PRINT March 2015


Cybernetic Serendipity Music

Cover of Cybernetic Serendipity Music (The Vinyl Factory/ICA, 2014).

THE OPENING of “Cybernetic Serendipity” on August 2, 1968, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts was nothing if not timely. The seminal exhibition centered on “computer art” and drew its name from the burgeoning field inspired by Norbert Wiener’s analysis of technological and social systems in his 1948 book Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. The discipline was then making waves in both mass culture and the arts. Indeed, a few months before the show opened, 2001: A Space Odyssey hit movie theaters and implanted artificial intelligence into the collective consciousness via HAL, a soft-spoken computer; the art world had been primed by events such as “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” a groundbreaking series of performances generated by collaborations between artists and engineers in New York in October 1966, assembled by what would become the organization Experiments in Art and Technology (led by Robert Rauschenberg, Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman, and Fred Waldhauer); British artist and educator Roy Ascott had integrated cybernetics theory into his coursework at Ealing School of Art in London and Ipswich Civic College in Suffolk, UK; and the counterculture had already produced a literal ode to cybernetics, Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”

The idea of serendipitous timing was at the center of the show: The interplay of the programmed and the spontaneous ran through curator Jasia Reichardt’s survey of the growing use of computers by artists and of art experimentation by computer scientists, including machine-generated graphics, poetry, animation, texts, and robotics. But, in fact, music was the domain in which issues of systemization and chance, mechanical and spontaneous, were of paramount interest. There was a large music computer installed in “Cybernetic Serendipity,” as well as four domes where visitors could hear twelve-minute loops of computer music, rotated daily. An exhibition catalogue was published as a special issue of Studio International, offering an extensive selection of essays by composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and James Tenney, and a fifty-five-minute compilation LP of computer music, Cybernetic Serendipity Music, was released by the ICA as a supplement. (This was a first, the only comparable precedents being a seven-inch record included with a leporello catalogue of a Jean Tinguely gallery show in Tokyo in 1963 and the repackaging of a ten-inch as the catalogue for a Baschet Brothers exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965.) Last fall, the show itself was revisited at the ICA in a special Fox Reading Room exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity: A Documentation,” and the long-out-of-print record was reissued by the Vinyl Factory and the ICA in a facsimile limited edition, with no download card in sight. It’s ironic, albeit conservation-minded, that a predigital-age collection of computer music should remain enshrined solely in an analog format.

Given the hegemony of twelve-tone rows in Western modern classicism (favoring numerical permutations of all twelve pitches in a scale over the concepts of major/minor tonal harmony and melody that had been cherished since the Renaissance), a potential alliance between computers and the midcentury pencil-and-paper composer was almost innate. As Gerald Strang pointed out in his 1968 catalogue essay, music composition can be a lot like computer programming: “If I write a series of notes and I say this passage is to be played mezzo forte by the oboe, with certain particular kinds of attacks and certain phrasing . . . I am really saying that certain raw data shall be processed and modified by passing through this instrument.” Many of the composers on Cybernetic Serendipity Music could boast of a dual background in music and science: Lejaren Hiller had been a chemist at DuPont, Wilhelm Fucks was a physicist, and Iannis Xenakis was a civil engineer and architect, while Peter Zinovieff cofounded the Electronic Music Studios company (best known for its VCS3 synthesizer, a staple of the 1970s European prog-rock scene). Still, the album, which features ten works, four of them excerpted, was compiled by a painter, Peter Schmidt, who served as the exhibition’s music consultant. Schmidt was perfectly cast. He had performed a concert of electronic music titled “A Painter’s Use of Sound” at the ICA the previous year and was interested in the use of systems, rather than self-expression, in art. He would go on to collaborate with Brian Eno, a former student of Ascott’s, who would be strongly influenced by his Ipswich training both in his work as a pop-record producer and in formulating the mechanics of ambient music.

