Metro October 8-14 1992 coverstory copyright 1596w

A Chorus of Chips The computer takes its place on stage at the International Computer Music Conference

"It's a very good time for e-mail around the world," observes Allen Strange. The renowned composer and director of the Electro-Acoustic Music Program at San Jose State University has the onerous task of chairing -- and thus organizing -- this year's International Computer Music Conference. The job has had him up daily at 5am for the past year.

"It seems people are either just getting up or about to go to bed," says Strange, then adds in an aside, "If I'd have known it would be like this, I'd have kept my mouth shut."

Soon, Strange can take his rest. The many splendid, strange and speedy wonders of music in the digital age will be celebrated from every imaginable angle at the 1992 International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) at Stanford and San Jose State University, Oct. 12-18.

There was a time when the notion of computerized music seemed as far removed from human touch as moon dust. But the gap is closing very quickly. The computer chip has permeated every corner of the music field. Synthesizing wave forms, recording, notation, performance, analysis -- all but the most Luddite of musicians, acoustic artists included, have benefited from the digital revolution.

The conference will offer a multifaceted sampling of the computer's ever-expanding musicality. The event's ten concerts highlight electroacoustic interactions and ethnic diversity, with Turkish folk singing, shakuhachi flute and the Mexican chamula harp complementing a variety of electronic investigations.

On the technical side, leading computer music research and development types will anchor 23 workshop sessions, four of which are studio reports devoted to updates on label activities from around the world. Also featured are four tutorials geared for public consumption, panel discussions and a special demonstration by Apple Computer.

Then there's the guest list, a staggering assembly of innovators from the computer music field. In addition to a keynote speech by pioneer computer scientist/composer Max Matthews, many other seminal figures in computer music -- most notably Don Buchlas and Morton Subotnik -- will be on hand.

Now in its 18th year, the ICMC hosts delegates and guest artists from around the world. "Every top person in the field takes part in the conference," Strange notes. "It's kind of like anybody who is anybody. This year features our first studio reports from China and South Africa. This is the annual gathering of the clan, so to speak."

The first conference in 1974 came about rather accidentally. Composer David Wessel, at the time a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a series of concerts. When some of the artists canceled at the last minute, Wessel asked that the funds be reallocated to a conference on computer music. According to Wessel, "They approved the plan, but there was a little bit of an uproar when they heard there were computers involved."

The ICMC sprang to international prominence at a mercurial rate commensurate to that of the computer industry. Wessel, says Strange, has been a "cornerstone" in the conference's miraculous development. Not only did he start the ball rolling, but ten years later, in 1984, he organized the ICMC in Paris. This year, Wessel partakes in a session on "Synthesis Control" and provides behind-the-scenes technical assistance.

Panels on "The Musical Intrigue of Pole-Zero Pairs" and "Polymorphic Transformations in Kyma" sound daunting to low-intensity dabblers in electronic music, but Strange assures me the ICMC is user-friendly to virtuosi and novices alike.

"We scheduled the tutorials on Monday and Tuesday specifically to bring the public up to speed to what's going on a the conference," Strange says. But staying at speed will prove no small feat, for there are numerous instances when multiple events occur simultaneously in different locations.

To help delegates avoid "conference overload," organizers have set up a sonic retreat in the SJSU's Student Union Listening Room (Daily, 8am-5pm), where delegates can unplug from the rigorously scheduled agenda of events and simply listen to samplings of computer-assisted scores submitted to ICMC from the world over.

All the hardware in the world doesn't matter if it isn't put in the service of good music. Strange describes this year's concerts as having more "aesthetic breadth than at previous conferences. It's not that we're more aesthetically open, it's just that we're finding more countries, more composers and more things that we're able to do."

Not only is one likely to hear strains from every camp of the contemporary music field at this year's concerts, but also a good many territories not before explored. The prevalence of ethnic instruments reflects a significant musical development, Strange says. "There's a lot of involvement in non-Western traditions this year. This cross-ethnicity is leading to a new idea of what 'common practice' is; the term is taking on a new meaning that encompasses more than just Western classical ideals."

