Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sonic Screens - call for multichannel works

Sonic Screens – environmental music listening sessions

Live mixing and spatialization by U.S.O. Project (Matteo Milani & Federico Placidi)

Call for multichannel works

U.S.O. Project is pleased to invite submissions of fixed media sound works for the second edition of “Sonic Screens”, a journey among different electroacoustic Soundscape compositions.

Sonic Screens is an annual event that will take place during two acousmatic evenings in Milan during Fall 2011.

Sonic Screens aims to render the endless possibilities of life and its surroundings experienceable in our conscious activity, trying to deal with the possible infinites of the listening experience, both in their objective and manufactured dimensions.

“Listening to the environment, contextualizing it objectively and creatively has always been a priority of the work of U.S.O. Project.
Free from any pseudo-environmental or socio-political implication, the continuous work on sampling, processing and transfiguration of found sound and carefully preserved in memory of a digital recorder, has always played a central role in our compositional practices.
U.S.O. defines Soundscape as the expressive and narrative richness that comes from the reciprocal and continuous interaction of multiple sound sources from the real world, and other phenomena which are perceptible and measurable only through proper and adequate transduction (electromagnetic signals, for example).
A Soundscape is also an opportunity for reflection and imagination that has little to share with the real world.
A Soundscape can be a place of the mind, a reminiscence of a future experienced in dreams, lands far away in space and time.” – Matteo Milani & Federico Placidi

Composers and sound artists are invited to submit multichannel works, up to 8 channels. The assignment of channels to speakers must be clearly indicated in the submission. Works of any duration will be considered although pieces of under 16 minutes will be given preference.

The performance will take advantage of Ambisonics sound diffusion practice, creating an immersive and uninterrupted sound flow between different works from selected international artists.

The material will be transcoded in real time to 2nd Order B-Format (via ICST Ambisonics Externals for MaxMSP).

The recordings of the concerts will be available for streaming and released in binaural format for headphone use. The ownership of the tracks remains to the authors.

Submissions need to include:
  • a stereo version of the piece
  • individual mono files for each channel
  • channel configuration
  • sample rate
  • program notes
  • brief biography

While the composers of the selected works are encouraged to attend the event, attendance is not required for a work to be presented.
There is no registration fee.
The deadline for submission of works is October 31st, 2011.

Material Submissions

Please send download links to your work using one of the many file delivery services (yousendit.com, sendspace.com, gigasize.com, wetransfer.com, etc) in .zip or .rar format. Please do not email file attachments.

Electronic submissions should be sent to:

[submissions at synesthesiarecordings dot com]

For more information, email contact:

[info at usoproject dot com]

Terms and Conditions

Each participant may submit up to two works.

[Date and Venue To Be Announced]

“The essential difference between an electroacoustic composition that uses pre-recorded environmental sound as its source material, and a work that can be called a soundscape composition, is that in the former, the sound loses all or most of its environmental context. In fact, even its original identity is frequently lost through the extensive manipulation it has undergone, and the listener may not recognise the source unless so informed by the composer. In the soundscape composition, on the other hand, it is precisely the environmental context that is preserved, enhanced and exploited by the composer.” – Barry Truax

Now online on SoundCloud:

Sonic Screens - pt.1 (binaural) by usoproject

Sonic Screens - pt.2 (binaural) by usoproject

Recorded 29th October, 2010 @ O' - no profit organization, during Live!iXem 2010 - Edition VII
International festival of music, mixed media and experimental electronic art - Milan

Ben Burtt on J.J. Abrams' Super 8!

Ben Burtt's latest film as Sound Designer, "Super 8" - written and directed by J.J. Abrams - opens June 10th.

J.J. Abrams: “Ben Burtt did the sound design, and he brought with him one day a copy of this Super 8 film that he made when he was a teenager, that was about a train wreck, a WW2 film, and it so was much like what happened in this movie, it was uncanny. I was jealous, wishing I had a train wreck to go to when I was a kid.”

[courtesy of Empire]
[expect an update to Burtt's IMDb page soon]
[Ben Burtt Receives Charles S. Swartz Award from JJ Abrams]

Monday, May 30, 2011

Introducing: Observation’s Pod

Observation’s Pod is a new section on Synesthesia Recordings where we post most of our researches’ output to the collective.
This place works as a permanent Laboratory where the product of our creative and experimental activity with sound is freely opened to the public in its raw form.

