Lejaren Hiller 10 comments

Lejaren Arthur Hiller Jr., pronounced Luh-jare-en (New York, 1924 – Buffalo, 1994), has been a music composer but unusual, because his training took place first of all as chemist, and after as composer.

From this point of view, Hiller remember us others unusual musician as the russian  Alexander Borodin, doctor and chemist too, or Iannis Xenakis, an architect but one of the most influencial figure of the contemporary music. Today, Lejaren Hiller, is remembered for his experimental music production and because has been a computer music pioneer.

First musical studies – The father of Hiller, Lejaren Hiller Senior, was a famous art photographer, his artistic sensibility has been certainly very important for the next music carrer of his son. At age 14, in New York, Hiller Jr. began to study music privatly: harmony with Harvey Officier and piano with Harvey Brown, Officier’s granddaughter. After, the young Lejaren began to study also chemistry, and this dual interest will be constant in his life.

Un primo piano di Lejaren Hiller

A close-up of Lejaren Hiller.

Princeton – In the Eighties, during an interview, Hiller declared that in 1941 he went to Princeton after reading a presentation brochure of educational offer; underlining as his choice were not rational but random.[1] By this event, we could say that the randomness, in Hiller’s life, had a very important role. Subsequently we’ll understand why. Now, we say only that Princeton was a very important choice for the next musical studies.

Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt – The significance of Princeton can be understood only underlining the presence of musical personalities as Roger Sessions and one of his most famous pupils, Milton Babbitt. At this time, Hiller began a life step continually divided between music and chemistry. Togheter with Roger Sessions, during 3-years period 1942/1945, Hiller studied composition, analysis and listening. But already in 1941 he began to study oboe, with Joseph Marx, and afterwards clarinet and saxophone. In 1941 and 1942 Milton Babbit, however, was his teacher for counterpoint and composition.

Lejaren Hiller e Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt (on the left) with Lejaren Hiller.

Roger Sessions goes away – The musical training of Lejaren Hiller proceeded so well that could not last much longer. In fact, in 1945, Sessions moved to Berkley, at the University of California; a choice that confused Hiller, altough Rogers Sessions had highlighted the importance of new personalities with whom confront. Moreover, Paolo believed that Hiller had good music qualities, for this he had to continuing his study and Sessions wanted to present his student to teachers as Darius Milhaud or Ernst Křenek, and he did the name of Arnold Schoenberg.[13]

Lejaren Hiller, chemist – These last references remained only hypothesis and we can say that, probably, the departure of Roger Sessions for Hiller was a fact more critical than you might think. From that moment, in fact, Hiller abandoned the musical to focus in chemistry training. The years after 1945 evidenced this choice insomuch as during little years he achieved the Bachelor’s degree (1944), Master’s degree (1946) and the PhD in Chemistry (1947). In the same year of the PhD, Hiller was hired by the E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company of Waynesboro, Virginia, where until to 1952 Lejaren Hiller held research work on the chemistry of cellulose, publishing many scientific papers.

First musical works – The study of chemistry did not prevent him to cultivate his interest for music. From 1946 to 1947 Hiller composed some works that himself considered of artistic value: two piano sonatas and a Trio for violin, cello and piano (1947). During the years passed at DuPont, he writes Seven Artifacts for piano (1948), Jesse James for vocal quartet and vertical piano (1950, one of his rare vocal work) and his first two string quartets (1949 and 1951). These are certainly traditional works but we must remember that all his musical training was very traditional, even if with a very innovative composer as Milton Babbitt (from this point of view I think it is a useful information remembering that Babbitt, when he was professor of Hiller, was only 25 years old!); nevertheless these are musical works oriented towards experimental writing of the following years.

Illinois – At age 28, in 1952, Hiller leaves his job at Du Pont and moved at the University of Illinois, as researcher. Although his choice was motivated by chemical issues, the future composer took with him all the indications of his early teachers: don’t leave musical studies. So, in 1953, and for two years, Hiller began to study with Hubert Kessler, a formerly student of Heinrich Schenker. However, the most important news of these years was not his musical studies but was his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry and the goals of his new research. They put him in a position to use the ILLIAC I computer (acronym of ILLinois Automatic Computer, sometimes reported as acronym of ILLInois Advanced Computer [13]), very important for his next music career.

