Tag: electronic music

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen): The Landfill of Meaning

Victoria Shen NMBx SoundLives Banner

Beyoncé’s latest album Renaissance made international headlines last week when Australian disability advocate Hannah Diviney called out one of the album’s songs, “Heated,” for using an ableist slur in the lyrics and Beyoncé subsequently agreed to re-record the song without that word and replace the track. Earlier this summer, the electronic music community was up in arms when an advance promotional video for that album made for British Vogue showed the pop icon scratching an LP with her fingernails. It turns out that it is a performance technique created by San Francisco-based experimental artist Victoria Shen, who performs under the moniker Evicshen, and she was not credited. But soon after the outcry, the appropriation was acknowledged and Shen was offered an apology. Both of these stories show that even if Beyoncé’s creative team is not always completely careful choosing all the details, they are paying very close attention to how people are reacting to her work on social media. And in Shen’s case, it actually gave her a new level of notoriety.

Victoria Shen's needle nails

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) and her needle nails. (Photo by Caroline Rose Moore, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

“The fact that my work was able to reach a much broader audience than I would have been ever able to have, even if it wasn’t credited at first, I think, is kind of amazing,” Shen said when I spoke with her over Zoom a few weeks ago during her residency at Wave Farm. She also pointed out that the concept, while visually startling and aurally fascinating, is perhaps not the most radical idea. “It’s just kind of like a natural thing. I also used to do nails, so this is a kind of thing where you think somebody would have done this already. It’s sort of low hanging fruit. But of course it takes both someone who used to do nails professionally and does electronics that had to make the bridge.”

As I would soon learn upon digging deeper into Shen’s creative output after she was first mentioned to me by my New Music USA colleague Ami Dang, who also creates electronic music and is a huge fan of Shen’s work, the needle nails technique is just one of many new approaches to making sounds that Shen has used in her performances and sound installations. After hearing and watching a segment of her extraordinary Zero Player Piano, in which disembodied piano strings and hammers are positioned along an ascending staircase and triggered remotely, I knew I had to talk with her.

“That was the gateway into more physical, electro-acoustic things I’m interested in now,” Shen explained. “To me, it was definitely a Modernist strategy … Something that’s self-reflexive. Something that is medium-specific. Like: what is a piano? How far can you push it to its logical conclusion while still maintaining we’re still arguing that it is within the medium of piano?”

Although some of her work can sound quite austere at times, Shen is ultimately suspicious of Modernist aesthetics. “I do like the Modernist kind of mission,” she admits, “but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that, so how can we use things that are hyper, or super full of meaning, I call it the landfill of meaning. I use that in some recognized tactical way. I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.”

Shen is also ambivalent about whether or not she is a composer, even though all the sounds she makes are completely her own, often including all the devices she uses to make them.

“I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people. I think composers really shine when they’re able to provide a set of instructions for other people to execute their work. … I think I’m much more of an improviser than a composer. I think part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.”

As for Beyoncé, Shen remains a fan though she doesn’t imagine that the two of them will ever collaborate.

I really doubt that she even knows I exist. I think her PR person knows I exist, but that’s as high as it goes. … I would just love to play at her mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

Victoria Shen carefully scratching a home made record with audio playback styluses affixed to her fingernails during a performance.

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) during a performance on February 23, 2022. (Photo by Matt Miramontes, courtesy Victoria Shen.)


Synthesizing Environmental Sounds

A hand manipulating a patch cord on a synthesizer with lots of patches and an overlay of the New Music Toolbox logo

Why bother replicating environmental sounds through electronic music synthesis when recording something is faster and more accurate? What is the point of recreating something when that thing already exists. For these questions, I have a philosophical answer and a practical answer.

On the philosophical side, fabricating a simulacra of the sounds around us is at its core a meditative process, built equally around practices of listening and analysis. It pays respect to the omnipresence of the invisible and honors the complexity of seemingly simple things. It unlocks new techniques for interaction with our instruments and enriches our experience of the world apart from them: “what makes up that sound” becomes something of a walking mantra impressing itself on everything you hear.

