Late last year New World Records issued a fascinating document of the work of the League of Automatic Music Composers, a Bay Area group that in the late 70s and early 80s became one of the first to use computers as real-time musical instruments. Few people have ever heard the brazenly experimental material produced by the LAMC–a group of largely self-taught tech geeks that included John Bischoff (pictured), Jim Horton, and Tim Perkis–but their canny exploitation of early microcomputers like the KIM-1 (which went for around $250 when it was introduced in 1976 and operated with a mere 1 K of user RAM) presaged whole worlds of music making that would open up in the decades to come. They formed an interactive band of networked microcomputers, wiring three or four separate machines to one another to produce spastic, unpredictable, and deliberately raw blasts of synthetic blubbering, squealing, squelching, and humming.
The new CD collects ten pieces recorded between 1978 and 1983, culled from 30 cassettes kept in an old shoebox. The music is unmistakably (and understandably) primitive, created by jerry-rigging crude gear, a la LAMC contemporaries Voice Crack (whose approach, while similar, was even more improvisational and low-tech) or countless subsequent bargain-bin hackers (like the Chicagoans in the defunct 8-Bit Construction Set). Joined for brief periods by important electronic-music figures like David Behrman and Paul DeMarinis, the LAMC developed strategies and programs that allowed their highly challenged machines a limited kind of artificial intelligence–one computer might react to specific pitches it “heard” by triggering rhythmic functions in a second device–but they left enough room for chance and randomness that the music was often essentially improvised. In their extensive liner notes, Perkis and Bischoff write:
“A typical League session would consist of setting up our computer systems in a living room and laboriously connecting them together. With wires running everywhere and our computer programs finally debugged, after several hours we would eventually get the system up and musically running. Then we would play, tuning our systems and listening intently as our machines interacted. When surprising new areas of musicality appeared, we took notes on the parameter settings of our individual programs with the hope that recalling those settings in concert would yield similar exciting results.”
The group ceased activity in 1983 due to the Horton’s crippling rheumatoid arthritis (he died in 1998). Bischoff and Perkis eventually started another network band called the Hub, which has been active sporadically for more than two decades.
Bischoff, currently teaching music at Mills College in Oakland, has produced a small but strong body of solo work since the dissolution of the LAMC. His most recent album, Aperture (23five, 2003), uses current software (namely the fairly ubiquitous Max/MSP), but spontaneity and chance remain vital components of his music–the album was recorded in real time, and there are no overdubs. A beautiful piece like “Piano 7hz” uses piano notes as source material, but the sustained notes from the keyboard are not only processed but seem to be triggering other elusive sounds–pings, ringing bells, water drips. I won’t pretend to know how all this stuff works, but I can say that the results can easily be appreciated without such knowledge. On Saturday night Bischoff gives a rare local concert at Lampo, where he’ll perform four recent pieces.
Anthony Braxton & Joe Fonda, Duets 1995 (Clean Feed)
Andy Moor, Marker (Unsounds)
Soft Machine, Volume Two (Water)
Mattin & Radu Malfatti, Going Fragile (Formed)
Antonio Sanchez, Migration (Cam Jazz)