Being Allowed to Make “Mistakes” While Composing With Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Music Instruments
Interview with Hungarian-Canadian composer István Anhalt
This interview with István Anhalt from 1 October 1980 at Queen’s University is one of a series of interviews done by Gayle Young, sometimes with Jim Montgomery collaborating, as part of her research for The Sackbut Blues: Hugh Le Caine, Pioneer in Electronic Music, an essential reference on the Canadian inventor, instrument designer and composer, which she first published in 1989. The following text is a transcript of the original audio of the interview (Audio 1) with only slight revisions in view of its online publication in eContact!
István Anhalt (* 1919, Budapest; † 2012, Kingston) studied at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music and the Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris, studying composition under Zoltán Kodály and Nadia Boulanger, conducting under Louis Fourestier and piano with Soulima Stravinsky. In 1949, Anhalt came to Canada on a Lady Davis Foundation fellowship and was appointed to the Faculty of Music at McGill University. After several years of experimentation and compositional work at several electronic music laboratories in Canada (notably under Hugh Le Caine at the National Research Council) and the USA, Anhalt founded the electronic music studio at McGill (1964) and was appointed its Director. In 1982, the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa, was bestowed upon him by McGill. Istvan Anhalt's career as a professional musician can be described in a few words. He is neither a facile nor a prolific composer; each of his 25 works reveal a discriminating creative personality whose artistic ideals are of the highest order, and who takes infinite pains to achieve them. [Canadian Music Centre, 2016-01]
The NRC, Cologne, the McGill EMS
[James Montgomery] Maybe if we could just start with any recollections or specific incidences that occurred in your relationship with Le Caine.
[István Anhalt] Lots! [Laughter] Actually, I can thank the fact that I knew Hugh Le Caine to my mother-in-law, because this good lady, after she heard that I had become interested in electronic music in 1957 (it seems like a hundred years ago!). She heard me say, “Well now, I have to go to Cologne, I really have to visit this guy Stockhausen.” And that was after I heard [Stockhausen’s] Gesang der Jünglinge on CBC. I said fantastic sounds, and also I heard some of his electronic pieces and I said [to myself] that guy must have a whole building full of incredible machinery. I just have to go there and see. So my mother-in-law says, “Well yes, but there is a person in Canada who does that.” I said, “No, it can’t be that… Canada, electronic music, impossible!” And she says, “No, no I just read in The Gazette yesterday.” 1[1. Known as the Montreal Gazette since 2014.] She looked up The Gazette and found [it]. I said, “Hugh Le Caine, funny name.” Well, I decided to follow it up.
So I went down to the physics department [at McGill University], knowing that there is a man, Stu Marshall, who was a great old man, and I knew that he had some contact with NRC [the National Research Council, in Ottawa]. I asked him, “Do you know of a man who works here…” I expected him to say, “Hugh Le Caine, never heard the name,” [but he said,] “Oh, Hugh, sure, he is a good friend of mine, I work together with him. He is a splendid fellow. Anyhow, he arranged to ease my way into the first meeting with Hugh. I went to Ottawa, and there was this man, a huge man; it was the middle of the summer and he was wearing a heavy sweater. There was this big room and lo and behold there was an electronic music studio in 1957 in Canada! You wouldn’t believe it. I said that’s incredible. I had a very stimulating conversation with him — as much as I recall the conversation with him, because I had a great difficulty understanding the man. Have you ever known him?
[Gayle Young] I haven’t, myself.
[IA] Well, there is an expression of someone being “painfully shy”. Well, the impression was, indeed, [that of a] painfully shy person. Not quite a giant, but almost. A very tall man, at that time he was very corpulent. He talked rather softly and talked away from you, and talked with a monotone [voice] and talked softly. I had a really hard time understanding what he was talking about. Also he talked in jumps. I realized his mind works so fast that for him to finish a sentence and conduct an ordinary discourse was totally unnecessary. And he assumed that the mind of his interlocutor is equally speedy and so he jumped. I wasn’t prepared [for that] and also my knowledge of the field was so scant that I really had a very hard time. I remember I left with a headache, exhausted, very stimulated.