Illiac Suite – In his book, Experimental music, Hiller said while using the ILLIAC computer, realized that was possible establish various analogies among the research methodology applied in chemistry problems and procedures adopted by composers for musical composition. So, Hiller understood that the random procedures adopted by the computer could be reused in musical contexts. At that point, togheter with the researcher Leonard Isaacson, Hiller worked to the project by which will carry on to the Illiac Suite, a string quartet composed in 1956. This work represent a definitive turning point for the music carrer of Lejaren Hiller. I would underline a curiosity: Hiller, for a long time, did not listen his work performed by real musicians, and had to wait a surprise by his colleague and friend Max Mathews, another famous computer music pioneer.[6] Nevertheless, is out of doubt that this event pushed Hiller to choose a musical career rather than as chemist. For more info about this book, please read here.

Experimental Music Studio – The effects of the Illiac Suite were immediately in evidence: in 1958 Hiller obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Music (he considered very important to have an appropriate curriculum), than was called to partecipate to the foundation of the new electronic music studio of the School of Music at the University of Ilinois. Thus was born the Experimental Music Studio.[3] The foundation of this studio had two major benefits: first, gave to musicians and researchers a place where use electronic technologies for musical scopes; secondly, the computer music research get  a more stability, losing an appearance of a sporadic experimental research. To get more visibility to this new musical project (we remember that in that time the EMS was anticipated only by the electronic music studio by the Columbia University [3]) was planned the educational offer but was incentivized even the residence of young composers, consequently the music production of new works. We mention at least James Tenney (arrived in Urbana in 1959 after hearing of a new electronic music studio [9]), Herbert Brün, Salvatore Martirano and many others.

Lejaren Hiller all'Experimental Music Studio

Lejaren Hiller at the Experimental Music Studio.

Music productions at EMS – With the presence of many young composers, in the first years of activity, various musical works was composed at Experimental Music Studio. By James Tenney we remember Organized Sound for Medea (1960), 15 minuts of music for the Euripide’s tragedy rearranged by Robinson Jeffers and producted by the University, and the most famous Collage No. 1 (1961).[9] Then we remember Three Electronic Studies (1959) by Shallenberg and Hoffman, Leikar No. 3 (1961) by the irish composer Thorkell Sigurdbjorrnson and finally David Ward-Steinman with his Piano Collage (1961).[3] Added to these are some works by Lejaren Hiller: The Flying Lesson (1958), that we will discuss later, Incidental Music for Blue is the Antecedent of It (1959), the music for the one act drama by Jack Leckel, then Incidental Music for Cuthbert Bound (1960), for the one act drama by Christopher Newton; and more Nightmare Music for Time of the Heathen (1961), for a film produced by the PRP, New York, and finally the most famous Seven Electronic Studies (1962).

Experimental Music – At this point I would to do a consideration, and underline a curiosity. Studying and reading about Lejaren Hiller, I’m impressed by the necessity of Hiller and his collaborator Isaacson, three years after completing the Illiac Suite, to publish a book which documenting their experimental work. This impressed me because Hiller not has betrayed his scientific vocation, treating the Illiac Suite as a common chemical experiment, rather than a musical work. So, the Illiac Suite was officially presented to others researcher and composers, and they admired the results of an unique experiment, because based on random procedures, and many difficult to performed, because based on a musical writing very complex. I would to say that this scientific inclination of Hiller was already underlined in other way, for example about his tendency to establish many collaborations.[13] Probably, the lab experience make Hiller willing to a shared approach of the musical composition, as we shall see even in many others works.

Lejaren Hiller, composer – But, after all, the release of this book expresses further a progressive abandoning of the chemical profession, for the benefit of the musical passion (the last scientific paper dated 1962). Furthermore, the experience at EMS pushes Hiller to prefer the electronic instruments, analogic or digital as the computer. This definitive conversion towards the art of sounds can be appreciated not only for the works composed but also for the divulgation activities carried out in all over the world. From this point of view we must mention at least the meetings organized by Hermann Scherchen from 1966 at Gravesano, Switzerland. Already in 1954 the european conductor opened a studio for electronic music; after, since the sixties, many important composers of the contemporary scene attended to his meetings: Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono, Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis and many others. In addition to these, by the early Sixties various leading figures of U.S. technology revolution, participate to this meetings: Max Mathews, James Tenney and, in 1965, Lejaren Hiller who presented a paper titled Musical Applications of Electronic Digital Computers (Musikalische Anwendungen von Elektronischen Digitalrechnern).

