Daria Semegen: So Many Awareness Pixels Going On at the Same Time
Daria Semegen’s compositional output consists of fixed media and performed works as well as pieces that combine both, often including improvisation. Her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University, where she has taught since 1974, has a wide variety of vintage synthesizers and oscillators as well as state of the art digital equipment plus four reel-to-reel tape work stations for editing pre-recorded sounds using classic studio techniques such as splicing. “I tend not to like to work boxed into one box, she explains. “The job of a composer is to choose!”
Featuring video presentations and photography (unless otherwise noted)
by Molly Sheridan
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu
Back in the fall of 2000, a 1976 LP with the curious title Electronic Music Winners got something of a second life when it was revealed that Radiohead had sampled two of the tracks from it in the song “Idioteque” from their then just-released album Kid A—specifically Arthur Krieger’s Short Piece and Paul Lansky’s earliest computer composition mild und leise, both of which were on the album’s second side. The story goes that Jonny Greenwood found the LP in a used record bin while on tour in the United States. While the news sent folks scrambling around to look for the then long out of print record (which now can still fetch a fair sum on sites like eBay and Discogs, presumably because of the Radiohead connection), it actually got me to buy Kid A (and soon thereafter everything else in Radiohead’s discography) because I was a big fan of that Electronic Music Winners LP, having bought my copy for a dollar at a Salvation Army store when I was in high school. But it also made me wonder what might have happened had Greenwood sampled material from the album’s first side, specifically a piece with a rather formalistic name, Electronic Composition No. 1, by Daria Semegen, which had always been my favorite track on it. That piece, along with a longer electronic piece called Arc, which I had fallen in love with when I listened to it on LP at the Columbia University music library as an undergrad, had long been the only music I had ever heard by Daria Semegen, but I always wanted to hear more.
Then about a little over a month ago, I attended the BMI Student Composer Awards ceremony and reception. It’s always a great evening, not just because it’s an opportunity to meet all the new awardees, but also because, from time to time, people who have won the award in previous years show up to honor their new award compatriots. When BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick announced from the podium that one of the previous winners in attendance that evening was Daria Semegen, my jaw dropped. Semegen, it turns out, won the award twice, in 1967 and 1969, for compositions that had nothing to do with electronic music—a duo for flute and piano and two song cycles (for soprano and baritone respectively, both scored for large chamber ensembles). So as soon as the ceremony ended, I rushed up to Semegen, whom I had never previously met, and told her what a fan I was of those two electronic pieces. And she said, “Well, if you ever want to see a real electronic music studio, come out and visit me at Stony Brook University.” She went on to describe some of the vintage synthesizers and oscillators there, as well as the splicing stations for reel-to-reel tapes, and I was transfixed.
Frustratingly, there isn’t a ton of detailed information about Daria Semegen either online or off-line. There has never been a commercially released recording (on LP or CD) devoted exclusively to her music, and the handful of pieces by her that appear on compilations are now mostly out of print. She doesn’t have her own website, and the page about her on Wikipedia is somewhat scant, as is the entry in the 1980 Grove Dictionary of American Music. But she does figure prominently in Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line (Routledge 2006) by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner (whose 1991 D.M.A. dissertation for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was devoted to Semegen’s output), although not in most of the standard musicological literature on electronic music. And scores for nine of Semegen’s acoustic compositions—solo piano pieces as well as works for chamber ensembles (including the pieces for which she received her two BMI Student Composer Awards)—are available through the American Composers Alliance (who proved extremely helpful to me in preparing my talk with her). Other than that, there’s a short biography of her on the website for Stony Brook University, where she has taught since 1974.
But I got the sense after spending a fascinating afternoon chatting with her that the typical goalposts by which so many careerist composers measure their success do not really matter to her. “Basically I share, but that is not my main drive,” she quipped toward the end of our talk. “I don’t sit around and think about, “Hey, I’m going to be sharing this.” You listen to Electronic Composition No. 1¸ and that gets pretty bizarre. When I was making some of those sounds, I would say, “Whoa, this is really kicking it around here. Gee, I wonder how an audience would react?” But then I’d basically let them worry about it. I’m not going to tell them what to do or how to react. That’s not my job!”
I do, however, feel that part of my job in life is to call attention to people who have created extraordinary music and have insightful things to say about it, and Daria Semegen is certainly one of them. I wish we could have continued talking for several hours, and I look forward to revisiting her studio one of these days and learning more. But in the meantime, there’s a lot of information to process here.
Frank J. Oteri: I think you were five or six years old when you immigrated to the United States. Do you have any early memories from before you arrived here?
Daria Semegen: Oh yeah, definitely. I remember riding on a baby elephant at a zoo. For me it was a really out-of-this-world experience, so I’ll never forget that. I also remember running on a low wall and then falling on the right side of my face. That’s something to remember, childhood accidents. And then other traumas—my dad committed suicide in the refugee camp we were in. He was sick. He had appendicitis and peritonitis. They did not have enough antibiotics in those days, and so he possibly had an infection in the brain. So that happened and that was a very bizarre experience because I also experienced the different way people were behaving, as well as different ways of dressing—the whole ceremonial thing with funerals. Then for a year, I was wearing a black band on my left arm signifying a death.
FJO: I know there are people who wear all black for a period of time after a death of someone significant in their lives, but I had never heard of wearing just a band.
