And Now, The World's First Composing Machine

An article by Donal Henahan, printed in the April 19th,1981 issue of the New York Times.

The other day as I was hard at work opening my mail while attempting to put a pin in my shirt cuff, I found myself musing about the undeniable supremacy of American technology. Talk all you like about Japanese cameras and cars, but can any nation match the effeciency of the button crusher that all New York laundries have on line? Hardly. So my eyes were naturally caught by this line, which leaped out of an announcement by the Composers' Forum of its spring concert series starting on Tuesday at Cooper Union: "According to Composers' Forum President Joel Chadabe, 'The Sal-Mar Construction is an historically important musical event and a stunning and classical display of individual American invention. It must be seen and heard!'"

Sal-Mar, it seems, is short for Salvatore Martirano, the University of Illinois composer whose music will be featured on the third program of the series, Thursday evening. If mere mention of his name does not double you up with an attack of 60's nostalgia, you are younger than anyone ought to be. His most famous piece, regarded by many at the time as a key work in the multimedia explosion, was "L's G.A.," in which a narrator wearing an amplified gas mask declaimed an antiwar tirade (Vietnam was the issue of the day) based on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the accompaniment of taped sounds and film projections. The piece never made it to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, but was big for a while at such venues as the Electric Circus and the Pratt Institute.

But what has Mr. Martirano been up to lately? Perhaps reading Mrs. Shelley. The Sal-Mar Construction, described in the announcement as "the world's first composing machine," was built by Mr. Martirano "over a period of years beginning in the early 1960's." This will by the machine's Manhattan debut, although a version of it apparently had a sneak preview at Stony Brook in 1976. The device, which is described as standing about eight feet tall, sounds unusualy talented, even for a machine: "The composer, in performance, interacts with the machine as it composes, creating spontaneously four melodic lines which move throughout the concert space via a network of 24 overhead speakers."

The technical geniuses behind "Fantasia," including Leopold Stokowski, first tickled a mass audience with the phenomenon of sound moving about the theater, and such composers as Mozart, Gabrieli, Stockhausen and Boulez have played with the concept in more sophisticated ways. But Mr. Martirano evidently has taken another step by allowing the 24-mouthed machine to assume or at least share, in some unspecified manner, the role of "composer" while he merely "interacts" with it. Look out, Mr. Martirano, that's what Dr. Frankenstein thought, too.

Though the debut of the Sal-Mar Construction, which appears to be some sort of supersynthesizer, will be the program's chief attraction, other Martirano works will be presented. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble will perform his Octet and Lisa Moore, an Australian pianist, will give the New York premiere of his "Stuck on Stella."

If the Martirano program does not summon up remembrances of flings past for you, what about the fourth concert of the series, which dusts off the ondes martenot, one of the pioneering instruments of electronic music? Maurice Martenot invented this keyboard device in 1922 and for a while it was the last word in acoustical technology. You may have encountered one ondes marenot in your time - Messiaen's extravagantly orchestrated "Turangalila-Symphonie" calls for one, for instance - but an ondes martenot quintet is beyond most people's imagination, let alone experience. This concert, on April 28, includes the United States premiere of Walter Boudreau's "Amon-Ra," for five of these strange devices. (It is important not to make the vulgar mistake of confusing M. Martenot's instrument with the Theremin, that other electronic pioneer whose tremulous moans so thoroughly spooked Ingrid Bergman in "Spellbound.") The performing group will be L'Ensemble d'Ondes de Montreal. Music by Bruce MacCombie, not for the ondes martenot, also will be played.

The Composers' Forum series, short but unusually diverse, begins on Tuesday with an Elliott Carter program that includes the New York premiere of a film on the composer, "Elliott Carter at Buffalo," by the eminent documentarian Donn Pennebaker. There also will be live Carter music - the Double Concerto, the Cello Sonata and Four Pieces for Timpani - and commentary by the composer. The second concert, on Wednesday, imports jazz avant-gardists from the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y.

All this sounds promising enough. At least no one can accuse the Composers' Forum of setting out the same old meal of academic sawdust. And what memories will be stirred by the return of Salvatore Martirano. Suddenly it all rushes back, the dizziness of the 60's. I'm sure you remember the profound concerts that the electronic percussionist Max Neuhaus gave at the bottom of a swimming pool. Members of the audience had to put on bathing suits and immerse themselves if they wanted to hear Mr. Neuhaus's compositions. This was the period when Lejaren Hiller, the scientist-turned-composer who programmed a computer to write a piece for string quartet called "Illiac Suite," went on to concoct such things as his "Triptych for Hieronymus Bosch," in which one of the tamer effects was having the "William Tell" Overture played in 12 keys simultaneously, forward and backward. At one performance, when the piece became even more chaotic than that, a woman spectator (the wife of a piano teacher) leaped onstage and began throwing chairs. Police were called to restore order. Jacob Druckman wrote a piece in which a man had to wrestle a double-bass to the floor. John Cage and Mr. Hiller collaborated on an extravaganza called "HPSCHD," a four-and-a-half-hour piece that called for 52 tape recorders and 64 slide projectors as well as half a dozen harpsichords and noises such as you will not hear again until the Apocalypse.

This about the time when Ned Rorem came right out with it and revealed in the New York Review of Books that neither he nor his friends were going to "serious" concerts anymore because they wanted to sit home and play their Beatles records. Music's foremost mathematician, Milton Babbitt, delighted his friends and confounded his critics by writing an unequivocally beautiful piece called "Philomel," to a John Hollander text. Leonard Bernstein and the Swingle Singers were getting down to the tune of Berio's "Sinfonia" - at the New York Philharmonic. Walter (subsequently to be known as wendy) Carlos was switching-on J.S. Bach.

Oh, my, yes. It was the time of composing with brainwave feedback, fiber-optic systems, strobe lights, Day-Glo, 16 channel tape, shuffling feet, toy pianos, analog computers, the earth's magnetic field, astrological charts. Silence, in the Cage acceptation of the word, came into vogue. A naked cellist gave a concert and every critic rushed to cover her, so to speak. Musical connoisseurs who had once snickered at popular gods such as Hammond and Wurlitzer prostrated themselves before the new altars: Moog, Arp, Buchla. The world's most influential composers argued endlessly and angrily about whether music had to be rigorously serialized or allowed to just happen, according to the laws or nonlaws of chance. Composers who heard only musical nonsense in both these viewpoints were considered intellectual idiots and dealt out of the game.

All that happened, of course, long ago in a far country to which we would never want to return. However, it is always pleasant to take out the old post cards and travel folders, just to see where we have been and how we got where we are. Salvatore Martirano was one of the quirkier and more invigorating guides back in the befuddling 60's; maybe he and his composing machine can steer us to someplace worth a trip in the tame 80's.