Laurie Spiegel: Grassroots Technologist
Electronic music pioneer Laurie Spiegel sees a lot of common ground between the seemingly oppositional aesthetics of folk traditions and the digital realm. But whether she’s creating a computer-realized algorithmic composition, crafting a short piano piece or orchestral score, or jamming on a guitar or a banjo, the most important element in all of her music making is emotional engagement.
September 9, 2014—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan and Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu
People often speak about computers and technology as though these things are completely antithetical to nature and tradition, though this is largely a false dichotomy. Electronic music pioneer Laurie Spiegel began her musical life as a folk guitar player and has never abandoned that music. But she fell in love with machines the first time she saw a mainframe tape-operated computer at Purdue University on a field trip there with her high school physics class and has been finding ways to humanize them in her own musical compositions and software development ever since. She sees a lot of common ground between the seemingly oppositional aesthetics of folk traditions and the digital realm. In fact, when we met up with her last month in her Lower Manhattan loft crammed full of computers, musical instruments, and toys of all sorts, she frequently spoke about how in her world view the computer is actually a folk instrument.
“The electronic model is very similar to the folk model,” she insists. “People will come up with new lyrics for the same melody, or they’ll change it from a ballad to a dance piece. Nobody can remember what the origin is. There is no single creator. … In the way that electronic sounds go around—people sample things, they do remixes or sampling, they borrow snatches of sound from each other’s pieces—the concept of a finite fixed-form piece with an identifiable creator that is property and a medium of exchange or the embodiment of economic value really disappears … in similar ways. … Prior to electronic instruments, you had to go through the bottleneck of written notation. So electronic music did for getting things from the imagination to the ears of an audience what the internet later did for everybody being able to self-publish, democratizing it in ways that obviously have pros and cons.”
A realist as well as an idealist, Spiegel is well aware of the cons as well as the pros of our present digitally saturated society. “[W]hen I was young,” she recalls, “You had a great deal of time to focus on what was happening in your mind and information could proliferate, amplify itself, and take form in your imagination without that much interruption from outside. … Our culture is at this point full of people who are focused outward and are processing incoming material all the time. Would somebody feel a desire to hear a certain kind of thing and go looking for it? Would they hear something inside their head and want to hear it in sound? It seems that people are fending off a great deal now. The dominant process is overload compensation: how can I rule out things that I don’t want to focus on so that I can ingest a manageable amount of information and really be involved in it. Information used to be the scarce commodity. Attention is now the scarce commodity.”
The imagination is very important to Spiegel. It is what has fueled her pioneering sonic experiments such as her haunting microtonal Voices Within: A Requiem from 1979 or her landmark 1974 Appalachian Grove created at Bell Labs soon after she returned from the mountains in western North Carolina where she traveled with “my banjo over one shoulder and my so-called ‘portable’ reel-to-reel tape recorder over the other shoulder, listening to and enjoying older music and the culture that comes from early music.” It is also why she created the Music Mouse computer software, a tool that transformed early personal computers such as the Mac, Atari, and Commodore Amiga into fully functional musical instruments and idea generators for musical compositions. It also led her to create a realization of Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres,” the 17th-century German astronomer’s conversion of planetary motion into harmonic ratios; this electronic score and a song by Chuck Berry is the only music by living composers that was sent into outer space on the two Voyager spacecrafts. (Although Spiegel insists that her realization, which was included as part of “Sounds of the Earth” rather than “Music of the Earth,” is not her musical composition.)
But perhaps even more important to Spiegel than the imagination is emotional engagement. “I always wanted to make music that was beautiful and emotionally meaningful,” she explained. “The emotional level is the level at which I am primarily motivated and always have been. I’m still the teenage girl who, after a fight with my father, would take my guitar out on the porch and just play to make myself feel better. That’s who I am musically. I kind of knew what I liked as a listener, and what I liked was music that would express emotions that I didn’t have a way of expressing, where somebody understood me and expressed in their music what I was feeling in ways that I couldn’t express myself. So, to some degree, I think I see the role of the composer as giving vicarious self-expression to people, although at this point, with the technology we have, there’s no reason for anybody who wants to make music not to be able to.”
Frank J. Oteri: The meta-narrative of electronic music, and technological developments overall, is that we went from big anti-personal mainframe computers that took up entire buildings to home computers to handhelds and even smaller.
Laurie Spiegel: And I went that whole journey. I started using punch cards and paper tape. The first computer I ever saw was at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, when I was in high school. I went down there for a weekend and they had a tape-operated computer on which I attempted to do an assignment for my high school physics class. In this class there was me and just one other girl. All of the others were guys, and the teacher really thought we didn’t belong there. It was just so weird. But I always loved science.
FJO: But before you got involved with making music with electronics, you were a guitar player and the acoustic guitar is one of the smallest, most intimate instruments that one can play by oneself and have a full sound, all alone. So it seemed to me like there’s a connection between that and how electronic music came to be made on smaller and smaller devices.
LS: Personal and private are important aspects of music to me. When I was little, I started with a plastic ukulele which was even smaller. Then my grandmother, who was from Lithuania, played mandolin, and she gave me a mandolin when I was maybe nine years old or so. That had the advantage that I could keep it under my bed and take it out at night and play it quietly with nobody hearing me playing it. I had the total freedom to just improvise and make stuff up. I don’t think I even told anybody when she gave it to me. It was like my secret instrument, my private means of expression – whereas the piano in the living room was this large, sacred object where everybody in the house heard you and didn’t necessarily want to hear kids practicing. The guitar was similarly private, and I could play it in my room. The freedom of not being heard, for a person who’s basically somewhat self-conscious, is really important, and so is the portability.
