Digital Composer Combines Real Instruments, Computers to Produce Sounds that Tease, Seduce, Shock and Surprise

Release Date: February 28, 2001 This content is archived.


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Composer Cort Lippe takes music produced by traditional instruments and through computer intervention turns it into sounds that tease, seduce, shock and surprise.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Cort Lippe appears in his formal photographs to be the serious-minded composer he is -- a leading figure in the international electro-acoustic music community. He is an associate professor and director of the Lejaren Hiller Computer Music Studios in the Department of Music at the University at Buffalo, an international nerve center for composition and research in the field of interactive computer music.

That, however, is just part of his story.

Unlike much of the industrialized, computerized, "anti-music" in vogue today, Lippe's work employs traditional instruments whose sounds tease, seduce, shock and surprise through the use of computer intervention. The instrumental sound becomes something else, or even more of itself. In one such composition, a piano snuffles, snorts, cries, whines like a dog, collapses in defeat, blasts into space, hesitates, is terrorized by what sounds like a T. Rex, then feels its wood split and break as it melts into a long, slow groan.

A critically regarded composer, sound designer and interactive musician, Lippe frequently is a composer-in-residence at music festivals and institutions across the globe. He came to UB after 11 years in Paris and many years before that studying, working and teaching with leading composers of the era.

They included American Larry Austin and G.M. Koenig and Paul Berg at the Netherlands' Instituut voor Sonologie. He spent three years at the Centre d'Etudes de Mathematique et Automatique Musicales, directed by brilliant Greek composer I. Xenakis. He since has worked and taught at many of the world's most important facilities in composition and research in music utilizing electronics, notably IRCAM, the world-famous Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique in Paris.

It was at IRCAM that the clandestine and "frightening" side of Lippe's musical personality publicly emerged. It was there that he met fellow composer/researcher Zack Settel, with whom he formed the "Convolution Brothers," an electronic music duo that has appeared in concert in Paris, Japan and the United States, as well as worldwide via live Internet broadcast sponsored by Canal+, a prominent Paris TV station.

A review of a Convolution Brothers performance in San Diego by critic Mark Danks indicated the complexity of Lippe's work and the boys' tendency to stay one step ahead of the authorities. In fact, the Convolution Brothers' Web site includes a shot of Lippe and Settel that purports to be "a rare CIA surveillance photo."

Danks wrote of the technical complexity of their compositions, which featured a "real-time convolution of both sound files and their own voices using the ISPW (Integrated Software Processing Workframe). One example that raised more than a few eyebrows and laughs was a duet between Mr. Lippe and Mr. Settel using an Otis Redding song as the convoluted soundfile. The impression they created as they jumped from one sound to the next was that of two kids playing...their performance contained moments of real music and novelty...."

Moments of "real music?"

Lippe's award-winning compositions may sound bizarre and disconcerting to the uninformed ear, but they are nonetheless astonishing and engaging. In addition to the computer, his instruments include clarinets, flute, oboe, breath, some static, a tuba that sounds at times like a troubled, spitting cow, and a trilling harp or two and assorted keyboards. His work appears on a number of CDs, including many on the critically acclaimed CDCM Computer Music Series on Centaur Records. Individual citations and audio excerpts can be found at

In differentiating the relationship of his music to the computer as compositional tool, Lippe points out the variety of possible relationships in the world of interactive computer and electronic music today.

"Computer music is a particular field 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.

"I was, for many years, both an instrumental and electronic music composer. The opportunity to combine the two genres was made possible through the increasing availability and reduced cost of interactive computer programs. So for the last 15 years, I've been able to pursue my creative and research interest in interactive computer music involving live instrumentalists and computers in performance situations."

Lippe says he originally was drawn to computer music because of his particular interest in designing new sounds -- something at which computers are very good. He also was interested in exploring algorithmic compositional structures, a compositional activity greatly facilitated by computer simulation.

"Some composers use computers to model or imitate musical instruments," he says. "Some composers of electronic music are interested in replacing instrumentalists with machines by modeling human performance. I'm not interested in replacing either instruments or performers.

"After all," he says, "musicians, with their years of experience on instruments that have often developed over centuries, offer a rich musical and cultural resource for me as a composer -- even as a composer working with computer technology. I work to create an interactive environment that articulates sonic design and compositional structures in some sort of interactive relationship with live performers."

Early computer composers had to produce tapes, develop algorithms and then drive the tapes -- sometimes hundreds of miles -- to a computer lab at a Princeton or a Columbia, where they could be converted. As a result, says Lippe, their task was complicated, enormously time-consuming, expensive and very, very difficult. There were, in fact, very few composers working in the field.

"Then in the '70s, we could work on smaller computers in real-time, but had no ability to do complex algorithmic computation," he says. "More useful systems were developed later, but in small numbers.

"Today, we work in real-time on highly portable computers -- I usually compose on a laptop, for instance -- that can accommodate very complex software systems. The change is amazing. Music composition is available to the masses.

"It's produced a lot of new work, one subset of which is the 'anti-performance' composition that denies the somatic side of music. That's usually done by musicians in their 20s," he says. "There's no movement, no expression, one performer -- not very interesting to me.

"The ability to freely collect and manipulate sound in complex ways has turned up some intriguing work, however."

Lippe cites a favorite somatic or body-oriented performance group, "Sensorband," that employs gestural interfaces -- ultrasound, infrared and bioelectric sensors -- to become musical instruments themselves. In one case, the musicians hang a huge "soundnet" made of shipping rope that is miked and wired so that as the performers climb around on it, "movement music" is produced. They also produce music by tensing and releasing muscle groups that have been linked to a sound program.

Lippe often works with a computer tracking the parameters -- frequency, amplitude, spectrum, density, silence, articulation, tempo -- of instruments, in real-time during the performance, which allows the performers to use the information to provoke specific electronic events -- to effect the electronic output even as they react to it. The result often is a deep and enriching auditory experience, full of subtle nuance that suggests the love-hate relationship we have with machines in general.

Full of harps and clarinets, oboes and breath, a typical Lippe composition takes the listener on a carefully articulated journey during which sound melts or becomes humorous, spasmodic, fluid. Sounds are dragged through a tunnel at warp speed and coughed out at the end, exhausted and frayed, but changed. His music often feel dangerous but funky, like an amusing companion who hears strange things but is able to convey the intricacies of what he's experienced.

Lippe 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 electro-acoustic composition.

"The Hiller studios are a beta-testing center for new computer equipment," he says, "and our graduates can be found on the faculty of many prestigious institutions. We share in the storied history of new music at the University at Buffalo -- a history that includes such names as Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman and John Cage."

Intriguingly, however, UB composition students continue to express increasing interest in vintage electronic performance equipment as well, and the Hiller studios now are replete not only with the computer programs that duplicate Cartesian coordinate systems, but with sound boards and hi-fi equipment with which Buddy Holly and Les Paul would be right at home.

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