Lejaren Hiller (1924-1994)


Lejaren (luh-JARE-en) Hiller has become legendary as the first person to compose music with a computer, but there is much more to him~~and to his music~~than that. Trained as a chemist, he worked at Dupont before joining the Chemistry Department of the University of Illinois. There, his work with computers led him to experiment with music, leading to the creation of the ILLIAC Suite for string quartet in 1957. His article on the piece for Scientific American led to the hysterical attention of the popular press, and a storm of controversy that did not subside until computer music became available to everyone in the late 1980s. So virulent was the hostility of the musical establishment against this scientific poacher in the realms of art that both Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians refused to recognize his existence until just before his death~~even though he had become internationally famous and was performed worldwide.

As a chemist, Hiller developed the first reliable process for dyeing Orlon (think of that next time you put on a Hawaiian shirt) and coauthored a popular textbook. But he did not just fall into music in 1957. He played piano, oboe, clarinet, and sax in his youth, and extracted the parts for big-band jazz arrangements as a way of making money in college. Furthermore, he studied composition with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt (both of whom urged him to take up a musical career) while pursuing his 3 chemistry degrees at Princeton, and had in fact been composing steadily since his highschool days. He even came from an artistic family, for his father, Lejaren senior, was a well-known art photographer who specialized in lurid historical tableaux. (the father's best known work was the "Great Moments in Medicine" series commissioned by a drug company in the '50s for a series of magazine ads).

The ILLIAC Suite was in fact Lejaren junior's 4th string quartet, and is today known simply as String Quartet No. 4. Furthermore, a majority of Hiller's works after 1957, including many of his best, do not involve computers at all, but partake of all the musical currents of his day with an inclusiveness that sounds increasingly apt to contemporary ears. In any given piece you may encounter statistical music, indeterminacy, serialism, Brahmsian traditionalism, jazz, performance art, folksong, textbook counterpoint... often all mixed together in a bewildering but intoxicating mess: chemistry indeed! Hiller may be famous for his computer work, but he was also the foremost exponent of both sonata form and fugue in his generation. His 1976 Electronic Sonata, for example, is a perfectly orthodox, 45-minute sonata-form movement made entirely of computer-generated and computer-manipulated sounds.

Listen to a movement from Seven Artifacts (MIDI)


[details of selected works]

[University of Illinois Hiller page]

[Carl Wamser's Hiller site]

[Kallisti Music Press]