I used to take the guitar with me everywhere I went during high school, college, young adulthood, up until I hit classical music circles and discovered that a lot of the people who were studying music, and were the best at it, didn’t seem to do it for personal enjoyment. They were so serious about it. In the folk music-type circles and improvising circles, people would bring their instruments with them and people jammed all the time. But once I hit Juilliard, I didn’t find that people really did that kind of stuff. They didn’t improvise. They were seriously working on their trills. And they were seriously working on their performance pieces. It wasn’t integrated into their lives the same way as for amateurs who really love music. I guess I still regard myself somewhat as an amateur, just doing it for the love of it really, which is the technical definition of that word. I’ve always been an improviser too, which electronic instruments were perfect for because you were actually interacting live with the sound in electronic music; whereas, when I write music on paper, for instruments, I don’t get to hear it, or not for a long time, or not while I’m working on it. Of course, that’s no longer true because all the notation software now let’s you hear stuff while you’re working on it, and you know that a rhythm isn’t what you meant right away. But in the old days, when I was learning notated composing, it was in your head.
FJO: It’s interesting that that came much later for you though, long after you were playing music.
LS: I was playing music, I was improvising, I was making stuff up, and at a certain point I wanted to learn to write things down so I wouldn’t forget them. So I started trying to teach myself to write stuff down. One of my roommates in the house that I lived in pointed out to me that they call that composing. You make things up and write them down. I was living in England and studying philosophy and history, doing a social sciences degree basically. I said, “No, I’m not composing. I’m just writing things down so that I don’t forget them. I’m not a composer.” But eventually it became undeniable, and composing took over.
FJO: And so the social sciences became less of a concern for you once music took over?
LS: No, it never really went away. I’m still very interested in politics, sociology, economics, statistics, anthropology, psychology, all that stuff, and animals. I’m a complete sucker for animals.
FJO: But it was still a transition. You were at Oxford and then you were studying with John Duarte.
LS: In London, during the second year that I was over there. He was probably the perfect teacher for me. He had a partly classical, partly folk, and partly jazz background. He taught me counterpoint and theory and a bit about composing, as well as classical guitar. Once a week I would take the train into London for the weekend and spend a whole day in his house. And we stayed in touch. Much later, when he was in his 80s, he started to learn to use personal computers and began doing his composing directly into the computer. It was amazing. He was an English composer not obsessed with avant-gardism, firmly rooted in some kind of folk—folk is not a general enough word, but a grassroots sense of musical meaningfulness, or maybe it is more accurate to say he was connected to tradition very organically and naturally in his music, like quite a few other British composers. I identify with that.
FJO: So that’s a very different experience from then enrolling in a composition program at Juilliard, of all places.
LS: Yeah, well, I was completely not expecting the dominance of the post-Webernite, serialist, atonal, blip and bleep school of music. I wasn’t interested in that. I mean, I knew what I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn harmony, structure, form, process, history, and repertoire, lots of stuff. But it wasn’t really considered cool to be interested in learning to write tonal music. I remember a teacher—who shall remain nameless—who, when I brought in a piece in E minor for guitar, said, “Hmm, key signature. Doesn’t mean for sure that you don’t have any musical imagination, but it’s not a good sign.”
It was so much more uptight then. I was in a way intellectually prepared for it because at Oxford there was a comparable phenomenon going on. The logical positivists were in charge talking about how many definitions can dance on the head of a … whatever. I was more interested in phenomenologists and Asian philosophy, and all kinds of stuff that was about the opposite of the dominant philosophers at Oxford at the time. Logical positivism is divorced from gut feelings, which were my personal link to music. As a teenager, when I was miserable I would take my guitar out on the porch and play and express my emotions. And when I heard great classical repertoire, it could vicariously express emotion for me. And so music was really about emotion. It was also about structure, because I love structure. That’s the computer programmer in me. So the things that I was most attracted to in music were slightly at odds with the music that was in with the dominant power structure when I went to Juilliard.
Then there were also all these child prodigies wandering around. I already had finished a degree in the social sciences. I was older, which made me immediately suspect because it’s a highly child prodigy-oriented atmosphere; if you weren’t discovered by 12, you were a has-been. But there were a number of things that saved me from giving up and going crazy. One was that through electronic music I was able to create music people could hear and I became active in the Downtown scene while I was still up there. And people liked my work. I played music in other people’s ensembles, played guitar or banjo or whatever for Tom Johnson and with Rhys Chatham. I would do these filigree patterns, and Rhys would do these long drone-like lines against the stuff. That balanced it. Also I was making a living. I got a job with a small company that did educational films and filmstrip soundtracks. I composed all of their soundtracks for, I think, three and a half years or about that, and it paid decently. And again, when you do soundtracks, all that really matters is emotional content, and to a lesser degree the style. It’s the opposite of the aesthetic that was dominant uptown with Boulez, Wuorinen, and Milton Babbitt, although I liked Milton and a lot of these people. I was friendly with and hung out with the Speculum Musicae people, but our musical tastes were just in contrast to each other.
FJO: But your primary teacher at Juilliard was Jacob Druckman, who was really all over the map aesthetically.
LS: Yeah, boy, Jake was amazing. I was also his assistant and spent a lot of time in his house up in Washington Heights. I proofread the parts for Windows. He let me use his extra studio time when he wasn’t using it at the Columbia Princeton Studios, so I got to know Vladimir [Ussachevsky] and Otto Luening pretty well, and of course Alice [Shields] and Pril [Smiley]. I have a reel of pieces I recorded up there that at some point I’ll transfer and see what they sound like.
FJO: I’d love to hear those!
