Samstag he wrote the section Kathinka’s Gesang as Lucifer’s Requiem. Thus the mysteries of death become a main feature of this section of the work. In this piece the flautist performs a ritual with six percussionists. The ritual consists of twenty-four exercises based on Stockhausen’s study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It was written as a chant protecting the soul of the recently departed (in this case Lucifer) by means of musical exercises regularly performed for 49 days after the death of the body, and lead the recently deceased into to the light of clear consciousness. For these exercises he permutated the Lucifer formula into a showstopper of extended flute techniques of deft virtuosity.
And the piece may really be used by the living, and played for 49 days after the departure of a loved one to help assist them in their afterlife transition.
The entire cycle is filled with this plentitude of subtle correspondences between music, science and various world cultures. These become the raw data for his applied musical calculus that is dancing in an elaborate play upon all these correspondences, inside a defined system, to express in multiplexed forms, that which is universal.
After finishing the 29 hours of Licht, a feat some of his critics never expected him to complete, Stockhausen begin writing a series of chamber pieces called Klang, with the intent of writing one for each of the twenty-four hours of the day. Having conceived the musical forces of the days of the week, he was zooming in again to explore the musical forces behind each hour of the day. Formula composition gave him the tool he needed to explore these hours. Having written 21 of the pieces the cycle was unfinished at the time of the composer’s unexpected death in 2007 when he voyaged forth into the greater harmonies of cosmic space and time.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Other Planets: The Complete Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen 1950–2007, by Robin Maconie,Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, 2016.
Ed Chang's website in general has been super helpful in understanding the super-formula. It is a great journey through the Space of Stockhausen.
Threats and Promises: Lucifer, Hell, and Stockhausen's Sunday from Light" by Robin Hartwell in Perspectives of New Music 50, nos. 1 & 2 (Winter–Summer): 393–424.
Into the Middleground: Formula Syntax in Stockhausen's Licht" by Jerome Kohl in Perspectives of New Music 28, no. 2 (Summer): 262–91.
Shannon wasn’t the only one looking at the way signals were transmitted. The same year he published his breakthrough paper, another mathematician published a book that would leave a lasting impression on a number of different fields, electronic music among them. The man was Norbert Wiener and his book was Cybernetics: or control and communication in animal and machine. Wiener defined cybernetics as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine".
Wiener was a child prodigy. Born to Polish and German Jewish immigrants, on his fathers side Nobert was related to Maimonides, the famous rabbi, philosopher and physician from Al Andalus. The predisposition to intellectual greatness was hardwired into his system. Norbert’s father Leo was a teacher of Germanic and Slavic languages and avid reader and book hound who put together an impressive personally library which his son devoured. His father also had a gift for math and gave his son additional instructions in the subject.
At age 11 Norbert graduated Ayer Highschool in Massachussettes and then began attending Tufts College where he received a BA in mathematics at the age of 14. From there he went on to study zoology at Harvard before transferring to Cornell to pursue philosophy, where he graduated at the ripe old age of 17 in 1911, when his classmates from Ayer were probably just entering college if they went at all. Then he went back to Harvard where he wrote a dissertation on mathematical logic, comparing the works of Ernst Schröder with Bertrand Russel and Albert North Whitehead. His work showed that ordered pairs could be defined according to elementary set theory. His Ph.D. was awarded before he turned twenty. Later that same year he went to Cambridge and studied under Russel, as well as at the University of Göttingen where to learn from Edmund Husserl.
After a brief period teaching philosophy at Harvard, Wiener eventually found a position at MIT that would become permanent. In 1926, Wiener returned to Cambridge and Göttingen as a Guggenheim scholar, on a trip that would have important implications for his future work. He spent his time there investigating Brownian motion, the Fourier integral, Dirichlet's problem, harmonic analysis, and the Tauberian theorems.
Harmonic analysis and Browninan motion in particular would go on to have a key role in the development of cybernetics.
Harmonic analysis is a branch off the great tree of math that is concerned with analyzing and describing periodic and recurrent phenomena in nature, such as the many forms of waves: musical waves, tidal waves, radio waves, alternating current, the motion and vibration of machines. And it branched off the research of French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830). Fourier was interested in the conduction of heat and other thermal effects, a trail later followed by Nyquist in his own investigations of thermal noise.
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica the motions of waves “can be measured at a number of successive values of the independent variable, usually the time, and these data or a curve plotted from them will represent a function of that independent variable. Generally, the mathematical expression for the function will be unknown. However, with the periodic functions found in nature, the function can be expressed as the sum of a number of sine and cosine terms.” The sum of these is known as a Fourier series. The determination of the coefficients of these terms is became known as harmonic analysis.
Brownian motion or movement relates to a variety of physical phenomena where some quantity of substance undergoes small and constant but random fluctuations. When those particles that are subject to Brownian motion are moving inside a given medium, and there is no preferred direction for these random oscillations to go, the particles will over time, spread out evenly in the substance.
Both Browninan motion and harmonic analysis can be considered stochastic processes. A stochastic process is, at its core, a process that involves the operation of chance. It is a process where values change in a random way over time. Markov chains are another important form of stochastic process that has been applied to music. Stochastic process can also be used to study noise, and Wiener was a student of this mathematical noise.
Amidst the conflicts of WWII Norbert was called upon to use his prodigious brain for solving technical problems associated with warfare. He attacked the problem of automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns. This required the development and further branching of even more specialized math. It also introduced statistical methods into the recondite area of control and communications engineering, which in turn led to his formulation of the cybernetics concept.
His concept of cybernetics was eerily close to Claude Shannon’s information theory. What they both had in common was knowledge of the influence of noise and the desire to communicate or find signals in, above, and around the noise. One of the ways Wiener figured out how to do this was through filtering. Enter the Wiener filter. It works by computing statistical estimates of unknown signals using a related signal as an input and filtering that to produce an estimated output. Say a signal has been obscured by the addition of noise. The Wiener filter removes the added noise from the signal to give an estimate of the original signal.
Cybernetics is also related to systems theory, and studied in particular the idea of feedback, or a closed signaling loop. Wiener originally referred to the way information or signals effect relationships in system as “circular causal”. Feedback occurs when some action within the system triggers a change in the environment. The environment in turn effects another change in the system when it feeds back the now transformed signal into the originating source. Wiener, through his study of zoology was applicable to biological and social systems, as well as the mechanical ones his research had originally grown out of. Cognitive systems could also be understood in terms of these circular causal chains of action and reaction feeding back in on itself.
Cybernetic’s essential idea of feedback was also directly applicable to the new electronic musical systems defined by the advent of the microphone, amplifier, and speaker. When these devices are connected together in a circuit audio feedback is one possible result stemming from holding the mic close to the speaker. Everyone has experienced the unintentional noise when a PA is being tested. Musicians quickly adapted the idea of using intentional feedback, and distortion (noise on a signal) to give their recordings and live performances a new sound.
Cybernetics is not limited to mapping the flow of information, distorted or otherwise, in and out of systems. It also includes concepts of learning and adaption, social control, connectivity and communication, efficiency, efficacy, and emergence.
The related fields of information theory, cybernetics and systems theory would have huge impacts on music and the arts, as the theories trickled down from places like Bell Labs, the Macy Conferences with their focus on communication across scientific disciplines, and the success of Wiener’s book outside of strictly scientific circles.
