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.

Greenlief/Léandre, Four Years Later

Phillip Greenlief/Joëlle LéandreThat Overt Desire of Object (Relative Pitch, 2011)

On my radio show in 2006, I’d played tracks from That Overt Desire of Object,
an upcoming duo album by Phillip Greenlief and Joëlle Léandre.  It was a good album, 11 tracks organized into “variations” for Léandre’s contrabass and Greenlief’s different horns — clarinet, alto sax, soprano sax, etc.

Greenlief, who I believe has been interviewed on my show more often than anybody else, had fronted us an early CD-R, already mastered. On the show, we discussed the imminent CD release. It was fun to have a bit of a scoop.

That was four-and-a-half years ago.

At the Angelica Sanchez concert in April, Greenlief told me the CD was only now being released. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the gap; I’d just assumed the release had happened as planned.

But it hadn’t, bitten by the usual difficulties of the DIY/avant-garde world. Big thumbs up, then, to the folks at Relative Pitch — a newly formed Bay Area label — for releasing this music to the big, bad world. (UPDATE: Relative Pitch is in the New York area, as noted below. Thanks, guys!)

In our 2006 interview, Greenlief mentioned that particularly in duo improvising, he prefers creating shorter pieces. He comes into each one with a strategy, a single idea he hopes to articulate in the space of a few minutes. Of course, that doesn’t preclude going with the flow if his partner finds a new direction to explore — or if they both shift plans at once, almost telepathically, which does sometimes happen.

The template, though, is one of crisp focus, rather than stringing phases together to form a musical novel. It pays off in some of the shortest tracks here. “2nd Variation for Clarinet and Contrabass” is a compact adventure, a flurry of speedy clarinet with classical tones, backed by some quick sawing on bass. The moment fades down quickly, making for a tart 90-second snack.

Often, Greenlief and Léandre try contrasting approaches with one horn, as on the two pieces for alto sax and contrabass. “1st Variation” starts with tight, twisting sax, descended from free jazz. “2nd Variation” is just as fast but has a different bounce. Léandre starts it with springy bowed notes, from which Greenlief builds a more abstract and more dynamically varied sax part. You might call it a more serious sound.

Among my favorite tracks is “2nd Variation for Soprano Sax and Contrabass,” which has the sax playing between-toned flutterings, like the patterns of speech, while the bass patiently strums the start of what could have been a roots/blues tune. The piece wanders forward, like a spoken monologue over a spare bass pulse in a smoky jazz bar.

“2nd Variation for Tenor Sax and Contrabass” actually starts with bold, dramatic bowed tones, but the sax arrives as a toneful, calming presence, speaking in pillowy short phrases. It’s a really nice combination.

The album ends with two solo tracks, both long, at 11 and 12 minutes. “1st Variation for Soprano Saxophone and Voice” features growls and wails sung by Greenlief into the saxophone, contrasted with fierce overblown growls produce by the saxophone itself. Its second half gives way to more conventional sax playing, extracting power tones and quick angles out of the soprano sax. (Kenny G, eat your heart out.)

Léandre responds with a bold voice-and-contrabass piece, starting with buzzy-toned bass sawing that gets into an athletic frenzy, lots of ferocious virtuosity. Much of the playing focuses on the sounds from the bow, riding one tone and/or a set of fast glissandos while the bowing hand works on the different sounds produced by varying angles and pressures.  The “voice” part comes in late, starting with Léandre’s melodramatic breathing, then briefly opening into growly throat noises. You wouldn’t call the voice siren-like, but the bass part certainly is, especially the loud, assertive tones near the end. It’s bass with authority and attitude, which of course is a known strength of Léandre’s.

Another Joëlle Léandre Gig

Joëlle Léandre, Maguelone Vidal, Raymond BoniTrace (Red Toucan, 2009)

Joëlle Léandre is one of those wandering improvisers, an instigator who swoops into town, records with a couple of new or old friends, then moves on. Obviously, this gives each recording a different character, but they’re always anchored by her meaty, almost visual style of bass.

One thing that’s consistent is the setting, always laced with subtlety. Léandre favors bandmates who respect silences without using outright pauses; it’s not lowercase improvising, because there’s a constant sense of motion, but the pace can be relaxed, the volumes less than 11 or even 8. Trace, with Maguelone Vidal on sax (especially soprano) and Raymond Boni on guitar (electric or acoustic), fits that mold.

Without drums, it’s nice to hear how the trio pauses and breathes, tiny stops that punctuate what could otherwise be a rather shrill performance. Vidal gets some abrasive whines out of the soprano on tracks like “Joseph et Joseph” or “Tractile” — long, slow howls that make a nice table-setter for Leandre’s busy basswork, especially when she’s playing arco.

There are definite classical overtones on tracks like “Gros Dilemme” — and not just because the bowed bass can sound so classical. It’s the saxophone there that seems, in spots, to be following the carefully carved lines of a recital, spices with occasional, small knots of fast-jazz skronking.

The album is sometimes spare and often slow, but comes across as extroverted. There’s some nice bluster, on “Tube,” for instance. But I’m drawn toward “Des Prunes,” which takes the bluster down a notch but still keeps an aggressive, dark momentum rolling … or “Cumuls,” a languid piece with relaxed (but shrill) soprano sax.