Laurie Spiegel


Cavis Muris - Part 4

From the earliest, I craved the arts, any of the arts, all of the arts. The feelings, thoughts and imaginings presented to me by other minds did not represent, reflect or resonate with my solitary subjective experience, nor did they provide the means I so urgently felt I needed of making life's momentary intensity more comfortable.

Three Sonic Spaces #2

As a result I have always been involved in far too many things at once: writing, playing and composing music, making visual images and pursuing the externalization of the evolving visuals that appeared only in my mind's retina into video and visual music, developing new tools for these tasks via techniques ranging from soldering through computer software, and getting excited about ideas in many fields.

At every stage several threads intertwined, components not only of created work (sound, image and text), but of daily life and the pursuit of understanding (home, dogs, friends, beloved plucked acoustic instruments, several sciences, electronic and mechanical tinkering...). I have found myself almost always in overload, especially as a little goes a long way, any interesting idea tending to intersect with others to spin off into many more.

Finding Voice

As a teenager, a shy awkward "girl nerd", I could be seen playing guitar and banjo, taking woodworking shop and drafting classes, running little scientific experiments, drawing and sculpting, writing poems and fiction, doing science fair projects, inventing a phonetic alphabet, even winning a prize for advertizing layout, and reading, reading, reading.

A Myth

More recently, technology has furnished a means of interconnection for all the parts of this disparate array. Paradoxically, by specializing in music (for I always found it the least resistible of all my pursuits) I found that all the other domains that I had thought I had traded off against it were drawn back in. Music does not exist in isolation any more than any individual, society or subject of study. Music touches upon everything else, from mathematics to philosophy to carpentry. Most important though, it touches our innermost selves.

A Cosmos

I did not expect to become a composer. I just kept finding, when I went to my record collection, that the music I was looking for was not there. So being a tinkerer I would make some for myself. My computer music software, best known of which is my little program "Music Mouse", is similar, made for my own use, and only ex post facto discovered to be wanted by others. Though I have made music "on demand" and to others' specifications, such as for dance, theater or film, I am primarily inner directed and all of what I consider my best work is always made for my own needs. This is another wonderful paradox that perhaps only the arts manifest well, that by pleasing the self we are more able to please others.

Music Mouse screen image

Cavis Muris - Part 2

Because much of what I have felt and seen in my mind and imagination is difficult to mash into conventional media, I have spent astronomical amounts of time on the design and creation of tools, mostly electronic and computer-based. I love this work almost as much as the music itself. Each tool (instrument, medium, technique) is like a language, able to express some things inexpressible by others, and yet full of commonality with them. Each may severely limit the nature of one's creative output but in the cause of revealing with a clearer focus a unique aesthetic domain. In this way an instrument is like a person, and each individual artist has similar uniqueness and communality with others.

This is why I have worked hard to make it easier for more people to be able to express themselves in music and art by use of new technology. There should never be a minority category "creative artist" from which most people are excluded. All who wish to speak any language - sound, sight, speech, should have the opportunity to do so. And I have long hoped that the logic of computers makes this possible for more people than ever before. As each individual is "a universe entire", so does the benefit of creative self-expression fall primarily to the maker, leaving to that person's audience, however large or local, only the artifacts of the process, the works that remain.

Soundtrack for Sandin

About Laurie Spiegel ~ Notes by Kyle Gann for the cd Unseen Worlds
(Kyle Gann is a composer and music critic for the Village Voice)

Laurie Spiegel is one of those rare composers in whom head and heart, left brain and right brain, logic and intuition, merge and even exchange roles.Though she is one of the highest-tech computer composers in America, Spiegel is also a lutenist and banjo player, and sees the computer as a new kind of folk instrument. She makes her most intuitive-sounding and melodic music from mathematical algorithms, and her most complex computerized textures by ear and in search of a desired mood. Form and emotion are as difficult to separate in her music as they are in that of her idol, J.S. Bach.

Spiegel was born in Chicago where in her teens she played guitar, banjo, and mandolin, and through them cultivated a devout philosophy of amateur music making. After receiving a degree in the social sciences, she returned to music. Having taught herself notation, she studied classic guitar and composition privately in London, then baroque and renaissance lute at Julliard, and composition with Jacob Druckman and Vincent Persichetti.

Having worked with analog synthesizers since 1969, she sought out the greater compositional control which digital computers could provide and wrote interactive compositional software at Bell Labs from 1973-79. She later founded New York University's Computer Music Studio, and became famous in rock music circles for her music software for personal computers, especially MusicMouse. MusicMouse's built-in musical logic allows even nonliterate musicians to create music in either tonal or atonal styles by hitting the computer's keys and moving its mouse. Distilled from centuries of musical practice, MusicMouse's statistical possibilities are enormous, and make any amateur feel suddenly in control of myriad elements. Still, the key to using MusicMouse to make successful music lies in what one does beyond the software, in both musical performance and electronic orchestration.

Despite her innovative involvement with technology, Spiegel the composer has never been dominated by Spiegel the computer technician. Her music from the 70s used compositional algorithms (in one case a realization of Kepler's "Harmony of the Planets", included in the Voyager spacecraft's record Sounds of Earth) to generate music in an accessible, minimalist vein. Some of that music was captured on her record on the Philo label, The Expanding Universe, containing works from 1974-6.

But in the early 80s, Spiegel distanced herself from the downtown New York scene that she had helped create, complaining that the new music scene's general direction was toward an "expansion of the collection of tools and techniques available to make music (useful, but not as the central content of a work)". "For me," she more recently explained, "music is a way to deal with the extreme intensity of moment to moment conscious existence." Since breaking away, Spiegel has lived as one of New York's most independent musicians, supporting herself by her software and circulating her music privately.

Those who fell in love with the folk like melodies and early algorithms of The Expanding Universe may be surprised to hear how much darker and more complex Spiegel's recent music has become. "Minimalism" may still aptly describe the slow movement of pitch in these pieces (Unseen Worlds), but it gives no hint of their complex timbres, glacial momentum,and cathartic climaxes. Such vibrant, expressive music could only have come from a composer who put her intuition and imagination first, yet who had the immense technical know-how needed to meet the challenges they posed.

Laurie Spiegel
175 Duane Street
New York City, NY 10013 (USA)