"Unseen Worlds", Notes by Laurie Spiegel

"Unseen Worlds", Notes by Laurie Spiegel

Laurie Spiegel, 1990, Photographed by Marilyn McLaren

Notes on the Techniques and Media

From my first encounters with them, I found the timbres and textures of electronic sounds to be extraordinarily expressive of momentary fluctuations in energy, intensity, and mood.  It's been a prolonged challenge to try to bring forward to modern digital computers and to affordable technology the intuitive and interactive qualities of acoustic and analog electronic instruments and also the power of pre-electronic compositional methods, without compromising the unique aesthetic advantages of any of these different media.

In writing the software which I used to make this music, I automated carefully selected aspects of musical decision-making in order to increase the number of musical dimensions which can be controlled in real time.  This is partly because improvisational spontaneity has often been an important part of my compositional process.

No acoustic or sampled sounds were used in any of these pieces, only digitally synthesized and digitally reprocessed sounds.  Except for Passage, I used no MIDI recording, sequencing, or editing software except OpCode's TX/DX Editor/Librarian to create my TX816 orchestrations.  In effect, the first 9 pieces used MIDI solely for the purpose for which it was designed: realtime synthesizer control during live performance, not as a compositional medium or as a way of representing music.  I also did no multitrack tape recording or overdubbing.  I did not use any MIDI or electronic extensions of traditional instruments - no keyboard, guitar, wind, or percussion controllers.  The physical instrument I played was the computer itself.  I assembled and edited the final master tape using Digidesign's Sound Designer II™ 1.21 and MasterList™ 1.1 on an Apple Macintosh IIci computer.

Notes on the Pieces

I created the first nine pieces during 1988-90 roughly in the order they appear here using a C language computer program I wrote called Music Mouse™ - An Intelligent Instrument on an Apple Macintosh 512ke computer with a trackball.  I used Music Mouse to control, via MIDI, a Yamaha TX816 FM synthesizer, and Eventide SP-2016 and H3000 digital signal processors.  I recorded each piece directly to DAT (digital audio tape) as I played them in real time.  In some cases, I later passed this recorded material back and forth through the SP-2016 or H3000 between two DAT recorders for additional signal processing.  At some points I edited the resulting digital signal on hard disk.

"A Strand of Life" (1990) happened one afternoon while I was sick with a virus. Fantasizing that I could tame my own virus by doing so, I decided to map the complete genetic base sequence of a viroid into the musical pitch domain.  I didn't have the data for a real DNA virus, but I found complete information on a viroid (which has only RNA) in an old copy of Scientific American (Jan 1981; see "Viroids" by T. O. Diener). If you substitute adenine for each A, uracil for each E, guanine for each G, and cytosine for each C in this piece, you will have a self-replicating, genetic strand which lives in the cells of others in a state so close to the border of life itself that it is a moot scientific point whether it can be considered alive or not.  It is completely another question whether a being so simple that a minute of music can contain its entire informational self can be consciousness (and if so, then conscious of what?), but since I tend to anthropomorphize a lot, I gave it a bit of an old time country music personality when mapping it for translation. This is, after all, a potato tuber viroid - a veritable hick among life forms - which goes right on spinning its base sequence out to form others of its kind as an absolutely local being, oblivious to everything but its own microcosmic continuity.  I entered the viroid's RNA sequence directly into Mark of the Unicorn's Composer notation program, translating as I went, and played it back as MIDI data.

"A Harmonic Algorithm" is a compositional procedure I first coded on my 48k Apple II computer around 1980.  I envisioned a tiny computer sitting all alone, playing its little silicon heart out, making the most beautiful and expressive music it could create, unable to know if anyone could even hear it. (Is this different from other composers?)  This is an excerpt from an infinite piece which goes on composing itself as long as the program is allowed to run.  First inspired by the logic of Allen McHose's analysis of harmonic change in Bach chorales in his 1947 book on contrapuntal harmonic technique, I pushed my algorithm's harmony more toward folk modality. I re-implemented this algorithm on my Macintosh computer with minor variations, translated to the C language.

For "Passage", which I made in 1987, I used Mark of the Unicorn's Performer sequencer to compose the basic event structure, entering individual notes and preset changes one at a time to make event lists. Then I played the timbre and amplitude fade curves, as MIDI controller data, and the fast patterned material, on Music Mouse  running on an Amiga 1000 which I recorded on the Mac as overlay to my note events.  I spent a lot of time editing the fade curves (unfortunately before Performer had controller chasing or graphical editing).

In the earliest of these pieces, "Passage",  I wanted to revisit the expressive power of texture, timbre, and resonance, with minimal use of harmony, melody, counterpoint, or line (I had been predominantly concerned with these at the time and wanted a change).  I started with a vague sketch, a ghost outline of a piece, and evolved it by attempts to capture and make audible what that shape was suggesting to the inner ear of my imagination.  The result evolved through a progressive process of clarification inside my mind over an extended period with what felt like a life of its own.  Passage was premiered at New Music America '87, where I played the mix, pans, and some timbral changes live. This recording is of that vintage and was done on VHS HiFi analog video tape.

The title "Unseen Worlds" was suggested to me by I Ching Hexagram #16, "Enthusiasm", which says "It fell to music … to construct a bridge to the world of the unseen" (Bollingen Edition, p. 72). After not having used the I Ching for some years, I thought it might help me put this recording together, and so it did.

In conclusion, I'd especially like to thank Dave Karr, David Silver, Vanessa Else, Raphael Mostel, everyone at Eventide, and the many other friends and associates who were supportive to me in this project.  Space limits prevent my mentioning them all but many friends are in my heart and thus, my music.

– Laurie Spiegel, Nov. 1990, New York City