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Composing With Shifting Sand - A Conversation Between Ron Kuivila and David Behrman on Electronic Music and the Ephemerality of Technology

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Composing with Shifting Sand: A Conversation between Ron Kuivila and David Behrman on Electronic Music and the Ephemerality of Technology Author(s): Ron Kuivila and David Behrman Source: Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 8, Ghosts and Monsters: Technology and Personality in Contemporary Music (1998), pp. 13-16 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1513392 . Accessed: 11/07/2011 14:34 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions
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  Composing with Shifting Sand: A Conversation between Ron Kuivila and David Behrman onElectronic Music and the Ephemerality of TechnologyAuthor(s): Ron Kuivila and David BehrmanSource: Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 8, Ghosts and Monsters: Technology and Personality inContemporary Music (1998), pp. 13-16Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1513392. Accessed: 11/07/2011 14:34 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. 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The MIT Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to  Leonardo Music Journal. http://www.jstor.org  INTERVIEW Composing with Shifting Sand: A Conversation between Ron Kuivila and David Behrman on Electronic Music and the Ephemerality f Technology Ron Kuivilaand DavidBehrman A newgenerationofartistswhose workshared thesamesensibility,butusingverydifferentkinds oftechnology,begantoemergein themid- and late1970s,when aloose-knit collectiveofcomposersand studentsasso-ciatedwith the Center forContemporaryMusicat Mills Col-lege(Oakland,California)begantousemicrocomputersinlive electronicmusic. With the introductionofMIDIcontrolintheearly1980s,manyof thepeopleinvolvedinthis workbegantocreate shareware softwareprojects,such asFormula,HMSL,andMOXIE,thatsoughttoprovidea morestable ba-sisfor liveelectronic music withcomputers.Sincethen,thearborescenceofactivityhas madeitimpossibleto establishanyclearlineage. THE AUTHORS DavidBehrman hasbeen active asacomposerand elec-tronicartist sincethe 1960s andhascreatedmanyworksforperformanceas well as soundinstallations. Most ofhisworksince the late1970s hasinvolvedcomputer-controlledmusicsystems operatinginteractivelywithpeoplewhomayormaynot bemusically expert.Hedesignsandwritesmuch of thesoftwarefor thesesystems. UnforeseenEvents,MyDear Siegfried,. ..,QSRL,LeapdayNight, InterspeciesSmalltalk,A Traveller'sreamJournal,Figuren aClearingand On the OtherOceanareamongBehrman's software-basedworks for solo-ists and smallensemblesthat have beenperformedbyanumberof musicianssince the mid-1970s.Ron Kuivilabecameactive as acomposer usinghomemadeand home-modifiedelectronicinstrumentsinthe1970s.Inhisearlywork,hepioneeredthe use of ultrasound(InAppre-ciation)andsoundsampling (Alphabet)n liveperformance.Otherpieceshaveexploredcompositional algorithms(LooseCanons),speechsynthesis(TheLinearPredictiveZoo)andhigh-voltagephenomena(PythagoreanPuppetTheatre).Most re-cently,hispieceshave recalledthe sound world of live elec-tronics whileexploitingthecompositional possibilitiesofdigital signalprocessinginfuguestates. ABSTRACT This ialogueetweenom-posersDavidehrmanndRonKuivilaenters nheephemeralityoftechnologyndechnologicaln-novationnmusicalracticeverthe ast40years.The onversa-tion ocusesna musicalineagethatbeginswithheearly,ive lec-tronicmusicfJohnCagendD.B.Tudor,heprojectsfExperi- mnin4-inArt nnrlairrhnnr\lr\iaIAT)A CONVERSATION ..._._III111IU IMCIIIMUgyr\i-iilf, A CONVERSATION