historical memoir written in 1994 585w

Creative Projects in music using recent technology at San Francisco State University in the '70's and '80's

by Herbert Bielawa

Videotex and Patchworks

In 1981 Viacom Cablevision of San Francisco dedicated Channel 35 to San Francisco State University. When that occurred the director of the university's Audio Visual TV Center, Harold Layer became involved in a special service called Videotex. Videotex was and still does run continuously. Programming was an assemblage of announcements of sport, art, university courses and general cultural events. There were the Video Newspaper, SFSU Video Magazine, films, city-only messages as well.

In 1982 SFSU Cabletext was added. The project continued to grow and in Harold Layer's words: "Initial Videotex categories include the program schedules of the campus radio and television stations, library periodical listings by subject, a videotex student newspaper, simple animated graphics the viewer can command (the For Kids Only group), and the University art department's Electric Galley_"

"An electronic music generator, The Muse, has been installed to operate all night when the campus radio station, which provides music for our audio channel, is off the air. This furnishes "electronic wind chimes," an audio component for the visual text.

In 1983, this idea will be expanded, under the direction of Professor Herbert Bielawa, by connecting the music department's electronic music laboratory to the autotext/videotex system. The result will be a computer-based composition and computer-generated performance of electronic music in real time every night. The name of each night's work and its composer will be available in the videotex database.

The technical possibility also exists for the videotex mode to trigger compositional elements of the music that are determined by viewer requests - also in real time. In 1985 we began our Patchworks service for Cable Channel 35 from midnight to 6 a.m. every day. At that time of day, Videotex consisted essentially of text notices; important things for people to read. There was, actually, no need whatsoever for sounds at these times but the station was always transmitting a sound carrying frequency along with the video as a matter of course. One might assume that that sort of situation could easily be fixed by adding some sort of MUSAQ.

Coming from a university , however, I reasoned that we could and should do better than that. I, therefore, offered Videotex's director, Harold Layer, a unique nightly program of self-automated electronic music (analog then), originating from the music department's studio and led into the university television station by telephone.

Since the studio facility was off limits to everyone from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. it was, of course, impossible for us manually to create the music. So the music HAD to be self-automated. The studio equipment had to be so tuned beforehand so that when it came on line it was on its own, sonically and musically. A clock activated switch was injected into the signal path, so that every evening around 12 Midnight it automatically switched on the prepared patch and then switched it off at 6 in the morning.

Students in the electronic music program who were registered for the lab all had their turn in creating a self-automated patch for broadcast. (Patchworks patches were part of their semester's assignments.) Some patches were better than others, naturally, although there were usually exciting moments off and on in all the patches.

It was, however, unusual entertainment especially since the synthesizer was often programmed to receive incoming telephone calls through an answering machine which was connected to the synthesizer. The musical course of the patches was changed by the sounds of a caller's voice. In fact, as a caller spoke, the synthesizer immediately responded and the effects of the utterances were heard on the caller's television speaker, as well as on those of thousands of other listeners in the area.

We were obliged always to make sure that the actual utterances made on the phone where never heard on the air exactly as they were uttered. Our challenge was to transform the utterances by way of modulators, triggers, choppers, followers in such a way that one could tell that some utterance was controlling the music.

In 1987 the studio was entirely upgraded to a complete MIDI and digital studio including digital keyboards, synthesizers (Yamaha) sequencers, computers which were Macintosh, and digital recording devices. The update was authorized and supported by August Coppola, dean of the School of Creative Arts at the time.

Videotex gradually had need of more and more programming time which made Patchworks less available. As of my retirement from SFSU in 1991, Patchworks has ceased to operate. For more information call Herbert Bielawa at 415 334 5293.