DS: It isn’t done these days, but I wore the band. I also generally had dark clothes. I choose to wear dark clothes now for a variety of reasons, one of them being that I see the world outside myself as where I want to see colorful things. It would be too much if I had to deal with managing a colorist wardrobe. I also relate in a different way to colors such as black and white. I even tell my students that one technique to understand something is to push away a lot of other things from one’s consciousness. I go into a mode automatically that I taught myself, especially when I want to appreciate sonic things, any kind of sounds, which is really like starting from a blank sheet of paper. So it’s a very important technique, especially when re-hearing sounds and appreciating them—meaning understanding them and feeling them intuitively or technically, depending on what purpose you set out to approach these sounds. I do it as tabula rasa, which means an erased blackboard, a blank sheet of paper. It’s a wonderful mode to be able to snap into without having other things crowding you. Your judgment can be fresher and you can really enjoy that experience or not, depending on what is going on with these sounds. You can have a more authentic experience rather than being influenced all the time by everything, because we’re constantly being assaulted by so many other things going on.
If you’re someone who’s sensitive in different ways, you will have so many awareness pixels going on at the same time that you have to manage the situation in order to have a really authentic, focused awareness of whatever you’re dealing with as an artist. I think our audio and visual world, as well as our reactions to it, are coming from defense mechanisms. Say I’m walking in the woods and I become more alert. It’s because it’s unfamiliar; it’s really a kind of experimental environment if I don’t know this place or have any particular set expectations. The alertness is there in terms of the appreciation of different things. Beauty and danger is this type of alertness that is there when I’m dealing with appreciating—meaning really experiencing and trying to understand—visual and audio art.
FJO: It’s amazing how you arrived at such a deeply conceptualized approach to creating and experiencing other people’s creations all from telling the story of wearing a black arm band after your father died and then deciding to wear dark clothes throughout your life. That experience was clearly very significant for you.
DS: That was just one landmark event. I also have the experience of being someone who could not speak the language of the country I was in because in the home, we were speaking a different language. Out there was either West Germany or America, these two different places. So I had to observe, I had to listen and watch, in order to understand what was going on. When I first went to an American school, I could not speak English. It’s a very different experience, and it involves listening and learning, especially kids being very curious about their world, their situation, and people’s expressions, their tone of voice, all of these things. I would watch and listen much more than verbally communicate.
FJO: So what language did you grow up speaking at home?
DS: I would speak Ukrainian. I also can manage different Slavic languages, because it’s really a family of languages. During my Fulbright scholar year, I went to Poland specifically to be with Lutosławski, whose music I had heard at orchestral concerts as an undergrad at the Eastman School of Music. We had Rochester Philharmonic performances, so I had heard his Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux and also Jeux Vénitiens and I was totally blown away with the sound, the complexity, and the expression, the nuances, and the subtleties; this is without having seen any of the scores. Anyway, when I applied for a Fulbright, I actually passed Czechoslovakian language. I had to be language approved and at the University of Rochester, they only had a Czechoslovak scholar, so I had to speak and read in that language that I had never read before, but later I had to really learn Polish.
FJO: They had Czech, but they didn’t have Ukrainian or Russian?
DS: Well, maybe they had Russian, but the person they had was a professor of Slavic languages.
FJO: But of course, we’re jumping way ahead in your life story, so let’s go back to your speaking Ukrainian at home growing up. Aside from what you were saying about that language sounding totally different than the German and English you were exposed to in the outside world, it also looks different since Ukrainian doesn’t use the same alphabet.
DS: Of course not. It’s Cyrillic.
FJO: So you had a double whammy. In addition to not being able to understand the language, you couldn’t even read the letters to get a sense of how it sounded.
DS: That’s right.
FJO: Perhaps in some way this made you susceptible to being more open to and empathic towards completely new ways to experience sound.
DS: Empathic, to me, means becoming more connected, and appreciating, to me, means understanding more in different situations and at different times, because we are every day and every moment, a different listener and a different viewer, a different observer. So I never have a fixed idea of things being only a particular way. They could be a little bit different the next time I experience them. And I’m not upset by that fact. I’m intrigued by the fact that these things can be different and varied. There is an interesting variance when I re-appreciate different art objects, for instance such as paintings or videos. They’re all different, unique experiences within the general aspect of supposedly knowing these things.
FJO: Of course with a painting or a video, although your perception of it will vary each time you experience it, the work is an unchanging set object.
DS: That’s correct.
FJO: But with music, you have this extra layer. If it’s a performed piece of music, a piece of music that is interpreted by musicians other than yourself (and even if it’s yourself), it’s never going to be exactly the same twice. Of course, that becomes a different issue in fixed media electronic music, and navigating between these two realms has been a duality in your creative life. If you’re writing pieces for musicians who are going interpret it, maybe they’re going to hold a note a little longer, play it a little faster, put some sort of element of themselves in it. This is very different from something that exists in an invariable form. Yet, as you point out, perception will always be different when you come back to it.
DS: Yes, it is. I don’t place particularly one value or another on fixed media or performed works. I think these are different experiences in terms of how they’re being thought about, conceived, and what they are as finished products. Fixed media to me is really having the opportunity to get things the way you’d like them without compromising, which is what I usually end up having to do if I’m dealing with live performance.
But in my pieces with instruments and electronic sounds, I don’t want the electronic sounds to sound like an accompaniment to a live instrument. That’s just doesn’t work for me. I tend to compose the electronic part as a piece almost on its own. And I like to have the instrumentalists, if possible, improvise, so their creativity is involved with the fixed media. It’s a kind of response and also a combination of complement and contrast to different degrees as the player chooses to interpret.
FJO: It’s also really highlighting the fixed and non-fixed natures of these two different realms. The piece involves fixed media which, by its nature, always stays the same, but the player brings something new to it each time.
FJO: To bring this conversation back to your childhood for just a little while longer, I’m curious about your earliest musical memory.
DS: One memory I have is my reaction to very early piano lessons when I was seven or eight.
