Home | EMS | CMP | Photos | Admissions | Resources  

The Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois, 1958-68:
Environment, People, Activities

by Emanuele Battisti

Introduction

The first formally acknowledged electro-acoustic facility in the United States, the Experimental Music Studio [EMS] was created in 1958, and soon became one of the most important studios worldwide. Today it is still operating, although in a very different context. In particular, while the original Studio was located in a small attic room and attended by a narrow group of researchers and students, the current Experimental Music Studios (note the plural form) includes nine specially-designed studios, producing dozens of compositions every year, many of which are awarded prizes in important international competitions, and guaranteeing a vibrant academic activity. At the 50th anniversary of its foundation, it can be worth investigating some aspects related to the historical origins of this environment and to the first years of activity.  

In particular, the period of 1958-68 coincides with the presence of Lejaren Hiller, who created and directed the studio until he left the University of Illinois to accept an academic position at SUNY Buffalo. Also, from a historical perspective, a decade is a broad enough period to attempt an evaluation of the main changes that happened in between the two ends.

  1.  THE EMS ENVIRONMENT: BRIEF HISTORICAL SUMMARY

The origins

Many of those who experienced the environment of the School of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign [UIUC] during the period between 1946 and 1970, remember it as "an era of grandeur".1 The quality both of the faculty and of the academic programs increased tremendously in those years, and contemporary music played an important role in this phase of growth. In particular, the Festival of Contemporary Arts, whose first edition took place in 1948, immediately succeeded as an internationally renowned event. Although in 1955 the Festival became biennial, it maintained its prestige all throughout the 1960s, reaching one of its climaxes in 1969, in correspondence with the performance of John Cage's and Lejaren Hiller's HPSCHD, a composition for seven harpsichords and fifty-one tapes, enriched by a spectacular scenography.2

Moreover, Cage was having a great influence on the Urbana-Champaign music scene since the early 1950s: in particular, a lecture-concert he gave in 1953 on Music for Magnetic Tape was probably the first experience people of this university had to get acquainted with this new creative field, and supposedly was the occasion that instilled in Hiller the interest for electro-acoustic music. 3 

Hiller, just appointed research associate and assistant professor of chemistry,4 began working with the ILLIAC, the first supercomputer built at UIUC, in order to experiment new compositional approaches. The result of this work was the ILLIAC Suite for string quartet, a composition in four movements, or "experiments", completed in 1957 with the help of Leonard Isaacson.5 The first attempt ever made to write a score by means of a computer, the ILLIAC Suite at first received a warm response, putting Hiller in the spotlight. This sudden success, followed by many negative reviews, convinced Hiller that he needed to become a professional musician in order to be accepted by the academic music environment.6

Hiller represents emblematically the difficult search for a balance between the two fields of science and music, which Western History has often had the tendency to merge one into the other. In this case, the process found a main obstacle in the narrow-mindedness of certain composers, who felt they risked losing their caste privileges in favor of machines. As far as this is concerned, it can be noticed that

«Hiller's music stands out as particularly characteristic of the University of Illinois. The university's well known Department of Electrical Engineering, home of two time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, the inventor of the transistor, provided national leadership in the development of computer technology. Hiller established a long-term association between the music and engineering departments».7

Moreover, there is a scene in Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odissey (1968), in which the computer HAL 9000, progressively deactivated by astronaut Bowman, asserts to have become «operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois»: 8 a further confirmation of the leading position Urbana-Champaign has been holding in the computer science field since the 1950s. As a consequence, the association between music and computer, in this specific context, was somehow unavoidable. Hiller happened to be the one who actually realized it.

