“Zen and the Art of Software Performance: John Cage and Lejaren A. Hiller Jr.’s HPSCHD (1967-1969)” examines John Cage and Lejaren A. Hiller Jr.’s computer-assisted music event HPSCHD, constituting a crucial moment in the history of software in artistic practice. Engaging both Cage’s interest in indeterminacy as well as Hiller’s creative application of information theory in composition, the two collaborators programmed an event juxtaposing the mechanical simplicity of the harpsichord with the complex capabilities of a supercomputer to investigate procedural and ontological notions of chance operations. This ambitious multi-media performance was composed of seven solo pieces for harpsichord derived from processed works by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Gottschalk, Busoni, Schoenberg, Cage, and Hiller, 52 microtonal, computer-generated magnetic tapes, and over 8,000 slides and 40 films.
Despite its ambitious computational concept, art historical discourse over-determines Cage’s involvement in the HPSCHD performance, focusing on its techno-utopian visuals rather than its programming achievements. In contrast, an exploration of Hiller’s methodology programming the HPSCHD software and its many subroutines demonstrates the underlying parallels between the dematerialization of both information and art; considering programming as a performance reveals how HPSCHD fits into the greater historical trend of dematerialization transforming both art and information in the latter half of the 20th century. Though its premiere received mixed reviews—the most negative due to the technological dysphoria heightened by the tumultuous socio-cultural climate of the late 1960s—contemporary re-stagings of HPSCHD emphasize its participatory ethos and indeterminate form, encouraging radical, creative adaptations of both proprietary and open-source technologies for experimentation and performance.