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Interview with Nick Didkovsky

Pop Rox Pox, I; Pop Rox Pox, II

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Shows #104/105, 17 and 24 May 1997. Kalvos & Damian on the road in New York City at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:33:45–1:42:10] / Audio Part 2 [0:34:18–1:12:20].

With a musical career spanning 25 years, Nick Didkovsky is a guitarist, composer, and music software programmer. He founded the rock band Doctor Nerve in 1983 and was a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet during its ten-year tenure, contributing 12 pieces to the quartet. He has composed for Bang On A Can All-Stars, Meridian Arts Ensemble, ETHEL, Loadbang, ARTE Quartett, and others. His compositions and guitar work appear on over 50 records. With computer music pioneer Phil Burk, Didkovsky created the music programming language Java Music Specification Language (JMSL), which is used by composers all over the world. He has taught JMSL at Dartmouth College, CalArts, Columbia University, and New York University. His Black Sabbath Guitar Lessons on YouTube have been received with great enthusiasm by metal fans all over the world and his metal band Häßliche Luftmasken had its premiere performance in June 2011.

Audio Part 1 [0:33:45–1:42:10]

[Kalvos] Nick Didkovsky, welcome to the Bazaar!

[Nick Didkovsky] Well, thank you and likewise.

[K] Well we should explain right away that the other ambient quality of the room is the sound of a historic computer item that is humming away and the disk rattling and the fan going mad trying to keep it cool no doubt because of its age.

[Damian] It was made in Mexico City, the Amigo.

[ND] This is the female version, called the Ami-ga, and I would love to get ahold of another one and just shrink-wrap it so I’ll have it available for parts for the next twenty years of my life. You can’t find these, it’s getting to be a very scarce beast.

[K] And this will lead into a lot of the things we’ve got to talk about, because some of the work that you have done has been in HMSL, which is one of the granddaddy, great computer languages for creating music.

[ND] Yeah, it’s even more obscure than the Amiga. I tend to find smaller and smaller communities to belong to and isolate myself from as many people as possible. So of course I didn’t want to buy an IBM PC clone or a Macintosh, I bought an Amiga. And of course I didn’t want to write in C or Pascal, I wanted to write in FORTH. I couldn’t use some big, wonderful batch music programme, I had to use something that’s instantly hard to learn and that you have to read manuals for months before you even hear your first bleep. So I succeeded in completely isolating myself from the general community. [Laughter]

[K] Well it’s been compensated by the fact that you have guitars here.

[ND] That’s right, polar opposites.

[K] I’m going to start out with an admission. When I was in Holland in 91–92 you played at the Bimhuis. There was Louis Andriessen in the front row enjoying it enormously and I was in the back row saying, [grumpy voice] “This sounds derivative!” I was very unhappy about this and I went back home and wrote a journal of my experiences that I published in the Vermont Composers’ Newsletter and I said, “I heard this band and it sounds like warmed over John Trubee.” And that’s when Larry Polansky contacted me (after reading that, as I had been in touch with Larry about other things) and said, “You have to meet Nick Didkovsky because he’s the leader of Doctor Nerve and he gave a talk at Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute] about John Trubee.” That was my first hearing of your stuff and Damian has another history of hearing your stuff on another… you went and bought a bunch of LPs…

[D] Yes, old Doctor Nerves, again from the mail order outlet in Silver Spring, Maryland, Wayside?

[ND] Wayside is the distribution arm and Cuneiform is the label.

[K] So we came on you entirely differently. You have an incredibly deep history of all kinds of stuff. Start us at the beginning and wend us through for awhile.

[ND] I guess the most pertinent beginning of compositional work was in electronic music and tape music. My parents gave me a tape recorder when I was maybe eight or nine years old. It was a little reel to reel tape recorder and you could remove this little spindle to make it go slower or faster…

[K] A little Awai? And you screwed the extra spindle in the middle up top to save it?

[ND] Yes! Absolutely. This thing was called a “sound camera” because the marketing department I guess didn’t want to call it a tape recorder because you wouldn’t know what it was, so they called it the “sound camera”. It was excellent, this wonderful little thing, the kind of thing that burns up on Mission Impossible after you hear ten seconds of it. I discovered how to thread the tape so that it goes backwards and I remember really early phoneme exercises with my dad where we would write out words phonetically and figure out how they would sound backwards. We would record them backwards and then play them forwards and see if we could talk backwards and make it sound forwards. Really getting into the “object” of the sound and the manipulation of what happens to sound when you actually put it in a fixed medium, and a medium that you can start manipulating. So that’s kind of a little seed. I was also learning how to play folk guitar because my mother was very interested in folk guitar. She was taking the Laura Weber course on channel 13, “Folk Guitar with Laura Weber”. I kind of followed her lead. There were kind of these two parallels in my life, I didn’t really put them together at that time but I was very interested in this kind of weird sound manipulation device and I was interested in the A-Major chord and the E-Major chord too.

