Boomkat Product Review:
Following the reissue of Robert Ashley’s ‘Private Parts’ last week, a reanimated Lovely Music serve this absolute pearl from David Behrman, an important and beautiful artefact of interactive computer music recorded in 1977 and featuring a primitive microcomputer manipulating and evolving improvised acoustic parts for flute, bassoon and cello. It was conceived and recorded in parallel to the arrival of the first home computers, and is one of the earliest, most subtle and satisfying examples of machine language interacting with acoustic instrumentation we’ve heard.
"On the Other Ocean” was recorded in 1977 at the influential Mills College and features Maggi Payne on flute, Arthur Stidfole on bassoon and David Behrman on electronics, feeding their improvisations into the Kim-1 microcomputer for "Harmonic Responses” - or a kind of primitive machine learning. As the label explain: "The relationship between the two musicians and the computer is an interactive one, with the computer changing the electronically-produced harmonies in response to what the musicians play, and the musicians influenced in their improvising by what the computer does."
Behrman expands: "When we went into the Mills recording studio that sunny September afternoon with the breeze blowing through the Golden Gate, we had had no previous rehearsal; Maggi Payne and Arthur Stidfole had never performed together; the simple software (typed laboriously by hand in machine language into the tiny hexadecimal keypad of the "Kim 1" microcomputer) had just been completed. I had no idea what would happen. When Maggi and Arthur began spinning off their long, calm phrases I remember being surprised. And I remember catching an expression of what looked like surprise on the countenance of "Blue" Gene Tyranny through the control room window. We did two takes, chose one and that was it."
"Figure in a Clearing” followed a similar process, but this time the main player was cellist David Gibson, once again feeding into the Kim-1. Behrman explains: "It seemed astounding in 1977 that a translucent green circuit board with a tiny brain on it could take a million instructions per second from its little memory and send commands to another device (the home-made music synthesizer) whenever its program asked it to do so. David Gibson's only "score" was a list of 6 pitches to be used in performance, and a request that he not speed up when the computer-controlled rhythm did. The timbral richness and concentrated eloquence of his playing sprang from his own sources.”
Listening to this edition over 40 years later, the thing that’s perhaps most striking about these recordings is their subtlety; where you’d perhaps expect to find heavy-handed utilisation of new technology, instead you discover slowly evolving, gently mutating pieces hiding a multitude of processes. Behrman’s work here is so startling in its beauty and subtlety that it should be used as a textbook guide for how to approach innovative technology; with patience, restraint and consideration.