The first time Chris Brown heard the League of Automatic Music Composers was on KPFA as he was driving to a piano-tuning appointment in 1981. The music was wild, unified as an organism, yet with divergent tentacles or strands wiggling off in multiple directions like a psychedelic octopi. It was Chris’ first exposure to networked computer music, and the wriggling tentacles had put their first hooks into his brain.
Five years later Chris was working with a group who had dubbed themselves Ubu, incorporated, named after the 1896 play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. This group had members from the LAMC and was now at work organizing experimental music concerts at galleries and community music spaces. One of the concerts the group decided to organize was called THE NETWORK MUSE – Automatic Music Band Festival. Held in an old church it brought together four different groups working with homebrewed computer music and presented performances over a few days. One of these groups was the duo of The Hub, then comprised of just Tim Perkis and John Bischoff.
At the concert Bischoff and Perkis were using a KIM-1 as a mailbox to post data used in controlling their individual music systems. This information then became available to the other player to use however and whenever they chose as they performed their combined system. The Hub had been their solution to the often messy tangle of wires and electronics that had been common during the LAMC years. Their interface was an elegant solution and a variety of computers and their users could plug into the system.
In 1987 composers Phil Niblock and Nick Collins instigated the formation of an expanded ensemble when some members of The Hub were invited to New York to give a performance at two separate locations linked together by a modem. This required the additional players and they were readily pooled from the other groups who had participated in the Network Muse. The two locations to be linked were both performance spaces, Exerimental Intermedia (XI) run by Niblock and the Clocktower (now MoMA PS1). The idea was to have a trio play at each location, that when connected via the modem became a sextet.
Bischoff and Perkis had already started playing as a trio with Mark Trayle in a group called Zero Chat Chat in the aftermath of the Automatic Music Band Festival, so it was a simple matter to recruit Chris Brown, Phil Stone, and Scott Gresham-Lancaster, who had all played in different groups at the festival to form a second trio. This expanded sextet became the Hub. They designed three pieces to play for the network, using the modem that divided the acoustics of the sextet into two trios that were still joined via the wires of information. These pieces were “Borrowing and Stealing”, “Simple Degradation” and “Vague Notions”. They also played three other pieces that were improvised independently, local to each group.
As Kyle Gann wrote in a review of the piece for the Village Voice at the time, “Equally peculiar (for those who attended a different space each night) was the oblique correspondence of identical pieces between the Clocktower and EIF, for the two audiences did not hear the same sounds. Each group fed information into the others' performance, but basic materials differed, making each piece a kind of sonic conceptual butterfly: same body, wildly different wings.”
To many people having a group playing in two different physical locations was just a neat technological stunt. While interesting to promoters, it wasn’t the main interest of the band, though the performance did help congeal the Hub and the six composers continued to work together under the rubric. Yet the idea of the modem concert continued to haunt them and it was a spectacle they were asked to repeat in different forms. Their interest wasn’t however in the distances that separated them, but in the interactivity of the network itself, and the sounds of iconoclastic music programming of each musician that could be influenced by the musical programs of the others.
The Hub also kept up with the new computers that continued to hit the market. The next iteration of the Hub device was based on the SYM-1 single-board computer made by Synertek. The processor was 1 MHz and it had 8k of RAM on the deck and a hexadecimal keypad for programming in machine language like the KIM. What made this an upgrade for the computer music chamber ensemble was that they built an expansion board onto the SYM that had four 6850 ACIAs (asynchronous communication interface adapters). These had connections to the 8-bit databus, seven address lines, system clock, and read and write controls. This bit of hacked together gear gave them options for connecting, interacting, musically communicating.
The homebrewed circuits were housed inside a box of clear plastic underneath the SYM with connectors on the outside. Three of the connectors were used to network three players with 1200 baud RS232 serial connections. The fourth connector went to an identical SYM-HUB they had built to host the other trio -the other half of the six piece band. These two Hubs could now communicate with each other quite speedily at 9600 baud, even though most modems in that era couldn’t send information that fast.
Phil Stone and Tim Perkis wrote a program in an assembly language used to receive and transmit messages from the players, each with their own serial port, to the Hub. The program also constantly copied stored data to the second Hub so that both memory areas had data from all the members of the group.
Stone and Perk’s wrote some comments on the program, “Devices connected to each channel make requests to write to the HUB processor table memory, and to read it. Each makes its request by sending command bytes of which the high four bits form a command field (CF) and the low four a data field (DF). In the HUB processor there are three variables kept for each channel: a current WRITE.ADDRESS (12 bits); the current READ.ADDRESS, (12 bits) and the current WRITE.DATA (8 bits). These variables for each channel can be set only by commands from that channel. All channel commands are dedicated to setting these variables, or initiating a read or write to the HUB table memory.”
