Prior to the information age, the concept of an interface was not widely understood or even recognized. The state of the western world during the nineteenth century, a period of intense industrialization, precluded such abstraction. Issues of communication and interaction had not developed sufficiently beyond the immediacy of mechanical and physical systems. In that age, Newtonian physics dominated thought and represented a general metaphor of how things functioned and should function across the spectrum of the economic, social and political world.

From the turn of this century, this perception was to lose credibility, becoming increasingly apparent as an oversimplification, through advances in such disciplines as psychology, biological sciences and philosophy. A more sophisticated sense of communication developed with the inevitable failure of the "matter-energy dialectic" to come to terms with a new awareness of the world. Understanding of the dynamics of such physical systems as factories, railroads, shipping and road networks, governments and ourselves, was to pass beyond simple practical paradigms to complex models of behavior, real, imaginary, present and future 2. Increasing complexity led to theoretical considerations of system management and communications. More abstractly, one sees the ability to control and manipulate the physical world becoming influenced by communication, information and other metaphors from and of human society and nature 3. For example, growth of railway networks necessitated more sophisticated, safe and efficient means of coordinating passenger services and rolling stock. Studies in the natural sciences would reveal a wealth of examples and metaphors that could be used to shed light on problems faced in the evolving social systems. The nervous system or insect colonies, for example, might come readily to the mind of someone willing to look for a solution beyond a conventional analysis. But it is likely that for the nineteenth century mind, with defined scientific or industrial contexts, such eclecticism and lateral thinking would have been difficult and inconvenient to accept.

While the above observations illuminate an approximate position with respect to a speculated historical grasp of the term "interface", it is curious that such a concept was unavailable until more recent times. There was no a lack of examples to inspire the idea. What was missing were the conditions under which the concept could be created and used by a significant number of people. I think that the maturing of the concept of the interface was the result of a paradigm shift. We simply changed the way we viewed our relation with the world. The notion of the interface is evolving under continuous technical pressure since its emergence into common use. Today chemists and physicists might be predisposed to think of an interface as "a surface forming a common boundary of two bodies, spaces, or phases (an oil-water interface)." 4 or "a surface separating two portions of matter or space and forming their common boundary." 5 A later definition, "A place or region, or a piece of equipment, where interaction occurs between two system, organizations, processes, or persons", 6 is the one commonly understood today. McLuhan provides a more advanced definition; "The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance and the environments created by technological innovation". 7 This suggests that the interface would be capable of sustaining a more complex definition in our contemporary language. As much as the contemporary concept now implies some form of communication as central to its definition, there is a certain variety in its use. That we can find an increasing number of citations reflects the centrality of the concept in our thinking.

The recent high profile given to the nature of interfaces has been developed along Human/Computer interactive lines where it is rejuvenated with every new application and system. In recent years, issues of interfacing have caught the public's attention while the once more dramatic technologies of communications and robotics have become assimilated. This may be attributable to an apparent detachment, and lack of proximity to human values and needs, that much of the early mechanical technology exuded.

This definition offered by Laurel reflects the techno-centric evolution of the term and seems to leave little scope for an understanding beyond the computer. However, this is not entirely the full perspective that she offers. Later in a section titled "Theatre as an Interface Metaphor", discussion focuses on the observation that users of a computer system can be thought of as actors within a particular artificial set in which subsequent terms like "director", "rehearsal", "player" and "cast" can be used to illuminate experiences from an interface. We can observe here the increasing humanization of the term as the ramifications for the role of both human and machine become more apparent and closer. It is evident that in much of this discussion about the interface in human/machine interactions, a relation with a strong emphasis on human values, as opposed to the technical values, is being proposed.

This brief overview of the origin of the term interface provides an initial reference point for the world of the musical interface. Although the musical interface has always had conditions and peculiarities which set it apart from the pragmatic concerns of human interaction, today it is increasingly aligned with the major interface revolutions of contemporary technologies. What differentiates it from these large-scale agendas are the efforts of determined composers and musicians who are willing to define it through their creative activities.

This essay is my interpretation of the musical interface, one built up from a number of personal perspectives and experiences, and it represents my belief that the musical interface is becoming an increasingly private pre-occupation with important ramifications for the future of computer music. The text is constructed around a temporal perspective which moves from the historical to the present and closes with a view towards the future. It reveals a changing musical scenario in which the role of the composer increases with the assistance of technology, at the same time as that of the performer declines. The computer has become the subaltern performer in the virtual creative context. This is, if not a role reversal, a profound transformation of the musical setting. The performer, once bound to the fixed nature of the instrument, can now change all or some of the instrument's attributes. Composers, who once had little influence over performances, are not only becoming the final arbitrators of their own music but the only audience to a complex process of audition and selection of sounds that has no precedent. By tracing the importance of the musical interface through traditional instruments to the contemporary computer music context, I touch on numerous facets of the musical experience that enrich the concept and demonstrate its unprecedented significance for the contemporary composer. Given the diversity of sound production techniques and equipment, the current area of interest is in how to effectively access the production technology through creative means. Musicians and composers will always have a context of interaction unlike any other, but in the digital age it will be neither as unique nor as idiosyncratic. The curious nature of traditional instruments, their odd shapes, physical problems and taxing nuances are rarely questioned beyond the novice's gripes, for virtuoso performers have always been highly regarded and the act of performance is not seen as a trivial operation of a machine or arbitrary piece of equipment. Today, if the notion of virtuosity is still relevant, it is becoming associated with a creative experience, acted out in private and not necessarily shared with anyone. The presentation of the music becomes something of an audio snapshot or evidence of the experience.