Matteo Milani, Federico Placidi

#1 Kyma Studies by synesthesiarecs

#2 Three Studies for Analog Synthesizer by synesthesiarecs

These three small works are based on the improvisational exploration of a specific configuration of the modules of Serge Modular synthesizer.
The synthesis model which was implemented is that of the Complex Feedback Frequency Modulation as shown in the artwork image: two oscillators recursively modulating that build a dynamic non-linear system exhibiting a chaotic behaviour.
In order to obtain a high timbral complexity, the waveforms generated by each oscillator are dynamically varied through the use of waveshaping modules.
All the material was created using only the patch described above, without any filter or other editing/mixing procedure.
The three short works are created on order to intuitively explore a dynamic system, while combining its output using an analogy with three well-defined poetic abstractions.

Sound & pictures by Federico Placidi


[Observation’s Pod]

Sound designer Randy Thom talks about 'Apocalypse Now'

[via notam02.no]

Related Posts:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

GRM Tools - pt.1: an interview with Emmanuel Favreau

by Matteo Milani - U.S.O. Project, May 2011 

GRM Tools is the result of more than 50 years of cutting-edge research and experimentation at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales de l'Institut National de l'Audiovisuel in Paris.
These plug-ins were realized by a succession of hardware and software engineers, who formulated the algorithms for the original GRM Tools in the 1990s. Over the years the GRM has focused on developing a range of innovative tools to treat and represent the sound.
The new GRM Tools Evolution is the latest powerful and imaginative  bundle of new algorithms for  sound processing. Three new instruments are available: Evolution, Fusion and Grinder. All works in the  frequency-domain and provide powerful ways to manipulate audio in real time. I had the privilege of interviewing Emmanuel Favreau, software developer at INA - GRM. Here we go!

Matteo Milani: How many people are part of the GRM development team at INA?

Emmanuel Favreau: We are two people, working full-time. Adrien Lefevre handles the Acousmographe. I’m on GRM Tools. We welcome regular students.

MM: Can you tell us a brief history of the GRM Tools from the origin until now?

EF: The first version of the GRM Tools was created by Hugues Vinet, who is now scientific director of IRCAM in Paris. This stand-alone version offered a couple of algorithms, using the Digidesign SoundAccelerator/Audiomedia III card. The user interface was made ​​with HyperCard. When I arrived at the GRM in 1994, we took the decision to convert the processing available in the stand-alone version of GRM Tools plugins to TDM for Digidesign Pro Tools III. Treatments were rearranged, some modified, others abandoned. The original GRM Tools Classic bundle dates from this era. Later, the evolution of treatments has been closely following the technological evolution: when the processors became powerful enough for real-time processing, Steinberg introduced the VST architecture and the Digidesign RTAS Pro Tools format. And finally, we developed the ST version - Spectral Transform - when computer processing power allowed us to calculate several simultaneous FFT in real time.

[...] Jean-Francois Allouis and Denis Valette pioneered the hardware development of SYTER (SYsteme TEmps Reel / Realtime System) with a series of prototypes produced during the late 1970s, leading in due course to the construction of a complete preproduction version in 1984. Commercial manufacture of this digital synthesizer commenced in 1985, and by the end of the decade a number of these systems had been sold to academic institutions.
Benedict Mailliard developed the original software for SYTER. By the end of the decade, however, it was becoming clear that the processing power of personal computers was escalating at such a rate that many of the SYTER functions could now be run in real-time using a purely software-driven environment. As a result, a selection of these were modified by Hughes Vinet to create a suite of stand-alone signal processing programs. Finally, in 1993, the commercial version of this software, GRM Tools, was released for use with the Apple Macintosh.
The prototypes for SYTER accommodated both synthesis and signal processing facilities, and additive synthesis facilities were retained for the hardware production versions of the system. The aims and objectives of GRM, however, were geared very much toward the processing of naturally generated source material. As a consequence, particular attention was paid to the development of signal processing tools, not only in terms of conventional filtering and reverberation facilities but also more novel techniques such as pitch shifting and time stretching.

[via Electronic and Computer Music by Peter Manning]

MM: About GUI - 2DController. What is the origin of this pioneering, intuitive, but simple performer-instrument "link"?

EF: This type of interface has been widely used at the time of SYTER during the 80’s. It allowed us to regain "analog" access to a digital instrument. Indeed, even the manipulation of a slider with a mouse requires some attention (click in the right place, moving vertically or horizontally without mechanical guide, etc.). With the 2D interface, the entire surface of the screen becomes a controller. To obtain a result as soon as you click, the precision of movement is becoming necessary if you want to tune that.

MM: The mapping of parameters on multi-touch control surfaces free us from the use of a mouse and gives us an expressiveness never achieved before. What do you think of this new generation of controllers?

EF: Of course, these interfaces allow an overall and "analog" control which is not possible with the mouse (although the knob 2D mode or "elastic" are possible solutions to overcome the single pointer limitation). Since the engineering of the SYTER we proposed a system of "interpolator balls" to interpolate between different set of parameters arranged in a two-dimensional space. The multi-point control of such a device is natural: we need both hands to shape and transform the space.
 "Interpol" control screen of SYTER
[via DAFX: Digital Audio Effects - Udo Zölzer, Xavier Amatriain]

MM: Is the SYTER still in use today in Paris?