And then I went to Cologne and when I came back I tried to set something up at McGill. I drew a complete blank from the physics department and from electrical engineering. So I went back to Hugh again and he, together with then-Director of the antenna section of the radio and engineering division in late 1958, they were very helpful and they arranged that I could come back in the summer of ’59 and spend that whole summer working in the electronic music lab. Now, my idea was that I wanted to compose music; really I wanted to use this equipment. And by that time — of course having come back from Cologne, where I visited in ’58 — I realized that Stockhausen hasn’t got a building; he had really something which is not more than a cubbyhole. The size of his studio was not larger than this small office. And there he had a few tape recorders, a few oscillators, a third filter, an impulse generator and that was that! Two loudspeakers. So I realized that that’s a different kind of operation, and Hugh Le Caine’s lab at NRC looked very good to me indeed!
I went back in ’59 and they invented for me the designation of “Visiting Scientist”, which was a total joke — I never was a scientist, I’m not a scientist now. They even gave me some money, you wouldn’t believe it! For composing music as a “visiting scientist” I got a few hundred dollars, which helped pay the rent in Ottawa, and I was in business. Well, that’s how my association with Hugh started.
[JM] How much later than that did you start the studio at McGill?
[IA] The studio finally came into being at McGill in the summer of ’64 (Fig. 1). Also with the help of the university.
[JM] And you worked with Hugh on that installation? Or you consulted with him?
[IA] That’s right. In fact, it was made possible by cannibalizing Hugh’s own setup in Ottawa. He shared one of his tape recorders and he delivered for us a Special Purpose Tape Recorder. 2[2. This was quite likely the fourth version of the instrument, the first of the prototypes having been installed at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), the third in the Centre for Electronic Music in Jerusalem and the fifth in the Queen’s University EMS.] He gave us a Spectrogram apparatus, gave us an oscillator bank (24 or 30 oscillators), gave us a tone mixer generator, gave a third filter bank and also some empty racks, a pulse generator (it was just a Hewlett-Packard, a commercial thing). And later on, he gave us the second version of the Serial Structure Generator. 3[3. Although the official name of the instrument was the Serial Sound Structure Generator, the majority of composers who have worked with it usually refer to it as the Serial Structure Generator. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Le Caine’s instruments were from the start designed as tools for composers to work with sound, and therefore the “Sound” part of its name is taken for granted. See the Hugh Le Caine website, designed by Gayle Young, for more information on the Serial Sound Structure Generator and other Le Caine instruments.] That came a few years later. McGill had no money for that at all. Later, some monies became available to buy another tape recorder, but I would say the bulk of the equipment was made by him.
[JM] And you used the Spectrogram in Electronic Composition Number 3?
[IA] Yes, yes.
[JM] That’s one of the most troublesome instruments, in terms of its concept. It’s difficult for people to figure out what was going on; maybe you could just describe how you used it.
[IA] Well, the instrument is a control instrument. It doesn’t produce sounds by itself, but it does control whatever you put into it. Control in a binary sense, in a two-way sense. It either lets through some sounds or it eliminates some sounds, doesn’t let them through. This principle of yes or no — I let it through or I don’t let it through — can be controlled in a subtle way according to any rhythm you care to set up. Now, for the time being, it would be a good idea to consider the machine as a black box that does this, that’s the function. You put some sound in it and then, while the sound exists in this machine in time, you control at which point the sound is let through the machine, allowed to sound, and then when it’s suppressed. The machine controls that function — the on function or the off function — by a moving paper roll on which the composer draws. 4[4. See the Le Caine website for more information on the Spectrogram.] And depending on whether one put something on the paper or one didn’t put something on the paper, the sound gets through or the sound gets suppressed (Fig. 2). So, depending on the design, this function comes into being — the on or off functions, the let-through and suppress functions.
Now, there is not a single channel, but there is a relatively large number of channels (I think 24, or 12, I don’t remember exactly now), there are 12 channels, or 24 channels, that perform this function, and therefore the composer who makes use of this machine has to provide a pattern of drawing for every one of these channels. So can you imagine what a pretty, nice, abstract drawing you can produce by working with India ink, by blackening a channel at a certain time and leaving it blank another time? I had a great time, just from the point of view of visual art — I’m no artist and my imagination probably — from the point of view of an artist — is very mediocre. But I enjoyed the visual potential of writing on this paper in this sense.