On the practical side, a recording is a life-like portrait, fixed and unchanging. It excludes from us the agency to restructure the world it captures. It relegates our creative interactions to the realm of post-processing (i.e. filtering, adding reverb, etc.) to emphasize or hide aspects of the events captured on tape.

The technique I’ll explain in this article takes the opposite approach: utilizing filtering, reverb, etc. as foundational elements for creating real-world portraiture while retaining the freedom of dream-logic malleability. Can you record the sound of a tin room in which a prop plane idles while its engine keeps changing size? Maybe. Can you synthesize it? Definitely.

Approaching a sound with the goal of recreating it is like listening to an exploded diagram, where a sonic totality is divided into components and considered individually. It is with an ear to this deliberate listening that I share with you words that have guided my work for the past decade, passed along to me by the great Bob Snyder, a Chicago-based artist, educator and friend, in the form of his “Ear Training” synthesis exercises. He started with a simple question through which the components of any sound can be observed and serve as a roadmap for from-scratch fabrication. “Is a sound noisy or tonal, and is its movement (if it has any) regular or irregular?”

Let’s do a quick exercise: listen to a sound, any sound (a baby crying, a phone ringing), and ask yourself: can I hum it? Trace the movement of the sound with your hand in the air and observe: is it rising and falling in a pattern? The answers to these questions point toward the equipment needed to recreate them. If the sound is tonal (if you can hum it), select an oscillator; if it isn’t, choose a noise generator. There are of course plenty of sounds that have both (a howling wind, the word “cha,” etc.) but for this initial thought experiment choose a tone or noise source to best fit whatever is the sound’s dominant component.

Next, is something about the sound changing? It could be its amplitude, its pitch, its timbre, etc., but if you find yourself tracing out this motion with your hand note how your hand is moving: regularly (up and down, like a car alarm) or less regularly (like shoes clanking away in a drier). A repeating motion would point toward a looping, cyclical modulator (a low frequency oscillator, a sequencer, etc.), where irregular motion would indicate something either noise-based or a mixture of otherwise unrelated things. Either jot these observations down or keep them in your head, whatever works best for you— the important thing is to remain cognizant of them as they accumulate.

To recreate a sound from scratch is to assemble these observations as discrete instructional steps. Try not to get bogged down by the totality of the sound itself. Instead focus on these component parts: the sound is nothing more than a list of them in aggregate.

Start with the basics—tone or noise, what about it is it changing— and slowly zoom in on the details from there. Wind blowing through a grove of trees is noisy and irregular. Sometimes the leaves rustle with more treble, sometimes with more mid-range. These various noisy timbres seem to happen sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as if the branches pushed one way sound different than when the wind changes direction and pushes them the other, and so on. Study the sound, note these characteristics, think of your observations as a decoder ring.

Hopefully this provides something of an overview of the opportunities that are possible in synthesizing environmental sounds and lays out some of the aspects of sound to focus on in your listening. Now let’s try our hand at a concrete example and patch something up!

I’d like to synthesize the sounds of the beach, in particular a memory I have of an afternoon spent there as a child.  We’ll begin with the sound of ocean waves from the listening perspective of the shoreline. It’s low tide and the surf is mild. The sun hangs in the air, lazily

Once we have a working version of our central sound component, I find it helpful to surround it with supporting contextual sonics. These reinforce our creation’s place in this fabricated soundscape and allow for a degree of set-dressing about which the details are entirely ours to decide. Are these ocean waves happening on a beach or are they crashing in an office? Those decisions are executed through the inclusion of these background characters.

For this patch, I’ll play it straight and set the sound stereotypically. To create the sense of a shoreline, the focus will be on a pair of hallmarks—things you might hear (and in this case things I remember hearing) while sitting on the beach and listening to the waves: the dull roar of the ocean and the whipping hiss of the wind.

