Lejaren Hiller (1924-1994)

© 1994 by Peter Gena.

Composer and computer music pioneer Lejaren Hiller passed away on January 26, in Buffalo after a long bout with Alzheimer's disease. He would have been seventy on February 23.

Hiller, the son of a successful photographer (a graduate of the School of the Art Institute), grew up in New York and began studying piano and theory at an early age. As a child, he experimented with punching out patterns on piano rolls—an interest that was to remain with him throughout his career. He attended Princeton where he studied theory and composition with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, but he majored in Chemistry and earned his Ph.D. at the age of 23! (He received a B.S. in only a year-and-a-half, carrying 35 credit hours per semester. "You had to keep busy in those days," he once told me). He went directly to DuPont in 1947 as a research chemist, where he wrote several articles, one of the foremost college chemistry textbooks, and secured several patents, including one for the dye that is used to color acrylic fibers such as orlon. He also worked briefly for the Manhattan Project. In the meantime (!), he pursued an interest in music by composing many chamber and keyboard works. After resigning from DuPont in 1952, he toured Europe extensively before joining the University of Illinois as a research associate in the chemistry department.

As Jerry began working with computers, their application to music became immediately obvious to him. In 1955-56, with Leonard Isaacson, he wrote compositional algorithms that produced his first major computer composition, Illiac Suite for String Quartet. He joined the music faculty at the U. of I. in 1958, shortly after earning a master's degree in music. There he established the Experimental Music Studio, overseeing production and research in composition, electronics, acoustics, computers, and linguistic, information and communications theory. I remember when he mentioned casually that he had once designed prototype circuits for the ring modulator, which he sent to Bode. Typically, Jerry's musical prolificacy continued—indeed it expanded—as he wrote pieces for various media, including the stage. It was during his last year at Illinois that he began the enormous multi-media spectacle HPSCHD, in collaboration with John Cage. In 1968, he joined the faculty at SUNY Buffalo as Slee Professor of Composition, where he established the first computer music facility and codirected with Lukas Foss the celebrated Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. His illness forced him to retire in 1989.

Jerry's rigorous musical eclecticism provoked as much as it inspired. His works procured the full critical gamut from raves to outright hostility. Undaunted, he proceeded with an originality reminiscent of Ives, while his versatility of disciplines brings to mind Renaissance men like Galileo, or Kepler. In computer music he, along with Max Mathews, was a true pioneer—Mathews for digital synthesis, and Jerry for algorithmic composition. For me, his proclivity for applying concepts from the domains of music, stochastics, linguistics, communications, and information theory is unmatched. He boldly chose a path of respect for the computer as a decision-maker and aid to the compositional process, rather than as a data processor or vehicle to empower the composer with increased control over his/her music.

It was as much an intrigue to study with him as it was to read his articles, or listen to his music. Jerry never spoon-fed information, though his conversation often overflowed with ideas. He did not teach anyone how to program, but I never learned anything faster in my life than when I began working with him. I remember when he gave me the task of writing a program to produce the first sine wave as a test for our first digital synthesis system at Buffalo—there was no software or MIDI then. One had to write algorithms in Fortran and assembly code that would pack and crunch-out thousands of numbers on a mainframe for tape transfer to a satellite computer with D/A. As we listened to that first sine wave come through the loudspeakers, Jerry made me feel as if I had just split the atom! As a scientist, he truly showed us how to appreciate the excitement of discovery and creativity.

That such a hideous disease should have eroded this brilliant, encyclopedic mind is one of the true indignities of life. However, Jerry's legacy lives on not only in his work, but through the many students world-wide who have had the good fortune to tap into that wonderful resource. I know that somewhere, somehow he is still around nudging us to "keep busy."

Misc. Music, etc. | Gena Web