The word cybernetics sounds kind of cold and inhuman. It conjures up the chrome clad computerized villains made famous by Doctor Who, the cybermen who speak only in monotone and whose overriding program is to delete organic life. Yet the word cybernetics itself comes from the Greek kybernḗtēs, or "steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder.” Human systems require a guide, someone to steer them. Wiener had picked up the word from the French mathematician and physicist André-Marie Ampère who coined the word "cybernetique" in an 1834 essay on science and civil government. Governments and other systems of human invention require steersman and guides with a firm hand on the rudder to give direction and control the effects of feedback.
The creation of systems is a human trait, and their guidance, via our input, doesn’t have to be cold. It can be done with intuition, insight, and artistic flair. Writing on systems in the world of art for the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity art and music show at the ICA gallery in London, Jasia Reichardt wrote, "The very notion of having a system in relation to making paintings is often anathema to those who value the mysterious and the intuitive, the free and the expressionistic, in art. Systems, nevertheless, dispense neither with intuition nor mystery. Intuition is instrumental in the design of the system and mystery always remains in the final result."
The Discreet Music of Brian Eno
Designing musical systems can result in extraordinary beauty. In the mid-1960s while attending Ipswich Art School Brian Eno had his first encounter with cybernetics. It would go on to have a lasting influence. Under the mentorship of Roy Ascott who had developed the controversial “Groundcourse” curriculum adopted by a number of other art colleges Eno absorbed Ascott’s philosophy of systems learning, making mind maps, and playing mental games.
Eno started thinking of the music studio and groups of musicians in terms of cybernetic systems. Making great musical compositions started with designing the parameters, limits, inputs and outputs that would give a composition its ultimate form. Creating these systems and letting them run was how many of his first, and the first, ambient music records were made.
The liner notes for Eno’s 1975 album Discreet Music contain a block diagram of the system he created for the music. He had been given an album of 18th century harp music to listen to while laying in the bed in the hospital, where he was recovering from a car accident injury. A friend who had been visiting put the record on for him before she left but the volume was turned down too low. Outside it was raining and he listened to “these odd notes of the harp that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain.” The experience “presented what was for me a new way of hearing music—as part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”
Eno connected this experience to Erik Satie’s idea of “furniture music” that was intended to blend into the ambient atmosphere of the room, and not be something focused on directly. Furniture music could mix and combine with the sounds of forks, knives, tinkling glasses and conversation at a dinner.
After Eno’s listening experience in the hospital he set out to make his own ambient music, setting off a musical cascade and defining and kick-starting a genre that at the time of this writing is now forty-five years old.
In the liner notes to Discreet Music, Eno wrote these now famous lines, “Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part. That is to say, I tend towards the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.”
The liner notes also contain a block diagram of the system he set up. Eno had wanted to create a background drone for guitarist Robert Fripp to play along with. He was working with an EMS Synthi AKS with built-in memory and a tape delay system. He kept being interrupted in his musical work by knocks on the door and phone calls. He says, “I was answering the phone and adjusting all this stuff as it ran. I almost made that without listening to it. It was really automatic music.”
Discreet music started with two melodic phrases of differing lengths played back from the digital recall of the synth. That signal was then ran through a graphic equalizer to change its timbre. After the EQ the audio went into an echo unit and the output of that was recorded to a tape machine. That tape runs to the take-up reel of a second tape machine, whose output is fed back into the first machine which records the overlapping signals and sounds. When Fripp came by the next day to have a listen Eno accidentally played the recording back at half-speed. Eno says of the result “it was probably one of the best things I’d ever done and I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time.”
Autonomous Dynamical Systems
Another example of musical systems in practice comes from the work of David Dunn. David is a composer, sound artist, bioacoustics researcher and an expert at making audio recordings of wildlife. A deep interest in acoustic ecology informs his work. Ecological thinking and systems thinking go hand in hand and this sensibility is present in many of David’s works.
His 2007 album Autonomous Dynamical Systems touches on ecology, fractals and chaos theory, graphic imagery to sound conversions, and feedback loops. The album consists of four compositions. Lorenz from 2005 is a collaboration with chaos scientist James Crutchfield. James has a long history of work in the areas of nonlinear dynamics, solid-state physics, astrophysics, fluid mechanics, critical phenomena and phase transitions, chaos, and pattern formation, having published over 100 papers in his field of mathematics and physics.
The Lorenz attractor was first studied by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1963. He derived the math from a simplified model of convection in the earth's atmosphere and is most frequently expressed as a set of three coupled non-linear differential equations. In popular culture the idea of the “butterfly effect” comes from the physical implications of the Lorenz attractor. In any deterministic nonlinear system one small change, even the small disturbances in air made by the flight of a butterfly, can result in huge differences to the system at a later time. This shows that systems can be deterministic and unpredictable at the same time. When the Lorenz attractor is plotted out graphically it has two large interconnected oval shapes resembling a butterfly or a pair of wings.
For the piece Lorenz, David Dunn used a piece of software written by Crutchfield called MODE (Multiple Ordinary Differential Equations) plugged into the interface program OSC (Open Sound Control), a networking protocol that allows synthesizers, computers, and other multimedia devices. OSC is then in turn fed into sound synthesis program. The sound synthesis program is then fed back into OSC and again into MODE. The entire piece is a feedback loop originating from chaos controlled sound. As such its structure embodies the very principles it seeks to express as music. Another piece on the album, Nine Strange Attractors from 2006 steps up the game even further in its creative use of mathematics to explore feedback loops.
Another piece uses feedback loops in a different way. Autonomous Systems: Red Rocks from 2003 used environmental field recordings fed into computer systems. Saved in the memory a chaos generator program chooses from among the sounds in a non-linear fashion and plays them back, sometimes electronically transformed, other times not. The composition is done, not by performing live, but by setting up and programming the system, then stepping away, sitting back, and listening to the results.
John Cage said, “My compositions arise by asking questions.” The music of systems proceeds from this same curious spirit. When designing new electronic works the composer must begin by asking questions of herself. Then systems can be designed to ask that question in different ways and to find out different answers.
Wobbly and his Smart Phone System
Wobbly, aka Jon Leidecker, a solo artist, member of Negativland, and now host of radio show Over the Edge after the death of Don Joyce has also made a very interesting album by working with systems.
Between 2015 and 2018 Wobbly worked on an album called Monitress, released in 2019. He created an innovative system leveraging musical pitch tracking apps and synthesizers on a group of mobile phones and other mobile devices. Each of the devices was sent an audio signal. This was picked up by the pitch tracking app and coverted to MIDI data used to drive the synth. The resulting sound is then fed into an analog mixer. Once the signal is going into the mixer it can be routed and fed back into another mobile device also running a pitch tracking app and synth. The resulting effect is a cascade of sound between the devices.
