Text by CLOT Magazine
When artist Kristen Roos came across a floppy disk for sale on eBay containing the Commodore Amiga version of Laurie Spiegel‘s ‘Music Mouse‘, it took him down a rabbit hole that translated into two albums Universal Synthesizer Interface Vol I (released in 2021) and Universal Synthesizer Interface Vol II (coming up in We Are Busy Bodies soon), a sincere homage to the early era of algorithmic music making. Today we are premiering a video for one of the tracks, Diablo III.
Music Mouse was one of the first intelligent instruments for personal computers, created by Laurie Spiegel in 1985 as an interactive and playable MIDI sequencer for the 68k era of Macintosh computers, which totally hooked up the artist. The albums are the result of over a year of study, experimentation, and creation (often involving direct correspondence with the software creators themselves).
Vol I showcases a wide variety of vintage programs, from the delicately unfolding beauty of Midi Draw to the wavelike pulses of Interactive Phrase, each of these tracks was composed and sequenced with a single piece of vintage MIDI software. While Vol II sees Roos narrowing his focus down to two of his personal favourites: Laurie Spiegel’s ‘Music Mouse’ and Frank Balde’s ‘Diablo.
Roos shares that this is the first in a series of videos. this one was produced by himself but the next ones will be collaborations with other artists – Leigh Silverblatt and Rune Brink Hansen aka Spogelsesmaskinen.
We further discussed the artists’ creative process and inspiration behind the video and albums.
The video feels like a woven tapestry of both sound and visual patterns. Could you tell us what was the intellectual process behind its inception? And the main inspirations behind?
The shapes and designs that I’ve used in this video are part of my textile work and Jacquard weaving and come from traditional weaving drafts and knitting patterns. These designs have a timeless quality to them, while at the same time, I feel that they can’t help but reference imagery found in each generation that they are viewed in.
I think that the long history of both abstract and pictorial weaving has a lot of similarities to early paint software, pixel art, and early video computer systems. Since the history of the computer is intricately tied to the history of the loom, it seems inevitable that some of the first images on home computers were through video games that resemble the flat images found in abstract and pictorial weavings.
A lot of my process and inspiration for this work comes from researching the history of computers and looking at the moments in which they first became used in creative ways. I’ve also been interested in tracking when the first digitised images entered the home, and have been looking at the history of early video digitizers for personal computers from the 1980s and 1990s.
This video has elements of all of this work and research found in it. I’ve used the techniques from vintage paint software, that I’ve discovered directly from this research (which I get into more detail on in the next question).
I’m also influenced by the history of Visual Music, in particular the work of artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Rene Jodoin, Norman Mclaren, Ishu Patel, Mary Ellen Bute, Jordan Belson, and Robert Darrol. Also, artists who were creating work with early computer graphics and animation like Lillian Schwartz and Kenneth Knowlton, and video artists such as Nam June Paik, Stan Vanderbeek, and Woody and Steina Vasulka.
As far as sound is concerned, the music has been created using early algorithmic MIDI sequencing software for personal computers from the 1980s into the early 2000s. It started as a research project, which developed into creating work with the tools that I was researching.
The algorithm has become a very commonplace word that is thrown around daily, as opposed to when a lot of this software was first created for personal computers in the 1980s. Because of this work, I have thought a lot about the word Algorithm, and how it would have had a different connotation in the various stages of its use.
And also could u give us more details on the technical side? What is created using generative visuals?
The video wasn’t created using generative visuals, it’s actually a very manual, and analogue process. The main imagery in the video are designs from weaving drafts and knitting patterns. These designs are animated using techniques that were common in vintage paint software, in particular, a technique called palette shifting also known as colour cycling.
This gives still images the ability to look as if they are animated and moving, by cycling through a specific palette of colours. It’s a technique that came about through early paint software needing a method to convey animation using very little memory. The earliest example I’ve found of this technique is in a paint program called Super Paint, created by Richard Shoup at Xerox Parc in the early 1970s.
Colour cycling was also a major feature of a program called Deluxe Paint, created by Dan Silva, who also worked at Xerox Parc before creating the software for Electronic Arts in 1985. Deluxe Paint provided a lot of early iconic imagery for video games and was also used for experimental music videos/video art that used personal computers in the mid to late 1980s into the 1990s. The video I created uses several colour cycling/animated sequences, which are usually saved as looping animated GIFs.
These were viewed on a Commodore video monitor (circa 1985), and the video was captured off of the screen using a digital SLR. This gives the video a very analogue feel and allows me to twist the knobs of the monitor, and manually adjust the brightness, contrast, colour, and tint. I captured short segments of video that were edited and overlaid on one another digitally, along with the music from the new album.
You spent over a year studying, experimenting, and creating Universal Synthesizer Interface. What were the most surprising findings? And what were the main challenges?
During my research and experimentation, I was most surprised by the amount of DIY software for the Atari ST in the 1990s. There was a lot of MIDI sequencing software created in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and France.