EF: No, SYTER no longer works. It was composed of several elements (a PDP-11, large hard drives, a vector graphics terminal) which can not be sustained today.

MM: Host-based tools vs. custom DSP engines: will there be a winner or they will continue to peacefully coexist in the business?

EF: For the type of tool that we develop, the winner is clearly the host-based. For very large sessions with dozens of tracks and hundreds of plug-ins, DSP is now the best choice, but they could disappear with the diffusion of multi-core processors.

MM: How long did the Classic Bundle take to get ported from TDM to RTAS?

EF: It's hard to say because it was not done directly. I first made ​​the VST version, and then adapted the RTAS version. The algorithmic part posed no particular problems, the difficulties being rather on the side of the interface between the various plugins and hosts.

MM: How much research was needed to create the Spectral Transform bundle?

EF: The prototypes of the Spectral Transform have been fast enough to achieve. The basic algorithm is the phase vocoder, which has been well known for a long time. What took time was the interface design, the choice of parameters and their mutual consistency, stability and the whole robustness (i.e. avoid audio clicks and saturation of the values ​​of some parameters).

MM: What's the technology behind the bundles?

EF: If we leave aside the TDM - the processing code is written in 56000 assembly language, all plugins are written in C++. The processing codes are fully compatible between Mac and PC. In addition, the portability of the user interface is guaranteed by Juce. All development is done on Mac; PC adaptation is virtually automatic and requires minimal work.

MM: A description of version 3 and its new features: what goals have you achieved during this long period of software development?

EF: Having redesigned the interface and rewritten all the code allowed us to add some new features: resizing the window, MIDI control with automatic learning, agitation mode.
Agitation is a generalization of the Randomize, it can be applied to all parameters of random variations in amplitude and frequency control. Now all the GRM Tools are also available as standalone applications. This easily handles individual sounds, to make quick tests and become familiar with the treatments without having to use host daw and sequencers.

MM: How do you manage feedback from musicians and sound designers to improve sound quality and the graphical interface?

EF: The user feedback comes from various forums and from discussions with users and composers here at the GRM. In response to suggestions, plug-ins will be changed, some features will be added (but always in small numbers to ensure compatibility) or it will create a new treatment that may ultimately prove quite different from the original application. This is what happened to Evolution that comes from improving the freeze that can be achieved with FreqWarp.

[GRM Tools Evolution @ Qwartz 7 - courtesy Alexandra Lebon]

MM: What are the most efficient methods of applications against piracy?

EF: There is none. Whatever the methods, they will be bypassed one day or another. We must find a solution that is not too heavy for the users, while allowing a minimum of protection. We chose the system of Pace iLok because it is very common in musical applications. The recently announced changes should make it more flexible to use.

Thanks for your time Emmanuel, keep up the good work!

[...] Any transformation, no matter how powerful, will never equal or surpass synthesis, if it fails to maintain a causal relationship between the sound resulting from the transformation and the source sound. The practice of sound transformation is not to create a new sound of some type by a fortunate or haphazard modification of a source, but to generate families of correlated sounds, revealing persistent strings of properties, and to compare them with the altered or disappeared properties.
In synthesis, the formalisation of the devices and resulting memorisable abstraction, offer a stable set of references which can be easily transposed from one environment to another. In sound transformation, no abstraction of the available results is possible and neither is generalisation. The result of an experiment is always the product of an operation and a particular sound to which this operation is applied. The composer must be able to add to the sum of knowledge by reproducing a previously proven experiment.
What makes the wealth and functionality of a system is the assembly and convergence of the whole, its ability at any moment to answer the questions imagined. Specific tools built for a single experiment, no matter how prestigious, are sterile if they cannot be applied to other purposes. - Yann Geslin


[Digital Audio Workstation by Colby Leider]
[sounDesign, a blog dedicated to the world of Sound and Audio Design]
[On GRM Tools 3, Part 1 - via designingsound.org]
[GRM Tools 3 review: a classic reborn]
[The GRM: landmarks on a historic route
[GRM's current team]
[GRM Tools Store]

You can also read my interviews and reviews on Computer Music Studio (italian only), a monthly magazine by Tecniche Nuove Editore. - Matteo Milani

Monday, May 09, 2011

Out now: U.S.O. Project - Functions (binaural)

[Free Download]

Between 1967 and 1969 Gottfried Michael Koenig devoted himself to compose electronic music, producing a series of works entitled Funktionen.
The instrument that inspired and made ​​possible these compositions was the Variable Function Generator, designed by Stan Tempelaars at the Institute of Sonology, Utrecht.
Koenig used the VFG not only to produce the basic sounds (waveforms), but employed it as a modulator and control instrument in order to dynamically manipulate the elaboration processes which were carried out on materials (ring modulation, volume curves, filtering and reverberation).
The idea behind the experiment was to entirely produce the sound material and its structural implementation using only the VFG (this led to the creation of Funktion Grün, Funktion Gelb, Funktion Orange, Funktion Rot).

