The UPIC is a computerized system designed and implemented in the mid-seventies by Iannis Xenakis. It is a very particular and innovative instrument, where the musical composition occurred by means of a graphical approach that replaced the traditional music notation. It was conceived and designed by Iannis Xenakis, as a result of a course that is not accidental.
Drawing… – A fast reading of the biographical notes of Xenakis, allows us to grasp certain elements rather interesting, useful in particular to understand that the construction of the UPIC arises, in the experience of Xenakis, as the result of a course not very accidental. In fact, this encounter between art and music, which is the heart of the UPIC system, takes place in years prior to those of its realization, and following some experiences not only involved in musical composition. Training as an engineer, and the important experiences in the field of the architecture alongside Le Corbusier, had already brought the use of drawing as a constant in the life of the composer of Greek origin. That’s the idea of transferring this approach in music composition arose as a natural fact, it has also highlighted Xenakis himself.
…and music – The first time in which Xenakis adopts a graphic writing for the composition of a musical work was in the mid-fifties with Metastaseis (1953/54), work realized through the definition of graphic elements then translated into music, thereby effecting an operational mode that appears as a kind of model with respect to what happen with the UPIC system.
In this way should be mentioned also the processes of arborescence (developing procedures based on the multiplication and repetition of minimum units) adopted in some compositions of the seventies, in particular with Noomena (1974) and Erikhthon (1974). Describing the procedure used for this work, Xenakis actually gives us a description that can be applied perfectly to the UPIC system: he explains that the creation of arborescence procedure needed of a code, which established a crepresentative orrespondence between the graphical units and a certain instrument, or even a groups of instruments.[Restagno, E.] In other words, graphical representations, arbitrary, they were used as symbols of specific musical events, exactly as it would be with the UPIC.
Drawing the music – The UPIC, which stands for Unité Polygogique Informatique du CEMAMu, was a tool that allowed you to translate drawings made on a common electronic whiteboard in a musical piece, similar to that used by many others CAD/CAM software. The translation was done in music through some basic steps: (1) the digitization of drawings, (2) the association of graphs to specific musical parameters, and (3) listening to the audio signal after conversion from digital to analog.
Approach – Compared to pre computing experiences I mentioned before, the UPIC stands out with a much simpler approach. In fact, there were no preset libraries of graphic signs that you should have known by heart, and there was not even the need to have special skills in the practice of drawing: the UPIC was not an instrument that created a link between the quality of the drawing and quality of the music, because it was not a machine to sonorize drawings, but rather a tool for the composition in which the traditional notation is substituted by another one based on a graphical approach.
I will try to explain how it works: If you draw for example a sudden upward, acoustically, this corresponds to an ascending glissando. But we also need of a sound, then you draw a curve or a sine wave and the machine plays acoustically what you have drawn with the compression and expansion of the waveform. (I. Xenakis, 1988)
Versions – The UPIC system has undergone a long process of development, which embraces about 20 years. The first release, a collaboration between Xenakis and engineer Patrick Saint-Jean, and made for a computer mainframe Solar, was introduced in 1977 but had already been completed in about 1975. [Marino, G., et al. and Restagno, E.] The second version is dated 1983 and was motivated by a change in hardware, being designed for two Intel 8086. 1988 is a significant year, in fact in that year the first real time version was completed. 1991, however, is the first version for the PC, which is the first commercial version, so equipped with the mouse and a graphical user-friendly; was presented in 1990 at the International Computer Music Conference in Glasgow. For a long time the UPIC was only available in Paris, since in the United States was installed in 1989 (in the private studio of Gerard Pape).[Harley, James]
Goals – Retracing the steps of the UPIC system, and the changes introduced by the different versions, it seemed to me to be possible to track down what might be termed as essential goals of the global UPIC project, some of which can be inferred by some remarks made by Iannis Xenakis on several occasions:
1. Autonomy: the UPIC was created in a historical phase in which the use of computers for music was complicated by a number of factors that put significant limitations to those composers interested to experiment with its potential. Among these factors, we can cite at least the structure of the software, for nothing intuitive, the low performance and high cost of the machines, the lack of advanced computer knowledge on the part of composers, and so on. The UPIC, then, was to provide a tool that can empower their users with respect to the assistance of software engineers and programmers, because autonomy was an aspect which is not secondary for the free creative expression of a composer.