Now, I understand that the machine works with some photocells, which are very sensitive to light. There is a light shining on an array of photocells, which are static. Over that static array of photocells moves the paper, which is at times blackened, at times not blackened. When the paper is black, the light is not allowed through, which activates the photocells [to turn on the sound generator]. When the light comes through, the photocells are not activated in the same way and sound doesn’t come through. So it’s really an on-off machine, in this sense. One can also control the speed at which the paper travels across this array of photocells. One can even reverse the direction, so one can produce a retrograde rhythm. [Laughter] One can even…
[GY] You could put it in upside-down!
[IA] Upside-down, in which case you produce an inverted rhythm, as far as the channels are concerned.
[JM] Was it responsive enough to pick up an envelope, if you indicated a gradual darkening or lightening?
[IA] It’s a very good question, Jim. I asked this question to Hugh and Hugh said yes indeed, the photocells are designed in such a way that they respond to different hues of darkness. In my optimism, I went to the nearest stationary store and bought a whole collection of graphite pencils and India inks. And combining pencils with India ink, you can imagine probably I could produce a scale of seven degrees of hues, which would produce a scale of intensity [corresponding] to pianissimo, piano and so on up to fortissimo. I even tried to work by blackening [only] part of the track. I never really got a clear enough explanation from Hugh except that he thinks it is indeed responsive to these manipulations. But I never really got a worthwhile result; it was either on or not. Also, very often the damn thing crackled and produced all sorts of extraneous noises. [Laughter] It was very, very temperamental. And as long as it didn’t crackle, I was happy and sometimes could use it.
[GY] What did you use as a sound source?
[IA] I could use as a sound source, for example, a series of sine wave oscillators. I could couple that to the sine wave oscillator bank. That allowed me to play a little tune on those static oscillators. The effect having been very, very similar to the output of a sequencer, except the pattern was not a repeating pattern, because the design didn’t need to be a repeating design. If the rhythmic design didn’t repeat itself, then the order of succession of those oscillators didn’t repeat itself either. Also, I was able to activate none to all to any number of oscillators available on this device. On a sequencer I think one goes after the other one.
[JM] That’s good, that’s the clearest explanation we’ve had of that [instrument]. Do you remember the specific application to the piece?
[IA] I think I used the Spectrogram apparatus principally for my fourth electronic piece, not so much for the third one. For the third one, when I needed a succession of sine tones — the third piece, as you might know, is made up entirely of sine tones — I used splicings, it was very painful, as you are aware. I recorded those sine tones separately [and spliced them together with razor and tape]. The NRC carpentry shop cut a huge piece of plywood board and they [prepared it with a row] of nails, and I numbered those nails and recorded loops of individual sine tones [onto] lengths of tape; they were hanging like ribbons [from the nails]. When I needed a certain frequency, I didn’t have to fiddle with the oscillator, I just had a whole array of frequencies hanging there on the board. So I had to go with scissors and clip a little bit of my storehouse of sine tones and splice that, and then I needed another frequency and went again to the board and looked up, “Ah yes that’s number 17,” and then I clipped a little… Now thinking of [today’s] audio sequencers and computers, that was really the “Stone Age” of electronic music!
The Special Purpose Tape Recorder, a.k.a. the Multi-track
[GY] Did you work with the Multi-track Tape Recorder?
[IA] Oh yes! Now, the Multi-track Tape Recorder 5[5. Composers refer to this instrument varyingly as the Special Purpose Tape Recorder (its original and official name), the Multi-track (used I a more familiar manner) or the Multi-track Tape Recorder. The machine was not actually a recording device, but rather a playback unit, the output of which — a mix of one or more pre-recorded tape loops — could be recorded on other devices. See the Le Caine website for more information on the Special Purpose Tape Recorder.], as far as I’m concerned, was the most useful machine I worked with (Fig. 3). And I worked with it in every one of my pieces, including La Tourangelle, which I don’t know if you know this composition? So, I mean I have used that as recently as ’74, while preparing the tape parts of this work.
I should come back to Hugh and my glorious stay at NRC as a “Visiting Scientist” (in huge double-quotes). You see NRC had its payoff: I composed and for them I was a guinea pig; for Hugh, I was a guinea pig. He was terribly interested how a real, live composer — I think I was either the first or one of the first whom he could observe — a live composer, he would see how he works on the machine. Well, I did anything to use the machine except kicking them. And again, thank Hugh for that. Hugh even showed me that if I take a pencil and hit the vacuum tubes of the Ampex tape recorder, this produced some very interesting sounds. So I was even hitting the vacuum tubes and produced some sounds which went into my second electronic composition. In fact some of the most interesting parts were produced by hitting the vacuum tubes with a pencil. What I tried to do with the Ampex (again, except kicking it), I was moving the reels [with my hands] while the machine was stationary, or putting it on fast rewind… well, I did anything that produced a sound.
