Academic journal article Notes

Preserving the Electroacoustic Music Legacy: A Case Study of the Sal-Mar Construction at the University of Illinois

Academic journal article Notes

Preserving the Electroacoustic Music Legacy: A Case Study of the Sal-Mar Construction at the University of Illinois

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2008 the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music (SACAM) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign acquired the papers of Salvatore Martirano (1927-1995), avant-garde composer, faculty member, and performer. The acquisition of his papers, and especially the Sal-Mar Construction, (1) marked an important point in the center's collecting history, which includes the music and personal papers of American performers, composers, and bandmasters such as John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945), and Kenneth Gaburo (1926-1993). Martirano's legacy as a composer and innovator in the field of electroacoustic music challenges archivists to investigate how to appraise, acquire, and preserve the records of composers who, like Martirano, put sounds into bytes and changed how music is created and experienced.

The 2008 acquisition included Martirano's original music manuscripts and correspondence with friends, family, and colleagues, including renowned composers Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Gilbert Chase, Aaron Copland, Luigi Dallapiccola, Paul Fromm, Morton Subotnik, and Igor Stravinsky. The collection also included grants, reviews, scholarly articles, and ephemera that illustrate his activities as an award-winning composer, performer, and leader in the field of computer-generated music and as a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Also included in the acquisition was the Sal-Mar Construction, publicly unveiled in 1970 as the first musical instrument to generate dynamic improvisatory electronic music using analog and digital circuits designed with help from engineers who worked on the University of Illinois' early Illiac supercomputer.

The Sal-Mar Construction is an electronic music instrument that uses analog modules driven by digital circuits to create spontaneous improvisatory musical works. Sounds generated by the Sal-Mar Construction are controlled by an elaborate touch pad of binary switches that control both the sound generators and modulators and the paths to the many hard-coded six-byte instructional logic circuits hardwired into the matrix of sound generators. These control pitch, rhythm, timbre, articulation, duration, and dynamics of the sounds produced by the instrument. In order for the Sal-Mar to work, the performer interacts with a horizontal control panel of 291 lightable touch-sensitive switches. According to the Salvatore Martirano Web page at the Experimental Music Studios at the UIUC,

  The most innovative feature of the human/machine
  interface is that it allows the user to switch
  from control of macro to mica o parameters of the
  information output. This is analogous to a zoom
  lens on a camera.

  The information output is converted from digital
  to analog form and is routed to oscillators, filters
  and amplifiers, whose output is sent to one or more
  of 24 speakers. Four groups of sounds with independent
  control of route and rate can be distributed among
  the 24 speakers so that a traffic of sound is created
  in the space. All sounds are produced in real-time as
  the composer/performer according to his own prerogatives
  chooses a route and functions through a store of
  pre-programmed information. (2)

The sound carried by the twenty-four speakers adds mobility and spatial qualities to the performance experience, and it is one of its most redeeming qualities. The Sal-Mar measures 8' x 4.5' x 2.5' and weighs 400 pounds--excluding the speakers.

Like many donors of faculty papers, Martirano's family wanted to maintain the connection between his work and the university, and they wanted his materials to be available to the general public for research and performance as soon as possible. Acquiring the Sal-Mar Construction presented an interesting challenge for the archives, mainly in regard to its preservation and access. We found few resources in the archives and digital-preservation literature that we could tap into for this. …

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