FJO: But you were already in the States by then.
FJO: Do you have any music related memories from before you came to America.
DS: Well, I know that people sang. I usually would be around adults having meetings because my father was involved in journalism. He was a lawyer originally, and also he taught school as my mother did. But we were in a refugee camp. We lived in three or four of these places, being moved to different ones. So that was an interesting disruption and interruption, and meant traveling around. I thought that this was a normal way of being, and it was interesting for me. Perhaps adult refugee people would be miserable, but I think for kids, this was a very interesting oddball experience.
I remember one particular thing—a guy moving a ladder around, and the sounds that that made. What he was doing was improvising electrical wiring connections between different living spaces, made up rooms whose walls were Army blankets. You’d have a large hall in a building, which had these separate dwelling places, whose walls were blankets. And this guy was making some kind of shielding. Later on I figured out what he was doing, but it was fascinating to me. I guess he was connecting light bulbs with each other. Suddenly these lights went on. I thought it was fantastic. It was really fun to see that, and see how somebody can make something like this as really an improv. Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t know what that is, or what steps it takes, but this thing is happening, and later on, I understood better what was going on. And I remembered the interesting noise-scraping sounds on the floor with this ladder. He would move it along several times. I was totally fascinated with this odd experience.
FJO: I love that this earliest musical memory is of something really experimental and unusual. And one could claim that it pre-destined you for a life devoted to exploring sonic phenomena.
DS: Well, that’s called interpretation.
FJO: Of course, but those kinds of early memories are the things that stick and have a lasting impact. It’s like the famous story of La Monte Young listening, fascinated, to the drones that were created by the electrical power transformers in Idaho as a little boy, which eventually left an indelible mark on all of his music.
DS: There’s a wonderful scene in a Satyajit Ray movie with electrical wires humming on these electronic grids in the middle of vast fields with a train that’s coming in the distance, and then you hear the sound, and it’s kind of a Doppler effect. The Doppler effect is also in the Pierre Schaeffer piece, the train piece.
FJO: One of the earliest examples of musique concrète.
FJO: Which was actually created right around the time you were born, entering into an existence when that way of making music became a possibility.
FJO: But of course at that time you wouldn’t have known about any of that. And soon after that, you left Europe and came to the United States where you mentioned something about piano lessons when you were seven or eight.
DS: Oh, that was very interesting to me. My mother decided to get a piano as basically a piece of furniture, because this was in vogue—everyone should have a piano and a kid who’s practicing or can play tunes. So I was taking piano lessons. It was particularly convenient for me because we were living on the third floor of an apartment building and the piano teacher was on the first floor. So I merely had to slide a banister a couple of times to get to my piano lessons.
As a child, you’re learning the different note names, coordinating with your body positions, and learning what’s called technique. But I found out that music had something to do with paper. It was like a drawing to me. And so right away I wanted to try to this out. All this stuff started coming together, but I was always being drawn away from the idea of only focusing on the instrument itself and instead was really starting to focus on how these things looked. So it was a visual experience, as well as connecting it with sounds. The possibility of varying these things became very interesting to me. So I would re-write some of these tunes that I was learning, and since this was taking up some of my time, my piano teacher wasn’t always thrilled when I’d come in with a little sketch of something, because that was not considered the goal of what I was supposed to be paying attention to as a piano student, which was practicing and perfecting, not necessarily varying something and being creative with it.
FJO: So your teacher never remarked that maybe you’re a composer.
DS: Oh, hell no.
FJO: So when did the concept of being a composer enter your consciousness?
DS: I gradually did these things on my own. And after listening to recordings, I became interested in what this music looked like. So I ordered some pocket scores so I could see the music notation. I had a few different scores—Haydn symphonies, Mozart and Beethoven string quartets. I decided to make a little project for myself. I asked the music shop person to order me music paper so I could copy the scores, which were tiny, into a bigger size. I don’t know why I did that. I just wanted to be with this stuff as notation and to try to understand it in some way. It was a kind of experiment, but I actually learned a hell of a lot from that in terms of how the material is organized, which instruments are playing when and why, and how this expression is being managed by the composer. When I was a kid, I was not necessarily having all of these descriptions or vocabulary come to me right away, but I was getting intense impressions and non-verbalized insights that built a kind of intuitive base for appreciating, meaning knowing different things, and also comparing.
FJO: And at some point, it morphed into composition.
DS: Oh, this was going on all the time because I would be writing small pieces for piano and then I wrote a couple of string quartet movements. These things were done on my own, including two orchestral movements. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I asked to study theory and so I began studying with a school music supervisor in my area who was also an Episcopal organist and a choir director, and he was the conductor of the civic symphony. So they played these orchestral movements. At one of their concerts, they played Respighi and a Beethoven symphony. I went to their rehearsals. It was great for me to do that because I had listened to these pieces on recordings. I was given a set of Toscanini Beethoven Symphonies with the NBC Symphony. My stepfather was associated with a radio station. He was given a Saturday show, a Ukrainian program on which I sometimes would recite poetry, by the way. That’s another thing. But this was interesting, going to rehearsals and learning the musical culture—what the etiquette is and how things are managed. Observing is a fascinating experience for me.
FJO: It’s extraordinary that you had an experience hearing music you wrote for orchestra live so early in your life.
FJO: It’s interesting to me because orchestral music doesn’t seem to have remained a focus for you as a composer, even though you had this early experience.