Stiven House, 1958-68: equipment and financial situation

At the end of 1957 Hiller wrote a letter to Duane Branigan, then director of the School of Music, suggesting him to open a studio for experimental music, in order to develop theoretical and compositional research, and concurrently to activate a new graduate course pertaining to these topics.9 He received a positive answer, thanks to the support previously given by Frederick Wall, dean of the Graduate College. The chosen location was an attic room in Stiven House, across the street to the main music building, Smith Hall. After some months of preparation during the summer of 1958,10 the Experimental Music Studio became operational, right at the beginning of the fall semester. It was the first studio of its kind to be opened by an American university, and the second research project on electro-acoustic music ever attempted in the United States, considering that the research carried out by Luening and Ussachevsky at Columbia-Princeton, although formally acknowledged in 1959, had began in 1952.11

It is important to remind that in the United States «most of research in acoustics was being conducted under the defense program».12 American composers lacked the support their European counterparts were having from radios and televisions broadcast companies, and at the same time the industry was reluctant to invest money in projects that typically require a lot of time for being successfully fulfilled.13 The University of Illinois itself invested only few thousand dollars in the Studio, so that Hiller «had at first to search around the campus for discarded equipment in places like the broadcasting studio, the physics department and [the] music department shop».14 

The result of this first assembly may nowadays seem somewhat primitive, nonetheless this equipment proved to be sufficient to start the research project. The pragmatic approach Hiller adopted gave him the chance to limit the expenditures for equipment to only $8,000 during the period between 1958 and 1962.15 In this first phase, among the available items there were two professional tape desks, a console, various microphones, oscilloscopes, and amplifiers (see picture 1).

      

    Picture 1 . The Experimental Music Studio in 1958

After a cautious beginning, the big change happened in 1962, when Magnavox Corporation awarded a $30,000 grant to the EMS (see picture 2). 16  This money was once again used with parsimony: instead of acquiring commercial products, Hiller and his collaborators chose to build the instruments by themselves, using published circuits.17

                          

   Picture 2 . The EMS receives a grant of $30,000 from the Magnavox Corporation (1962)

                 

       Picture 3 . The EMS in 1962

As a consequence of this approach, the studio was now provided with a Theremin, a saw-tooth wave generator, a white noise generator, and many other devices for generating, processing and recording sound (see pictures 3 and 4). 18 Another important grant ($53,100) was then received in 1965 from the National Science Foundation, for a two-year project on analysis and synthesis of musical sounds.19

          

          Picture 4 . Ben Johnston (left, at the Theremin) and Hiller in the studio (1963)

Summarizing, it appears that Hiller, as the director of the EMS, applied a prudent economical policy that gave the studio the chance to grow, slowly but steadily, during its first three-four years of activity. The quality of the results meanwhile achieved, and the seriousness of the approach, attracted investments from privates?, so that the central phase of the 1960s showed the effectiveness of Hiller's management. We lack information about the following years, which led to Hiller's departure from Urbana and to a transitional period concluded in 1974-75 with the arrival of Scott Wyatt, current director of the Studios. This intermediate phase (1968-74) was characterized by the move of the Studio to the new Music Building (1972), an event long expected, since the small room in Stiven House during the late 1960s could hardly provide the required space for doing research and concurrently teaching classes. The new set of studios could guarantee a lot more space and flexibility, and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of EMS. A history that, fifty years later, still goes on.

  1.  PEOPLE IN THE STUDIO
  1.  ACTIVITY IN THE EMS

In the above-mentioned letter Hiller wrote in 1957 to the director of the School, after an historical summary he presents a "Proposal for research in experimental music",32 giving a list of some of the prospective activities to be carried out in the Studio. Among those, the development of an automatic music printer, the digitalization of appropriate technological equipment for recording and analyzing sound, the utilization of the computer for musicological and theoretical research, the development of new experimental compositions, and a new graduate course. It is significant how Hiller, recognizing that this project would have required «considerable time and effort»,33 underlines that the initial expenses would have been moderate, as the space requirements. He also pragmatically suggests «to start with the simplest and most practical research».34