Now, the Special Purpose Tape Recorder [had] great flexibility for synchronization — I could synchronize up to 20 events. That was a marvellous machine, because until now, composing for orchestra, for example, you are composing for a large number of instruments. I had to imagine this enough to make sure that all the rehearsal time would be used in a proper way. Everything was terribly expensive… everything is terribly expensive and one thinks ahead in composing for an instrumental ensemble or for anything involving a very large number of people, but there [in the studio] everything was incredibly cheap! Imagine, there were all these tape loops… again, I liked these tape loops, and I had a very large number of them. For example, for Cento, I had about a thousand tape loops and I catalogued them. So there were many tape loops, also for Electronic Compositions 3 and 4, and there was this Multi-track Tape Recorder — we called it the Multi-track; officially it was called Special Purpose Tape Recorder. Anyhow, there was the Multi-track, and I could of course combine those dozens or hundreds of tape loops in any possible way. Now can you imagine how many ways you can combine even 36 tape loops, 10 at a time? Not only [can] you take the 1st, the 7th, the 17th, or whatever, but you can also [alter the phase relationship between any of the loops and] you can control the individual intensity. The combinatorial possibilities were absolutely infinite.
So I played orchestra there and it was totally free! I was actually staggered by the flexibility. I had some of the most valuable composition lessons ever by working through the night at the lab there at the National Research Council, showing myself what would happen if I do this, what would happen if I would do that? It was incredible. And I suddenly realized, among other things, that the ceiling doesn’t cave in if I [put together] two sounds which I probably wouldn’t have thought might fuse. Sometimes they didn’t fuse, but the ceiling didn’t cave in, I didn’t have to pay a thousand dollars, I didn’t waste a half an hour of rehearsal time — it was just an experiment. And for the first time, I realized the exhilaration which a scientist feels that experiments with materials, and who feels that he is allowed to make a mistake. As a composer who prepares for a rehearsal of a piece for a premiere, in our society, in our world, he is not allowed to make a mistake! If he makes a mistake, he runs the risk of being considered a dilettante, a waster of money of some commissioning organization. He must succeed!
So I think that one of the great things for me with the Multi-track Recorder was of course to compose, but really the great thing was that I felt a kind of freedom as a composer to experiment, the like of which I had never had before.
“Cento ‘Cantata Urbana’” (1967) for 12-Part Mixed Choir and Tape
[JM] Could we talk maybe in some detail about Cento, about the way that that piece was made?
[IA] Well, can I say something about how the whole work came about?
[IA] And then I go back with you to the McGill Electronic Music Studio, which, incidentally, was considered by Hugh and by some other people the most scenically situated studio, because it was in a little stone coach house situated behind the then Faculty of Music building on Redpath Street in Montréal — one of those stately old houses. That’s where the Faculty of Music was, when it was smaller. And behind it was the coach house that the university put at our disposal. In its kitchen, we set up the studio. But it was a kitchen with a difference, because it had a beautiful view into a lovely garden, a huge garden where lilies grew and a lot of flowers grew and there was a nice huge lawn. So, when we got tired of listening to the sine tones, one only had to open the kitchen door and one was in the garden. Rather than being in the basement or on top of a skyscraper. It was beautiful.
Anyhow, you asked me about Cento. Well, the word “cento” refers to this genre of poetry which is the assembly of a new poem from shreds of old texts. So in a way it’s a collage. In music, there are bits of Gregorian chant, plainchant, that are the result of centinization. This composition is called Cento because its text is an assembly of fragments from a larger poem. Why I did that and what’s the point [of doing so] I’m coming to in a minute. This is not the only justification for the choice of the title. The word “cento”, that is the process of centinization, is also operational at the level of the composition; so there are two justifications [for the choice of title].