As Jon writes in the liner notes for the album, “ Feedback loops similar to acoustic or electrical feedback occur when you close the circle. The pitch-tracking apps are prone to errors, especially when presented with complex multiphonics or polyphonies; they get quite a few notes fascinatingly wrong. But more striking is the audible reality of their listening to each other. Unison lines are an elemental sign of musical intelligence; we are entrained to emotional reactions when hearing multiple voices attempting the same melody. These machines may not meet our current criterion for consciousness, but every audience I’ve played this piece in front of quickly realizes they're not listening to a solo…
The technology used to create these sounds existed before the mobiles, but this music would not have been made on earlier equipment -- it's a result of the relationship developed with a machine that is always present, and always listening. This was the project I dug into as we woke up to the true owners of these tools, a frame to make the relationship between ourselves and our machines audible while we think about the necessary steps to take next.”
The textures on this album are sublime, the kind of things that could only be heard through this a cascade of forces, each triggered by the preceding and affecting the whole in tandem. Wobbly did do post production editing of this work, but the initial results he captured once the process was set in motion is where the real magic lies. This is the kind of music that can’t be predicted. It couldn’t be written by a composer note for note. Rather the job of the composer is to design systems capable of eliciting beauty.
The three examples of systems music explored here are only a few of many. Musical systems is a large category within the new common practice generally. Other ways of thinking about it is in terms of modular set ups, various configurations of test equipment, systems of feedback in the way guitar pedals are arranged, and more. I don’t know if Norbert Wiener ever thought of music as one of the places where cybernetics would take flight. To hear the music made with its principles is an artistic way of exploring the rich ecology of sound.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
The Information: a history, a theory, a flood by James Gleick, Pantheon, 2011
A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, Simon & Schuster, 2018
Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/science/harmonic-analysis
Brian Eno, Discreet Music, Obscure Records, 1975
David Dunn, Autonomous and Dynamical Systems, New World Records 2007
Wobbly, Monitress: https://hausumountain.bandcamp.com/album/monitress
Stockhausen picked up his interest in information theory by way of Werner Meyer-Eppler during his time as a student at the Bonn. Meyer-Eppler himself was something of a scientific polymath, having studied mathematics, chemistry and physics at the University of Cologne in the late 1930s before going to the Bonn where he became a scientific assistant in the physics department, and then a lecturer in experimental physics. After WWII ended his attention turned with laser beam focus to the subject of phonetics and speech synthesis. In 1947 Paul Menzerath brought him into faculty of the Phonetic Institute of the University of Bonn. It was in this time period when Meyer-Eppler started publishing essays on the Voder, Vocoder, and Visible Speech Machine. One of his contributions to the field that is still in use today was his work on the development of the electrolarynx.
Information theory made many contributions to many fields. Linguistics was one of those fields where it was influential in studying how frequently words were used, word length, and the speed words could be read. Shannon had tested the information theory principle of redundancy, or the amount of wasted space used to transmit a message, by having his wife predict the number of repeating letters in a random crime novel he pulled off his bookshelf. Sometimes redundant is better, when it comes to getting a message across. Redundancy is added while communicating over noisy channels as a method of error correction.
Shannon had the insight that this was a baked-in purpose behind the repetition of letters in Englsih. He had also showed that he could use stochastic processes to build something that resembled the English language from scratch.
Werner had been following these developments of information theory with special attention to their applications in linguistics and speech. Later in the 50’s Meyer-Eppler became concerned with how statistics and probability, core tools of information theory, might be applied to creating electronic music as explored in his book Statistic and Psychologic Problems of Sound. In this work Meyer-Eppler introduced the word “aleatoric” into the musical lexicon. According to his definition “a process is said to be aleatoric ... if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail”.
Aleatoric music is made when some element of the composition is left to chance or when a significant portion of how the composition is realized is left up to the performer or performers. Aleatoric composition has a precedent in the dice games of the 18th century. The word itself comes from the Latin alea, meaning dice.
There are many methods for applying aleatoric processes to music. One of the ways Stockhausen tackled it was by using a polyvalent structure, or writing a piece that was open to a number of different interpretations. Klavierstucke XI is an example of such a piece that he wrote for piano.
The piece is made up of 19 fragments printed on a very large piece of paper. There is no turning of the sheet music. The pianist may start with any fragment they wish and from there continue on to any other fragment they wish to play. It is polyvalent because each performance could begin and end in new places. There is no set musical narrative; it is more like reading a choose-your-own adventure, or wondering through a maze, or labyrinth which the pianist enters, circumnavigates, and then returns. Each time the pianist may enter the labyrinth from a new entrance and likewise, reemerge in a different place.
The pianist shares responsibility with the composer for the eventual shape of any given performances. The possible permutations are vast, yet even in different interpretations it may be heard as the same piece of music, its essential characteristics remaining the same no matter the order they are played.
Commenting on the piece the composer said, "Piano Piece XI is nothing but a sound in which certain partials, components, are behaving statistically... If I make a whole piece similar to the ways in which (a complex noise) is organized, then naturally the individual components of this piece could also be exchanged, permutated, without changing its basic quality."
Considered as a whole Piece XI will sound the same even though every time it is played it will sound different. It is a system unto itself, and as a system, even when the component parts are rearranged in the order they are played it is still the same system, and will still sound like itself. Listened to statistically the musical values remain the same.
Stockhausen would go on to use polyvalent form again and again. In his percussion piece Zyklus (Cycle) from 1959 the score is printed as a spiral and the performer may start anywhere within the spiral he or she chooses. Furthermore, they may play the piece from left to right or right to left. The piece is finished when the player reaches the original starting point. In the performance space the cycle is shown again visually with the percussion pieces laid out in a circle with the performer moving around them in the manner determined by a chosen starting point.
Zyklus also shows the amazing diversity of possible interpretations demonstrated before in Piece XI. It is however the interpretation of the scored is a bit more closed. On one side of the score the music becomes increasingly aleatoric, giving more freedom to the player in how it is interpreted. On the other side of the spiral the composition is exactly fixed and predetermined. Played on way it moves from fixed to open, and in the other direction from open to closed.
Stockhausen was obsessed with cycles. Specifically cycles of time. His mid-seventies composition Tierkreis (Zodiac) consisted of twelve melodies for each of the twelve zodiac signs. Originally written for custom made music boxes, Tierkreis can be played on any melody instrument and peformed in a number of different ways. For the purpose here a complete performance begins with the melody for the corresponding zodiac sign for the day when the performance is being held. For instance, if the performance was held on August 22 the performers would begin with the Leo melody and proceed through Virgo, Libra, and the rest until they return to the starting melody of Leo. Each melody is played at least three times and may be improvised upon. This gives considerable variation to individual performances. Further variations are specified by the composer.
In his chamber opera Sirius written a few years later the Tierkreis melodies are employed again in a section of the piece called The Wheel. Here the music may be heard in four different ways, depending on the season it is performed. If played in the Winter the section starts with the melody for Capricorn, if in the Spring with Aries, Summer starts with Cancer, and Autumn with Libra.
In all of these cyclical works an echo of the tape loop may be heard. Stockhausen had worked with tape loops extensively in his piece Kontakte, using them to show relationships between pitch, timbre and the way musical events can be perceived in time and space through the process of slowing things up or down. I wonder, if besides the strong grounding Stockhausen had in religion, philosophy, and science if the eternal return and recurrence of the tape loop at all framed his cosmic conception of the vast cycles of time.