LS: I also studied with Vincent Persichetti, who was a wonderful teacher. He really did his best to try to help each of his students find themselves individually and learn to make the music that they personally wanted to make. He didn’t push you in any direction. He didn’t want to create a clone of himself, unlike some of the teachers there, and he was great. And I also had some lessons with Hall Overton, who appreciated that I was one of the very few students there who could improvise and enjoy it. But at the same time, I was going downtown to meet Mort Subotnick and visit his studio when it was still upstairs from the Bleecker Street Cinema. I fell in love with the Buchla, so I was doing that too. I was doing all of these different kinds of music at once. Unlike most people who might be immersed in the atmosphere of Juilliard, it was one of the places that I was active musically, but it wasn’t the place. It didn’t dominate me.
FJO: You played piano, but it wasn’t your major instrument.
LS: No, I had to kind of begin to learn piano because it was useful for theory, harmony, and composing and studying. And I love the repertoire, but it wasn’t like anything with strings on it, which attracted me like a magnet. But pianos—I mean, I love them, but they came later.
FJO: But in terms of compositional paradigms, a keyboard configuration creates a certain kind of mindset. I want to discuss this more when we talk about the Music Mouse software you developed and your algorithmic compositions. If you think in terms of a seven-five keyboard, whether you’re improvising on it or even composing in your head and coming from a keyboard-oriented background, certain patterns are going to emerge. And if your frame of reference is a guitar fret board, other kinds of things are going to happen.
LS: If philosophically you’re a determinist, you could say that absolutely everything is algorithmic, but we do have a sense of free will and we do have the perception that we’re making decisions. But yeah, you could argue that if everything is deterministic, including the workings of the mind, then all music is algorithmic.
That seven-five pattern you see on the keyboard is only visible there because it’s the structure of the diatonic scales that we hear. It’s a pattern within the musical model our culture is dominated by. It’s not that pattern, but how it fits the hands, and the habits of the hands that become actual reflexes, that can be limiting. They can become so ingrained that they keep the imagination from roaming. That happens with the guitar fretboard too, though with different patterns, and with an instrument such as “Music Mouse” too, I suppose. Each instrument somehow biases our music in its own unique direction. Some composers manage to transcend those kinds of habits, some compose away from any instrument, others invent new instruments. But the physiological interface is sort of an algorithmic constraint all on its own, and I would think there are also similar cognitive constraints.
FJO: You were telling me when we spoke the other day that there was a music composition teacher who was so upset with you because if his students used Music Mouse he wouldn’t know if they were coming up with their own music. So when you mentioned falling in love with the Buchla, I remembered that when we did our talk with Morton Subotnick he said that he was very determined to avoid the standard piano interface, that it was very important for him not for it to have that interface in order to free people’s creativity, that you would have to deal with the instrument in a completely new way. Otherwise the paradigm would force you into familiar patterns.
LS: I believe that was some of Schoenberg’s rationale for coming up with the 12-tone system, too. It breaks you out of all of your customary habits and the patterns that are ingrained. Every time I pick up the guitar, my hands tend to fall into patterns of things that I’ve played before, which can be good. But you are looking for something new when you’re composing, unlike when you’re just performing. Yeah, that was one of the wonderful things about the Buchla versus the Moog and Arp and other early electronic instruments. It was modular and there was no keyboard, and so you really worked with timbre and texture and sonic shapes and architectures, as opposed to falling into melody and harmony.
FJO: You came to these various pieces of equipment and you’ve done new things with them, but you also wrote music that was instantly beautiful. But beauty is also something that is in part acculturated.
LS: I always wanted to make music that was beautiful and emotionally meaningful. It was out of fashion to do that. A lot of people were simply trying to avoid doing that at the time, whereas I was willing to go for it. Newness was being pursued for its own sake.
FJO: You even composed a short piano piece that addresses the whole history of music and shows a way out of that.
LS: Oh, The History of Music in One Movement.
FJO: I love the program note you included in the score and how even though the music is inspired by all these periods in history, every note of it is yours. There are moments that almost get into sort of a modernist place, but it doesn’t end there. Writing something like that when modernism was acknowledged as the final phase in music’s evolution was very brave.
LS: That piece was one of the most fun composing experiences and one of the most interesting that I’ve ever had. At every point when I was writing something evocative of a certain period, I had to sort of try to feel through what it would feel like to need to go on to break through into what happened in the next period. I had to want the freedoms that the next musical era took. There are many transitions in there. The hardest part of writing that was that horrible little place where I did an actual pair of serial rows that retrograde and invert against each other and that sound so ugly and harsh to me. For historical accuracy, I thought I really had to put that in. And at that point in the piece, it says “Oh my God, we can’t do this,” and it retrogrades back and it takes a different direction and kind of goes off into a sort of Impressionist-tinged blues, and then into minimalism, texture, pure sonic fabric. But of course, when we wrote that, we hadn’t yet gotten to “post-minimalism”, whatever that means.
FJO: Musicologists point to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as the beginnings of minimalism, but the ‘70s were really when it had its greatest impact with audiences. In fact, its full flowering seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the sudden availability of electronic instruments. This is also true for other kinds of music that were evolving at that time, like prog rock.
