Machine Dreams

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

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.

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