DS: Well, it was. Later on, as an undergrad at Eastman, I had written a three-movement, large orchestral piece called Triptych for Orchestra that had won an award. They had a symposium and that piece was played there. I also have a piece for orchestra and baritone voice. I have different ensemble pieces, as well as instrumental music. My first experiences were really with instruments. They weren’t with electronics, except for a record player. This came later, from my tendency to experiment and search for new things. It’s basically curiosity, being inspired by certain things and asking a few questions—what can I do with this? And how? I would not worry about everything being perfect right away. It’s possible to not have certain kinds of boundaries, which makes it then possible to think and experience beyond the current stage of experiences that I’ve had. And that was very interesting for me.
When I was a [college] sophomore, I think, because this was 1965, one of my upperclassmen was Bob Ludwig—the audio engineer who’s got a zillion Grammys by now. He was given a couple of Ampex portable machines by, I think, his uncle. He became interested in doing some kind of project, so he came to me and he said, “Hey, you have any ideas for what we can do with these machines? I want to record et cetera, and try to learn how to edit.” So I said, “Okay, let me get an idea.” I put together a kind of spatial notation piece for six instruments and then had the idea where these instruments would play and we would record. So we recorded. Then we would mess around with the tape, meaning editing. We took splicings and changed the tape in different ways. We’re talking really basic, non-studio work, really very experimental, approaching some kind of tape music. We literally glued together the tape part, then had the instruments play live from the score with the tape parts. The piece is called Six Plus.
FJO: I’ve read about it. I’ve never heard it, but I know of its existence. When you did that, were you aware of Pierre Schaeffer and all the musique concrète pieces?
DS: No. I had never heard the words “electronic music.” There were no courses in this thing. This was basically experimenting from scratch. What happened after that is some students in town who were from the Rochester Institute of Technology, RIT, were in photography and other visual arts. And by the way, the term visual arts didn’t exist. These students had this big studio where they’re taking slides and sorting them. And they were going to have a show with five projectors. They explained to me what they had in mind. They wanted a composer who would work on a sound score. So I said okay. I didn’t think of it as writing the music from scratch. I said, “What do you have here as sounds that you want me to work with?” And they said, “Well, here’s a bunch of records.” I made a soundtrack for them using tape, but it was really ad-libbing and trying things out, seeing what would happen, and basically learning how to organize and create an expression or expressions that would respond to and be compatible, or not, in different ways with what was going on in their visual expression.
FJO: I’ve looked at some of your earliest instrumental scores. There’s one that probably pre-dates this. You have a series of pieces that you compiled in the 1960s, but I imagine they’re significantly earlier than that, the Five Early Pieces for solo piano.
DS: I must have been a sophomore or a junior at Eastman. They were written after I got bored with the kinds of student piano literature that existed. One of my friends, who was teaching at the Hochstein Music School in town, went away for a few weeks and said, “Will you take my piano students?” My instrument was piano, so I said okay. I went over there and decided that if I’m going to do this for a bunch of weeks, and they have this boring music to play as etudes, let me write my own stuff. That’s where the Five Early Pieces come from. So these were not virtuoso pieces.
FJO: Sure. But don’t be too dismissive of them. When Peter Schickele gave the keynote address at the Chamber Music America conference some years back, he lamented that so few composers exploring new compositional techniques wrote easier pieces for young players.
DS: Oh yeah?
FJO: Such pieces are really a way to introduce these techniques to musicians. And I think your pieces do that. One of them is in septimal time, and the last one is actually a 12-tone piece.
DS: That’s right. It’s a 12-tone piece for kids. And it’s actually not unpleasant to play it. It has lyricism in it as well. I have another piece that I wrote, which is something like a 17-minute long movement for piano and violin, called Music for Violin and Piano. And I used a few phrases from that 12-tone study for piano students. I used these phrases toward the end of the piece, because they are very lyrical and they fit into that place in the piece.
FJO: The other thing I was wondering about when I was looking at the score for that piece is how you were first exposed to 12-tone music? Was it when you were at Eastman?
DS: It was actually a dilemma for me at Tanglewood. I was a student there. So many things happened to me the summer after freshman year and also during sophomore year. But I think the summer after freshman year, I ended up at Tanglewood with people around like Aaron Copland, Donald Martino, Gunther Schuller, and Elliott Carter who was giving talks on his Double Concerto, which was presented there. So this was very fascinating for me, and it was like hitting a wall of this suddenly very complex, chromatic music. So I had little conversations with Schuller asking about 12-tone music. I was interested in knowing why people chose this way of expression. And he really couldn’t answer this. That is stuff that I had to discover on my own. I had spent two solid years in that phenomenal Sibley Music Library at Eastman, looking and listening to every 20th-century piece I could get a hold of, and in this way learned a lot merely from observation. Much more than from taking a class, let’s say. At that point, it really was the most valuable thing I could have done because that gradually revealed to me lots of details. Then I started trying these things out on my own. More than reading a book about something, or being told about something, it was really experiencing a certain reality and coming to different realizations.
FJO: Of course the other thing that happened when you were at Eastman is you studied with Samuel Adler, who is one of the most significant authorities on orchestration. Did that have any impact?
DS: He was a very perceptive person, and he would let me do whatever I was going to do because I was doing things with intent. Although what I was writing was not at all in his stylistic practice, and I was doing experimentation, he could appreciate my situation let’s say. I was just doing what I was doing. So it was not a matter of teaching so much as a matter of suggestion here and there, which I think is very valuable—to have someone stand out of the way, and then make different comments here and there, and in some cases, little practical things such as maybe not two double basses, but three double basses because of certain pitch situations where possibly they may be perceived out of tune or out of focus. So these little tidbits, and later on, I think in junior year, I got into the graduate orchestration class which I wanted to be in, which I knew would be a lot better than being in instrumentation class.