LS: Electronic instruments gave people the freedom to create works and sound on an unprecedented scale. Prior to electronic instruments, you had to go through the bottleneck of written notation. You had to go through the bottleneck of a limited number of orchestras with very conservative tendencies, because they had their subscribers to please. Electronic instruments were a great democratizing force. That’s one of the reasons why you began to see so many more women composers because you could go from an idea for a piece to the point where you could actually play it for another human being. I mean that had been true all along if you limited yourself to writing only for the instruments you played yourself. But when it came to writing things on an orchestral scale of sonority, to be able to realize something and then play it for other people all on your own was a brand new phenomenon. So electronic music did for getting things from the imagination to the ears of an audience what the internet later did for everybody being able to self-publish, democratizing it in ways that obviously have pros and cons. The economic models of these various ways of getting something from the inside of my mind to the inside of someone else’s mind, for whom it would be meaningful, have been completely upset and will have to settle down differently. Analog electronics were revolutionary, and now the digital ones are also. It’s amazing how quickly so many changes have taken place and they’re very disorienting to a lot of people, understandably.
About what you asked, minimalism and electronic instruments, it was liberating for us players of plucked instruments and pianos to work with sustained tones. Instead of composing additively, but writing down one tiny sound at a time, we could start with a rich fabric of sound and subtractively sculpt form into it, or we could set up a process and let it just slowly evolve on its own.
FJO: The other big change happened with how those electronics were situated. In the early stages you had to be attached to some kind of university system or, if you got lucky, you could afford a Moog or a Buchla.
LS: One the things that I think made the ‘70s a really special period was that electronic instruments were too expensive for most people to own one. Sure there were people who had their own—Mort had one, Suzanne Ciani had one, a lot of rock groups could between them get one. But for a lot of us, the way to get access to electronic instruments was through shared studios. There was PASS—the Public Access Synthesizer Studio—which later evolved into Harvestworks. There was the NYU Composers’ Workshop. There was WNET’s Experimental TV Lab where I was a video artist in residence for a while, though I ended up really not doing much video but doing sound tracks for everybody else’s videos. There was Mort’s little studio, and its community of people upstairs from the Bleecker Street Studio. The Kitchen was another one. The Kitchen started as a center for video and then expanded into music. So there was community. There were interactions between people. People would meet each other and they would get ideas and bounce ideas off each other and work together in ways that I would think must be much more difficult to achieve now that everyone has an extremely powerful studio—beyond our wildest dreams back then—in their bedroom or sitting on their desk. To be working in the studio and, okay, I’m coming in and Eliane Radigue is just finishing up, and she shows me what she’s doing. Then she watches me put up what I’m doing, and then when I’m done, Rhys Chatham comes in and he’s like, “Oh, you could do this and this, and by the way, you know, we’re trying this; do you want to come and play with us?”—I mean, things just happened between people and I think that made the ‘70s a really special period, the fact that there were so many shared studios where people worked together, interacted with each other, commented on each other’s work, and helped each other with their work, as opposed to everybody sitting by themselves in their rooms with their computers.
FJO: Even some companies, like Bell Labs, became hotbeds of activity for composers at that time.
LS: Well, there was no place like Bell Labs. You can’t really even consider it a company. Bell Labs was pure research with a level of autonomy given to each person working there that probably no longer exists anywhere. There was no need to do anything with any commercial buy in. You could do whatever you were interested in, everyone was brilliant, and everyone was interested in stuff. You didn’t last that long or do that well at Bell Labs if you weren’t self-motivated and a self-starter. You were expected to have your own ideas and be able to realize them. I’m still in very close touch with my friends from that lab. We email all the time and toss ideas around. I just don’t know if there is any other place quite like that, although I think places like Apple and Google like to think they have the level of freedom that they had at the lab. I’ve never really been around them on a work-a-day basis to find out.
FJO: I love that they would just let artists come and do their thing.
LS: Well, they did and they didn’t. The arts were a little on the hushed side because of their regulated monopoly status, and moving into the ‘70s, they began to be under attack by the various powers that wanted to divide “Ma Bell” into a number of small, separate, competing companies, which ultimately did happen and was a great loss in my opinion. They were under a certain mandate; there were a number of considerations. One was that everything they did should be oriented to communications research. So when they came up with Unix and the C language, they just gave them away for free. Another was that they were not really supposed to be doing digital communications so much, I think, as improving existing analog telephone service. I’m not really that sure. I wasn’t in the managerial level of the lab. Max Matthews was, though; he was a fairly high-up person. He ran twelve sub-departments that did all kinds of amazing stuff: acoustic research, speech synthesis and analysis, non-verbal communications, various cognitive studies like studies of the characteristics of long-term versus short-term human memory and stereopsis, and in vision the study of eiditic memory. You would just walk around or ask whoever happened to be at the coffee machine when you were getting a cup of coffee: “What do you do?” and they would tell you something absolutely fantastically fascinating that they were very much into. It was an amazing place.
FJO: In addition to music, you were also doing video work at Bell Labs. I love the name of the program you worked on there.
LS: VAMPIRE! (Video And Music Program for Interactive Realtime Exploration.) It was a system that could only be used at night. That was the mandate. We artist types could use the computers during the hours during which they were not in use for legitimate Bell Telephone research.
FJO: I think my favorite work of yours from that period though is that gorgeous Appalachian Grove.
LS: Yeah? At that point I had a graduate research fellowship starting in I think ’73 at the Institute for Studies in American Music with Wiley Hitchcock, whom I greatly admired. Anybody who hasn’t read his book, Music in the United States: An Historical Introduction, should read it. He put me back in touch with and made me feel better about my banjo playing and the folk level, which had been basically kind of ridiculed in some of the other circles I’d been in during that era.
I had just been down in the mountains in western North Carolina—with my banjo over one shoulder and my so-called “portable” reel-to-reel tape recorder over the other shoulder—listening to and enjoying older music and the culture that comes from early music. I mean, music from Europe went into those hills before the Baroque era and evolved on its own there, amazing music. I had just come back from there when I did Appalachian Grove and wanted to capture some of the feeling of being down there.
