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  • Heinrich K. Taube: Notes from the Metalevel: Introduction to Algorithmic Music Composition
  • Dave Phillips
Heinrich K. Taube: Notes from the Metalevel: Introduction to Algorithmic Music Composition Softcover, 2004, Studies in New Music Research, Volume 6, ISBN 90-265 1975-3, 338 pages, illustrated, with accompanying CD-ROM, US$ 50 (hardcover, 2004, ISBN 90-265-1957 5, US$ 100); Taylor & Francis Group/ Routledge, 270 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016-0602, USA; telephone (+1) 800-634-7064, international (+1) 859-525-2230; fax (+1) 800-248-4724, international (+1) 859-647-5027; electronic mail; Web

Many books are currently available that describe the use of the computer in various music-making processes. However, the majority of these books deal with technical details of sound synthesis or MIDI operations. Only a few authors have attempted a detailed approach to the specific topic of computer-based music composition, and the works of authors such as David Cope, Phil Winsor, and Iannis Xenakis have already attained the status of classic texts. The list of significant texts is now expanded by the publication of Heinrich K. Taube's Notes from the Metalevel, a guide to algorithmic music composition through the Lisp programming language and the author's own Common Music, a Lisp-based language designed for what he calls the metalevel of music composition.

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Notes from the Metalevel is divided into 24 chapters. Chapters 1 through 9 introduce the elements of Lisp programming most relevant to computer-assisted music composition, and the remaining chapters gather and extend the lessons of the previous chapters, applying those lessons to various interesting musical procedures such as microtonality, Markov processes, and loop-phase structures. The book's tutorial approach takes the reader from the most basic levels to more advanced activity, with clear and complete explanations along the way. The book is very well written and assumes no [End Page 91] previous knowledge of Lisp or computer music composition, although prior knowledge in those domains will certainly be helpful.

The book can be considered as an in-depth presentation of the Common Music programming language. The example code is intended for evaluation in Common Music, which is essentially an implementation of Lisp with predefined elements specially designed for the purpose of computer music composition. The tutorial design is intended for hands-on use, and the book includes a CD with the complete Common Music system available for installation on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux platforms. After installing the software the interested reader can immediately interact with the book's example code.

Common Music is a sophisticated system that has been in use for many years by composers around the world. It is easy to learn, inviting exploration and experimentation, and the user will quickly find possibilities beyond the many tutorial examples throughout the book. Common Music is also very powerful, capable of creating complex output, in formats that include MIDI files, score files for the Common Lisp Music and Csound audio synthesis environments, and encapsulated Postscript notation files (via Common Music Notation).

MIDI files can also be used as input files, giving Common Music the ability to function as a roundabout "MIDI to notation" machine; however, the more typical use of Common Music involves the creation of processes and functions for the computer-assisted creation of small-and large-scale musical forms.

The majority of the tutorials prepare their output as MIDI files. Some readers might object to the decision to use MIDI as the base output format for the tutorial examples, but MIDI's ubiquity and ease of use afford a greater guarantee that the book (and Common Music itself) will be of immediate value to the broadest range of interested readers. Most modern soundcards include a MIDI synthesizer, so in most instances the new user should be able to simply install the system and run the example code. If your soundcard doesn't have a built-in synthesizer the book explains how to configure your Common Music installation for use with a software synthesizer such as the TiMidity MIDI-to-WAV renderer. And as the preceding paragraph indicates, it is a...