For a detailed analysis of Gottfried Michael Koenig’s Funktionen, please see the document on his official website:

Analytical Descriptions (1971) [Download]

The works presented in U.S.O. Project’s Functions explicitly refer to a series of works that with an extraordinary vision Koenig realized in those years.
The main challenge was both philological and aesthetical. The idea was to create an automated composition by exploiting the computing power of modern computers and by a sufficiently widespread and flexible software in order to re-program the original algorithms.
The Patches used in the prototyping of the generative software environment were assembled using a specially written program that provided in text format - using serial procedures - how the various modules should be combined with each other - i.e.:

Mel / empty / reverb
Basis / ring+mod / Empty
Pulses / empty / reverb
Basis / mod / filter-reverb
Mel / ring / filter
Pulses / ring+mod / reverb
Basis / empty / filter
Mel / ring / filter-reverb
Pulses / mod / Empty
Basis / ring+mod / Empty
Mel / ring / filter-reverb
Pulses / mod / reverb
Mel / empty / filter

Once we had identified the blocks, they were displayed in the form of flow charts - i.e.:

The various Patches were then implemented as Abstraction in Max/MSP:

In order to manage all the modules in parallel, plus the sends to the reverberation units and so forth, we constructed a matrix, that automatically reconfigures itself according to strict procedures based on serial techniques:

The implemented automata procedures have in fact "created" the composition itself.
In the end, the multichannel final master was obtained with Kyma/Pacarana’s surround Objects.
As you can deduce from a listening comparing the work of Koenig and U.S.O. Project, there are many differences, both in the aesthetic and formal domain.
It was clear to us since the beginning that we didn’t want to repeat Koenig’s compositional experiment in every detail, but to build - and then understand - something new produced using the same modus operandi that convinced him to make those works. At the same time we wanted to preserve an historical legacy with those works (something that is easily recognizable especially in the first piece). It was also interesting to us to empirically verify the effectiveness and efficiency of the procedures in terms of timbre and formal development using the serial approach.

The actual distributed version is rendered using U.S.O. Project’s custom binaural techniques for headphone listening only.

Beyond any reference to Koenig’s original works, Functions is a spontaneous self-reflection about the different states of sound matter and the exploitation of its possible configurations, shaped and imagined through a dialogical process between the machine and its operator.

Matteo Milani, Federico Placidi

[Functions Press Release - pdf]

Sunday, May 01, 2011

An interview with Otto Laske

by Federico Placidi and Matteo Milani - U.S.O. Project, May 2011

Otto Laske is a composer internationally known for his work in computer-assisted score and sound composition. In the 1980’s, he co-founded and co-directed the New England Computer Arts Association, NEWCOMP, together with Curtis Roads (1981-1991). In 1999, his 25-year long work as a cognitive musicologist was introduced to, and explained to, a larger public in Jerry Tabor’s 1999 Otto Laske: Navigating New Musical Horizons (Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance). The book contains a comprehensive bibliography of Otto’s compositions, poems, and musicological writings.

Otto Laske has always been seen as an innovator, both in theory and composition. After a career in music, he became a knowledge engineer in the 1980s and a psychologist in the 1990s. Since 1999, in addition to his compositional work, he has practiced as a developmental coach and management consultant based on a methodology created by him, called the Constructive Developmental Framework (www.interdevelopmentals.org). This methodology for assessing individual’s developmental potential shares certain global structures with Laske’s cognitive musicology of the 1970s and 1980s, in that it is multi-dimensional, dialectic, and based on empirical research.

