For centuries, European classical music has considered the composer to be the “creative” musical artist, and relegated performers to the lesser status of “interpretive” artist. This idea of composer as autonomous creator eventually inspired the adoption of a common 20th century strategy: replacing skilled workers with machines. Today’s synthesizers are primarily playable keyboards with optional devices for programming music (i.e. sequencers and drum machines). But the first electronic music composers created sounds directly on tape, so that a “concert” of such music consisted of playing a recording made in a laboratory.

However, this composer-dominated music is now paradoxically turning into its opposite. Electronic music did more than introduce a new set of tone colors: It called into question the whole sonic metaphor of color and line. “Lines” in this presupposed metaphor were those patterns that could be traced by means of the “black dots” of Western music notation, and “colors” were what could not be symbolized by those black dots. In other words, the composer wrote out lines on paper, and the performer filled in those lines with musical colors. But in electronic music, amplitude, frequency, algorithm, and other principles from physics and computer science are seen as the most fundamental way to describe music. This new assumption implies that there is no longer anything essential about the distinction between the musical colors created by performers and the melodic lines written down by composers. Consequently, the current generation of electronic composers is now questioning the original distinction between composer and performer that led to the creation of electronic music in the first place.

The research team at Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Technology (CNMAT) creates multi-disciplinary links between computer engineering, music composition, and the physics of sound. But they do not share the traditional European classical assumption that music is created by people who put black dots on paper and then performed by someone else. They study traditions in which music is created by the performer, and see their technological innovations as a way of enhancing, not replacing, musical performance—including the improvised music of the Hindustani classical tradition.

Because CNMAT researcher Adrian Freed designs computer algorithms used in recording acoustic music, he has a great sensitivity to different nuances in guitar tone. This has made him especially appreciative of the innovations of Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya. Freed books concerts and workshops for Bhattacharya at CNMAT and is still trying to unravel the intricacies of his distinctly Indian style. “Hawaiian and Delta Blues guitarists go from one note to the next in single sweep,” says Freed. “But when Debashish slides, he can mark all of the notes in the raga, no matter how fast he is playing. Also, other slide guitarists play with a slight vibrato that hovers around the note. But Debashish always slides to exactly to the right note, and then ornaments it. I’m still trying to understand how that’s possible. If his ear was guiding him, it seems that he would need a brief moment of adjustment to find the note. Because he doesn’t need that moment of adjustment, it seems that he must be using a preset muscle pattern that isn’t guided by his ear. But if that were the case, there should be a long learning curve each time he adapted to new instruments. Yet he tells me that he can adjust to any new instrument in a few seconds. I’ve also heard him improvise a phrase, then immediately follow it with the same phrase in two other octaves, even though each octave has a different scale length. If we can understand how he does things like this, it can help us teach these techniques more efficiently.”

Shafqat Ali Khan, son of the great Salamat Ali Khan, collaborated in a series of concerts in which CNMAT researchers David Wessel and Matt Wright used newly developed computer software to create a new form of improvised music. Musical improvisation is a delicate balance between the creative inspiration of the moment and the “programs” stored in the reflexes of the performer by years of practice. Wessel’s and Wright’s goal was to provide the creative inspiration themselves, and to store the “programs” partly in computer controllers, rather than entirely in their own reflexes. Because Shafqat is deeply rooted in the khayal and dhrupad traditions, the two computer controllers would work with spectral models of music derived from those traditions. The challenge for Wessel and Wright was to develop a programming structure that was flexible enough to adapt to Shafqat’s live performance, yet not so flexible as to reduce the musical information to gibberish. They also needed to develop the muscular skills to operate the controllers, and to decide what was a skill problem and what was a software problem.


Wessel used a touch-sensitive device called a poly-point continuous controller, which enabled him to selectively activate (and electronically alter) eight different tabla rhythms that ran continuously throughout the performance. Wright created an accompanying melody line from spectral models of musical phrases sung by Shafqat, which were graphically represented on an electronic tablet. Wright used a stylus to trigger any part of these phrases at any speed, forward or backwards, including those elements (sruti, gamak, etc.) that could never be captured by Western sheet music. Wessel and Wright gradually learned how to activate and change this musical information so that they creatively interacted with Shafqat’s performance. Why this process is both similar and different to traditional improvisation is a topic for further thought and research.

Creative research with improvised Indian music remains an important project at CNMAT. Matt Wright, who studies sarod and vocal with Ali Akbar Khan, put it this way. “It doesn’t make sense to limit computerized music to pre-recorded tapes. The power of computers is that they can make the right choices at the right time. And that’s what an improvising musician is constantly doing.”

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.