The cycles continued in his magnum opus LICHT (Light): Die sieben Tage der Woche (The Seven Days of the Week). Written between 1977 and 2003 it is a cycle of seven operas, one for each of the seven days of the week. Stockhausen described the work as an “eternal spiral” considering there to be “neither end nor beginning to the week.” Clocking in at a total duration of 29 hours, deft intricacies exist within the piece on a micro and macro scale and many volumes have already been and will continue to be written about it. Within the broad palette afforded by an opera cycle longer than Wagner’s the Ring, Stockhausen was able to play the role of a Magister Ludi, or master of the Glass Bead Game. LICHT is a system, and within that system Stockhausen playfully and masterfully displayed with pyrotechnic virtuosity a comprehensive knowledge of combinatorial and permutative arts as applied to music.
These arts of combination were a central component of the Glass Bead Game as played in the novel.
To show how all of these interlocking parts fit together the basic structure of the opera must be examined. And to understand LICHT as a system a slight change of lanes onto the parallel track of Norbert Wiener and his theory of cybernetics is in order.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory Series.
Other Planets: The Complete Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen 1950–2007, by Robin Maconie,Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, 2016.
Klavierstucke XI essay by Ed Chang:
The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, translated by Clara and Richard Winston, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990
From the ice cold farms and fields of Michigan to the halls of MIT and then onwards to Bell Labs at Murray Hill, Claude Shannon was a mathematical maverick and inveterate tinkerer. In the 1920s, in those places where the phone company had not deigned to bring their network, around three million farmers built their own by connecting telegraph keys to the barbed wire fences that stretched between properties. As a young boy Shannon rigged up one of these “farm networks so he and one his friend who lived half a mile away could talk to each other at night in Morse code. He was also the local kid people in the town would bring their radios to when they needed repair and he got them to work. He had the knack.
He also had an aptitude for the more abstract side of a math and his mind could handle complex equations with ease. At the age of seventeen he was already in college at the University of Michigan and had published his first work in an academic journal, a solution to a math problem presented in the pages of American Mathematical Monthly. He did a double major in school and graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics then headed off to MIT for his masters.
While there he got under the wing of Vannevar Bush. Vannevar had followed in the footsteps of Lord Kelvin, who had created one of the world’s first analog computers, the harmonic analyzer, used to measure the ebb and flow of the tides. Vannevar’s differential analyzer was a huge electromechanical computer that was the size of a room. It solved differential equations by integration, using a wheel-and-disc mechanisms to perform the integration.
At school he was also introduced to the work of mathematician George Boole, whose 1854 book on algebraic logic The Laws of Thought laid down some of the essential foundations for the creation of computers. George Boole had in turn taken up the system of logic developed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Might Boole have also been familiar with Leibniz’s book De Arte Combinatoria? In this book Leibniz proposed an alphabet of human thought, and was himself inspired by the Ars Magna of Ramon Lull. Leibniz wanted to take the Ars Magna, or “ultimate general art” developed by Lull as a debating tool that helped speakers combine ideas through a compilation of lists, and bring it closer to mathematics and turn it into a kind of calculus. Shannon became the inheritor of these strands of thought, through their development in the mathematics and formal logic that became Boolean algebra.
Between working with Bush’s differential analyzer and his study of Boolean algebra, Shannon was able to design switching circuits. This became the subject of his 1937 master thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.
Shannon was able to prove his switching circuit could be used simplify the complex and baroque system of electromechanical relays used in AT&T’s routing switches. Then he expanded his concept and showed that his circuits could solve any Boolean algebra problem. He finalized the work with a series of circuit diagrams.
In writing his paper Shannon took George Boole’s algebraic insights and made them practical. Electrical switches could now implement logic. It was a watershed moment that established the integral concept behind all electronic digital computers. Digital circuit design was born.
Next he had to get his PhD. It took him three more years, and his subject matter showed the first signs of multidisciplinary inclination that would later become a dominant feature of information theory. Vannevar Bush compelled him to go to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to work on his dissertation in the field of genetics. For Vannevar the logic was that if Shannon’s algebra could work on electrical relays it might also prove to be of value in the study of Mendelian heredity. His research in this area resulted in his work An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics, for which he received his PhD in 1940.
The work proved to be too abstract to be useful and during his time at Cold Spring Harbor he was often distracted. In a letter to his mentor Vannevar he wrote, “I’ve been working on three different ideas simultaneously, and strangely enough it seems a more productive method that sticking to one problem… Off and on I have been working on an analysis of some of the fundamental properties of general systems for the transmission of intelligence, including telephony, radio, television, telegraphy, etc…”
With a doctorate under his belt Shannon went on to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey where his mind was able to wonder across disciplines and where he rubbed elbows with other great minds, including on occasion, Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. He discussed science, math and engineering with Hermann Weyl and John Von Neumann. All of these encounters fed his mind.
It wasn’t long before Shannon went elsewhere in New Jersey, to Bell Labs. There he got to rub elbows with other great minds such as Thornton Fry and Alan Turing. His prodigious talents were also being put to work for the war effort.
It started with a study of noise. During WWII Shannon had worked on the SIGSALY system that was used for encrypting voice conversations between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It worked by sampling the voice signal fifty times a second, digitizing it, and then masking it with a random key that sounded like the circuit noise so familiar to electrical engineers.
Shannon hadn’t designed the system, but he had been tasked with trying to break it, like a hacker, to see what its weak spots were, to find out if it was an impenetrable fortress that could withstand the attempts of an enemy assault.
Alan Turing was also working at Bell Labs on SIGSALY. The British had sent him over to also make sure the system was secure. If Churchill was to be communicating on it, it needed to be uncrackable. During the war effort Turing got to know Claude. The two weren’t allowed to talk about their top secret projects, cryptography, or anything related to their efforts against the Axis powers but they had plenty of other stuff to talk about, and they explored their shared passions, namely, math and the idea that machines might one day be able to learn and think.
Are all numbers computable? This was a question Turing asked in his famous 1937 paper On Computable Numbers. He had shown the paper to Shannon. In it Turing defined calculation as a mechanical procedure or algorithm.
This paper got the pistons in Shannon’s mind firing. Alan had said, “It is always possible to use sequences of symbols in the place of single symbols.” Shannon was already thinking of the way information gets transmitted from one place to the next. Turing used statistical analysis as part of his arsenal when breaking the Enigma ciphers. Information theory in turn ended up being based on statistics and probability theory.
The meeting of these two preeminent minds was just one catalyst for the creation of the large field and sandbox of information theory. Important legwork had already been done by other investigators who had made brief excursions into the territory later mapped out by Shannon.
Telecommunications in general already contained within it many ideas that would later become part of the theories core. Starting with telegraphy and Morse code in the 1830s common letters expressed with the least amount of variation, as in E, one dot. Letters not used as often have a longer expression, such as B, a dash and three dots. The whole idea of lossless data compression is embedded as a seed pattern within this system of encoding information.
In 1924 Harry Nyquist published the exciting Certain Factors Affecting Telegraph Speed in the Bell System Technical Journal. Nyquist’s research was focused on increasing the speed of a telegraph circuit. One of the first things an engineer runs into when working on this problem is how to transmit the maximum amount of intelligence on a given range of frequencies without causing interference in the circuit or others that it might be connected to. In other words how do you increase speed and amount of intelligence without adding distortion, noise or create spurious signals?
