In 1978, I accepted an offered teaching post at Northern Illinois University. My primary duty was to build a program in electronic and computer music to support the music composition department at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
As a seminal moment in music technology, this was a relished opportunity to foster some integration with analog synthesizer electronics and computers. It also coincided with the compleat digitization of recorded music—from vinyl and magnetic tape to digital streams and solid state memory.
The 60s and 70s were a period of great experimentation and invention for technology and the arts in general. This phase resulted in a commercialization of electronicized music with MIDI in the mid-80s. By the end of the 80s, traditional music composition dominated the technology and the era of experimentation and invention was over.
I left my teaching post in 1989 and that’s another story.
Oddly, this period also paralleled seminal changes in a China emerging from the Cultural Revolution. By 1981, the Gang of Four was vilified in a show-trial and the rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping had initiated the Open Policies—a great many academic and professional exchange programs were initiated in the 80s.
In 1986, I had the opportunity to travel to Shanghai and deliver lecture-demonstrations on electronic music and American jazz music.
In China, nothing is simple. My chief host was the Shanghai Music Conservatory—a venerable 150 year old traditional conservatory of both Western and traditional Chinese music. Their key partner was Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a major polytechnical university, with a contemporary computer science department funded and outfitted by Wang Laboratories—Mr. Wang being an overseas Chinese success story.
Attending my lectures were invited representatives of most of the major Chinese conservatories, recording studios and computer science laboratories. During that time, I became involved in many discussions about creating a contemporary Chinese computer music studio. I resolved to make a proposal.
With an accepted proposal to create a contemporary computer music studio in Shanghai, Northern approved a sabbatical for me during the 1987 school year.
I would take the fall 1987 semester to travel to Shanghai with a couple of concerts of music for a concert tour, the design ingredients for a resident Chinese computer music studio, and the donations of tech and equipment from a variety of commercial and academic concerns.
In Dekalb I prepared for this sabbatical with the close support of Eugene X. Rator (Rick Calderon). Rator and I had worked closely together on the NIU studios and Rick would cover my classes and studios during my absence, including important collaborations with my composition faculty and student colleagues.
For fun, Rator and I also conspired on a theater piece that might be presented at a concert during my absence in China.
This piece was conceived as a grand satire—we would plan for a projected “satellite video call” to me in China during a concert performance in Dekalb. Rator would perform a dialog with my video image as if I were in the Chinese electronic music studio and reporting back to our Dekalb community from my isolated position, on sabattical far away in culturally “primitive” China and with some emotional affectation.
We planned the video script so that if possible, I could be actually live by phone—using the script live with the video might have out-of-sync video, but we thought this would be realistic.
At the appointed time, it turned out impossible to arrange the phone call live—at that time in China, international calls required a visit to a public Western Union call center which was extremely inconvenient in terms of arranging a specific call at a specific time.
In preparation, we staged a video recording. My chief role was actor/scriptwriter/co-producer while Rator was director and executive producer.
Rator built a set with his many retro-tech electronic equipment pieces and I sat behind a desk in front, with a rice-bowl and chopsticks prominently placed. An electric fan whirled and oscillated in the background. We scripted a dialog as if we were talking on a live video call during the concert. I performed my part of the dialog and the tape was finalized for later playback. Post-processing included the imposition of distortion and transmission “bandwidth problems” (which were scripted)—the piece ended with overwhelming distortion and my voice and image fading away.
During my sabbatical, a concert was indeed planned and programmed featuring the “live video call with Pinzarrone in China.”
Rator arranged for a large satellite dish to be dragged and placed in the outside lobby of the Music Building. He tied a cable from the dish and boldly laid it down all the way to the concert stage and some equipment. The impression was that a satellite dish had been consigned to the concert in order to host the video call with me in China. (The concert program listed thanks to organizations who had donated the use of the satellite equipment.)
At the proper time, Rator had the tape started and with mike and PA, he performed the scripted dialog with the tape. The videotape was projected onto a huge screen with a mix of audio from the videotape and live-mike for Rator broadcast to the large audience in Northern’s Concert Hall.
Hopefully, this tape can be recovered and linked here in the Dekalborama collection. If a recording of the actual concert exists, that would be a good link as well.
As a prank, this turned out to be more successful than reasonable. We have heard over many years how amazing this was with many questions about how we achieved permissions for such a satellite broadcast.
I’m mindful that Rator’s sense of retro-tech and his innate sense of humor made this not only possible, but an artful achievement.
Now, some decades later, there is an acceptance for this type of gentle satire—improvised mock-u-mentary, as pursued by Christopher Guest and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Now, I’m reminded about the “Artificial Intelligence Conference” that we staged as an event across many departments within Northern. It was another “boffo” satire realized as if it were a legitimate academic conference, and “why-not?”
Rator’s sense of humor and his willingness to apply his considerable expertise will be dearly missed. I miss being a long-ago part of this community.