Illinois' famous unknown master of electronic music

An interview and article by Kyle Gann, printed in the Chicago Reader.

It's not as though Salvatore Martirano were a "here today, gone tomorrow" kind of guy. On the contrary, he's stayed in the same place for 22years, teaching compolsition and electronic music at the University of Illinois at Urbana. One would think that, at least in the miswest, he'd be a known quantity by now; but as one new-music aficionado put it, "Sal Martirano is famous, but he's not well known." Why, among contemporary composers, is he the most difficult to pigeonhole, to pin donw aesthetically, to categorize as being on one side of a compositional fence or the other?

Part of it is problable the whimsical wordplay in chich he clothes his work, as if undercutting his own pretensions: entitling a piano piece Cocktail Music, and designating his Mass as Sal M's Solemn Psalm. Part of it is his fanatical versatility - once having explored a medium, he seems loath to return to it. He's created theater pieces (most notably his notorious L'sGA of 1968) instrumental works for various ensembles, choral works, electronic tape pieces, computer pieces, sound installations (including his Sal-Mar Construction at New Music America '82), video words, improvisations - you name it. Part of it is the range of musical materials, he was a student of Luigi Dallapiccola, he started out with leanings toward twelve-tone music, but he's just as likely to use jazz, bebop, stochastic music, popular songs, ambient sounds, and whatever else he can get his hands on.

"It's true," he admits. "I hardly ever use the same medium twice. There are different kinds of musicians. On the one hand, you can have an African thumb pianist who might spend 50 years getting into the same five notes. Then you have me, who's constantly stretching towards something I've never done before. I doubt that anyone has any choice about what kind of artist he becomes."

By choice or not, Martirano has followed a more bizare path than most. Take his latest work in progress (Martirano's works seem to always be "in progress") characteristically entitled Not Suffering From Bruckneritis. It's a "one-man nonet," nine synthesizers played at once by Salvatore Martirano, solo. The peice is played on a yahaSALmaMAC, which Martirano, its creator, is glad to explain: "It's an answereing service, consisting of a Macintosh computer, a computer program in Le-Lisp language called SAL (Sound and Logic), and a 'music machine' composed of a DX7, TX-16, and REV7. The DX7 is a keyboard synthesizer. The TX8-16 is eight DXX7s without keyboards, mounted on a rack. The REV7 is a reverb unit.

"I improvise on the keyboard. The computer reads what I play, then comes back with variations. It extracts phrases and alters them using variables with a set minimum and maximum, random number picks, and a probibility ladder. The computer can skip notes in the phrase and keep the rhythm, skip notes and durations, invert the order of notes, rotate notes, make a tonal inversion of the phrase (turn it upside down), rotate notes in the inversion, retrograde (read the phrase backwards), and rotate the regtrograde. As it's going along, if I like something the computer's come up with, I can mark that point and go back to it later. Or I can loop it, with the repetitions determined saccorfing to the fibonacci series.

"The other eight synthesizers are divided into two orchestras, of which each has two soloists and three accompanists, so that there's an overlap. I can alter the orchestration as I go, changing the timbre by changing the doublings between the synthesizers. The idea is to do everthing in real time. There's no compiler, it's all interpreted, and it's all done with just integer arithmetic, though it's surprisingly fast. Instead of artificial Intelligence, it's sort of artificial stupidity. But it's the state of the art."

Good Lord. But what does it sound like?

"There's a nice balance between what I play and what the computer comes up with. Sometimes its variations are very literal: other times, the similarity will only be audible to sophisticated listeners. But if I get tonal, or play bebop into it, it comes back tonal or bebop. The machine's not smart enough to play, say, 'I Remember April," but everything will definitely sound related."

Still, Martirano's world has never been all fun and intricate technical games; there's a serious, even pessimistically political side to his music that he seems less willing to discuss. A case in point is his SAMPLER: Everything Goes When the Whistle Blows, for amplified violin, TX8-16, and QX1 (a digital eight-track recorder). Here the music is predetermined, though the electronics are still "live" in the sense that the DX7s will be translating disk-recorded information in real time. The title, like most of Martirano's humor, points to the work's more thoughtful undercurrents.

"I had just gotten all this equipment and was playing around with it, seeing what it could do, when the Achille Laruro incedent happended. It ocurred to me then how tenuous everything is, and that translated itself into the music. The piece makes various attempts at coherence, but then the whistle can blow and suddenly everthing goes down a different, unexpected path."

For a major Illinois composer, it's unfortunate that Martirano doesn't perform in Chicago more often("It's easier for me to get to New York, and I've got family there"), and the center for new television and Link's Hall Performance Series are to be commended for cosponsoring him tomorrow night in a rare one-man concert. Saturday night at 9pm at Link's Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield, Martirano will perform Not Suffering from Bruckneritis on the yahaSALmaMac, and his wife Dorothy Martirano will pay the "Super-Hot Virtuoso Violin" part in SAMPLER. Tickets are $7, or $5 for CNTV members; Call 281-0824 or 565-1787 for information.

Also on the program will be L'sGA(Update), for "Three VCR's and a Triangular Array of Color Monitors." The piece is a video-and-music version of Martirano's controversial political satire L'sGA. The original, now a landmark of music of the 60s, was scored for Gal-Masked Politico, Helium Bomb, Three Movie Projectors, and Two-Channel Tape, and featured an actor reciting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address while breathing helium: Altogether, a nightmarish, apocalyptic vision. "The point of the piece was the distrust of language," Martirano Recalls, "To show how you could take the same words and make their meaning change according to who says them and in what context. At the time, everyone was saying you couldn't use political ideas to make a valid piece of music, and I wrote L'sGA to prove them wrong. The only rule is, any note can follow any other note at any time - or not!"

As for Not Suffering From Bruckneritis, it's been performed in Urbana, Minneapolis, and the Hague, but by tomorrow night Martirano may have made further technical changes. "I'm still trying to understand it all. The piece had fifty variables, all interacting. There's some degree of predictability invoved, but it's so complex. I'm trying to get it down to where it will be perfect every time. But when that happens, I probably won't be interested in it anymore.

"Still, If you want to be a great artist, you can't always be stretching. Sometimes you have to write the same piece four or five times, until you get it right." The slow chuckle that follows that pronouncement sounds like just another of Salvatore Martirano's Enigmas.