In 1928, Ralph Hartley, also at Bell Labs, wrote his paper the Transmission of Information. He made it explicit that information was a measurable quantity. Information could only reflect the ability of the receiver to distinguish that one sequence of symbols had been intended by the sender rather than any other, that the letter A means A and not E.
Jump forward another decade to the invention of the vocoder. It was designed to use less bandwidth, compressing the voice of the speaker into less space. Now that same technology is used in cellphones as codecs to compress the voice and so more lines of communication can be used on the phone companies allocated frequencies.
WWII had a way of producing scientific side effects, discoveries that would break on through to affect civilian life after the war. While Shannon worked on SIGSALY and other cryptic work he continued to tinker on other projects. Shannon’s paper was one of the things he tinkered and had profound side effects. Twenty years after Hartley addressed the way information is transmitted, Shannon stated it this way, "The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point, either exactly or approximately, a message selected at another point."
In addition to the ideas of clear communication across a channel Information theory also brought the following ideas into play:
-The Bit, or binary digit. One bit is the information entropy of a binary random variable that is 0 or 1 with equal probability, or the information that is gained when the value of such a variable becomes known.
-The Shannon Limit: A formula for channel capacity. This is the speed limit for a given communication channel.
-Within that limit there must always be techniques for error correction that can overcome the noise level on a given channel. A transmitter may have to send more bits to a receiver at a slower rate but eventually the message will get there.
His theory was a strange attractor in a chaotic system of noisy information. Noise itself tends to bring diverse disciplinary approaches together, interfering in their constitution and their dynamics. Information theory, in transmitting its own intelligence, has in its own way, interfered with other circuits of knowledge it has come in contact with.
A few years later psychologist and computer scientist J.C. R. Licklider said, “It is probably dangerous to use this theory of information in fields for which it was not designed, but I think the danger will not keep people from using it.”
Information theory encompasses every other field it can get its hands on. It’s like a black hole, and everything in its gravitational path gets sucked in. Formed at the spoked crossroads of cryptography, mathematics, statistics, computer science, thermal physics, neurobiology, information engineering, and electrical engineering it has been applied to even more fields of study and practice: statistical inference, natural language processing, the evolution and function of molecular codes (bioinformatics), model selection in statistics, quantum computing, linguistics, plagiarism detection. It is the source code behind pattern recognition and anomaly detection, two human skills in great demand in the 21st century.
I wonder if Shannon knew when he wrote ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ for the 1948 issue of the Bell Systems Technical Journal that his theory would go on to unify, fragment, and spin off into multiple disciplines and fields of human endeavor, music just one among a plethora.
Yet music is a form of information. It is always in formation. And information can be sonified and used to make music. Raw data becomes audio dada. Music is communication and one way of listening to it is as a transmission of information. The principles Shannon elucidated are form of noise in the systems of world knowledge, and highlight one way of connecting different fields of study together. As information theory exploded it was quickly picked up as a tool among the more adventurous music composers.
Information theory could be at the heart of making the fictional Glass Bead Game of Herman Hesse a reality. Herman Hesse also dropped several hints and clues in his work that connected it with the same thinkers whose work served as a link to Boolean algebra, namely Athanasius Kircher, Lull and Leibniz who were all practitioners and advocates of the mnemonic and combinatorial arts. Like its predecessors, Information Theory is well suited to connecting the spaces between different fields. In Hesse’s masterpiece the game was created by a musician as a way of “represent[ing] with beads musical quotations or invented themes, could alter, transpose, and develop them, change them and set them in counterpoint to one another.” After some time passed the game was taken up by mathematicians. “…the Game was so far developed it was capable of expressing mathematical processes by special symbols and abbreviations. The players, mutually elaborating these processes, threw these abstract formulas at one another, displaying the sequences and possibilities of their science.”
Hesse goes on to explain, “At various times the Game was taken up and imitated by nearly all the scientific and scholarly disciplines, that is, adapted to the special fields. There is documented evidence for its application to the fields of classical philology and logic. The analytical study had led to the reduction of musical events to physical and mathematical formulas. Soon after philology borrowed this method and began to measure linguistic configurations as physics measured processes in nature. The visual arts soon followed suit, architecture having already led the way in establishing the links between visual art and mathematics. Thereafter more and more new relations, analogies, and correspondences were discovered among the abstract formulas obtained this way.”
In the next sections I will explore the way information theory was used and applied in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, Simon & Schuster, 2018
The Information: a history, a theory, a flood by James Gleick, Pantheon, 2011
The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, translated by Clara and Richard Winston, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990
Information Theory and Music by Joel Cohen, Behavioral Science, 7:2
Information Theory and the Digital Age by Aftab, Cheung, Kim, Thakkar, Yeddanapudi
Logic and the art of memory: the quest for a universal language, by Paolo Rossi, The Athlone Press, University of Chicago, 2000.
“There is more in man and in music than in mathematics, but music includes all that is in mathematics.”—Peter Hoffman
Infotainment is usually thought of as light entertainment peppered with superficial “facts” and forgettable news. Yet another kind of infotainment exists, a musical kind that is based on mathematical algorithms. It is true entertainment that is filled with true information and though it is mathematically modeled none of it is fake.
In the twentieth century interest in the multidisciplinary fields of Information Theory and Cybernetics led to dizzy bursts of creativity when their ideas were applied to making new music. These disciplines applied rigorous math to the study of communication systems and how a signal transmitted from one person can cut through the noise of other spurious signals to be received by another person. They also made explicit the role of feedback inside of a system, how signals can amplify themselves and trigger new signals. All of this was studied complex equations and formulas.
Yet there is nothing new about the relationship between music and math.
Algorithmic music has been made for centuries. It can be traced all the way back to Pythagoras, who thought of music and math as inseparable. If music can be formalized in terms of numbers, music can also be formalized as information or data. The “data” the ancients used to drive their compositions was the movement of the stars. Ptolemy is known to us most for his geocentric view of the cosmos and the ordered spheres the celestial bodies traveled on. Besides being an astronomer Ptolemy was also a systematic musical theorist. He believed that math was the basis for musical intervals and he saw those same intervals at play in the spacing of heavenly bodies, each planet and body corresponding to a certain modes and notes.
Ptolemy was just one of many who believed in the reality of the music of the spheres. Out of these ancient Greek investigations into the nature of music and the cosmos came the first musical systems. The musician who used them was thus a mediator between the cosmic forces of the heavens above and the life of humanity here below.
Western music went through myriad changes across the intervening centuries after Ptolemy. World powers rose and fell, new religions came into being. Out of the mystical monophonic plainchant uttered by Christian monks in candlelit monasteries polyphony arose, and it called for new rules and laws to govern how the multiple voices were to sing together. This was called “canonic” composition. A composer in this era (15th century) would write a line for a single voice. The canonic rule gave the additional singers and voices the necessary instruction. For instance one rule would be to for a second voice to start singing the melody begun by one voice again after a set amount of time. Other rules would denote inversions, retrograde movement, or other practices as applied to the music.
From this basis the rules, voices, and number of instruments were enlarged through the renaissance until the time of the era of “Common Practice”, roughly between 1650 to 1900. This period encompassed baroque music, and the classical, romantic and impressionist movements. The 20th and 21st century are now giving birth to what Alvin Curran has called the New Common Practice.