Much later, at Brown [University], where I studied as an undergraduate, I took some electronic music courses and started to get heavily into tape splicing, sound manipulation and collage and so on. In a parallel track also being very interested in listening to a bunch of different music: heavy metal, I was really heavily into King Crimson at the time, Frank Zappa and Bartók. I was getting turned on to a lot of different things — Art Bears, Fred Frith — and having this 8-track studio on campus that I was actually taking a course in.

I think my composition for live musicians has been very, very influenced by my tape work, just through the ability of splicing. Making rapid, instantaneous changes. The kinds of things I would do, going from one very defined texture to another radically different kind of texture on tape was something that I didn’t deliberately set out to do with a band, but ended up being in there because I was so used to hearing that kind of pacing. It was a very natural thing for me to hear, so it was kind of a natural thing for me to start putting into music.

“… it was like a square wheel at first, just a tortured warty thing trying to get off the ground. … After ten minutes the room just exploded, the sound was unbelievable, it was twenty people just blowing their brains out on this riff.”

After college I spent a year in New York City and took in as much as I possibly could, went to The Kitchen every night, went to the Experimental Intermedia Foundation every night just to help them set up chairs or something. I’d get into all the shows free and help out around the space. After that I went up to the Creative Music Studio, where I’d say the biggest quantum leap in discovering where I could go with music and composition and improvisation and performance and the electric guitar and tape and noise and all those kinds of things really started to come together in a really interesting way. There would be twenty students from all over the world, each with their own very strong field of talent, specialities, interests. And you would put these bands together, with a guitarist from Italy and a drummer from Ghana and a vocalist from Arkansas, whatever… a crazy, crazy place. In fact we used to call it Crazy Music School, CMS. Of course it was called Creative Music Studio but CMS could stand for other things.

That’s where the first kind of prototype of Doctor Nerve discovered itself. I had a really powerful experience in a composition class taught by Baikida Carroll and Dave Holland. There were a lot of very intense musicians that would come through that place and do workshops. Pauline Oliveros was there, guitarist James Emery. So Baikida and Dave did this composition class and gave a very, very simple assignment: just write two musical lines that go together. I think I spent all night with my guitar and a tape recorder, playing one line down, editing it, listening to it, changing it and then playing another one against it, thinking about it, changing it, messing around with it. I finally came up with something that I thought was pretty hot, I really wanted to hear this. But it was just literally two lines of music, like two bars. I brought it into the class the next day and there was a huge class, there was like twenty people: two drummers, two electric bass players, a couple of guitar players, a lot of horns. So they started to play it and it was like a square wheel at first, just a tortured warty thing trying to get off the ground. After like five minutes, it was so repetitive that people finally found their way into it, they must have played it for a half an hour. After ten minutes the room just exploded, the sound was unbelievable, it was twenty people just blowing their brains out on this riff. Dave Holland was playing the bass, had this big smile on, Baikida was playing his horn and started to improvise over the top of it. I wasn’t even playing, I was just conducting at first and after awhile I had nothing to do so I would just run around the room going from instrument to instrument — how does it sound over here, how does it sound over here, stand right behind the drummer, my God, listen to the groove! And that electric sound — there were a lot of electric instruments — this very heavy, heavy rock beat thing with horns and jazz improvisation… This interlocking — it was a hard lick, tricky — would kind of come together in certain places and drift off in certain places and just became this really powerful unity thing. That made an extraordinary impression on me, it was a very powerful experience and it kind of planted the seed, I think, for a sound that was going to be Doctor Nerve.

[K] Dense. It pushes, it drives ahead all the time, it’s non-stop driving ahead.

[ND] Yeah, that’s what this did. [General laughter] That riff, by the way, is at the end of Not Everyone’s As Rich As Your Parents. That riff just hung around for years and I finally ended up just writing it into a piece. So that was a big kick in the head. Then there was a band that formed just for one or two student concerts. We called that band Spyboy, which became a tune, and was really the first tune that I wrote for a band that eventually would sound like Doctor Nerve. That’s on the first record. This was like Spring/Summer of 1982.

We listen to Not Everyone’s As Rich As Your Parents by Nick Didkovsky [0:46:35–0:51:40]. Published on Armed Observation, Cuneiform [LP Rune8].

Doctor Nerve

Doctor Nerve (l to r): Kathleen Supove, Nick Didkovsky, Rob Henke, Leo Ciesa, Yves Duboin, Jesse Krakow, Ben Herrington and Michael Lytle. In concert at The Whitney Museum of American Art, 15 February 2008. Photo © Scott Friedlander.