The first project to be started was the programming of an automatic music typewriter, capable of writing full scores and individual instrumentation parts, through information received by the ILLIAC computer. The core of this research was the changeover of a typewriter into a music printer (see picture 7). As Hiller describes in 1961 to the Graduate College dean, a lot of programs were written by him and by his assistant Robert Baker, in order to optimize the readability of the resulting scores. These operations required a continuous dialogue between the ILLIAC and the typewriter.35 In an article written for the Journal of Music Theory and published in 1965, the two protagonists describe all the steps they had to follow, and explained the main reason why they considered this project meaningful, that the technology then available for music printing did not properly reflect the most recent compositional activities.36 To the contrary, this special typewriter, created by researchers of the University of Colorado and thoroughly customized at the EMS, had the typeface modified in order to include all the basic music symbols (see picture 8). In particular, the mechanical changes included the free choice of length and dimensions of the staffs.37

                    

      Picture 7 . Hiller and Baker at the custom-designed Remington electric music typewriter (1958).

                

    

     Picture 8 . Keyboard of the music typewriter (from Hiller and Baker.s article on J.M.T., p. 135).

The second direction of research was the development of new methods and instruments for sound analysis and synthesis. The analytical approach was, once again, based on the programming of the supercomputer owned by the university (it may not be exaggerated to say that the best collaborator Hiller had at UIUC was the ILLIAC!). Indeed, one of Hiller's merits was the ability to adapt the same digital medium to different kinds of research. The analytical power and flexibility of the ILLIAC led at least to a couple of remarkable theoretical results, the DMA theses of Calvert Bean and Ramon Fuller, respectively based on the application of information theory to study four Sonata expositions, 38 and to analyze Webern's Symphonie op. 21.39 Both researches were based on the calculations made by the ILLIAC. It is possible to guess that Hiller, supervising these theses, was once more trying to fill the gap between him and the theory-composition faculty, in order to gain academic respectability. If so, the high technicality of these works did probably not help to achieve the goal.

On a different level, the EMS was also used to work on the available equipment or even to build new instruments for sound analysis and synthesis. The most interesting specimen of technological application thus obtained was the Harmonic Tone Generator, a device capable of controlling the attack, steady state, decay and amplitude of six partials of a generated tone (see picture 9).40 

 
Picture 9 . James Beauchamp working on his Harmonic Tone Generator (1963)

This modular voltage-controlled generator, based on the principles of sound additive synthesis, was completed the same period Robert Moog finished his namesake synthesizer, acknowledged as the first to be commercialized in the 1960s. It can be noticed that, while Moog chose a user friendly approach, providing his instrument with a manual in order to meet the market requirements, Beauchamp's synthesizer was specifically aimed at doing research on the nature of sound. It would have been possible to try to sell the Tone Generator to the public, but both Beauchamp and Hiller preferred to devote their efforts to pure research.41 Anyway, in 1965 they could proudly publish the results of their studies in an article for Science.42

From a compositional point of view, the first years were mainly characterized by Hiller's electronic experiments, as the Seven Electronic Studies completed in 1962. Although made using two-channel tapes, they are clearly monophonic; in fact, at that time Hiller was rather unenthusiastic about the spatialization in the stereo field.43 Many elements confirm that the compositional activity in the Studio had a strong increase after 1963, thanks to the contributions of the newly arrived composers. More specifically, the years between 1964 and 1966 were characterized by important works for instruments and tape, based on an extended use of the computer as generator of the instrumental scores. Important examples of this approach are Machine Music by Hiller himself, Soniferous Loops by Brüd Underworld by Martirano. Hence, in this phase electro-acoustic music was eventually integrated with instrumental sounds, with a resulting eclectic aesthetics through which the single composers were free to develop their personal styles. The lectures given by Hiller and BrüDarmstadt confirm that the .Urbana School. was acknowledged in the middle 1960s as one of the most innovative music environments in the world.44 At the same time, Hiller and Brüultural perspectives were to some extent very different. While the first was clearly fascinated by information theory and European theoretical approach in general, the second was convinced that the genuine exaggerations and even the mistakes of young people, not yet arrived to a full theoretical knowledge of the art of music composition, had to be preferred.45 Anyhow, the meeting of different perspectives in the same environment guaranteed the development of a vibrant and creative atmosphere.

