Studiare la computer music. Definizioni, analisi, fonti [Studying Computer Music. Definitions, Analyses, Sources] by Laura Zattra makes an important contribution to the field of computer music (CM), because it strategically pursues a goal that it is not shared by other publications, namely, to study the field itself. Of course, it all depends on how such a sentence is defined. But indeed, the first assumption is that there is a specific object, to some extent stabilized, which consequently poses specific problems. The third element of the subtitle, "sources," is revelatory. It implies that Zattra views CM as an historical object, i.e., a repertoire which now boasts more than 50 years of history, and that must therefore be treated not as an experimental domain, difficult to define or place into existing musicological categories, but as a corpus of texts characterized by a specific, internal homogeneity. Starting with the problem of sources (part II of the volume), it is possible to study CM through a set of case studies (part III), after having preliminarily proposed a definition of CM (part I, chapters 1-3 in particular). Zattra's book effectively establishes the history of CM, as a specific object, separated from the vast sea of electroacoustic music.
A history can exist only in relation to some kind of periodization. Consequently, Zattra defines a "historical repertoire" that she proposes for the years 1956-2003. Within this period there are three key dates: 1956-1957, the biennium that launched the birth of computer music in relation to its two main traditional focuses, algorithmic composition (Lejaren Hiller) and sound processing (Max Mathews); 1980, when a second phase began, focused more on aesthetics than on technological experimentation, and thus, a more mature phase that also corresponded to a profound renewal of various research centers; and 2003, the year in which Csound changed its license to a Lesser General Public License (LGPL), defining CM's present transition to home computing. As the reader will soon realize, assuming Csound as a reference is not accidental for Zattra, but I agree that a general turning point can be identified around 2000, with the emergence of laptop performance and new musical interfaces, and the strong emphasis on open source software.
Certainly, to assume that there is a history, a definition of its subject is needed. The first part of the book is devoted to the use of computers as musical devices. With Marc Battier, Zattra notes that from a musical perspective the computer is a peculiarly flexible "object" (p. 7), because it relates to at least three elements: "phonography," "radiophony," and "luthèrie" (p. 15). Rather than simplifying the matter in order to propose a definition that is easier to manage, Zattra emphasizes the radical complexity of CM, in which (following Gianmario Borio) technique is not what lies behind the artistic fact (the artwork as a product), but on the contrary, there is a specific artistic content in the design process, leading to the artistic result. In 1980, Otto Laske defined CM as characterized by three dimensions: score synthesis, sound synthesis, and knowledge synthesis (p. 19). Whereas the first two features are related to algorithmic composition and sound processing, the third refers to the conceptualization and resolution of musical problems by means of, or with the aid of, the computer. This characterization is the starting point of Zattra's definition: "Computer music is the repertoire of musical pieces, from the oldest to the newest, that makes use of the computer in the field of musical research focusing on processing, transformation, and the organization of sound. This musical research follows three approaches: score, sound, and knowledge synthesis" (p. 31).
The historical perspective occupies part I of the book, which features a brief but very deep reconstruction of CM history (chapter 3), starting from a nearly exhaustive bibliography, often neglected in...