thework f theSonicArtsUnionDavid Behrman:Those of usand heSanFranciscoape Musicworkingwithtechnologyare of-Center. ten fascinatedbydevicesor tech- niquesthat are(a)new and(b)inexpensive,and a resultof this is that works tendto beveryinvolved withthingsthatmay appearinthemarketplaceonedecadeand begonethe next.Ron Kuivila: Theephemeralityoftechnologyis two-fold-atechnologycan becomeunavailableorjusthorriblybanal.Itseems to me that thereare threeways peopleavoidthis:bygetting under technology,byworkingdirectlywithphysi-calprinciples;by staying over technology,by workingwithabstractprinciples;orby diving into obsoleteor banaltechnologies.D.B.:Your installation ParallelLinesdependsfor its realizationonparallelwiresandarcing sparkstraveling alongthem.Iimaginethispiecewould havefascinatedpeople livingin theeraof Tesla andmighthave been createdbyan artisthavingonlyTesla'stechnologytorelyon-atleastitcomesacrossthatway!Thepieceseems tome soviscerallyanduniversally electric hat it is immunetotechnologicalobsolescenceandwillprobablycontinue toappealtopeoplefor alongtimeintothe future.R.K.:Physicalprinciplesdonotchange,sopiecesbased onnaturalphenomenanevergoout of date(eveniftheymaygoout offashion).BenFranklinorganizedatour for two Italian electricians whogavetheatrical demonstrationsof the won-ders ofelectricity.Two hundredyearslater,inItaly,Imadepiecesworkingwiththesamephenomena.This is whatImeanby working under technology. Ron Kuivila(composer,teacher),MusicDepartment,Wesleyan University,Middletown,CT06459,U.SA.E-mail:<rkuivila@wesleyan.edu>.David Behrman(composer),10 BeachStreet,NewYork,NY10013,U.S.A. E-mail:<behrbase@compuserve.com>. LEONARDOMUSICJOURNAL,Vol.8,pp.13-16,1998 13 1999 ISAST  D.B.: Ata fewmoments over the last40years,I've had thefeelingthat agreatdoorhadjustswungopen,invitingartistsinto newwaysofexploringmusicpossi-bilities.The first timewasintheearly1960s,atthemomentwhen transistorsfirstbecame available. Onedayitbe-camepossiblefor the first time tousesmall,lightweight,inexpensivedevicestoradicallyalterorhugely amplifyacousticsounds.JohnCage,D.B. Tudorand,abitlater,Gordon Mummawere,forme,themastersfromwhomIcould learn towork with thesenewpossibilities.R.K.: I think theidea thatanelectronicconfigurationcancreatean identifiablecompositionwhilebeing entirelyopento theperformer'sownchoiceswasveryimportant.Inmusic,abstractionthroughnotation has been thepreferredapproachsince the timeofGuidod'Arezzo,theninth-centurymonkwhodevised aprecise pitchnotation that en-abledsightsingingofmelodies. ForGuido,the introductionof notation al-lowedmelodiestobe resurrected fromthepagerather thanpassedon likefire.Acceptingandevenchampioningan un-stablerelationshipbetweenanotationand itsresultingsound seems tobe anartifact of theageofrecording.Pieces ofJohnCage'ssuch asCartridgeMusicortheVariations series do notdescribeafixedtemporalarchitecture;rathertheyprovidesome basic toolswithwhichtheperformercreates arealization. Thesepiecesaremorelikerecipebooks for thepracticeof music. In thiscontext,itwasquitenatural tobegintoconsider thetime-basedbehavior ofanelectronicconfigurationas theidentityofamusicalcomposition.Instead of arecipe,theconfigurationpresentsasituationwithinwhich theperformerisfreetoactwith-outmoment-by-momentdirections fromthecomposer.Havingdefinedthesitua-tion,thecomposercanallowtheper-former freereinwithoutworryingtoomuch abouttheidentityofthepiece.This is anexampleofstaying above hetechnology-conceivingof musicas apracticerather than acollection ofsoundobjectsallows onetoadapttonewtechnologicalsituationsand todescribeawork tactically atherthan literally. Youlikened this tosurfing,whereevery-thingdonewith asurfboardinthesurf isapartofsurfing.Ofcourse,notevery-one is