Laurie Spiegel: Electronic Music Innovator

Laurie Spiegel is an electronic music and video artist from the United States who is most well known for her work in early computer music systems at Bell Labs. Her journey in music begins with traditional instruments such as the guitar, banjo and mandolin, and eventually she would study music more seriously at the Juliard School in New York.

By the late 1960s she was using analog synthesizers, but was frustrated with their lack of ability to retain their settings – an aspect to them which is now appreciated by many enthusiasts in the modular world – and began to work on computer music.

At Bell Labs she made use of programs such as GROOVE alongside Max Matthews (for whom the program Max was named after) and other top researchers in the field of computer arts.

In the 1980s she was working with a keyboard inventor based in Toronto named David McLey who was working on the McLeyvier system, and she would eventually branch out on her own with the program called Music Mouse for Macintosh, Amiga and Atari.

Like our feature on Oskar Fischinger, Spiegel also devoted creative energy to the idea of visual music, and worked on these projects in places like the Experimental Television Lab at WNET Thirteen in New York.

Her piece Sediment (1972) was featured in the blockbuster hit The Hunger Games in 2012, and also that year one of her albums The Expanding Universe was re-released on Unseen Worlds.

In the liner notes of the album, she discusses the lengthy processes which were used at Bell Labs to make this music a reality.

There are two interesting lessons from her story. The first being that technology is not always at pace with the artist of the present. Most musicians would not have had the patience to write out a program one night and then wait the next morning to hear it back on the computer. Without this tenacity though, one cannot progress through the issues, and this makes them the innovator. And without the persistence of these innovators, computer music might not have really gone anywhere outside of these labs.

The next lesson is that our relationship with technology is a fluid process over time. While analog synthesizers were a pain in the rear to many musicians by the end of the 1960s, they are now the gold standard. This also has to do with renewed interest by synth manufacturers to offer certain features of the analog world and combine them with insights from the digital domain – most notably addressing the ability to keep them in tune.

As ambient music has gone through significant shifts over the past few decades, Laurie Spiegel’s music is like a giant rock, offering a foundation for all these changes that would ensue.

Written by Spaghetti Eggy – Elliott Fienberg.

Photos courtesy of New Music USA which has a fantastic feature on Laurie Spiegel here.