Karlheinz Essl

Algorithmic Composition

in: Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music, ed. by Nick Collins and Julio d'Escrivan
Cambridge University Press 2007, p. 107-125. - ISBN-13: 978-0521688659

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Although Algorithmic composition became popular with the rise of computers, algorithmic thinking is far older - it can be traced back to the ancient times of Pythagoras and the Jewish Kabbalah. It is a method of perceiving an abstract model behind the sensual surface, or in turn, of the construction of such a model in order to create aesthetic works. Behind the various approaches, there is one common denominator: a longing to create something infinite that exceeds the limited horizon of our individual knowledge. Seen in this light, algorithmic thinking and its application in the arts can become a way to gain experience and to overcome barriers that are either implicit in ourselves, or erected by our social environment.

In this article, I am focussing exclusively on the use of algorithms in the compositional process. My primary aim is to demonstrate how the algorithmic spirit has evolved through the centuries - from medieval music theory to the interactive realtime generated computer music of today.

Due to copyright issues, the entire article must not be published on my website according to the regulations of the Cambridge University Press.
However, one can download it directly from the publisher.

Algorithmen, Bach und Elektronik

Karlheinz Essl über sein Verhältnis zu Johann Sebastian Bach, die Verwendung von Algorithmen zur Generierung ungehörter Klänge und seine Leidenschaft für ungewöhnliche Klangräume.

Interview mit Rudi Spreitzer für www.ybbstalnews.at am 29.10.2011



Karlheinz Essl’s examination of algorithmic composition is similarly wide-ranging, though it stays mainly within the “art” end of the sphere, examining rule-based and semi-automatic compositional systems from the Musica enchiriadis, via multiple serialism (and related trends and developments in the work of Xenakis, Koenig, and Cage) to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and the implementation of real-time algorithmic tools with Max/MSP. His suggestion that some of these real-time tools might be capable of subverting the common perception that algorithmic composition removes some of the “artistic” freedom from compositional work is particularly pertinent to the debate and is also an opinion that would have been more difficult to make without some of the most recent examples cited by Essl, such as González-Arroyo and Eckel’s Raumfaltung (2003).

Martin Iddon, The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music (review); in: Notes - Volume 65, Number 2, December 2008, pp. 316-319

Computer Music Journal

Karlheinz Essl's "Algorithmic Composition" presents a useful overview of the field linking pre-computer process musics that involved style rules, serialism, and chance operations to ongoing real-time experimentation.

Michael Robert Barnhart, The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music (review); in: Computer Music Journal - Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 2009, pp. 64-65

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Updated: 27 Nov 2021