Machine Dreams

The Hub, the world's first computer network band, trailblazes the field of making music on -- and with -- computers

From Silicon Valley to SOMA, Stanford University to UC Berkeley, the Bay Area is a hyperactive testing ground when it comes to making music with computers. Artists are manipulating everything from user-friendly Macs to megapowerful workstations to reinvent the musical wheel, right down to the basic compositional concepts and the building blocks of sound. Other innovators are exploring the possibilities offered by emerging computer network technology and redefining the very nature of the interaction between musicians.

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.

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