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By Niamh McCool
The period of the ’70s to the ’90s was a time of great experimentation and innovation in music. This is an era where electronic music came into cultural consciousness. Behind the innovations and breakthroughs were talented, sharp, creative minds, many of which have been overlooked. I am going to cast a gaze over three artists that I believe made a significant contribution to contemporary music; whose work has made an impression, both to mainstream electronic music, and individually.
Born in 1945, American composer Laurie Spiegel is looked upon as a pioneer in the New York ‘new-music’ scene. She is also known for her computer graphics, electronic-music, studies at the Bell Laboratories and her algorithmic composition software.
Spiegel worked with Buchla and Electronic Music, as well as with experimental and prototype-level music and image generation systems, such as the GROOVE and Alles Machine. Spiegel’s opus includes works for the piano, guitar, and other solo instruments and small orchestras, drawings, photography, video art, writing, and computer software. Spiegel wrote one of the first drawing programs at Bell Labs, which she has expanded into interactive video and synchronous audio output in the mid-’70s.
Perhaps Spiegel’s most influential work was the widely used software Music Mouse – an intelligent instrument for Mac, Amiga, and Atari computers. The “intelligent-instrument” is a program’s in-built knowledge of scale convention and stylistic constraints. The result of automating this process is that the user can focus on other aspects on the music in real time. Apart from improvisations, Spiegel composed several works using Music Mouse including Cavis Murris (1986), Three Sonic Spaces (1989), and Sound Zones (1990).
Musically, Spiegel’s work is dense, resonant and incanting. The Expanding Universe was initially overlooked when it was first release in the ’80s. It’s an incredibly moving, complex, and intricate body of work. The album is composed over many incremental layers and fine adjustments within the system. The name The Expanding Universe is fitting – Spiegel’s minimal sonic palette is always in progression; the notes float outward, with no discernible end, like ripples on a still pond.
This piece, like many of her works, is focused on evoking orbits, heavenly bodies, and the expanse of space. Despite being composed by electronic instruments and exploring a subject matter often framed as alien, cold and foreign, The Expanding Universe is affectionately grounded in the human, with the sounds are warm and comforting. Long, rolling notes are sincere and deep, with a warmth similar to that of a sustained note on a cello but with a buzzing resonance that only a synthesizer can achieve.
Rather fittingly, Spiegel’s work now floats in the space that inspired it; Spiegel’s realisation of Harmonices Mundi is the opening track of the Sounds of Earth golden record placed on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
“I don’t know exactly what I am. I am a composer, I am an artist, I am a researcher. But for me its not a separation; it all goes together”
Christina Kubisch was born in 1948 in Bremen, Germany. Kubisch has been a professor of sculpture and media art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saarbrucken since 1944 and of media art at the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, since 1977.
In 1980, she began creating interactive sound works, many of which were created with electromagnetic induction: magnetic fields that arise from interactions between specialised headphones and electric wires or various objects distributed in space. Kubisch discovered electromagnetic induction by accident. Out of curiosity, she had bought a telephone amplifier, she noticed strange sounds were coming out of it when she was in the laboratory at university. Immediately she investigated what these unusual sounds were, determining that they were electromagnetic waves, and built headphones to capture them.
Kubisch’s works are synthetic experiences. Visually her works explore and challenge the natural/artificial binary; her considered placement of wires evoke nature; winding trees and organic forms. The Electrical Walks transform the perception of everyday realities by amplifying the electrical fields in the everyday environment.
Kubisch’s discography is a diverse range of the experimental and the reminiscent. The Cats Dream from Night Flights is an 18-minute piece that is hugely evocative. It is as captivating as her installations, playing with similar themes of the artifical and the organic. In some sections the sound of crickets is overlayed with an undulating and piercing artificial hum, similar to electromagnetic induction. The piece rises and falls, vibrating, humming, with long prickled purring evoking both the image of cat and the workings of machinery. Night Flights was a hugely influential force in the contemporary avant-garde sound.
Suzanne Ciani is a sound designer, composer, and record label executive. Ciani is renowned for her use of the analogue modular synthesizer. She is a five-time Grammy Award-nominated composer, electronic music pioneer, and neo-classical musician. Her body of work spans through commercials, video games, film soundtracks and, of course, albums.
Her work on the pinball machine Xenon is groundbreaking. Her soundtrack reflects the frustration and excitement the game evokes; responding to the bumper hits with ‘oohs’ and ‘ah’ sound effects and the background sounds speeding up as if the ball is playing a melody. Upon the start of the game, ‘welcome to Xenon’ is spoken in an alien female voice. This in itself was impressive, as female voices are of a higher frequency of male voices and thus need almost twice the amount of information.
With only the limited space of a 1980s sound chip, Ciani had only five seconds to record her voice. Perhaps her success in working with incredible short times is in part due to her knack for Sound Logos; recording that are only three to five seconds long for the purpose of advertising.
For example, the Columbia Pictures Television Sound Logo, an impressive 2 ½ seconds, was created by Ciani. The extreme miniaturization provides a unique opportunity. In Ciani’s words :“It’s such a challenge to come up the definitive, impactful sound to represent a whole world instantly’.
One of the inspirations for Ciani’s work is the ocean. This is true of her first album, Seven Waves, a sensitive soundscape that is dense, gentle, and transformative. It is light and airy, with playful melodies and cavernous bass notes. She weaves the patch cables of Modular synth into a sound which moves in a slow continuous space, rolling forward and back; bringing you to the ocean. Ciani continues to innovate, as is touring even now. She remains loyal to the Buchla 200e synthesizer, but also includes new equipment like the iPad.
What’s happening in Canberra?
On the Saturday, 7 March get ready for some disco, boogie, and funk as the beloved PBS radio host and party DJ CC:Disco! hits sideways’ dancefloor before jetting off for Europe.
The following night – Sunday, 8 March – Salt Mines at sideway features Berlin based Shedbug, Melbourne’s Reptant, and Canberra’s own Genie. You can expect some break beat, techno, and maybe a pinch of experimental.
On Friday, 13 March at Mr Wolf, Kinetics pres. Project Pablo; a Canadian producer based in Montreal, Quebec, supported by Adi Toohey, Rather’s and Roman.
On Saturday, 7 March Club Muva takes over the National Gallery of Australia as part of Enlighten festival, with an inclusive street party celebrating community and connection. A night of spectacle, music, movement, and dance against the backdrop of Justin and Bhenji’s projected works of surreal ancestral beings and strange ecologies. This is an event worth going to for those interested in visual, movement and sound based art.