LS: How would you describe your music?
LS: I wouldn't. People often ask me to do that, and it seems impossible. Music isn't verbal or conceptual. I try to get as close as I can to certain qualities, and I've found these in a variety of styles. I have also found they don't require any known styles.
LS: Well, if you won't describe your music, what's it for?
LS: This music is for listening, though I sometimes write music which is for the enjoyment of playing, instead, usually for piano or guitar.
LS: When I asked that, I meant what instrument is it for?
LS: It's composed specially for record players, and I made it on a computer.
LS: Then you've answered my first question, after all. It's electronic music.
LS: That's true, but that isn't a description of the music, so I still haven't answered your question. Electronics aren't a style or a kind of music any more than a piano is. They're a way of making sounds.
LS: You're being pretty evasive about what your music is like. Will it help to ask in what school of composition were you educated?
LS: A lot of people helped me learn. John Duarte, with whom I studied classic guitar in London, was the first person to encourage my composing and teach me some theory and counterpoint. When I told him I'd been writing music down a bit, he said, in that case, I was a composer, and if I wanted to become proficient at composing, I should practice by writing a piece every day, whatever I liked, no matter how short or simple, just like practicing the guitar. I did my best to comply. Writing every day turned out to be good training for professional composing, as composers have to be able to create music fast, for deadlines. Composing is active, not passive. You can't wait for inspiration. Later, at Juilliard, I was shocked at how students were allowed to work on a single piece all year, while I was paying my tuition by composing an educational filmstrip soundtrack every month.
LS: Who else did you study with?
LS: Aside from my main and most important teacher, Jacob Druckman, who also took me as his assistant and to whom I owe a lot, those who taught me the most include Michael Czajkowski who taught me to use the Buchla synthesizer in what was left of Mort Subotnick's studio at NYU, and Vincent Persichetti, and Hall Overton who each took time to sandwich into their busy schedules a free 5 minute lesson here and there. Max Mathews enabled me to have access to computers and to learn to use them for music. From Emmanuel Ghent I learned some very important ideas about the use of computers in composition. After I'd been classicized (I didn't start out in classical music), Wiley Hitchcock gave me a fellowship at the Institute for Studies in American Music, and helped me get back in touch with my non-classical musical roots, to remember who I am and am not. I learned different things from each of them, and from other people, but the most important thing they did in common was that they encouraged me to be myself and to keep going. I never really felt at home in the kind of conservatory atmosphere Juilliard generated.
LS: Not at home in what way?
LS: Conservatory students tend to be very young, and are too often there because they've been outstanding at something rather than because they love it and want to learn all they can. Having been child virtuosi, they may be snobbish. Or they may have acquired techniques without having anything self-motivated which they wish to use those skills for, and become either excessively concerned with technique itself or overly influenced by other people's ideas. When I was studying, I wasn't very attracted to the atonal, pointilist, or serialist schools of thought, which were still extremely dominant. I wasn't studying composition because I wanted to write like "contemporary" composers, but because I wanted to be more - and more skillfully - involved in music, had already found myself composing, and wanted to find or make more music that I could really feel close to, music like that which I loved best. I also wanted to make music (for example, the meditation piece THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE) which I had envisioned, which should have existed somewhere, but which I hadn't been able to find. I wanted to learn. I was regarded as musically suspect in that child-prodigy-oriented atmosphere, as it was known that I had started composing relatively late, having been an improviser who didn't even learn written notation until age 20. Some people were patronizing, and others just didn't take me seriously. The individuals I mentioned above were among those who were instrumental in keeping me from giving up on music altogether. Others would tell me that I was uneducated if I didn't use a key signature, and then tell me that I was either reactionary or unimaginative if I did use one. What I did have going for me was that I had developed my ear by playing (even if I didn't know the names for what I heard), and I already knew what my musical values were. I knew what I wanted to do and tried hard to learn how. And I did learn a lot there. Many students were hindered by their egos, afraid to admit not knowing something, acting as though anything they didn't know before they got there was unimportant. Still, I was very shy and intimidated by them.
