On Thursday, we headed to the Whitechapel Gallery to check out the current exhibition, “Computers and Cooperative Music-Making”, curated by film-maker Luke Fowler, and multidisciplinary artist Mark Fell. Luke has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize and is also a musician, whilst Mark is half of the incredible outfit, SND (definitely worth checking out if you are into techno, clicks, cuts and glitches)
The exhibition focuses on two early computer music programming languages; namely Composer’s Desktop Project (CDP), developed primarily in Yorkshire, and Hierarchical Music Specification Language (HSML), created at Mills College, San Francisco. Through archived material, schematic diagrams and demonstrational videos, the exhibition explores the development of the languages throughout the 1980s. There is also a room with rather plush bean-bags and a quadraphonic speaker set up, that showcases a selection of material made using the two languages… it’s definitely a massive geek fest so be warned. The exhibition gives the strong impression that these guys were purely doing this for the love of it – just exploring, collaborating and innovating without bounds.
Here’s a promo for the exhibition:
The development of these languages through the 80s echoes similar pockets of activity that were happening in parallel, such as the development of MAX at IRCAM. Such languages then paved the way for later ones, such as SuperCollider and Pure Data. They all promote experimentation, multi-disciplinary collaboration, procedural and chance based composition, and the harnessing of artificial intelligence in the compositional process. There is a massive contrast between these systems and the apps most of us sound designers and composers use regularly, such as Logic and Ableton. However, a lot of the ideas and processes buried in the architecture these programs were first conceived in languages such as CDP and HSML.
There are tons of similar languages around today, more than ever, but they seem at times confined to the academic domain. However, there are ways for composers and sound designers to dabble in more non-linear environments, such as Native Instrument’s Reaktor, or Ableton’s Max for Live. The exhibition is a refreshing reminder that electronic music, and the tools we use to create it, descend from a rich tradition of playful yet hardcore experimentation and study. I found personally that it evoked a tingling urge to ditch the DAW timeline for a while and get coding!
The exhibition runs until the 7th of February and is free to enter, go see it – more info here!
Pat Burniston, String and Tins