- Computers as Musical Instruments?From Computermusic I <Exploded View> to Bandoneonbook
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A video example related to this article is available at <www.hans-w-koch.org/video/trailer.html>.
Now that so much of today's music is produced at every level with the assistance of computers, a title like the above seems rather old fashioned. However, when I started working with computers in 1996, I could not help asking myself whether the sound actually came from the computer hardware producing the music or rather resulted from the software running in it.
My first attempt at clarification resulted in my opening up that black box (actually mostly rather gray), attaching thin audio wires to the legs of the circuitry and diving into the world of hums, chirps, clicks and sudden bursts emanating from the motherboard. I called the result computermusic I <exploded view> (1996) and did not care that the process was lethal to the machine.
Later, when I started to appreciate working with software such as Max/MSP as well, my question was reshaped: Is it possible to find—besides clock speed, CPU power, bit depth, etc.—something specific to a certain machine that can pass as an instrumental quality for that model, similar to how, for example, even the cheapest plastic recorders are different from one another?
My research turned to hardware-specific aspects of Powerbooks, which can be of instrumental quality, and I began articulating these aspects with the help of patches and interfaces.
For example, when Apple introduced the Titanium Powerbook series in 2001, the heralded advance came with a very special design flaw: The built-in microphone that sat directly next to the left speaker began merrily feedbacking as soon as one tried to use both.
My piece bandoneonbook (2003) (Fig. 18) builds upon that feedback and makes it playable with the help of a Maxpatch. Two parallel filter lines, controlled by the keyboard, allow for an almost independent two-voice polyphony while opening and closing the lid influences the dynamics and the timbral quality of the sound. The resulting instrument is perhaps not ideal for making people tango but has a rather intimate sound, suited for soft and etheric moments. (In the later Aluminum series, Apple corrected the microphone placement, and while it is still possible to have that feedback, controlling the volume with the lid has become almost impossible.)
Another piece from this series, electro-viola (2001), explores the viola-like qualities of an old Pismo by bowing on its lid, where the built-in microphone is sitting. The picked-up frictions control the bowing aspects of a viola's physical model. The title is a reference to the piece violectra by my teacher Johannes Fritsch, who played the "electrified viola" in Stockhausen's ensemble.
Of course this approach to computers as musical instruments has its dis-advantages: Each piece requires its dedicated machine, and I can therefore sometimes find myself traveling with three different generations of Powerbooks. However, since it seems comparatively easy to tap into a recent Powerbook's sudden-motion sensor, keyboard-backlight sensor or fan-spinning speed control (as has been done successfully by others), there is still something left to explore, money permitting. [End Page 46]
hans w. koch (mostly) lives in Cologne as a freelance composer and sound artist. In addition to creating open musical forms for various ensembles, often interdisciplinary and incorporating live electronics, he develops (sound) installations, some in mixed media. Often the search for hidden aspects of everyday tools leads to sounds and musical structures. This also extends to the use of computers as musical instruments in a rather physical manner. In the spring 2007 semester he taught as visiting professor of composition and experimental sound practices at CalArts, near Los Angeles.