LS: When you say you just improvised earlier, what do you mean?
LS: Though my grandmother gave me her extra mandolin when I was fairly young, I really had been most active as a banjo and guitar player. My sister and I used to sing old tunes in parallel thirds and sixths in the kitchen when we were kids. I loved the old mountain modal tunes best, and some of the shapenote music, but I rarely played anything unaltered. I made things up a lot and never bothered with the words to songs. John Fahey's playing was a revelation to me when I first heard it, and it exerted the strongest influence on me for years, until I discovered Ali Akbar Kahn, Bach (the ultimate), and Shostakovich, Rimsky-Khorsakov, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Copland, and Dowland, all sort of one right after another (I later switched to the lute). I've always improvised, but at a certain stage, when I was living in a trailer near the Mississippi River, I felt I was in a rut, playing the same things over and over, so I decided to teach myself to read notes. I got the Bach Inventions and tried them on the
guitar. The first measure took a whole day, but a year later, I could play several of them. As soon as I could read notes, I started writing them, too. I haven't been in a rut since.
LS: Isn't it rather an extreme switch from banjo, or even lute, to synthesizers and computers?
LS: All media in which you can work directly with the sounds have more in common with any other than with traditional European techniques of working with symbols on paper. Can you imagine painting a picture by having to write a set of instructions for someone else to paint it? But the problem with solo improvisation is that what you can realize is limited by your technique and the nature of your instrument. You can't do anything beyond what you can play yourself, no matter what you hear in your imagination. Non-solo improvisation has other problems, like finding other people with the same musical visions and sensitivities. Also the problems of communication and of who's musical tendencies dominate. I've always been a loner. I have clear ideas of what I want, and I don't want to compromise them in order to hear them. Technology has permitted me to independently realize conceptions I could never play solo, or realize in any other way, and to do this in complete privacy, so that I can experiment and make mistakes, and hear them, and learn more, faster. Traditional scoring doesn't work, economically, politically, or as a technique for learning to make music. I rarely gotten to hear played any of the pieces I've written for instrumental ensembles. And that kind of writing was a major focus of my formal musical education.
LS: Do you think other people will begin to make music on computers for the same reasons?
LS: I don't think it's a coincidence that there seems to be a relatively high percentage of women, and other composers who the musical mainstream might discriminate against, working in electronic media. You gain a lot by being
able to go all the way from idea to playing the piece for people without having to get support from established organizations. I started using computers during a period when it was necessary to have some sort of sponsorship in order to get access to them through large institutions, but at this point, computers are cheap enough for almost anyone, and they're likely to become a grassroots medium capable of great musical sophistication, and accessible to composers who for non-musical reasons, may be unable to get an appointment with a conductor, let alone a performance by one. Much larger numbers of people than before will be able to realize musical conceptions of considerable complexity or subtlety, and in replicable forms.
LS: It seems odd that you speak of computers as a potential grassroots, almost a folk medium. A lot of people find computers and electronics intimidating.
LS: A lot of people find music pretty intimidating, too, you know.
LS: As a matter of fact, many people consider computers as cold and dehumanizing, the opposite of musical.
LS: Computers had a negative and dehumanizing image as long as they were only seen as inaccessible threatening tools of large bureaucratic organizations. They were popularly imbued with the characteristics of those organizations. Now that computers are increasingly becoming the personal tools of ordinary individuals, this image is changing. A major focus of computer development has been making them easier to use, too, developing more human-oriented languages and uses. I was lucky in that when I was 8 or 9 and might have gotten music lessons or a doll, my father gave me a soldering iron instead. I never studied computers or electronics formally. Hundreds of thousands of small computers are out there by now, largely in the hands of people who have also never studied computers, just like the many instruments played by people who never studied music. As yet, there is still not the ease of musical interaction with these little computers which people will need, unless they are as obstinate about getting music out of them as I have tended to be. But ultimately, these little computers will make it easier to compose, as well as to play music. There are far too few people creating their own music compared to the number of people who really love music. It's a much worse ratio than amateur painters or writers to consumers of those media, I suspect, and it's because until now, there has been only a very difficult technique for composing.
