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Music Review

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Rainbow Family


Artist: George Lewis
Label: Carrier Records
RRP: £13.99
Release Date: 30 October 2020

Carrier Records presents composer George Lewis's 1984 recording of his Rainbow Family, one of the first live electronics works ever performed at the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). The tracks were recorded during three days of live performances that took place in May of 1984, the culmination of two years of sustained research and creative work in fulfillment of an IRCAM commission...

The 1984 Rainbow Family performances, described as a “virtual orchestra,” featured between one to four human improvisors performing with three networked Apple II computers, which performed on three of the then-new Yamaha DX-7 synthesizers.

Audio input from the instrumentalists included: French contrabassist Joëlle Léandre, American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart and British guitarist Derek Bailey. This input information was collected by one computer and distributed over a MIDI-like network to the others; each machine analysed the data locally and created its own responses to what it “heard,” as well as generating and developing original material with no necessary direct relationship to the input.

The press information proudly boasts that this is one of the first live electronics works ever performed. I'm going to throw my hat in the ring here and state... if that's true, then I also performed one of the first electronics works ever performed... stick with me...

Back in the late '70s my dad had an electronic keyboard and we had an Interton Video Computer 4000. When my dad was at work I used to switch the keyboard on and press one of the demo sample tracks... and I'm sure at some point, when I had friends around, I'd also be playing on the games console, with it's beeps and bleeps. I can tell you now that that sound would have been vastly more listenable than Lewis's "compositions" on Rainbow Family.

While I love and appreciate the huge technological jump forward that this work represents, the actual listening experience is, for a modern audience, bloody awful. I loved the fact that the audience, bless their cotton socks, didn't really know when the tracks finished... so there's a bit of a strange pause before the applause.

It was a hard slog... and I did manage to listen to it several times. But it is not an album I will ever be returning to again in the future. I'm only giving it a slightly higher mark than I would have normally, because of the historical and technological importance of such a project. It's pretty unlistenable though. You can probably get a similar sound by opening up the orchestra pit and asking a load of drunk non-musicians to have a bash at playing the instruments.


Nick Smithson

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