anequallyaccomplishedsurfer.Pieces ofthisform createanentirelynewset ofdemands ontheperformer.Theyrequireakind ofvirtuosityofsensibility.Cage'sownwayofdealingwith thesenew demandswas tosaythattheworks ofthis sortthat hecomposedwerereallyconceived forDavid Tudor.CageisquiteclearthatCheapImitation marked theend of thisapproachinhis ownwork.Often,newtechnologiesatfirstap-peartohave some kindofredemptivepotential,onlytogive wayultimatelytothetiringfamiliarityofubiquity.JohnBischoff hasdescribedsoundsproducedbyFMsynthesisas beginningwithsuchpromiseandendingwithdisappoint-ment. Partof thatdisappointmentisacoustic,partof it is social. Thelovelyand remarkable works(suchasJohnChowning'sStria)thatpioneeredtheuse offrequencymodulationasasynthe-sistechnique imparta senseofdiscov-ery.As those auralexperiencesarere-peatedin laterworks,theirfamiliaritybecomesincreasingly tiringand,ulti-mately,banal. TheWeb seemstohavemanagedthis kind oftransitioninfewerthantwoyears.Forme,the liveelectronic music that D.B. TudorandJohnCagepio-neeredinthe 1960sremains too indi-gestibleto becomebanal-thatisthepowerofchance as adisciplinary prin-ciplein musicalpractice.Averydifferent,butequallyeffective,approachis to usetotally digestedtech-nologies,those that areout of date or socommonplaceas to bebanal. The ma-chines arecheaper,moreaccessible,easier tomanipulateand oftencarrymuchgreatersocial resonancethan high-tech equipment.Tim Perkis'suseof amouse asa virtualguitarpickandagesturallyorientedcontrollerisawonder-fulexample. Theatrically,his flamencomousing actsas awonderfulantidote to pointandclick. Hisconstructive misuseofaMicrosoftmousehelpsextractsoundsoutofMIDIsynthesizersthathavenever beenheard,anditonlycosts 40bucks. Itisthis kind ofinventionofquirkytechnologicalalternatives thatIdescribeasworking in hetechnology.Ibelieve it is inthisspiritthat D.B.Tudornamed hisensemble ofassociated com-posers ComposersInsideElectronics. D.B.: There isaparadoxin thelegacyofD.B.Tudor:thewonderfulqualityofhiswork inelectronicmusicwasdueinpartto his useofquirky,homemadecircuitry,theinnerworkingsof which hewasslowtodivulgetohisassistantsand col-leagues.Yetthatquirkiness,whichmadethemusicsogood,alsomadeitevanes-cent. Itcouldonlyexistforafewyearsbeforebeingswept awaybythe torrentoftechnologicalchange.YouandIhavebothexperiencedhowfresh andstrikingthatmusic waswhen itwasnew. Andthen,an instantlater,seemingly-25yearshaving gonebyandTudorhaving passedaway-we'vehadtheheartbreakingexperienceoftryingtounderstand hisno-longer-working,unlabeledcircuitryand ofcomingto therealizationthat there wasnowayto re-vive that music in a literal sense. The in-teresting thingis thatyou,Ron,havefig-uredout adifferentwaytorevive it.What haveyoulearned inthe course offollowingthispath-writingsoftware toemulateTudor'shand-wiredcircuitryandthenpresentingperformanceswithyourstudents andcolleagues?R.K.:I havemadedigitalsimulations ofTudor'sphaseshifters,ringmodulators,filters andenvelopefollowers,bothas apractical stepinreconstructingsome ofhiswork and as anact offriendly heresy(Tudornever likedcomputers).Digitalsimulationsare alsoalgorithmsthat,inprinciple,could be realizedwith whatevercomputingresourcesbecome available.Sotheyare,in somesense, notations. However,inTudor's work(andin liveelectronicsingeneral),theinstabilityoftheelectronics,the absenceofpresets,and theviewpointthatconfigurationde-fines theidentityof thecompositioncombine tomake itverydifficult to dis-tinguishperformancefromcomposi-tion.Tudor'sapproachsystematicallyprevented makinganysuch distinctionoranyotherattemptatrationalization.Whatisimportantand what ishappen-stance? It isimpossibletotell,anditmightchangetomorrow.Myownapproachhastakentwoparal-lelpaths.Onehas beentoactuallyas-semblerealizations