In the Common Practice Era tonal harmony and counterpoint reigned supreme, and a suite of rhythmic and durational patterns gave form to the music. These were the “algorithmic” sand boxes composers could play in.
The New Common Practice, according to Curran encompasses, “the direct unmediated embracing of sound, all and any sound, as well as the connecting links between sounds, regardless of their origins, histories or specific meanings; by extension, it is the self guided compositional structuring of any number of sound objects of whatever kind sequentially and/or simultaneously in time and in space with any available means.” I’ve begun to think of this New Common Practice as embracing the entire gamut of 20th and 21st century musical practices: serialism, atonality, musique concrete, electronics, solo and collective improvisation, text pieces, and the rest of it.
One vital facet of the New Common Practice is chance operations, or the use of randomizing procedures to create compositions. Chance operations have a direct relation to information theory, but this approach can already be seen making cultural inroads in the 18th century when games of chance had a brief period of popularity among composers and the musical and mathematically literate. These are a direct precursor to the deeper algorithmic musical investigations that have started to flourish in the 20th century.
Much of this original algorithmic music work was done the old school way, with pencil, sheets of paper, and tables of numbers. This was the way composers plotted voice-leading in Western counterpoint. Chance operations have also been used as one way of making algorithmic music, such as the Musikalisches Würfelspiel or musical dice game, a system that used dice to randomly generate music from tables of pre-composed options. These games were quite popular throughout Western Europe in the 18th century and a number of different versions were devised. Some didn’t use dice but just worked on the basis of choosing random numbers.
In his paper on the subject Stephen Hedges wrote how the middle class in Western Europe were at the time enamored with mathematics, a pursuit as much at home in the parlors of the people as in the classroom of professors. "In this atmosphere of investigation and cataloguing, a systematic device that would seem to make it possible for anyone to write music was practically guaranteed popularity.”
The earliest known example was created by Johann Philipp Kirnberger with his "The Ever-Ready Minuet and Polonaise Composer" in 1757. C. P. E. Bach's came out with his musical dice game "A method for making six bars of double counterpoint at the octave without knowing the rules" five years later in 1758. In 1780 Maximilian Stadler published "A table for composing minuets and trios to infinity, by playing with two dice". Mozart was even thought to have gotten in on the dice game in 1792 when an unattributed version made an appearance from his music publisher a year after the composer’s death. This has not been authenticated to be by the maestro’s hand, but as with all games of possibility, there is a chance.
These games may have been one of the many inspirations behind The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. This novel was one of the primary literary inspirations and touchstones for the young Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Glass Bead Game portrays a far future culture devoted to a mystical understanding of music. It was at the center of the culture of the Castalia, that fictional province or state devoted to the pursuit of pure knowledge.
As Robin Maconie put it the Glass Bead Game itself appears to be “an elusive amalgam of plainchant, rosary, abacus, staff notation, medieval disputation, astronomy, chess, and a vague premonition of computer machine code… In terms suggesting more than a passing acquaintance with Alan Turing’s 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers’, the author described a game played in England and Germany, invented at the Musical Academy of Cologne, representing the quintessence of intellectuality and art, and also known as ‘Magic Theater’.”
Hesse wrote his book between 1931 and 1943. The interdisciplinary game at the heart of the book prefigures Claude Shannon’s explosive Information Theory which was established in his 1948 paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication. His paper in turn bears a debt to Alan Turing, whom Shannon met in 1942. Norbert Wiener also published his work on Cybernetics the same year as Shannon. All of these ideas were bubbling up together out of the minds of the leading intellectuals of the day. Ideas about computable numbers, the transmission of information, communication, and thinking in systems, all of which would give artists practical tools for connecting one field to another as Hesse showed was possible in the fictional world of Castalia.
Robin Maconie again had the insight to see the connection between the way Alan Turing visualized “a universal computing machine as an endless tape on which calculations were expressed as a sequence of filled or vacant spaces, not unlike beads on a string”.
As the Common Practice era of western music came to an end at the close of the 19th century, the mathematically inclined serialism came into its own, and as the decades wore on games of chance made a resurgence, defining much of the music of the 20th century. With the advent of computers the paper and pencil method have taken a temporary backseat in favor of methods that introduce programmed chance operations.
Composers like John Cage took to the I Ching with as much tenacity as the character Elder Brother did in Hesse’s book. Karlheinz Stockhausen meanwhile used his music as means to make connections between myriad subjects and to create his own unique ‘Magic Theater’. Cybernetics and Information Theory each contributed to thinking of these and other composers.
Dice Music in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 184–185, Music and Letters 59: 180–87.
Conceptualizing music: cognitive structure, theory and analysis, by Lawrence M. Zbikowski, Oxford, 2002
The New Common Practice by Alvin Curran
Other planets: the complete works of Karlheinz Stockhausen 1950–2007, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016
A set of musicians dice have been made that offer up numerous possibilities for the practicing musician. Using random process doesn't just have to be for avant-garde composers anymore!
"The Musician’s Dice are patented, glossy black 12-sided dice, engraved in silver with the chromatic scale. They can be used in any number of ways – they bring the element of chance into the musical process. They're great for composing Aleatory and 12 tone-music, and as a basis for improvisation – they’re really fun in a jam session. They also make an effective study tool: they can be used as “musical flash cards” when learning harmony, and their randomness makes for fresh and challenging exercise in sight-singing and ear training. Plus, they look really cool on the coffee table, and give you a chance to throw around words like "aleatory.""
Below two musicians play around with using these dice.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
One of the key researchers and musicians exploring the new frontiers of science and music at Bell Labs was Laurie Spiegel. She was already an accomplished musician when she started working with interactive compositional software on the computers at Bell between the years at the age of twenty-eight. The year was 1973.
Laurie brought her restless curiosity and ceaseless inquiry with her to Bell Labs. She was the kind of person who could see the creative potential in the new tools the facility was creating and make something timeless. Her skill and ability in doing so was something she had prepared herself for through a scholars devotion to musical practice and study.
She was interested in the stringed instruments, the ones you strums and pluck. She picked up guitar, banjo, and mandolin for starters and learned to play these all by ear in her teens. She excelled in High School and was able to graduate early and get a jump start on a more refined education. Shimer College had an early entrance program and she made the cut. With Shimer as a launching board she got into their study abroad program and left her native Chicago to join the scholars at Oxford University. While pursuing her degree in Social Sciences she decided she better teach herself Western music notation. It was essential if she was to start writing down her own compositions. She managed to stay on at Oxford for an additional year after her undergraduate was completed. In between classes she would commute to London for lessons with composer and guitarist John W. Durante who fleshed out her musical theory and composition.
She was no slacker.
Her devotion to music continued to flourish when she came back to the states. In New York she worked briefly on documentary films in the field of social science, but the drive to compose music pushed her back onto the path of continuing education. So she headed back to school again, at Juilliard, going for a Masters in Composition. Hall Overton, Emmanuel Ghent and Vincent Perischetti were some of her teachers between 1969 and 1972. Jacob Druckman was another and she ended up becoming his assistant and ended following him to Brooklyn College. While there she also managed to find some time to research early American music under H. Wiley Hitchock before completing her MA in 1975.