2. Experimentation: the concept of autonomy is linked inevitably to that of experimentation, since the UPIC was to allow not only the definition of the score but also its execution. In this way, the composer could experiment with different musical timbres or design without having to depend on any performer or conductor for listening to the score.
3. Freedom: This third goal, somehow encompasses the previous two, since the UPIC system needed to be designed in such a way as to leave as much freedom as possible to the composer in terms of the creation and control of the various parameters or elements of music. In other words, you had to ensure that the UPIC impose its users with a well defined compositional approach, thus limiting the freedom of expression.
The concept of freedom goes even further: it also affects that of notation, an issue that Xenakis felt as very important. The UPIC system, in fact, should have been free from the limitations that the traditional notation imposed to the composer, a notation often unable to adequately describe certain musical events, even more if you take into account the electronic music.
… was the inadequacy of traditional musical graphics to push me in this direction, but in this case I was very passionate even about teaching destination. (I. Xenakis, 1988)
4. Education: The educational goal is probably what Xenakis has exposed more frequently, and always with great clarity, as can be seen from the above quote, taken from a conversation between Enzo Restagno and the greek composer. [Restagno, E. ]. The idea of Xenakis, the UPIC was a tool that was supposed to bring users to the music, because everyone is able to express himself through drawing, or simply to carry graphic signs with a pen. When it comes to marriage between music and drawing, it is natural to think of the children, to whom without a doubt the UPIC addressed, but it is true that every human being would need to be introduced to music, and in this sense the UPIC, that posed no age limit to its users, it seems to me it is still an absolute present, and even necessary. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that even today we can talk of the UPIC through the legacy collected by IanniX, a graphic sequencer, free and open source.
Requirements – The achievement of the goals that I have just written, could be achieved only through the satisfaction of some basic requirements:
1. Real Time: satisfied though late (in fact only in 1988 was the first version in real time of the UPIC), this was certainly a prerequisite for increasing the level of interaction between the machine and the user, capable for this to foster a free expression of composer. The concept of real-time system with the UPIC expressed some fundamental characteristics: the ability to listen immediately what was being designed, to make changes in course of the performance so to live controlling the different musical parameters. This latter operation could also be recorded, saved in memory and recalled at a later time, a procedure very similar to the automated systems that can be realized with the most actual digital sequencers.
2. Synthesis: The above requirement is closely linked to that of synthesis. In fact, the first could not comply if the system was not set up with a technology to allow the conversion of sound signals from digital to analog converter (DAC), for listening that was drawn on the digital whiteboard.
3. Portability: though not a creative but technical, this requirement was anything but indifferent. In fact, the implementation of an effective tool also passed through the design of a computer system that is not tied only to a certain type of hardware, thus risking rapid obsolescence, a fate already touched on many other systems available in previous years, I reminded of the Groove system of Max Mathews, just to give an example.
Features – How was it a typical working page of the UPIC system? The image below shows some graphics objects inserted in windows where the abscissa indicates the time and the ordinate the frequency. In the “Page1” we can see some graphs, called arcs, each corresponding to a note. To each of these, were associated with other graphic elements useful for the definition of many parameters such as amplitude, frequency, envelope, waveform, and many others. Some of these played a key role in the definition of the timbre. The duration of each musical event presented some limitations: it was not possible to define the musical events lasting less than 6 milliseconds or longer than one hour.
I have repeatedly written of the graphical approach of the UPIC system, but in practice as it was possible to interact with it? Should be mentioned at least three approaches: in the first versions the user could interact with the system and with a light pen, or through the simple hands. In both cases he worked by drawing on a digital whiteboard, and it was possible to select different work tools (freehand, straight line, etc.), as is the case today with the traditional graphics programs (Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, to name the most important). In the latest versions, pen and hands were replaced by the mouse, and the blackboard by the monitor, change not very evolutionary, says Peter Nelson, especially because the mouse was an instrument which is not appropriate as a tool for design. [Nelson, P .] I want to mention, for completeness, that an approach similar to that of the UPIC was experienced in the sixties by Max Mathews with the Graphic 1.
