The Glass Hand. Live electronic/computer music by John Bischoff. Artifact Recordings, Berkeley, CA. CD 1014. Available from North Country Distributors, (315) 287-2852.
Reviewed by Tim Perkis, Albany, California.

John Bischoff has long been associated with the live experimental electronic music school which has flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically around Mills College in Oakland.  He has been affiliated with Mills on and off for over 20 years, as a student of David Behrman and Robert Ashley in the early '70s, through to his current position on faculty and staff of Mills' Center for Contemporary Music. Bischoff's dedication to live performance is unbroken, and complete as far as I know.   His work is firmly in the tradition of John Cage and especially David Tudor, whom Bischoff assisted during his visits to Mills and whose electronic work proved to be an important influence and inspiration. 

Almost all of his work since student days has consisted of pieces designed for live electronic performance, either for solo performer -- almost always himself -- or for an electronic ensemble.  As a founding member of The League of Automatic Music Composers and its successor group The Hub, he has been a prominent innovator in the use of  computer networks for collective performance and composition, but he has also produced an impressive body of solo work over the years. This CD documents the solo work of the last five years. 

Six of the seven pieces on this CD are created using one set of software composition tools which Bischoff has been working with for over seven years; tools for generating, harvesting, refining and organizing randomly generated synthesizer sounds. For these pieces Bischoff goes through a laborious compositional process. First he develops algorithms which create complex sound blocks on MIDI synthesizers, generating candidate sound materials by random mutation of parameters to these algorithms. He then  programs a musical automaton which can perform the useful sounds generated, and make varied transitions between them under the live control of a performer. Finally he composes a score for a performer to use to direct the manipulation of the controls of this musical automaton or instrument.  The set of sound materials, the musical automaton, and the score are unique to each piece. Each track on this CD is a one-pass, live performance by the composer on one of these semi-automatic software instruments.

The musical automaton underlying each piece has its own complex and organic behavior. The performer manipulates this system, sometimes freely improvising a performance of the system's controls, but more commonly following a score which may permit certain timing decisions to be freely made in performance, but which dictates the particular path taken. For example in The Glass Hand,, the 9-minute title track of the disk, Bischoff plays, on a piano keyboard, a score written in conventional music notation.  Key presses do not cause the sounding of pitches, however, but rather map to a variety of control inputs to The Glass Hand's particular musical automaton. 

In computer music, the composer's job is, in a sense, turned inside out. Instead of having to make an effort to impose regularity on an acoustically rich world prone to accidents, an excessive regularity prevails which can easily suck the life out of any musical idea which is carelessly realized in this realm.  In the electronic sound world, the composer must make an effort to achieve the sonic liveliness which is freely granted in acoustic music without effort. Bischoff's work has been particularly focused on crafting the  micro-details of his computer-driven sound world. He laboriously adds to his electronic pieces the accidental little sonic details, analogous to  the clicking of a clarinet's keys, or the "chiff" of a string attack, which lend life to acoustic music, and are initially absent from electronic sounds. 

What makes this practice work so well is that these features are not added  in a superficial way, by arbitrarily  pasting in details, but by creating a kind of pseudo-physical set of "laws" operating in each piece. The behaviors encoded into a piece's musical automaton, which control the appearance and variation of this wealth of microtextural detail,  are refined and adjusted sometimes over a period of years.

As far as the macroscopic structure of his work goes, Bischoff has drawn the following analogy in describing his approach: electronic music is like travel on water, acoustic music like travel on land. On land, an intentional act is needed to move. But on water, motion is constant; efforts must be made to direct the motion in an intended direction, but no energy is really required to maintain a particular state of motion. 

Bischoff's music reflects this picture well;  the sound is essentially continuous, and there are almost no discrete musical "events". The music largely consists of a great variety of complex continuous textures, which proceed from one block to the next with a kind of stately logic.  Transitions are often accompanied by beautiful gestural flurries which seem inevitable and quite natural, like those accompanying the glacial movements of a gagaku orchestra. The occasional establishment of rhythmic pedals seems not to stem from strictly musical notions of rhythm, but to also possess the inevitability of machines or natural processes.

The sound palette is uncompromisingly electronic, with a preference for rich, metallic, grinding sounds that some may find abrasive. What is especially refreshing is the complete absence of subscription to any of the conventionalities which electronic musicians have relied upon to make their sounds more "musical":  no use of amplitude envelopes to simulate attacks of acoustic instruments or expressive dynamics, and complete transcendence of the musical note paradigm which plagues so much MIDI-based electronic music.  This music not an imitation of anything, but rather the playing out of a meticulously imagined and constructed digital musical invention. 

The power of the music resides in the sense of attention and time which Bischoff has put into the work. He has worked on and listened to these pieces for years, subjecting them to a constant process of refinement. The sound of these pieces has an elegance and voluptuousness one doesn't expect to hear in live music; the sonic richness rivals or surpasses that heard in studio-generated computer music. Bischoff's unique way of working has enabled him to build pieces incorporating the care possible when composing tape music, while keeping the sense of urgency, or even danger, that quickens live performance.