Apple II Part II: George Lewis in 1984

George LewisRainbow Family (Carrier, 2020; recorded 1984)

Three years ago, I wrote about a 1984 experiment in computer-driven improvisation. George Lewis, then researching at France’s IRCAM, presented a concert of top-notch improvisers — Douglas Ewart, Joelle Leandre, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — performing with three networked Apple II computers that controlled Yamaha synths.

The concert is now available as an album on France’s Carrier label. It’s a valuable document of this early moment in the history of computer music. You have to excuse the limitations of computer sound at the time (try not to think of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who) but the computer element does work. Or, maybe it’s that the high-caliber musicians — Joëlle Léandre, Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — are able to make it work.

The three Apple IIs don’t just bleep randomly. Lewis programmed them to take the (analog) musicians’ choices as input and make digital decisions to create output, including an option to add some randomness (i.e., to play freely). The source code Lewis used is lost, unfortunately, but his recollections of the strategies provide some useful insight in the CD liner notes. The programs did have a way to create a chunk of music from scratch, without inputs, and Lewis infers that this is how some of the pieces start.

Whether real or perceived, the computers manage to create some sublime moments of communication. Léandre’s duet includes a nice stretch where she’s calmly following the computers’ cues, but when she takes control, the machines respond with an anthemic burst.

Lewis had conceived of the three computers developing distinct personalities. What he found, though, was that the human musicians kept thinking of their bandmates as “The” computer. Same here, I have to admit. (See how I just called Léandre’s piece a “duet.”) It’s an interesting test of human perception.

Of course, the humans’ personalities and choices lead to specific characteristics for some of the pieces. Ewart produces a piece that is both forceful and calm, drifting like a Calder mobile and creating some of the most neatly matched improvising of the album. Bailey’s low-key piece features a stretch of harmonics that tease out some pleasant tone-tinkering from the computers.

The album culminates with a group session — all four humans, all three computers. It starts at a cautious pace, with the humans avoiding the “spew” factor that a group of this size can create. As the activity builds up, the computers seem to know to sometimes stay out of the way. Here’s a particularly noisy section with the humans taking the lead; the Apple IIs slip into the mix with small chimes and shimmers that get more assertive as the humans back down. It feels organic. Whether that’s excellent foresight on the part of Lewis the coder or just a lucky happenstance, we’ll never know — but Lewis’ knowledge and experience certainly increased the probability of these kind of moments.

You can sample and purchase the album on Bandcamp. I’m especially partial to Douglas Ewart’s piece.

George Lewis and the Apple II in 1984

takingthestageHere’s a nice slice of history. In the 1980s, IRCAM, the French institute for music, sound, and science, hosted a series of concerts called “Écoutez Votre Siècle,” and one of the installments was an early presentation of George Lewis‘ work with computer-generated sound.

A bit of that concert survives on the web, part of a 26-minute TV documentary that IRCAM produced. While we don’t get to hear the whole concert, the real treasure might be the interviews and rehearsal footage, which offer a look at the state of computer music in 1984.

Lewis’ piece, “Rainbow Family,” was created for a combination of human and computer players interacting. He assembled quite a team for it: Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Joëlle Léandre (bass), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), and Derek Bailey (guitar).

Lewis manned the computers and coordinated the rehearsals, during which the human players got acquainted with the tendencies of Lewis’ programs, much like feeling out another musician they’ve met for the first time.

lewis computers 80It’s fun watching Lewis work with fellow musical giants. I’ve known about Ewart but haven’t heard much of his playing; getting to know the man a little bit, while also hearing bits of his music, was enjoyable. He has some keen insights — noting, for example, that one strategy would be to consider the computer “an improviser who might not have the seasoning that we do.”

I’ve never heard Steve Lacy speak, something that didn’t occur to me until watching his video. His voice has an east-coast hip-cat lilt — which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, considering he comes from exactly that era.

Lewis himself is interviewed at length, mostly in French; he seems nearly fluent in the language. (Again, maybe I shouldn’t be so blown away. “Never mind that he’s a trombone great, an AACM biographer, and a computer-music pioneer — the dude speaks French!”)

hands and apple ii 80

Early in the show, Lewis switches to English to explain that his work is the barest glimmer of what artificial intelligence should eventually be capable of. He knew that his then-exciting technology was still a limiting factor; 1984 was a long way off from Tim Perkis’ real-time laptop musicianship. Still, the sounds Lewis wrests from the Apple II aren’t as dated as I was expecting. In the end, it does sound like the players found a rapport with the machines.

