MUSC 298: Interactive Electronic Music

I. Introduction

This course introduces tools and techniques for making music in real-time with computers, synthesizers, and other things that go boop in the night. Much of our technical focus will be on learning the visual programming environment Max, and with its applications in the Ableton Live DAW. Our overarching conceptual focus will be on sequencers, principles of modular synthesis, data management, and signal flow. Our aesthetic focus will be on making compelling art that interests you.

In the first two thirds of the semester, you will complete several small creative projects organized around specific technical concepts. In the final third of the course, you will conceive of and execute a larger composition involving music and interactivity. Regular workshopping of these projects will lead to a final public performance on the evening of the last Friday of the semester.

All music-making is interactive: with other performers, with an audience, with an instrument, with notation, with a room, with nature, with the psyche, with time. What makes the computer so different? For that matter, what separates improvisation from composition? To address these questions, we will study the history and aesthetics of a wide variety of music and music-making practices, and also read some scholarly work about interactivity, computing, and expression—including in music but not limited to it.

II. Learning outcomes

  • Use MIDI controllers to acheive fluid performances, including in indeterminate and improvisational musical settings
  • Gain basic familiarity with the Max programming environment for the manipulation of data, audio, and video
  • Write custom Max for Live devices for real-time music-making
  • Engage seriously with a range of interactive electronic music
  • Write or otherwise communicate with scholarly specificity about interactivity, improvisation, gesture, and control, both as they relate to computer music of the last 60 years and in your own creative work

III. Coursework and grading

Homework (30%)
       You are expected to do all reading and listening assignments. In addition, you will have a few things to hand in: 
  • You will be a discussion leader twice, guiding the class through one assigned reading and one assigned piece of music. Guidelines for these will be distributed in class.
  • Short homework assignments will be assigned on a weekly basis to reinforce targeted technical concepts from class

Composition Projects (40%)

1) Ableton Live looping set with MIDI controller(s)

2) Linked ableton set with at least one other performer

3) Max patch 1: algorithmic composition

4) Max patch 2: electroacoustic composition for solo instrument

Final project (20%)

  • An original composition incorporating techniques from class. These will be performed live in concert at the end of the course. The final project grade includes your bringing in meaningful work-in-progress to show during workshopping days; contributing thoughtful feedback during the workshops for your classmates; and being present for soundcheck and technical checks on the day of the concert

Attendance (10%)

Attendance policy

This course does not require you to purchase a textbook. As a result, an immense amount of material is presented in class, and it is important that you attend all meetings so that you don’t miss anything. In addition, the peer workshopping and constructive critiques that we will do during class time are an incredibly important component of the course. You can miss two classes no questions asked; in addition, I am of course happy to grant excused absences and simply ask that you notify me in advance when you’ll need to be absent. Whenever you are absent please make arrangements with me to review what you’ve missed.

V. Plagiarism

Coding is iterative and modular. It is common to take elements from patch A, add something from the interface of patch B, and also insert your own components. I warmly encourage you (and, periodically, will require you) to look at someone else’s Max patches online, download them, play with them, and adopt the components you like best! In this class, you need to always note when you used any work from someone else’s patch. (You do not need to note if you used an in-class patch as a jumping-off point — I will know!) If I think that your patch doesn’t include enough of your own work I will return it to you and ask for changes, but you will not be penalized. If, by contrast, I discover that you’ve passed off someone else’s work as your own without attribution, you will not receive any credit for the assignment. 

Approximate progression of topics in 2024:

Introduction; synthesis review
Sequencing, Ableton session mode, clip launching behaviors, adding randomness
MIDI controllers
House music
Modular synthesis using BEAP
Introduction to Max: objects, numbers, buttons, messages, help files, tutorials
Basic MIDI in Max
Sequencing, randomness
More on sequencing; itable
MSP: scope~, line~, function, *~, cycle~, mtof, ftom
MSP: retune~, pitchshift~, delay
MSP: buffer~
MSP: groove~

Representative scholarly/critical readings (I usually pick ~10):

Lewis - Interactivity and Improvisation
Garcia-Mispireta - Together Somehow: Music, Affect, and Intimacy on the Dance Floor (chapter 2)
Keislar - A Historical View of Computer Music Technology
Alonso-Minutti, Herrera, and Madrid - The Practices of Experimentalism in Latin@ and Latin American Music: An Introduction
Sharp - “I go against the grain of your memory”: Iconoclastic experiments with traditional sounds in Northeast Brazil
Bennett - Digital Audio Theory
Woloshyn - Electroacoustic Voices: Sounds Queer, and Why It Matters
Bossis - Analysis of Electroacoustic Music: From Sources to Invariants
Cascone - The Aesthetics of Failure
De Souza - Timbral Thievery
Maloney - House Music, Chicago, and the Uncomfortable Heritage of Racial Segregation
Kane - Relays: Audiotape, Material Affordances, and Cultural Practice
Kendall - Feeling and Emotion in electroacoustic art
Rodgers - On the Process and Aesthetics of Sampling in Electronic Music Production
Rehding - Timbre/Techne
Emmerson - Aural Landscape: Musical Space 
Giordano and McAdams - Sound Source mechanics and musical timbre perception