ofsome ofTudor'spieces. Mygoalisnot toreconstructthecontinuityof hispieces-thatisinextri-cablyintertwinedwith hisownuniquesensiblity.Instead,it is toreconstructthe moves -theset ofmusicalquestions-that thepiecescreate. Tudor'smusic isto bepracticed,notpreserved.Theotherstreamhas been toapply myunderstandingof thosequestionstotheverydifferentset ofpossibilitiescreatedbydigitalelectronics. Butcomputersex-cel atcreatingmusicalpreserves(presetsandsamples)thatworkperfectlyornotat all.So,partofmy goalhas been tocre-atedigitalsituations thatcan fail musi-callyandgracefully.Inmycompositionfuguestates,hisisdonebycombiningthesoundworld ofliveelectronicswith thedigitalprocessof morphing. fuguestatesexists as aset of32presettuningsofadigitalsimulationofaliveelectronicconfiguration.Theconfigura-tionisderived fromtheprocessorGor- 14Kuivila andBehrman,ComposingwithShiftingSand  donMummadesignedfor EAT's(Ex-perimentsinArt andTechnology)Pavil-ionatExpo1970.(Thisprocessoriscompletelydocumentedinthe Duttonpaperback,Pavilion[1].)Mumma'spro-cessorhasnofewerthan16differentknobsperchannelandeightchannels.Itis notpossiblefor onepersonto turn 64physicalknobs at thesametime,but it istrivialfor acomputertochange64 dif-ferent values moreorless simulta-neously;so the32presettuningsserve as fixed stars. Thecomputercanadjustall64parametersof theconfigurationtoaweighted averageofthese fixed stars.Theperformer performsthepieceby navigating between thesetunings.Thisis doneby settinga startingpoint and a target point andsmoothlyinterpolat-ingbetweenthetuningof the twopoints.Theperformercan select a newtargetand changedirections atanytime.So the32presetsserve as flavors asmuch as destinations. Inprinciple,itispossibletoperformthepieceentirelydifferentlyeach timeitisperformed.Inthisway,itattemptsto recoverboth thesound worldand theirrationalityof liveelectronicsin thedigitaldomain.Iseethisaspracticingtheprinciplesunderly-ingTudor's(andCage's)music.But allofthisisjustoneparticulartrainofthought.Microcomputers srci-nally representedawayoutofthe habitsof liveelectronics rather than awaytorevive them.David,yourownMelodyDriven Electronicsanticipatedthepossi-bilitiesofmicrocomputers.With thehelpofJimHorton,youcreated whatIbelievetohavebeen the firstcomposi-tionthatusedamicrocomputerincon-cert.Thisexperimentationwith micro-computerswas takenoncommunally bycomposersassociated with MillsCollege,inOakland,California,asfaculty,stu-dents orsimplyasusers oftheirpubliclyaccessible studios.Infact,JimHortonwasaphilosophygraduatestudent whowassoinspiredby Cage'swork that helefttheUniversityof Minnesota for MillsCollegein order togainaccess to elec-tronicmusicinstrumentation.D.B.:Yes,the second time thatgreatin-vitingdoor seemed toswingopenwasaround1976-1978,with the adventofinexpensive microcomputers.You andIwerebothinthe San FranciscoBayAreaaround thattime,atMillsCollegeinOakland,and we bothexperiencedthatmomentatfirst hand. ItwasinCalifor-nia where this newtechnologyfirstap-peared,andthe informationabout howto handleitwas all around us.Lookingback onit,thatwas aUtopianmoment:theideathatartistscould use thisthingcalled software wasfresh and astonish-ing,and commercializationwasamil-lionmilesawayfrom ourthoughts.Itwasa moment to dream about newkindsof art.Some of the music made at thattimewasveryspecial.Therewas aBayAreacomposers' groupof thatera,the Com-puterNetworkBand,srcinallyformedby John Bischoff,JimHorton and RichGold,whichliked toperformconcertsinwhichtheparticipantswould wireto-getheragroupofcomputerson atable,turn them allon,andstand back andwatchto seewhatwouldhappen.Ron,yourown contributionto thatmoment was astheco-authorof themu-siclanguagecalledFormula,which hasattracted asmallbutintense