Leading these groundbreaking investigations into computers-as-musical-instruments is an industrious cabal affiliated with Oakland's Mills College, which has served as a fertile nexus for trailblazing research into the live-performance possibilities offered by computers since the mid-'70s. One of the most significant groups to come out of the Mills scene is the Hub, the world's pre-eminent computer network band.
Since 1985, Hub members have been programming clusters of networked personal computers, each of which plays an individual composition but simultaneously influences the others on the network. Essentially, the machines are jamming with each other, with their human controllers holding the reins.
"We've basically programmed our systems individually to generate music semiautomatically, and the music kind of grows out of their interaction," says longtime Hub member John Bischoff, who also serves as the studios coordinator at the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) at Mills. "It never comes out the same: There's no score."
Bischoff adds, "The whole form of computer network music is indigenous to this area. It started here with a group that a number of members of the Hub were in: the League of Automatic Music Composers."
The League was stirred to life by the advent of microcomputers in the mid-'70s, which swept through the local experimental music community. Formally established in 1978, the League is generally considered the very first computer network band. In fact, the group basically had to build its own electronic maze from scratch, since one wasn't readily available that would suit its purposes.
According to founding League member Jim Horton, who still composes computer-controlled "process" pieces at his Berkeley home, prior to the arrival of these affordable little machines, computer music wasn't so much performed as recorded: Composers would program their pieces on big mainframes and play back the tapes at concerts.
"When microcomputers came out," says Horton, "the thing that the Mills College crowd did, including myself, was immediately get them into real-time performance by making instruments out of them and playing them live."
Horton's first computer was something called a KIM-1 -- a dinky machine by today's standards, with 1K of memory -- that he bought sight unseen through the mail. He began programming it to play music, and when his Mills compatriots saw what he was doing, they naturally had to have computers too. Inspired by the theories of avant-garde composer John Cage and his music circuses in which different compositional pieces interact, the group tried linking the machines together. Thus the League was born.
Horton, Bischoff, and Rich Gold formed the League's core; Tim Perkis, David Behrman, and Donald Day were eventually incorporated into the collective. Much like the later Hub, each member would program his computer to play an autonomous program, but the computers would also take information and cues from each other, the "net" result being three or four computers playing separate-yet-interconnected pieces. All of this was run through a mixer and played for the audience -- "at a goodly volume," of course.
The group practiced/played regularly; for a time, they were gathering every other Sunday afternoon at Finn Hall, a community center in West Berkeley. League performances would literally take hours to set up and debug, and on an aesthetic level, they were pretty odd.
"Envision a table full of electronic circuits, little boxes, computers, all kinds of wires, and so forth," reminisces Horton. "A typical concert would be us at this table, continually fooling around with electronics, changing parameters on the programs."
The League was obsessed with the idea of artificial intelligence, so much so that its motto was something to the effect of "We get new group members by building them." At times, the computers did indeed seem to have minds of their own, as though engaged in free improvisation with a unified consciousness. Excited by the innovation, the League was spurred then to delve further. That members were essentially performing cutting-edge computer network research was mere incidental byproduct.
"One time this group from NASA-Ames came up to see us," says Horton. "They were designing this network for the space shuttle, and they had heard about what we were doing. They came up to check it out, took some notes, and seemed to enjoy it."
The League disbanded in 1982, but its legacy persisted. Bischoff and Perkis carried on with their research into computer music at Mills, and soon other artists joined the fray. For the next few years, different permutations of computer networks were experimented with, and out of this emerged the Hub. Key members Bischoff, Perkis, Chris Brown, Mark Trayle, Scot Gresham-Lancaster, and Phil Stone have pursued many other computer-oriented projects over the years as well, performing around the globe and releasing music through Berkeley's Artifact Recordings and other labels. But the Hub never died.
According to Hub member and CCM co-director Chris Brown, one of the things that has kept the group alive is the public's ever-increasing fascination with computer networks and the possibilities they provide. As an example, he cites an early Hub performance in which the six-member group was split in half between two New York loft spaces half a mile apart, connected via modem. The group played two sets, with the audience switching venues at intermission.
"People get off on this sort of idea," Brown says, "and I've kind of given up trying to fight it."
One of the more novel concepts to come out of the Hub is a radical rethinking of musical roles within the group. Unlike a more conventional "band," in which each instrument provides a discrete aspect to the music, such as bass, rhythm, or melody line, each computer/musician would control one aspect of the performance's total sound. For example, one player's actions might control the pitches played by all the players, another might handle timing, and another would be responsible for overall timbre.
"This sort of cross-modulation of the musical instruments -- this is something that the Hub invented," says Horton, who has amassed an encyclopedic personal data base documenting the history of local experimental music. "I find that kind of exciting, splitting up the musical tasks in new and different ways. It's an avant-garde idea that people hadn't been into before."
So what's this all sound like, you ask? Well, judging from last year's Wreckin' Ball CD, the Hub is pretty much all over the map. Technology has come a long way since the days of the League: The composers' computer-controlled synthesizers are now networked together with commercially available MIDI equipment. But there are still moments when the onslaught of plinks and dinks will never let you forget that computers are involved, and some of the more squiggly electronic noises sound like they could have been lifted straight off an old Moog record.
But just as often, you'd swear computers were nowhere in the picture. Inspired by the wah-wah pedal, "Crybaby," with its samples of heavy-metal guitar solos and monster truck engines, gives your more raucous experimental noise artists a run for their money, as do the harsh, nightmarish textures of "The Glass Hand." Other tracks, with their samples of more traditional instruments, sound a bit like a vintage orchestra playing structured improv. Overall, it's quintessential egghead music: Reading the liner notes helps explain the theory, but it's not crucial to an engaging listening experience if you're partial to otherworldly sounds.
With computer network technology still in its infancy, no one wants to go too far out on a limb prognosticating where the steamroller is taking us, but those interviewed for this piece were willing to take a few guardedly hopeful stabs. Bischoff's response typifies the general attitude: "I think the modes of music-making will just get more diversified, with people playing together over the Internet, that sort of thing," he says.
"What will be challenged by that -- and this is something the Hub does, and the League did before it -- is the idea of control of music. It won't be so much the grand composer, like Beethoven, specifying what everybody does. It'll be more like a conversation, a more collaborative, simultaneous composing and performing."
What the Hub musicians do know are their computers, and inside out. This is a Hub/League tradition, dating back to the days when they had to program in machine language on arcane little computers that didn't even have screens. But as Chris Brown points out, even today, the better a musician knows the machinations involved, the better he or she can control them, as opposed to merely accepting what some program has to offer.
"In the last 10 years, there's been an explosion of commercial music software," says the avant-garde pianist, instrument builder, and 15-year San Francisco resident. "Most tends to be oriented toward creating commercial music, getting rid of musicians. As musicians, we're trying to come up with something new, and not just put out a lot of bad music faster.
"In order for the tools to be anything more than something that disempowers you," Brown continues, "you have to learn how to program, and that involves becoming a computer geek. But music is a pretty technical field anyway; Beethoven was a sort of harmonic engineer."
The Hub performs as part of a John Cage conference Fri, Nov. 17, at the Mills College Concert Hall in Oakland; call (510) 430-2296.