Photo by Sascha Pohflepp / CC BY 2.0

As artists continue to find new ways to innovate, the disciplinary boundaries between music and technology only become increasingly intertwined. Moving beyond traditional instruments, musicians have looked to electronic systems for new modes of creative expression.

The popularity of experimentation with computer-generated music appeals to many artists because of the increase in possibility, and the chance to build sounds that listeners have never encountered. Utilizing computers has also led artists to rethink the nature of their own roles as creators.

By drawing from modern music technology, artists have challenged and expanded their own approach to their art. Despite being a relatively new specialty, notable pioneering figures have made key contributions to shape the field to its current progressive state.

Origins in University Research

Even with technology still in its infancy during the 20th century, researchers were already fascinated with the idea of pairing electronics with music. Computer music research has roots, of course, in universities. At the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, the Illiac Suite is cited by historians as the first major computer-generated score, written by composers Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson using an Illiac 1 computer in 1957.

This unconventional approach to music research and computer programming inspired composers like Max Mathews and Jean-Claude Risset to develop more computer-generated music, working out of Bell Labs in New Jersey, and IRCAM in Paris. These early explorations led to the development of the first music and computer languages, which still influence the tools we use today.

Further along, one researcher named Miller Puckette, working at IRCAM, took on a visual approach to computer synthesis, where he used virtual patching cables to more closely mimic how artists set up their audio equipment. His continued work throughout the 1980’s eventually evolved into Max/MSP (made by Cycling ’74), as well as his own open-source Pure Data program.

These tools are in use today more than ever, and artists integrate them with other digital tools like Ableton Live or even mobile apps.

Further Developments in Studios

Though universities were the primary areas where the interdisciplinary groundwork for music technology was laid, the San Francisco Tape Music Center served as a cultural hotspot which attracted scores of experimental artists. Out of this creative environment emerged early modular systems.

Sound artist Don Buchla was commissioned by Tape Center founders Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender to make the first modular synthesizer, which was controlled through various touch- and pressure-sensitive surfaces. Engineer Bob Moog made his own modular system that more closely incorporated the Western music style using a traditional keyboard.

NYU’s Buchla 100 Series by Bennett / CC BY-SA 2.0

As the popularity of these new devices spread throughout the country, artists started to realize it was necessary to develop additional new hardware to control them. Pioneering figures like Michel Waisvisz, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, and Joe Paradiso have worked to conceptualize and develop dynamic, creative interfaces.

Music Technology in Live Performance

As computers became more powerful, creators such as Emmanuel Ghent, George Lewis, Roger B. Dannenberg, and Barry Vercoe imagined systems that, beyond being electronic instruments, also took on the role of artificial performers.

These systems allowed artists to channel creative expression through a totally new medium, eventually programming computers to autonomously compose pieces, or pick up an artist’s style. This early stage of machine learning was spearheaded by artists like Francois Pachet, Robert Rowe, Gil Wieinberg, and Nick Collins. Current studies on machine learning are being conducted today at Google Magenta, a division of Google Brain.

Today, the influence of passion projects conducted by artists invested in music technology still live on, as evidenced in the work of Robert Henke and Gerhard Behles, and their developments leading to Ableton Live. Even musicians like Jeremy Ellis and Bjork look to diverse artists to inspire their own cross-disciplinary work. The convergence of art and computer programming has resulted in modern music technology evolving to become one of the most exciting and accessible areas of study.

This content comes from The Modern Music Technologist, part of the Program Foundations of Music Technology.

Foundations of Music Technology