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.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.