I tried a couple of weeks of that with Aldo Provenzano, who was visiting from Juilliard and was a chain smoking, Henry Mancini/101 Strings-type arranger and composer. I really did not need what I considered baby shit level. By that time I had written a couple of orchestra movements and was into a long orchestral piece with everything in it, including contrabassoon. It was ridiculous. I wanted to show that I could get into an orchestration class. How absurd. I was told, well you’ve got to write an orchestral piece, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” This is the way they want it, here it is. Boom!
In that class with grads, there was a lab orchestra every week. That was the deal. So I could do my experimental organizing and arranging and trying out orchestral effects with an orchestra there. I had volunteers in my dorm. My dorm friends copying the parts for my one-minute, or two-minute, or three-minute musical experiments every week.
DS: I think that kind of thing was also fabulous because Sam Adler was conducting and we were getting recordings. It would be taped.
FJO: One of the most ambitious pieces you wrote during that time was Lieder auf der Flucht, a song cycle for soprano and eight instruments with German poetry, which actually got you your first BMI Student Composer Award back in 1967.
DS: Yeah. That was one. And then there was another one. I guess there were several. And I think for that, I had sent in a couple. In a way, I was very inexperienced as a freshman and sophomore. I remember meeting Sam Adler for a lesson and he asked me, “Are you applying to BMI? Are you applying to something else?” And I said, “I don’t know. What is that?” And he said, “Don’t come back for a lesson next week unless you’ve mailed out this stuff.” He was behaving in a very annoying way— like, “What do you mean you didn’t apply?” So I said, “Well, I didn’t apply because the piece I wrote was kind of short. Don’t they want really long pieces?” He said, “Come on. Send this thing in.” So I said, “Maybe I’ll send in two pieces.”
FJO: You must have also sent in your flute and piano duo, Quattro, because that piece was also acknowledged that year.
And I said, ‘I don’t know. What is that?’ And he said, ‘Don’t come back for a lesson next week unless you’ve mailed out this stuff.’”
DS: Oh, there’s also that. They were written very near each other, and they’re cool pieces. So I sent that in with the song cycle, but my idea was, “Unless a piece is 15-minutes long, why bother sending it?”—which is absurd.
FJO: A striking aspect of that song cycle, which was your first really substantive vocal piece, is that you chose to set another language instead of English. You set German.
DS: That’s because what English feels like for me is not the same as German. And it’s not the same as French. I also have songs in French. I have songs in English, but English for me has a different intensity than much more intense languages like German, French, and Polish for instance. Once I learned Polish, I was reading Polish poetry; it’s no wonder that they have Nobelists who were poets, because it’s really splendid stuff. Even the sound of it, the nuances are way beyond anything in English. It may be not nice to say that, but in terms of the comparative experience, the nuances in different languages vary. And the details in languages such as Polish give it much more intensity for me. It’s a kind of increased thesaurus of feelings that are available in certain languages.
FJO: So you’re fresh out of Eastman. You’ve got your degree. You’re off to Poland on a Fulbright after you pass the Czech language exam and therefore, weirdly as we discussed, you were allowed to go to Poland to study with Lutosławski. You’d mentioned that you really admired his Jeux Venitiens. There’s a piece of yours called Jeux des Quatres; it’s a chamber piece, but it’s scored for a very odd instrumental combination.
DS: Clarinet, cello, piano, trombone.
FJO: It’s full of extended techniques, and there’s indeterminacy in it as well. One of the pages looks like a sort of mobile.
DS: This highly drunk page of gestures, which is one of the movements.
FJO: There definitely seems to be a relationship to Lutosławski in that piece. Was that one of the pieces you were working on when you were studying with him?
DS: No, that was the year after. At that point I was at Yale as a grad student. So this was a piece which was different from Lutosławski, but having experienced Lutosławski was part of that difference. I was pushing in this other way, this other direction of writing scores. The visual object was very important to getting the sonic result—why that notation and why not some other notation?
FJO: But then when you got to Yale, you became really deeply immersed in electronic music.
DS: I started becoming involved. There was a very rudimentary studio. There was this oddball situation of an ARP synthesizer. A big whopper ARP, so not a mini, and I thought it was awfully clumsy in different ways. I also found the ARP sonically too homogenous, believe it or not. I didn’t describe it to myself that way because it was too early for me to realize why I wasn’t terribly attracted to this thing, which seemed to be able to do all sorts of things. But in terms of expression, it was not the most exciting thing. What I did have in there were a few oscillators, which could be made to fool around with each other in different ways. And these were not part of a synthesizer; they were just an analog, mini-studio. Then there were filters and noise generators, and also a spring reverb that was kind of strange sounding. But the strangeness actually enhanced some of my loop sounds that I was making from scratch, from splicing. I did a lot of splicing. It gave me enough time to hear things and be able to get an up-close-and-personal experience with the sounds because there was absolutely no automaticity involved.
FJO: You already mentioned doing this piece at Eastman for the six players and messing around with tape, so that was really your first electro-acoustic piece.
FJO: But it was quite a transition to go from being a composer who was involved with playing the piano and working with an orchestra who did one experimental piece involving manipulating taped sounds to being somebody who knows how to cut and splice tape and mess around with oscillators. These seem like totally different skill sets.
DS: Oh, I think it’s part of putting things together. I also realize, for instance, my Electronic Composition No. 1, which is pretty elaborate, is named that because it is an experience that to me was in a way parallel to visual art composition. It was much more about construction, rather than a conventional musical composition that stays in its own little prescribed world of what’s expected and what will be subject to a lot of rules and regulations.
