The Wire

Audio

Listen: Exclusive Laurie Spiegel track

September 2012

Stream Spiegel's "The Orient Express" (composed and recorded June–July 1974). Composer and computer music pioneer Spiegel is featured in an article by Frances Morgan in The Wire 344.

Since the 1970s, US composer Laurie Spiegel has worked to develop new electronic music systems at Bell labs and elsewhere. "The Orient Express" (June–July 1974) is a track from The Expanding Universe, which was originally released as a four track album in 1980 and has recently been reissued by Unseen Worlds (digital and LP) with an added 15 tracks.

Read a text by Spiegel about "The Orient Express", part of the extensive liner notes included in The Expanding Universe reissue:

I figured that every improvising musician, like many who played blues, bluegrass or jazz, should do at least one "train song".

I thought of this particular train because during one of the long winter breaks between terms at Oxford, four of us students decided to go to the Gare du Nord in Paris and take whatever train would pull out next. It happened to be the Orient Express bound for Istanbul. The several day ride was both fascinating and gruelling, introducing us to many people with whom we spent extended time, bringing us awesomely rhythmic Bulgarian folk dance music at some stops and scary border guards at others.

In this somewhat programmatic work, the train moves between colours of harmony and ways to make music, alluding to various grassroots ethnic musics and emotional moods, though overall the feeling is of continuing forward motion and of moment-to-moment attention and discovery.

The illusion of perpetual acceleration heard during the first several minutes came from Dr Kenneth Knowlton of Bell Labs and we worked out the code to be able to hear it together. It is essentially a rhythmic analog to Roger Shepard's ever-rising pitch (aka Shepard Tones). The effect is achieved by gradually decreasing the amplitude of the weak beats of a rhythmic cycle until, when double the original tempo is reached, those weak beats have decreased to silence. At that point those beats drop out and a new process of decreasing a new set of alternate weak beats begins. Both the speed of apparent acceleration (or deceleration) and the base tempo at which it occurs were controllable by turning knobs.

As to the pitches which ride that rhythmic pattern, the idea was based on constrained random corruption of repeating melodic cycles. I had fine grain real-time knob control of the probability weightings that pitches from different pitch sets would be introduced by the pitch selection algorithm to evolve the melodic material forward. At a higher level of conceptualisation, what I was doing was literally drawing a classic Shannon information entropy curve in real time. To my mind, entropy may well be the most powerful underexplored variable in all of music, the most general highest level variable, the one by which music is made to feel really alive. (Thank you John Pierce for at least starting us in that neglected direction.)

"The Orient Express" was realised on the Bell Telephone Labs GROOVE hybrid computer music system using the Knowlton-Spiegel perpetual acceleration algorithm.

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