[K] Back to the tale. What we want to get to is how you end up doing programming to achieve your goals. Let’s find out where that comes from.

[ND] There was a period after the Creative Music Studio when I lived in Woodstock, shared an apartment with Yves Duboin, soprano sax player from Nerve. The band at that point was called Defense Spending and we’ve got four tunes that we recorded in Brian Farmer, the drummer’s living room onto this 4-track here, which is underneath the bags of clothing. Great machine, 4-track Scully, 1/2-inch tape, you really crank it up, it sounds gorgeous!

[K] It looks like a real recording machine, it gives you confidence in your own work.

[ND] Yeah, it’s a beautiful, beautiful unit. I’ll never get rid of it. That was an amazing session, we recorded all three horns onto one track, live, no overdubs, no nothing. Guitar and violin onto another one, bass on its own track, all the drums onto its own track, it was insane. That was going on for about a year and then I went to Germany for the summer and played with some interesting people in a group called Anima Musica. When I came back, Yves had decided to move back to New York City. I stayed around Woodstock for a little while, Defense Spending broke up, I was in a couple of other bands and then I got a call from Jim Mussen who I met in Creative Music Studio and who was living in New York City. He invited me down for some informal playing and I would go down every other weekend in my $400 Chevy Nova. That’s where I met Marc Wagnon, vibes player, and Mike Lesley, the original bassist, and Don Davis. I gave Michael Lytle a call because I wanted a sax player. I had a nice long conversation for about an hour with Michael, I’d never spoken to him before, and at the end he says, “No, I’d love to come down and play with you guys but who told you I played sax?” [Laughter] I asked, “Well, what do you play,” and he says, “Well, I play bass clarinet.” I said, “Oh, that’s cool, come on, no problem.”

So that was an early version of the band. It was called Lethal Injection for awhile and then I wrote a tune called Doctor Nerve. We liked the name of the tune so much that we ended up calling the band Doctor Nerve. We put out the first record at Chuck Vrtacek’s prodding. He told me to compile a cassette of the existing recordings, send it around to a few distributors, tell them you were going to make a record [and ask] how many could they possibly move for you. If X is above some number, do it, make a record. So I thank Chuck a lot for his persistence, he was really telling me to get the music out. And Wayside was extremely enthusiastic about the cassette so I put out the first record. Then the second record was put out by Cuneiform, which was the label arm of Wayside Music, that [LP] was called Armed Observation.

In the meantime I was getting very interested in a particular structure, a social game that falls under prisoner’s dilemma game theory. It’s a particular kind of lottery. The prisoner’s dilemma idea is that you have got a society — either a very small society or a very large society, it’s really irrelevant — of individuals not in communication with each other that are making decisions that are either cooperative decisions or defecting decisions. The way the balance in the game is, if everyone cooperated, everyone would benefit maximally; if everyone defected, everyone would benefit minimally. But unfortunately, and that’s where the twist is, in a large group of co-operators, a small group of defectors do extremely well. So it’s like being in a community and everyone has a choice of locking their doors or not locking their doors. Everyone cooperates, leaves their doors unlocked and everyone benefits maximally, it’s great. I’ve got freedom, I don’t have to worry about the keys, I feel good, I can come and go as I please. But a defector is going to do extremely well. A defector will go in your apartment and take what he wants and leave.

That’s a very simple version of the game which is not very mathematical; you can really quantify this thing. The reason it’s called prisoner’s dilemma is because [for example], you have two prisoners in isolation in two cells, if they rat on each other they both get, let’s say, fours years; if one guy rats and the other stays quiet, the guy that rats only gets two years but the guy that stays quiet gets five; and if they both stayed quiet they would both get two. So it would be coolest for both of them if they both stayed cool and didn’t say anything, they would each get out in two years. But there is this incredible temptation to rat on the other guy, hoping he’s going to be nice, because I’ll get out in one, and screw him. Of course there is no reason to think that the other guy isn’t going to do the exact same thing. So what happens, this tendency towards defection, this is the single most overriding, difficult problem in prisoners’ dilemmas.

It was studied very heavily by a lot of very smart people like the Rand Corporation because there are all sorts of military overtones: do you first strike or not?

— “Okay, we’ll both promise not to.”

— “Really?”

— “Yeah, yeah I’m not going to send a bomb, I promise. Are you going to cooperate?”

— “Yeah, sure.”

