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Laurie Spiegel’s expanding universe

© Davey Adesida

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The only time Laurie Spiegel leaves the city is when she visits her childhood home in Chicago. It’s difficult for the electronic music pioneer to make time to leave behind the apartment in Tribeca she’s lived in since 1976.

Here, she and her six-year-old rescue cat Pussins dwell among the winding piles of computers, stacks of books like Cybernetic Music and The Tao of AppleScript, and various instruments that have accumulated in this space over 43 years. There is also the flock of pigeons she cares for to think about, and the bird rescue group she runs, and the matter of finding a particular file, wherever it may be, for someone who might request it from the massive archive at any moment.

But when she does manage to get back to her parents’ house in Chicago, she is at peace. The house, which sits on the edge of a ravine (“there’s wildlife around,” she says), is filled with paintings, weavings and sculptures her mother, a math teacher, made, alongside various mechanical handiworks by her father, who was an inventor and independent businessman with many patents. She returns to the house on occasion to gradually sort through all these items, and, away from the noisy streets of downtown Manhattan, she enjoys the quiet.

“The ability to just take a cup of coffee out into the backyard, and have an actual backyard, and listen to the breeze and the trees, that’s something that I really miss, being in the city,” the 74-year-old artist tells me. We happen to be drinking coffee, which Spiegel offered after welcoming me into her Tribeca loft, on the fifth floor of a building mainly occupied by the artist Richard Serra. Spiegel’s coffee mug is a giraffe (“Where did that giraffe run off to?” she asks before we settle in, after feeding Pussins), and mine is Star Trek-themed. We are sitting together on her couch – with a vintage Apple computer, an old black-and-white television test pattern, a shelf of computer art programmes, and a couple of menorahs behind us – talking about information overload, folk music and history.

© Davey Adesida

“It’s preposterous to be discovered at my age,” Spiegel tells me. To have been a low-profile artist for the majority of her life, and then to experience a significant uptick in recognition in her 70s. It’s disorienting. “The world has changed so much, and there’s so much to think about,” she says. “Different information rates, the point along the shiftline between information – including music – being a scarce commodity, and silence and isolation being the norm. And now, when silence and isolation are the scarce thing, and overload is the norm. These cultural shifts. It’s important that some of us old-timers can try to turn people on to different ways of being that may be endangered at this point. Things like being in touch with your own imagination. And your own internal rhythms. That are so easily overwhelmed by all the stuff that impinges upon us. And particularly our emotions.” This is why Spiegel so enjoys those visits to her family’s back porch.

Spiegel is an innovator of electronic music. She worked with early sythesisers at Bell Laboratories, created a popular music programming software called Music Mouse (which became a commercial product for Macintosh, Amiga and Atari personal computers), and had her haunting interpretation of Kepler’s Harmony of the Worlds sent into space, as part of the Voyager 1 and 2’s Golden Record project in 1977. But the artist has, until recently, operated in relative obscurity. It was around 2012, when Spiegel’s 1972 song Sediment was included on the Hunger Games soundtrack, that she re-emerged in the public eye.

“There was more resistance to the fact I was using computers than to the fact that I was a woman doing music”

That same year, an expanded version of her textured, cosmic 1980 album The Expanding Universe was reissued by the New York-based independent avant-garde label Unseen Worlds (which, funnily enough, happens to be named after Spiegel’s 1991 album, Unseen Worlds, also re-released in January 2019). It’s a collection of universe-imagining rhythms and harmonies inspired by Bach, the guitarist John Fahey and Appalachian folk, made using Bell Labs’ GROOVE (Generating Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment) System between 1974 and 1977. The cover of that record is printed with a conversation between Spiegel and herself, in which she debates the usefulness of terms of genre and style, and credits her teachers. What is music, even? And more to the point, what is it without its history, without the people involved? These are the kinds of questions Spiegel, who’s forever been ahead of her time, is always asking.

Now, it’s not just Spiegel’s past work that’s experiencing a rejuvenation. “The cat was let out of the bag,” she says, that she doesn’t just make electronic music. “She writes notes, too!” In summer 2018, the cellist Oliver Coates put together a concert of chamber music Spiegel had written, at London’s Cafe Oto. That led to her being asked to write a piece for the London Contemporary Orchestra, called Only Night Thoughts, performed at the BBC Proms. Various instrumentalists, she says, have been asking her for pieces, and she can be found, at any given time, working on this media project, or that one. And her inbox is always full of music to listen to.

© Davey Adesida

She jokes that since computers no longer need her to fight for their assimilation as “real” instruments, she’s been liberated to return to her roots as an improviser, composer and guitar player. To what really drew her to music in the first place. These days, she’s been revisiting old and unfinished compositions, and hanging out with the guitar a lot. “I love electronics, I love electronic sounds, I love logical processes,” she says. But lately she’s been more interested in, “Where did I start out before I got so into electronics?”

