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The Oxford handbook of Computer Music

The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music

by Roger T. Dean, Editor
Oxford University Press, USA, 2009
611pp. Trade, £85.00
ISBN: 978-0195331615.

Reviewed by Jane Grant
Faculty of Arts
University of Plymouth


In the introduction to this edited Handbook, Roger T. Dean’s statement, that this is an “exciting moment in computer music history”, is certainly borne out throughout the pages of this book. The recent surge in developing technologies including machine learning and extended/networked performance has afforded the digital arts an authorship and robustness not previously experienced. These practices are contextualized here alongside an examination of both contemporary and historically expanded, electronic performance, practices and theory.

The authors, the majority of whom are leaders in their respective fields, have afforded the book an excellent history and overview of the subject, including a “Chronology of Computer Music Events” which would be very useful for anyone interested in the development of this established practice. The chronology catalogues technological events in alignment with significant “musical” and computer music events. In this way it establishes the interdependency of the technological to the conceptual in the practice of making, fundamental to the majority of the digital arts. However, what is interesting about this book and what marks it as significant in the field is its emphasis on an underlying and developing philosophy with particular regard to creative and performance modes.

The book is set in five main sections:  Part 1, “Some Histories of Computer Music and Its Technologies,” Part 2, “The Music,” Part 3 “Creative and Performance Modes,” Part 4, “Cognition and Computation of Computer Music” with a subsection, “Sounding Out” and Part 5, “Cultural and Educational Issues”.

Douglas Keislar opens Part 1 with “A Historical View of Computer Music Technology,” in which he gives a condensed overview of computer music in configuration with electronic and electroacoustic music. This covers a detailed examination of the tools, digital and electronic for the performer/composer in multimedia and extended performance. These are contextualized through the work of Max Mathews, the pioneer of computer music. Using Marshall McLuhan’s “’extensions of man”, in which a technology extends the reach or power of human faculty” he begins with the concept of the computer as an evolutionary development that “culminates the process of disjunction or ‘amputation’ from the body that was begun with the instrument.” The advancement of these extending tools and the increase of immersive and experiential sound environments are seen as a rich and temporary disjuncture, it’s benefit being a flow of human energy spreading “beyond the body into the world.”

“Gesture and Morphology in Laptop Music” by Garth Paine in Part 3 presents ‘The ThuMP’ (Thummer Mapping Project), which analyzes data sought from musicians to form a computer music performance interface that seeks to re-connect the intimacy of the computer-instrument/interface to the musician and in turn to the audience. Paine considers Don Ihde’s post-phenomenologial philosophy of “embodiment relations” and draws on experiential and extended performance modes.

Chapter 15  “Algorithmic Synesthesia” by Noam Sagiv, Roger T. Dean and Freya Bailes. Recently, the work on neurocognition and synesthesia most notably by E.M. Hubbard and V.S. Ramachandran has advanced our understanding of the human sensorium. Here the convergence of perception is investigated at a neuronal level, where unimodal activity in the brain becomes multimodal through the simulation of other senses.

There are many other areas of great interest throughout the book, Geraint A. Wiggins, Marcus T. Pearce and Daniel Müllensiefen, discuss the significant research they are undertaking at Goldsmiths College, London on computational modeling and cognition. The use of sensors and spatialization in sound and performance are explored in the chapter “Sensor-Based Musical Instruments and Interactive Music” by Atau Tanaka, and interactive dance modes by Wayne Seigel and there is also a fascinating investigation of the role of the voice in, “The Voice in Computer Music and its Relationship to Place, Identity and Community” by Hazel Smith.

The chapter by Pauline Oliveros, in “Electronic Sound Performance,” maps the technological developments Oliveros has established over the last 50 years, an important reminder that complexity and innovation continue to thrive outside of the digital.

One of the overarching themes of the book is the level of autonomy afforded to musicians and artists in building computer models and interfaces for human musical composition, experimentation and performance. Whilst this is a technological advance, it is also philosophical. In creating models based on complex biological systems we broaden our understanding not only of the world and our experience of it but also unlock levels of complexity and the “ability to compose autonomous artificial universes that generate original aesthetic experiences”.

Last Updated 8 March, 2010

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