The Flying Lesson – The computer, for example, is the basic instrument for a new work: The Flying Lesson, a little piece extrapolated by the music for The Birds, the Aristofane’s comedy. The music is based on a piano perfomer playing melodies in the key of G major, to whom eight performers replicate through melodie with the same rhythmic structure but pitches obtained by a computer random choice.[11] To this work we remember also two others, both theatrical and electronic but analogical: the already cited Blue Is the Antecedent of It (1959), and Cuthbert Bound (1960), a chamber-music for tape and four actors.

Computer Cantata –Beyond the theatre, Hiller composes Seven Electronic Studies for 2-channel tape (1963) and Computer Cantata for live soprano, chamber ensemble and tape (1963). As it’s easy to realize, for this last Hiller reused the computer. With precision, this work, realized at EMS, is the final step of an educational path structured around the Musicomp, a software for the simulation of musical composition procedures developed togheter with Robert Baker. Initially, the researchers thought to compose a new Illiac Suite but the purchase of the new  IBM-7090 computer meant that the new work was titled Computer Cantata.[4] Togheter with the IBM, even the CSX-1 was adopted for sound synthesis.

By a musical point of view, this work is structured in five movements, and each of them has, at least, a verse and a prologue (I and II movement) or an epilogue (IV and V movement), with the difference of the third movement thayt has a verse, a prologue and an epilogue, too. The total sections of this work is eleven, each characterized to investigate a different musical feature, as the rhythm, random procedures, synthesized sounds and more. Being a Cantata, the Hiller’s work has even a text, obtained with particular procedures. First, we can say that is not a traditional text rather a computer random selection of english phonemes, extracts by the Plays journal. After analyzing, these phonemes were reassembled to get a sort of text no-text, english no-english.

HPSCHD – Studying the music story of Lejaren Hiller, emerges as his interest for technologic instruments is similar to that towards the theater or the show, generally speaking. Over the years, these interests contributed to the composition of many works; but the most important is certainly HPSCHD, an impressive multimedia work realized in 1969 in collaboration with John Cage. Is my intention to write a dedicated voice to this topic, so for this moment I would remember only as Lejaren Hiller has evidenced that in 1968 John Cage, after knowing of his computer music works, called him for a collaboration in a new opera with music and technology, as the computer. After completing HPSCHD, Cage wanted to share the credits of this work with Lejaren Hiller. HPSCHD, acronym of harpsichord, is a work commissioned by the swiss harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer. As multimedia project, for harpsichord and computer synthesized sounds, join even live video and photographs, in a sensorial show of over five hours. The computer part was finished in the summer of 1968 and the first presentation there was the following year. Already in September, 1968, Hiller moved to Urbana, at the Buffalo University.

John Cage e Lejaren Hiller in pausa torta.

John Cage and Lejaren Hiller throughout a cake break.

An Avalanche – The 1968 was a strong year for the number of compositions realized with the computer. After HPSCHD, Hiller composes another theatrical piece: An Avalanche, a satirical investigation on contemporary art in U.S. in the late Sixties. The playwright, and Hiller’s friend, Frank Parman wrote the textual part, while the music was obtained by Hiller through the computer. The composer used the digital instrument for the generation of music sequences printed on a piano roll thanks to the Calcomp plotter.[6]

Algorithms I – In the same year of An Avalanche, we remember two other works: Computer Music for tape and percussions, and Algorithms I (revised in 1974). The first is a work realized in collaboration with the american composer G. Allan O’Connor, well-known for his teaching activity; the second, that has a complete title like this Algorithms I (Versions I to IV), is a work for 9 musicians and tape. It is a work for 9 musicians and tape. It is an interesting work, not only for its particular features, but also because ti was a first composition of a cicle, to which Hiller worked for many years, completing a global project of three musical works. The entire project has been conceived to experiment the musical effect of some features. In other words: starting with an any music work, Hiller wanted to understand, through the computer, how, what, and how many elements had to be changed to get a different result than the initial one.[10] Here’s why each composition is available in many different versions, at least four. The entire structure of Algorithms I is articulated in three sections:

I. The Decay of Information

II. IcosaHedron

III. The Incorporations of Constraints

The first movement present again the structure of Computer Cantata; while the second is a serial music example, the first realized with the computer; and finally the third is a traditional rondo.  il secondo è un esempio di scrittura seriale, il primo realizzato da Hiller attraverso il computer, mentre il terzo movimento è un classico rondò.