The last proposal Hiller presented in 1957 to the director of the School of Music concerned the institution of a graduate course, «covering material relevant to contemporary experimental music».46 Once again the proposal was accepted. Before starting the class, though, Hiller «had been warned by the director of the school to be circumspect about what [he] taught, since a large contingent of the faculty was out to get [him]».47 To avoid these prospective problems, he then started with teaching a course on traditional musical acoustics (see picture 10).48

By 1962 there were already three subsequent classes, open both to graduate and advanced undergraduate students, mainly majoring in composition and musicology.49 The first class, "Basic Music Acoustics", was an introductory course, not strictly related to electronic music. It had among its goals the use of some technical principles of mathematics (as sine and cosine tables, and calculations with logarithms). There was no laboratory for this course, because of the lack of space, but the material included demonstrations made using the equipment in the studio. The second course, "Electronics and Music", pertained instead to basic electrical circuit theory and basic electronics.

The third and last class was a "Seminar in musical applications of information theory, computers and related topics". Hiller put a great stress on the knowledge of electronic equipment, so that, before even starting to compose electro-acoustic music, the students were required to build or at least work on some piece of equipment.50 In 1965 a fourth class was added, so that the new series was composed of "Musical Acoustics" I & II, and "Seminar and Laboratory in Musical Acoustics" I & II. At this time the attendees were mostly composition majors, plus some students from musicology or theory, and few from electronic engineering, physics, mathematics, speech, architecture and even psychology.51 

Bibliography

Books and dissertations

Bohn, James M. "An Overview of the Music of Lejaren Hiller and an Examination of His Early Works Involving Technology". DMA Dissertation. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997.

Cagne, Cole, and Tracy Caras. Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, Metuchen, N.J., and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1982.

Harrison, Albert D. "A History of the University of Illinois School of Music, 1940-70", DME Thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1986.

Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., and Leonard M. Isaacson. Experimental Music: Composition with an Electronic Computer. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959.

Schwartz, Elliot. Electronic Music: A Listener's Guide. New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1973.

Silverberg, Ann L. A Sympathy with Sounds: A Brief History of the University of Illinois School of Music to Celebrate Its Centennial. Urbana-Champaign: School of Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1995.

Essays and Articles

Ames, Charles. "Automated Composition in Retrospect: 1956-86", Leonardo, Vol. 20, No. 2, Special Issue: Visual Art, Sound, Music and Technology (1987): 169-185.

Brün, Herbert. "Against Plausibility", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn . Winter 1963): 43-50.

____________. .... There goes Sal.. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 170-171.

Brün, Herbert, Gary Mitro, Susan Parenti, Samuel Magrill, Mark Sullivan, Arun Chandra, Mark Enslin, David Grothe, and Kenneth Gaburo. "To One of Those Who In Deed Leave Traces", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (Autumn 1979 . Summer 1980): 107-133.

Fairbanks, W. L. Everitt, and R. P. Jaeger. "Method for Time or Frequency Compression-Expansion of Speech", Transaction of the I.R.E. . Professional Group of Audio, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1954): 7-12.

Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr. "Electronic Music at the University of Illinois [1965]", In Im Zenit der Moderne, eds. Gianmario Borio and Hermann Danuser, Vol. 3: 105-130. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach GmbH Druck- und Verlagshaus, 1997.

________________. "Electronic Music at the University of Illinois", Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 7 n.1 (Spring 1963): 99-126. [same title of the previous item, but different content]

___________________. "An Integrated Electronic Music Console", Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol. 13, No. 4 (April 1965): 142-150.