[Barry Truax with Curtis Roads and Otto Laske, Cambridge, MA, 1989 - courtesy Barry Truax]

" [...] a theory of music has to understand not musical results but rather the mental processes that lead to such results." - Otto Laske

"Looking back at 43 years of making electronic music, it's clear to me that ever since I began composing in 1964, the development of music technology strongly shaped my compositional ideas. The artistic task seemed to be to show that new technologies can indeed produce "art." At the same time, these technologies brought forth new compositional ideas not elaborated before. In short, a stark interdependency of compositional thinking and technological possibilities prevailed. When listening to my various compositional adventures today there is, for me, a certainty aesthetic unity that binds all of my pieces together. It will be up to historians (once they have become knowledgeable about the technology underlying these pieces) to judge them from a more balanced perspective than is perhaps possible today." - Otto Laske, January 2010

Computer Software Based Composition

My background is in both philosophy and music, not to speak of poetry. I studied with Adorno in Frankfurt: a philosopher and composer who shaped my thinking for a decade (1956-1966) and also helped me to emigrate to the U.S. in 1966 in order to study computer music. He also made me aware of the Darmstadt Music Festival, at which I met Stockhausen, Gottfried Michael Koenig, Ligeti and Boulez, among others. The first time I went to Darmstadt was the 1963: I was especially taken with Stockhausen as a teacher and with Pierre Boulez' notion of orchestration virtuelle, by which he meant that a professional composition contains elements that are not immediately obvious or even hidden, but have to be there to make a rich composition come to life. This notion of Boulez’s has accompanied me all my life, and not only in music, as much as P. Klee’s Das Bildernische Denken.

My main musical mentor, although not as a teacher of composition, is Gottfried Michael Koenig. I met Koenig in 1964 when he first presented Project 1 to colleagues. While his program was unfamiliar to me, I had previously studied with a German composition teacher (Konrad Lechner) who was very influenced by medieval music, as well as the works by Webern and Stravinsky. He had taught me something called micro-counterpoint by which he meant minutely working-out selected musical elements (such as, e.g., 10 rhythms, tones, or tone colors) and bringing them into the form of a cantus firmus on which to base a larger composition, under the intense influence of the ear.

When I listened to Koenig in his lecture at that time, I understood him to be talking about parametric counterpoint, counterpoint of parameters like pitch, duration, instrument color, register, volume and so forth, as Lechner had done. The difference was his use of computers for composition. What captivated my interest in computers was not the hardware, but the idea that compositions could be designed on the basis of contrapuntal ideas so that different parameter streams (lists) could be merged to create new sounds, either in ideal time (through notation), or in real time (electronically). In all of the computer programs of the sixties, such as those by Xenakis and Mathews, what interested me was expanding my contrapuntal, multi-dimensional way of working.

When I sit down to compose music using a program like Project 1 or Kyma, I find of central interest the feedback loop between the frozen and the living knowledge that is engaged: the frozen knowledge embodied by the computer software, whether it is knowledge of an instrument, waveforms, envelopes or knowledge about deforming and sequencing visual images, and the living knowledge in the composer’s mind. In my writings, including in Computer Music Journal, I always emphasized that a computer used in music (including its interface with the user) should have as much intelligence as possible, including the ability to learn from the user. I was always disappointed that this has been made possible to date by programmers only to a small extent. My notion regarding this was to permit the composer to build new “task environments”, a kind of artistic homesteads in which s(he) could re-use fruitful ideas and presets, or even understand his/her compositional process better.

I think that the new concepts engendered by computers are valid in many artistic fields. When I work with my painting program today, or make animations accompanied by music, I find much greater openness to the idea of having the computer program “know its user”. It seems to me that the visual programs I am using have a higher-level intelligence than present music programs, or so it seems to me. (I am not a live performer of music, where much of the available computer intelligence seems to be located these days.)

In music, I guess, I am an “old-fashioned” composer, in the sense that I typically work from numerical templates such as produced by Koenig’s Projekt 1. I refer to this way of working as “score synthesis” in contrast to “sound synthesis”, whether I am engaged in instrumental, vocal, or electronic composition. Algorithmic composition really never caught on in the US, except perhaps in Milton Babbitt’s work. As to Koenig’s Project 1, it seems I have remained the only composer who used it also in electronic composition, -- although composers like Barry Truax have, of course, been using “algorithmic composition” all their life, much influenced by Koenig’s work as holds for myself.

Score synthesis was a European idea stemming from Xenakis, Koenig and few others like L. Hiller in the US. My goal as composer over 45 years has been to bring score synthesis (the computation of score parameters) and sound synthesis (the computation of acoustic material based on “reading” score parameters) into balance with each other, giving equal attention to both. This meant that I had to always use at least two different programs (not originally made for working together), one for score synthesis and another for sound synthesis. And considering that the algorithmic paradigm of composition requires bringing together “score” and “sound” (whether in CSound or Kyma), the art of composition for me became that of marrying the right set of instruments to the right score by using my listening.

The Project 1 Experience: Interpretative Composition

In the 1960s and 1970s, there came into being very different compositional programs. Some made it easy to create numerical materials but required intensive interpretation by the composer, while others required elaborate inputs (such as Koenig’s Program 2) and their outputs could only either be accepted or rejected. 