The wonderful thing about being surrounded by scientists, and not being in a computer music studio in a music department, is that a lot of scientists really love music. They are unabashedly lovers of fine music that’s meaningful in all the ways that I find music meaningful. They go to classical concerts, and they play instruments themselves. They love music the way ordinary people do. Whereas, something happens when you put music into an academic context in which down the hall is a science lab where everything has to be provable and rationalizable. You begin to get pieces where every note needs to be able to be explained, a certain level of self-consciousness begins to be laid on a musical experience. I’m not saying that always happens, but it seemed to be a tendency in academia during that period which was not present at Bell Labs.
FJO: What’s nice about the re-issue of your first album, The Expanding Universe, that came out last year is that we can finally hear all of the compositions you created at Bell Labs.
LS: Well, most of them. I did an awful lot of stuff. Two and a half hours, or a little more than that, was all we could fit on two CDs.
FJO: Only a tiny portion of that material was issued on the original LP, which curiously was released by the folk music label Philo.
LS: Another thing that I keep harping on is that the computer is a folk instrument. One of my favorite subjects in college had been anthropology. You have all these various techniques of going into an alien society and trying to figure out what’s important. One of the techniques is to try to figure out the cultural premises, the rock bottom assumptions that members of that culture would make. So I took a look at a number of different distribution media for music: classical concert venues; grassroots organizations like community sings; bands and church groups; parlor music, music that is done at home with people gathering around a piano singing or playing guitar together; and electronic media—photography, radio, and electronic music. I looked at the characteristics of the music that is disseminated by each of these methods and certain patterns begin to fall out.
The classical model is a finite piece of music with a fixed form that is attributable to one creator—Beethoven, for example. But the electronic model is very similar to the folk model. You have material that floats around and is transmitted from person to person. It’s in variable form; it’s constantly being transformed and modified to be useful to whoever is working with it, the same way folk songs are. People will come up with new lyrics for the same melody, or they’ll change it from a ballad to a dance piece. Nobody can remember what the origin is. There is no single creator. There’s no owner. The concept of ownership doesn’t come in. In the way that electronic sounds go around—people sample things, they do remixes or sampling, they borrow snatches of sound from each other’s pieces—the concept of a finite fixed-form piece with an identifiable creator that is property and a medium of exchange or the embodiment of economic value really disappears in both folk music and electronic and computer music in similar ways.
FJO: But certainly in the earliest era of electronic music, there would be these musique concrète and studio-generated electronic music tape pieces that are even more fixed than a piece by Beethoven because not only is there one piece, there’s only one interpretation of it because the interpretation is a fixed form.
LS: That was pretty much true back when electronic music could only be disseminated on reel-to-reel up until cassettes were invented, since you had to actually own two reel-to-reel machines to make a copy and very few people did. You would have tape concerts where you could play pieces for people or it might get on the radio or a record as a medium of dissemination. But once there were cassettes, you started to get people doing mixes and overdubs, excerpting things and chopping things together. Not a lot of people did the kinds of techniques that had been used in classic studio technique—lots of splicing and cutting—on cassette. To edit a cassette tape is pretty unusual. Then when you got digital recording, the first wave of digital excerpting was samplers before personal computers and the internet made other ways more feasible. The business end of the music industry is trying very hard to make everything identifiable and institute royalty systems and stuff. But I think, even though I’d benefit from receiving royalties, it’s to some degree a losing battle and a superimposition of a model that no longer really fits. We don’t have a new model yet that provides economic support back, but maybe we don’t need one–because music production is so much cheaper and faster.
FJO: I definitely want to talk more about these issues with you, but let’s get back to Philo. It’s really unusual for them to have released an LP of electronic music. That record proves in a way that the divide between folk music and electronic music was a fake war that was created in part by the media overblowing some people’s negative reactions to Dylan plugging in at 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
LS: Well, I was a folk person and a banjo person. The lowest, most grassroots technology and the most sophisticated electronic technology you would think would be diametrical opposites, but the fact that you can make music independently at home, and make music locally with other people in an informal way without any of the traditional skills such as keyboard skills and music notation, that’s a great commonality.
FJO: And some of the popular rock groups at that time were also doing some very sophisticated stuff with electronics.
LS: Pink Floyd.
FJO: Perhaps even more so some of the German groups like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, many of whose recordings were purely electronic music without vocals or anything else. There isn’t that much of a sonic difference between some of their music and some of the stuff on the Expanding Universe LP.
LS: Yeah, there is and there isn’t. In a way, it’s almost closer to minimalism. I’m thinking the earlier Terry Riley pieces like Poppy Nogood and In C, which are pretty much open form. My pieces tend to actually be relatively short and have pretty clear forms and the processes in them tend more toward melodic evolution than repetition.
FJO: But in terms of the surface sound, I think the music on that LP could appeal to anybody who’s a fan of Tangerine Dream, and having that recording appear on Philo rather than one of the labels that was releasing electronic music that had been created in university settings, like CRI, seems like a reaching out to this broader audience.
LS: I have been in multiple musical worlds simultaneously throughout most of my career. I haven’t lived in the classical world, although I still totally love classical music, probably really the best. But none of those labels would have had me. Philo were willing. And then Rounder took it and kept it right up until Unseen Worlds Records put out the CD re-release. I mean, listen to Appalachian Grove and Patchwork and Drums. They’re clearly closer to a grassroots, folk sensibility than they are to any of the post-Webernite composers. But I did get it through personal connections that were more in the folk world. I had a roommate for about 14 months, Steve Rathe of Murray Street Productions, who was at that point working for NPR. He decided to move to New York and stayed here “for 2 weeks” until he could find a place, which turned into 14 months, which was actually great. I like him a lot. And he connected me up with Philo. He went to them and said, “You gotta hear this stuff.” That’s how that really happened. He still invites bunches of people over to his loft to just have an old fashioned country music evening with banjos and fiddles, and I play banjo or fiddle or guitar at those.
