Aurich Lawson / Getty Images
Musicians have spent centuries flirting with technology to push the boundaries of art, from theremin to mid-century band experimentation. Despite this fascination, only a tiny niche has gone so far as to generate music programmatically via code. In a span of roughly 70 years, the few who have done so have created a Venn diagram of intersecting programmers and avant-garde musicians.
The results are unlike anything you've ever heard – and some of the most ambitious pieces of music to combine the realms of analog and digital sound.
I've spoken to people who use code to make a variety of music, from sample mangling to an algorithmic live radio broadcast to proclaiming the Marxist qualities of open source software. Despite the technological complexity and deep algebra, everyone is looking for something very simple: a creative sandpit that is not bound by time and theory conventions.
"A mindset suggested by the program"
A song from Carl Stone's new album Stolen Car, which is now for sale
Carl Stone has been tearing up samples since 1973 (“Mangle” is an agreed verb among sound manipulators). He borrows them from commercial music, tears them up, and foolishly glued them back together, with the results resembling everything from a pop song played backwards to rapid gunfire from human voice. So it came as no surprise to me when I discovered (after an acoustic rush on a show in February 2020 with older people clogging their ears) that he only uses Max, a popular programming language for music and multimedia. It is a visual workspace with music commands presented as modular boxes that can be chained together with virtual wires. The open design enables free flowing experiments.
"You start every coding experience with a completely blank board," says Stone. "It's unlike any other commercial program that has prejudice and tweaking built in. A program like (Ableton) Live – which I very much respect – tends to have a mindset suggested by the program itself."
Without this framework, Stone's compositions are openly surreal. He compares his sample-based work to an anagram: "It has an appearance of semantic meaning, but it's strange."
The 67-year-old is from Los Angeles and has a CalArts degree with little programming knowledge. He has been making music on computers since 1986. He worked with '80s algorithmic music software like Jam Factory and Laurie Spiegel's influential Music Mouse. Describing his 1980s computers as "portable" to the street, he toured with a Macintosh SE / 30 for years.
Aren't you copying this disk?
Carl Stone, who performed live with an Apple Macintosh SE / 30 in the early 1990s.
Carl Stone's typical arrangement of a Max patch on the screen. As he describes it by email: "The photo shows a performance configuration of indium modules with certain functions (e.g. loading a buffer and cutting, executing an FFT function, playing an audio file, recording an external input, mixing, etc.) .).). "
Stone discovered Max (named after the computer music pioneer Max Mathews) in 1989 during an artist residency in Japan, when his friend put a pirated version on a floppy disk for him. At this point, Max could only send MIDI information and not handle the signal processing. Stone began performing and worked frequently with Japanese video artists, dancers, and musicians.
He witnessed software transformation over the years: signal processing and visual processing were later integrated. The software was released between different companies and Stone tested its development at different stages. Eventually, one of its developers started a company, Cycling '74, to sell it. An outside party used Max to create the popular music software Ableton Live. The two programs were eventually integrated, and soon after, Ableton took over cycling 74 altogether.
Predictably, Stone has resisted the linear temptations of Ableton integration, and his latest edition is more radical than his work 30 years ago (one of his newer songs sounds a lot like the electronic sub-genre steamwave, but he says he's never heard of a concept ). He performs with an iPad and a laptop, wears a felt hat and uses OSC (Open Sound Control) to send control data to his Max patches. He has lived full-time in Japan since 2001 and teaches at Chukyo University. He's been quarantined in Los Angeles teaching Japanese students zoom classes at 2 a.m. local time.
His latest album, Stolen Car (an anagram of his name), was released on September 25th.