In tuning these sounds I’ll be utilizing Low and High Pass filters, and doing so with an ear for how each filter type represents distance: using Low Pass filters for sounds that are far away (and whose top end has rolled off), and High Pass filters for sounds that are close-up (and whose top end is accentuated). Additionally, setting the relative level of these sounds against each other paints a portrait of attention: the sounds being focused on (in this case the waves) can seem louder than their neighbors (the wind, the ocean), and should that observation shift for any reason this balance can be adjusted accordingly.

Finally, the addition of narrative elements can lend to this sound-portrait some much-appreciated variety: if the background is always there, the things that come and go can pull us into a far more immersive listening experience.

To illustrate this point we’ll create the sound of a single-passenger plane in flight, passing overhead.  Unlike our wave, wind and ocean patches, this one is definitely hummable and will require tone sources to synthesize.  While there are myriad ways to go about recreating engine sonics, each essentially contains at least an oscillator and at least some timbral complexity, especially if that engine is full of moving parts!  The aspects that you choose to focus on in your own engine synthesis work will depend greatly on your listening work: what about the sound jumps out to you?  What is essential?  In the case of the single-passenger plane, I’ll be celebrating its beat-frequency-like movement, its stereo position adjustments and the Doppler Effect that occurs as it passes from one side of the beach to the other.

Now that we have our waves, our environment and our wildcard narrative element, let’s combine them into a performance. The world we create in the mixing of these sounds is at any point re-definable: on a whim the ocean can become tiny, the wind can whip itself up into a terrifying wall, the waves can pause and hold mid-crash. While the example illustrated below is one that tilts towards accuracy it can at any moment morph into something else entirely: a far more fantastical collage of sonic impossibilities or simply the next memory that comes to mind. The fluidity of the portrait is entirely yours to decide.

Like any skill, decoding and fabricating environmental sounds is an exercise that rewards practice. I encourage you to start as soon as you finish this article. Close your eyes and whatever you hear or imagine first ask yourself: what makes up that sound? Thanks for listening.

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Our Journey to Olly Wilson: Remixed and Beyond

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Photo by Jack Lichtenstein)

Today, April 20, 2020, is Larry’s 71st birthday, which we are celebrating by releasing our recording project Olly Wilson: Remixed on New Focus Recordings. As a “Special COVID-19 Pandemic Release,” 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this recording will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund (NMSF), which has just set a new stretch goal to reach a total of $500,000 by May 15. The New Music Solidarity Fund was organized by 14 leading artists in the global new music field to raise money for freelance music artists who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood by the pandemic. The fund is administered through New Music USA, and has already issued 530 emergency relief grants. But the financial needs far outweigh the more than $300,000 already raised.

Today, we also started a coordinated Facebook birthday fundraiser to benefit the NMSF. We are listing this release at a low $4.00, and people who contribute any amount to the parallel Facebook fundraiser will receive a download code to get the album. This way, nearly anyone inclined to give is able to do so. But we urge you to pay whatever you can comfortably afford. This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood. Providing them some emergency financial relief seems like the least we ought to do, in return for the countless years they have invested in their craft to bring such joy into our lives.

You might be asking, how is it that Arlene and Larry Dunn are releasing a recording? What is it? Olly Wilson: Remixed is a passion project, an homage to composer and musicologist Olly Wilson (1937-2018), an Oberlin Conservatory professor from 1965 to 1970, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the advent of electronic music at Oberlin, for which he was directly responsible.

Our own journey with Olly Wilson began in 2014, when International Contemporary Ensemble clarinetist Joshua Rubin included Wilson’s composition ​Echoes​ (for clarinet and electronics) on his album There Never is No Light. Josh has told us “I first performed Wilson’s music while I was a student at Oberlin. Then I had the honor of working with him directly in 2013, when I was recording Echoes for my album. He helped me find the materials I needed to perform and record the work, and to help shape my performance to his vision of the piece.” Josh continued: “My entire album’s inspiration came from the palette of sounds and ideas that originate from Echoes.” Josh’s recording sparked our first concentrated listening to Olly Wilson’s music. We were entranced by the music and intrigued by the man, who clearly carried a special spirit.