FJO: You’ve never gone over to one of these things and played with Music Mouse.
LS: No. Music Mouse doesn’t work like that. I have jammed playing Music Mouse, but it doesn’t lend itself well to playing with other people, because it tends to not be good for standard chord changes.
FJO: Now in terms of how worlds opened up, I’m curious about how your music wound up getting sent into outer space on Voyager.
LS: I was visiting friends up in Woodstock on a lovely summer’s afternoon, and somehow a phone call got forwarded to me and they said, “We’re with NASA, and we would like to use some of your work for the purpose of contacting extraterrestrial life.” And I said, “What kind of a crank call is this? If you’re really from NASA, send something to my address on NASA letterhead. Okay, goodbye.” And they did, which really surprised me.
There are a number of algorithmic works. One type might start with a truly logical progression that generates the information for a piece. Another kind is to use the patterns we find in nature and translate those into the auditory modality, like the Kepler piece [which is what was put on Voyager]. Kepler of course didn’t have the means to do that back in the 16th century. But we do.
FJO: And so you realized that.
LS: Yeah, yeah. Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, and Carl Sagan liked it for the opening cut on the Sounds from Earth record. There are two records on Voyager. One is Music from Earth. It’s not in the music part. It’s in the Sounds from Earth.
FJO: That’s always bothered me.
LS: No. It really is simply a translation into sound of the angular velocities of the planets. It’s a transcription really. I don’t think of it as a composition. It’s an orchestration I did, and I think I did a good one, because I have listened to some other ones and they seem rather dry and academic sounding; whereas, I somehow, being me, managed to get some sense of feeling into the ways that I mixed it and the pace at which I let it unfold, and the decisions I made such as only including the planets that were known during Kepler’s times instead of all of the planets we later came to know.
FJO: There was an LP that came out of another realization of Kepler’s Harmony of the World in the late ‘70s, and in that realization the other three additional planets discovered after Kepler’s lifetime were represented as percussion tracks. There is some similarity between that recording and what you did.
LS: It’s the same solar system.
FJO: But still I hear your sensibility in your version somehow.
LS: But it’s not an original piece by me. If anybody composed it, it was Kepler who created this score, or as Kepler would have said, “It’s a composition by God rendered audible to man,” although I don’t know if he really believed in God. His mother was almost burnt at the stake as a witch.
FJO: That leads us into this whole question of who can claim compositional ownership of algorithmic compositions.
LS: Well, if the piece is generated by a process then whoever creates the process you would think composes the piece. It gets more complicated when it’s an interactive algorithmic situation. I have never called Music Mouse an algorithmic music generator. It’s interactive. It’s an “intelligent instrument”, an instrument with a certain amount of music intelligence embedded in it, mostly really by a model of what I would call “music space” – music theory, rhythmic structures, and orchestrational parameters that one can interact with. If someone composes with that, to some degree, it’s a remote collaboration because there is certain decision making I put into that program that they’re stuck with. And the rest of it is up to them. So there is decision making from both me and them, in that the computer is really almost passive. I would say it only does what you tell it to in simple situations like Music Mouse. In complex situations such as the entire world internet system, things become so complex that things will happen that the system was not instructed to do. But that’s on a different scale from a program where you actually describe a process of music generation, or a program such as Music Mouse, where if you do exactly the same thing you will always get exactly the same result, as with other instruments.
FJO: Allow me to play devil’s advocate.
LS: Go for it.
FJO: Even if you’re creating music on a piano, there are things that are built into that piano that sort of predetermine the kind of things you can do with it.
LS: Sure, each instrument really does have an aesthetic domain. You obviously can’t do the same music with a flute and with a harp. But you say that you could hear my sensibility in the Kepler. You probably hear a related sensibility when you listen to my piano pieces or my orchestral writing.
LS: So the medium interacts certainly with the individual person expressing themselves through the medium. It’s sort of a collaboration between a structure and a person.
FJO: Well, the reason I’m bringing this up is the story you told me last week about a music composition teacher being upset with you because your software made it difficult for him to know if his students were actually composing the music he assigned them to write.
LS: I wrote Music Mouse for my own use, and then I showed it to people and they wanted copies of it, and then they showed it to people, and it got to the point where more people wanted copies of it than I could sit down and explain how to use it to and so I wrote a manual. Then it kept snowballing, and it needed a publisher, so I gave it to Dave Oppenheim at OpCode to publish. And then a lot more people had it. At one point, later when Dr. T’s Music Software were publishing it, Music Mouse was bundled with [Commodore] Amiga computers, and something like 10,000 copies of it shipped. A lot of people used that program.
So I began to get feedback back from all manner of people who I didn’t know. The program was in many contexts I had never dreamed it would be in. So I get a somewhat upset letter from a college music teacher telling me that because of my program, he doesn’t know how to grade his students. He can’t tell if they know harmony, or they’re relying on my software for the harmony that they’re using in the compositional exercises they’re submitting to him. What is he supposed to do about that? How is he supposed to grade them? Music isn’t really something that’s supposed to be graded anyway. But yeah, a lot of unexpected and interesting things happened as a result of that program going out in the world on such a large scale.
FJO: One of the things that I find fascinating about it is it can help you get out of habits that you had.
