“I went rock climbing this morning,” says Daniel Shapira of the Bitwise Operators, a “laptop ensemble” from the University of California San Diego.
“I went skiing last weekend,” says Cooper Baker, another member.
Here’s the thing: These guys want it to be clear that although they spend the majority of their time working toward their doctorates in computer music, they are multifaceted human beings with activities and interests outside the scope of computers or music.
“We don’t just sit in front of our computers programming every day.” (“Lies!” shouts the group’s jokester, Chris Warren.)
“Actually,” says the quiet-unless-we’re-talking-tech Michelle Daniels, “I do.”
Bitwise members do agree that it’s hard to explain what they do, at least to those outside the university’s computer-music program.
“Every time someone asks us what we do here, it takes 45 minutes to answer them,” says Warren. “We do performance and research in making sounds with these things,” he says, as he taps the cover of his silver MacBook.
The ensemble’s name is an inside joke among the tech-savvy. “Bitwise operations is a way of manipulating data on the lowest level, playing with the individual ones and zeros,” Warren explains.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the ensemble does. They manipulate the tiny bits of computer memory to make music.
On Thursday, February 18, the Bitwise Operators debuted as part of Winterfest, a series of concerts produced by graduate students in the university’s department of music. The audience looked to be “friendly,” says Daniels. “People in the department and [people] that we know.”
Most of the 25 or so concertgoers sat in the theater’s stadium seats, though a few occupied foldout chairs that had been placed in a large semicircle around the tables to give the audience a view of the laptop screens.
The 8 p.m. show took place in the Conrad Prebys Music Center’s experimental black-box theater, opening with a performance by the New Brutalists. This improvisational quartet consisted of saxophone, a trombone, a flute, and a laptop. The musicians used their instruments in nontraditional ways (at one point the trombonist twisted his mute back and forth to make it squeak into the microphone) to create excruciating sounds that caused several audience members to plug their ears and grimace.
Paul Hembree, Ph.D. student composer, said the New Brutalists “were sort of mimicking the type of amplifier feedback you’d get from a guitar.” It was, he says, “a shock-and-awe sort of thing. I didn’t expect Ian [Carroll] to take his trombone and rub it against the floor, which was kind of insane. I wouldn’t do the same thing to my trumpet.”
Up next was Rick Snow, a Ph.D. candidate in composition, who turned off all the lights in the theater and, with his face and hands aglow in the light of his computer screen, performed a piece he calls “Improvisation 0.4.” Snow designed a synthesizer inside his computer that he controls with a keyboard.
“I have a lot of samples of noisy sounds,” he says. With his program, he can “take that noisy sound and play a chord through it. You can tune it to the sound of a Palestrina motet, which I did for part of that piece. Or you could tune it to a chord from a pop song or the sound of a creaking door.”
Finally, the Bitwise Operators took the stage. Although the ensemble had rehearsed only four times prior to the show, they say the one thing that made them nervous was the possibility of a power outage or a computer crash. The latter, they said, could be handled with grace.
“If someone’s computer crashes, we know how to go on and put on a good show,” said Shapira. “You wait for them to reboot, and you cover for them. Just like you would in a regular band.”
Baker said that one of the goals of the band is to “start making performance a more prominent practice in our program.”
One of the biggest complaints about computer music in performance is that there is nothing more to watch besides a person sitting at a computer. “I could be checking my email,” says Warren. “I could be doing something unrelated. I could just be pressing play. You have no way of knowing.”
Prior to the show, the group toyed with a few ideas on how to make their performance more interesting. They considered wearing hazmat suits or projecting their laptop screens to the front of the room. In the end, aside from Warren’s five-minute stint in a gas mask, the Bitwise performance consisted of five people staring at their computer screens.
Shapira composed the first piece. He calls it “Vitality” and says that it is a sonic interpretation of census data from around the world. Each of the ensemble members has a world map. As they move around the map on their own computers, they control the pitch, but then their actions look up data through Shapira’s system and the musical output changes.
“A lot of the sounds could be misinterpreted as technical difficulties, but that was purposeful,” Shapira says.
Next, Warren wore the aforementioned gas mask as he stood in front of the other ensemble members and conducted “Number Stations,” which he considers an appropriate metaphor for the work the ensemble does.
“As it starts, you hear little chirps and pops, and it’s slowly revealed that these are the sounds of people talking. And you can start to hear voices and make out what they’re saying, but then [it turns out to be] gibberish.” At the conclusion of Warren’s piece, two audience members hooted their appreciation.
The program ended with “In a Large, Open Space,” composed by James Tenney and arranged for computers by Baker. Each player plays his choice of available pitches for 30 seconds to a minute, chooses another, and then does the same thing.
During this piece, several audience members began to walk quietly around the room. Clint McCallum, another Ph.D.-in-composition student, stood up from his chair, found a spot behind ensemble member Ignacio Lopez, and rocked side to side, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“We have all these tones that are going around the room,” McCallum said, “but when you’re moving, there are points in the room where they cancel each other out. So, if you move around, it starts to sound like melodies are happening inside your head.”
So, how did all of this experimental strangeness find its way to the Reader’s classical listings?
Warren answers this question with another: “Where else would they put us?”