The tension is so incredible, that is what arms escalation is all about. And of course everyone will benefit maximally if no one sends a bomb. In a very primitive, reptilian way, an aggressor will benefit by defecting against a co-operator because you’ll blow them to smithereens and rule the world or something obscene like that. And if they both defect, there’s no more Earth. That’s a pretty quantified prisoner’s dilemma theory.

I was really interested in these kinds of processes and I really rejected the typical metaphors of… I was interested in the mathematical process and the social responsibility aspects of it, about people getting along or not getting along, and interdepending on each other or not, but I really wanted to remove it from the typical realms of money or years spent in jail or first-strike nuclear attacks; I wanted to do it somehow with music. So I wrote a letter to Pauline Oliveros, telling her about my idea.

This particular prisoner’s dilemma was constructed by Douglas Hofstadter in an article in Scientific American called the Luring Lottery. It’s a beautiful, beautiful construction. He offered a million dollar prize to the winner of the lottery and it was open to any of the readers of his article, a potential audience of millions of readers. It was a million dollar prize, I think he even got it insured, and there was no cost to entering ballots into the lottery, as opposed to Lotto, where each ballot costs a dollar. That’s an natural check on how many times you’re going to enter into a lottery, because you’re not going to risk $2000 to win, you’re going to spend maybe $2 or $1. But in the Luring Lottery there is no limit to the number of ballots you can enter because there is no cost. He said in fact don’t even send in ballots, just send a postcard with a number on it representing how many ballots you would like to enter into the lottery and then we’ll pick one of the ballots, I’ll just write some computer programme that will just randomly pick [it]. Say Jim sent in 10,000 ballots, so-and-so sent in 20, so-and-so sent in a million, and we’ll juggle the numbers and we’ll pick a winner and the winner will get a prize.

But the prize, which is the beautiful twist, is divided by the total number of ballots submitted by everybody. There is an inverse relationship between greed and reward, which is magnificent. So if we three were playing and we all wanted to be good to each other we might either decide to not enter at all or enter one ballot. So let’s say we all enter one: whoever wins, and it’s an even chance of winning, is going to get one-third of a million dollars. But then of course, you’re going to be a little tempted [to] put in ten ballots because I’ll probably put in one and you’ll get a ten-to-one chance of winning, thinking of course you’re the only one in the whole society who ever came up with that genius idea. Meanwhile everyone else is thinking, “Hm, maybe I’ll put in a thousand, or ten thousand, or a million, everyone else is bound to vote low.” And what happened, of course, was that people wrote in values on cards that defied mathematical computation of how enormous these numbers would be. Mathematical constructions of things being raised to the power of to the power of to the power of some number. It was absolutely impossible to calculate who would have won, and in Hofstetter’s words, the prize would have been so close to zero that God himself wouldn’t have known the difference.

We listen to Spyboy by Nick Didkovsky [1:03:27–1:06:38]. Published on Did Sprinting Die?, Cuneiform [55002].

[ND] I was interested in making a music piece out of this, I wrote to Pauline Oliveros, I told her about the piece, the concept of it. How could I possibly realize it? She said great idea, just what we need, write to Larry Polansky and tell him about it. So that’s how I met Larry.

[K] He was still out on the west coast?

[ND] He was at Mills College. It was a really cold night, I had my calling card and called from a payphone on 23rd street, I don’t know why I called him from a payphone, I just had the urge. I gave him a buzz, we had a really intense conversation of about five minutes where I learned everything I needed to know about what machine I needed to buy, the fact that HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language), was a programming language for music that [would allow me to] construct a prisoner’s dilemma musically. He just turned me on to the track, the hardware platform, the software platform, and it became very apparent to me in those five minutes that there was also a really interesting community of musicians and composers satelliting around HMSL. And that bore out to be absolutely true because Phil Burk, one of the smartest, most creative people I’ve ever met in my life, is co-author of HMSL, a good friend, I met him when I went out to Mills. Robert Marsanyi, who now works for 3DO, was doing his graduate work at Mills, he’s an incredible HMSL hacker. That kind of got me into the computer music realm.

So I bought myself an Amiga 1000, I got myself HMSL and started to write some really weird, little, algorithmic, computer music pieces that would sort of bleep and blap.

[K] We did a little conversation with people now and then about HMSL, but maybe you’re the person to ask. What do you have to do when you sit down and work with it? What kind of feel does it have when you use it?

“… no two HMSL pieces sound even remotely the same because you’re not starting on a level high enough to influence musical tastes. It’s a very non-stylistically biased environment for musical experimentation.”