LS: Can you explain a bit better that distinction between composing and improvising music? And how computers affect it?
LS: A great advantage of computers is that not only can they be played, like instruments, but they also have memory, like paper, but infinitely more flexible. What computers excel at is the manipulation of patterns of information. Music consists of patterns of sound. One of the computer's greatest strengths is the opportunity it presents to integrate direct interaction with an instrument and its sound with the ability to compose musical experiences much more complex and well designed than can be done live in one take. With a computer, you can record what you improvise in such a way that it can be edited with complete freedom, which isn't true for tape recording. That's the advantage of composing over improvisation which I mentioned before. You just can't do the best work if you are limited to what you can do with your own performance means in the moment as it passes. Could the ART OF THE FUGUE or the B minor MASS have been composed in one take in real time? But many composed pieces do start with sounds spontaneously made up at an instrument and then written down and reworked.
LS: What led you to start using computers?
LS: I was very lucky, in that after I'd been playing with various kinds of analog synthesizers for a few years, and was discouraged by their simplistic patterns of control, the fact that they drift and can't be adjusted finely or the same way twice, so that everything has to be done in one take, I was given access to a system called GROOVE, by Dr. Max Mathews, who has been a pioneer in the use of computers in music, and has developed a variety of important approaches. This record was composed entirely on that computer system.
LS: Since you still haven't revealed much about the music itself, will you at least tell us a bit more about the computer instrument you used to make it?
LS: The computer played the actual sounds by controlling analog synthesis equipment. This was done using the GROOVE hybrid system, which was developed by Max Mathews and F.R. Moore at Bell Labs. GROOVE is an acronym for Generating Realtime Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment. It's designed for the composition of functions of time. What it did was to permit the creation, storage, editing, and manipulation of a piece of music as pure patterns of change, over time, parameter by parameter. This rather different from conventional musical notation, which records music on paper as descriptions of individual events, one by one.
LS: It sounds pretty abstract to just describe patterns of change.
LS: Actually, playing the sounds was the way I generally "described" them. I used a keyboard, a drawing tablet, pushbuttons and knobs which the computer monitored and recorded, and I wrote complex algorhythms (in FORTRAN) to process the data from these devices and derive from it much more complex music than I actually played. I listened directly to the resultant sounds all the time, which is definitely not abstract. I would enter music by playing or computing it, and then do a lot of editing and revision. I might start with an idea for an "intelligent" instrument and then play it a while, possibly an instrument incorporating a set of rules for melodic evolution. Some of the levels of the music which I "played" were pretty abstract. Even on a banjo, you don't consciously select every note. Sometimes pitches or rhythmic syncopations which you would never have thought of writing on paper get into a tune because of the right hand picking pattern you are using.
LS: What kinds of processes did you explore in these "algorhythms?"
LS: I've been very interested in complex instruments on which patterns, rather than individual notes, can be played. I've used a knob to control the degree to which what I was playing at the moment would get intermixed with something I had played earlier, or to gradually expand the range over an increasing number of octaves, as I did in what I'm calling OLD WAVE here, which was the original non-instrumental opening movement of my ballet WAVES. I sometimes used weighted probabilities in evolving melodic lines, both for particular pitches and for the rhythmic beats on which they would appear (stronger or weaker beats), with these weightings changing continuously or at certain times, so that certain notes would dominate in certain sections. Or the computer would make a stereo polyphonic piece out of a single line which was either played by me, generated by it, or created in collaboration. The key to effective use of these very general levels of control lies partly in being able to go in and edit whatever results, changing individual things here and there, having absolute control over all the specifics of the material created, and partly in controlling these very general aspects by hand and by ear, as one would control specific notes in other methods of making music. It will be a long time, if ever, till we know enough about music and perception to automate such things completely.
LS: What was the drawing tablet for?