LS: I used to call it an idea generator. You’re certainly not going to be able to do anything you ever did on a keyboard or guitar, and you will be doing other kinds of things. And you’ll be focusing not on the level of the individual notes, but on the shapes of the phrases and the architecture of the musical gesture. It forces you to conceptualize on a larger scale. Music composing often really bogs down at the level of the note, and people lose perspective and they muddle around. If it’s really beautifully done, you can be utterly fascinated and transfixed by what’s happening on the level of the notes. But you also find an awful lot of pieces that seem to just kind of go on and on and wander around because the person creating them has lost perspective in terms of an overall form. Music Mouse orients you to think on a slightly larger scale of the phrase or the gesture. Of course, you can still wander around, making a mess for a really long time. We’ve all done that. But it’s an improvising instrument and it’s a brainstorming instrument.
FJO: In terms of how it affected your own composition process, are there things in your music that are different before Music Mouse and after Music Mouse?
LS: Music Mouse had things in common with the various FORTRAN IV and C programs I wrote at Bell Labs, but I can’t begin to say how much the orchestration of electronic sounds that could be dealt with in real time changed in a single decade. I mean, you talk about 1975 when I was doing pieces like Patchwork at Bell Labs. In 1985, I was doing pieces like Cavis Muris and the orchestration of real-time electronic sounds, real-time digital sounds, was just light years more advanced. It’s amazing what happened orchestrationally in that decade with the development of real-time digital audio.
FJO: I love the back story of Cavis Muris.
LS: I’m very fond of mice actually. There was a little family of mice living in the loft at that point. But the mouse of Music Mouse initially was the mouse input device of the early Apple Macintosh. It occurred to me, when I got my first Mac. It was not the very first one, the very limited 128k. By the 512k Mac, it became usable. So what would be the most logical thing you’d want to do with a mouse-controlled instrument? You would want to push sound around with the mouse. So, it was Music Mouse, and then I just kept refining it and refining it. That’s how it got its name. Now, of course, nobody uses mice. Well, some people still use mice. And of course there are still plenty of real mice.
FJO: I still use one, but I also still use a PalmPilot.
LS: I always used a trackball, which I guess I would have had to call it “Music Rat,” because it is definitely bigger than a mouse. I was thinking of doing a Rhythm Rat at one point, but I never got that far. There were too many other things going on. I might do a Counterpoint Chipmunk at some point. I don’t know. I would love to get back to coding. It’s just been so busy and the technology changes under me faster than I can learn to keep up with it in my spare time with so many other things always going on.
FJO: The constant change in technology raises other issues about the future of musicality. Being adept at something because you’ve mastered it over the course of many years is an alien concept to a lot of people nowadays. But in a society where the technology changes at the drop of a dime, it’s really difficult to become proficient in any specific thing.
LS: You are right. People used to learn a tool or technique and refine and develop their use of it for the rest of their lives. Now we can’t even run the software we used most just a few years ago. We are always beginners, over and over.
This constant transitioning fits with the attention span of the channel flipper or the web browser. And process of facing the blank page until some creation takes form on it is now rare. More and more of today’s digital tools come up with a menu of selections, like GarageBand. Here’s a library of instruments, pick one—multiple choice initial templates. Do you want to make this kind of piece or that? Things start with “here are some options you can select among” as opposed to starting with something in my mind which I’m hearing in the silence in my imagination. Back in the dark ages when I was young, you had a great deal of time to focus on what was happening in your mind and information could proliferate, amplify itself, and take form in your imagination without that much interruption from outside. You had your mind to yourself. I don’t think kids walk home from school anymore. I don’t know. All parents seem to be hell-bent on making sure they’re safe and picking them up. And they are constantly interacting, with people or with devices or with people via devices.
Our culture is at this point full of people who are focused outward and are processing incoming material all the time. So you’ve got musical forms which are mixes, mash-ups, remixes, collages, processed versions, and sampling, all kinds of making of new pieces out of pre-existing materials rather than starting with some sound that you begin to hear in your imagination. I’m a little concerned about this because there’s just nothing like the imagination—being able to focus inward and listen to what your own auditory mechanism wants to hear—listening for what it wants to hear and what it would generate on its own for itself. You can do processing of the stuff coming at you ‘til the cows come home, but are you going to get something that’s really the expression of your individuality and your sensibility the same way as listening to your own inner ear? Are you going to come up with something original and authentically uniquely you?
FJO: But you were saying before that we’ve moved to this point where nobody owns a sound and that reconnects us with much earlier folk music traditions.
LS: Well, people still do, but it seems to be very hard to enforce ownership of sounds.
FJO: I loved the story you told Simon Reynolds about wanting to listen to an LP you thought you had and when you were not able to find that recording, you made your own music instead.
LS: That’s where the piece The Expanding Universe came from. I was looking back and forth through my LPs, and I wanted to hear something like that—not a drone piece, not a static piece, not like La Monte Young, and also not something that was a symphony. It just needed to be this organic, slowly growing thing, and I couldn’t find it, so—do-it-yourselfer attitude—I made one.
FJO: So do you think it’s less likely that somebody would do that now?
LS: Would somebody feel a desire to hear a certain kind of thing and go looking for it? Would they hear something inside their head and want to hear it in sound? It seems that people are fending off a great deal now. The dominant process is overload compensation: how can I rule out things that I don’t want to focus on so that I can ingest a manageable amount of information and really be involved in it. Attention is now the scarce commodity. Information used to be the scarce commodity, “information” including music of course.
FJO: In terms of finding that original sound, there’s a piece of yours that I certainly think is one of the most original sounding pieces and it’s one of my favorites—Voices Within. It’s also one of the only pieces that you did using alternative tunings.
LS: Wandering in Our Time is similar, although not as highly structured as Voices Within. It’s easier to use tonality or modality. Microtonality is hard to deal with. I didn’t use any particular microtonal scale. It was really by feel.
