Jim Horton: Simulated Winds and Cries
compact disc, ART 1013, available from Artifact Recordings, 1374 Francisco Street, Berkeley, California, 94702 USA.
Jim Horton studied with Robert Ashley at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in the early 1970's, and has been engaged in various forms of electroacoustic music practice ever since. In the mid-70's he performed with Buchla and Serge analog synthesizers, creating semi-autonomous processes from complicated patches that were 'guided' by systems of acoustic feedback (microphones, speakers and Tibetan horns) and/or delicate knob-twiddling.
Performances were commonly within a collaborative context (with the group "Cellar M", duets with Tom Zahuranec, music for Doug Hollis' installations), often staged surreptitiously in steelyards and shopping centers, and occasionally lasted on the order of several hours. In the later part of the decade Horton moved into the digital domain when small and inexpensive single-board computers like the KIM-1 made their debut. Along with John Bischoff and Rich Gold he co-founded the League of Automatic Music Composers, composing and performing real-time algorithmic electronic music with networks of small computers.
Over the last 20-plus years Horton's interest in things networked, socially and musically, has remained constant. In the '80's and '90's he helped found the Just Intonation Network, improvised an eclectic mix of electroacoustic music with the Rotaleague, made conspiracy theories audible with the Cactus Needle Project, and provided ambient music for raves. He's currently working on a history of the San Francisco Bay Area electronic music scene.
"Simulated Winds and Cries" is the first solo CD from this pioneer of network and algorithmic music. Five pieces from the early 1990's "...in the tradition of process music... without necessary beginnings, middles, and ends" and in various flavors of just intonation, comprise this disc. The pieces were composed with the programming language Formula (a Forth derivative written by David Anderson and Ron Kuivila) for a hardware setup consisting of an Atari 1040, two Yamaha TX81Zs, and a Digitech DSP128 signal processor. Horton performs these pieces by setting up his hardware and software and launching tasks from the Formula interpreter to generate MIDI streams. Through a somewhat subversive use of Formula he is able to alter code as it runs (!), and swap tables of just intoned pitches in and out until he finds a sympathetic combination of process and tuning.
Originally written as experimental ambient music for the composer's own enjoyment, the pieces all have a unique shape and character that can be heard through attentive listening, or perhaps as the composer intended, by periodic consideration while one is otherwise engaged. Horton's vast experience with analog synths is clearly audible throughout, both in terms of process and timbre. His FM sounds are given an analog hue through skillful programming before and real-time parameter-tweaking during performance. The moment-to-moment articulation of musical ideas has an organic and completely 'unquantized' feel. The recordings were made in the composer's studio, and contain no overdubs or edits except for fade-ins, fade-outs and a bit of equalization.
The disc begins with "I Heard A Thousand Blended Notes". Timbrally rich voices suggestive of brass and bowed string instruments weave in and out with an almost orchestral density. Shifting centers of focus within this slightly hyperactive texture reveal short melodies and interactions between sub-groups of the larger 'ensemble'. The justly intoned scale used imparts an urgent quality to the music. Indeed, alternative tunings are used throughout the disc more for further shaping of the timbral space rather than a redivision of the pitch continuum. In an article in 1/1 (The Quarterly Journal of the Just Intonation Network, V2, N2 Spring 1986) Horton describes this as "... a special coloration, not of individual tones taken separately, but of the resultant musical texture that arises when many tones, related by simple ratios, are played."
"Simulated Winds and Cries" follows, a bit of a throwback to the science-fiction movie soundtracks of the 1950's and '60s, a touch of Louis and Bebe Barron. Sliding tones selected by 1/f fractal patterns are played by Horton's program as he plays a signal processor interactively. The piece has a distinctive "alien zoo" feeling to it... strange lifeforms emerge aperiodically, conversing with others in a reverberant and foreign locale. At almost 20 minutes long and with a constant, almost static texture, I found this piece to be the most appropriate for an 'ambient' style of listening. There is something interesting to hear at every moment, but the task of separating signal from noise for that length of time is a daunting one.
The first piece on the disc and the third, "Some Pointillism", are products of the same computer program, but performed with different inputs, another set of synthesizer voices, and a different style of signal processing. Formula tasks running simultaneously at varying tempi pick notes from a buffer of justly intoned pitches (Max Meyer's scale of twenty-nine to the octave) and play them. Some of the pitches persist longer than others, giving each piece a constantly shifting tonal center. The similarities between this version and the first are clear, especially the frisky level of activity, but "Some Pointillism" is a bit more delicate and relaxed than it's cousin.
In "Rebirth" Horton has programmed his computer to play a medieval Tibetan Buddhist board game called "Determination of the Ascension of Stages". Chains of ascending scales and melodies (using David Doty's Other Music scale) coalesce, disintegrate, reconverge and "reincarnate" in slightly different guises. The piece has the same asynchronous and chaotic character found in the work of the League of Automatic Music Composers, where instrumental motifs and dialogues are a product of the emergent behavior of a network of musical processes rather than the already-encoded output of a single program.
The composer's inclusive approach to the creation and appreciation of electroacoustic music is most evident in "Rave Patterns". This is a shorter version of a piece composed for the 'ambient room' of a rave held in Oakland California in 1992. Against the gently pulsing reverberation of a signal processor the tempo and amount of pitch bend are varied to achieve a trance effect. His experiences as an "experimental listener" make themselves heard here, with the echo and often wild glissandi evoking the retro-technology sound of techno-ambient groups such as FSOL and Aphex Twin.
At turns a challenging and very pleasant listening experience, this disc documents a vital stream of electroacoustic music, and provides a new way of hearing a parallel one. Alternative tunings, algorithmic composition, and the emergent musicality of complex and chaotic systems converge in Horton's work. His activities as a listener and composer traverse genre boundaries and encourage a collaborative and socially inclusive way of making music. While I'm reluctant to make direct connections between the work on this disc and the "ambient" form of popular music, it's clear that the composer delights in the rediscovery of analog timbre and technique by a younger generation of musicians. His cover notes conclude with the heartfelt wish that "...contemporary cyberculture will lead to a beautiful utopian compassionate world...". Always alert to the avant-garde of every kind of music, Horton hears faint echoes of his own tradition in another, and adds it to his own.
Mark Trayle - Albany, California, USA.