It's not real, so we can do what we want

Brad Garton
Music Department
Columbia University
New York, NY  10027

When someone asks me: "what do you do?", I'm tempted these days to answer:
"I am a simulator".  Somehow I feel like my musical work is just a
simulation of the Real Thing -- creating virtual performers playing
artificial instruments seems a bit unreal.  I guess my acute feeling of
surrealism stems from the fact that I have consciously tried to simulate
music from certain folk traditions in several recent pieces.

I think I do this because I really like folk music.  When I select something
for my own listening enjoyment, chances are that it will be some sort of
folk music.  What is it about folk music that I find so attractive?  Where
is the source of its emotional power?  Why do I like it so much?  It
certainly isn't the intellectual appeal of harmonic complexity; most of the
folk music I listen to is built upon simple harmonic schemes.  I doubt that
I am focusing on the technical proficiency demanded of the performers, like
the way I appreciate the athleticism required by difficult Western Art
music.  In fact, the notion of admiring the "composition" itself, the
texture, the form, the skillful employment of sonic resources, is somewhat
foreign to my essential experience of folk music.

What folk music does give me is a sense of "belonging", a feeling of
membership in a human endeavor.  In an increasingly fragmented and
disconnected world where the threads of tradition and the standard pathways
of continuity are being fundamentally eroded, this ability of music to
satisfy a nostalgic desire for community is becoming vital to our societal
health.  When we actively listen to music, we are vicariously participating
in the community defined through that music.2

I would argue that this communal aspect of music is one of its strongest
characteristics.  It is through the social identification created by music
that music gains most of its emotional power and force.  The culture
represented to us through a piece of music creates a context within which we
can experience different ways of being human.

2 This is true of any music.  A given patterning of sound generates a
perception of a particular social context.  All music is a sort of "folk"
music, with the "folk" being the group of people associated with this
perceived context.  Advertising agencies have been using this fact for

What does this have to do with computer music?  The creation of music by
computer is a very recent development.  There are certain aspects of "doing"
computer music which make it distinctly different from other music-making in
the world.  By our actions, and by the way we create our computer music
world, we are defining some of the premises upon which "computer music
culture" will be built.  If our music is to be heard through the filter of
the culture it represents, than it behooves us to be actively aware of the
character of our emerging culture.

One of the differentiating features of computer music from other musical
cultures is the new working methodologies we are adopting in the creation of
our art.  Paul Lansky recognized this in his keynote address to the 1989
International Computer Music Conference.  His feeling was that the
traditional Western model of musical culture, composer->performer->listener,
needed to be commuted into a network with several additional new nodes in
order to represent contemporary computer music practice.  One major new node
Paul suggested was that of "instrument builder".  For many of us, the design
and implementation of new signal processing and sound synthesis algorithms
is an integral part of our compositional process.  I also take the idea of
"instrument builder" to include the creation of new musical interfaces for
composition or performance.  A piece of computer music is often inextricably
tangled in the exploration of a new way of producing music.  To hear the
music is to aurally participate in this process.

This idea became starkly apparent to me during a recent performance of the
David Jaffe and Andrew Schloss piece Wildlife.  David Jaffe played the Zeta
violin, and Andrew Schloss performed using the Max Matthews radio drum.
Both instruments controlled the actions of various computers, and each
performer could trigger complex musical processes (including the
modification of the other player's processes).  I very much enjoyed the
piece, not so much because of the "music" (music here in the
Western/"Academic" sense: the harmonic rhythm, the timbral combinations, the
formal construction, etc.), but more because of the relationships David and
Andrew had to their activity.  Watching them perform, I was able to get a
sense of the enjoyment they both obviously felt from working with the
machinery.  I became a virtual participant in the fun-with-toys world they
created, and this participation defined the character of the music for me.

Several other pieces on that same concert reinforced this idea of music as
fun-with-toys participation, and when I think about what I hear and enjoy in
a lot of computer music, it is indeed this feeling of being part of an
active process of exploration and invention.  As a composer within this
culture, I have also noticed the profound effect that this aesthetic has had
on my own music.  Probably the most dramatic personal example is my piece
There's No Place Like Home.  The piece was created using a program I called
Elthar, a natural-language interpreter acting as an interface to various
signal processing algorithms.  Elthar was intended to model the interaction
between people working in a recording studio.  The program could learn
dynamically how to do certain operations (i.e. Elthar could learn what was
meant by expressions such as "Add some bite to the rhythm guitar").

As I worked with Elthar, certain features of the interface design
dramatically changed my conception of the piece I was creating.  In response
to these changes, I modified parts of the Elthar program, which then caused
other alterations in my compositional approach, leading to more Elthar
modifications, etc.  A feedback interaction happened between myself, Elthar,
and the music being produced which I imagine was similar in some significant
respects to the interaction in the Wildlife performance.  In both Wildlife
and There's No Place Like Home, the music was fundamentally shaped by the
characteristics of an interaction.  The sonic results contained the
processes of the interaction -- I think that this is a large part of what
people hear in the music.

This is not to deny the interactions involved in the composition of other
musics.  Jazz is a music predicated upon a human-to-human interplay
improvised during the creative process.  Strict serialists have described a
type of interaction between themselves and the materials they have chosen
for composing.  Beethoven was probably "interacting" with the frenzied
scribblings in his notebooks as he shaped his melodic ideas.  But the
computer is different because it can be configured to act as an agent in a
variety of ways.  More importantly, the type of agent the computer becomes
can be changed depending upon how the composer wishes to work.

