Some 30 years before The Matrix, fear and loathing of machines and their place in our future was a very real concern — the stuff of dystopian nightmares that surfaced in Vietnam-era sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Forbin Project and The Terminal Man. So when early electronic composers began using computers to make music, the reaction from their more conventional-minded peers was far from supportive.
“It was just horrifying to many people who loved music,” says Laurie Spiegel, who in 1973 became one of the youngest resident researchers at Bell Labs and a pioneer in the field of interactive music and video software. “At that time, computers were thought of as hostile, alien things that belonged either to the government or to large corporations. It took people like [Apple co-founder] Steve Wozniak — and a whole lot of others who really believed that the computer would be a great tool for music — to popularize the idea through the counterculture.”
Spiegel had been a student at New York's Juilliard School in 1969 when one of her teachers introduced her to composer Morton Subotnick, whose downtown Bleecker Street studio housed one of the first Buchla modular synthesizers (which Subotnick helped design). “It was like the world went from black and white to color,” Spiegel recalls. “It just totally transformed the way I thought about music, the way I heard street sounds — everything. And with the freedom that it gave me, instead of writing down all these little pencil scratches on paper, I could make things out of real sounds, record them on tape and play them for people. I was blown away.”
Some of Spiegel's early work on the Buchla can be heard on Obsolete Systems (EMF, 2001), so named for the wide variety of now gone (and in most cases forgotten) synthesizer and computer-controlled analog systems — such as the EML ElectroComp 100 modular, the Hal Alles synthesizer and David McLey's McLeyvier — that Spiegel used to compose music in the '70s and '80s. “They still have plenty of untapped musical potential,” she insists. “Each one is really a window into a different way of experiencing and conceptualizing music.”
Among those was the GROOVE (Generating Realtime Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment) system developed in the late '60s by Max Mathews at Bell Labs. By writing her own algorithms in FORTRAN IV computer language to generate envelopes and control the pitch, stereo crossfade, reverb, hi-cue filter and other nuances of an oscillator tone (and bouncing the results from the computer's 14 outputs to a 2-track Scully tape machine), Spiegel was able to create a pristine form of electronic music that seemed to breathe with an otherworldly life all its own. The Expanding Universe (Philo, 1980) presents some of her key GROOVE compositions from the mid-1970s.
“I used to do all-nighter after all-nighter with FORTRAN,” Spiegel recalls with a laugh. “It got to the point where one day Max's secretary said to me, ‘You know, all I've been able to find out about the work you're doing for the lab so far is that it's so secret, it can only be done in the middle of the night!’”
Indeed, at the time, composing with computers was such a painstaking and solitary affair that it must have seemed to most outsiders to be a hopelessly arcane, secretive art. Being on the forefront of it, Spiegel was among the first to cultivate relationships with fledgling companies like Eventide, Digidesign, MOTU — the song “Passage,” recorded in 1987 and included on Unseen Worlds (Aesthetic Engineering, 1994), was made using an early version of Performer — and, of course, Apple. After meeting Macintosh originator Jef Raskin at an AES convention, Spiegel co-developed the short-lived alphaSyntauri music system in 1979 for use with the Apple II. In 1986, she wrote the Music Mouse program — an interactive “intelligent instrument” for the Macintosh, Atari and Amiga platforms — that spawned most of the tracks on Unseen Worlds.
From her Tribeca loft, Spiegel continues to work in computer-based media (her preferred audio editor is BIAS Peak), but lately she has rediscovered her passion for banjo, mandolin, guitar, harmonica and other more traditional instruments. Meanwhile, her latest project, Ferals, created for New York's 2006 Ear to the Earth festival, is a sound-and-image installation that documents city pigeons in their modern habitat — “music” that after prolonged listening, strangely enough, begins to take on the hue of something synthesized.
Asked for her take on music technology today, Spiegel waxes both enthusiastic and nostalgic. “You have much more flexibility now because you can attach any number of input devices,” she observes, “and there are more and more plug-ins coming out that simulate older systems. But I feel like the human interface — how to interact with the sounds — is often missing; it's like giving you the violin sounds without a feel for what a bow is like. If there were more young people willing to deal directly with those technologies from eras gone by, now that would be something.”
Look for the double CD An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music Vol. 4 (Sub Rosa, 2006), which features music by Laurie Spiegel, Steve Reich and others, and visit
for more on Spiegel's work.