Back to the Blog

A lot has happened over the past three years that has kept me from writing online. There was a much needed sabbatical that helped me finish three new pieces, two papers and a couple of grant applications, followed by a two year term as Director of the LSU School of Music. And this fall, a unique opportunity came my way through the Office of Research and Economic Development (ORED), one that I could not turn down.

My career at LSU has always focused on collaboration across disciplinary subjects, especially within the digital realm.  From the virtual shared lab for digital media with the School of Art (the Music & Art Digital Studio, or MADstudio), to the Arts, Visualization, Advanced Technologies and Research (AVATAR) Initiative, and the Cultural Computing Focus Area of CCT, I have always been advocating for interdisciplinary research and engagement across traditional academic boundaries.

In September, I was approached by ORED to take the leadership position in their creative and digital initiatives group, providing advocacy and support for interdisciplinary programs that support creativity and digital scholarship across the university. Having been the person who has argued for such an initiative from the university, I simply could not turn down this position.

Which brings me back to the blog.  In my new role as Director of Creative & Digital Initiatives, it will be critical for me to return to an online presence. While my writing will still focus on music, sound and digital media, I will also delve into ideas about digital culture, collaborative research and creativity.

I’m glad to be back. You can also find earlier writings on my personal blog A View from the Bayou: a digital life and work in Louisiana.

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

I remember my first exposure to computer music was when I was a newly minted graduate student at UCLA, helping a professor program Apple IIg computers for a networked computer-assisted instruction application for basic musicianship. Using 6502 assembly code, I had to create four different sound types using a 64-byte wavetable. I pleaded for 128-bytes. Alas.

Later on, I applied for a job at XEROX Parc in Los Angeles.  They needed someone with an EE or CS degree, but interviewed me anyway. During the interview, the guy showed me this really cool computer where disks and files were shown on screen as icons, and he used this thing he called a mouse to move them around. I didn’t get the job, but two years later, the Macintosh was announced. Gee, that looked familiar.

When I worked at IRCAM, I began to program on a Macintosh Plus in THINK C and “Le LISP.” I also met a guy named Miller Puckette who was working on a graphic programming environment for the Mac called Patcher. Very interesting stuff. I wonder whatever happened to that?

After I returned to the states, I needed a job, badly. I ended up with a position at an aerospace sub-contractor for the USAF Los Angeles research center. My job? Managing a graphics production lab that used Mac Plus computers, creating overhead slides using MacDraw and a LaserPrinter. And I got the job because I was the only one they interviewed who had ever used a Mac.

My dissertation score was the first one at UCLA that used a computer typesetting program for the Mac called Composer. When I came to LSU, I had the first Mac II on campus, and spent $1500 to get a token ring network card for it.  A couple years later, I bought a NeXT computer for the lab. It was the best computer for doing music at the time, and I began programming code in Objective C.

When I heard that Apple bought NeXT (or was it the other way around), I knew that the Mac was destined for greatness yet again. And since that time, my creative world has revolved around the Mac OS. Even the computational scientists I work with prefer Macs over Linux (at least for their laptops).

I’ve never met Steve Jobs, although I saw him at a MacWorld conference once. Somehow, he had touched my life and career for as long as I can recall. He has been called a visionary. He has been called relentless. I will always remember him as someone who had the courage to stand by his vision, and to pursue perfection in all things.

“Your time is limited, so don’t live someone else’s life. Follow your heart and intuition. Everything else is secondary”

— Steve Jobs

Top ten AMS paper titles

As an academic, I certainly understand the importance of creating interesting titles for your papers and projects. After all, I’ve been working on such projects as ICAST (a 27-channel computer controlled audio sound theatre), GRENDL (our computational grid framework for laptop orchestras), and AVATAR (the Arts, Visualization, Advanced Technologies and Research initiative in digital media at LSU).

Then there are the great acronyms that are part of the computer music landscape: CCRMA (pronounced Karma), the research center at Stanford, or the BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre). You want to capture people’s imagination at first glance through a combination of wit, provocation, and perhaps scandal.