Laurie was no stranger to work, and to making the necessary sacrifices so she could achieve her aims and full artistic potential. Laurie’s thinking is multidimensional, and her art multidisciplinary. Working with moving images was a natural extension of her musicality. She supported herself in the 70s in part through soundtrack composition at Spectra Films, Valkhn Films, and the Experimental TV Lab at WNET (PBS). TV Lab provided artists with equipment to produce video pieces through an artist-in-residence program. Laurie held that position in 1976 and composed series music for the TV Lab's weekly "VTR—Video and Television Review". She also did the audio sound effects for director David Loxton’s SF film The Lathe of Heaven, based on the novel by Ursula K. Leguin, and produced for PBS by WNET.
Speaking of the Experimental TV Lab she said, "They had video artists doing really amazing stuff with abstract video and image processing. It was totally different from conventional animation of the hand-drawn or stop-motion action kind. Video was much more fluid and musical as a form."
Going to school and scoring for film and television wasn’t enough to satisfy Laurie’s endless inquisitive curiosity. Besides playing guitar, she’d been working with analog modular instruments by Buchla, Electrocomp, Moog and Ionic/Putney. After a few years of experimentation she outgrew these synths and started seeking something that had the control of logic and a larger capacity for memory. This led Laurie to the work being done with computers and music at Bell Labs in Murray Hill. At first she was a resident visitor at Bell Labs, someone who got the privilege of working and researching there, but not the privilege of being on Ma Bell’s payroll.
Laurie had already been playing the ALICE machine when the Bell Telephone Company needed to film someone playing it for the 50th anniversary of the Jazz Singer. She had already become something of a fixture at Murray Hill so the company hired her as a musician. Not that the engineers at Bell who created the musical instruments were unmusical, but they were engineers. Laurie had the necessary background as a composer and the interest in how technology could open up to musical expression she was the perfect fit.
In 1973 while still working on her Masters she started getting her GROOVE on at Bell Labs, using the system developed by Max Mathews and Richard Moore.
GROOVE was to prove the perfect foil for expressing Spiegel’s creative ideas. While Max Mathews was bouncing around between a dozen different departments, Laurie was getting her GROOVE on at Murray Hill.
In the liner notes to the reissue of her Expanding Universe album created with GROOVE she wrote, “Realtime interaction with sound and interactive sonic processes were major factors that I had fallen in love with in electronic music (as well as the sounds themselves of course), so non-realtime computer music didn’t attract me. The digital audio medium had both of the characteristics I so much wanted, But it was not yet possible to do much at all in real time with digital sound. People using Max’s Music V were inputting their data, leaving the computer running over the weekend, and coming back Monday to get their 30 seconds of audio out of the buffer. I just didn’t want to work that way.
But GROOVE was different. It was exactly what I was looking for. Instead of calculating actual audio signal, GROOVE calculated only control voltage data, a much lighter computational load. That the computer was not responsible for creating the audio signal made it possible for a person to interact with arbitrarily complex computer-software-based logic in real time while listening to the actual musical output. And it was possible to save both the software and the computed time functions to disk and resume work where we left off, instead of having to start all over from scratch every time or being limited to analog tape editing techniques ex post facto of creating the sounds in a locked state on tape.”
RECORD IN A BOTTLE
Laurie’s most famous work is also the one most likely to be heard by space aliens. It was a realization of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi using the GROOVE system and was the first track featured on the golden phonograph records placed aboard the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. The records contain sounds and images intended to portray the vast diversity of life and culture on planet Earth. The records form a kind of time capsule, a message in a bottle sent off into interstellar space.
Carl Sagan chaired the committee that determined what contents should be put on the record. He said “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space, but the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet."
A message in a bottle isn’t the most efficient way of communicating if your purpose is to reach a specific person in short amount of time. If however, you trust in fate or providence and the natural waves of the ocean, to guide the message to whomever it is meant to be received by, it can be oracular.
Like many musicians before her Laurie had been fascinated by the Pythagorean dream of a music of the spheres. When she set about to realize Kepler’s 17th century speculative composition, she had no idea her music would actually be traveling through the spheres. Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi was based on the varying speeds of orbit of the planets around the sun. He wanted to be able to hear “the celestial music that only God could hear” as Spiegel said.
"Kepler had written down his instructions but it had not been possible to actually turn it into sound at that time. But now we had the technology. So I programmed the astronomical data into the computer, told it how to play it, and it just ran."
The resulting sounds aren’t the kind of thing you’d typically put on your turntable after getting home from a hectic day to relax. The sounds are actually kind of agitating. Yet if you listen to the piece as the product of a mathematical and philosophical exercise it can still be enjoyable.
Other sounds that can be heard on the Voyager Golden Records include spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry, Melancholy Blues by Louis Armstrong, and music from all around the world, from folk to classical. Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, and includes a cartridge and a needle for the aliens. Symbolic instructions, kind of like those for building a piece of furniture from Ikea, show the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played. In addition to the music and sounds there are 115 images are encoded in analog form.
Laurie was in Woodstock, New York when she received a phone call requesting the use of her music for the record. “I was sitting with some friends in Woodstock when a telephone call was forwarded to me from someone who claimed to be from NASA, and who wanted to use a piece of my music to contact extraterrestrial life. I said, 'C'mon, if you're for real you better send the request to me through the mail on official NASA letterhead!'”
It turned out to be the real deal and not just a prank on a musician.
In 2012 Voyager I entered Interstellar Space. And it’s till out there running, sending back information. Laurie says, “It's extremely heartening to think that our species, with all its faults, is capable of that level of technical operation. We're talking Apple II level technology, but nobody's had to go out there and reboot them once!"
AN EXPANDING UNIVERSE
Laurie explored many other ideas within the structure of the highly adaptable GROOVE system, taking naps in the Bell Labs anechoic chamber, when she needed a rest during the frequent all-nighters she pulled to get her work out into the world.
But getting them into a fashion fit for a golden record, or more common earthbound vinyl, was not easy. The results however were worth the effort of working with a system that took up space in multiple rooms.
“Down a long hallway from the computer room …was the analog room, Max Mathew’s lab, room 2D-562. That room was connected to the computer room by a group of trunk cables, each about 300 feet long, that carried the digital output of the computer to the analog equipment to control it and returned the analog sounds to the computer room so we could hear what we were doing in real time. The analog room contained 3 reel-to-reel 1/4” two-track tape recorders, a set of analog synthesizer modules including voltage-controllable lab oscillators (each about the size of a freestanding shoe box), and various oscillators and filters and voltage-controllable amplifiers that Max Mathews had built or acquired. There was also an anechoic sound booth, meant for recording, but we often took naps there during all-nighters. Max’s workbench would invariably have projects he was working on on it, a new audio filter, a 4-dimensional joystick, experimental circuits for his latest electric violin project, that kind of stuff.
Because of the distance between the 2 rooms that comprised the GROOVE digital-analog-hybrid system, it was never possible to have hands-on access to any analog synthesis equipment while running the computer and interacting with its input devices. The computer sent data for 14 control voltages down to the analog lab over 14 of the long trunk lines. After running it through 14 digital-to-analog converters (which we each somehow chose to calibrate differently), we would set up a patch in the analog room’s patch bay, then go back to the computer room and the software we wrote would send data down the cables to the analog room to be used in the analog patch. Many many long walks between those two rooms were typically part of the process of developing a new patch that integrated well with the controlling computer software we were writing.