Chapter one commences with an account of a research project which brings together the grand piano and computer technology as a technological transformation of the contemporary piano. The implications of the project suggest a performance scenario quite different from anything in the last 200 years. This is largely the result of a new interface, one which promotes a reflection on the piano as much as on the technology which enables the extended functionality. In this chapter, I also present a background project to the MetaAction which prepared the way for the development of the MetaAction itself. I discuss some compositions from this earlier project which help set my compositional aesthetic for computer controlled pianos. It was a project in which I had to write software in order to do any composition, unlike today where one simply gets the software and starts to compose.

The MetaAction project sets the scene for chapter two which describes the origins of the musical interface. As an opening, I present an brief tale, a fictional account of someone entering a music room, unaware of what the room contains. Here I present the instruments that will be discussed in the main section of the chapter, the violin, the piano and the theremin, as unknown objects with no clear objectives. This text attempts to fathom the purpose of these instruments from their physical appearances. In the historical perspective of this chapter, I approach the musical interface through these three instruments. I observe that with traditional instruments, the primary locus of the interface tends towards the instruments because it is these that can be more easily altered physically. The instruments reflect the technologies and musical intentions of their respective ages and subsequently different histories and fates. The interface in each case has to be constructed from a historical perspective and exposed in the technology and language of its day. Consequently, the chapter is also concerned with examining specific scores as an expression of the relation between the performer and the instrument. The score, as it accrues notational complexity over time, becomes a bewildering description of the interface in action that few musicians can interpret without a serious commitment to the new music vocabulary itself. Thus, even in these times, the orientation of interaction is towards the instrument and its power in expressing musical intentions. This is clearly the continuation of the traditional music scenario in which performance dominates the musical experience.

In the third chapter, I view the position of the musical interface as drifting towards a conceptual space between the instrument and the performer, and thus away from the instrument. I again use three instruments to discuss this idea, instruments which are the technological upgrades of the previous three. These instruments are the Yamaha Disklavier (a correlate of the MetaAction), the Zeta violin and the Mathews/Boie radio drum. This discussion holds up something of a technological mirror to the previous instruments. Points raised in the second chapter are reconsidered in this new context. To illuminate the transformations of these instruments, I have included a discussion of two works. The first is Duet for One Pianist but Jean Claude-Risset. This is a work for pianist, computer and digital player piano in which the pianist and the computer simultaneously play the same instrument. The second work is for Zeta violin and the Mathews/Boie radio drum, and is a set of improvisations around certain interactive configurations in which the performers and computer technology influence each other.

The fourth and final chapter suggests that the interface is drifting into the realm and becoming an important part of the composition experience. To support this idea, I discuss my recent composition Z says... created using the combination of the non-real-time composition system Cmix and the non-musical script language, perl. This situation allowed me to consider compositional issues not readily accessible from within the architecture of Cmix itself. I was essentially able to create contexts for the production of sound that were aggregates of the Cmix processing functions, using them in complex ways rather than the conventional step-by-step processing approach.

Discussion centers around the computer and the ability within its domain to construct fluid compositional conditions. Since the computer is now virtually all that is necessary for musical production (or is at the least central to it), some composers are becoming aware of a broad range of software and hardware that can be used during composition. The question is how to create interesting virtual contexts (interfaces), contexts that appear to have attributes from the real or imaginary worlds, for composition that are closely connected to the composer's intentions for the work itself. My particular position is that it should be the composer who defines the interface and that the interface should be constructed anew for each composition. It need not be complicated, just effective. In this final chapter, I discuss my experiences with a simple but extensive interface language which permits my compositional ideas to be networked and connected to a broad range of general computer functions not previously employed in this manner in the pursuit of computer music.

The creation of scripts or dynamic scores that compose and manipulate sound by complex algorithmic control leads to the question of the composition of these scripts themselves. This encourages the experience of listening to numerous sessions from these script programs, any of which could be used in a final composition but which are ultimately considered in the light of the composer's experiences and intentions. This is a relatively new and complex compositional process, akin to a musical performance or performance art work itself. The production of the composition becomes both composition and performance.

FootNotes to Chapter One

  1. Abraham Moles. Information Theory and Esthetic Perception. Urbana, Illinois : University of Illinois Press. 1966. pp. 1-2 return
  2. James Sheehan. "Introduction" in The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals and Machines. James Sheehan and Morton Sosna eds. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1991. p. 137. "Until well into the twentieth century, those who believed that the brain functioned mechanically had great difficulty describing just how these mental mechanisms worked. One product of these difficulties was behavioralism, perhaps the dominant school of empirical psychology in the early twentieth century, which denied that the nature of mental states was knowable and concentrated instead on studying behavioral responses to stimuli." return
  3. Ibid., pp. 137-38. "All this changed with the coming of the computer. The theoretical and technological basis for the computer was laid in the 1930s by Alan Turing and others, but it was only after the Second World War that these machines moved from the realm of highly technical speculation to the center of both scientific research and popular culture. Computers, unlike the crude calculating machines of the past, seemed fast, complex, and supple enough to approximate real thought. The gap between mind and machine seemed to be narrowing. For example, in 1949, Norbet Wiener published his influential work on "Cybernetics," which he defined as "the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or the animal." return
  4. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary return
  5. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (on historic principles) Addenda p. 2637. Note that the OED gives the date of the earliest appearance of this word as 1882. return
  6. ibid., The OED gives the date here as 1962. return
  7. Marshall and Eric McLuhan. Laws of Media. Toronto : University of Toronto Press. 1988. p. 98. return
  8. Brenda Laurel. Computers as Theatre. Reading Massachusetts : Addison-Wesley 1991. p. xv. return
  9. Brenda Laurel. The Art of Computer Interface Design. Reading, Massachusetts : Addison-Wesley 1990. p. xii. return
Tile Page | Dedication | Abstract | Preface | Contents | Examples
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Conclusion
Bibliography | Discography | Appendices

Home Page