Beyond the potted ficus trees stood a giant-screen television whose images changed every 12 seconds. Two other monitors echoed the images: One black-and-white still picture scrolled to another. A close-up of a woman's face, for instance, was followed by abstract blurred disks. The music, projected through speakers around the room, surrounded the audience of 50. The eerie, screechy sounds produced a tension, as if from a psychological thriller.
So began the night at The Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica, Calif. ((213) 828-8732) where I witnessed amazing uses of the personal computer, far beyond spreadsheets and typing. The Electronic Cafe is an experimental theater that can be connected to other, similar rooms across the country using the latest technology.
In the scene above, Emil Tobenfeldt from Boston was transmitting by video telephone a 3-minute music-and-photography piece. The music was composed using some of his abundant music software that is sold through his specialized software company, Dr. T's (100 Crescent Road, Suite 1B, Needham, Mass. 02194; (617) 244-6954). His software is created mostly for the Atari and Amiga system, both of which are gaining popularity not only in music but also in animation.
After the piece finished, Tobenfeldt described his explorations in software. "I'm interested in a program where you do something physically, as in using a mouse, keyboard or foot pedal. For instance, if you move the mouse in one direction, that movement will become music. If you vary the speed of that movement, it will become different music. The idea is that you can feel as if the computer is accompanying you. You are working together, like good jazz players who listen to each other as they play together."
Morton Subotnick, an electronic composer, professor and musical pioneer who has the look and twinkle of a slender Santa Claus, next appeared at the cafe -- in person, not by video telephone. Subotnick is co-director of the recently established Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology at the California Institute of the Arts ((805) 253-7832).
"After the invention of the long-playing record," said Subotnick, "music became a passive activity for many people -- something to eat dinner by. Concert hall attendance dropped. Sheet music publishing virtually died because families didn't gather around the piano anymore to play and sing. I'm interested in making music active again."
He and his protege, composer/computer wizard Mark Coniglio, have created a programming language for the Macintosh called Interactor. The software allows them to trigger sounds, music and more. With it, they were able to create what Subotnick sees as the future of music publishing: interactive music.
Subotnick began playing a Beethoven sonata and the computer jumped in, playing the second piano. As Subotnick changed tempo, the computer changed, too, to match him. Subotnick leaped ahead in the score, skipping a huge section. The computer could tell where he was in the piece and caught up to him in a beat.
"As long as you play about 60 percent of the right notes," he said, "the computer will stay with you. Imagine playing along with some of the world's finest musicians."
If this were not impressive enough, he introduced a new instrument called the VideoHarp. It has two angel wings of translucent orange plastic growing out of a box. The unit is strapped on like an accordion. On each plastic wing is printed a keyboard. One simply needs to touch the plastic to create tones.
I could have gone home from there with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, but Subotnick wanted to propel us further. The VideoHarp, he and Coniglio realized, could be used for more than just music. It could trigger anything electric or electronic. It control all aspects of lighting, music and sound to a play, for instance.
"We're at the edge of a major revolution," said Subotnick with a grin. "Not only in music, but in all the art forms as a whole."