Music Center, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA;
25 June-9 July, 2004.
Santa Cruz, California, USA
In an intensive, three week period, the Workshop in
Algorithmic Computer Music (WACM) 2004 at the University of California,
Santa Cruz (UCSC), delivered instruction on the essentials of algorithmic
music composition. Under the direction of David Cope, lectures on theory,
software, hardware, and performance were stacked back to back, covering
an immense variety of information. Mr. Cope and his dedicated staff
presented compelling demonstrations, which made the information immediately
relevant. Participants formulated and constructed individual projects
utilizing some of the various techniques covered. The workshop culminated
in a full day of performances, and each of the 12 participants was
sent home with a CD-ROM containing each project as well as the software
used. I found the workshop to be an intellectually transformative experience.
I was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm and diversity of backgrounds
of the participants, which made for an environment of rich intellectual
stimulus and provocative dialogue.
The workshop began with an intensive tutorial in Macintosh Common Lisp.
The participants were led to view musical notes as lists of five open-ended
parameters: ontime, pitch, duration, channel, and dynamic. Within days
we were all using list manipulations to alter, simplify, complicate,
and compose musical arrangements. Supplementing this focused tutorial
were lectures on the fundamentals of algorithmic music composition:
its history, philosophies, goals, and obstacles. We discussed the different
hierarchies of choice in composition and viewed algorithmic composition
as a subtractive process (i.e., the human composer sculpting away from
the computer’s output some essential form). We looked at algorithmic
analysis and composition as tools for overcoming a composer’s
creative block. We delved into the origins of Experiments in Musical
Intelligence, Mr. Cope’s own software composition project built
from recombinative algorithms. We also examined some less than obvious
examples of pre-computer algorithms in music.
Lectures and demonstrations
filled the typical eight-hour weekday, while evenings allowed supervised
lab time for the development of individual
projects. Weekends featured guest presenters who covered a variety
of material, mainly applications that had succeeded in commercial or
Alongside Mr. Cope, three staff members lectured and provided tireless
hours of one-on-one instruction and guidance. Peter Elsea, Director
of the Electronic Music Studios at UCSC, lectured on fuzzy logic, Max,
and a variety of other means for creating different flavors of algorithmic
music. Mr. Elsea has a lifetime of experience in experimental electronic
music and was able to share with us a delightful selection of interactive
musical toys, made using potentiometers on circuit boards connected
via USB to laptop software. Additionally, Paul Nauert lectured extensively
on set theory and Markov chains, and instructed us on the usage of
OpenMusic, a sort of visual approach to computer algorithmic composition
developed at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique
(IRCAM). Both Mr. Nauert and graduate student Soren Goodman lectured
on their own works respectively, and played for us their compositions.
As well, both were on hand to facilitate supervised lab hours from
5 p.m. to midnight each day.
Other topics covered during the workshop included sonification and
visualization of data for both scientific and aesthetic purposes. We
looked at nature as a source of rough algorithm, as in Olivier Messiaen’s
birdsong imitations, and also found that cellular automata and Turing
Machines provided us with rich systems to sonify. This study included
a detailed look into Stephen Wolfram’s cellular automata research.
Neural nets and genetic algorithms as ways of building musical intelligence
rounded out this comprehensive lecture series.
Participants and projects
The general experiences of participants ranged through the fields of
music, computer programming, and mathematics, to varying degrees. I
was impressed with the geographical diversity, as some six countries
were represented among the 12 participants. The projects were equally
diverse. Some focused on analytic algorithms, such as one on classical
analysis and one on the music of The Beatles. Another used algorithms
to pinpoint a performer’s traits in jazz improvisation, as a
step toward developing a virtual jazz accompanist. Plenty of projects
focused on the task of pure algorithmic composition, using a variety
of aforementioned techniques. I collaborated with one other student
to create a duet, with one part algorithmically generated by computer
for a live human cello performer, the other part hand-written for a
MIDI-controlled Clavinova. All in all, the spirit was one of excitement,
collaboration, and vigor.
The opportunity to study under some of the world’s pioneers in
the field of algorithmic music is a rarity. For those of you seriously
(or tentatively) interested in algorithmic computer music, I strongly
recommend this event. The tools and experience packed into these brief
three weeks are enough to keep one going for years. If you decide to
attend WACM 2005, plan on staying a few extra days to explore Santa
Cruz’s beautiful beaches and redwood forests, for the workshop
will keep you too busy to do so while in session!
on WACM can be found at the workshop Web site: summer.ucsc.edu/wacm/.