A lot of the DIY community surrounding this software at the time, focused on algorithmic and intelligent ways to compose, with randomness being a strong factor. The title of the album is also the result of a surprising find that came out of this research.
Before MIDI was decided on as the official acronym in 1982 (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), Dave Smith had previously come up with Universal Synthesizer Interface (USI) in 1981.
The main challenges came out of figuring out the process in which each of the computer platforms operates. There are slight differences between an Amiga, a Macintosh Plus, and an Atari ST. Especially in terms of the operating systems being on floppy disks, and the sequence of events that one has to go through in order to boot up each computer.
Once this is understood it gets easier. If I didn’t have a floppy disk version of the software, there was also the challenge of finding the disk images online, and figuring out either how to use them with a floppy emulator, or how to get the images onto a bootable disk. It’s a real media archaeological adventure, especially if you didn’t grow up with these computers, and are only familiar with computers of a certain era with operating systems installed on them, etc.
Then there was the challenge of sites, like Yahoo groups that hosted the archives of Atari ST software disbanding in 2019. I contacted a lot of the developers of software directly if I could, and Laurie Spiegel was one person who had an archive of software saved for the Atari ST, as well as disk images of her software for Macintosh.
One program I had a particularly hard time finding a disk image of was Diablo for the Atari ST by Frank Balde. I was able to get in touch with Frank, who is known for his work at STEIM – a space in the Netherlands that was known for its artist residencies, and for creating experimental and interactive MIDI interfaces and software.
Unfortunately, not a lot of his work from the 1990s has been archived, and although he still has an Atari ST in storage, much of this work sits on floppy disks. I was able to dig up a version of Diablo from an archive of the STEIM website using the Internet Archives Wayback Machine, which amazingly still had software program files attached to the download links.
From there I created a floppy disk image through an Atari ST emulator and got it running on a Mist fpga. There were many other interactive MIDI sequencers created by Frank after his early work with the Atari ST, and Midi Draw and Diablo represent some of the early beginnings of this process.
This being said, I also want to emphasise that this wasn’t a nostalgia project for me. I am from this generation of computers, as I was born in 1975, but I did not have one in my home. It was far too expensive for my mom, being a single mom with two kids, to get into early home computers.
Another finding of this research has been to look at the privileged history of computers, and really see where the authorship for the software existed at this time. Each platform is unique in this way, and you can see the different communities that evolved around the different computers because of things like affordability and accessibility.
And any reflections from Working with old composition tools such as Music Mouse’ and ‘Diablo on how these have evolved into the software/platforms that are used nowadays?
A lot of the ideas that have come out of an approach to creating electronic music through algorithmic MIDI sequencing have been further developed in more recent programs like Ableton Live and Max for Live. This is an interesting history to track, which really starts with the DIY nature of the software that was being created in the late 1980s into the 90s.
The Current state of Ableton Live, which has merged with Cycling ’74 and allowed for the ability to create DIY devices in MAX for Live, can be traced to these early roots. Some of the most interesting software that started as DIY projects, were created for the Macintosh, or the Atari ST.
Programs like Music Mouse by Laurie Spiegel, which was one of the first intelligent instruments/software for personal computers, and Intelligent Music’s M, which is a direct reflection of Joel Chadabe’s concepts of compositional variables, and the desire to create an intelligent algorithmic compositional tool. I have another album in the works that focuses on using software created by Intelligent Music, with an emphasis on M in particular.
This research has also led to reflections on the evolution of the computer as an instrument for music production. Prior to computers like the Macintosh and the Atari ST, personal computers were used to sequence music, but it was a more cumbersome process that lacked the graphic user interfaces we take for granted today.
There were MIDI sequencers for early home computers like the Commodore 64, and Apple II, but they appeared as columns and rows of numbers on the screen. The Atari ST naturally became the computer of choice for electronic musicians in the 1990s, primarily because of being more affordable, and having MIDI ports directly on the computer, so you didn’t have to purchase an external MIDI device.
If you look at some of the software on the Atari from the 1990s (like Cubase for example which is still being made today) there is a direct connection to contemporary multi-track and MIDI sequencing software, and one can see a direct lineage to the software we use today.
How do you feel the visual side connects to the sound or helps drive the narrative of the track?
For me, the music video becomes a kind of time machine to a different era of music and video creation. Both the sound and image were created with the techniques and tools of the same era. I think that it’s an interesting approach, especially in terms of current computer animation, 3-D animation and CGI.
When I speak to artists who are working with these tools currently, there seems to be a constant need to push the machines that they are working with beyond their capabilities. It’s as if Moore’s law didn’t anticipate that artists would always want to work further than the computer’s capabilities.
My approach to working with vintage software, and the processes associated with vintage software, means that I work within certain constraints, and enjoy working within these limits. As far as a narrative, I don’t really want to put that on the viewer, and I enjoy hearing different ideas on what people think the work is about, or how it might have been made.