Composer Robert Marsanyi

Composer Robert Marsanyi took an entirely different approach to sound synthesis in his pieces "Lurch" and "Study for Lurch." He designed the pieces to run on, and exploit the properties of, a specific piece of hardware, the Motorola 56001 DSP (digital signal processing) chip.

One very interesting aspect of Marsanyi’s pieces is that the hardware generates its own instructions, which generate numbers, which are then interpreted as sound data. There is nothing intrinsically musical or sound-related about the numbers—they are simply the result of a process influenced by the nature of the hardware. Marsanyi explains that "the piece is based on the instrument."

According to Marsanyi:

Rather than invoke levels of abstraction between what the hardware is doing and what the compositional environment is (for example, using unit generators to create complex "instruments" to be played by "scores"), I choose to explore the model that the hardware invokes. In this case, the model is below the level of sound, in a way; a behavior built around audio interrupts: there is a finite time in which the processor can work, after which it must produce a single number representing the total audio experience at that point in micro-time. It’s like writing an orchestral piece, with the instructions from the conductor "talk amongst yourselves for a couple of minutes, figure out what you’re going to play, and when I wave my baton, I want a single sound from all of you."

Another aspect of the hardware is the direct correspondence of computer code and sound: with this instrument, you’re not manipulating parameters of some sound-making device anymore—you’re dealing directly with the sound itself. Parameters like pitch, amplitude, or location become emergent properties. Instead of interacting with a piece by controlling a set of parameters, the idea here is to narrow the communication channel between the performer and the piece to a single time-varying degree-of-freedom, that of like or dislike. "Study for Lurch" is a piece for performance, not for listening to from a recording (that is, the composition is structured not so much in terms of how the piece sounds, which is what a recording captures, but in the logic used to interact with a performer). The performer responds to the soundfield being heard by moving a MIDI continuous controller, with large numbers meaning "good" and small numbers meaning "bad."