Book Review: Inside Computer Music

    I’m going to start this review by talking about something that we encounter all the time on the Max Forum but that’s seldom discussed: the patch request (or “grovel,” as it is sometimes more colloquially named).
    I’m sure you know that I’m referring to — you may have posted some number of them yourself over the years, or just last week. Reduced to their simplest form, they all take a pretty canonical form:
    Hey! I’m really interested in <insert name of person, style of work, technique>. Do you have a patch you could share?
    Although we smile at them (particularly when they cluster at the end of a school term) just before we start typing our responses, I think of them as the outward and visible sign of something far more subtle: the desire to connect. To connect with each other, with the work we share an enthusiasm for, and to connect with the logic and manner of its making. That, in turn, raises a more general question:
    After you shake your head and say, “Wow….”, what comes next?
    You’ve almost certainly encountered the work that moves you as a finished audio object. The technique is something of a mystery, the choices are made, the creator seems distanced by wisdom and miles. What are the options for a listener whose natural response is to run toward the object of their affection when that object is a recording of something whose form or content or style is almost entirely alien to them?
    That’s what Forums like this are for. In more traditional forms, that what books are for. And, if you’re lucky enough to be in school, that’s what classroom-mediated apprenticeships are for. If you have well-educated close friends, it’s a chance to sit down over a pint and pick some brains.
    But what if those circumstances aren’t readily available to you? What help is there for you, alone in some remote place with questions you may not even be able to formulate?
    I have a book for you. Well, it’s something more than a book, actually. Much more.
    Michael Clarke, Frédéric Dufeu, and Peter Manning have produced a hybrid cross between a book, a website, and downloadable software called Inside Computer Music (Oxford University Press) that provides the finest example I've yet seen of a way to remotely (and, possibly, privately) explore an extraordinary range of electroacoustic musical works in a way that focuses on the very things you may most want to know: a sense of the interplay between the technology (with some stealth history thrown in, for good measure) used to create one of eight “classic” electroacoustic works, along with an "over the shoulder" view of the way that the individual composers used them to create the works themselves.
    What surprised me most about the project is its balance of detailed scholarly research into the development of computer music techniques, software that presents musical analysis of the individual works covered in the book (John Chowning's Stria, Barry Truax's Riverrun, Philippe Manoury's Pluton, Hildegarde Westerkamp's Beneath the Forest Floor, François Dhomont's Phonurgie, Trevor Wishart's Imago, Jonathan Harvey's 4th String Quartet, Cort Lippe's Music for Tuba and Computer, and Natasha Barrett's Hidden Values—The Lock) that let you engage interactively with the tools similar to what the composers worked with to get a real feel for their choices and outcomes, and the chance to — through interviews and the chapter text — hear the creators themselves talk about what they did, how they did it, and why.
    It's a tour de force — the kind of experience that you emerge from hours/days/weeks later muttering, "Yikes! why isn't there a book like this on <insert your own top 3 works/composers/software techniques here>, anyway?"
    The authors have done a masterful job of mustering "canonical" works that span a broad range of styles within the electroacoustic tradition (granulation, algorithmic composition, brassage/collage, live plus tape/electronics), and touch on very different toolsets (from the earliest FM work at Stanford, to the Composer's Desktop Project, to the halls of IRCAM and GRM, to the World Soundscape Project, and to techniques for spatialization).
    Of course, the interesting thing about focusing on earlier canonical works is that many of these techniques are in much wider use and easily available to you on your laptop now, but you can really get the sense of being present at the birth of and at play in the possibilities the development of new software techniques allowed.
    And, in case I haven't been clear, Inside Computer Music is a lot of fun. The kind of fun that, in time and as you mess about with the interactive software, stealthily leaves you with the respect that can only come from having consumed and attempted to produce something.
    One of the book's great features, from my point of view, extends well beyond its likely enthusiastic reception as a classroom text (which seems assured). The collection and presentation of the text and accompanying website materials can simultaneously serve the larger purpose of accessibility beyond the classroom — something very much on the minds of any of us who think about diversity and inclusivity. While its subject matter focuses on on a specific and historically-located body of "art music," Inside Computer Music does the finest job I have seen of offering the history, insights, and a sense of "how the work is made" to anyone with a curious set of ears outside of electroacoustic music's circle of light.
    I'd like to end this little encomium by returning to the notion of the Forum post. In addition to the book Reviews we've posted over the years to point readers toward books of interest to members of the Max community in general, we've also seen the occasional post in search of specific guidance on working with a given genre for the interested beginner. Inside Computer Music is an engaging and enjoyable answer to that kind of request, and — as I've said earlier — the kind of project I'd like to see more of. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to working my way through the software to see how Trevor Wishart started with the sound of two whisky glasses clinking together and wound up with his piece Imago....

    • Jul 08 2021 | 3:12 pm
      This sounds super interesting, thanks again for bringing this to our attention!
    • Jul 08 2021 | 9:27 pm
      This is exactly what I am looking for! I even went to Ircam seeking for information and insights in contemporary techniques ...