Christopher Cumulonimbus

The Story of a Macintosh-Assisted Musical Performance



"Christopher Cumulonimbus" is a computer-assisted improvisational rock and poetry performance that explores the cloudlike, evanescent quality of 500 years of America's history, from European discovery to increasing virtuality and electronic (dis)simulation. The piece runs for an appropriate 500 seconds (8:20), and consists of five short movements of 100 seconds each. The music is accompanied by fifty collage-paintings on the Macintosh in a HyperTalk- programmed HyperCard stack, alluding in scanned and manipulated images to five centuries of American and European history, each visible for ten seconds. Periodically there appears the storm cloud motif from which the performance's title pun is drawn, timing the performance as a visual clock to signal and stimulate the musicians. The HyperCard stack thus participates as the performance's conductor and aide-memoire, as well as timing as a slide show of images then projected above the stage. As far as computer-human interactivity, this could be said to embody a certain Taylorism: the human performers adjust their performance to the timing dictated by the machine.

Kiosk for Exhibition of "Christopher Cumulonimbus"

"Christopher Cumulonimbus" was performed by the Jamaican poet Chrysanthe Johnson Mosher and myself as part of the YLEM Forum of Interactive Art at the Exploratorium, San Francisco CA, September 2, 1992. Its imagery was projected upon a screen at the back of the stage, while Chrysanthe read my text and I played the McBean Theater's grand piano. This was the second perfomance of the work inspired by the Quincentennial of Christopher Columbus' voyage; the piece debuted nearly a year before at SCAN '91, the Eleventh Annual Small Computers and the Arts Network conference in Philadelphia PA. In Philadelphia, Mike Lieber, recruited from among the SCAN conference's participants a day prior to the concert, accompanied me upon a guitar synthesizer, and the two of us ran through the five musical sections a couple times the evening before our performance, watching the HyperCard sequence proceeding upon the Macintosh. Nancy Freeman read my libretto, a poem in five sections about each century since Columbus' discoveries, fitting the text into the time allotted for each of the five movements. She read the libretto somewhat quietly and with restrained sotto voce, though in future performances I could see the role filled by one or more singers improvising upon on the text. The extreme simplicity of the musical structure is intended to allow unrehearsed musicians to play in a performance and so complexity doesn't distract from the measured, stately (Byzantine?) progression of the imagery projected, nor the wordy, sometimes punning, libretto being read or sung.

For the musical score of "Christopher Cumulonimbus" I play five very simple chord progressions on keyboard, setting the mood for each of the five sections. The musical mood of the first post-Columbian century, the 1500s, is intended to be tribal, unexplored, primeval by the use of octaves playing a 4/4 progression of G Bb Eb, finally ending upon G. In the following century the mood is somewhat nautical, with the dancelike use of fifths alternating the G major and a D major chords in 3/4 time. For the next century of American history, the 18th Century is suggested in minuet-like arpeggios in G C A D. Part four, the Nineteeth Century, tis played in a somewhat country-western musical mood indicating industry, prosperity and national confidence. Finally, the energy of the Twentieth Century is embodied in a sort of Chuck Berry-like 4/4 rock n' roll progression G C G C F C G, building up to end on a heroic final G major chord.

Both the visual and verbal imagery for "Christopher Cumulonimbus" are eclectic. In designing a screen-sized image for each decade, I soon realized that over half of American history took place in the colonial era before the American Revolution of 1776. Columbus himself is visible at the beginning, and a scanned photograph of a college friend represents Queen Isabella. There follow many images from European history for the next couple hundred years, for that continent was making its impact felt upon the Western Hemisphere. Martin Luther and Henry VIII of England are caricatured to represent the 1520s and 1530s, while a collage representing Nostradamus is used for the 1550s, the decade when he published his predictions. The importance of the New World to Europe is spoken of as "A woods, a jungle or a gold mine for our Faith to hide in", where "Gold is God, Gold is Good, let us thank it for our foolishness."