Now, coming to the text of Cento. The words I took from a large poem [entitled “An Ecstasy”] by the Canadian poet Eldon Grier, who agreed to this dismemberment of his poem. Now why did I dismember a large poem of his? Why didn’t I take a ready-made poem by him or by another composer? Well, the objective was to write a piece for a small group, called the University Chamber Singers (of British Columbia). The year was 1967, [Canada’s] Centennial year. Well, the whole existence of Canada was put into question by some political movements in Québec — I lived at that time in Montréal. When I thought of this piece, I said to myself, now, what way should young people make a vocal utterance in this day and age in Canada? Should they sing in a kind of bel canto way, or should they utter such sounds as Cathy Berberian utters in Berio’s Sequenza III, or whatever? So I came up with a piece for spoken recitation, and I needed a text. I didn’t find any poem. I realized I had to assemble my own text and I liked this poem by Eldon Grier and I assembled the text from words of his poem. It is a poem made through the dismemberment of a larger poem, and I got the permission of the poet to use that.
Here was then this product. What I did then was to get into the studio a number of people — men, women — whom I asked to recite words, pairs of words, groups of words from this poem in a certain way. And I found myself not unlike the director of a radio drama that rehearses his actors. Only what I did is I rehearsed these people saying, “Could you please say that word this way or no, that way?” It was a kind of give-and-take situation. I was lucky I found, for example, a young woman who had a beautiful voice and who started to laugh at what I asked her. And I said, “That is such a beautiful laugh, could you laugh, or could you perhaps dismember this word?” I was inspired by what they did and they responded to what I asked. And I came up with, as I mentioned a bit earlier, a large number of tape loops, close to a thousand, which I had a list of. Again, those loops were hanging there on a rack. And then, using all those loops, mainly, by using the Special Purpose Tape Recorder and its great capacity for synchronization, I assembled [the work].
I experimented then in a very large number of ways — how I could mix those spoken utterances… in fact it was an exercise in applied phonetics. And I learned a great deal about language, how some sounds fuse or not. One day probably I should really speak about it, in fact I have written an article — which you probably know, on “The Making of Cento” — in which I go into that aspect, the experimentation aspect, a little bit deeper. 6[6. This article, from 1968, can be read on the Canadian Music Centre’s website by accessing István Anhalt’s “Complete Holdings” pages.] But the story, I never really said in its proper depth. It was a very instructive few weeks for me. Then I felt that I need some electronic sounds to make the tape as versatile as I felt it should be. So I generated some electronic sequences which I then tried to mix with those spoken utterances. And assembling that, I came up with the tape. And that was ready, and then I said, “Now, I want to compose, for 12 live vocalists, things which they can utter, recite, shout, whatever, that would complement the tape. And that was the second part of the composition. The work is really the cooperation of a pre-recorded choir plus electronic sounds on the one hand, and live choir on the other hand. When the work is performed live, what should emerge is just one homogenous sound — one should not be able to tell apart what is on tape and what is choir.
The Pedagogy and Aesthetics of Electronic Music
[JM] Have you considered ways in which your experience could be codified in some way and then made available to other composers in a learning situation?
[IA] It’s a very interesting question, Jim. Well, when electronic music was an arcane art, very few people had access to the studios. Studio directors in [some] places kept their studios as elite installations and a great deal of fuss was made about accessibility. The situation now is of course much healthier and much more democratic. Almost every self-respecting music department on this continent, at least, has a little electronic music studio, or a middle-sized one, for that matter. And the development was relatively rapid, with the commercial availability of instruments of various sorts. This of course made certain things possible which were not possible when Canada only had two studios, one in Toronto and one at McGill [in Montréal].
Also, people associated with these early studios thought that this is really a different art and takes sophisticated people [to understand it], probably it’s best to limit accessibility to graduate students. Yet another approach was [taken by some] people who were very conservative, who didn’t like the idea of electronic music at all; in fact they thought this was not music at all! They were objecting to the idea of “contaminating” innocent undergraduates by letting them touch an oscillator. All that has changed. Electronic music became a medium, for good or bad. Of course there is no guarantee that any one composer or a group of composers is going to produce worthwhile sounds in this medium, as there is no guarantee that a composer will produce a worthwhile bit of music with a Stradivarius violin. Anyhow, the fact is that today, access to that sort of equipment takes place in a much more democratic fashion than was the case as recently as just 10 years ago, let alone 50 or 60 years ago, or 20 years ago in the Canadian studios. Now, of course this accessibility to the equipment, and the relative cheapness of cost of this equipment which made this accessibility possible, at least in principle, eliminated some of the objections on the part of some people. Electronic music, by having been effective in a number of situations in television — through early performances, through uses for commercials, also as background music in drama — kind of proved its worth and somehow fought out a certain acceptance by a large number of people in a general audience, also in academia.
