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Reviewed by:
  • Laurie Spiegel: Obsolete Systems
  • Steve Benner
Laurie Spiegel: Obsolete Systems. Compact disc, EMF Media CD 019, 2001; available from Electronic Music Foundation, 116 North Lake Avenue, Albany, New York 12206, USA; telephone (+1) 888-749-9998 or (+1) 518-434-4110; fax (+1) 518-434 0308; electronic mail; World Wide Web

The name Laurie Spiegel will undoubtedly be familiar to most readers of Computer Music Journal. Many will know her as a developer of both hardware and software systems for computer music composition. Many, I shouldn't wonder, will even own or have experience of using some of those systems. Many will also know of her as both a performer and composer of music, and may be familiar with at least some of her musical output. I wonder just how many, though, are able to lay hand on a recording of her music, should they want to? For reasons I have never been able to fathom, little of Ms. Spiegel's music has ever been available commercially, except for the occasional short, single work on one compilation or another of electronic or computer-based works. This compact disc release from Electronic Music Foundation goes some way towards correcting that state of affairs.

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Obsolete Systems presents a collection of works by a significant contributor to the world of electronic and computer music, all produced, as the title suggests, using electronic sound synthesis systems which, while state of the art in their day (and at the time of these compositions), are now long regarded as obsolete. The works collected here span almost a decade and a half, from 1970 through 1983. They thus encompass not only the period of [End Page 97] development and rise of analog synthesis systems but also extend into the beginning of digital synthesis under the control of desktop microcomputers. The disc is, therefore, not only an important tribute to the composer herself, but also serves as something of a chronicle of these bygone synthesizers and their controlling software. This strikes me as very fitting, indeed.

The CD's total playing time is just over 64 minutes, and it includes a good mix of small-scale pieces together with longer, more substantial, fare. Many of the works were clearly written to explore some particular aspect or capability of the system in question. Without exception, they all capture and encapsulate something of the pioneering spirit that was driving both the creative process behind the music as well as the development of the compositional systems themselves.

The disc begins with Four Short Visits to Different Worlds. These set the scene for the rest of the disc, being exactly what their title suggests, four short explorative forays into what was, at that time, largely uncharted musical territory. Composed, I suspect, independently of each other and brought together under a single umbrella title, all four of these pieces explore the sonorous textures available from individual analog synthesizers of the early 1970s: Swells (c. 1972) was produced using the Electrocomp 100 modular synthesizer; Mines (1971), a modular analog synthesizer built by Don Buchla in the mid 1960s; Crying Tone (1975), another Electrocomp modular synthesizer; A Garden (c. 1970) used a Buchla 100 modular synthesizer with tape delay. The longest of these studies is but 2:30 in duration. Although none are of a deeply penetrating nature, placed together in this way they function perfectly well as a suite of miniature studies in timbre and texture, as suggested by their individual titles.

The two equally short works which follow, Improvisation on a concerto generator (1977) and A Harmonic Algorithm (1981 version), show similar exploratory forays, this time into the realm of digital synthesis under computer control. Here, however, the experimentation is less concerned with sonic texturing than with harmonic and contrapuntal development, principally through computer control. The earlier of the two was a commission from Bell Labs and the Motion Picture Academy for the 50th anniversary of "talking pictures." Considering that it was produced on what was, at the time, a singularly experimental setup, while also working to a tight deadline, the work acts as particular testimony to Ms...


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