circleofenthusiastic users overthepast12years.I amamember of thatcirclemyself;al-mostall ofmyworksince1992iswrittenin Formula. In asense,all of the worksthat variouscomposershave madeusingFormula are collaborationswithyouandD.B. Anderson(Formula'sotherco-au-thor)andalso,onecouldsay,withMitchBradley,whose versionof thegeneral-purposelanguageForth lies beneathyourmusiclanguage.There are somethingsIwantedto askyouabout Formula.Oneis,how doyoufeelabout the collaborationsthat haveresulted fromyour makingalanguagethatartistswanttouse,and doyouthinkofthisas afundamentallynew kind ofcollaboration?Anotheris,how dowedealwiththefact thatcomputerusers,asthoughridingavast wavepoweredbytens ofthousandsof newminds,have left be-hind the68000familyofprocessorsuponwhich thelanguagewasbuilt?MightFormula belost,as were the oldcircuitboardsof D.B. Tudor?R.K.: Ibelieve thatFormulaandthemanyothermusicprogrammingenvi-ronments(MOXIE,moxc, MAX,etc.)arereallya continuationofage-oldcol-laborativeprocessesin music. One dif-ference is that theprogrammingenvi-ronments donot havethesamespecificstylistic implicationsthat other kinds oftechniques(toneclusters,piano prepa-ration,commonpractice harmony)have.Icertainlyexpectthat,whilemanyof the ideasinFormula areandwill befound in other musicprogrammingen-vironments,theprogramitself will even-tuallydisappear.Theproblemisthat there is noguar-antee that asatisfactory replacementwillemergeinatimelymanner. Theprob-lemismuch the same as theprobleminreconstructingTudor's work.Thecul-ture does notalwaysretain the tools es-sential tocarryingon a certain kindofmusic. Forexample,thephonographcartridgesthat workedsowellas contactmicrophoneshavelongsincedisap-pearedfrom the market. Other solutionshaveemerged-forexample,thepiezoceramicdiscs used to createtheelectronicbeepsof microwave ovens andalarm clocks can bereconfiguredto actas contactmicrophones-butthese solu-tionswillprobablyalsodisappearas timepasses.Thereis nosinglesolution tothisquandary.One mustimprovisesolutionsas theproblems appearandtryto iden-tifythe bestunderlyingstrategies.WhileI do not think thatusingFor-mulaimplies creatinginaspecificstyle,there do seemto be familyresem-blances betweenpiecesmadewithpar-ticularapproaches.Forexample, manypiecesofthe liveelectronic era revolvearoundmultiplecopiesofthe samesys-tem,whilepiecesfromthe microcom-puterera involve more differentiatedma-terial androles.TheLeagueof AutomaticMusicComposers,whichevolved out oftheComputerNetworkBandintheearly1980s,makesthe differencequite appar-ent-thenetworkingof thecomputerswasidentical,butthe musicallogicinsideeachsystemwastotallydistinct.D.B.:Inthe live electronicpiecesIcom-posedinthe 1960s andearly1970s(e.g.,RunthroughndSinescreen),t seemed tomake sensetodouble,tripleorqua-drupletheamountofhardwarefor useinperformances.The sound textureswere enriched and severalperformerscouldplaytogether.The scores con-sistedofgeneralinstructions,ratherthan ofspecificcommandsgoverningmoment-to-moment actions.Inevitablyakind ofcounterpointwould result astheperformers pursuedtheir individualpathswhilelisteningto one another.Inmysoftware-basedpiecesofthe 1980sand1990s,roles forperformerscanbechangedfrommomenttomoment;lay-erscanbecreated withthedragof amouse rather thanthroughmonths ofsolderinganddrilling; complexorsimplestructures canbe builtovertime.Some recentpieces,such asUnforeseenEvents,useastructural element thatcouldonlygrowout of the new situationinwhich sensors arecombinedwith in-teractive software: the listening com-puter goestoa monologmode whenthehumanperformersare silent and toa dialogmode when it notices thatsomebodyhas enteredintothe sceneby Kuivila andBehrman,ComposingwithShiftingSand 15
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