Kazurki Kuriyama's Hachiku for shakuhachi and the IRCAM Workstation and Nicolay Appollyon's Honkyoku for shakuhachi and tape (concerts II and VIII) both draw from this ancient instrument's acoustic palette in wholly different manners and yet both honor its indigenous nature. Strange describes Roberto Morales' Nahual II for chamula harp and live electronics (concert VII) as "very primitive, with South American musical gestures embedded in a whole new sonic surrounding."

Richard Povall's reworking and warping of turn-of-the century rags in Impossible Rags for piano and disklavier (concert II) is a sure ear tickler. Strange likens it to "looking in a fun-house mirror and seeing distorted images of the familiar."

As the geographic territory expands, it is not surprising that the rate of development in computer music has sped up exponentially. Even in the commercial field, product after product is bypassed by system upgrades and whole new design lines.

"We're at a point now where we're waiting for music to catch up with technology. We're just cracking the tip of the iceberg," Strange says. "We have two workshops on cognitive approaches wherein we ask, 'Can we encode intuition into a computer?' There are presentations in what is called neural networking, which uses a math model of the brain and tries to replicate it in music systems."

MIDI-minded musicians will find sessions on real-time software and controllers of particular interest. The concept of controllers -- sending commands to an instrument via buttons, keys or pedals of a separate, MIDI-linked device -- has enabled performers to run multiple musical operations concurrently. There will be demonstrations of new controllers such as Graziano Bertini and Paolo Carosi's "light baton" (which triggers actions with a video scanner), and some of Buchla's highly sensitive controller designs, one of which takes its cues from a trio of jugglers.

"The whole controller question is still in its infancy," Strange contends. "There's a whole range of subconscious control gestures that traditional musicians use, extremely subtle movements. A scientist comes along and only copies the gross physical gestures."

Even the most conventional of composers will be heartened to hear of the remarkable progress in notational programs. Computer copied musical scores into digital form, which can then be edited and printed out like other computer documents.

Not since the late 18th century, when instrument-building leaped forward as a result of acoustic research (led by Theobald Boehm), has science played so seminal a role in the evolution of Western musical language. Computers are affecting every aspect of music-making, but Strange emphasizes that the human ingredient is no nearer to obsolescence that when music boxes first appeared.

"These are intelligent instruments that can learn from how they're used. But the computer is a tool for the composer, something that helps him get the job done." Strange comments. His own use of the computer is a case in point. He usually has most of a piece worked out before going to the computer. "I'm a traditionally trained composer; I come from the five-lined [music] staff. The computer's my slave. When I go into the studio I like to think it's 95 percent composed. I don't like to stare at a screen; I prefer to compose on the couch with a glass of wine, or on a walk."

Such is not necessarily the case for the new brigade, though. For those brought up on Nintendos, PCs and Macs, the digital medium is second nature. Notes Strange, "New students have rediscovered musique concrete [the earliest stage of electronic music, involving manipulations of on-site recordings]. The [musical] staff has no meaning to them; they're dealing with birds and farts."

So much for do-re-mi. Despite the abundance of traditional acoustic instruments featured at this year's ICMC, it is apparent that the tools are changing, and the music as well. The computer has opened up myriad vistas for composers, opportunities to trailblaze heretofore unavailable sonic areas and methodologies.

Gordon Mumma, pioneering composer in electroacoustic music and a professor at UC- Santa Cruz, prophesied in 1984 (in an interview with this writer), "Computers are becoming more affordable all the time, and as soon as access to the materials of an art become available to anybody, that's when the art starts to get diverse and interesting."

Such a time has come. Computers are the toys and tools of our time, and this week's concerts highlight digital elan in both capacities. From the quadraphonic swirls at Frost Amphitheater on Monday evening to the quirky, electroacoustic adventures at the Computer Cabaret on Friday night (beer included), this year's offerings affirm the computer's unique virtues as a medium for human expressiveness.

Typed by Cheryl Vega 8-13-95