_________________. "Jim Tenney at Illinois: A Reminiscence", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, 25th Anniversary Issue (Winter . Summer 1987): 514-516.

_________________. "Music Composed with Computers: A Historical Survey", In The Computer and Music, ed. Larry Lincoln: 42-96. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., and Robert A. Baker. "Automated Music Printing", Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1965): 129-152.

_____________________. "Computer Cantata: a Study in Compositional Method", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn . Winter 1964): 62-90.

Hiller, Lejaren, and Calvert Bean. "Information Theory Analyses of Four Sonata Expositions", Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 1966): 96-137.

Hiller, Lejaren, and James Beauchamps. "Research in Music with Electronics", Science, New Series, Vol. 150, No. 3693 (Oct. 8, 1965): 161-169.

Hiller, Lejaren, and Ramon Fuller. "Structure and Information in Webern.s Symphonie, Op.21", Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1967): 60-115.

Luening, Otto. "An Unfinished History of Electronic Music", Music Educators Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3, (Nov. 1968): 42-49, 135, 142, and 145.

Melby, John. "Sal.s G.A.", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No 1 (Winter 1996): 190-198.

Discography

Computer music from the University of Illinois, Heliodor Label, HS 25053, 33 rpm, 1967 (Includes "Illiac Suite" and "Computer Cantata" by Lejaren Hiller). 

Experimental Music Studios, University of Illinois: In Celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Experimental Music Studios, University of Illinois, LC 84-743210, 2 discs, 33 rpm, 1984 (Includes 10 compositions from the UIUC composition-theory faculty).

Unpublished Letters and Reports

Brün, Herbert. "Letter to Kenneth Gaburo", May 20, 1972. In Kenneth Gaburo Papers, University of Illinois Sousa Music Archive, Box 1, Correspondence with Herbert Brün>

Cage, John. "Letter to Daniel Alpert (Dean of the Graduate College)", September 27, 1968. Scott Wyatt's collection.

________________. "Letter to Daniel Alpert", February 27, 1969. S. Wyatt's collection.

Gaburo, Kenneth. "Letter to Edward Cole (MGM Records)", August 22, 1966. In Kenneth Gaburo Papers, University of Illinois Sousa Music Archive, Box 2, Correspondence with Ben Johnston.

Gaburo, Kenneth. "Letter to David Dodds Henry", May 1, 1963. In Kenneth Gaburo Papers, University of Illinois Sousa Music Archive, Box 2, Correspondence with Ben Johnston.

Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr. "Letter to Duane Branigan (Director of the UIUC School of Music)", December 2, 1957. S. Wyatt's personal collection.

_________________. "Letter to Frederick T. Wall (Chairman of the University Research Board)", April 28, 1961. S. Wyatt.s collection.

Public Information Office, University of Illinois. "Internal Report", November 23, 1965. S. Wyatt's collection.

1 Silverberg, Ann L., A Sympathy with Sounds: A Brief History of the University of Illinois School of Music to Celebrate Its Centennial (Urbana-Champaign: School of Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1995), p. 53.

2  Silverberg, pp. 71-73.

3 Experimental Music Studios, University of Illinois: In Celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Experimental Music Studios (University of Illinois, LC 84-743210, 2 discs, 33 rpm, 1984), booklet, p. 1.

4 Bohn, James M., .An Overview of the Music of Lejaren Hiller and an Examination of His Early Works Involving Technology., DMA Dissertation (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997), p. 6.

5 Computer music from the University of Illinois, Heliodor Label, HS25053, 33 rpm, 1967, booklet, p. 1.

6 Bohn, pp. 7-8.

7 Silverberg, p. 68.

8 http://www.palantir.net/2001/script.html, accessed May 08, 2008.

9 Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., .Letter to Duane Branigan, Director of the UIUC School of Music. (December 2, 1957), S. Wyatt's personal collection; see pp. 2-3.