Koenig's Project 1, like Xenakis's ST/10, is of the former kind. It requires very little input and will give the composer a large amount of data to interpret, either for instruments or for electronic sound. I found that the Project 2 type of program didn't suit me as well as Project 1 because I love the freedom of interpreting data, often using the same score for an electronic as well as an instrumental composition (which probably nobody would hear or needs to know). However, I am still curious about the Project 2 type of program and may use it some time in the future after all.

Both programs show me that it is the composer’s mind that creates music, not the sound or the machine, because the composer can obviously use any kind of template, even – as Stockhausen used to say – a telephone book.

I called my work with Project 1 interpretative composition, because I was interpreting data generated by computer software according to guidelines programmed by a composer. I also refer to it as “rule” rather than “model” based composition, meaning that in each new composition I followed a different set of rules, some inherent in the program, others stipulated by me. It is the feedback loop between my own set of rules and the computer’s that interested me. As to the difference between following rules or models, I thought little of artists following others’ or their own compositions as models. I wanted to start from scratch each time, although I of course brought into being my own tradition over many years of composing.

As an abstract thinker, I was also of the persuasion that one should plan compositions “top down”, by stipulating rules for how a score or set of sounds ought to be created, and not bother about details other than in continued rehearsal of listening to the results, -- Berg’s “Durchhören”. It was a matter of what to control when, and not to control everything but to know what controls one could delegate to a computer slave.

Specifics of Koenig’s Project 1

To be specific, in Koenig’s Project 1 (created in 1967 and continuously refined til the 1990s), a composer works with 7 degrees of change for all parameters (such as pitch, entry delay, pitch, register, volume). Degree 1 represents constant change, while degree 7 stands for minimal change (redundancy), with degree 4 standing in for a compromise between the two.

Now imagine the fun to be able to plan, and carry out, a creative process in terms of the different parameters that need to come together to make a new composition! Should entry delay – the delay between subsequent sound entries – vary according to degree of change 1 or 4 or 7? If you chose 7, then what degree of change do other parameters such as pitch or volume need to follow? If you then in addition to using Project 1 stipulated your own interpretations of what “register 4” or “volume 6” is to stand for, you are in a creator’s paradise because you can model your rule stipulations to whatever strikes your fancy, keeping in mind the limits of the medium – instrumental, vocal, or electronic – you are writing in. Each movement of your composition will have it own unique “parametric signature” that is never repeated anywhere in your life’s output. And with regard to electronic music, you might arrive in a studio other than your own – e.g., at the GMEB in Bourges – and hear your score for the first time in your life -- with 2 weeks left to convert it to sound.

By using Project 1, I was able to plan the FORM of my compositions’ – the main esthetic concern of every composer – in the minutest detail by using a global top-down design based on parametric counterpoint. I was not composing with “tones” but at a meta-level, with“parameters” whose streams coalesced to create novel sound. And I could do so not only for sequencing scores (whose length I determined); I could also MERGE (mix) scores to my heart’s content. (This procedure is found in all of my electronic compositions after 1999).

Of course, the computer (luckily) could not help me sequence or merge different “sub-scores”, as I called them. I was challenged to do so by ear, “rehearsing” pieces like a conductor (without ever needing one). The computer couldn’t even guide me in designing instruments (e.g., in Kyma) that would be ideal for playing a particular score. I was free and obliged to do so myself (which shows that “algorithmic composition” is a very misleading term). And so, I often ended up “orchestrating” a particular score based on different sets of instruments (called “orchestras”), and then would mix different sonic renditions of the same score into a final complex result. It is here that I practiced what Boulez had called orchestration virtuelle because many fine details of a composition could easily be generated by superimposing different instruments (tone colors) slightly varied in their onset in time against each other.

Of course in instrumental composition I could only sequence, not mix, scores, although even here I could (theoretically) have decided to orchestrate the string section with one and the brass section with another score. Ultimately, electronic music won out in my production of music. I could easily produce a final score with 18, 24, or 36 voices per sound entry, by overlaying different scores played by different instruments, and I could vary the “parametrical depth” of the sound from second to second. The compositional freedom I enjoyed using Koenig’s Project 1 and Scaletti’s Kyma was limitless. 

I am speaking here of the most recent phase of my work of computer music programs during the first decade of the 21st century. The beginnings of this labor in the 1970s and 1980s were far less idyllic. For one thing, not having access to a computer running Project 1, I would produce my numerical scores manually, by “cutting and pasting” parameter lists from older score printouts I had retained and copied. This allowed me to design new scores in which the 7 degrees of change in Project 1 were quite different from previous scores, whether for instruments, voices, or tape. Then also, there was initially no “translator” for Project 1 scores into the DMX1000 or CSound or Kyma format, so that all of this work had to be done by hand. So it was a breakthrough in the early 21st century when Koenig provided me with a formatting of Project 1 scores that could actually be read by CSound or Kyma, respectively. No longer did one have to wait for a week, as in the 1970s, to hear a short piece one had programmed, by which time one had already forgotten the compositional idea input to the computer a week earlier.