We know, for instance, that tonal music is a world that has definite, prescribed behaviors, etiquettes, and expectations. On the whiteboard is [the phrase] “tonal obligations,” which is what I advise students to be aware of when they are writing music which is essentially not tonal, and then they put in something which creates the psychological expectation of tonal music. Awareness is so vital in terms of the sonic expression. So I was dealing with this other array of possibilities that was not coming from that world and that I could organize in different ways instead of dealing with absolute pitches and absolute rhythms. Working in this way was a fascinating experience for me.
FJO: Writing music for you stemmed from being obsessed with figuring out how notation works and how that then gets translated into sound. But electronic music is conceptualized in a very different way. There have been attempts to notate it, but it sort of defies notation, even though there are these bizarre scores for some of the early electronic pieces by Ligeti and Stockhausen, which could probably never be used to recreate a performance.
DS: Oh, it’s absurd.
FJO: Right? Crazy. But once upon a time, it had to be written down in some form in order to obtain a copyright for it.
DS: That’s right. Even if you wrote BS, which a lot of these scores were, only a title page where you scribbled something, and then wrote copyright C and your name. As you point out, otherwise you couldn’t get a copyright.
FJO: So is there a score for Electronic Composition No. 1 floating around?
DS: You don’t need a score.
FJO: No, but is there one?
DS: No. Why would I need it? It’s impossible to notate all of the things that are going on in the piece. It would just be a superficial skeletal sketch. I’ve had students who would write analyses of that piece. For instance, one student analyzed densities. The piece has so many parameters going on. And for me, a parameter is any area that’s available to be varied that you can realize and work with. That means you have to be aware that a certain area is a viable, working zone for that particular piece.
FJO: So, in the creation of it, did you make any written-down sketches?
DS: No need. For me, the most important thing in doing electronic music is that I don’t need some kind of thing on paper. This is purely a sonic art, just as visual art would be in working with colors, rather than painting by numbers. You can have a lot of in between things happening, which are not having to comport with conventional ways of writing or visualizing the thing. You can be as specific or as vague as you need to be for musical expression at any moment in your sonic work.
FJO: So in a way, it must have been greatly liberating for you since you were so fixated on notation.
DS: Oh, it was not the intent—”Hey, I’m bored with notation; let me break away.” This was like, “Wow, I don’t even have to pay any attention to notation. I can just listen.” Now that’s the thrill of it all in the studio. For me, this is really the purest way of dealing with musical sounds, where you’re only dealing with the sounds. You’re not being distracted by visual stuff, even though I’ve done soundtracks with visual things and also with choreography. But creating the electronic music pieces by themselves is not dependent on having to translate a notation or to re-translate the sounds into a notation except if somebody wants to do this for analytical purposes. The visual stuff is not the piece.
FJO: Then of course, the other thing is you had the experience of participating in an orchestration lab where you had musicians play whatever you brought in for them every week. Most people have to wait a lot longer than that. Even folks who receive a commission to write an orchestra piece usually have to turn in the piece many months in advance, and then they eventually get to hear the piece or simply hear a lot of people struggling. Others may write a piece and it could be more than a decade before they hear it. Whereas if you create an electronic thing—
DS: It’s there. So the immediacy of that is very much like mixing your own colors if you’re a painter. Or creating shapes if you’re a sculptor, or even in working with light as a medium, which is an interesting kind of thing. Years ago I became aware of light in museum exhibits, and I realized this is an extremely important factor in creating the expression of the visual art, whether it’s a sculpture or whether it’s a painting hanging on a wall. The color of the light, the shading—the Kelvins now as we say—is part of the expression in showing a visual art piece.
FJO: To get back to Electronic Composition No. 1. You gave it that title, but it’s not the first electronic piece you did.
DS: There’s actually a sketch before that which is from Yale. In Electronic Composition No. 1, I use sounds from the Yale studio, but the rest of the sounds and manipulation is from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.
FJO: So was Trill Study a Yale piece?
DS: Oh, no. Trill Study was after. It was during the composition of a score for an animation called Out of Into. Trill Study is an intense loop piece. The trill is literally spliced. Would you believe that it is more intense a trill than anything from a synthesizer? It’s very easy on a Buchla synthesizer to create a trill. But it’s not got the same bite—meaning the timbral color of the attack points when you’re alternating from one note to another note of the two-note trill.
By comparative listening, I said, “Hey, what would this trill be like if I actually spliced the freaking thing together?” It’s a lot more work, but once you have it spliced, you have this beautiful sounding passage and then you can do all kinds of looping and variable speed to create different lengths of loops, and have several loops on different tape recorders, just making sound clouds.
Then recording the result of that, doing some improv and then organizing phrases from that by chopping stuff out and putting it in a different order. So it’s a lot for me like the visual arts. There’s something that you can experience with that, but the ultimate thing is: what does it sound like? If the mechanical uniformity of something like a repeated pattern on any synthesizer or system is too perfect, it doesn’t sound nuanced.
Now mind you, I’m not trying to sound like natural instruments. I’m trying to appreciate the aesthetic qualities that I experience with those instruments and trying to break the uniformity and the expectation of uniformity in the more mechanistic musical world of electronic gadgets—which can make very perfect things for you, but those things can be too perfect. So it’s better for me to have spliced that trill. That’s my one loop splice; one loop can create other loops in variance with that.
FJO: Electronic Composition No. 1 was a watershed piece for you in a lot of ways. At that point, you were working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center established by Luening and Ussachevsky, which is a legendary place.
DS: Mostly Ussachevsky, who actually had training in engineering from Pomona College, California, and a Ph.D. from Eastman later on. He was very much instrumental in the actual kinks of the place, and the tone, the ambience, the welcoming nature of that place, in encouraging composers, really worldwide, who could come and work there if they were interested. I think it was run in a way that encouraged creative possibilities.