Alex Ross has looked through the recent papers accepted for the upcoming American Musicological Society’s 2011 meeting, and found some “exciting” paper titles. Some are a bit more provocative than others. But I will admit, I’m intrigued by most of these.

Has Dave Letterman seen these?

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise: Top ten AMS paper titles.

Time for an Ear Cleaning

Occasionally, I find it important to start a class with a fresh perspective, especially in an introductory class for a topic with which I know students are not familiar.  For example, in our introductory computer music class, I have often put together what I call an “ear-cleaning” CD or playlist to give the students a taste of what they can expect. Sometimes, I do this to challenge their assumptions about a topic, or to upset their own sense of normalcy. But in any event, I always try to make these fun and interesting listening sessions that ultimately motivate a student toward success in the course.

Today, I started my Contemporary Compositional Practice seminar for new composition graduate students. It’s a course that in a mere 15 weeks reviews and studies the varying aesthetics and techniques used by composers in music from about 1950 to the present day. We move fast, and there’s never enough time to cover everything.

So this year, I decided to start with an ear-cleaning of some of my favorite contemporary works which when taken as a whole give a nice overview of the recent compositional repertoire. I tweeted about preparing the ear-cleaning playlist last night, and had several requests to post the list.

Let me just say, this list is (a) by no means complete, (b) not meant to be complete, (c) not necessarily the best exemplars of styles or techniques, (d) limited to recordings I had on hand, and (e) meant to pique curiosity, not define genres.  With all of those qualifications, here is my Fall 2011 Ear Cleaning playlist. Enjoy.

  1. New York Counterpoint: mvt 3, by Steve Reich
  2. Speech Songs: The Days Are Ahead, by Charles Dodge
  3. Le désert, from Des Canyons Aux Étoiles, by Olivier Messiaen
  4. Répons: section 1, by Pierre Bouléz
  5. Black Angels: section 2 (Absence), by George Crumb
  6. Short Ride in a Fast Machine, by John Adams
  7. Und So Weiter: part 3, by Luc Ferrari
  8. Jeux Vénitiens: mvt 4, by Witold Lutoslawski
  9. Lix, by James Paul Sain
  10. Fanfare (19-note ET), by Easley Blackwood
  11. Rapid*Fire, by Jennifer Higdon
  12. Kammerkonzert, mvt 4, by György Ligeti

Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on?

This summer, I was reminded by one of my students of the importance of ‘compositional stamina’, a concept I use to convey the difficulty in distinguishing between real time and musical time. Real time, the time we perceive on a clock or stopwatch, simply passes by, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. It’s reliable, it’s consistent, and unless you’re speaking of astrophysical phenomena or relativistic physics, it’s the same for everyone.

Musical time is the malleable and flexible path created during a musical performance. Musical time can speed up or slow down, and rarely does it have any actual bearing on real time.  Composers manipulate our perception of real time through variations of tempo, density, and thematic transformations (repetition, fragmentation, modulation). And more often than not, musical time runs a bit faster than real time. That is, 10 minutes of musical time may feel like it only took 7 or 8 minutes.

Young composers often ignore the realities of musical time, resulting in pieces that sound like they are not long enough, or that the musical ideas have not been fully fleshed out. And when you ask them “how long is the piece?” their own perceptions of length are way off. Here is where “compositional stamina” comes in.

When a student comes in with a piece where the musical ideas just don’t seem like they’ve been fully explored, I ask them to think about the stamina of their idea. Could the passage go a bit longer? Can you sustain this idea just a bit more? Push the idea forward with more transformations. When you think you’ve done enough, do some more. And some more. And then, just a bit more.

Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on? [reference 1] [reference 2]

It’s always easier to edit a piece down, and we should spend a lot of time making sure that our work’s musical time matches the real-time perceptions of our audiences. After all, it’s this manipulation of musical versus real time that is ultimately at the heart of the musical experience.

