One of the first musicians to experiment with computer-assisted composition, Salvatore Martirano made a significant impact on American musical life as a composer, teacher, instrument builder, and performer. Born Salvatore Giovanni Martirano, he started playing the piano at age five. In his late teens he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a band clarinetist, and spent the years 1946 and 1947 touring with jazz bands. Years of further musical studies followed: with Herbert Elwell at Oberlin College (1947 -- 1951), with Bernard Rogers at the Eastman School of Music (1952), and with Luigi Dallapiccola at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, Italy (1952 -- 1954). These years saw the emergence of Martirano's first important compositions, such as the a cappella, twelve-tone Mass for double choir (1952 - 1955).
Martirano spent a few more years in Italy as a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome (1956-59). Compositions of the time, such as his oft-performed O, O, O, O, That Shakespeherian Rag (1958), find him incorporating more popular styles (in this case, combining a jazz-like instrumental ensemble with chorus) into his works. Employing familiar poetry and texts in an unconventional setting also became one of his compositional hallmarks.
In 1963 Martirano took a post as Professor of Composition at the University of Illinois, a position he held until his retirement in 1995. It was there that Martirano started exploring tape and computer music, producing his first computer work, 123-456, in 1964. His most notorious and controversial work was L's G. A. (1967 - 1968), a multi-media satire (incorporating film and taped sounds) in which a narrator, wearing a gas mask, recites Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address while inhaling helium.
By 1969 he was working with musicians and engineers at the University of Illinois to create a new electronic musical instrument. The resulting Sal-Mar Construction, completed in 1972, has been described as "the world's first composing machine." It features 291 lighted touch-sensitive switches that are manipulated by a performer (usually Martirano himself), creating a complex of musical sounds that are distributed to 24 separate speakers. The Construction's more elaborate successor, the yahaSALmaMAC (built in 1987 and 1988), combined a Macintosh computer, 25 synthesizers, MIDI keyboard and violin, and special software developed by Martirano, Sound and Logic (or SAL). This new system was created for real-time musical improvisation, with live performers interacting with the computer via the SAL program. Martirano created many works for the yahaSALmaMAC, including SAMPLER: Everything Goes When The Whistle Blows (1985) and Four Not Two (1988).
Along with his interest in computer music, Martirano frequently toured and worked with bands and improvisational groups. He also never gave up composing for more conventional media: he wrote music for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and his last completed work, Isabela (1993), was scored for chamber orchestra. Martirano died in 1995 from complications associated with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).