FJO: Now when you were at Yale, you didn’t have access to a studio on that level, but you did work with Bülent Arel, who had also created work at the Columbia-Princeton center.
DS: That Yale studio was rudimentary, and it also had that giant Arp which was not engaging to work with. I think it was an ergonomics issue. I had a similar issue with Peter Zinovieff’s machine from his electronic music lab in Britain, which he had loaned to Ussachevsky. This giant synthesizer was put into our faculty studio that I worked in. And so there it was. It had wonderful capabilities, but was somewhat ergonomically tedious to work with.
I need a certain degree of immediacy. Getting sonic results now in some of the things that I do obviously takes more time, but when some systems become ergonomically too gadgety, it does not intrigue me very much. Software often has problems in that way, because the people who design the software have a different way of working than I do, different degrees of intuiting what they go for first and what happens next. Remember I was talking about starting tabula rasa, and then putting certain things in. I’m also focused on organizing things that I choose if the software allows me to. When things are too classified, it become impractical. So I like to organize my gadgets for each piece in a different way. In a way, it’s organizing your own studio of materials in the software.
FJO: Of course it’s funny talking about this in the context of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, because the whole thing got started with the ergonomically impractical giant Mark II.
DS: Yes. That RCA Mark II used rollers, kind of like a piano roll that you would type. So they had two typewriters with rolls for that.
FJO: Did you ever work on that?
DS: No, very few people did. Milton Babbitt. And then Wuorinen had a piece on there, but that was a one-time deal. It was a machine that Milton worked on.
FJO: So what machines were you working on then?
DS: Oh, the analog studio. And there was a Buchla 100 there, and that was terrific. And that’s used in the Out of Into score. So yes, a lot of sounds from that place with some beautiful machines, including a terrific filter that was so incredibly discreet. It was a slider, a kind of graphic filter-type machine, where I could get wonderful sound changes in time. If I wanted my sound expression in filtering to change in a certain kind of intensity, I could get that from this type of filter. It was one of a kind. I’m sure that it’s in storage somewhere. I don’t think anybody would want to throw it out.
There are some incredible pieces of equipment sonically, like Elektro-Mess-Technik plate reverb units. We have one of those here, which is this large gray box with a handle. That’s a very special sound. We also have several models of the giant reverb plate from the same company, EMT, that are in storage. Those have to be in a separate room, because otherwise such a reverb unit will pick up sounds from the studio through the walls of the unit.
FJO: To go back to the early 1970s at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center, you had also mentioned that you were still cutting and splicing reel to reels when you were there.
FJO: But since synthesizers were now on the market and were getting smaller and smaller—to the point that people were starting to set up studios in their own homes and even travel around with Moogs and Buchlas—wasn’t it somewhat old fashioned at that point to still be working that way?
DS: I think that perhaps is a typical perception of things, but I think in terms of the experience creatively, of working with devices. I tend not to like to work boxed into one box. Whatever work I’m doing on a Buchla or any software, that is only the beginning of what I do. I have to do a tremendous amount of editing and varying in order to get to a completion with a lot of these sounds that I use. Patterns, textures, and combinations of timbre—it’s not enough for me to limit myself to the Buchla and for my piece to be about that. It is not going to be my piece sticking with only one type of expression or one unit. It involves different types of comparative listening and different listening techniques, which are not conventional ear training. Then choosing sounds, characteristics, and expressions through comparisons. Comparative listening is very important.
There are all these techniques that are involved in editing sound materials, and paying attention to things like attack characteristics and the expression of simultaneities—slices of sound, as well as how long the sound landscapes work. And then what their densities are as they vary and what sorts of expressions they create. For instance, for me, sonic intensity is only one single parameter. So I’m aware of that through the piece and in designing and choosing different sound components. I feel that my sound sources regardless of what they are, or even whether they are analog or digital, doesn’t matter as much as having the possibility to control these things in different ways once they are stored, let’s say. Because I work with stored sounds, basically on tape or digitally. Editing is a constituent part of what my pieces are about.
FJO: I’m going to jump ahead to 1990 then, because what you just said reminds me of a fascinating statement you made in the CD booklet notes for the recording of a piece for MIDI grand piano that you wrote for Loretta Goldberg called Rhapsody: “These new tools cannot change or solve the perplexing compositional problems often encountered in creating a new work, whose ultimate purpose is to communicate with my audience once more with feeling.”
DS: That’s right.
FJO: That sentiment is worlds away from “who cares if you listen”!
DS: Oh, I know. But I think Milton would say that this was overblown, or improperly interpreted, et cetera. And, of course, he felt it was sensationalized in various ways. But in giving a bit of a perspective on that—who is the initial audience to my sounds? Who is that? Me. I have to be the first listener to my sounds. And I modify them according to the reactions that I have as a listener who is, again, approaching the experience of listening without being, let me say, possessive about the sounds. I tell my students that you cannot own your sounds or your work too much and be so possessive that you will not change things and ignore your intuitive reactions. I think intuitive reactions are vital in creating a personal fingerprint on your art instead of being so possessive that you own it too much to improve it.
FJO: Now in terms of taking work and giving it a personal fingerprint, one of the pieces of yours I find super fascinating and wonderful is Arc. And yet this was a piece that was created to accompany dancers, and the choreography was already completed before you composed this piece. You had to make your music precisely fit with that.
DS: That’s right. It was very interesting. I was given large graph paper, almost like Chinese scrolls, and each square was a beat. I had these little graph paper squares with annotations by the choreographer Mimi Garrard indicating things like lighting changes—because this choreography was also synchronized with a digitally controlled lighting system which was called CORTLI, as in courtly dancing, but it was also an acronym.
