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Is That a Roach Playing Strings?


Need a good laugh? The next time an art institution announces an exhibition of works by artists for the computer, get there early. You will probably be treated to some of the most ridiculous stuff you've ever seen.

Two years ago, as part of the Digital World trade show in Los Angeles, an area of the Convention Center was set aside for digital works by visual and performance artists. I was excited--after all, artists are the ones charged with challenging us to view parts of our world afresh, as Nam June Paik, for example, has forever altered the way many perceive television. But the only thing the Digital World exhibition evoked was unintentional laughter.

One standout was a piece by a German artist who had attached solar panels to motor-driven skateboards. The lights above these devices were controlled by the digitally processed alpha brain waves generated by an audience member. The artist would attach sensors to a volunteer's head and insist that he or she be calm. The current "Saturday Night Live" should be so funny.

But off in one corner, a quiet Japanese painter showed a work he called Music Insects. The artist, Toshio Iwai, had always wanted to be a composer in addition to working in a visual medium. He combined the two endeavors in this computer piece that used a mouse to place colored dots on a screen in abstract patterns. Each of the dots represented a musical note.

Then, he would let loose across the screen little animated insects, each representing a instrument. The insects would strike the dots, making the sounds of an electronic orchestra. It was amazing how often the results of this chance music and art were not only vibrant, but even toe-tappingly energetic.

I didn't hear of Music Insects again until this year's unabashedly commercial Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas. In a booth occupied by the Maxis software company--best known for SimCity and SimTower--there again was Iwai's creation in a more elaborate and user-friendly version. According to Maxis, which is headquartered in Northern California, a group of company employees were on an outing to the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco when they happened upon a temporary installation of Music Insects. Recognizing it could be a terrific home computer product, they bought the concept and worked with Iwai to further develop the program.

The result is a CD-ROM named SimTunes, and it's even more fun than the original. You can create works in the random mode or carefully sketch out recognizable music, with different bugs playing different parts along the colored dots. For example, one bug can play a salsa percussion riff on a line of dots, while others play the main tune to the Macarena, until it drives you nuts.

Until you become skilled at using SimTunes, you can try out the numerous, already-completed pieces included with the CD-ROM. One type features elaborate graphics made from the dots--there is a scene from ancient China and a depiction of George Washington--surrounded by more abstract-looking patterns that the bugs travel among to make the music. The other type incorporates the entire design in the music making.

SimTunes is aimed at the childrens' market, but adults will also find it addicting. It is available in the Windows format for about $35.

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