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Laurie Spiegel - Unseen Worlds Music Album Reviews

Reissued at last by the label that borrows its name, the second album from the computer music innovator is less predictable, with dark moods rising to a captivating surface.

When Laurie Spiegel first released her computer-crafted compositions on her 1980 debut, The Expanding Universe went mostly unheard. But when New York sound-art label Unseen Worlds reissued her debut in 2012, 32 years later, the material resonated with a new generation of fans. “I wonder what it would have been like if there had been this kind of positive interest in the music and technology when it was new,” she mused to The Wall Street Journal. In the 1970s, Spiegel made Bell Labs’ GROOVE system—that is, Generating Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment—sing, applying the inspiration of Bach, guitarist John Fahey, Appalachian folk, and the cosmos itself to room-sized computers.

In the wake of The Expanding Universe, though, Spiegel lost access to GROOVE when Bell Labs decommissioned the project. But in the years after releasing Universe, Spiegel began developing her own program, MusicMouse, using a Macintosh 512k to generate tones with the movement of a mouse. It’s the way she created her 1991 follow-up, Unseen Worlds, which met a more ignoble fate than The Expanding Universe. She released it on Scarlet Records, which almost immediately went under; Spiegel issued copies herself, though it essentially vanished. But now, Unseen Worlds comes full circle, reissued at last by the label that borrowed its name.

The opening vignettes, “Three Sonic Spaces I-III,” reveal just how changed for Spiegel since Universe. Her first album showcased incremental layering and meticulous adjustments within the system, her minimal sonic palette always progressing toward transcendence. But here, Spiegel moves mercurially between less predictable moods, rendering unstable atmospheres. Glowing sounds turn pensive. The weight of once-gentle drones becomes crushing. The thrill of outer space quickly turns toward rumination of the void.

Still, the album’s short pieces recall the lyricism and beauty of her previous work, as with the twinkling étude “From a Harmonic Algorithm” and the conceptually and musically charming “Strand of Life (‘Viroid’).” Ever the egghead, Spiegel conceived of the latter while laid low with an infection; she entered a viroid’s RNA into her computer so that it played back as MIDI data. The echoing “Finding Voice” sounds like a lost Balearic ambient track, one that would readily find a home on current labels like Music From Memory or Melody as Truth.

But most of Unseen Worlds instead fearlessly delves into dark sounds and turbid emotions. The bass drones and crystalline high-end of “The Hollows” feel icy enough to turn your breath into hoarfrost. There’s a tactile tingle at the start of “Sound Zones,” but as the piece evolves, those gentle prickles intensify into a Jacuzzi jet and then a sandblast, providing a whiplash between the serene and the skin-scouring. The closing epic, “Passage,” begins like a stuck doorbell chime—incessant, digital, and a little annoying. But Spiegel soon moves into deeper space as a bass rumble takes over. The piece mutates often and rapidly, like countryside seen from a high-speed train. She maintains that sense of great speed even as “Passage” enters more ambient expanses.

Having Spiegel’s slim but profound discography available again should help cement her legacy as a tireless explorer at the frontier of computer music, able to illuminate both the beautiful and ominous sounds such technology can create. Unseen Worlds succeeds not by furthering her previous work but instead by foregrounding the dark matter of her universe.

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