Michael A. Firman Electronic Music

Electronic Music

For those of you with little patience:

I've been interested in electronic music most of my life. My first experience with it came about when my parents took me to the drive-in movies to see a newly released big production movie titled "Forbidden Planet". I was about five years old at the time and the reason my folks took me to this flick was my then current infatuation with robots. I had many toy robots and when the publicity blurbs for FP came out, I went nuts. The posters depicted a very complex robot (Robbie) carrying a lady. Well, anyway, the movie featured various weird sounds which I later found out were produced by the Barrons, a couple of "Beats" living in the Village (NYC) producing fantastic tape music based upon "found" sounds and sounds produced with laboratory devices (signal generators and the like). I was hooked, I remember one scene with Walter Pigeon explaining about the Krell civilization and how advanced they were. According to him, they had created fantastic music and stored it on little pellet like objects. Then he plugged one into a "player" and all sorts of wonderful sounds came out. It wasn't until many years later, that I was able to try my hand at such sounds (The original sound track for the movie "Forbidden Planet" done by Louis and Bebe Barron is now on CD on the Crescendo label PR-D-001). 

I was in high school during the late 60's (1966-1970). This, it goes without saying, was a very exciting time for a teenager. Amongst other developments at this time, was the development of the commercial packaged synthesizer, the most common of which were the ones produced by Robert Moog. I first picked up on the album "Switched on Bach" by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos. Later the record labels Nonsuch and Odessey both came out with a series of electronic music recordings which I gobbled up. The Nonsuch series was particularly interesting. It featured premier recordings by such people as Morton Subotnick, Charles Dodge, and Charles Wourinen. At the time, the pieces by Subotnick had a profound effect on me. They featured another type of "packaged" synthesizer designed and built by Donald Buchla (for those interested in these recordings, some of them have been recently released on CD on the Wergo label. One of my favorites being WER 2035-2 [282 035-2]: "Silver Apples of the Moon" and "The Wild Bull").

This brings me up to around 1970 when I went away to college. I went off to Indiana University to study God knows what! I had only the vaguest idea of what I wanted to study (let alone what I wanted to do when I "finished" my studies). I really wanted to go to art school but I thought that it might be best to start out at a big state school that had a wide variety of options, just in case I couldn't cut it in art. Throughout my grade and high school career I always did very well in mathematics and the sciences (I was a child of the fifties - Sputnik, Mercury Missions, Apollo, etc.) so I began by declaring a major in Chemistry (I finally did get a degree in chem and also in math at IU, but that's another story). Indiana University is a very well known school for Music and had an extensive music program when I was there. They had just built a very modern music performance building which included a "state of the art" electronic music lab. This was very cool. I was able to sneak into the lab every so often and poke around with one of several Mini-Moogs that they had. They also had a very large Moog modular system (perhaps an augmented System 55 or something similar). Sadly, I was never able to play with that modular system (the setup was too complex for my time-limited illegal visits and playing with that equipment would have attracted too much attention).

Step forward a short bit of time. I'm now in grad school at the University of New Hampshire working on a degree in math. As usual, I began poking around in the music department, and what did I discover? They have a Buchla synthesizer. Again, I only got to see it, but one other, important (for me) event took place in UNH's e-music lab. I discovered that computers could generate music. A music professor who ran the e-music lab (I believe it was John Rogers) showed me Berry Vercoe's MUSIC 360 program. At the time (1975/76) I really had had no experience with computers. During this era, many mathematics departments just were not interested in computers. They were viewed as glorified adding machines and not as tools for mathematics (except perhaps in the realm of number theory - one could use them to play with prime numbers, divisibility rules, etc.). But this was different (VERY different). Unfortunately, computer time on the mainframes was scarce, and I had other things to get done (degrees and such) so I didn't pursue this any further at the time. 

Flash ahead again, to the early 1980s this time (I've skipped a bit of the intervening material, mostly because, during this period, I was concentrating on mathematics and computer work. However, there were a few significant e-music events that took place during this time, and I will eventually elaborate on these). At this time I was working at Bell Laboratories in Denver Colorado, doing mostly Unix system programming and some real-time systems work (see my resumé). Because of some intense skut work that I had to perform for my company I was awarded a good sized monetary bonus from my department. By this time, we were doing okay financially, so my wife, generously, suggested that I take this award money and spend it on something fun for myself. After thinking about it for a nanosecond or two I decided to buy a synthesizer. The hunt began. 

Now, as I said it was the early '80s, actually it was 1984. I hadn't really looked into the synth world recently. I wanted the flexibility of a modular synth but had no idea whether anyone still made such things. Also, having been immersed in computers for a while at this point, I had some interest in interfacing a PC to whatever I choose. This turned out to be the year that a new communication protocol ( MIDI ) for musical instruments was fully launched (it had been around for a little while by this time, but hadn't been totally accepted and implemented by more than one or two manufacturers). Sequential Circuits (the company that really invented MIDI) had just introduced a new line of synthesizers that took extended advantage of this protocol. Among this new line of machines was a small keyboard, named the "SixTrak". The most impressive feature of this synthesizer was it's multi-timbrel capabilities (particularly via the MIDI protocol). Due to this feature, the overall sound of the instrument, and the extended MIDI implementation I selected this device. With the help of a fellow starting a new business in Boulder CO (NoteWorthy Systems), I soon had a MIDI adapter card plugged into my IBM PC. I began writing software to compose for the SixTrak. 

The software I wrote consisted of a TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) driver for the board and a C-callable interface library (API) implementing some normal musical functions. These functions mapped closely to the MIDI language itself (calls to do "Note On", "Note Off", "Send SYSEX", "Get SYSEX", etc.). It was pretty crude but it allowed me to write several multi-timbrel pieces for the IBM PC and SixTrak (remember this was 1984, before music composition and editing programs for home computers were a dime a dozen). Using the API, I also wrote a patch editing program that allowed me to circumvent the rather cumbersome user interface on the SixTrak. I was in electronic sound producing heaven. 

As the years went on I collected various MIDI controlled synthesizers and continued my compositional work with computers and these devices. I however, still had the desire for a device that was more flexible, controllable, and tactile than what these devices offered. Also, computer technology was changing rapidly and each time my computer hardware changed I had to port my software to the new adapter/architecture/screen resolution. The whole thing was really a pain. I desired an interface that didn't change constantly but something that allowed a great deal of control. In short, I still wanted a modular synthesizer. Ah, modular synths, devices that you could program completely, and when you were done, you could touch the program (the dozens of patch cords dangling from the front panels). Devices on which every parameter had a separate control, input point, or output point. I wanted one more than ever. 

To this end, after searching around a bit (via the USNET newsgroups, this was 1986 and the WEB, with its sophisticated search-engines and e-auctions, did not yet exist), I managed to locate (and obtain) an ARP2600 in fair condition. I cleaned up the ARP and restored it to full functionality. The ARP wasn't really a full blown modular but was pretty close (these types of normalized internally patched synths are called "quasi-modular"), and it served to make me even more enamored of modular gear. 

In 1997, my interest in electronic music expanded further, which led me to help found the Midwest Electronic Music Ensemble.

To be continued…