The music of the Hub is in its way just as cerebral as the means used to make it. Having assembled their gear and membership, they now set about to play the endless game of composition, programming and recombination. The group were musicians first and technologists as a close secondary interest. Where most musicians work from a score, the Hub works from a spec. Individual notes are not preordained, but specifications for how a piece is to be constructed is all put in the spec. The spec can be read closely along with the schematics of the Hub. Like the blueprint for a house, the spec gives an outline or structure to the game of networked music. Even though the spec is often designed by one composer, the individual aspects of how it is prepared are left up to the programmers individual.
Being based in the Bay Area, having a history with CCM and Mills College, and being part of the experimental music and arts scene meant there was a great deal of overlap between people, and a lot of potential for fruitful collaborations. Several members of the Hub knew Ramón Sender. During the Hub years Sender had gotten interested in the collaborative aspects of writing made possible with computer networks. A fruitful collaboration was cooked up between the Hub, Ramon Sender and the Poetry group on the WELL, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link one of the oldest virtual communities and a regular online hangout spot for members of the counterculture.
The first version ofHubRenga was performed over the air on a KPFA’s Music Special radio show hosted by Charles Amirkhanian on September 7, 1989. In this transmission the Hub was joined by novelist and musician Ramón Sender, and poets from another network, the poetry conference of The Well (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a pioneering electronic community that operated in the Bay Area to facilitate communication between people interested in arts and alternative lifestyles. The poetry conference was a forum about poetry which subscribers to The Well could join to exchange ideas and work collaboratively. Sender was one of the hosts of the forum for a number of years.
For the HubRenga piece, the computer network of the Hub was connected to the network of the WELL. For this performance, the Japanese poetry game called the Renga was used as a format for the textual aspect of the work. Renga is a genre of collaborative Japanese poetry where alternating stanzas are linked in succession by multiple poets. Renga is typically composed live when a group of poets are gathered together. For HubRenga Ramón acted as moderator inside the KPFA studio, and browsed the poetic submissions as they came into the poetry conference forum on WELL, reading them aloud as part of the music, accompanied by an unnamed female reader.
The WELL poetry group, had been working, through Sender, for a few months with the Hub before the big date at KPFA. In keeping with traditional Renga practices, the poets worked around a theme. In departing from those practices they used a non-traditional theme. Usually the themes are based on the season when they are performed: summer, spring, autumn, winter. In this case the poets chose to use Earth as the theme. The poets came up with a common list of set words to use throughout the performance and this was given to the composer-programmers. They wrote programs that used these words as triggers. When a Hub member received a text from the WELL on his computer, their program filtered it for specific keywords, determined in advance from the list to trigger specific musical responses.
The keywords chosen by the Hub as triggers were:
embrace echo twist rumble keystone whisper charm magic worth Kaiser schlep habit mirth swap split join plus minus grace change grope skip virtuoso root bind zing wow earth intimidate outside phrase honor silt dust scan coffee vertigo online transfer hold message quote shimmer swell ricochet pour ripple rebound duck dink scintillate old retreat non-conformist flower sky cage synthesis silence crump trump immediate smack blink
This was the kind of interactive system the Hub thrived on and HubRenga was performed again in Los Angeles, along with Bonnie Barnett, an original member of Pauline Oliveros’ Womens Ensemble, who declaimed the power words. In this iteration Ramón Sender and members of the WELL Poetry Conference, participated via modem from the Bay Area.
The Hug Goes MIDI
In 1990 the Hub brought their wrecking ball to the world of MIDI music, a technical standard and communications protocol that was then only nine years old. Scott Gresham-Lancaster had been tasked with exploring its possibilities for the group. MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, allows for a plethora of electronic instruments, synthesizers, computers and other audio devices to be connected together to play, record and edit music.
One single MIDI link on one single cable can carry up to sixteen discrete channels of information and these can all be sent to different instruments or devices, say a synth, drum machine or computer. The information carried on one of those channels includes musical instructions for pitch, velocity or attack, notation, vibrato, panning within the stereo field, and clock signals that allow one device to control the tempo of the other devices in the MIDI network. As a musician plays something that is using MIDI it all gets converted to information that is commonly used to control other sound producing modules. For instance a person is playing a synthesizer and it is triggering an external drum machine, sequencer, or other digital sound module. It is also used for recording and writing music. A player can hook a MIDI capable instrument up to a computer which then records the data. This information can be assigned different voices in a digital audio workstation, modified, and edited.