[ND] You’re actually writing programme code, it’s not like a sequencer. It’s not like Jam Factory or Music Mouse [see interview with Laurie Spiegel in eContact! 10.2], or any kind of a pre-canned application where you boot it up, it asks what key you want to jam in and you click on C-minor and you move your mouse around and [imitates computer-generated arpeggio] and oh cool, computer music! [Laughter] It’s not a pre-canned application, it’s really hard to use. You have to learn how to programme in FORTH, so the look and feel is like the look and feel of your word processor: you’re typing for 45 minutes before you even hear anything. But that’s an extremely rewarding environment because you can basically do anything. You come up with the sickest idea. If you or a good friend of yours is a good enough programmer, they’ll do it, you can do it. Consequently, no two HMSL pieces sound even remotely the same because you’re not starting on a level high enough to influence musical tastes. It’s a very non-stylistically biased environment for musical experimentation. And so I think it’s kind of deliberate that it’s kind of a tough environment to work in, or at least it just doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles. It’s got a very. very sophisticated toolbox, it’s got a scheduler, something that will keep track of time. Basically if you think of music as sound over time, it’s a really nice off-hand way to design a programming language that will help you create music. It’s an object-oriented environment where you can build objects and a scheduler that doesn’t really know or care too much about music. You just write these objects and toss them into the scheduler and stuff comes out. You’re in as much or as little control of that stuff as you want: you can make very random structures, very fixed structures, it becomes very reflective of you as a composer and a programmer and a musician. So consequently, [for example] on that Hallways CD, listen to any two tracks, it doesn’t smell, taste, feel, sound anything like HMSL because HMSL is like an enabling technology, an enabling software that allows you to create visions of music, forms and structures that you would not otherwise be able to hear.

[K] Let’s choose two pieces on Hallways to compare for those differences.

We listen to an excerpt of Hymn Tunes by Jeanne Parson [1:13:35–1:15:03] and an excerpt of Meat by Nick Didkovsky [1:15:05–1:19:15]. Published on Hallways: Eleven Musicians and HMSL, Frog Peak Music [CD FP002].

[K] Two completely different tunes created with the same language. That means you sit down with this group of building blocks tools and you twist them and turn them the way you want to?

[ND] Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, because HMSL is like a complete development environment for the Amiga. You could write a word processor in it, you don’t even have to use the music tools. That’s how general it is, it’s a very incredible, powerful thing.

So I was writing interesting algorithmic, interactive compositions, music that you actually build a software instrument and you interact with that software instrument.

[K] What does that mean, you sit at a keyboard and adjust it as it’s playing?

[ND] Actually I can demonstrate a really cool one.

[K] Yeah let’s do it! Tell us a little bit about how it works.

[ND] I call it Mandel Music. The user interface is a graphic called the Mandelbrot Set, it’s a mathematical fractal, a very beautiful and philosophically intriguing object. It’s infinitely expandable, it looks more and more complicated the closer you get. It looks like the overall structure again as you magnify it, you get this self-replication. It’s a very intriguing and beautiful thing. I mapped every point on the image and the behaviour of that point onto a musical process. So what actually graphs it is mathematical behaviour. Every point has its particular colour due to the mathematical behaviour that that point represents. By taking that mathematical behaviour and mapping it onto pitch, duration and loudness, you can actually “play” the point. By playing it you also reveal to yourself a lot about how the Mandelbrot Set behaves.

[K] What does the interactivity involve?

[ND] You choose where to click, that’s how you play it. Pianos you hit with a finger, here you hit with a mouse. It’s very interesting, because the music that results is informed not only by what you’re hearing… You know, when you play an instrument and you’re improvising, you are principally informed by the music you are creating, you are listening very much. But here you’re as informed by the music that’s coming out as the graphics that you’re designing.

[K] Walk us through, we’re going to pull our mics down and just leave the mic on you. Give us a run-through and then we’ll just listen to it after you’ve given us a pretty good description.

[ND] I’m looking at the computer screen which has an image of the full Mandelbrot Set on it. This is a mathematical graph. Every point on the screen is basically split into two kinds of behaviours: points that blow up to infinity under a certain mathematical process, and points that will never blow up to infinity. The reason they may not blow up is either because they kind of vortex into a single point and never escape, or they oscillate forever. You’ll hear that kind of behaviour. For example, I’m going to click on a point that’s inside the Mandelbrot Set and we’ll hear it kind of spiral into a single point, never to escape. [Demonstrates process] Here are a few that escape. [Demonstrates process]

We listen to Mandelbrot Improvisation performed and commented by Nick Didkovsky [1:24:00–1:29:00]. Performed live by the composer.

We listen to String Quartet and Doctor Nerve by Nick Didkovsky [1:34:43–1:42:10]. Composer’s sketch, computer version.

Audio Part 2 [0:34:18–1:12:20]

We listen to the continuation of Mandelbrot Improvisation by Nick Didkovsky [0:34:15–0:36:18]. Performed live by the composer.