As far as the curriculum is concerned, for example, until very recently in this department, every student had to take, in the second year of their Bachelor of Music programme, a course in electronic music, because the department thought it’s good for them. Possibly partly for the reason I mentioned and partly for some other reasons which some other people would care to mention. I, and some of my colleagues, felt that as a result of some of our experience here, that might have been going too much in the other direction. From very restricted accessibility of the early days, the opposite — imposing this on students, whether they are interested or not — [has occurred]: the pendulum swung in the other direction.
We very strongly advise composers to take a course in electronic music, but it is not compulsory for anyone, any longer. And that’s really a healthier situation, I feel, because it doesn’t overburden the studio, and it allows more time to those students who want to take that, while it doesn’t really compel a young violinist who doesn’t really want to spend time there but rather wants to practise the Paganini Caprices for five or six hours a day, or somebody who wants to read about Guillaume de Machaut, [to use the studio]. So that is a healthier situation. Now the second aspect of the systematic pedagogical point you raised, Jim… well, I would care to put down my pedagogical ideas, I would codify them and so on. Well, I never really wrote a textbook on electronic music but my colleague David Keane, as you know, has written a book which I think he uses as a textbook in his classes on the pedagogy and the æsthetics of electronic music. And David has published other articles on that [topic]. Also, you know about the Pellegrino book 7[7. David Keane, Tape Music Composition (Oxford University Press, 1980); Ron Pellegrino, An Electronic Studio Manual (Ohio State University College of the Arts, 1969).], and there are lots of publications that contribute to the pedagogy of the electronic music studio today. And they are very diverse, quite rightly so because of the diversity of the hardware. My experience in electronic music is really confined to the mechanical, electronic machines of Hugh and to some apparatus of the voltage-control type. I worked only very, very little with computers, and that was when I visited Bell Labs in 1961. So I don’t think I am the right person to write the comprehensive book on the pedagogy of electronic music. And certainly I would not want to impose my experience and interface on any student. I would, however, emphasize the general principle that this man-machine interface situation — in its manifold guises, or manifold realizations, which electronic music in its many different forms constitutes (all these possibilities together, or any part thereof) — is potentially a very strong source for any composer, young, middle-aged or even old. That could be, and was for a number of people, a source of great learning. And if I remember correctly, Ligeti, whom I heard in a panel session in Paris at one of the IRCAM symposia, spoke very much along these lines. He spoke about the pedagogical [aspect as an opportunity for independent learning], the experience in the studio.
May I ask [the same of] you? Do you have this experience?
[JM] Sure, I consider the nights spent in the electronic music studio — I would echo what you just said — as certainly some of the most valuable and instructive experiences I have ever had as a musician. Interestingly enough, lately I’ve been dealing with the computer project at U of T. In a way, it’s a similar situation, because as a basic naïve, you approach this situation that’s totally new to you. And in a way it’s very similar to what I was doing ten years ago, when I first walked into an electronic music studio. The atmosphere and the “electricity” in the air are very much as I remember it then. And I think there is something about getting down there… maybe even the nature of the machines, that they were mechanical and that you had to hit them and kick them… [Laughter]
[IA] Much tactile contact! No, I didn’t kick them, that’s the only thing I didn’t do!
[JM] Maybe you could make some general comments on what the future of [these specific Le Caine] instruments is, if any.
[IA] Well, the situation today is very different from the time when I worked with these instruments. Today I wouldn’t think that these instruments could hold a candle to some of the generalized computer setups that exist at Stanford University or at IRCAM. I think the future of electronic music lies much more in the direction of the computer than anywhere else. So these machines are historical relics, in this sense. However, as recently as 1974, just six years ago, I still used the Special Purpose Tape Recorder, right here at Queen’s University, for the purpose of synchronizing some speech material which went into parts of La Tourangelle. In fact, the whole [of the] La Tourangelle speech material was synchronized by the Special Purpose Tape Recorder. And I still don’t know of any other instrument that could today give me that versatility the Special Purpose Tape Recorder [offered]. But you’re right, if you would tell me, “Well, why don’t you use a 16-channel, 2-inch tape?” Or whatever. Well, first of all I don’t have experience with that — I didn’t even work with 4-channel tape. The largest number of channels on an Ampex or Scotty [tape reel] for me was two. Why? Because that tape was usable on the Special Purpose Tape Recorder, which was my synchronizing machine.