FJO: But there’s a real sense of it being another world.
LS: It was a very internal world. I keep using the word emotions, but emotionally, subjectively, the kind of unformed sense of experience you can’t even identify or label or describe, but it’s something haunting you inside that you feel music is the way to express. Does that make any sense?
FJO: Yes, but the reason I bring it up is because of what you were saying about attention being so hard to come by these days. That piece really struck me because I didn’t have a framework for listening to it since it was so unlike anything else. With technology today and where we are in terms of being offered all these possibilities and having to choose from a set of options rather than striking out on our own paths, I wonder how possible it is for a piece like that to be created now.
LS: You wouldn’t have come up with that piece on a keyboard-based synthesizer. It needed a synthesizer without a keyboard. To some degree, all of these computer programs for music out there now are virtually keyboard synthesizers; they all give you a scale. You have to really work to get out of the scales, those normal diatonic scales that are in every software package on the market. There are a lot of assumptions about the nature of music in most of the commercial software. They’re perfectly fine for making music that’s a lot like previous music, but not in terms of finding those places on the edge of what we know where we’re feeling for something that is so subjective and so tenuously there that we can’t begin to describe it. Those kinds of aesthetic experiences in sound are not really what the software that most music is done on today is optimized for. I suppose I’m guilty of using existing software by other people as much as anyone, but you do have to really work to get beyond the assumptions inherent in most software tools for any of the creative arts these days.
FJO: In terms of working within conventions, it was fascinating for me to discover Waves and Hearing Things, your pieces for orchestra.
LS: I can thank Jake Druckman for actually giving me an opportunity to, both of those opportunities actually. He agented both of those. Everybody just wants to hear my electronic stuff, pretty much.
FJO: But those pieces are extraordinary, too. They’re very interesting musical paths that might not have been intuitive had you not immersed yourself in electronic music. I hear the same kinds of transformations of timbres—an instrument emerges out of a cloud of sound the way that a timbre would emerge in electronic pieces from that time. Yet it’s all done acoustically.
LS: But that happens in classical music, too. Much as I would have never admitted it to other kids at Juilliard, I absolutely love Rimsky-Korsakov and how he orchestrates. His orchestration is one of my great inspirations. And I love his orchestration book, too. It’s just really about sound and feeling it, it’s not about instruments ranges or any kind of nuts-and-bolts level stuff. You could say that what he does in some of his orchestrations is virtually electronic. It’s so focused on the sounds that you practically forget that they’re instruments.
Orchestras are great because you have all these timbres—wow! Then again, I love writing for solo instruments, too. Concerts are good, and I’ve enjoyed many concerts, but to me the most important music was always the music that happened at home where I would just pick up my guitar and play it to feel better, or I would sit there and sight read at the keyboard, which I used to love to do a lot, but haven’t had much time for in recent years. Or playing music for just one other person. Or playing music with one other person at home. Writing music that somebody can just put on the piano, trying to write things that are not that hard to play so that more people can play them. I’m not interested in virtuosity. I’m not interested in writing show pieces for concert halls. I’m interested in writing something that someone can sit down and play at home and enjoy the musical experience of playing it. That’s more important for me as a composer, so I tend to write pieces just for guitar or piano, the instruments that I have played the most.
FJO: That’s a beautiful statement because so many people talk about getting into electronic music so that they could write music that they weren’t able to get players to play, creating a music that is even too hard for the virtuosos, music that’s beyond human ability. You’re saying the exact opposite.
LS: Well, that too. It’s not an either/or. They’re both valid. That’s one of the reasons to do Music Mouse. It’s as close as you can come to playing an entire orchestra live in real time. I have all this timbral control. Nine of the twelve tracks on my CD “Unseen Worlds” were created with just Music Mouse and it was like playing a pretty full orchestra.
FJO: So if you somehow had the time to take those pieces and orchestrate them and have them played by actual orchestras, would that be aesthetically satisfying you?
LS: That seems like an awful lot of time and work to do something that already exists, as opposed to doing something different if given the opportunity to do something for orchestra. But yeah, that would be interesting. They would be different pieces, I would think. But that would be a lot of work. Well, it might not be. Actually you could automate an awful lot more of the transcription than you used to be able to do. Writing notes down, God, it’s so much slower than playing. That’s partly why I’ve always been an improviser. Jack Duarte, my teacher in London, said “composition is improvisation slowed down with a chance to go back and fix the bad bits”. Or “bad notes,” I think he may have said.
FJO: So we’ve talked about the composer and the interpreter, what about the listener?
LS: Well, I think one of my advantages as a composer was that I didn’t accept the identity professionally until I had already grown up as a listener and a player. The emotional level is the level at which I am primarily motivated and always have been. I’m still the teenage girl who, after a fight with my father, would take my guitar out on the porch and just play to make myself feel better. That’s who I am musically. I kind of knew what I liked as a listener, and what I liked was music that would express emotions that I didn’t have a way of expressing, where somebody understood me and expressed in their music what I was feeling in ways that I couldn’t express myself. So, to some degree, I think I see the role of the composer as giving vicarious self-expression to people, although at this point, with the technology we have, there’s no reason for anybody who wants to make music not to be able to. But there really still are levels of ability. Not everybody’s going to be Beethoven or Bach. There still will always be room for truly amazing artists of composition and sound who can do things that other people can’t. It’s just that I really kind of rail against the old dichotomy of the small elite of highly skilled makers of music and this vast number of passive listeners that have no way to actively express some thoughts in music. That seems really wrong to me, and that no longer needs to be the case. But that’s not to say that it isn’t still worth listening, because there aren’t that many truly great works out there, percentage-wise.