"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.
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
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 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