Interestingly, the documentary ends with the sound of trains — found sound, another type of sonic experimentation.

You can find the half-hour mini-documentary, along with others in the “Écoutez Votre Siècle” series, here.

Hat tip: Andrew Raffo Dewar on Twitter.

Pat Metheny’s Dark Side

Consider this a sequel to the Lou Reed post.  I mention Pat Metheny and The Sign of Four there, and it got me thinking back to that album, and to another one …

There’s an interloper’s factor when “commercial” musicians step into the improv world.  Free improv, despite what a lot of people think, isn’t thoughtless flailing. Try playing along with an Evan Parker or Derek Bailey CD; it’s not as easy as you’d think.

So, on the one hand, you have the sentiment of, “How dare they think they can just step right into this world!”  On the other hand, free improv today sounds pretty darned similar to the free improv circa 1969, when Derek Bailey and The Company were first working it out. Maybe some new voices couldn’t hurt.

Metheny’s music has gained popularity for being pretty and airy and cinematic — that’s the word the critics love, and it’s apt.  But Metheny has always insisted that his music isn’t meant to be played softly or quietly. It’s not just mood music. And jazz in general, he says, ought to be loud.

To that end, The Sign of Four, a 3-CD set recorded in 1997, opens with disquiet: a 62-minute marquee piece called “A Study in Scarlet.”  It was performed live at the Knitting Factory, and it marked Metheny and Bailey’s first meeting, each bringing along a drummer as well (Paul Wertico and Gregg Bendian).  They didn’t know much about one another beyond reputation, but it seems understood that they were going to do something improvised and not-nice.  And so it was: Metheny soon cranks it to 11 and never looks back.

Some people complain that this froze the entire piece, limiting the choices of Bailey and the drummers, and obliterating any chance to hear Bailey’s sublime, scribbly language. True. But again: Different isn’t bad.  What came out was more than acceptable, IMHO.  It’s interesting hearing Derek Bailey really shred, heavy distortion and all, and the drummers occasionally back off to create the illusion of calm. A second live disk of shorter pieces, and a studio disc, include moments of exploring other territory (i.e. quieter stuff), where silence gets to play its role.

Does Sign of Four work? I’d say yes, absolutely. But it’s not for everybody, and I can see why even a fan of abstract music might snub it.  What’s of interest here is that Metheney tried something outside his usual bounds — and, to an extent, so did Bailey.

In 1994, Metheny had gone on a solo excursion into similar territory. Zero Tolerance for Silence came out with zero fanfare on Geffen, his then-current label. In a Rolling Stone interview, Metheny described it as an exercise in “filling space” rather than creating space — the latter being his usual M.O. in those cinematic, open-sky pieces he’s famous for.

As I’ve mentioned before, you can often judge a CD by its cover. That harsh, stark, almost evil fluorescent light.  Yes, this won’t be another “Phase Dance.”

For my money, the 18-minute “Part One” is “Zero Tolerance for Silence.”  Meaning, that’s the piece I think Metheny really set out to do.  The track consists of four overdubbed electric guitars, intentionally out of tune by the sound of it, manically hammering away at blurry white-noise chords. Metheny takes occasional breaks for solos, where all four guitars, now sounding even more out of tune, plunge into criss-crossing, grunting, atonal lines of single notes before returning to the blur.

My guess is that Metheny recorded one guitar track with no schematic, just a general plan of what he wanted to do.  Each subsequent track was recorded while listening to the first one and following its cues, so that the solos and the chordal blurs would be in sync.

It’s harsh and grating — and oddly relaxing, due to the long stretches of near white noise. I’ve literally fallen asleep listening to it.  And you know what? I honestly like “Part One.”

Parts Two through Five, though, feel like B-sides. Metheny seems to be using the same approach — four overdubs in sequence — but doesn’t have another grand idea to back up the execution. He draws some sour-toned, off-key melodies that you could say are experimental, or microtonal, or bold … but really, they’re just annoying.

I’m glad Metheny had the interest to give this type of music a whirl, and that he got the support to put the results out on disc.  The differences in Zero Tolerance and Sign of Four show how enriching it is for a musician to be pushed by others in a group, and the latter shows that Metheny does have an aptitude for this stuff. He could enrich his mad improv skillz if he wanted to concentrate on this music, I’m sure — but of course, that’s not his thing, and that’s fine.