Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance, by Charles Dodge and Thomas Jerse; Foundations of Computer Music, edited by Curtis Roads and John Strawn

October 1, 1987

Dodge and Jerse CoverComputer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance, by Charles Dodge and Thomas Jerse. New York: Schirmer Books, 1985. 381 pp.

Foundations of Computer Music, edited by Curtis Roads and John Strawn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985. 712 pp.

The book by Dodge and Jerse is mostly a primer to the technique of computer music as it is made with programs such as MUSIC4 and its relatives. Written for institutional computers, these programs are not yet readily available for personal microcomputers, although, as there is now no technical obstacle, one can reasonably expect to see them made available in the future.

A splendid reference source for those with some experience in computer music, the volume could be a text for a course in the subject or a self-guided tutorial for someone with access to the appropriate programs and computer hardware. When a MUSIC4-like program becomes available for microcomputers, this latter function will be especially useful. Most musicians will probably skip over the relatively few sections involving complex mathematics; one doesn't really need more than arithmetic skills to make music with such programs, anyway. The section of the book titled "Composition with Computers" is for composers who program to produce instrumental scores or to generate computer music using digital synthesizers. The thirty-four pages about the basics of computer music and the twenty-seven pages about acoustics and perception are of general interest. An eight-page glossary of computer and computer music terms is included.

The book begins with sections titled "Fundamentals of Computer Music" and "The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Music." The chapters dealing explicitly with how to make computer-generated sound are "Synthesis Fundamentals," "Synthesis Using Distortion Techniques" (including frequency modulation), "Subtractive Synthesis," and "Speech Synthesis" (a special compositional interest of Mr. Dodge). "Reverberation, Auditory Localization, and Other Sound-Processing Techniques," "Composition with Computers," and "Real-Time Performance of Computer Music" are surveys of these topics, providing less in the way of how-to and more in the way of descriptions of possibilities. The central sections of the book discuss most commonly available techniques (with the exception of granular synthesis, a technique increasingly finding acceptance); the overall impression is one of comprehensiveness, clarity, and organization.

The volume by Roads and Strawn collects thirty-six papers, most of which were originally published in the first few volumes of the Computer Music Journal (CMJ). With the exception of a classic from 1973 ("The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation," by John Chowning), the rest of the work was first available in the period 1977-1980. In the whole history of music, this is not a long time; in the history of computer music, however, this is a substantial and important period. Because of the dates of the contents, the volume cannot include any of the early "foundations" in the field, nor can it touch on more recent developments in computer music such as the revolution caused by the establishment of the MIDI interface standard for linking microcomputers and synthesizers, a revolution that has made computer music accessible to the many instead of the few fortunate enough to be able to build their own systems or to work at institutions having sophisticated mainframe sound synthesis installations. Many of the papers, however, have been updated for this publication, and it certainly represents a wide variety of contemporary topics in the field.

Because few libraries and individual subscribers have a run of CMJ from its beginnings, this volume provides a necessary resource for readers interested in the technical topics relevant to the field of computer music. It will not provide much in the way of tutorial material or general reading for those in search of such things. For primers, such a reader should try the Computer Music Tutorial by these editors (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985) or the solid Dodge and Jerse work reviewed above.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, "Digital Sound-Synthesis Techniques," includes articles about frequency modulation, waveshaping, analysis/synthesis, granular synthesis, and Paul Berg's iconoclastic instruction-based synthesis. The second, "Synthesizer Hardware and Engineering," covers the SSSP instrument in Toronto (now, sadly, mothballed), the DMX-1000, and the early IRCAM instruments in Paris. The third section, "Software Systems for Music," primarily discusses general music-programming issues in the context of specific programs. The fourth section, "Perception and Digital Signal Processing," includes just three papers about reverberation, "Timbre Space as a Musical Control Structure," and the perception of musical "streams."

Because of the technical nature of CMJ there are few articles about aesthetics, specific works of music, musical styles, or the compositional and theoretical issues raised by work with computers, except in the context of more explicitly technical discussions. The general reader might certainly enjoy Curtis Roads's interview with Gottfried Michael Koenig, which provides insight into the early development of computer music in Holland and into the aesthetic thinking of a primary member of the post-Cologne group. Roads has also written a nice overview of "Grammars as Representations for Music," which includes a listing of those from Otto Laske to Leonard Bernstein who have attempted to explain music in a grammatical way. "Hearing Musical Streams," a paper about the psychology of musical perception by Stephen McAdams and Albert Bregman, will interest general readers. And "A Recipe for Homebrew ECL" by Chuck Hastings may interest those who build computers in their basements. Otherwise, this collection represents the technical reports of many who did the significant inventing, the programming, and the hard thinking about computer music during an exciting and productive period of its history.

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