The design of signs was not the only way to define the parameters of a musical event, in fact, the UPIC also allowed to extract the necessary data directly from external sound samples, analyzed by the computer. In addition, it was also possible to create your own libraries of envelopes and waveforms, you can recall up at any time.
And the sounds? This was another very special feature. In what was designed to synthesize sounds, the UPIC was in all respects a digital synthesizer, capable of working mainly with additive synthesis and frequency modulation. However, unlike any other synthesizer, the UPIC no sound if the user did not draw any sign, the UPIC was an instrument mute when the page was blank.
Criticism – Taking a cue from this passage, and from the consideration of Peter Nelson which I quoted above, I take this opportunity to remind you further criticism from the latter to the UPIC system, in particular with respect to its pedagogical value. Not that this value has been questioned, however, Nelson makes a reflection that I found very interesting. He argues that as far the UPIC does not need basic knowledge of music theory, its pedagogical effectiveness could not ignore the study of some of the foundations of acoustics. To put it another way: if it was possible to create a sound starting from the design of its waveform, it was also necessary to know what is a waveform. I wanted to bring this reflection because, without going any further, it seems to me a question still relevant when it comes to defining the training of future composers.
Works – To demonstrate the effectiveness of the UPIC system, the design of which had received financial support from the French Ministry of Culture and had seen the birth of an association of promotion called Les Ateliers UPIC, Iannis Xenakis decided to commit himself in the first person; in particular to show how the UPIC was not designed only for pedagogical purposes but also as a sophisticated music composition tool, that in the hands of a composer could be used for the realization of works also very complex. From this intention was born in 1978, the first opera composed with the UPIC: Mycenae-Alpha, la cui prima esecuzione vi fu nello stesso anno in occasione del festival Polytope de Mycènes, whose first performance there was in the same year at the festival Polytope de Mycènes, organized in the archaeological site of Mycenae. Here’s a video where the music is synchronized with the score flowing.
In the following years Xenakis composed other works with the UPIC: Taurhiphanie (1987), which I mentioned in this review, and Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromède (1988).
Legacy – What happened to today UPIC system? I want to make two points in this regard. First of all it must be said that the UPIC is a system far exceeded, so much so that it is still in use at the Centre de Création Musicale Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX), the center which since 2000 has taken the place of the Les Ateliers UPIC. Among the legacy of the UPIC must be remembered also the development of graphical sequencer Iannix, a free and open source software inspired without any doubt to the UPIC system but in general to the graphical approach that Xenakis applied in many own compositions.
I would like to conclude this article on UPIC system in which Xenakis publishing this video to demonstrate the operation of the UPIC:
Bernard, Pierre; The UPIC as a Performance Instrument, Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 6 , pp. 47 – 57.
Harley, James; The Creative Compositional Legacy of Iannis Xenakis in Definitive Proceedings of the International Symposium Iannis Xenakis, Atene 2005.
Mancini, Joseph; Computer-music Pioneer Turns His Attention to Micros, Inforworld, Vol. 5 , 1983, pp. 29 – 30.
Marino, Gérard; Serra, Marie-Hélène; Raczinski Jean-Michel; The UPIC System: Origins and Innovations, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31 , 1993, pp. 258-269.
Nelson, Peter; The UPIC system as an instrument of learning, Organised Sound, Vol. 2 , 1997, 35 – 42.
Raczinski, Jean-Michel; Marino, Gérard; A Real Time Synthesis Unit in Proceedings of International Computer Music Conference, 1988.
Raczinski, Jean-Michel; Marino, Gérard; Serra, Marie-Hélène; New UPIC System Demonstration in Proceedings of International Computer Music Conference, 1991.
Restagno, Enzo (edited by); Xenakis, EDT, Torino 1988.
Lohner, Henning; The UPIC System: A User’s Report, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 10 , 1986.