"Hack Forward, Quack Fast"

Introduction to SKIN


I first met Nick Didkovsky over the phone, sometime in the mid-1980’s. I was working at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, and Nick called from a phone booth in New York City. Yelling over traffic, he said that Pauline Oliveros recommended he call me about HMSL. He wanted to know what kind of a computer to get and what HMSL did. Despite the background noise and rushed nature of the phone call (there were either other people waiting to use the phone, or he was running out of change, or something) Nick was completely polite, coherent, and asked direct insightful questions. He learned what he needed to know in about five minutes. He’s used HMSL ever since, and in doing so, has made an enormous contribution not only to the development of the language, but to the use of computers in music in general (and thus, I think, to the general history of music in the last 10 years).

I was intrigued by Nick and his music. I had heard about him from friends in Gamelan Son of Lion in NYC. Nick’s piece for that group, "Don’t Be a Hog" is a kind of classic of American Gamelan music. I can’t remember quite how we wangled this, but somehow Nick ended up spending a month or so as an official guest of the CCM, staying at Robert Marsanyi’s house in San Francisco, writing a version of Lisp in JForth (the substrata of HMSL), and hanging out at the Mills CCM (to everyone’s delight). He gave an extraordinary concert and talk at the end of his stay. The talk included a description and demonstration of his early efforts in the Dr.Nerve.HMSL software project, and opened a lot of eyes (or maybe ears and minds). Here was a guy, as savvy as any about software, formal ideas, and the like, standing there with a Les Paul and an Amiga, and making some wonderful, live, computer-composed music. This concert was an important reminder to us to "quack while you hack": keep making music no matter what the stage of your tools.

Also on that memorable event was the first (only?) performance of the Lottery Piece, performed ("voted?") by Phil Burk, Robert Marsanyi, Nick and myself. It was one of the most insightful and fully thought-out pieces of live interactive computer music, and also an aesthetic surprise. Here was a piece that was unafraid of sound: a mass of sine waves competing for "harmonic hegemony" (I guess this is sort of the opposite of "harmonic convergence."). Lottery was performed by four music hackers who sat at networked Amigas trying to understand how to coexist as a sonic community in which the rules, designed by Nick from a variant of the "Prisoner’s Dilemma," precluded both individual and group volition towards musical direction. What could be lovelier?

After that, I performed with Nick often, as did others. He did a series of pieces with flutist Anne La Berge in Europe which, I think, completely turned Anne’s own already amazing and progressive music around. I introduced Nick to NY sculptor Sara Garden Armstrong, which led to some extraordinary kinetic sculpture collaborations between the two of them, (and Nick and I had a wonderful time performing a three hour version of my Simple Actions at one of Sara’s openings in NY). We performed together at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation and elsewhere, and when I moved east in 1990, we began a kind of informal ensemble (with Greg Anderson and Leo Ciesa from Dr. Nerve) that did some of my works (51 Melodies, The World’s Longest Melody Ensemble, both written especially for this group), some of Nick’s (In His Feet..., Melt), and a large software/guitar collaboration called ...Slippers of Steel....

In ...Slippers..., we tried a kind of collaboration that I think may still have some exciting ramifications. The ideas in this piece were essentially Nick’s. The piece is based around what might be called "modes of response" in improvisation, and Nick devised three: oppositional, imitative, and independent. Both the guitarists and the software had to define ways of playing in these three modes (as well as ways of listening). We each wrote several programs that listened and responded to the other person’s programs, and performed appropriately. As guitarists we did more or less the same thing. The whole piece was governed in real-time by one computer, giving instructions to the live and machine performers as things went along.

What I liked so much about this piece was Nick’s deep insight into the formalization of improvisation, and his characteristic fearlessness in attacking the software collaboration process. Sitting in my basement, hacking together, frustrated by timing problems, compatibility (we were working on different machines), and the like, Nick’s tenaciousness, musical and technical brilliance, and unwavering commitment to getting it right (and by that I mean not compromising the ideals of the piece) turned what could have been a gruesome experience into a fun one. For me doing...Slippers... was a way to learn from and about Nick, and to get inside his musical head. I’ve always been grateful I did.

All this time Nick was doing his own work: solo improvisations, performances with the guitar quartet, various guest stints, and chamber music pieces. And of course, Dr. Nerve (the main project). It always amazed me (and still does) that he is able to bring the same fundamentally manic (but positive and cheerful) intensity to so many different projects. And remain himself. He’s an example of positive anarchy. In each new musical situation, Nick has a wonderful instinct about what is musically needed, both in local terms and in terms of his own musical evolution. I once saw him speak to a bunch of graduate students about John Van Zelm Trubee’s classic, and much discussed "Blind Man’s Penis." His conclusion about the piece: everybody wins! That’s how it is with Nick, he seeks out the optimal solution to all of his collaborators’ prisoner’s dilemmas. He used the opportunity of this class, talking about someone else’s work, to describe an important aspect of his own credo.

Nick has a vision of music, and he has had it for quite long time. Although he has always, in his own words, "Move[d] forward, move[d] fast!," Nick has also been deliberately teleological. As a young guitarist teaching himself wide leaps at the Woodstock Creative Music Center, as a volunteer sound-tech at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York in the early 1980’s, or picking up software and hardware tricks from people like Bob Bielecki and Phil Burk, Nick has been creating the requisite musical education to be the composer and performer of the pieces in this book. I think he has known what these pieces should "be," both in the musical sense and in their historical sense, since he first picked up his instrument. By historical, I mean that in Nick’s work there is a self-aware ontology also found, for example, in the music of Schoenberg. He knows where he and music need to be ten years from now.

His compositions are a major contribution. With Dr.Nerve.HMSL and the other software he’s written, Nick has developed a new and congenial environment for computer-aided composition. He keeps what he likes, throws out what he doesn’t, recombines and edits as he pleases. The band is the music, not the software; nothing is compromised from beginning to end.

Nick has dealt seriously with concepts like the parametrization of musical form (bringing some important innovations to Tenney’s ideas), distributions, quasi-serial techniques, and just about every other major musical idea of the second half of this century. Yet none of this entails dogma, or a concept of adherence. He’s just trying to make things new, and doing everything he can to achieve this. He evolves his software like he evolves his musicians, constantly taking them (it) one step further, into new realms of difficulty (conceptual, physical) but also into new realms of musical enlightenment. Whether he’s implementing the Myhill distribution to gain insight into rhythmic processes, working with the ensemble to play rapidly changing meters and dynamics, or creating new "conducting" techniques, he’s always breaking down the limitations of the musical mind in question.

For those of us involved in the development of HMSL, I think there is a general feeling, to paraphrase an old Jewish prayer ("Dayenu..."), if Nick had been the only composer to make use of our work, "it would have been enough." To have helped facilitate in some small way the body of work that is not only Dr. Nerve’s music but also the extraordinary variety of other work that Nick does is something that makes me truly and deeply happy.



Larry Polansky

Lebanon, New Hampshire

August, 1995