This is one of the prime differences between computer music culture and
other musical traditions.  Never before have musicians been able to design
their tools - and the ways to use those tools - with the ease afforded by
computing technology.  This has led to a do-it-yourself approach to
composition among many computer musicians in which it is almost expected
that the world (or at least the composer's creative world) be built from
scratch for each new piece.  The final acoustic product ceases to be the
ultimate goal within this paradigm.  The music produced is more the result
of the do-it-yourself activity.  Engagement with the process is the primary

Many bemoan the lack of a common musical aesthetic in the computer music
community, and much diverse computer music is criticised for not measuring
up to one set of "objective" musical standards or another.  My feeling is
that the broad range of music falling under the computer music rubric is a
natural result of the do-it-yourself approach to composition.  When one of
the main points of an activity is to reconceptualize and redesign a working
methodology, then the results of that activity will most likely be quite
varied.  If there is a common aesthetic in a lot of computer music, it is
this intense focus upon how the music gets made.

It is odd that there has not been a similar large-scale application of this
do-it-yourself idea to the presentation of computer music.  Perhaps it is a
by-product of the focus upon the processes of creation rather than
presentation, or perhaps the established musical norms for music performance
are so ingrained in us that we don't easily consider presentation
alternatives.  Often our music, after radically new ways of conceiving it,
is boxed into traditional and accepted musical contexts for presentation.

However, simply pasting our work onto some established musical traditions
won't work, and I feel it does a disservice to much of our music.  Anyone
who has attended a concert with purely tape-playback music intermingled with
"regular" performed music has probably experienced the feeling that the
tape-only music seemed somewhat out-of-place.  I don't think that a lot of
computer music was truly intended for a traditional concert setting.  The
extant Western Art tradition implies certain relationships between the
composer and the audience, and between the audience and the music.  These
relationships are being eroded and redefined by the capabilities given to
composers by new technology.  Why must we continue to pretend that our music
must be presented through traditional forms for any musical communication to
take place?  Music presented outside our established cultural performance
norms is often not even heard as "music", period.

Consider as an example the tape-music with live-music scenario.  One aspect
of the "something missing" in the tape-only music is probably the obvious
lack of a performer.  It is possible to keep intact the traditional Western
relationships by imagining an implied performer in the tape-only music.
However, to hear a piece such as my Home Guitars or Mara Helmuth's Dragon of
the Nebula in this "standard" fashion is to miss and even negate major
aspects of the music.  When we adopt traditional methods for playing our
music, we are sending a message to the audience that our music should be
heard with a particular set of traditional assumptions (such as the
"implied" performer).  These contextual assumptions can often be at odds
with the musical message, especially when a large part of that message has
been determined by something like the do-it-yourself approach to creating
music.  A computer music composer conceives of a completely new way of
building sound, and creates a new type of music through some exploratory
interaction.  It does not seem to follow logically that the final musical
result should be folded into a tired old concert ritual as the performance
venue of choice.

The working methodology I evolved during my use of Elthar produced a large
set of sound fragments, each representing a particular stage of my
interaction with the Elthar program.  I assembled these fragments
sequentially to produce There's No Place Like Home, but I wasn't really
satisfied that this piece captured the spirit of the music I created.  I
then "composed" two other performance contexts for the Elthar music.  Each
was designed to present the music in a manner more in tune with its origins.
The other presentations were much more diffuse, non-linear, and in a way
more non-hierarchical than the concentrated form of There's No Place Like
Home.  I personally enjoyed the other presentations more than the concert
version of the Elthar sounds, and I believe that they were much more
effective at conveying the deep sense of the music.

It is this creative approach to the presentation of music which I hope will
become another feature of our computer music community.  If the
do-it-yourself ethos begins to spill over from the input interface to the
output interface, then I feel that our cultural experience will certainly be
broadened.  We are currently facing an explosion of possibilities for
reaching people with our music.  The ever-increasing bandwidth of the
Internet and emerging communications protocols such as ISDN hold enormous
potential for the construction of new modes of distribution of our music.
We in the computer music community are in a unique position to take full
advantage of this potential.  By inventing now new paradigms for musical
communication, we can work to push the limits of these possibilities.  We
certainly shouldn't allow ourselves to be hampered by outdated ideas of
where and how music should take place.

These notions about the output interface are also rooted in political and
social concerns.  Our musical activities imply some sort of society or
culture.  When we create a new situation for music to happen within
(composing, performing, listening, whatever), we are experimenting with new
ways of structuring our human world.  Our music can stand as a token of
alternative ways of building a community, and the power of our music to
represent these alternatives can work as an active force in shaping culture.
Acknowledged or ignored, I believe that these political aspects are
inherently part of our art.

As the computer music community develops, I think that we should work to
emphasize some of these political aspects.  The do-it-yourself approach to
building music not only leads to a marvelous diversity of sound, it also
promotes an ideal of individual empowerment -- you can shape your world.
Along with this do-it-yourself ethic comes a willingness to help by sharing
work and information.  This unselfish exchange is facilitated by the
technology we use; most of the software I need to build new musical
applications is only a short "ftp" command away.  I also appreciate the
feeling of shared enterprise that infuses our community, coexisting with the
prevailing libertarian approach to creating music.  Of course all of these
attributes exist in other communities and cultures, but it is the
intersection of a society with these values as major aspects with an
evolving musical culture which gives our computer music community a special
resonance.  As I noted earlier, inventing culture (or society) is what
composers do.

I said at the beginning of this paper that I feel a sense of unreality about
computer music.  We really are making it up as we go along -- "it" being a
whole lot more than the sound waves conventionally labelled as music.  Our
music is a symbol and defining focus of our culture.  When people hear the
music, they are hearing the qualities of the society which produced it.  If
we are concerned about our music, we need to be acutely aware of the type of
"folk" we are becoming.  Computer music is rapidly becoming real.