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Lejaren Hiller: A Total Matrix of Possibilities

By David "Uncle Dave" Lewis
Macrovision-All Music Guide

By rights, one should not traverse any reputable history of electronic music, particularly in respect to computers, without encountering mention of Lejaren Hiller; his ILLIAC Suite (1956) was the first original musical work created with the aid of one. Hiller was also instrumental in developing the first computerized systems used to create musical notation, back in the days of punched paper tape. Collaborations were common in early electronic music as there was so much work to do even to get one note onto a tape; working in teams was more efficient. One such collaboration, HPSCHD with composer John Cage, ultimately became the project Hiller was most readily associated with in many minds. That did more harm than good for Hiller, as HPSCHD, with its dense din of clattering harpsichords and electronic bleeps and bloops, represented to many the avant-garde of the 1960s at its most excessive and over-indulgent. As composer and critic, Cornelius Cardew wrote when a performance of HPSCHD was mounted in London, "It will be a wild, psychedelic, freaked-out experience, and I don't recommend that you go." While Cage more or less abandoned computer-aided composition afterward, Hiller continued in his line of research even though the popularity of synthesizers temporarily marginalized it, but became ill and died long before MIDI and easy-to-use computer notation software reached the desktops of composers worldwide.

New World's A Total Matrix of Possibilities is a labor of love for annotator James Bohn, who has written a book on Hiller and serves as his representative to posterity; the choice of title is a clever one, as the word "matrix" is now widely associated with all things edgy and technological; the phrase comes from Hiller's own writings. These recordings are culled from releases that originally appeared on CRI, though "Computer Cantata" (1963) originally appeared on Wergo's LP-era imprint Heliodor. This mélange of percussion, vocalists and computer-generated sound cannot help but sound a little dated, though the antique – one hesitates to use the word "quaint" – electronic sounds have a property of charm in their own right that will appeal strongly to many connoisseurs of vintage electronic music. "A Portfolio for Diverse Performers and Tape" (1974) essentially explores the same format and concept that drives the "Computer Cantata," but is far more assured and timeless in feeling. The multiplicity of speaking and singing voices in the Gregg Smith Singers meshing seamlessly with ominous, menacing electronic sounds Hiller generated at the studio at Polish National Radio results in a fabric that still packs a lot of punch.

"The Quartet No. 6 for Strings" (1973), which incidentally uses no electronics, is certainly the most arresting, immediate and forward looking music on this disc. Big and ugly enough to scare the bejeezus out of Helmut Lachenmann, this quartet is both the grandson of "Arguments" from Charles Ives' Second String Quartet and the grandfather of post-modern European works like Above by Michel van der Aa, lending weight to Bohn's rhetorical question "Does [Hiller's music] provide a link from the music of Ives to today's eclecticism?" Moreover, revisiting this quartet – which employs unrepentant slapstick and is drenched in irreverence and irony – reminds us that in the 1960s and 70s it was commonplace to listen to such music with serious ears, even if the intent wasn't necessarily serious. This was a considerable disadvantage to some composers; under such strictures, one could not help but think that Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet (1964) was more serious – and therefore more weighty – than works like Hiller's, causing many of us to miss out on its merits; Hiller's "punk" attitude and his pioneering stance in respect to so-called "Totalism." New World's A Total Matrix of Possibilities succeeds in providing a new perspective on Lejaren Hiller, revealing that this nerdy guy in thick-rimmed glasses, seemingly married to a suit and tie in old photographs, was something of nut, like Harry Partch or Spike Jones. That makes Hiller even more endearing to us, and opens the door to a just reconsideration of both his contributions in a technological sense and his gifts as a composer.