Now that the kids are forgoing those traditional rent-free, gasoline-scented rehearsal spaces their parents provided and are moving their musical creativity onto their hard drives, the concept of creating music without computers can seem very far removed. But thanks to a recent New World Records release of The League of Automatic Music Composers, 1978–1983, we can all reach back through the years and listen—again, or for the first time—to what made-at-home computer music meant before Apple invented it.
One of the extraordinary gentlemen who appears on that disc is co-founding League member John Bischoff, a man who has been a pioneer in the field of live computer music since he bought his first KIM-1 in the mid-1970s.
“Prior to that the only way you could use a computer to do music was to be connected to some institution and use a mainframe,” explains Bischoff. “The computer music facilities at, say, a Stanford University or Columbia or somewhere like that fostered a lot of interesting initial work with computers in music, computers generating music…but the first time an individual could just go buy a computer and program anything they wanted on it without being connected to one of those institutions was when I got into it in 1977.”
When the microcomputer came on the market, it opened the door to composers like Bischoff who were more interested in live collaboration and performance than the solitary work of punching cards and coaxing sounds out of machines that took up whole rooms and, of necessity, didn’t make stage appearances. A KIM-1 wouldn’t be able to replicate the quality of sound that a mainframe at Stanford could produce, but that didn’t worry Bischoff. “We didn’t let that low resolution effect us. We just used these small, slow 8-bit microcomputers and made live sounds. And we tried to make the most interesting sounds we could. They were limited because of the power of these small machines, but having it be live was way more important to us than sacrificing that to get a higher fidelity sound.”
And so Bischoff worked, writing programs for these simple computers and creating new sounds. He—or rather he and his machines—joined a band, The League of Automatic Music Composers, and together with Jim Horton, Tim Perkis and others, designed programs and networks that allowed the computers to talk to one another, to influence and play off of the music each was creating individually in real time. Since the music was non-sequential and the details of any particular performance variable, traditional notation was not really useful. Instead, they mapped scores like blueprints (see left), noting how the computers should be connected, what data was being sent out by each machine and how, in turn, it would be interpreted.
And the experimentation coming out of the computer-related industries fed their work—with its equipment, if not its ideology. “Accompanying the emergence of Silicon Valley was this sort of hacker culture,” explains Bischoff. “It wasn’t so much business oriented—you know, the efforts that led to the great accumulation of wealth—this was more like the fringe element where people were just interested in trying to build circuits to do unusual things.”
Though he hasn’t traded in his KIM 1 (it’s still in his studio), Bischoff’s work has evolved alongside the technology. Armed with his laptop and current software, he doesn’t feel very far from what first excited him about making music with a computer—writing programs that create sounds he can interact with in live performance. But recently he’s been working with live performers, and that is changing his approach. “The machines are way more cooperative,” he acknowledges with a laugh. “I’ve been doing electronics for so long, that is one thing I’ve had to get used to in working with players…they don’t behave like the computers do.”