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Computer Music, Part 1

Nick Catalano By

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A couple of years ago I wrote a review about Wallace Roney at Joe's Pub. Roney has been known as a trumpeter who frequently seeks cutting-edge developments in music, and his recordings usually contain something new. On this night, Roney had hired a turntablist for his bandstand aggregation, and It was to be the first time I was to hear turntable scratchings in a jazz group.

For a while, at the millennium turn, there was a predictable ado about what kind of "music" was being produced by the scratchers, but the controversy didn't crossover into jazz criticism. Roney was one of the few leaders to experiment with the phenomenon, which failed to gain much further use in jazz.

Any attempt to account for turntable music on the part of critics or serious listeners should start with a tutorial from a seasoned practitioner, and one I would recommend is available on YouTube. The instructor/musician is DJ Angelo, and his teaching is lucid and facile. Angelo's idea, and that of other scratchers, is to accompany the acoustic instruments principally with rhythmic patterns. Inevitably, however, the creativity extended to sonorities having counter-melodic, and even harmonic attempts, and the possibilities therein are, of course, endless.

When I was asked to comment on turntable music in my jazz class at Pace University, I found the discussion naturally leading to such questions as "What is music?" and "What constitutes a proper musical instrument?" Inevitably, I wound up introducing John Cage and his composition "4'33," containing only ambient sounds of people coughing, pulses beating, and cars honking, without any musical instruments at all.

The legitimacy of scratchers was upheld.

Hard upon the turntable phenomenon came "computer music." Once again the sounds produced did not come from traditional instruments. Attempts to describe the computer activity which was offered as music were difficult to come up with. The best one was "laptop performer" and this past summer I attended a Computer Music symposium at The Walden School in New Hampshire. There was an impressive laptop performer Sam Pluta—a doctoral student in computer music at Columbia—teaching a class to several young laptoppers.

Although CD releases of laptoppers contain acoustic musicians playing alongside their electronic cousins, it appears that the future will involve more and more blips, buzzes and clonks and less traditional instruments. More about this next month.


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