Now, why don’t I use, say, a 1/2-inch tape, or a 1-inch tape or 2-inch tape— 4, 8, 16, 32 channels? Well, I don’t know whether I can edit and synchronize with the same kind of flexibility. With the Special Purpose Tape Recorder it is terribly simple to change the phase relationship between tape A and tape B, which I want to synchronize. But tape A has two channels and tape B has two channels. Or I can take one channel on tape A and one channel on tape B. I can change the phase relationships by just tugging a little bit on one tape; it takes me a half-second of time. And I can set up a million different phase relationships between those two tapes by just pulling a bit on the tape, or adjusting the pulleys. And then, I don’t have to erase, I don’t have to find the spot, I don’t have to worry about synchronization, it is right then and there. Multiply that by two, by three, by four, by five… I don’t know how one cuts a 1/2-inch tape or a 1-inch tape in a way one cuts a 1/4-inch tape. By going back and forth between the 2-channel Ampex and the 20-channel Special Purpose Tape Recorder, which also operates with 1/4-inch tape, I had such an incredible, flexible setup that in relatively little time, in hours, I could run dozens of experiments. I shudder at the thought of having to do that with a 1/2-inch or a 1-inch or 2-inch tape. You see the point? So, in some way, I still think that for people who use pre-recorded speech material as a stratum, rather than speech material like Charles Dodge uses 8[8. In works such as Speech Songs (1972) and Synthesized Voices (1978), where the voice materials are synthetic and highly fragmented.], [Le Caine’s instruments could be quite useful]. I pre-recorded speech. I am very much interested in how real, live people’s voices sound. To me, even today, the most versatile instrument is something like the Special Purpose Tape Recorder to synchronize tape materials. So in this sense, the Special Purpose Tape Recorder is not a historic relic to be put in a museum. But I do hope that we can keep it up to date, and I might or might not use it in another composition, or a student of mine, or somebody in 10, 15 years — this instrument could still be useful.
[GY] But that’s the only one you can think of at the moment that [would fit] that category? I wonder if there were any others?
[IA] Well, one could look through the available commercial machinery for various functions [and compare them to Le Caine’s instruments]. I think probably his Sine Tone Oscillator Bank is outdated. I really feel that with today’s synthesizers and sequencers, that that machine, with its static 24 (or God knows how many) oscillators, is really outdated, because those oscillators are not voltage-controlled. Also, I feel that probably his Tone Mixture Generator is outdated. I don’t think that [his third filters do] anything more than what a commercial computer does. So a few of his instruments, I think, are outdated. The Serial Structure Generator probably is outdated; computers can do [what it offers]. With the Sonde, or the Poly, I am not really familiar with them; I think you’d better ask Paul Pederson 9[9. See Paul Pedersen’s talk on “Hugh Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer,” also published in this issue of eContact!] or David [Keane] about this. The Spectrogram is a processor which works with pre-constructed material — a multi-channel, programmable envelope generator could perform that function, perhaps even better. So if somebody has [such a machine], then fine. But [the Spectrogram] could still be quite useful if one doesn’t have such a fancy array of 24 programmable envelope controllers in synch.
[JM] Let me try a thought on you. We’ve been thinking about this for some time and I think generally what you have said corresponds to what we have decided, that really most of the developments have been superseded by current technology. But I think that there is something valuable about the basic eccentricity, of the lack of design ideas that went into these instruments. He obviously was thinking in ways that nobody else was approaching [in] the field. And I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that it would be valuable just to keep four or five of the instruments, specific examples of the instrumental types, up and working. There is something that’s very attractive to me, because it’s so unique. With the application of semi-conductor technology to the rest of electronic music, you walk into a store now and it’s full of synthesizers, but they’ve all been designed by the same mind, basically. Because as [the design of electronic instruments is] taken over by bigger companies, while their general-purpose power is much greater, [there are] things that they have eliminated, that they have decided are not important — they’ve all decided they’re not important and they’re all of a sudden not available anymore. How would you react to that?
Hugh was thinking in ways that nobody else was approaching [in] the field.
