Time was, not so long ago, when computers were content to crunch numbers and maintain mailing lists -- perhaps, occasionally, to break a code or help capture a wanted criminal. Now, all of a sudden, they're drawing pictures and making music. They have become the workhorses, if not the stars, of American journalism, and before long they may even be writing publishable poetry or (heaven forbid!) music criticism. And that will be the end of civilization as we have known it.
Artists and musicians may wonder at this intrusion of inanimate objects into their domains. What about perception and tradition? What about specialized and highly trained sensitivities? Can these be stamped into a silicon chip? Still, it seemed innocuous enough, Saturday and last nights, when InterArts Projects presented a program of computer-assisted music and graphics at La Maison Franc,aise, the French Embassy's high-tech little theater on Reservoir Road.
The program had a disarming title, "User-Friendly Music and Art," and it was well-received Saturday night by an enthusiastic, highly sophisticated audience. Many stayed long after the music stopped to converse with the four (human) composers: Charles Dodge, Mark Wilson, Joel Chadabe and Ken Jacobs. The discussion was often more stimulating than the music, which was pleasant enough but tended to sound rather conservative and proper compared with some programs that have been given this year at the French Embassy.
You might expect computers to produce sounds previously unimagined by the human ear -- and that has happened, for example in Morton Subotnick's "ghost music." But these user-friendly computers tended to favor sounds quite close to those we already know and love -- metallic percussion, a giant organ, a big band with lots of brass. The music fell regularly into easy-listening patterns, notably in Chadabe's "Several Views of an Elusive Lady," which turned out to be a series of variations on "Stella by Starlight," with evocative graphics by Ferdinand Maisel flashed on the side walls of the auditorium.
The best music of the evening was (perhaps predictably) "Postcard From a Volcano," by Dodge, one of the giants of electronic music. It was performed without graphics and with the house lights on, allowing the audience to read the text: three superb poems by Wallace Stevens. In Wilson's "The Pure Lotus," the brilliant graphics by Tim Pendergast rather outshone the pleasant music. Jacobs' lengthy (45 minutes) "Gestures in the Face of Time (A Bridal Song)" seemed interesting but suffered from the lack of a printed text and often unclear diction.
Soprano Marilyn Boyd DeReggi, ending a long and strenuous season, seemed much more subdued than in earlier programs in the series (particularly one on Catullus and one dedicated to music of John Cage). Fatigue may be one reason this usually vivid artist fell below her normal high standards. Another reason may be that she had to spend the whole evening on the stage alone, interacting only with programmed, electronic sounds.