The New England Computer Arts Association (NEWCOMP)

The 1980s were a heady time for “scandaliser le bourgeois” listening to music at Boston Symphony Hall. Curtis Roads was a very good friend of mine at that time, and for nearly a decade we worked together trying to put the focus on the production, rather than the consumption, of music. (It was only at the end of the 1980s that I could finally built my own studio, so that I could experiment with musical ideas any time I pleased, rather than having to travel to Vancouver, Bourges, or Ötwil am See to make a composition.)

I met Curtis (then editor of Computer Music Journal) in 1980 when he came to live in Cambridge, MA. After some talks we decided to form an association of composers, initially for presenting computer music concerts, later expanded to other computer arts, like computer poetry, computer dance and what we then call “visuals”. At that time I was married to a choreographer and I taught her to use Koenig's Project 1 in designing choreographies, which she did using parameter lists for determining “gestural events” for her dancers who collaborated to make a composition.

Curtis and I founded the New England Computer Arts Association in 1981 (which was renamed in 1984 into Computer Arts Association). During the time we worked together, Curtis and I gave about 65 concerts, planning every detail of them. Artists came from around the US to be presented by us. Curtis left NEWCOMP in 1985 and I carried on until 1991 when, not finding a worthy successor, NEWCOMP ceased to exist. We presented concerts not only in Cambridge (Massachusetts), but in also Europe (Warsaw, Stuttgart, Tbilisi). In addition, we sponsored an international computer music competition which became internally known as the NEWCOMP Music Competition.

At that time, both he and I were very sick and tired of the concert music scene in Boston, which was all about consuming music. We felt that what matters was producing, not consuming, music, and so we also presented composition courses for computer music beginners, and symposia for showcasing creative work. Our concert venue was a church in Cambridge, near Harvard University (where during 1992-1995 I would study developmental psychology).

NEWCOMP was a group of about 15 artists and composers which held regular meetings in my house, complete with a President, Vice-President, 2 Artistic Directors, and a Treasurer, -- all volunteers. We invited composer colleagues in the US and Europe – Koenig, Lansky, Ruzicka, and GMEB, and others – to be judges of the works submitted to the competition. NEWCOMP members came together to make the final selection of 3 winners. For ten years, NEWCOMP was the only association in the US that presented regular computer music and mixed computer arts concerts outside of academia. We “schlepped” loudspeakers, advertised, sold tickets, and in this way performed a lot of new music. It was a great pleasure.

Laske's work in Cognitive Musicology

I was always interested in what is knowledge, that is, epistemology. What does it mean to know, how does knowledge develop and work in the world?. As a result, the essential question I posed in my cognitive musicology between 1970 and 1995 (to be published in part in three volumes by Mellen Press by 2013) is "what is musical knowledge"?

As you know, musicologists have formulated hypotheses as to how Beethoven may have composed his string quartets, but they don't have enough data to really establish any sound theories about that. So that was the project that history handed to me. I was tired of the old musicology that I had studied in Frankfurt am Main. In my research after 1970, I was suggesting that, given the existence of computers, the time had come to branch out and study not only musical products – “compositions” – but the mental processes by which living computers brought their works into being. I was especially eager to understand the linkage between the mental process that led to a particular composition – carried out by using computer programs – and the work that resulted: how was musical form actually created? I was convinced that one could never derive the process from an existing work of a dead composer. Even old music was brought to life only through mental processes in the present, and so, in a way, there was no pre-existing music; it all occurred NOW. I also thought that conventional musicologists made too many illicit assumptions, called “interpretations”, that couldn’t be empirically proven and were largely arbitrary; and still think so.

Therefore, when upon Koenig’s (Godsend) invitation I worked in Utrecht between 1970 and 1975, inspired by what he called “composition theory”, I decided to use computer programs to work out empirical theories about how music is thought or “made”, whether in music analysis, conducting, composing, and listening. I rejected notation as a worthwhile medium and started working directly with electronic sound produced by the Institute of Sonology’s PDP-10 computer. Influenced by J. Piaget, the geneticist of knowledge, as well as N. Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar and P. Schaeffer’s Traité des Objets Musicaux, my goal was to understand the musical thinking of children.