C. P. Snow is wrong! (or was he?)

When I took my doctoral exams, back in the day, one of my exams was on musical aesthetics. I had studied up on all the latest writings by MeyerCage, Copland, Stravinsky, and was totally taken aback when I sat down to start the exam.  One question. One question only. And this was it:

“In his essay, The Two Cultures, C. P. Snow argues that there are two academic cultures, Science and the Arts, that do not, will not, and cannot communicate or coexist with one another.  How do you respond to this thesis as someone in the field of computer music?”

Charles Percy Snow (from Wikipedia)

What??? I had never heard of C. P. Snow, never heard of his essay, nor its central and influential premise. How the heck do I answer this? On the other hand, I had certainly experienced the point-of-view Snow (I thought) was expressing, mostly in the form of puzzled looks, contorted faces and extreme grimaces when people learned of my field of study (this was 1985, before the Mac Plus).

My retort? “C. P. Snow was wrong!” Without hesitation, I argued that Snow’s fundamental premise was wrong and without merit. That, in fact, at their very highest levels, the arts & sciences actually mimic each other in terms of process and inspiration.  For example, the arts are perceived by the uninitiated to be purely driven by divine inspiration.  A painter, a photographer, a composer sits down and waits for a muse to direct their every movement, decision and action. At the same time, the sciences are perceived by the uninitiated as completely logical, built upon prior work and devoid of any kind of inspiration (divine or otherwise).

But in truth, these stereotypes are wrong. When understanding the great works of art or music, we always find deep connections to prior work. Often, masterpieces are based on prior work, incorporate prior work, or give an oppositional approach to contrast prior work. In Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring, he transforms Russian folk music in ways that shattered cultural limitations of 19th century rhythm, meter and harmony. In Pulcinella, he “stole” music of (or attributed to) Pergolesi and rewrote it in a modernist language that was simultaneously old and new.

Albert Einstein, by F. Schmutzer

At the same time, Einstein was redefining our understanding of the physical world; not only with logical derivations of earlier math/physics, but by asking questions no one thought to ask, by posing “mind experiments” involving objects travelling at or near the speed of light. While the solutions to these problems may have been thoroughly logical and mathematically inevitable, it took a spark of pure inspiration to ask the questions that lead to the development of Relativity.

It turns out that the C. P. Snow question, out of the blue as it was, has been a part of my career since I began to consider its implications 26 years ago. Not long after I wrote that C. P. Snow was wrong, I discovered that Snow was actually commenting on the state of academia, being quite critical of its “two cultures” approach. It was the two cultures that were wrong, not C. P. Snow.

And now, there is a concerted effort to bring the arts into science and technology education.  StemToSteam.org is the home page of an effort to insert A for the arts in to the broader effort by the NSF and others to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education at the K-12 level (and beyond). This is a critical effort for education as a whole, one in which we have been engaged for sometime now with our AVATAR Initiative in Digital Media at LSU.

It’s good to know that finally there is a national movement to refute the “two cultures” mentality in academia and research. It’s about time.

Composing Unpopular Music

Cover of Luigi Russolo's "L'arte dei rumo...

Image via Wikipedia

Welcome to my new blog, The Art of Sounds. The title is a play on The Art of Noises, Luigi Russolo‘s futurist manifesto for music. While the politics of futurism had terrible consequences, the underlying spirit of revolution in how we think about music remains an important influence to anyone involved with music experimentalism, electronic/ electroacoustic/ computer music, and music technology in general.

I was once asked about how I would categorize my music. In my typically flippant response, I said something to the effect of “well, it’s not popular music, so it must be unpopular.” And based on the amount of money I earn from ASCAP royalties, my music is definitely more unpopular than popular.  In truth, I’m really less concerned about the popularity of my music as I am about making sure listeners engage the sonic worlds in which I immerse myself.  But I’ll write more about that later.

This blog will explore ideas about music, technology, the intersections of science and art, and experimentalism in the arts. I hope to keep it free of jargon (mostly) and serious in approach, while maintaining a sense of humor about it all. I have no doubt my readers (if any) will keep on track.