In the Seventeenth Century, much imagery alludes to either Spanish colonization or the natural state of the Americas, and includes the discovery of Niagara Falls and the newfound popularity of tobacco. In this age of exploration, "LaSalles and DeSotos melted down the river/Into great Cadillacs and Pontiacs". In the Eighteenth Century, a cartoon of the death of Louis XIV is shown to representi the decade of the 1710s. A few decades later "Franklin hatches schemes, fortunes, intrigues and aphorisms" and is depicted for both publishing Poor Richard's Almanac in the 1730s and for his kite-and-lightning experiment of the 1750s, in the second instance by scanning his image on the fifty cent piece with the Apple Scanner.

Much of the imagery for the 1700s, 1800s and early Twentieth Century are assembled from scanned advertising artwork of those centuries. "Puff a Daniel Webster ground up in my Henry Clay" accompanies a manipulation of my 1978 lithograph of Webster for the count of ten. "My best headsplitting cask of amontillado/Waylaid by a Whig desperado" alludes to the death of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s as Bacchic figures and spiders appear onscreen. Following the Civil War (a Black Union regiment is shown) the nation progresses through images of buffalos, railroads, the Haymarket bombings of 1888 and a brass bed germane to Margaret Sanger's birth-control campaigning.

The swiftly-changing Twentieth Century gets called "the auto-dufy Otto von Bakelite/Plastic fantasextastic age". As the pageant of the century nears the present, an irradiated mobile home for the 1950s is contrasted with '60s psychedelia, '70s sexual-ecological awareness, through portable computer-aided greed of the 1980s, finally to a realm of new digital muses and new anxieties in the present decade. The libretto raves on that " Senator Chuck Berry buries Warhol/Each time he dies at Altamont/In not the Caves of Altimira but/The United States of the Virtual".

The HyperTalk scripting (HyperCard code on the Macintosh) to run the piece was extremely simple, largely contained within a single button on the card following the opening title card. This script consists of a series of "Go next card" and "Wait" programmed for a certain duration, usually 600 ticks (10 seconds). At the card representing the beginning of each century, the cartoonlike image of a cloud covers half the card for 5 seconds, a signal to the musicians to change to playing the next section's chord progression; for the following 5 seconds the cloud dissolves to reveal the image upon the entire card. SCAN provided a Macintosh IIci computer with an internal hard disk running HyperCard 2.0, though the stack was created in the still-more-prevalent version 1.25. In Philadelphia the Macintosh was attached to a Barco Media Wall, which made the screen image sufficiently visible to the audience and stage though fracturing it over twelve video screens yet somewhat degraded them. The keyboard, guitar-synthesizer and microphone were all mixed and amplified through a PA system.

When employed at Apple Computer, Inc. from 1987 to 1990 my championing of HyperCard as a fine arts medium met with little comprehension within the company , but at SCAN I got the opportunity to meet several artists working with it in creative ways. Though I've performed original songs and old blues on piano since 1990 around the Bay Area,"Christopher Cumulonimbus" is my first ambitious "rock operatic" performance piece since "Twilight of the Gymnasty" (broadcast on Ann Arbor MI public access television in early 1974), as well as my first combination of HyperCard and live music and voice. It was an honor to debut my short but ornate performance piece under the skylight roof of the Great Hall of the University of the Arts, in grand old Philadelphia, city of Franklin, Independence's Declaration and the Constitution, all of which play a part in the imagery of "Christopher Cumulonimbus". It was also an honor to perform it nearly a year later in San Francisco's marvelous interactive and participatory science museum the Exploratorium, housed in the old Palace of Fine Arts from the 1915 World's Fair, as a part of an YLEM Artists Using Science and Technology forum. Hypermedia is a fine vessel for history, and its possiblities remain as unexplored for artists as the cloudy New World that beckoned Columbus.

--Nov. 1991 - Sept. 1992



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