Vol. 35 Issue 1 Reviews

Roger T. Dean, editor: Oxford Handbook of Computer Music

Hardcover, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-533161-5, 622 pages, illustrated, appendix, chronology, index, UK£ 85.00; available from Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, UK; telephone (+44) 1865-556767; fax: (+44) 1865-355060; electronic mail music.enquiry.uk@oup.com; Web www.oup.com/.

Reviewed by Margaret Schedel
Stony Brook, New York, USA

The dust jacket states of the Oxford Handbook of Computer Music that the book strives to be a state-of-the-art cross section, situating computer music in the broad context of its creation and performance 50 years after musical tones were produced on a computer for the first time. The edited volume contains articles on composition including computer-generated acoustic music, improvisation, interactive performance, spatialization, sound synthesis, sonification and modeling, music cognition, pedagogy, socio-cultural topics including gender studies, history of hardware and software, dance and musical gesture, sensors, generative visual art and music, synesthesia, electronica, soundspotting, and personal reflections on the field. This makes the book almost impossible to organize in any coherent way, and I almost wish the editor, Roger T. Dean, had placed the articles alphabetically instead of trying to impose order on such a wide-ranging list of topics.

There are 26 articles broken into seven subsections. I should really try to emulate Simon Emmerson and create a Venn diagram of the topics and subsections, so you can understand the futility of trying to organize this list in a linear fashion, but I’m not sure the diagram would even be legible. Mr. Dean’s “purpose in editing this book has been to facilitate access to computer music for the listener and for the future and to bring together the range of compositional, theoretical, and practical issues that a practitioner can always benefit from considering” (p. 7). I think he succeeded, but I fear the rest of this review will be as disjointed as reading the book from cover to cover.

In Part One: Some Histories of Computer Music and Its Technologies, Douglas Keislar’s article looks at how the computer functions as an abstraction of the instrument, the musician (composer and performer), or both. He includes a wonderful chart, which he calls an “interpretive summary” of music technology prior to the development of the computer, and characterizes computer music technology as fundamentally redefining music in the 21st century, a belief that many other authors share. Paul Doornbusch discusses early hardware and its current forms in exquisite detail, and his 25-page Appendix  provides a global chronology of computer music. The section’s closing article by Peter Manning focuses on early sound synthesis. While it is an excellent stand-alone article, this section is weakened by the duplication of facts.

In Part Two: The Music, James Harley discusses a strange subset of computer music not often covered in these sorts of compendiums: computational approaches to notated instrumental compositions. Well-written and comprehensive, this constitutes a mini-survey within a survey of computer music. The next article takes a step in another direction completely as Roger Dean looks toward the future of musical improvisation with computers acting as partner in improvisation, or as improviser by itself. It is extremely well referenced, which is all the more impressive since the article deals mainly with the field since 2001.

The next section is one of two Sounding Out collections, which are somewhat confusingly nested within the larger structure. This first one includes Trevor Wishart’s personal reflections on computer music, Tim Perkis’s thoughts  on his own electronic improvisation practice with electronic/computer ensembles, and Simon Emmerson’s musings about combining the acoustic and digital worlds. Mr. Emmerson’s article is not nearly as personal as the others; it includes many diagrams to clarify his points, and ultimately reads like it could have been a chapter in his book, Living Electronic Music. I felt that this article belonged later in the book, as it doesn’t match the personal nature of the other articles and references many other areas discussed in the following articles.

Part Three is titled Creative and Performance Modes, and is the longest section, comprising nine articles. The first is by Wayne Siegel, one of the developers of the DIEM Dance Suit. He writes about interactive dance and music including computer vision, and motion and gesture mapping, by focusing on two of his collaborations with choreographers and dancers. Garth Paine also discuses gesture, but in relationship to embodying laptop performance through a discussion of his own project ThuMP, which explores the commonalities of musical control across acoustic instruments in order to map them for a generic model  of musical characteristics and human control gestures. These articles fit well together in topic and in style. Both authors give a general history of the field, and use their own projects as examples. Atau Tanaka’s chapter, “Sensor-based Instruments and Interactive Music,” returns to a more general approach. After a brief history, which overlaps material covered in earlier chapters, he discusses the widest range of technology covered in the book, including locative technologies, virtual reality, and the use of bio-signals to control and enhance music. Next, Peter Lennox delves deeply into the ramifications of spatialization, focusing on its meaning and perception rather than its technologies (or lack thereof). Hazel Smith, with assistance from Noam Sagiv, Freya Bailes, and Mr. Dean, writes about voice in computer music and its relationship to place, identity, and community. I particularly appreciated her gender-balanced references to compositions, and her inclusion of human and non-human vocal identity.