LS: I was composing functions of time, and these were stored as pure abstract changes, not inherently linked to aspects of sound. What I was composing was general and flexible. I adapted the GROOVE system to control visual material, which was a lot of work, but I was able to compose time structures for visual materials the same way I composed them for music. Instead of pitch, amplitude, timbre, I had location, hue, value, saturation, texture, and the same time-structuring, storage, and editing capabilities. I want to be able to play and compose images in time the same way that I can compose sounds. But that's another story.
LS: Specifically, what did you do by what means on this record?
LS: I hope that some of the enjoyment of listening will be to try to figure this out, so I won't say much more now. It'll all come out eventually.
LS: Then would you, at least, give us another example of something you controlled in a very general way?
LS: OK. In PENTACHROME I used a continuous acceleration. This is nothing new, as it works pretty much the same way as the one in Eliot Carter's VARIATIONS FOR ORCHESTRA. You can accelerate forever if, when you've reached double the tempo, you've dropped out every alternate beat. Ken Knowlton and I had collaborated on a previous computer version of this idea. In PENTACHROME, what I could control with the knobs was the apparent rate of acceleration (the amount of time it took to double the tempo), and the overall tempo at which this happened (the extremes of slow and fast that were cycled between). This was only one of many processes going on in the piece. Stereo placement (voicing) was automated, too, except for the percussion voice, which just doubled the melodic line. I did the timbral changes completely by hand.
LS: When you work on music, you aren't really just thinking about processes, are you?
LS: My pieces are most strongly concerned with feelings, actually, but no matter what I feel, my mind is always active. Every piece is different, and I suspect that every good piece has all the aspects of being human in it which are integrated into its creator, probably in the same balance. Each piece I do reflects what's happening in me at the time I create it. Sometimes a particular idea or emotion will dominate my awareness while I'm working, but the rest of me is still acting on the piece as I work. The intellect is a great source of pleasure, and wants expression just as the emotions do. They are not really separable. PATCHWORK is an example of a piece made to express a light positive energy directly counter to the emotional chaos of most serialism and the introspective heaviness of atonal expressionism. But because I do enjoy structure in music, and love counterpoint, the computer program I wrote for that piece had all Bach's favorite contrapuntal manipulations - retrograde, inversion, augmentation, diminution, transposition - available on switches, knobs, pushbuttons and keys, so that I could manipulate the 4 simple melodic and 4 rhythmic patterns with them in the same way that a player of an instrument manipulates individual tones. (I did edit it a lot, too.) I admire Bach the most of all because he had strong structural concepts, intricate and ingenious, but was always full of emotion, imagination, physicality, spirit, and a never ending stream of new and different ideas. I want to put as many aspects of myself into music as I can too, as much as possible of being alive, intensely conscious on all levels. This record, of course, only represents one period I went through, only explores a certain range of feelings, concepts, materials.
LS: You have referred almost entirely to folk and non-contemporary composers. Why are you so often described as avant garde? How do you regard yourself relative to others who are described as avant garde?
LS: I'm thought of as "avant garde" partly because I use new media and techniques which have yet to come into common use, though I think they will, partly because this music seems to actually be different, and partly because I'm one of the composers who've tried to bring back greater continuity and accessibility to composed music of purely aesthetic (non-commercial) orientation that has been common in recent decades. Each piece has some clear one-time-only concept which I wanted to hear and hadn't found already composed. Relative to some of my colleagues, I have tended to use more continuity, less literal repetition, not to depend on structures which had to be studied to be heard. I suppose the rates of change within and between my pieces are about halfway between the atonalists and the minimalists. I've tried to find a balance between predetermination and spontaneity, and the compose simple materials into complex relationships. I like to find relationships among things which are not obviously related, such as scientific and artistic methods and tools, or classical, folk, and ethnic musics, or images and sounds.
LS: It looks like you've finally been tricked into beginning to describe your music afterall. Would you be more specific about these individual pieces?
LS: Wouldn't it just be a lot easier for you to listen to this record?