In February 2018, we attended a lecture by Fredara Hadley, then a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Oberlin, who now teaches at Juilliard. Her lecture, “The Black History of Oberlin Conservatory,” focused on the substantial contributions of African American students and faculty throughout the Conservatory’s history. Among these, of course, was Olly Wilson, the first African American faculty member at the conservatory. We learned that, in addition to his teaching in the standard curriculum of the day, Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture, a signal achievement at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.

In May 2019, we met with Tom Lopez, department chair of Oberlin TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) to talk about plans to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. We received another revelation: in the fall of 1969, Olly Wilson taught the first class in electronic music at Oberlin Conservatory (or any conservatory of music). That moment was the germination of today’s TIMARA program. As Tom unfurled the plans to celebrate TIMARA’s 50th anniversary, one particular event stood out: the Kaleidosonic Music Festival, planned for November 16, “an epic celebration of music at Oberlin. It will include musicians and ensembles from the Conservatory, the College, and the community,” as Tom described. “It will be many hours long with non-stop music — one big, long, sonic collage of ensembles, groups, and individual musicians,” he enthused. The rest came rapid fire, something like this:

Tom: Would we like to perform in Kaleidosonic?

A&L: Sure, but what?

Tom: Anything you like.

A&L: How about a text or spoken word piece about Olly Wilson?

Tom: That would be perfect!

And thus, Olly Wilson: Remixed was born. The objective of doing a spoken word piece was clear enough, but the content and substance was far from it. Soon we immersed ourselves in the hunt for all his recorded music and all his writings we could find. We quickly realized that not only was Olly Wilson a highly inventive composer, but he was a profound thinker, especially regarding the aesthetics and politics of African and African American music and culture, and he was a persuasive writer. A concept for the piece began to congeal, as we found certain works that resonated most strongly with us. Our touchstones in his music included Echoes, of course, Cetus, for which he won the first-ever international prize for electronic music in 1968, Sometimes (for tenor and electronics), and his stirring song cycle Of Visions and Truth. His written works (and transcribed interviews) that became central to Olly Wilson: Remixed include Black Music as an Art Form, The Black-American Composer, an address to an Oberlin College assembly called How Long — Not Long!, and a series of interviews with the Regional Oral History Office at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

To create our script, we extracted phrases from Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups. These groups ultimately morphed into the four movements of Olly Wilson: Remixed. The first movement, Black Music as an Art Form addresses Wilson’s refutation to the broadly held notion that there was nothing unique or distinctive about Black music that sets it apart from any other music. Next, Musical Electrons presents Wilson’s thoughts about the use of technology and electronics in the creation and performance of music. The third movement, In Oberlin portrays life in the town and the college through Wilson’s eyes. Finally, Composing While Black exposes the systemic racism that relentlessly impedes the work of an African American artist in a deeply white field like classical music, concluding with poet Claude McKay’s defiant “If We Must Die.”

As the movements came together, we started a cycle of rehearsing, rearranging, rehearsing, refining, rehearsing . . . We started to think our recitation alone was too dry, and we ought to add an Olly Wilson-inspired soundscape. We, of course, knew nothing about how to do that, but we knew someone who did: Kirk Pearson, a 2017 Oberlin grad whose work in TIMARA we had come to admire when he was a student. We contacted Kirk at his Dogbotic studio, in Berkeley, CA. He was quick to say yes. Reflecting back on the moment, Kirk says:

Olly Wilson holds a mythic status at Oberlin, but the full weight of his accomplishments weren’t clear to me until I got involved in this project. I have to admit that, despite studying in the TIMARA department, essentially Wilson’s creation, I hadn’t read any of his articles nor spent significant time with his music. To call this process eye-opening is putting it lightly. I was shocked at just how political and prophetic many of Wilson’s writings were. Wilson’s creative process was a politically indelible act in and of itself. We learn from his example that the subtle acts of sonic modulation, the generation of synthetic sound, and the splicing of tape are powerful tools for composers to reimagine, even refute, history.

