Saturday, October 31, 2009

University of Illinois Experimental Music Studios

The University of Illinois Experimental Music Studios were founded in 1958 by Lejaren Hiller and were the among the first of their kind in the western hemisphere. Faculty members and students working in these studios have been responsible for many of the developments in electroacoustic music over the years including the first developments in computer sound synthesis by Lejaren Hiller, the Harmonic Tone Generator by James Beauchamp, expanded gestural computer synthesis by Herbert Brün creation of the Sal-Mar Construction by Salvatore Martirano, and acousmatique sound diffusion/multi-channel sound immersive techniques researched and applied by Scott Wyatt in electroacoustic music and performance. Today the facility continues as an active and productive center for electroacoustic and computer music composition, education and research.

EMS - Experimental Music Studios | 50th Anniversary CD Set
Carla Scaletti: excerpt from Cyclonic (binaural mix of a multichannel version, 2008) [.mp3 - 8:22]

Taking its name from the rotational motion associated with powerful meteorological events, Cyclonic was inspired by the awesome power of the weather in east central Illinois and plays at the edges between events as recorded, events as experienced, events as remembered, and events as imagined.
Pitches were derived from the frequencies in the National Weather Service alert signal, and the concept of a Cycle is abstracted in various ways ranging from an endlessly accelerating pan to endless (cyclic) increases in the pitches of synthetically generated sirens and filterbanks processing synthetic wind.
Apart from rain, thunder, and wind sounds recorded in downtown Champaign, the entire piece was synthesized in Kyma.


Memories about the Experimental Music Studios by alumna Carla Scaletti, president of Symbolic Sound Corporation and designer of the Kyma language:

I came to Illinois because of a book I found in the Texas Tech University library: Music By Computers, edited by Heinz Von Foerster and James Beauchamp. I had known for several years that I wanted to make music with computers, so when I found this book and noticed that most of the authors were at the University of Illinois; I immediately applied and was accepted into the doctoral program. I arrived a week before classes to take the entrance exams and asked Scott Wyatt if I could help him get the studios ready for the fall semester and was delighted when he put me to work soldering patch cords.

Illinois was an environment where virtually everyone--whether faculty, student, or staff--was actively experimenting and creating software, hardware, and music. Faculty members did not act as mentors but as colleagues who, by actively engaging in their own creative work, served as examples of artists questioning the status quo and postulating alternative solutions. Sal Martirano was just learning to program in C in preparation for his YahaSalMaMac and would hold after-hours seminars on combinatorial pitch theory in his home studio where we read articles by Donald Martino over glasses of wine and freshly sliced watermelon seated right next to the SalMar Construction: one of the earliest examples of a complex system for music composition and digital sound synthesis. Herbert Brün written the beautifully algebraic SAWDUST language and was using it to compose I toLD YOU so. Jim Beauchamp had just finished the PLACOMP hybrid synthesizer, was doing research in time-varying spectral analysis of music tones, (and, contemporaneously with Robert Moog, had built one of the first voltage-controlled analog synthesizers: the Harmonic Tone Generator). Sever Tipei was writing his own stochastic composition software, and John Melby was using FORTRAN to manipulate/generate scores for Music 360 (the predecessor to C Sound). And in an abandoned World-War II radar research loft perched atop the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (home of PLATO), Lippold Haken and Kurt Hebel were designing their own digital synthesizer (the IMS) that eventually evolved into a microcodable DSP (prior to the advent of the first Motorola 56000 DSP chip). The CERL Sound Group's LIME software was among the first music notation/printing programs; I saw it demonstrated at the annual Engineering Open House and asked if I could use it to print the score for my dissertation piece Lysogeny.

I practically begged Scott Wyatt to let me work as his graduate assistant in the Experimental Music Studios and, thanks to Scott, Nelson Mandrell and I had an opportunity to help build a studio: Studio D (at that time, the Synclavier Studio, now the studio where Kyma is installed), as well as experience the Buchla voltage controlled synthesizer and the joy of cutting & splicing tape. All of these experiences plus my explorations of Music 360, PLACOMP, and the CERL Sound Group's IMS and Platypus microcode, fed into the creation of Kyma. When my adviser John Melby won a Guggenheim award and took a year's leave of absence, I had the opportunity, as a visiting assistant professor, to teach his computer music course and to establish a Friday seminar series on computer music research.

Because the School of Music is part of a world-class university, Illinois afforded me opportunities for study and research that I would not have found elsewhere. It meant that I could play harp in the pit orchestra for an Opera Theatre production of Madame Butterfly and, the next day, run an experiment in Tino Trahiotis' psychoacoustics lab course in my minor, Speech and Hearing Science. It meant that I could go on tour with the New Music Ensemble led by Paul Zonn or David Liptak, that I could study mathematics, that I could do spectral analyses of the harp, that I could also get a degree in computer science and learn Smalltalk from Ralph Johnson after finishing my doctorate in music, and it meant that I could do some of the early work in data sonification with Alan Craig at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. These experiences, along with the computer science courses in abstract data structures, computer languages, automata, and discrete mathematics, also fed into Kyma.

For me, Illinois was the perfect environment for exploration, and my work with Kyma is a direct outgrowth of those experiences as well as a continuation of several threads of interest that can be traced back to my graduate work at the University of Illinois.

While I was a graduate assistant, my office mates were Chuck Mason and Paul Koonce; the day that Chuck defended his dissertation and accepted a position in Birmingham, he taped a piece of notebook paper to the wall of our office with the heading "Famous Inhabitants of this Office" followed by all three of our names. I remember this act of optimism with great fondness, and I've heard that the list is still in the office (and that it has grown a lot longer by now).

Carla Scaletti, DMA in composition, University of Illinios
President, Symbolic Sound Corporation

Related Post: Herbert Brün

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