[IA] Oh, I think it’s a very good idea! I think to say that this or that instrument is outdated [is perhaps not quite correct]. Newton [is also] outdated; it doesn’t mean that Newton is forgotten. I think Hugh is a very important historical figure, and his instruments are of great interest. Even though those instruments which one would call outdated because there are instruments available today that perform the function more economically or in a more versatile way. His instruments are very important because they show a very certain phase in the history of development of electronic music instrumentation. In this sense, I fully agree with you, I would love to see Hugh’s instruments kept in working order, and as a historical documentation, if nothing else. And there might be composers who say, “I just want to work with these historical models,” for whatever reason. But I would like to add to that that these are very delicate machines, because many of them were either prototypes or second or third realizations in the shop somewhere up at NRC. They break down quite frequently and they can be noisy. So the question of what to do with that collection of instruments by Hugh, put together in one place, put back in reasonable working order… who should be allowed to use it? To make sure these things are not used as toys in a science museum.
[JM] That’s a situation we would rather not [have]. I mean I don’t whether I would want thousands of school kids going by them every Saturday afternoon. [Laughter]
[IA] They won’t survive the third Saturday!
[GY] They should be only be used by — and back to the old elitist point of view — people who know how to deal with them.
[JM] Or people who approach them with proper respect.
[GY] But visually they’re interesting also. People could go to them in the museum with the traditional glass case over them, chain around them, and look at them and listen to tapes perhaps.
[JM] I hate going to museums and looking at instruments that you know are sitting behind the glass, deteriorating because nobody is playing them.
[IA] I would like to come back to children. It is very important that the children should have more [opportunities] than just looking at those things in the glass. Because, after all, among those children there might be another Hugh. So it’s very important that this contact between that child and this instrument [should exist]. I’m thinking of various modalities of conveying the excitement, the ingenuity and the genius that is embodied in these instruments to this single child or those very few children that have to be reached… or perhaps many children reached at a different level.
Quite a few years ago, the McGill Linguistics Department asked me [if I would] want to contribute to a course in linguistics, which they set up in a modular way — every module approached linguistics from a certain point of view — and they were very interested in how I worked on Cento. This came from the Linguistics Department. I made a videotape while I was sitting in the studio and working with the machines and explaining how these machines work. So, I think a tape like that — or somebody else or several people working with Hugh’s machines, and having an audio track going at the same time, or a video track, together with a machine that would be just sitting there; a film with a machine and the soundtrack — could give an idea to these children maybe how these machines sounded, what these machines can do.
[JM] That’s a good idea. One of the objectives of the project was to develop tools, or put the information in such a format that it would be useful for public school stuff. One of the main impetuses for starting in the first place was [when] I was doing my course for music teachers at U of T and they were looking for information, that was Canadian-based, on electronic music. And of course there wasn’t any. And then you’re suddenly confronted with this apparent dichotomy that you have one of the main pioneers of the field and absolutely no information about him. That was one of the reasons that the thing got started in the first place.
[IA] The whole exploration project?
[IA] Which course is that, Jim?
[JM] It’s electronic music for the people who are doing type A music 10[10. Where Jim and Gayle were consulting composers for the pioneering graphic interface developed by Bill Buxton, through the Computer Systems Research Group.], it’s their certification for public school music [teaching].
[IA] Do they actually go into a studio?
[JM] Yeah, we have a small studio: two Synthis and an Arp and a couple of tape recorders. There’s a band-pass filter.
[IA] That’s in the Faculty of Music?
[JM] No, it’s in the Faculty of Education, the studio itself [is at McGill].
[IA] Where did you study, Gayle?
[GY] At York University.
[IA] You have a studio there, did you work in the studio there?
[GY] Yes, I did.
[IA] With whom did you study?
[GY] During the second year I was there Richard Teitelbaum was teaching, and the next year I took a course with David Rosenboom, And that year, James Tenney came to York.
[IA] Is Tenney still there?
[GY] Yeah, he’s on sabbatical this year. So I studied with the three of them; it was quite a rounded education! And also I’m working at the computer installation at the University of Toronto, so that’s an entirely different terrain, again.
[JM] It’s funny, they’re using composers in the same way that Hugh used you [István].
[GY] Jim and I are both participating in that. [Laughter]
[JM] I guess it’s a well-established research technique! [Laughter] Thank you very much for talking [with us].
[IA] A pleasure! Thanks for asking these questions, I’m very excited about the opportunity for talking about that.