Buffalo – The 1968 is not only a fruitful year for the numbers of works realized, but it was even the year when Hiller moved to the State University of New York At Buffalo (SUNYAB). Here, Hiller taught composition and, in particular, had the opportunity of meeting Lukas Foss, with whom he will manage the Center of Creative and Performing Arts, until the 1974, when Hiller was replaced by Morton Feldman. At that time, Hiller wanted to concentrate his energy in a project nearest to his interests. So, he participated to the foundation of the Experimental Studio at Buffalo, that rapidly became a reference for computer music and, generally, for those interested in technology applications in a musical context..

Un bel quadretto formato da Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman, Eliott Carter e George R. Levine

Un bel quadretto formato da Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman, Eliott Carter e George R. Levine.

The basic idea was to open an advanced studio, capable to became a reference to all interesting to employ technology in music. For this Hiller called Robert Moog, which had already collaborated to realize some device used at EMS, Illinois. Togheter they worked for new analogical devices and a mixer.[12]

Algorithms II – After the 1968, Hiller worked only to other three new compositions. The  next computer music work was realized in 1972. It was Algorithms II (Versions I to IV) for 9 instruments and tape. With the second part of the cycle, Hitler experimented a new musical procedure called change ringing.[7] In the 17th century this expression was already adopted in the english churchs to indicates a procedure useful to play bells and never obtain conventional melodies but always new. So, Hiller thought to apply this procedure to 12 musical elements (12 frequencies, 12 rhythmic structures, ecc.) for demonstrating the similarity of this old technique with the dodecaphonic procedures.[7] The computer was the best instrument for a problem like this, even in virtue of the previous experiments realized for the Illiac Suite.

The computer application of this method was possible thanks to a new software named Phrase. So, Hiller obtained four different versions of Algorithms II, distinct by differents melodies but also for a different musical complexity, considering that the change ringing was applied to various elements, with the exception of the Version 1, the only that we could be say free. The change ringing was applied to the frequencies control in the Version 2, for rhythm and pitch in the Version 3 and, in the Version 4, for the intonation of 4 of 5 voices. In difference of Algorithms I, this new work was structured with only a single movement, called Campanology.

Midnight Carnival/Electronic Sonata – In 1975 Hiller realized a new work with the computer and Phrase: A Preview of Coming Attractions for Orchestra. However, the more interesting works was realized in the following years. In 1976, for example, Hiller came back to compose a new big multimedia project, an idea stimulated by the commision of a work to celebrate the the U.S. indipendence bicentenary. This new project, called Midnight Carnival and inspired by the previous experience for HPSCHD, wanted to be a multimedia urban performance, in effect was designed to be performed in the live context of the St. Louis city. This complex work, of which the entire title is Midnight Carnival for an Urban Environment, had to last on 4 hours and involve 43 tapes. All the city was equipped with many loudspeakers to allow all thirty thousand people to listen. By this complex performance Hiller will obtain a small version to be performed in closed spaces. This light version, called Electronic Sonata (1976), lasted 53 minutes and was realized with computer sounds synthesized and concrete sounds processed via computer.

Europe and South America – During the years at Buffalo, Hiller travels often in Europe and not only. Already in the Sixties, he traveled to old continent to popularize his research activity. Between the 1973 and the 1974, will be in Polonia and later in Malta. His role in Polonia was to organize courses on experimental music and divulgate the U.S. music tendencies for the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio. On commision of this last, Hiller writes A Portfolio for Diverse Performers and Tape (1975). In 1978 he moved again to Warsaw where he has the opportunity to know an instrument of the polish traditional music, the Diabelskie Skrzypce, a sort of traditional guitar for which Hiller realized the work entitled Diabelskie Skrzypce (1978) for chord instrument and harpsichord. This instrument goes with him even in Malta, the last european stop-over before to going in Salvador De Bahia in 1980.