This typical way of using MIDI –as one musician controlling an array of other instruments from one station- had no interest or appeal to members of the Hub. They wanted to break MIDI and use it for their own purposes. Scott beta-tested the then new Opcode Studio 5 MIDI interface. It was a single box unit that functioned as computer interface and MIDI patchbay with 15 inputs and outputs, processor and synchronizer. Scott played around with the hardware and learned how to program it so it could work as MIDI version of their namesake Hub. The new protocol would give them a faster messaging system that was also more flexible than their homebrewed system. Another advantage was that by using a standardized platform they would be able to share their working methods with other musicians in a way that was more accessible and closer to open source.
Yet the switch to MIDI meant a drastic change from the system they had been using. In the world of electronic music a new system means a new sound and they would either have to alter their existing pieces to fit with MIDI or start writing brand new pieces. It also changed the operational mode they had become accustomed too. Instead of the common memory shared between members, where data in any customized format could be deposited, the MIDI-HUB worked as a switchboard. Each player now had their musical data tagged and in this way identified them.
“No longer was it up to each musician to specifically look at information from other players, but instead information would arrive in each player's MIDI input queue unrequested. Information about current states had to be requested from players, rather than being held on a machine that always contained the latest information. This networking system was more private, enabling person-to-person messaging, but making broadcasting more problematic. To send messages to everyone, a player would need to send the same message out individually addressed to each player. If a player failed to handle the message sent, its information was gone forever. And messages were sent more quickly under the MIDI-HUB, leading to an intensity of data traffic that was new in the music. The MIDI-HUB pieces reflected the nature of this new aspect of the band's network instrumentation.”
Waxlips was the first piece written for the MIDI-HUB and it was designed by Tim Perkis as a simple way of exploring the architecture of the network and it ended up becoming a “tune up” piece for the ensemble in their performances and tours, a way to test the system and get it up to speed before tackling other pieces from their repertoire. It was written to be simple and with minimal musical structure. Each player sends and receives requests to play one note. Once the request comes in and is received, the note message gets transformed in a fixed way and is sent on to someone else. The message can be modified by any musical rule. The only limiting factor was that in the various sections of the piece, specified with signals from a lead player, the same rule must be followed so a new-message-in gets followed by the same new-message- out. The lead player “jump-starts the process by spraying the network with a burst of requests.”
Tim Perkis writes in the liner notes to the Wreckin’ Ball CD that contains recordings of Waxlips, “The network action had an unexpected living and liquid behavior: the number of possible interactions is astronomical in scale, and the evolution of the network is always different, sometimes terminating in complex (chaotic) states, including near repetitions, sometimes ending in simple loops, repeated notes, or just dying out altogether. In initially trying to get the piece going, the main problem was one of plugging leaks: if one player missed some note requests and didn't send anything when he should, the notes would all trickle out. Different rule sets seem to have different degrees of ‘leakiness’, due to imperfect behavior of the network, and as a lead player I would occassionally double up -- sending out two requests for every one received -- to revitalize a tired net."
One of the ways the MIDI-Hub enabled the ensemble to collaborate was by receiving the output data from another musicians set up. For Alvin Curran’s Electric Rags III composition, Curran improvised on his Yamaha Disklavier electric piano. The MIDI output of his improvisation was sent through the Hub system and the ensemble players used it whatever ways they wished.
They used a similar set up again for Scot Gresham-Lancaster's Vex, a take on Erik Satie's proto-minimalist and extremely long piano piece Vexations. For this version they took Satie’s score and fed it into the HUB for a synchronized performance of the piece by Alvin Curran and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. As each note arrived into their system the Hub took the notes to create an electronic embellishment for the acoustic players they were working with.
Curran was a frequent collaborator and they worked with him on a studio version of his Erat Verbum (1993 iteration). This was a six part radio composition piece made for the Studio Akustischer Kunst of the WDR, and they worked with him on the Delta section. The piece utilizes recordings of John Cage’s famous Norton Lectures, also known as I-IV, that were fed into the HUB. The members of the group perused these and retranslated them instantly into Morse Code. Curran than live mixed the dots and dashes into a stunning fantasia.
The stamp John Cage left across various musical subcultures and musicians was also evident in the work of The Hub. His spirit was kind of hovering in the background of things as they went about their work.
