The Sound of Numbers:

Thoughts on the passing of Sal Martirano

An article by Shelley Masar, printed in the December, 1996 issue of The Octopus.

Salvatore Martirano died in the early morning hours of November 18. His death was noticed by few in this community, but its significance was certainly noted by many in the international music community.

Sal Martirano was a world-renowned contemporary master of electronic music whose work was featured at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, the Symphony Space in New York, and the Pompidou Center in Paris. He was a composer. A lion. And he was ours.

From 1964 until his death, Sal collaborated at the University of Illinois with interdisciplinary teams of computer scientists, harware designers and composers to create machinery and computer programs that afforded new possibilities in composition and improvisation.

Sal was born in New York in 1927. He played piano from the age of 5, studied at Oberlin and the Eastman School with Herbert Elwell and Bernard Rogers and in Florence with Luigi Dallapiccola. In the 1940s he had a big band and a small combo that played USO shows. Improvisation was always important to him; he could no more ignore the work of Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk than the influence of Schoenberg and avant garde theories of twelve tone manipulation.

Between 1969 and 1972 Sal Martirano and his colleagues at the U of I developed and built what some called the "world's first composing machine," the Sal-Mar Construction. The Sal-Mar allowed computer and performer to collaborate on compositions that combined improvisation with preprogrammed information. "In casses when a neat idea for logically developing musical materials is at odds with gut/ear messages... I always obay instinct and include 'off the wall' to my list of rules" Sal said.

Philip Batstone, then director of the Electronic Music Center at the University of Colorado observed, "[The Sal-Mar] is like using the digital computer central processor as an analoge device which is played... The instrument is compositional in that the logic chosen at any given moment is machine-logical and music-logical. This is not only a new instrument; it is, in fact, the beginning of a new historical stage of music-compositional activity."

Sal Martirano and his colleagues went on to further technological explorations including the yahaSALmaMAC, developed between 1987 and 1988. The device consists of a Macintosh II computer, a Yamaha Music Machine and DX7 keyboard, 25 synthesizers, a percussion unit, a Zeta violin and additional electronic components. It is controlled by a program Sal wrote with David Tcheng called Sound and Logic(SAL). SAL is capable of taking in performed phrases and transforming them. In Marttirano's words, "The most interesting feature about it is the possibility to dynamically effect change based on whim. It's the only principle worth preserving."

But what is there in Martirano's work for the listener who cares little about experimental music and less about musical applications of computer hardware and software? What messages has he encoded in the body of his work?

Perhaps the secret lies in the composer's understanding that music, despite the high-tech tools of his trade, is still about emotion, not precision. When discussing "Isabella," an orchestral piece commissioned for the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, Sal wrote that he had long been fascinated by the last thirteen lines of Dante's Paradiso (which he said was relevant because Dante was a "ball-park contemporary of Columbus plus or minus a couple hundred years"). Sal said Dante had relevance to our contemporary technological world because "Dante resoved the conflict surrounding the geometric impossibility of measuring the area of a circle by concluding that it must be 'love that moved the planets and the other stars.'"

A new CD of his works has just been released: The Composer in the Computer Age-V, A Salvatore Martirano Retrospective: 1962-92 (Centaur CRC2266). To listen to the six selections on the new CD is first and foremost, to be entertained, even though there are moments of profound sorrow, and several points when the music seems to threaten. The new CD also includes the emotional "Four not Two" from 1987 for the yahaSALmaMAC using the Sound and Logic program, with Dorothy Martirano on Zeta violin and Sal on the DX7 keyboard.

Like Dante, Sal was willing to let love be the ultimate explanation. But he enjoyed knowing and reminding us that as love is expressed by humans and humans are rude, so love is rude. Sal died of ALS, Lou Gehrig's desease. He left us well before dawn wrapped in the dignity of his exhaustion.

In his own words, "To improvise in real-time and occasionally in unreal musical time is a treat."

Happy improvising, Sal. You've left us a lot.

Shelley Masar is the director of the White Street Arts Center, which Sal gleefully dubbed as "one of those dirty barn centers that keeps us all honest."