Free Music Friday: The Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois

The Experimental Music Studios of the School Of Music at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a 50th anniversary CD of experimental music that is available as a free download.

The MP3s are provided for “auditioning purposes – composer contact information is provided so that you may get in touch with the composer directly to arrange performances of his/her work.”

From The Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois, 1958-68, by Emanuele Battisti:

Many of those who experienced the environment of the School of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign [UIUC] during the period between 1946 and 1970, remember it as .an era of grandeur..1 The quality both of the faculty and of the academic programs increased tremendously in those years, and contemporary music played an important role in this phase of growth. In particular, the Festival of Contemporary Arts . whose first edition took place in 1948 . immediately succeeded as an internationally renowned event. Although in 1955 the Festival became biennial, it maintained its prestige all throughout the 1960s, reaching one of its climaxes in 1969, in correspondence with the performance of John Cage.s and Lejaren Hiller.s HPSCHD, a composition for seven harpsichords and fifty-one tapes, enriched by a spectacular scenography.2

Moreover, Cage was having a great influence on the Urbana-Champaign music scene since the early 1950s: in particular, a lecture-concert he gave in 1953 on Music for Magnetic Tape was probably the first experience people of this university had to get acquainted with this new creative field, and supposedly was the occasion that instilled in Hiller the interest for electro-acoustic music. 3

Hiller, just appointed research associate and assistant professor of chemistry,4 began working with the ILLIAC . the first supercomputer built at UIUC . in order to experiment new compositional approaches. The result of this work was the ILLIAC Suite for string quartet, a composition in four movements . or .experiments. . completed in 1957 with the help of Leonard Isaacson.5 The first attempt ever made to write a score by means of a computer, the ILLIAC Suite at first received a warm response, putting Hiller in the spotlight. This sudden success, followed by many negative reviews, convinced Hiller that he needed to become a professional musician in order to be accepted by the academic music environment.6

Hiller represents emblematically the difficult search for a balance between the two fields of science and music, which Western History has often had the tendency to merge one into the other. In this case, the process found a main obstacle in the narrow-mindedness of certain composers, who felt they risked losing their caste privileges in favor of machines. As far as this is concerned, it can be noticed that

«Hiller.s music stands out as particularly characteristic of the University of Illinois. The university.s well known Department of Electrical Engineering, home of two time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, the inventor of the transistor, provided national leadership in the development of computer technology. Hiller established a long-term association between the music and engineering departments».7

Moreover, there is a scene in Kubrick.s film 2001: A Space Odissey (1968), in which the computer HAL 9000, progressively deactivated by astronaut Bowman, asserts to have become «operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois»: 8 a further confirmation of the leading position Urbana-Champaign has been holding in the computer science field since the 1950s. As a consequence, the association between music and computer, in this specific context, was somehow unavoidable. Hiller happened to be the one who actually realized it.

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