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The Science of Sound and the Sound of Science

A fascinating day at UCSB's electronic music summit

In his lecture Saturday afternoon at UCSB’s Music Building, software engineer and electronic music pioneer Max Mathews paraphrased Claude Shannon’s Sampling Theorem as stating that “any sound that the human ear can hear can be made from samples.” He then presented his “corollary,” based on 50 or so years of working on electronic music, that “for musical purposes, almost all sounds (created by computers) are either not interesting, ugly, unpleasant, painful or dangerous.” The challenge is to create something compelling and appealing, a sound that stimulates the listener’s mind.

Saturday’s lectures by Mathews, who wrote the first widely used computer music program and whose 1961 arrangement of “Daisy Bell” inspired Arthur C. Clarke to have HAL sing it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and electronic music composer John Chowning, the inventor of the breakthrough frequency modulation synthesis algorithm, gave fascinating insights into how they have attempted to create such sounds. These lectures were ideal preparation for Saturday night’s concert, also at the Music Building.

(There was also a lecture Sunday by fellow electronic music composer Jean-Claude Risset, and concerts Friday and Sunday night featuring pieces by Chowning, Mathews, Risset and UCSB faculty Clarence Barlow, JoAnn Kuchera-Morin and Curtis Roads.)

The first piece Saturday night was “Stria,” written in 1977 by Chowning, which consists of overlapping and interfering droning bell-like tones from a nontraditional scale based on the Golden Ratio 1.618. An image of the “score” for this piece was projected onstage. This was, however, not a traditional score, rather a plot of the logarithm of the frequency versus time indicating the notes played. To me, this resembled the skyline of a city with lit-up skyscraper windows.

Next was a short piece called “Sculptor” by Roads, which heavily processed a drum track by John McEntire from Chicago-based indie-rock band Tortoise. This was accompanied by a stunning visualization by Brian O’Reilly consisting of rapid abstract images synched with the music.

“Mutations” followed, a piece written in 1969 by Risset and featuring a vintage trippy 1972 film with laser patterns, crystal growth and simulations of John Conway’s Game of Life. If you missed the concert, this film is included in the DVD for the ambitious electronic music compilation, Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music.

Mathews then performed a delightful short piece called “Chowning Phasered,” in which he aurally manipulated an electronic music piece in real time to bring out resonances. In his earlier lecture, Mathews had explained the mathematics behind and given a demonstration of the phaser filters that he used.

Next was “Approximating Pi” by Barlow, UCSB’s Corwin Chair of Composition. This is “pi” from circumference-of-a-circle-divided-by-its-diameter fame. The concert program gave the algorithm used to create this piece, but effort would certainly be required to decipher and realize it; the short summary is that the decimal digits of pi are used in a somewhat complicated way to define the music that is played. In practice, this gives a wall of noisy, buzzing electro-drones, to my nonmusicologist ears, sort of a less abrasive version of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. While one could scarcely claim that Barlow’s piece conveys the beauty of mathematics, it does suggest its infinite potential for complexity.

The concert concluded with “Songes” by Risset, in which distinct electronic voices suggested violins, harp, flute, bells, and chirping birds.

The sound throughout the concert was superb, thanks in large part to a new loudspeaker system in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. The visuals for the first three pieces each distinctly enhanced the richness of its piece.

But make no mistake, this wasn’t a concert for the masses. Quite frankly, the music is not what you would put on at a party, unless you want most people to leave. For electronic music aficionados, however, this was a feast of sound and sight. What a treat to have electronic music pioneers Chowning, Matthews and Risset visit us! And kudos to UCSB for making challenging art of the highest quality available — for free — to the Santa Barbara community.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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