The next chapter in this section focuses on cross-modality, mainly image/sound synesthesia, and includes an extensive bibliography. I felt this chapter could easily be expanded into a book. David Worrall’s chapter is rightly called an introduction to data sonification, another offshoot of computer music not often covered in these kinds of retrospectives. He not only writes about the methodologies of sonification, he also discusses the important difference between sound mapped for research purposes versus music derived from data. The next article by Nick Collins breezily moves from a discussion of society and music, to copyright, to glitch, to the crossover between academia, dance music, and sound art.

I thought this attempt to define “electronica” would have flowed better after Mr. Tanaka’s article. But nonetheless it is easy to read, and is filled with wonderful quotes from diverse sources. At the end he makes a call for openness and a willingness to embrace trial and error, another theme that other authors embrace.

Chapter 18, “Generative Algorithms for Making Music: Emergence,” would have made a good follow up to Chapter 15, “Generative Synesthesia,” or even Chapter 5, “Compositional Approaches to Composition of Notated Instrumental Music,” because of the reliance on math to create art. This article, by Jon McCormack, Alice Eldridge, Alan Dorin, and Peter McIlwain, starts with a brief history of generative art, and its most compelling section is on generative aesthetics. The article may have been stronger if it had focused on art-making rather than devoting pages to common introductory material. Finding the correct balance between detail and background information is always difficult when writing articles, and this problem is exacerbated when writing an article for a survey book.

Mr. Dean titles Part Four “Cognition and Computation of Computer Music.” I felt that some of the articles from Part Three should have been moved to this section, particularly Mr. Worrall’s piece on sonification. Chapter 19 is an immense chapter about cognition and creativity, focusing on a computational modeling of the process of musical composition based on a cognitive model of human behavior. The authors, Geraint A. Wiggins, Marcus T. Pearce, and Daniel Mullensiefen, have created the IDyOM system, a computer program to generate tonal music. The tone of this article is much more formal than the others, complete with the results of interviews in which subjects were asked to evaluate the software. Like many of the previous articles, Michael Casey’s chapter discusses his own work, focusing on SoundSpotter, an open-source software program which uses multiple features of the audio signal to find matches between audio files. Mr. Casey’s “soundspotting” is an experimental musical process, which builds on sampling, plunderphonics, remixing, and mashups by adding automatic audio organization and an external driving target signal.

The second Sounding Out section that is Part Six has articles by two giants of computer music, George Lewis and Pauline Oliveros. Mr. Lewis’s chapter consists of general musings on interactivity and improvisation. He takes his topic to the limits of human society, recognizing how we rely on past achievements for current work and understanding that we learn as much about improvisation from “observing and analyzing simple, everyday acts and collaborations as we do from analyzing the ‘truly creative’” (p. 463). The obligatory chapter from Ms. Oliveros is a recounting of her personal history of almost 50 years of working with electronics and music. Starting with oscillators and ending with telematic music (music over the internet), this is a quick ride through the decades as told by one of the field’s pioneers. The final article, “Empirical Studies of Computer Sound,” by Freya Bailes and Roger Dean is somewhat investigative, ending with a call for more researchers to examine computer-generated sound as an object of rigorous scientific study. I agree this is an area ripe for exploration and I thought it was great to include an article calling on researchers to further the state of computer music instead of reporting on the present or past state.

The final section is the most cohesive: every article is about cultural and educational issues, opening with Mary Simoni’s discussion of the gender ideal in music and technology. Her work is based on a seven-section survey, and the article is full of charts and graphs which demonstrate that the field of music technology has challenges around the perception of gender. I was disappointed in the lack of women authors in this collection, only five out of thirty-one, or 16 percent. The situation is even worse if you consider the number of pages women contributed. There are five articles by multiple authors—four of these articles had women collaborators. I assumed equal participation by all authors, so to determine the number of total pages contributed by females, I divided the number of pages in the collaborative articles by the number of collaborators. This yields 71 pages by women, or 12 percent of the total. I hope that by following Leigh Landy’s suggestions in the next article, “Sound Based Music 4 All,” to expose children to sound-based music early in life will not only build audiences and practitioners, but will also encourage more females to join the field. The final article is also about education in computer music. The authors, Jøran Rudi and Palmyre Pierroux, set out a nice comparison between electronic and acoustic music, then discuss the ten-year-old software DSP from the Norwegian Network for Technology, Acoustics and Music (NoTAM) and how it has been successfully used in educational settings.

Overall I think the Oxford Handbook of Computer Music captures the many facets of computer music, which have developed over the past 50 years. Although I thought the overall organization was somewhat strange, the sprawling nature of the articles made it impossible to organize effectively. Amazingly, all of the articles are well-written and well-referenced, making this an excellent starting point for research into almost any aspect of computer music at the start of the 21st century.