Kirk dove into reading our score and the original sources to ground himself in the project while also auditioning most of Wilson’s recordings to absorb their essence. Step by step, he put shape to a soundscape attuned to the aesthetic of each movement. Kirk relates a bit of the process he employed:

The profundity of tape composition grounds much of Wilson’s electronic work, much as it forms the soundscape of Olly Wilson: Remixed. I snipped thousands of micro samples of Wilson’s music and voice, creatively mutating them through five decades worth of analog studio techniques−tape machines, Buchla modulars, vocoders, and a homemade ten-foot Slinky reverb, and more. Working with the sonic artifacts of this great composer was humbling, and I am hoping this piece helps generate interest in Wilson’s work among successive new generations of electronic trailblazers.

Premiering Olly Wilson: Remixed at the Kaleidosonic Festival in November at Oberlin’s historic Finney Chapel was an exhilarating and unique experience. It was totally chaotic, and yet also cleanly orchestrated. More than 50 separate performances were scheduled, from 7:30 to midnight, ranging from individuals to over 50 people, including marching bands, a children’s choir, the Oberlin College choir, the OSteel Band, a jazz ensemble, even bagpipes. Notable guests included composer and accordionist Peter Flint (a 1992 Oberlin grad) and experimental noise music luminary Aaron Dilloway (an Oberlin resident). Most performances were slated to last only five minutes and would bleed into each other at the beginning and end.

When we arrived at our call time, the basement of Finney was abuzz with activity−people warming up, finding a place for their coats, and talking excitedly with friends and cohorts. Soon we were being led up the tortuous path to the organ loft where we would perform our first and second movements. The MC gave us our cue as our friends in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) Lab Group were wrapping up their set. We stood, turned on our music stand lights, heard Kirk’s intro, and started reciting. It was scintillating. Hundreds of people in the audience and we were the only ones performing! After completing the first movement we turned off our lights and exited to wait in a tiny, dim area behind the organ. Before emerging 25 minutes later to perform our second movement, that organ would be booming, and we wanted to protect our ears.

We performed our third and fourth movements on the floor in front of the stage, adjacent to NOYO Lab Group. By design, Kaleidosonic was full of chatter and people coming and going. But we knew people were listening, when we heard laughter at some humorous moments during our In Oberlin movement. When the time finally came, we were thrilled to hear Kirk’s arresting soundscape introduction to our fourth movement, which contains some of the most assertive and impactful text. We were sure we had succeeded when we heard loud applause at the end, and Tom Lopez agrees: “Arlene and Larry made great use of the performance space in this fully immersive event. It was very powerful to hear Olly Wilson’s words repeated in the very chapel where he gave his assembly address on racial injustice in April 1970.”

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)

From the beginning of Kirk’s involvement in the project, we had discussed making a studio recording of Olly Wilson: Remixed. With the Kaleidosonic premiere still ringing in our ears, we descended into the TIMARA lab the following day for Kirk to record our vocal tracks. Life interrupted the process for a spell, as Larry had major surgery on his neck the very next day, followed by months of recovery. Sometime in February, Larry was well on the way to recovery and Kirk had first-cut mixes of each movement ready for us to review. A multi-step cycle of reviews and notes and revisions brought us very close to ready as March arrived. As we started to grapple with how and where we might release Olly Wilson: Remixed to the world, it turned out the word had its own plans.