10 Cagne, Cole, and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, N.J., and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1982), p. 235.

11 Luening, Otto, .An Unfinished History of Electronic Music., Music Educators Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Nov. 1968): 42-49, 135-142, and 145; see p. 49.

12 Luening, p. 138.

13 Luening, p. 138.

14 Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., .Electronic Music at the University of Illinois [1965]., in Im Zenit der Moderne, eds. Gianmario Borio and Hermann Danuser, Vol. 3 (Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach GmbH Druck- und Verlagshaus, 1997), pp. 105-130; see p.109.

15 Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., .Electronic Music at the University of Illinois., Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 1963): 99-126; see p. 101.

16 Experimental Music Studios, booklet, p. 2.

17 Hiller, .Electronic Music., JMT, pp. 109-111.

18 Hiller, Electronic Music, JMT, p. 101.

19 Public Information Office, University of Illinois, .Internal Report. (November 23, 1965); S. Wyatt.s collection.

20 This work is analyzed in full in Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., and Leonard M. Isaacson, Experimental Music: Composition with an Electronic Computer (New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959).

21 Hiller, Lejaren, .Letter to Frederick T. Wall. (April 28, 1961); S. Wyatt.s collection.

22 Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., .An Integrated Electronic Music Console., Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol. 13, No. 4 (April 1965): 142-150; see p.150.

23 Ames, Charles, .Automated Composition in Retrospect: 1956-86., Leonardo, Vol. 20, No. 2, Special Issue: Visual Art, Sound, Music and Technology (1987): 169-185; see p. 171.

24 Experimental Music, booklet, p. 2.

25 Cagne, p. 235.

26 Cagne, p. 235.

27 Bohn, p. 8.

28 Bohn, p. 9.

29 Schwartz, Elliot, Electronic Music: A Listener.s Guide (New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1973), pp. 138-139.

30 Gaburo, Kenneth, .Letter to David Dodds Henry., May 1, 1963; Kenneth Gaburo Papers; University of Illinois Sousa Music Archive, Box 2, Correspondence with Ben Johnston.

31 Brürbert, .... There goes Sal., Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 170-171.

32 Hiller, Letter 1957, pp. 2-3.

33 Hiller, Letter 1957, p. 3.

34 Hiller, Letter 1957, p. 3.

35 Hiller, Letter 1961, pp. 3-4.

36 Hiller, Lejaren A. Jr., and Robert A. Baker, .Automated Music Printing., Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 1965): 129-152; see p.129.

37 Hiller and Baker, p. 133.

38 Hiller, Lejaren, and Calvert Bean, .Information Theory Analyses of Four Sonata Expositions., Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 1966): 96-137.

39 Hiller, Lejaren, and Ramon Fuller, .Structure and Information in Webern.s Symphonie, Op.21., Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1967): 60-115.

40 Experimental Music, booklet, p.2.

41 Personal conversation with Scott Wyatt, October 25, 2006.    

42 Hiller, Lejaren, and James Beauchamps, .Research in Music with Electronics., Science, New Series, Vol. 150, No. 3693 (Oct. 8, 1965): 161-169.

43 Hiller, .Electronic Music., JMT, p. 119.

44 Ames, p. 170.

45 Brürbert, .Against Plausibility., Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn . Winter 1963): 43-50; see pp. 49-50.

46 Hiller, Letter 1957, p. 3.

47 Hiller, .Jim Tenney at Illinois: A Reminiscence.. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, 25th Anniversary Issue (Winter . Summer 1987): 514-516; see p. 514.

48 Cagne, p. 235.

49 For fuller discussion see Hiller, .Electronic Music., JMT, pp. 122-123.

50 Hiller, .Electronic Music., JMT, p. 123.

51 Hiller, .Electronic Music., Im Zenit, p. 129.


  Home | EMS | CMP | Photos | Admissions | Resources