[D] Bra… vo!

[ND laughing] You wanna do one?

[D] What kind of control do you have over the timbre?

[ND] Whatever the synthesizer does. Nice little coda there, the screen got stuck.

[K] Okay, so I can imagine the kind of fascination with that really tight control. You’re going to compile something else for us here?

[ND] Yeah, what I would like to get to is the point where things kind of came together. HMSL doesn’t really force you into any particular avenue, you have to kind of make your own avenues. Of course, Doctor Nerve was very active at the time that I was getting into computer music programming and I just started to mess around a little bit with some very simple algorithmic ideas and how I could generate raw material that maybe some day the band would play. Kind of a very innocent idea, I thought it would be kind of cool to see what I could get out of this. And the results were really compelling really quickly. I set up a kind of system a little bit related to serial music, but not really strictly. It had a kind of strict kind of structure and it was a little influenced by twelve-tone composition, but it broke rules all over the place. It didn’t break its own rules — it was a very structured kind of environment — but it would come out with these very, very bizarre ideas for the band to play. Kind of like a really brilliant idiot. Brilliant because it could play anything, but an idiot because it had absolutely no knowledge of how easy or difficult, or good or bad it sounded. It had no idea about musical history, or anything. I could generate maybe five or ten measures of this really strange, twisted kind of material and I would get really excited by it. It would show me ideas that I had never really considered before.

That led to the first version of the composition software that would directly lead to Doctor Nerve pieces. We recorded the first three finished examples of those works on the CD Did Sprinting Die?, which are actually performed by the computer. I brought them to my friend Steve McLean’s MIDI studio, we hooked it up to synthesizers and we kind of had Doctor Nerve emulated by samplers and synths playing this really twisted music. Then I notated it and wrote some utilities that would get it onto sheet music. The band picked it up, it was really hard stuff but we pulled it off. Everyone in the band was very excited about it, I was extremely excited about it, and we started to perform these computer-generated pieces, adding them to our repertoire. That’s when finally those two areas of interest came together. After Did Sprinting Die?, we put out a record called Beta 14 ok, which has the band performing computer-generated pieces live.

Nick Didkovsky
Nick Didkovsky

The thing that really attracts me to working with software and composing for Doctor Nerve is that it is something that attacks the creative process in a really interesting way. Someone once wrote that you can look at the creative process as a two-minded operation. You’ve got the one mind that is effervescent, ebullient mind that just throws out ideas without judgement, very, very quickly. It’s very adept at doing that: here, try this, try this, try this… And then there is the other mind which is acting more as a filter and passing certain things through and blocking other things. My feeling was that most habits, bad habits or whatever, habits and prejudices, find a home in the filtering mind, the second one. So I was interested in hyper-stimulating the effervescent mind and seeing what would happen. By extending that mind, extending that process into software, that could generate thousands of ideas, non-judgementally, in minutes. It kind of overloaded the ability to filter, so you get thrown into this interesting creative confusion.

It was a very fascinating position to put myself in as a composer. You go through a big evolution at first, everything sounds new and exciting every time you run the programme, then it all starts to sound the same. Then your intuition gets tweaked and you start to listen deeper, you start to listen to those elements that are actually common to all runs of the programme and those things that are unique to a particular run of the programme. Suddenly I was engaged on a level that I hadn’t been engaged on before. Not only achieving an end of composition, but before I even composed anything, being actively involved in messing with the creative act. That’s why I continued to work with software in my composing, because it was a very fascinating way of thinking about thinking.

[K] That’s what I was going to ask, whether you continue to work with it. Has it reached a dead end and you’re continually generating new ideas or approaches for yourself?

[ND] Sure. I write new versions that go in completely different areas. For example, this new piece that I’m writing for Doctor Nerve and the Sirius String Quartet. I got a couple of commissioning grants to write this big piece and I just completed it last week. I’m really excited about this piece. The third movement, which is the movement for the whole group, opens up with a six-minute section that was completely generated by algorithms that I had written. It’s going very rigorously going from very consonant, sparse behaviour to very, very harmonically complex, dense behaviour, and it does it over a six-minute time span. You can never really quite tell when it breaks out, it’s all about “shades of grey”. It’s something I would never be able write by hand. I went through so many iterations of just exactly how does the ear behave? How does it react to increasingly harmonically complex material? If it starts completely consonant, everyone on the same pitch and it ends up in this total cacophony, well, how do you get from here to there? Do you follow a linear path, where you get just a little bit more cacophonous, a little more harmonically complex per second, somehow? Or do you follow an exponential curve? Or logarithmic, which gradually slopes up and then really peaks? It turned out that different aspects of what I wanted to happen with the form were achieved by radically different kinds of curves. So my patience would be very well coaxed along if certain parameters, like loudness, were not linear but were logarithmic. It mostly double piano, piano, mezzo piano. Maybe just the last third or quarter of it do you start to really ramp up the crescendo, it’s not a linear crescendo at all. Density was a similar feeling. Harmonic complexity I think was a linear one. If I didn’t get to where I was going a little bit quicker, giving you a hint of it a little bit sooner, it would mislead you into thinking that this was a drone piece that was just going to lull you for awhile, just generate too many alpha waves over a four-minute period. But here you’ve got, “Wait, this is not quite what it seems.” After about a minute you start to feel a warp in the tonality of it. And then by the end of it of course the whole thing is just completely freaking out.

