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Makin' That Hi–Hat Sing and Other Tales of an Interactive Computer Composer
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Cort Lippe's recordings
UB Department of Music

"One fascinating subset of young laptop computer composers has a strong ‘anti-performance' aesthetic that denies the somatic side of music."

  Makin' That Hi–Hat Sing and Other Tales of an Interactive Computer Composer

By Patricia Donovan

  Cort Lippe, at his studio in Slee Hall, combines traditional instrumentation and computer interaction in his musical compositions.

Cort Lippe appears in his formal photographs to be the serious-minded character he is—a leading figure in the international electroacoustic music community. He is associate professor and director of the Lejaren Hiller Computer Music Studios in the UB Department of Music, an internationally recognized center for composition and research in the field of interactive computer music.

That, however, is just part of his story.

During the past 30 years, computer music has emerged from an esoteric shell to take its place among a wide variety of compositional methods, from pencil and paper to improvisation. No longer confined to the tastes that developed out of experimental electroacoustic music of the 1960s and 1970s, it is now a familiar component in pop, rock, techno, jazz and other music forms.

Lippe's realm, however, includes abstraction boundaries, parametrical thinking, iterative algorithms, demon cyclic space and finite state automata, not to mention the legacies of Music Serialism, Musique Concrête and the Second Vienna School—all and more of which can support the composition of traditional or experimental musical forms.

It is the combination of traditional instrumentation and computer interaction that differentiates Lippe's work from that of more conventional genres and from the industrialized, computerized and purely electronic music in vogue today.

Using his talents as a sound designer and interactive musician, Lippe features traditional instruments played by virtuoso performers who interact in real time with one or more computers in his work. The results are sounds that tease, seduce, shock and surprise.

His point, he says, is to exploit instrumental sound using the computer as a kind of alchemical apparatus to transform the instrument into "something else or even more of itself."

In one such composition, a piano sings, snorts, cries, whines, hesitates, feels its wood split and crack as it melts into a long, slow groan. It could break your heart.

In "Music for Hi-Hat and Computer," Lippe uses the computer to take the listener inside a hi-hat where many and unlikely aspects of its sound-in-action whoosh and whip in and out of the ear like a gust front storm. Audio samples of this and other of his works can be found at www.music.buffalo.edu/lippe/#recordings.

Lippe joined the UB music faculty in 1994 after living in Europe and Japan for 15 years, during which time he studied and worked with such world-renowned composers as G.M. Koenig and Paul Berg of the Netherlands' Instituut voor Sonologie, and Iannis Xenakis in Paris at the Centre d'Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales. Most notably during his European sojourn, he worked for eight years at the world's most important facility for composition and research in music utilizing electronics, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, known as IRCAM, founded by Pierre Boulez, and housed in the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

"Computer music is a subset of electronic music," he says, "and interactive computer music is a relatively new area that has grown tremendously since the advent of the personal computer.

"My energies were fairly equally divided between instrumental and electronic music," he says. "The opportunity to combine the two genres was made possible through the increasing availability of real-time digital signal processing. In addition, I was interested in exploring new sounds and algorithmic compositional structures, an area of compositional research greatly facilitated by computers. So for the past 20 years, I've been able to pursue my creative and research interests in interactive computer music involving live instrumentalists and computers in performance situations.

"As a tool, the computer is most often used to do what it does best, which is to simulate something we already know or do. As an artist, I feel a certain responsibility to try and use computers to do something we have not yet done—or heard." Unlike some users of computers, Lippe is not interested in replacing either instruments or performers with their digitized replications.

"After all, musicians, with their years of experience in mastering an instrument, offer such a rich musical-cultural context," he says. "I work to create environments that articulate sonic design and compositional structure in some kind of interactive relationship with these live performers.

"My purpose is to empower the performer, whose interpretation of the musical score directly affects the electronic part of the composition. It is the musician who controls and interacts with the computer to produce the final output."

He explains that today's computers make it possible to analyze and recognize what musicians are doing on a great many levels during a performance. That gives composers information that can be used to enrich an interactive environment.

"Thoughtful high-level event detection combined with the tracking of subtle performance nuances can be used to directly affect the electronic output of a computer," he says, "in much the same way that performers' musical interpretations affect each other in the chamber music paradigm.

"This allows us to fine-tune compositions to the performing characteristics of individual musicians. It permits performers and computers to interact expressively and for musicians to readily sense the consequences of their performance and musical interpretation.

"Furthermore, musically, the computer part of a composition can amplify an instrument in many dimensions and directions, while at the same time articulating an independent musical voice."

He continues: "I constantly come back to our rather complicated and intertwined conceptions of humans and machines. We spend a great deal of time trying to discipline ourselves to perform like machines: our ideal of technical perfection is something akin to our idea of a perfectly working machine. Yet, we also have another entirely negative viewpoint toward anything human which is too machine-like. And, we seem to have a complicated love/hate relationship with machines in general, which is exacerbated by the accelerating replacement of humans by machines in more and more tasks."

Thirty years ago, the process of composing music using computers was complex, enormously time-consuming, geographically difficult and expensive. Today, computerized composition tools are incorporated into children's educational toys.

The soundcard, a standard component in most home computers, outperforms audio conversion systems that were state-of-the-art a mere 10 or 15 years ago. Current processor speeds enable sophisticated real-time synthesis and sound processing on laptop computers that a dozen years ago was only possible on large mainframe computers in nonreal time. Consumer music software facilitates musical composition through relatively easy-to-use graphical user-interfaces that require no programming skills. "The change is staggering," Lippe says. "Computers are now approached like musical instruments, and this has produced a lot of new work."

Apparently this work includes a new form of minimalist performance, sort of a Frankensteinian Dilbertism.

"One fascinating subset of young laptop computer composers has a strong ‘anti-performance' aesthetic that denies the somatic side of music," Lippe says. "There's no movement, no expression, usually a single performer sits on stage staring at a computer screen and moving a mouse. It's sort of like watching an office worker who makes sound. I have a hard time watching [it]. I guess this shows my age!"

And his own performance style.

It was at IRCAM that the improvisational and theatrical side of Lippe's musical personality publicly emerged. He met fellow composer/researcher Zack Settel, with whom he formed the "Convolution Brothers," an electronic cabaret duo (in their words, a "sonic Cuisinart") that has appeared in major international festivals and live via worldwide Internet broadcast.

A review of a Convolution Brothers' performance by critic Mark Danks in Computer Music Journal speaks of the technical complexity of their compositions, which in that case featured a "real-time convolution of both sound files and their own voices using the IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation, or ISPW."

That evening, one selection in particular raised eyebrows and a lot of laughs. It was a Lippe-Settel duet that employed an Otis Redding song as the convoluted sound file. "The impression they created as they jumped from one sound to the next," writes Danks, "was that of two kids playing ... their performance contained moments of real music and novelty."

Lippe has written for most instrumental formations and has won numerous international composition prizes. His music appears on various CD labels, including the CDCM Computer Music Series on Centaur Records, CBS-Sony, Harmonia Mundi, Classico and Neuma.

He continues his compositional work at UB, while instructing graduate and undergraduate music-composition students in the use of cutting-edge software developed for digital audio and electroacoustic composition.

Patricia Donovan is senior editor for humanities, University News Services.

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