Like a kid with a new toy, Salvatore Martirano first sat down at the Yamaha TX816/QX1 last fall and began to mess around. "I just started sampling all the computer's possibilities," the 59-year-old composer said.
The result of his computer doodling is appropriately titled "Sampler." Written--assembled?--for the Yamaha and amplified violin (played by the composer's wife, Dorothy), the work will receive its West Coast premiere on Thursday as part of the Cal State Long Beach Summer Composers' Institute.
"The piece was written very quickly. I call this type of writing 'ear music.' If I heard something I liked, I kept it." So much for the mysterious and lofty art of composition.
Martirano's open-minded approach to such imposing electronics seems typical of his attitude toward making music. "I'm on the fence," he said. "Since 1964, I've been doing a little of everything. I have no qualms about computers or computer music, though I don't think it's the wave of the future. But I'm for all of it--as long as it's good."
During his weeklong residence at Cal State Long Beach, Martirano--along with fellow composers Benjamin Johnston and institute director Samuel Magrill--will work closely with a group of younger composers, an activity that has occupied much of his time since 1968, when he became professor of music at the University of Illinois ("My first and only job," he boasted).
His advice to all these young students? Don't get bogged down in the notes.
"Even when I work in a purely instrumental idiom, I almost always use some kind of written program. I encourage my students to operate the same way. For instance, if one of them wants to compose a string quartet, I suggest they write a conversation for four people. Then, all they have to do is translate all those words into notes."
As an example of this program approach, Martirano cited his own "Sampler." The work is subtitled "everything goes when the whistle blows." As might be guessed, midway through the 11-minute, 50-second piece ("You can time things that way with electronics," he joked), a whistle "interrupts the antic direction of the music." A dramatic device, and, the composer indicated, one rooted in a real-life situation.
"I remember working on the piece around the time the Achille Lauro incident happened (last October). It really struck me how an event can take over your whole life. That same sudden change in mood found its way into this piece."
Acknowledging that the computer plays a pivotal role, Martirano emphasized the importance of the human factor in "Sampler"--and not merely because the soloist happens to be his wife. "I've written a lot of stuff for particular people," he said. "I find it stimulating to exploit their special talents.
"I believe a composer supplies only a small percentage of the information. The performers bring so much to the music. They're able to draw out the essence of the piece.
"The computer? It's just another tool. But it can also be a restriction, a limitation. I have in mind an ideal machine for creating music: a 'liquid' machine that can make music swing."
Martirano is one composer who knows how to swing. Even his titles often carry a bounce--for example, "O, O, O, O, That Shakespeherian Rag." In earlier times, he played keyboards in a jazz quintet. "We were hot," the composer recalled. "Jazz is really where I came from. I love expressing myself through music, having fun with it.
"I wrote a Mass in the '50s, but it didn't make me happy. There was no room to be ridiculous."