That’s an example of a completely new generation of software that I spent quite a lot of time on. The act of composition was really just coding the idea and then deciding what kind of paths, what kind of trajectories I would use to get from point A to point B and how to mathematically define those trajectories. It’s a really liberating way to think about composition because I never wrote a note, I’m just thinking about the form of it.

[K] So the form, the architecture and the “threads”, or the pieces that pull the piece together become the piece? Rather than you start with the notes or harmonic structures, and maybe the architecture is a second thought. It’s the decoration, in a sense, which is more important in some compositions. But here you have this almost visceral feel of structure.

[ND] Yeah, this particular section is just all about form. I was really interested in these kind of transparent, naked, simple forms from working with people like Dan Goode, Phil Corner, Phill Niblock, the downtown, post-Fluxus guys that will hammer on one simple idea for four hours and make a beautiful piece out of it. And of course I’m also simultaneously interested in the way Stravinsky would compose, where form is not apparent but it’s more like hit you in the head with all guns blazing, going directly for the body. So I’m very excited about the piece because I think it’s a very successful meeting of different areas and ways of composing that I’ve been developing over a number of years.

[K] How far along is the piece?

[ND] It’s done.

[K] It’s done! So they’re working on it now?

[ND] I’m going to score it, I’m going to get them the parts, people have come over, I played it for them. I could play a little excerpt of it later on. We’ll be premiering that at the Victoriaville festival in May, in Québec.

What I would like to do now, I’ll explain. This is the second version of automatic composition software for Doctor Nerve. What I’m doing right now, I’ve asked the software to generate five measures of raw material. It has generated trajectories similar to the ones that we have described, but not over a long span and not with any kind of goal in mind. Not going from harmonically simple to harmonically complex, not going from quiet to loud; much more scrambled. It will generate five measures of material and give us a preview of it. We’ll hear it on synthesizers and drum machines and if we like any of it I would be able to save it to disk, import it into a commercial music arranging software (sort of like a word processor for music) and start to develop the piece: cut, copy, paste, add…

[K] Ok so we’ll be listening to a five-measure chunk and then what are we going to do?

[ND] We’ll discuss it! [Laughter] We’ll decide whether or not we want to… I’ll have something to say about it, I’ll either find it interesting enough or I’ll find it not worth saving and then I would maybe run the programme again. But it will give the listener insight into what the creative process is using the software. Because we’ll get about five measures of something which may have a gem in it, or it may be just total trash.

[K] What is the information that you have given it or asked it to do in generating these five measures? Are we listening to five monophonic measures? Five measures of what? Based on what requests?

[ND] Five measures fully orchestrated, all horns, everyone’s got their own part: guitar, vibes, bass, drums, soprano sax, clarinet, trumpet. What the programme code has is random number generators that generate the trajectories similar to what I was discussing earlier. I was talking about how I was very painstakingly drawing in curves to get from point A to point B, for example. Here, I’ve left those decisions to the software itself.

[K] Have you given it any curve basis to start with?

[ND] I give it statistical methods like “use white noise” or “use fractal noise” or “use an exponential or Myhill distribution generator.”

[K] So we’re not just listening to a jumble of random numbers here, you’ve given it some clue as to what you want it to do.

[ND] Yeah. Let’s hear what it does. [Runs demonstration 0:51:13–0:51:43]

So there was stuff in there that was really cool. The beginning of it I wasn’t too attracted to, but at some point there was a very peculiar little drum fill, that’s where my ears first perked up. At another point some instruments would drop out and just leave trumpet, clarinet and drums, which was kind of an interesting thing. A little later on there was a little fragment that could be developed into a groove. That’s how I would investigate a piece like this, I might either save it to disk or I might just run the programme again. Something with some similarities to this or something quite different. Maybe the thing to do now would be to play a piece off of Did Sprinting Die?, which is the computer performing a completed version of one of these pieces which I worked up into a complete piece. What we heard now was raw material which I would then use to develop a full-blown composition. You might want to play the first one off of Did Sprinting Die? and then play one off of Beta 14 ok where the band itself is performing the piece.

