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.

Oskar Fischinger: Master of Visual Music

Oskar Fischinger is a German animator and painter, who was born in the year 1900.

He created animations that played with the idea of visualizing music, either by the use of colour or motion. Throughout his life he would make 50 of them.

Take a look at this piece from 1938 called An Optical Poem, produced by MGM:

However it gets a lot better than this. See there is this thing called the Color Organ, which is a concept that goes back to the 1500s. The Color Organ is an attempt to visualize the notes of the chromatic scale using, as you guessed, colours.

In the 1940s, Oskar tried his hand at this by designing the Lumigraph. However it is not necessarily a color organ, as it took two people to operate - one for the keyboard and one for the screen.

Near the end of his life it was licensed for use in the movie The Time Travelers in 1964. This is how they pictured music would be played in the year 2071!

Well not all is forgotten in this rich history of experimental sound and light, as we are working on the Blinker project which will soon add support for making your own Color Organ at home.

In 2017 Google paid a tribute to the artist with their Google Doodle to celebrate his 117th birthday:

You can buy a DVD of Oskar’s work from the Center for Visual Music.

And he also wrote a book called Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction

How to Show Your Work

If a tree falls in the forest, did the tree fall? This is the same question as: “If I worked on a project and never showed it to anyone, did I work on the project?”.

The answer for the sake of moving your career forward is no, the project does not exist.

You must get in the habit of showing your work to your friends, family and other people who might be interested in it.

Mark Zuckerberg, one of the greatest makers of code in the 21st Century was known for supporting the idea of “Move Fast and Break Things”, by showing your work before its even ready.

So how do you go about showing your work? The first way is you have to document the project as you’re working on it. If it’s a visual piece, you will want to be taking photographs of it progressing.

If it’s a code project, you’ll want to take some screenshots as the app comes to life.

That way, when the project gets finished, you’ll be used to taking the steps necessary for documenting it.

Sure, the ‘in-progress’ documents might not be very useful later on, but it’s about ingraining a habit of showing your work.

In the next part of this series, I’m going to talk about how to put that work together in some sort of portfolio, and then we’ll finish the series of by talking about how we can show this to specific people.

Why You Already Have Enough Stuff

The problem with doing creative work alongside technology is the endless pipeline of new products to pick from every single day.

If you don’t want to use Arduino, you can choose from probably 100 different types of boards to prototype with. In the world of music there are oodles and oodles of midi controllers, and in visual arts you can take your pick of fancy brushes, pencils and canvasses.

So how do you know when enough is enough?

I will tell you right now that you already have enough stuff to get started. Take what you have and push it to the limits where you can’t possibly move forward without a certain, specific tool.

Otherwise, you will spend all your time shopping for new products and not really making anything.

If you are this type of person, I’m sorry to burst your bubble but that game is over. Get to work.

© Spaghetti Lab 2018