When Spiegel was nine, her grandmother gave her a mandolin, which she kept under her bed and used to “make up soulful melodies.” After her parents refused to buy her a guitar despite her pleading, Spiegel saved up her babysitting money and bought herself a factory reject. Whenever she felt sad, or had a big argument with her parents, she’d take her guitar out on the back porch. “I’m really an old fashioned composer,” she says. “In my book, whether it’s conventional instruments or electronics, emotion is the essence of what music is for.”

Spiegel’s unique way of thinking about art and information has much to do with the many areas in which she’s decisively immersed herself. For undergrad, Spiegel studied anthropology and spent a year finishing her degree at Oxford. From there, she moved to London to study guitar and theory with composer John W Duarte. In 1968, she returned from “flower children and LSD and bobbies on bicycles who didn’t carry guns,” to Chicago’s ‘68 political convention, to tear gas and tanks. In August of that year, she moved to New York City.

When she got here, Spiegel moved in with a college friend, a member of the Black Panthers, who got her a job working for American Documentary Films. After that ended, Spiegel held a number of unsatisfying jobs including bookkeeping, research and typing. It all came together when Spiegel relocated to a three-room first-floor apartment on the Lower East Side, where she paid $42 a month – “so you know it was pretty seedy” – and a group of jazz players would get together in the basement. “You can’t really do anything else while you’re sitting right on top of a jam session,” she remembers. “You might as well go and hang out.”

It was one of those jazz musicians who encouraged Spiegel to sign up for courses at The Julliard School, where she met her teacher, the composer Jacob Druckman, to whom she was also personal assistant. Spiegel, with her penchant for improvisation, took a liking to the analogue synthesiser, first introduced to her in the form of the Buchla synthesiser. It was the ability to work directly with the sounds (as opposed to waiting for computation to occur) that excited her. “The same way a painter works directly on the painting or a novelist works directly on the novel. You just turn a knob and you hear it. I love that,” she says, eyes aglow. The analogue synth became, for a long time, her favourite medium.

Laurie Spiegel © Davey Adesida
© Davey Adesida

While studying at Julliard, Spiegel’s music career started to take off. She got a job composing soundtracks for a small production company run by an elderly Viennese Jewish refugee filmmaker who taught her about film music, which she still does to this day. (“It was too early for a woman to have a real career composing soundtracks. Just not possible then,” she notes.) She also freelanced for WNET, animators, and documentarians, and taught electronic music and guitar – all while actively involved in the city’s experimental scene, performing her analogue synth pieces at venues like The Kitchen.

Spiegel followed Druckman to Brooklyn College, and while studying there, ended up under the tutelage of the American musicologist H. Wiley Hitchock. Around the same time, in 1973, Spiegel became the mentee of Bell Labs’ Max Mathews and Emmanuel Ghent, who gave her a residency in the renowned Murray Hill, New Jersey research institution, after three months of “deciding if [she] was smart enough.” The gig gave her the opportunity to experiment with electronic music systems such as GROOVE, with which she would create her first album, The Expanding Universe.

Spiegel is a self-described “idea junkie.” That manifests not only in the meditative, exploratory nature of her music, but also in the plethora of philosophical essays she’s written, the software she’s developed, the books, instruments, toys and games she collects, the way she likes talking through concepts and merging disciplines. As part of her graduate research fellowship under Hitchcock, for instance, she applied her anthropological studies to music, and wrote a paper in which she compared different kinds of music to their means of distribution. The study proved what she’d thought all along: electronic and folk music are not so dissimilar. “The materials travel around and are adapted and used by different people,” she explains. “The authorship is lost track of, there’s no final fixed form because different people keep making variations of the same material, like in remixes and sampling.”

Before computer music was accepted, those who made it were accused of dehumanising music. Long before Holly Herndon and SOPHIE, Spiegel argued for the softness, the potential for warmth and connection within a computer’s harsh exterior. “There was more resistance to the fact that I was using computers than to the fact that I was a woman doing music or computers,” she remembers. “A lot of things,” computers included, “are endowed in the mind of the perceiver with the characteristics of those who control them.” Before the personal computer revolution in the 80s, computers were owned exclusively by large institutions – banks, the government, insurance companies – which made the idea of computer music dystopian. There was a sweet spot, a period before the commercialisation of the internet and the computer’s transformation into a communications medium in the early 90s, when computers were used almost solely for private, personal, offline expression. Nowadays, with our concentrated, mega-corporate social media platforms, wariness of digital control has almost come full circle.

Spiegel, mostly concerned by the distraction that an onslaught of information creates, continues to direct her attention inward. “People are always constructing images of themselves for external display,” she says. “And their creative art, their music, is part of that. There’s an inauthenticity to it that is really different from going out on the back porch with a guitar after a big fight with my parents. It’s about what the music does for us. How it works for us as an individual alone, that has to be a basis for the music that we put out in the world. The music that will touch people the most deeply has to be what comes from the deepest parts of yourself. And it’s so hard to turn off everything else and get in there.”

Unseen Worlds is out now via Unseen Worlds.

Photography: Davey Adesida

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