Robert Rowe

text, code, scores, applications, and recordings

“Spattering…a Shower” and Sonology in the late 70s

In September 1978 I moved from the American Midwest to Utrecht, Holland, to study for one year (or so I thought) at the Instituut voor Sonologie. Sonology had two PDP-15 computers, equipped with 12-bit digital-to-analog converters. My previous experience with digital sound synthesis consisted of a brief foray into preparing a stack of punched cards, to be sent far away for conversion, before hearing a one-second “beep” on a tape that came back in the mail. The community of composers in Utrecht, in contrast, had developed an extensive library of software for algorithmic composition and sound synthesis, primarily written in PDP-15 assembly code. Armed with these examples, I dove into the world of machine-language programming.

My most influential mentors were Gottfried Michael Koenig and Paul Berg. Both were concerned with developing programmatic models for the generation of music and sound. Paul’s 2009 article describes the period well – in it he quotes Koenig’s aphorism: “The analytical task—given the music, find the rules—is reversed: given the rules, find the music” [Koenig, 1978, p. 10].

I studied Berg’s ASP programs and PILE compiler closely and developed my own library of routines (named SPA in tribute to ASP, and because we enjoyed the drink). The conceit continued to the title of my first full composition using the library: Spattering…a Shower (1979). (Note the appearance of SPA at the beginning). The other reference in the title was to the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (aficionados will recognize the homage).

The work was designed to describe a class of compositions, in keeping with the model formation philosophy of Sonologists at the time. That is, each run of the software output a noticeably different version of the piece. Sound was generated during the execution of the program (in real time) and captured on tape. No subsequent editing or other processing was performed. I recall that it was procedurally palindromic in the middle section – a succession of processing subroutines was added and then removed in the reverse order.

The 12-bit converters we used and the fluctuating sampling rate at which data was fed to them (determined by the amount of time it took to produce the next sample) produced a raw, wildly digital sound. That grit was quite antithetical to the lavishly produced sound objects of the non-real-time synthesis aesthetic popular at the time (it was termed “non-standard”). We liked it. I still like it. It is with some amusement that I notice a similar sound quality now being produced on purpose, rather than of necessity. You can hear an excerpt of Spattering…a Shower in the right sidebar.

Berg, P. (2009). Composing sound structures with rules. Contemporary Music Review, 28(1), 75-87.

Koenig, G. M. (1978). Composition processes. In UNESCO Computer Music: Report on an International Project Including the International Workshop Held at Aarhus, Denmark in (pp. 105-126).

Morton Subotnick and Silver Apples of the Moon

Morton Subotnick’s landmark electronic music composition Silver Apples of the Moon was composed fifty years ago, in 1967. 1967 was, of course, a year of many milestones (the Summer of Love, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Mort’s work is remarkable for how it not only embodies that time, but for the way in which it embraces and prefigures the future, indeed has shaped the way we live now. The technical breakthroughs of the work still influence music production, but more important is the musical impact. The first thing to notice is that Silver Apples was commissioned by Nonesuch records for distribution as a two-sided vinyl disc. Second, it was composed when Subotnick was one of the founding faculty members of the nascent Tisch School of the Arts, in a studio built by NYU on Bleecker Street. As Subotnick notes in an interview: “I thought three things about the piece. One, it had to be conceived for the medium, without instruments. Two, it had to be something that I really loved, that I’d want to hear again. And three, that the experience had to be a kind of trip, because it was in the living room. What a trip meant to me was that suddenly you’d be experiencing one kind of world, then suddenly another, as if in the desert, and around the bend you’re in a jungle, or on the moon, without knowing how you got there, so there’s no linearity” [Chadabe 1997 p. 148]. Check, check, and check. Listening to it now, I’m struck by the raw beauty and musical flow of the work. The genre Silver Apples helped to spawn is sometimes referred to by what I think is a misnomer: “experimental” music. There’s nothing experimental about it. This is a fully-fledged musical vision by a gifted composer who knows exactly what he wants to say. I also hear the elemental velocity of a Subotnick composition – in particular the rhythmic propulsion that often takes over stands in stark contrast to the portentous avoidance of pulse one notices in “concert” works of the period. Mort wanted to a make a piece he would love and want to hear again. In constructing it he composed a work of elegance, vitality, and power that we all want to hear again, and will listen to for another fifty years.

Chadabe, J. (1997). Electric Sound:{The} Past and Promise of Electronic Music.

Futurism and Musique Concrète


In 1909, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris. The mind reels to imagine any artistic manifesto being published on the front page of any daily periodical today. In their last remaining years, print publications might consider it, though. Marinetti’s manifesto certainly made for provocative copy:

  1. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  2. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  3. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

Interesting that “scorn for women” and the imperative to “fight feminism” is just as urgent as destroying the museums. Seems to be a common trope. But there is no need to dwell on Marinetti, the nascent fascist, or his screed. What does remain relevant is the lineage from Marinetti to Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880-1955), who wrote his own manifesto (Futurista Musica), to Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), who wrote his own manifesto (l’Arte dei Rumori), to Pierre Schaeffer and the birth of musique concrète.

Musique concrète moved far beyond these forebears. An engineer at heart, Schaeffer was interested in analyzing, organizing, and combining sound objects (objets sonores). He wanted to reverse the traditional operation of music composition: rather than produce a score (representation) that would describe a realization, resulting in sound, musique concrète would begin with the concrete sound objects themselves, to be organized according to their perceptual properties, thereby giving rise to an abstract description of form.

Ligeti Études

Tonight Taka Kigawa will perform the complete Ligeti piano études at le Poisson Rouge. The first étude from the first book is titled Désordre (1985) and is dedicated to Pierre Boulez. Written when the composer was 62, Désordre appears between the Trio for violin, horn, and piano, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra on Ligeti’s list of works, indicating a period of intense preoccupation with the piano (after a gap of 30 years in writing for the solo instrument). Ligeti’s first book of piano études received the Grawemeyer Award in 1986.

An inspiration for Ligeti in this period was (among other things) African music: “In autumn 1982 a former student of mine, the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra, brought to my attention a collection of instrumental and vocal ensemble music of the Banda-Linda tribe from the Central African Republic, recorded by Simha Arom. The record ’Banda Polyphonies’, then several years old, was no longer available so I re-recorded it on to a cassette and made a photocopy of Arom’s introductory text. Having never before heard anything quite like it, I listened to it repeatedly and was then, as I still am, deeply impressed by this marvelous polyphonic, polyrhythmic music with its astonishing complexity.”

Jeremy Denk says of the études: “…one stroke of their genius is underappreciated: the way Ligeti celebrates the genre’s perversity, repurposes it into wild, unheard-of art. Drawing inspiration from the étude’s most unpromising attributes—obsession, monotony, ad infinitum repetition, mathematical dryness—he fearlessly redeems them.” (

The Abjad notation library is used to generate material in the style of Désordre here: (

Ligeti Étude Nr. 1: Désordre

Ligeti Étude Nr. 1: Désordre

Met Breuer

I visited the new Met Breuer yesterday, to see a concert by the fabulous Miranda Cuckson and get a preview of the exhibits before the opening next week. There is a wonderful collection of “unfinished” works by everyone from Tintoretto to Rembrandt to Rubens to Caravaggio to Picasso to Jan van Eyck. And a revelatory collection of art by Nasreen Mohamedi, whose work I had not known previously. The Met Breuer is a wonderful new destination, as is the Whitney’s new home. Win-win.


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