Schmidt gives equal space to the computer’s uses as a new instrument and as a cooperator (or both). Despite his statement in the liner notes that “all attempts at historical perspective” would be “out of place” in making his picks, the album leads off with a “landmark,” the fourth and final movement of Illiac Suite, composed by Hiller with mathematician Leonard Isaacson in 1956 (and published in 1957)—the first major score completed by a computer program (although performed by a string quartet) and named after ILLIAC, the five-ton computer at the University of Illinois, where Hiller taught. Proceeding from the first three movements, which ran the gamut from basic counterpoint to hard-core serialism, the computer was programmed to make note selections based on probability tables. Continuously teetering between a tonal center and dissonant harmonies, and played with a mechanistic vigor by the string quartet, it makes a telling case for algorithms’ capacity for musical construction. Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960), which amplifies various objects with phonograph cartridges, follows; while not expressly associated with computers, its presence is a nod to machine-made indeterminacy, illustrating Schmidt’s assertion that “randomness (decision avoiding, or more concisely, leaving a decision to chance within an exactly specified range of possibilities) is one of the most important tools of the computer composer.” As it happens, Cage spent time with Hiller in 1967 during a stint as a visiting research professor at Illinois, and the two had already begun work on their pioneering collaboration utilizing computers, HPSCHD (1967–69). Xenakis, who in 1977 would invent UPIC, a computerized method of composing by writing directly onto an electromagnetic drawing board, is represented by one of his first scores to involve computers, Stratégie (1962), which uses game theory to devise a kind of competition between two orchestras set up back-to-back, producing seismic paroxysms of brass horns and percussion.

The album’s second side gathers pieces both scored and performed by computer, with somewhat dated results. An early attempt at a computer “orchestra,” Strang’s Compusition 3 (1966), is a mixture of playful bleeping, white-noise detonations, siren-like glissandos, and rippling sequences of random pitches that have become all too recognizable as antiquated computer sounds; while the third track, T. H. O’Beirne’s Enneadic Selections (1968), an approximation of bagpipes, is typical of first-generation mimetic sound synthesis, which tends to come off as a Tinkertoy reduction of traditional instrumental timbres. However, the hyperrepetitive Bit Music (1967–68), which was also realized by its composer, Haruki Tsuchiya, as a computer graphic titled The Individualisation Age, foreshadows the more minimalist “glitch” style of ’90s laptop-wielding electronicists. Similarly, Zinovieff’s contribution, January Tensions (1968), anticipates both the generative computer programs Koan and Noatikl and the real-time synthesis and live coding of SuperCollider, Max/MSP, and other electronic music software of the past twenty years. The computer (with only 8k of memory!) improvises with autonomously selected content and then develops the piece based on previous choices it has made. A striking equivalence of process with the then-emerging European free improvisation scene is borne out in the next track, a live recording of Herbert Brün’s Infraudibles (1968), which features two of Britain’s foremost improvisers, guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker, along with several other musicians, playing along with Brün’s computer piece. The circular dynamics of such group improvisation could even be viewed as cybernetic in nature. In the same way that each participant is constantly creating material that is meant to stand on its own as well as be affected by (and, in turn, to affect) what the others are playing, in cybernetic thought, a feedback loop reintroduces a system’s output into its input, prompting continual readjustments.

By the late ’60s, both free improvisation and the computer promised to eliminate intermediaries in the process of making music. Free improvisation conflated performer and composer into one; and the computer afforded “the direct translation of scores into music,” according to Zinovieff. In the ensuing decades, as computers and electronic music became more entwined, the roles of composer, performer, and programmer would not only further coalesce but frequently be assumed by a nonmusician. Cybernetic Serendipity Music doesn’t particularly point in this direction (although Schmidt concluded his note in a 1967 ICA bulletin for “A Painter’s Use of Sound” by asking, “Is it too much to hope that a complete ignorance of musical theory may be some curious advantage?”). But in the catalogue’s introduction, Reichardt muses that “no visitor to the exhibition, unless he reads all the notes relating to all the works, will know whether he is looking at something made by an artist, engineer, mathematician, or architect.” Perhaps even Reichardt couldn’t have predicted the degree to which personal computers would begin to merge such specializations, decisively loosening the boundaries between creation and discovery in art and science.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.