It was put together at Bell Labs by James Seawright, who was the head of visual arts at Princeton and was also on the staff at Columbia-Princeton as one of their technical people. He’s a phenomenal kinetic sculptor. Just amazing. I remember as a kid at Eastman I would look through Time magazine and I saw a picture of Jimmy Seawright. I didn’t know who he was, but he was there with one of his electronic sculptures, and there was a little write up about it. I had no idea that six or so years later I’d be collaborating with James Seawright and doing two scores for two different choreographies, including Arc. Anyway, the scores that I came up with had to be really on target in terms of the tempo and their work. Arc consists of an A-B-C-B-A tempo shape, let’s say, starting with slow movements on the outer ends and then faster, and then the fastest.
FJO: Arc has deeply resonated with me for decades, and I’ve sometimes wondered—especially after reading that comment of yours about communication and feeling—whether a piece like this could somehow serve as a gateway for listeners who love the standard orchestra and chamber music repertoire but might not be initially amenable to electronic music.
DS: It’s more accessible. It’s more familiar. But the timbral world there is not; it’s other earthly, let’s say, when compared with instrumental sounds. It’s a simpler score in different ways than something like Electronic Composition No. 1 and things like Arabesque, which is way different. Arc has more clearly displayed sounds that you can hear as they change and modify, morph in expression with timbre, which was interesting. And it’s a Buchla piece.
FJO: Arabesque is a much more recent piece. But when I was looking at a score of the second movement of your set of Three Piano Pieces from the 1960s, the one that jumps all over the place, I was struck by how reminiscent it was to Arabesque.
DS: That aesthetic?
DS: You got it!
FJO: Of course, in the electronic realm there are many things that you can do that you couldn’t do in quite the same way in a solo piano piece. You’re not limited to the timbres of a piano. You’re constantly manipulating timbre, and the electronic medium is also not limited to 12-tone equal temperament. Arabesque is filled with all sorts of microtonal intervals. But the gestures are still somewhat similar. It also doesn’t sound like any other electronic music I know from what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the post-analog era. You’re still continuing to explore all those wonderful old-school electronic music sounds, yet your music has continued to evolve within that medium.
DS: I don’t think of old school and new school or in between schools. I simply relate to the material in my piece rather than worrying about or being aware of this or that school. What you describe in this piano piece that’s way early is a musical behavior that is toccata-like. Well, there you go. If you’re going to compare it to body language musically, then you can say, “Well, yeah. This piece [Arabesque] is kind of toccata-like.” But it’s only a section of the piece and that describes a sort of body language, which I’m aware of in terms of how things move musically.
FJO: Okay, old school and new school are probably the wrong words for me to be using to explain this, but here we are, we’re sitting in this amazing studio with reel-to-reel machines. You know, I haven’t really seen a lot of those around elsewhere so much these days.
DS: Well, maybe people don’t know how to work with them! And, of course, this is only one part of the experience. We also have the digital world. We also have digital editing available. To my taste, people don’t use it intricately enough. They could be experimenting with digital editing in a way that goes deeper and gives a greater array of possibilities to choose from, and that is an exciting thing to do. That’s what I like to do with digital editing because it quickly expands the choices that I have, but I have to instigate the changes myself, because hey, the job of a composer is to choose!
FJO: So one of the choices you’ve made is to still work with reel to reels.
DS: Yes, depending on what techniques I’m using. Because, for instance, I can very easily make elaborate improvisations in a studio that create more complex material or generations of complexity. Let’s say you’re starting with original simpler material, going to several generations of layers. And then you can extract chunks from that to be used in other ways.
I think of improv as a very viable technique. When you hear my pieces, they don’t sound improvised; they sound deliberate because the sounds were deliberately chosen. But then we go to consider how these sounds were made. That’s where anything goes. It could be improv. It could be something that’s just the opposite, something very precise. I go between these two different worlds of improvisation and precision, using randomness as a tool to generate material of different characters. And not staying in one particular catechism of rules.
FJO: That’s a very inspiring thing, not only from a creative standpoint but also from a pedagogical one. So we should conclude by talking a bit about teaching. You’ve been here at Stony Brook since 1974.
FJO: That’s a very long time—44 years.
FJO: And although the studio has grown and has lots of newer equipment, there is equipment here that goes back to when you first got here, and stuff from even earlier than that, that you still use and that your students can also use.
DS: That’s right. It’s nice to have an array of possibilities available. The instruments that you have also influence your perception, your thinking, and the way you can work. For instance, my digital editing has a lot to do with my experiences splicing tapes. I used to mess around, changing transients, by cutting slivers off the attack points of tape just to see what the heck would happen. And then using different angle cuts on the tape attacks or sometimes endings. So doing these little playing-around experiments are all lessons in sonic experiences. Because ultimately that’s what happens: You make changes. You listen to it. My digital editing is very much influenced by this. I also have one piano piece, which is influenced by working with electronic sound textures. I explained that a little bit in a program note. These two seemingly disparate worlds are all interconnected here and there, sometimes more intensely or less intensely. All these things exist. So it’s having in my head these various experiences, including this.
FJO: So a final question. You said the audience begins with you.
DS: Yeah, I’ll be the first listener. Then basically I share, but that is not my main drive. I don’t sit around and think about, “Hey, I’m going to be sharing this.” You listen to Electronic Composition No. 1¸ and that gets pretty bizarre. When I was making some of those sounds, I would say, “Whoa, this is really kicking it around here. Gee, I wonder how an audience would react?” But then I’d basically let them worry about it. I’m not going to tell them what to do or how to react. That’s not my job!