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THE MILLS COLLEGE CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY MUSICInterview with Phil Burk -- Assistant Professor and Tom Erbe -- Technical Director at The Mills College Center For Contemporary Music, Oakland, California by Walter Alter
Walter Alter: How long has the Center for Contemporary Music been in existence?
Tom Erbe: as the Center for Contemporary Music since 1969. Before that it was known as the San Francisco Tape Music center and that has been around since 1963 or '64.
W: During the YLEM tour (YLEM -- an international group of artists using science and technology based in the San Francisco Bay Area) we saw a number of early synthesizers still in use, several of which had been developed here. Was it Donald Buchla who set up shop here?
T: Yes, he was one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and he developed the Buchla 100 system, the first portable, modular synthesizer. We have that first synthesizer in our Moog Studio. It's still in use.
W: We've come a long way since tape splicing and analog synthesizers. Looking around this studio I get the impression of a space age command center. What's the name of this studio?
T: This is the Hybrid Studio which generally means we throw everything thing in here...
(The Studio had four computer workstations using an ERG S100 based system programmed in Forth controlling Buchla 400, an Amiga with direct video NTSC out for music plus video/animation composition, a Mac Plus dedicated to MIDI interface applications, a Mac II-DAT hookup with Digidesign, Turbo Synth and M.I.T.'s C Sound programs. Signal generating gear was interspersed between the workstations and consisted of a Buchla Touch, an early analog-digital hybrid synthesizer controlled by a program known as FOIL, meaning "Far Out Instrument Language," an impressive amplifier rack with the addition of two Kraunheit filters, a Serge processing module, a pitch detector, and a MIDI patch bay connecting all the studios in the Center, an Oberheim expander, a Linn 9000 drum machine, a Yamaha DX11 Fm keyboard synthesizer and a Kurzweil 250 Sampling Keyboard. plans are to acquire an Akai 2000 and a EMAX 2)
T; ...The DAT recorder is patched into the Mac II which allows us to bring sound in off the DAT recorder, transfer it digitally to the Macintosh and process the sound in various ways using the programs, a very flexible processing and sound generation set up. We can do Music Concrete stuff with sampled sounds or we can do very modular synthesis oriented things with the C sound program.
C Sound is related to a number of languages that Max Matthews developed in the Sixties starting with Music 1 and updated through Music 5. he was a researcher at Bell Labs (now at Stanford) who practically invented computer music.
P: Stanford has had an emphasis on software synthesis, non real-time, while Mills has focused primarily on real-time performance and real-time interaction. They are both perfectly valid methods of approaching computer music, but they're different. We emphasize real-time applications because it allows one to use their more instinctive music sensibilities.
W: This brings us to what you have been developing here at ills both in software and hardware.
P: At Mills the focus as been on the HMSL music language which allows a composer/musician to perform unusual computer music on stage and to allow real-time interaction with the computer.
W: Are you developing HMSL here?
P: We're collaborating with Frog Peak Music. Larry Polansky and David Rosenboom are involved in that. Frog Peak is a collective for various composers doing unusual music and it's a distribution outlet and promotional channel for their work. They just re-located at Dartmouth where Larry has gone to teach but there's also Frog Peak West in Oakland. P.O. Box 9911, Oakland, Ca 94613. They have a lot of scores, cassettes, books and so on available. They are also developing the HMSL language.
W: What does HMSL stand for?
P: Hierarchical Music specification Language. It's designed for composers who want to go beyond sequencing per se, who are using very specialized algorithms to generate music or who may want to interface the computer with different kinds of physical devices such as joy sticks or lasers or optical sensors, things like that. You con control the music using alternative input devices.
T: There are a lot of people who are building their own synthesizers, no being satisfied with the commercial units that are available. Others like the Hub are writing their own software and communicating through a central computer. Tim Perkis has a guitar with a flat plate attached to it that he uses with a mouse.
P: Nick Didkovsky in New York composed a piece where he sent a series of commands to electric fans which blew upon paper sculptures along with the audio of wind and ocean sounds. HMSL allows the composer to work without starting from scratch, writing a MIDI interface, timing routines, scheduling routines, graphic interface routines and that sort of thing. HMSL is a bit more difficult to use than simply programming commercial sequencers but it allows you to do so many more things.
W: How thick is the documentation?
P: Here's the manual. It's about an inch thick but it has tutorials and is really easy to get started with.
W: Back to an earlier question, what kind of graphic interface do you have with this?
P: There's a tool box that allows you to put your own graphic objects on the screen and then you can put the text on that object so that you can design your own interface, define the functions that will be called when you hit that object on the screen. You can build your own sort of screen based instruments, say three faders that control LFO rate, or the rate at which it's outputting notes or some other parameter. You can build a screen you can then use in a performance. There are also some built-in screens that you can use for editing data graphically.
W: Is there anyone working on simply creating a graphic screen depiction of a knob, s ay with calibrations on it so you can operate the knob with some sort of device like a joy stick?
P: There are three ways to control parameters in HMSL. You can control the data in what is called shape, so when that shape is played the data will be interpreted musically; you can have a mathematical function or algorithm generate the program as it goes, something maybe based on a chaotic attractor like a Mandelbrot equation; and the third way, from user input, a MIDI keyboard, a mouse or something like that. You can combine the three as well, like using a MIDI keyboard to insert new functions in a program that is generating notes autonomously. You can map the inputs you like into results you like.
W: That leads us to this piece of hardware here that you've been developing, Tom...
T: I've been working with Dan Kelley and Steve Curtin at San Jose State to develop this digital signal processing board based on a Motorola DSP 5600 chip which does all the signal processing combinations, generates sound or analyses sound. The card has various ways of interfacing with the world. It has a MIDI port, it has a port for another computer, mine is running Forth as a language, and there's a part that will talk to the digital to analog converters. This is where you get the sound in from and out to a cassette, and I'm developing a board that will allow you to get high quality sound into and out of the DSP. You could plug a guitar or microphone into the board and have the DSP treat the sound according to a program and play it right back out through a speaker.
W: Are there other experimental music facilities that are involved with this?
P: Yeah, in fact they just started an HMSL users group at the University of Melbourne in Australia and at Grenell College in Iowa, university of Virginia, Evergreen College, the Danish Institute of Electronic Music. It's spreading and being used in a lot of different colleges as a tool to teach computer music. What's nice is that the people who are doing it are doing very interesting things and doing things we did not anticipate.
Walter Alter is a multi-media (video, visual, sonic, print) artist who can be contacted at Baby Brain Tapes, 4001 San Leandro St. #26, Oakland, CA 94601.
Typed by Cheryl Vega 8-13-95