Sunday, June 03, 2007

Electronic Folk Music

Gordon Mumma (in his segment of Robert Ashley's video "Music with Roots in the Aether") spoke provocatively of electronic music as a folk music. Provocatively and presciently: taking a informal survey of electronic music activity today reveals not only a continued but dulled presence of electronic music in institutional contexts conducting work within the frame work of large research projects, but also a ferment of activity among composers working independently and in informal networks -- whether using off the shelf or custom-built hard- or software, and often using their wares as much despite as according to the manuals and design specs.

This page, about composer Lejaren Hiller, is a welcome introduction to a pioneer in algorithmic and computer music, and an important document of two pieces co-composed by Hiller, the Illiac Suite (1956-57, with Leonard Issacson), and HPSCHD (1967-69, with John Cage). Both of these pieces involved "borrowing" mainframe computing time for purposes far from those foreseen by University administrators I don't know much of Hiller's music, but I have the impression that he was someone, perhaps a bit like Henry Cowell, who was willing to try anything with very little in the way of preconceptions about what music was supposed to be.

This page documents laptop music, with a healthy consideration of the question of whether the use of a laptop, or even laptops using a similar software package, is suffient to identfy a musical genre. I would add to this history a piece by Mumma, Than Particle (1985), for an early laptop computer and live percussion, and also John Bischoff and Chris Brown's history of networked music making in the SF Bay area. In retrospect, identifying the tradition with the particular class of hardware we now know as lap tops is tempting, but it's important to remember that they are simply the latest examples in a long line of smaller computers, and that the early heroes, working with their Kims, Apple II's, Ataris and Commodores were working in an atmosphere of strong resistance from the main-frame cultures in large institutional settings (as late as 1992, people from IRCAM were insisting that no significant music could be made on portable computers; unfortunately for the pundits at IRCAM, the people with PCs were actually making pieces while the mainframers were struggling to finish anything, and with the implementation of CSOUND and MAX and all the like on computers affordable by private persons, this debate was settled decisively).

Getting an overview of the activity in the live electronic music scene involving circuit bending and hardware hacking is all but impossible, but there are two invaluable guidebooks to the techniques involved: Nicolas Collins' Handmade Electronic Music is an all-purpose introduction and Reed Ghazala's Circuit-Bending is a through document of a single artist's instrumental designs. There are too many websites to review available via a search for either "circuit-bending" or "hardware hacking", including several commercial sites (it's become a cottage industry). For example, Peter Blasser has several hacked instruments available for sale, as well as some paper circuit board you can print out and hook up for yourself; SubtleNoiseMaker is a blog about all this.

Electronic music has both a short- and a long-term memory, and for many "electronic music" is the relatively recent genre of dance music, about which I know very little, but many of its practitioners take a remarkably long view of both musical and technological history. When I was in school, the writing on the wall was that analog technology was out; well, the wall was wrong and the new landscape for electronics is inclusive and cheerfully revisionist. Old technologies -- whether on original instruments, copies of originals, or hard- or software emulators of the originals -- are a real presence, and its not uncommon for the neo-electronic musicians to shop talk about Gesang der Junglinge or Symphonie pour un homme seul in sentences which also mention Barry Gordy or Can. Indeed the all-encompassing environment and long duration of some dance genres suggest non-trivial connections to La Monte Young and Marion Zazeela's Dream Houses, the Warhol/Morrissey Dom or Morton Subotnick's work for The Electric Circus. But the present activity is widespread on a scale unimaginable a generation ago, and, although there are stars in the genre, the possibility of entry-level work, basis, or even folk performance, is unprecedented.

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