- Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts ed. by Hannah B. Higgins and Douglas Kahn
1. Reviewed by Hubert Howe Flushing, New York, USA
Mainframe Experimentalism is a big book, with several different sections and chapters by different authors covering work done in many of the arts in the early days of computing. Music is only a small part of the book, and there are only three composers and activities that the book focuses on: James Tenney at Bell Labs in the early 1960s, John Cage and Lejaren Hiller and their collaboration in the production of HPSCHD at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s, and Alvin Lucier's North American Time Capsule from 1967. The book includes extensive footnotes and has clearly been well researched.
The early days of mainframe computing are so far past us at this time that much of its history [End Page 93] is now hopelessly buried, and this book reminds me that what people see from this perspective may be distorted. One topic I did not see discussed in the parts of the book I read was the importance of the IBM Corporation to the development of modern computing. In the early days, a computer was an "IBM machine." Although the company intended to automate the business world and greatly profit from doing so (which it did), the greater impact may have been on universities and research labs. Both IBM and Bell Labs were among the few institutions in the world that carried out pure research, exploring science without having to worry about the impact on their companies' bottom lines.
The authors of the main articles in this section are all scholars in the fields of art, philosophy, culture, and media, but not music. As a result, I often found their perspectives somewhat askew tomy own understanding of the ideas they discuss.
I. James Tenney at Bell Labs
There is no question that James Tenney's work was central to the development of computer music, but the contributions of the others in this book is more questionable. HPSCHD was one of John Cage's "happenings," and there was no reason it had to involve a computer. Lucier's work depended on the vocoder, an instrument that has had a long and interesting history that is partly described in the chapter, but his use of it was more in the manner of an analog device. There are many other examples the authors might have found where the computer would have been a more integral and necessary aspect of the work. Douglas Kahn, the author of the chapter on Tenney and one of the editors of the book, knew Tenney personally and attended some of his presentations at the time, and he writes with a sense of authority.
James Tenney was one of the first professional composers to work in the environment of Bell Telephone Laboratories, where Max Mathews, the legendary "father of computer music," developed the first software for music synthesis. Tenney was also an exceptionally thoughtful and inquisitive individual who sought to understand the meaning and historical context of what he was doing. The book describes how Tenney would listen to the noises of the highway and environment on his way from New York City to Murray Hill, New Jersey, where Bell Labs was located, and try to hear all that noise as music. The book also describes his uneasiness in being in an environment where music was not a central activity— most of the others were self-described amateurs with only a passing interest in it.
The central problems that Tenney discovered in his work were that using the computer was extraordinarily difficult for someone without scientific training...