We listen to Computer Generated Piece No. 1 by Nick Didkovsky [0:53:25–0:55:35]. Published on Did Sprinting Die?, Cuneiform [55002].

We listen to Beta 14 ok by Nick Didkovsky [0:55:35–0:59:00]. Published on Every Screaming Ear, Cuneiform [CD Rune88].

[K] We just got a off-mic quick demonstration of bringing it into the score.

[D] What procedure then do you go through to translate what you have had the computer play into actually scoring it for instruments?

[ND] I’m looking at a bunch of raw material now. I’m looking at a computer screen that has something that looks like music staff paper on it and it’s got notes on it that are visible and manipulatable and that originated with my software. I can make compositional decisions here about how to arrange it: I can delete material, I can copy, cut, paste, maybe delete all but one measure of it, finding some nice little jewel in there. What’s interesting about working this way is that it’s really a hybrid system of composition, because I don’t just rely on the computer software to generate the raw material. I’ll use some of that raw material, I’ll develop it in maybe a more traditional way. I may take that material and run it through a scrambling programme that I wrote which uses Markov chains to generate new material based on the statistics of the original material; that’s another stage of filtering. I wrote a programme called Riff Grabber which allows me to play a MIDI instrument into the computer, which does a very good job of notating my performance. I can put that into this piece as well. And of course I can take the mouse and grab a note and punch it in wherever I want too, so I can transcribe something that I might have written on a train on a piece of paper five months ago. So you have all these different influences bearing down on what a composition ends up being. It’s very interestingly ambiguous, there is no “heart” to it, it’s kind of a distributed system. It’s a combination of my decision-making, which programme run I decided to keep (which raw material I enjoyed), it’s also the influence of myself as a programmer and what decisions I actually coded into the programme in the beginning, how the random numbers happen to fall, a melody that I might now be inspired to play which ends up in the piece… So there are all these different identities: there’s the programmer, there’s the random numbers, there’s me as an instrumentalist, as an improviser, as a traditional sort of composer that just takes notes and moves them around and uses my ears to decide where a piece can go and where it’s been. It’s elusive and I find that really interesting.

“This is music by and for human beings, by the time Nerve is on stage performing this, we’re all sweating and playing loud and having a really good time playing really hard music.”

[K] That elusiveness is, I think, really interesting because a chunk of this century that was spent among composers trying to pin down everything from very fine levels of volume straight through the serialization of time, so that they can specify every little detail of that. But by inventing it out of your head, here you’re creating a new world of sounds from which… You were talking about filtering before and expanding your own palette and once you’ve expanded it, choosing from those new colours that you’ve discovered.

[ND] There is a whole stream of computer music that came very much out of the desire to control all parameters, and you know, [speaking ironically] poor humans just couldn’t do it very well. There is fifty or sixty years of music that is written for people that are supposed to be able to play 100 different levels of dynamics and changing very, very quickly. Of course to a composer like that a computer is a dream because now you don’t need the orchestra anymore; you can go into even more finer levels of control. That’s just not my approach at all. This is music by and for human beings, by the time Nerve is on stage performing this, we’re all sweating and playing loud and having a really good time playing really hard music. It’s all about the celebration of the creative act and the performance act, not about controlling every microsecond of the creative process.

[K] What shall we go out with? What’s a good ideal piece leaving us with your monument to date?

[D] I like your Peaches en Regalia, myself, although I think some other composer may have used the title. [General laughter]

[ND] Play us a nice metal piece off of Skin, play Preaching to the Converted. That’s a piece that never saw a computer and the raw material, that was all composed on guitar and punching notes in. Or Take Your Ears as the Bones of their Queen, which I think is a very visceral piece that found its origins in this generation of software.

[K] Let’s listen to them both, we’ll start with Preaching to the Converted.

[D] Let’s play them both simultaneously.

[ND] Now you’re talking.

[D] A little mix is just what we need.

[K] Nick Didkovsky, thanks a lot for joining us on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.

[ND] Thank you!

We listen to two versions of Preaching to the Converted by Nick Didkovsky, played simultaneously [1:05:40–1:12:20]. Performed by Doctor Nerve, published on Skin, Cuneiform[CD Rune70] and performed by Isso Yukihiro Group with Nick Didkovsky, published on Every Screaming Ear, Cuneiform [CD Rune88]. At approximately one minute into the mix, added to the mixture was Didkovsky’s Take Your Ears as their Bones of the Queen, published on Skin, Cuneiform[CD Rune70].

[Transcription by shirling & neueweise, September 2009.]

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