Return to The Hub

Topology of The Hub. Source: perkis.comA laptop ensemble seems novel but not all that impossible these days. Last year, I even wrote about the laptop orchestra that’s a college course at Santa Clara.

But laptops used to be relatively expensive and exotic little beasts, back when personal computers’ capabilities were much more limited. And computer networking was even more primitive — in fact, the very act of “networking” your computer wasn’t something to take for granted.

That was the environment in the late 1980s when The Hub pioneered the idea of a computerized music ensemble, not only performing with the machines but networking them together as well.

The Hub hasn’t quit, either. They put out a 3-CD set on Tzadik six years ago. And they’re making a live appearance Tuesday, April 22, at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

It’s fascinating to read Tim Perkis‘ notes about The Hub’s operation back in the day. Some of the technological limitations actually sound more intriguing than frustrating.

At first, they used a home-built networking hub. Later, they used MIDI, which was indeed intended to connect computerized machines to musical instruments but didn’t have the flexibility we’d take for granted today. For example, MIDI expected information in the form of musical notes. The metallic screeching and shattered-glass sounds we expect in laptop music today wouldn’t be so easy to convey.

The Hub rose to the challenge by composing for these limitations. Perkis describes a sparse composition of his titled “Waxlips:”

Each player is requested to make his program have the following simple behavior: he had to be able to receive requests to play one note. When the request was received he should play the note, and then send a request to someone else in the group to play one note. This outgoing request must be computed from the incoming one in such a way that the same request in always generates the same request out. For example, any time I asked John Bischoff to play a C#, that would always cause him to issue a request to Chris Brown, say, to play an Ab. The mapping must be deterministic, and static. Every now and then I would send out another special message that meant “change your mapping”, along with a pitch set of allowable pitches to request. I would also start the process off, and jump start it again when necessary by spraying new notes into the network.

This piece always came out very different each time it was played: usually we would end the piece when it fell into a simple loop of some kind; sometimes, if one of the players wasn’t working properly there would be a leak and all the notes would keep dribbling out.

That’s part of a detailed 1999 article Perkis wrote for Electronic Musician magazine. You can read the article on his web site and get a lot of insight not only into how The Hub’s technology but into some of its strategies for composing. Those strategies would still be valid under today’s richer forms of computer networking — although I’d be interested to see how The Hub might be stretching its boundaries. It’s worth a look Tuesday night.