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The Unintended Consequences of Making Music

By Duane Gustavus, UNIX Research Analyst

In the world of geeks and hackers, I have "Old Guy" credentials, usually meaning I was programming computers before there was an IBM PC.* One of the more dubious benefits of gaining this status is having young people ask you questions like "How did you realize computers were the coming technology back in the 60's?"  It's probably disillusioning for them to hear that I did no such thing; I was trying to make music.

In the computer industry, on discovering my degrees were in music, people often asked me about the relationship between music and programming computers.  Folks had noticed that musicians often made superior programmers, and many abstruse theories were advanced to explain the observation.  I typically mumbled something to the effect that it was easier to find someone who would pay me to program than it was to find someone who would pay me to make music.  That was an evasion, of course, which deflected the question so I wouldn't have to tell them what I really thought.

In the current UNT School of Music building complex, you can find the Merrill Ellis Intermedia Theater, complete with a bust of Merrill Ellis in the front.  Merrill was my major professor and mentor during my student days at what was then NTSU, and I think he would have immensely enjoyed the whole thing.  I believe studying music composition with Merrill did a great deal to prepare me to work with emergent technologies in ways neither of us fully appreciated at the time.

When I began studying with Merrill, his greatest enthusiasm was in weird stuff he called "Electronic Music."  Now this is not weird stuff to most college students today, it's just M-TV, but in the late 60's it was the lunatic fringe.  Some of his colleagues considered Merrill eccentric to the point of absurdity due to his interest in that electronically produced cacophony, not to mention the colored lights, slide projectors, costumed dancers and aerosol room deodorizers we variously tried to work into productions.  None of his detractors, I can't help but notice, have theaters named after them today.

His first electronic music studio was an upstairs room in the old Orchestra Hall (long since torn down) which nobody in their right mind wanted because it was situated over the Lab School Band rehearsal hall.  I don't remember ever hearing Merrill complain about it though. Ronn, Bruce and I (his student helpers AKA lab assistants) found it satisfactory, partly because of the view overlooking the Bruce Hall cafeteria.  During our daily chore of cleaning off the plaster that had fallen from the ceiling onto the equipment the night before, we were sometimes entertained by co-eds sunbathing on the cafeteria roof, accessible from their windows I suppose.  Besides, what we were doing was exciting and completely different from anything we imagined we would be doing in college.  It was fascinating, and we could always put on earphones when band practice started.

Eventually, the faculty research committee awarded Merrill domain of
an old house on the edge of campus christened the Electronic Music Center.  As a matter of fact, all of our financial support came from the faculty research committee; we couldn't even get recording tape from the School of Music in those days.  At first Merrill was concerned that someone would steal the equipment one night, since we didn't enjoy the benefit of campus police patrols like real university buildings, but it quickly became apparent that there was seldom a time when "the lab," as we referred to it, was not in use.  Merrill preferred working in the morning, and his cadre of wild-eyed young composers worked through the night most of the time (classes were taught in the afternoons).

Those early electronic sound synthesizers (we had the second Moog synthesizer ever sold and a custom version named the EII which Robert
Moog made to Merrill's specifications for live performance) were really just glorified test instruments, bolstered by unsanctioned liberties with some old recording equipment.  We had banks of oscillators, filters and amps crawling with bright colored patch cables and winking lights just like any science lab, but we weren't expected to do science.  We were encouraged to make music with the equipment.  In addition, we augmented the synthesized sounds by burning holes in recording tape, slamming car doors, throwing tennis balls at bass drums, and eventually even programming computers to generate radio frequency interference that could be picked up on an AM radio.

We had no designs on a career in the high tech industry, though several of us ended up there.  Changing the course of western civilization was more to our tastes, and probing the boundaries of what was accepted as music because we could, and in ways nobody had ever been able to before.  To define what we were doing and make some sort of sense out of it was the perennial topic of conversation in the kitchen (labs occupied the living room and front bedroom while Merrill's studio/office was in the back bedroom).  We all had lots of course work in what music had been, but were convinced that was mere prologue; undeniably great art but as far from comprehensive as was science from the same period.

During breaks one of us might venture a definition of music as an arbitrary but internally self-consistent protocol for ordering sounds in time.  If you were able to defend this proposition well enough, a supporter might offer that it was art rather than science because the protocol is open rather than closed.  A helpful chum would observe that perhaps it was your lack of knowledge about both science and art that made your music so obnoxious, while another might conclude that no, it was intermodulation distortion acting to lower the threshold of pain at those high volume levels; perhaps it was time to change the tubes in the 354's again.  We would then retreat to our various responsibilities pondering arguments to buttress the positions we had staked-out.

So what does all this break-time banter have to do with musicians making good programmers?  Perhaps it wasn't the discipline of music that was important, but the opportunity of music.  The willingness and even zest we were allowed in attacking the unknown and unknowable were the real preparation for predictable change in unpredictable directions.  You know, to boldly go where no man had gone before.

I once had an otherwise attractive young woman tell me she thought Stevie Wonder (turn the way-back dial) was the greatest musician that had ever lived or ever would live.  Now I was a Stevie Wonder fan too, and anxious to impress my date, but I could not imagine a more bizarre definition of music.  Nobody has a universally applicable standard for what is music, so why would you ever want to believe it is something exhaustively explored?  Who would want to live in a world where there could be no profound new music?  As I remember, my date was not amused with me either.

Today so much emphasis seems to be placed by students and administration alike on "degrees that pay," I thought perhaps I might pen, virtually speaking of course, a few gentle words in praise of the adventure in learning; of the value in wandering out of your depth. If there's a point here, I suppose it has to do with the idea that our expectations mold our concepts of technology as much as the other way around.  Whether it's test equipment or a new musical instrument should remain open to interpretation.  Sure you need to master fundamentals, but try to take some time to make music with what you are studying. Who knows, they may name a building after you some day.


* Duane firmly established his "Old Guy" credentials when he penned "Mindset 1946" last year. - Ed.