Bob Lee programs and jams

Sick of dealing with your band’s too-cool-for-school attitude? Program your own!

If you think electro-funk music is different and original, you need to have a listen to Bob Lee, the fascinating musician/computer programmer who also goes as -bØb- and has a newly re-released album.

Musician and computer programmer, Bob Lee, created software in which computers could musically improvise together. Photo by Adam Waito.

On Jan. 27, Fixture Records re-released Lee’s experimental album, The Technical Academy plays-bØb-. The album is nothing short of ground-breaking: it was originally made in 1991 with an Atari ST computer. The computer used algorithmic bots that each had human-like limitations and virtual instruments. The words “algorithmic bots” may not ring a bell for many, but, luckily, the musician provides an explanation.

“The Forth programming languages supports running multiple processes at the same time. So you can write a drum part as one process, a bass part as a second process, a sax part as a third, and so on. I call these processes ‘bots,’” explained Lee. “Now here’s where it gets interesting: the bots can all look at variables in a shared space, so they can follow a conductor bot that defines the chord progression, sets the tempo, etc. I didn’t actually tell the bots what notes to play. They followed the conductor and selected notes at random based on pre-set rules.”

Now as cool as all this may be, you may be asking yourself how this musician got to doing this in the first place. The Pennsylvania native moved to Northern California out of school to focus on his musical career, and the programming part wrapped itself in due to his interest in every aspect of music and music production. “I’ve always had a very keen interest in music theory, more than most of my country-rock musician cohorts,” said Lee. It was the first music program the musician tried that made him want to learn how to code and create his own. He was disappointed with the limited capabilities of the program.

You know what they say, “if it’s broke, get a new one!”…or something like that. In his case—make a new one.

“In the early 1980s Atari ran a T.V. ad showing a computer playing music, with the staff in the screen. The music program was a cartridge that went into the computer. I bought the system and quickly ran into the limitations of that program—it couldn’t even do triplets! I knew the machine was capable of more, so I learned to program it myself,” he said.

That is when the Technical Academy came along. Although the bots decide their own moves with -bØb-‘s limitation, a trial and error period was still necessary.

“It required a lot of testing to get it right. Each instrument had to be played in a way that was humanly possible, even if a human would never think of it. Fortunately, all I needed to do to test the next iteration was type its name, hit return, and listen. I invented concepts like 5th notes and 7th notes to play with time.”

The whole album has a late-‘80s and ‘90s sound to it. The song, “PsX4,” has a melody that’s reminiscent of the Law and Order theme song, but the predominant drum evens out the keyboard for that cool factor. The most impressive aspect of the bots’ music is the groove felt throughout from songs that come from a completely groove-less machine: a computer. The sound is sometimes eclectic, sometimes overwhelming, but if you forget that it’s from a computer, you just sit back and enjoy.

“Spend a week listening to John Cage and you realize that all sound is music,” said the artist. “I don’t like music that is too repetitive, or that focuses on the vocalist to the exclusion of musicians. Most of my collection is instrumental, from the classics through early jazz and blues, swing, rock, Hawaiian and of course, country.”

The reason the album was re-released after all these years is because Fixture Records, a label run in a Montreal apartment by Tessa Smith and Conor Prendergast, stumbled upon the album. “We came across -bØb-’s music fairly randomly on Bandcamp, just digging around different tags. The songs were so strange and cool and had this sense of play to them,” Smith said. She also marvels at his use of technology in the ‘90s, a time when sound-mixing wasn’t what it is today. “The album was a really impressive and creative use of the technologies available back when -bØb- made it in 1991. It was interesting as a historical document, but it also fit in really well with some of the music people around us were making, and touched on a lot of the same ideas still being explored in contemporary electronic and experimental music.” Smith and Prendergast reached out to -bØb- to let him know they liked his album, and with back and forth corresponding, the idea of a re-release came about.

The album is available for purchase on Bandcamp, through the Fixture Records website. The purchase includes the cassette tape with digital download and a bonus track.

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