" [...] At the Institute of Sonology, Gottfried Michael Koenig and Otto Laske and a host of really excellent teachers were formulating the digital future. That may sound overly dramatic, but they had this wonderful set of analog studios, with a lot of custom made equipment and two and four channel machines for recording it and banks of voltage control equipment that defied description. It was very, very complex. A long way from the Buchla and Moog synthesizers I’d been weened on at UBC. Stan Tempelaars was teaching modern psychoacoustics that he had gotten from Reiner Plomp, which I now realize was pretty cutting edge at the time. Koenig was teaching composition theory but also programming and macro assembly language for the PDP-15, almost as fast as he was learning it himself. And suddenly, for the first time, I found myself with the mini-computer; that’s what they were called, even though they took up one huge wall of a room. But they were single user, not mainframe computers like Max Mathews had. Although the only means of interaction was the teletype terminal, you could have real-time synthesis and interact with it as a composer rather than writing programmes. And I developed this thing called the POD System for interactive composition with synthesis, which was a top down type of approach." - Barry Truax

While in society computers were used to make profit, I looked at the computer as a machine that could strengthen (not replace!) the creative mind, thus working against the grain of technology. I felt artists could finally become independent of the many conventions than bind them in their work and in their performances, and simply satisfy their own criteria for what was “good art” (never mind the conductors who wouldn’t play their work). That was the political background.

Theoretically speaking, I was waking up to Artificial Intelligence as a means to “simulate” creative mental processes. For this reason, when I returned to the US in 1975, I applied for a grant to study with one of the luminaries of A.I., Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, at Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh (himself an excellent cello player). Together with A. Newell, another founder of A.I., Simon had created the first chess computer program that could beat a human player. He had also invented “protocol analysis”, a way of analyzing the intellectual moves of a human computer user engaging with a particular task such as chess and understanding spoken language.

So it was natural to wonder whether a computer program could not also “protocol”, or document, what children did with electronic sound compositionally (as I had been trying to understand in the Utrecht OBSERVER programs built together with B. Truax in FORTRAN), and whether they could not simulate, or at least intellectually support, musical composition, and not only for children. It was an idea that was in the air, so to speak.

As this shows, thinking about composition as a theorist and making music was very closely linked in my work. Not that composition was becoming a “science”, but rather that composers would do well to get out of their studio and sniff the air of science, as many composers began to do (e.g., James Tenney, not to speak of Xenakis and Koenig). I felt the composer needed to know as much as he/she could about computers and composition theory in order to understand his/her own creative process, and become more dynamic and flexible in using new processes rather than following old “models”, even their own.
From documenting children’s work in composition at the Instituut voor Sonologie, Utrecht (1970-75), I proceeded to simulating compositional processes by writing A. I. programs (1975-77) at Carnegie-Mellon. However, to do this was a very large undertaking, and I never managed to obtain the financial funds for working with others on this project which, finally, I had to give up to fully return to composition (1995). EMF is bringing out a 2 CD set “Otto Laske: The Utrecht Years”, which features 9 music pieces I had composed in at the Institute of Sonology over 5 years.

Visual Music

[Lanesville seen by camera - Otto Laske]

My artistic life is far from over. I have often been told that my music is very visual and contains many visual cues. Therefore, in 2009 I began to think: composition is composition, why don’t I extend my compositional work into the visual domain. (I also have written a substantial body of poetry, both in German (1955-1968) and in English (1967-1995)), still unpublished.

In 2008, after having begun work in watercolour and oil, I discovered what today is called visual music through Dennis Miller, a fellow composer living near me, and one of the pioneers of the new medium. (I always meet the right people at the right time, it seems.) Visual Music is a discipline still in its infancy, but has its roots in the 1920's and 1930's, when artists like Oskar Fischinger, Germany, began to experiment with abstract films that were called “absolute film” since they were without narrative and storyline, and rather simply focused on (often geometrical) shapes and colors. The pioneers of visual music had the vision that it was possible, or should be possible, to bring abstract painting in the sense of Kandinsky and Klee to film or video, and link it to music (instrumental music at first, and later electronic music).

In my present work with Studio Artist and Cinema 4D -- the first a program for digital painting and the second for animation -- I have again taken up the practice of using two different programs not initially meant to work with one another. But at least they can “talk” to each other now, which was not the case with early music programs. And so I am gradually learning to go back and forth between these 2 programs, not to mention that I also need to use a sound processor such as Sound Forge, a movie making program such as Vegas Movie Studio, and bring them all together to produce a visual music video.

For the time being, I have produced a gallery of images that will be accessible on www.ottolaske.com in the near future. Even for an experienced composer like myself, learning and using visual programs presents a steep learning curve. I am therefore putting my poetry and music on hold in order to became a digital painter and animator. I have given myself two or three years to learn these programs before I can turn out anything that would satisfy my artistic standards.

Again, the computer is the "leading voice" that challenges me as an artist to bring together music and image after a lifetime of composition. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this at my age (75), additional years permitting.

[works by Otto Laske @ silenteditions.com]