“One of the strands in the musical philosophy of The Hub was the interest in defining musical processes that generated, rather than absolutely controlled, the details of a musical composition. An acknowledged influence on this interest was the work of John Cage, and it seemed a natural extension to us to try to automate the indeterminate processes used in his work. Many of these processes are extremely time-consuming and tedious; and given that Cage was himself involved for a long time in live electronic performance, we felt a real-time realization of these processes during the progress of a performance was not only feasible, but aesthetically implied.”
In 1995 they got the opportunity to do a live realization of Cages’s Variations II at Mills College for a happening put together by David Bernstein called “Here Comes Everybody: A Conference on the Music, Writing, and Art of John Cage”. As part of the activities one evening of concerts was devoted to Cage’s electronic music and The Hub performed their version of his iconic composition.
Ever since the Hub had played together at their XI/ClockTower premiere in NYC, in two separate locations connected by modem over the telephone wires, there had been pressure on the group from the many techies interested in their music for them to switch from their serial communications network to ethernet. There had also been pressure on them to do further concerts where the musicians were playing in different locations but connected via a network. In a way they had done this with the HubRenga concerts where the poets connected to the Hub via the WELL. Yet they hadn’t played together as a spatially disconnected group since the first concert.
In a way this was something that was expected of them, even if they really preferred to be in each other’s company while playing. The public fascination with the idea of musicians playing together though separated but vast distances in physical space remained a constant even though they had never repeated the experiment or incorporated as a regular part of their practice as a network ensemble.
They preferred the local area network of being in each-others company as they played. They sought a balance between the spontaneous interactions of the electronic systems they set up and the reciprocal feedback between themselves as humans making music together -an inherently social activity.
Chris Brown writes, “Since that event we have continued to receive requests for concerts to be performed remotely, that is, without all of us being physically in the same space, but have always declined, in part because we really prefer to be in the space where we can hear each other's sound directly and to see each other and communicate live. The Hub is a band of composers who use computers in their live electronic music, and our practice has been to create pieces that involve sharing data in specific ways that shape the sound and structure of each piece. We are all programmers, and instrument builders in the sense that we take the hardware and software tools available to us and reshape them to realize unconventional musical ideas.”
Eventually however The Hub succumbed to pressures to produce another concert where the members were separated in two different locations. “Points of Presence” was produced in 1997 by the Institute for Studies in the Arts (ISA) at Arizona State University (ASU), that linked to members of The Hub at Mills College, California Institute for the Arts and ASU over the internet. The piece nearly spelled the end of the Hub after a decade of cooperative engagement in network music composition.
“Now in 1997 new tools have become available that allow us to reapproach the remote music idea - telharmonium, points-of-presence - in a new way. Personal computers are now fast enough to produce high-quality electronic sound in real-time, allowing instrument-builders like Mike Berry to choose a purely software environment to produce home-made musical instruments. His Grainwave software, a shareware application for MacOS PowerPCs, was adopted by the group for this piece because it allows each of us to design our own sounds, and these sounds/instruments can be installed at any physical location that has a PC on which they can play - we can be independent of the hardware that produces our music, our instruments have become data which can be replicated easily in any place.
At the same time we, along with the rest of our culture, have been spending more and more time in our lives and our work communicating and collaborating on the internet. Why should we not extend our musical practice into this domain? Can we retain here the ability to define our own musical worlds, avoiding the commercial, prefab, and controlling musical aesthetics of the technological culture?”
Yet the performance itself was plagued by technical failures. They ran into many issues with the software and couldn’t debug it easily on the fly with a room full of people expecting to hear a concert. Because they weren’t in the same place they had to rely on internet chat and telephone calls to try and fix the issues. And with the different parts unable to work together as a network, the music was never able to work or lift off the ground. They were only able to play for ten minutes as a full network and they had to supply those who came to hear them with clumsy explanations of what they were trying to do.
“The technology had defeated the music. And after the concert, one by one, the Hub members turned in their resignations from the band.”
It wasn’t to be the very end of the band. Having been built as an ad hoc network they eventually found themselves reassembled again, ready for action, and all of the members of the Hub have lively musical activities they are involved with outside of the network -bringing in new information and new ideas to their working methods.
The League of Automatic Music Composers: 1978-1983, New World Records No. 80671, released 2007. Collection compiled by Jon Leidecker (Wobbly).
The Hub: Boundary Layer. Tzadik. 8050-3. Three CD set with extensive liner notes and CD-Rom text files.
At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet. Edited by Annmarie Chandler and Norie Nuemark. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2005
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.