So how was it possible to record a piece with those rooms so far apart? We were able to store the time functions we computed on an incredibly state-of-the-art washing-machine-sized disk drive that could hold up to a whopping 2,400,000 words of computer data, and to store even more data on a 75 ips computer tape drive. When ready to record, we could walk down and disconnect the sampling rate oscillator at the analog lab end, walk back and start the playback of the time functions in the computer room, then go back to the analog lab, get our reel-to-reel deck physically patched in, threaded or rewound, put into record mode and started running. Then we’d reconnect the sampling rate oscillator, which would start the time functions actually playing back from the disk drive in the other room, and then the piece would be recorded onto audio tape.”
Every piece on her album, The Expanding Universe, was recorded at Bell Labs. She computed in real time the envelopes for individual notes, how they were placed in the stereo field and their pitches. “Above the level of mere parameters of sound were more abstract variables, probability curves, number sequence generators, ordered arrays, specified period function generators, and other such musical parameters as were not, at the time, available to composers on any other means of making music in real time.”
Computer musicians today who are used to working with programs like Reaktor, Pure Data, Max/MSP, Ableton, Supercollider and a slew of others take for granted the ability to manipulate the sound as it is being made, on the fly, and with a laptop. Back then it was state of the art to be able to do these things, but doing it required huge efforts, and took up a lot of space.
During the height of the progressive rock music era, making music with computers was also risky business on the level of personal politics. Computers weren’t seen in a positive light. They were the tool of the Establishment, man. Used for calculating the path of nuclear missiles and storing your data in an Orwellian nightmare. Musicians who chose to work with technology were often despised at this time. There was an attitude that you were succeeding your creative humanity to a cold dead machine. “Back then we were most commonly accused of attempting to completely dehumanize the arts,” she said. This macho prog rock tenor haunted Laurie, despite her being an accomplished classical guitarist, and capable of shredding endless riffs on an electrified axe if she chose to.
She also took risks in her compositions inside the avant-garde circles she frequented. Her music is full of harmony when dissonance was all the rage. “It wasn’t really considered cool to write tonal music,” she said, speaking of the power structures at play in music school. All I know is that it’s a good thing she listened to the music she had inside of her.
Between 1974-79 Laurie got the idea that GROOVE could be used to create video art with just a little tweaking of the system. Unlike the hours of music released on her Expanding Universe album, her video work at Bell didn’t get the documentation it deserved. This was in part due to the systems early demise. Hardware changes at the lab prevented many records and tracings from being left behind.
VAMPIRE however is still worth mentioning. It stands for Video And Music Program for Interactive Realtime Exploration/Experimentation. Laurie was able to turn GROOVE into a VAMPIRE with the help of computer graphics pioneer Ken Knowlton. Ken was also an artist and a researcher in the field of evolutionary algorithms, something else Laurie would later take up and apply to music. In the 60’s Knowlton had created BEFLIX (Bell Flicks), a programming language for bitmap computer-produced movies. After Laurie got to know him they soon started collaborating together. It was another avenue for her to pursue her ideas for making musical structures visible.
Laurie had reasoned that if computer logic and languages had made it possible to interact with sound in real time, than the GROOVE system should be powerful enough to handle the real time manipulation of graphics and imagery. She started working on this theory first using a program called RTV (Real Time Video) and a routine given to her by Ken. She wrote a drawing program, now similar to what would be called Paint. It became the basis on which VAMPIRE was built.
With Ken she worked out a routine for a palette of 64 definable bitmap textures. These could be used as brushes, alphabet letters, or other images. This was used inside of a box with 10 columns, each column having 12 buttons representing a bit that could be on or off. This is how she entered the visual patterns.
In addition to weaving strands of sound Laurie was also a hand weaver. Cards with small holes in them have often been used over the years as one approach to the art form. Card weaving is a way to create patterned woven bands, both beautiful and sturdy. Some may think the cards are a simple tool, but they can produce weavings of infinite design and complexity. Hand weaving cards are made out of cardboard or cardstock, with holes in them for the threads, very similar to the Hollerith punch cards used for programming computers. She struck upon the idea that she could create punch cards to enter batches of patterns via the card reader on the computer. After she consulted some of her weaving books she made a large deck of the cards to be able to shuffle and input into the system.
Laurie quickly found that she enjoyed playing the drawing parameters just like someone would play a musical instrument. Instead of changing pitch, duration, timbre she could change the size, color and texture of an image, as she drew it in real time with switches and knobs making it appear on the monitor. Her skills as a guitarist directly translated to this ability. One hand would do the drawing. Perhaps it was the same as did the strumming and plucking of the strings. The other hand would change the parameters of the image using a joystick, and the other tools, just as it might change chords on one of her lutes, banjos or mandolins.
She saw the objects on the screen as melodies, but it was just one line of music. She wanted more lines as counterpoint was her favorite musical form. She wanted to be able to multiple strands of images together. She wrote into the program another realtime device to interact with. This was a square box of 16 buttons for typical contrapuntal options as applied to images. This gave her a considerable expansion of options and variables to play with.
After all this work she eventually hit a wall of what she could achieve with VAMPIRE in terms of improvisation. “The capabilities available to me had gotten to be more than I could sensitively and intelligently control in realtime in one pass to any where near the limits of what I felt was their aesthetic potential.” It had reached the point where she needed to think of composition.
Ken Knowlton’s work with algorithms was beginning to rub off on her and she started to think of how “powerful evolutionary parameters in sonic composing, and the idea of organic or other visual growth processes algorithmicly described and controlled with realtime interactive input, and of composing temporal structures that could be stored, replayed, edited, added to (‘overdubbed’ or ‘multitracked’), refined, and realized in either audio or video output modalities, based on a single set of processes or composed functions, made an interface of the drawing system with GROOVE's compositional and function-oriented software an almost inevitable and irresistible path to take. It would be possible to compose a single set of functions of time that could be manifest in the human sensory world interchangeably as amplitudes, pitches, stereo sound placements, et cetera, or as image size, location, color, or texture (et cetera), or (conceivably, ultimately) in both sensory modalities at once.”
Ever the night owl Laurie said of her work with the system, “Like any other vampire, this one consistently got most of its nourishment out of me in the middle of the night, especially just before dawn. It did so from 1974 through 1979, at which time its CORE was dismantled, which was the digital equivalent of having a stake driven through its art.”
ECHOES OF THE BELL
The echoes of Laurie’s time spent at Bell Laboratories can be found in the work she has done since then, even as she was devastated by the death of GROOVE and VAMPIRE.
She went on to write the Music Mouse software in 1986 for Macintonsh, Amiga and Atari computers and also founded the New York University Computer Music Studio. She has continued to write about music for many journals and publications and has continued to compose. Laurie has applied her knowledge of algorithmic composition and information theory into her work.
Now the tools for making computer music can be owned by many people and used in their own home studios, but the echo of the Bell is still heard.
This article only scratches the surface of Laurie's life and work. A whole book could be written about her, and I hope someone will.
The liner notes to the 2012 reissue of Expanding Universe
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.