The remembering plaque of the early computer music experiments.

Algorithms III – In the late Seventies and the early Eighties, Hiller composed some other work. In 1977 ends Persiflage for flute, oboe and percussions,. For this work Hiller used Phrase, adopted even for Algorithms III (1981). With this last Hiller concludes the Algorithms cycle started in 1968. The structure reflecting the first work of this cycle, articulated as this last in three movements and with the same duration:

I. Refinements

II. Quotations and Phraseology

III. Synthesis

Japan – During the Eighties, Lejaren Hiller reduces his musical activity as composer; exactly when the computer music come out of the big research centers to enter into the houses of many composer thanks to home computers. However, in spite of this reducing activity, Hiller continued to work for the computer music and in 1984, when the United States Information Agency, for the 1985 International Expo, decided to organize a demonstration of how computers could be useful for processing decisional procedures in creative contexts, is clear that make reference to Hiller was obvious. So, Hiller moved to Tsukuba, in Japan, as teacher of the State University, New York but also as composer togheter with Charles Ames. For this occasion, Hiller realized Circus Piece (1985), a piece to demonstrate the computer capacity to assemble melodies. This work was articulated with 12 themes categorized for complexity and consonance level. This material activates some typical procedures of Hiller: a progressive movement from a chaotic situation to an ordinate structure. Another work, Mix or Match (1985), was realized by Hiller and Ames. This is a demonstrative piece of how the computer can produce jazz melodies thanks to rules specified by programmers. Essentially are procedures already adopted thirty years before with the Illiac Suite.[8] For more info about these works, read the album’s review.

The last years – If the reducing activity during the early Eighties was linked, probably, with the arise of many responsibility, in the following years, in 1987, the Hiller’s life go through a terrible encephalitis, which made him unable to any work, even musical. In 1989 he left the composer activity and the following year left even the teaching at the State University in Buffalo, where Hiller died in 1994.



[1] Gagne, Cole; Caras, Tracy. 1982. Soundpieces: Interviews With American Composers, Scarecrow.

[2] Hiller, Lejaren; Issacson Leonard. 1959. Experimental Music: Composition with an Electronic Computer, McGraw-Hill.

[3] Hiller, Lejaren, 1963. Electronic Music at the University of Illinois, Journal of Music Tehory, Vol. 7 [1], pp. 99 – 126.

[4] Hiller, Lejaren; Baker, Robert. 1964. Computer Cantata: A Study in Compositional Method, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 3 [1], pp. 62-90.

[5] Hiller, Lejaren, 1969. Some Compositional Techniques Involving The Use of Computers in Music by Computers, edited by Heinz Von Foerster, John Wiley & Sons Editore, New York, pp. 71 – 83.

[6] Hiller, Lejaren. 1970. Music Composed with Computers in The Computer and Music, edited by Harry B. Lincoln, Cornell University Press, pp. 42 – 96.

[7] Hiller, Lejaren; Kumra, Raveesh. 1979. Composing Algorithms II by Means of Change-Ringing, Journal Of New Music Research, Vol. 8 [3], pp. 129 – 168.

[8] Hiller, Lejaren; Ames, Charles; Franki, Robert. 1985. Automated Composition: An Installation at the 1985 International Exposition in Tsukuba, Japan, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 23 [2], pp. 196 – 215.

[9] Hiller, Lejaren. 1987. Jim Tenney at Illinois: a Reminiscence, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 25 [1/2], pp. 514 – 516.

[10] Hiller, Lejaren. 1989. Composing with Computers: A Progress Report in The Music Machine: Selected Readings from Computer Music Journal, a cura di Curtis Roads, pp. 75 – 89.

[11] Husarik, Stephen. 1983. John Cage and Lejaren Hiller: HPSCHD, 1969. American Music, Vol.1 [2], pp. 1 – 21.

[12] Packer, Renee Levine. 2010. This Life of Sounds, Oxford University Press.

[13] Wamser, Christian A.; Wamser, Carl C. 1996. Lejaren A. Hiller, Jr.: a Memorial to a Chemist-Composer, Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 73 [7], pp. 601 – 607.

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