Suddenly an unremitting COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe, disrupting life as we know it in country after country, with a virulent outbreak sure to hit the U.S. On March 12, we decided to voluntarily stay at home except going out for food and other essentials. By March 22, the state of Ohio rolled out a stay-at-home order, just as our own community entered a “hard closure” precautionary quarantine. Across the country, music concerts, and public events of all kinds, were suddenly cancelled for the foreseeable future, wreaking havoc on musicians everywhere, especially freelance artists whose entire livelihoods depend on contracted concert appearances.

That same Sunday, March 22, Claire Chase contacted us about contributing to a new initiative she and 13 other leading artists were organizing to help funnel emergency relief grants to suddenly out-of-work musicians.   inspired our release plan: to launch Olly Wilson: Remixed as a fundraising tool, with 100% of the proceeds donated to the NMSF. When we contacted Dan Lippel about launching the project on New Focus Recordings, he enthusiastically agreed, and we started marching in sync towards our April 20 release date.

The cover for the CD Olly Wilson: Remixed features a photo of Olly Wilson in front of a blackboard lecturing to a class.

The Cover for Olly Wilson: Remixed.

We harbor no illusions that our campaign is going to fully mitigate the financial crisis for freelance musicians, much less the broad and deep economic damage of this pandemic. But we hope that it will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future. Or, has Kirk has put it:

My studio, which sits less than a mile away from UC Berkeley, the locus of the last thirty years of Olly Wilson’s illustrious career, now boasts a framed quote from the man himself: “I am optimistic about the whole future of music.” We could all benefit from a bit of optimism right now. Wilson’s sentiment, perhaps more than ever, is a reminder of the resilience of the creative arts. While a global pandemic has uprooted our traditional institutions for making music, I have no doubt that the creative world will adapt and continue to thrive. Music will live on, and with it, our ability to call our histories into question and make a better future.

Thank you Olly Wilson. We, too, are optimistic about the whole future of music.

Bonnie Jones: The Sounds of Not Belonging

Bonnie Jones

If you are attending an event in Baltimore that includes improvised electronic music, experimental theater, or multimedia installation, the chances are good that you will cross paths with sound artist and poet Bonnie Jones. She is arguably one of the most active and engaged members of the Baltimore art community, and rightly so—she gets things done, and has been doing just that for the past 20 years. Whether she is curating shows at The Red Room, helping organize the annual High Zero Festival, performing a set of her own improvised, noise-based music at the H&H Building, or teaching young girls to build contact mics from scratch through her organization Techne, she is actively bringing art to life, and at the same time feeding her own creative practice. Jones considers creation, performance, curation, and community service all as crucial facets of her artistic persona.

Jones’s music, which fuses electronic noise and text, emerges in large part from the sounds of her childhood, growing up on a dairy farm in New Jersey. She explains, “I grew up in a rural, very quiet, sound space that was punctuated by atypical sounds, which is to say machinery. Like a lot of machinery. The sounds that I remember as a kid were the buzzing of the low flying crop-dusting helicopters that came through. Airplanes overhead. Lawnmowers—big ones, not suburban ones, but huge tractor-like mowers. All kinds of other mechanical sorts of sounds…and the sounds of animals mixed with that.”

Those sounds made an impression, but Jones’s first artistic interest was in creative writing. She studied English Literature and poetry in college, and upon moving to Baltimore after graduation, she became immersed in Baltimore’s experimental poetry community. Her interest in the performance aspect of poetry led naturally to improvised music-making, and soon she was experimenting with combinations of language and sound in live performance contexts.

“When you are writing, or when you have a piece of text, you can talk about the past. And you can take a person to the past in language. It’s not quite as easy to do that musically. It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

“It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

It was while she was living and studying in South Korea on a Fulbright grant that Jones discovered the sonic materials that fit her artistic voice; electronic music pedals that could bend and twist sounds into nearly any form possible. She says, “When I went to Korea, and I was first introduced to these electronic music pedals, the moment that the sound came out of those, I was immediately like: This is the sound. These are the instruments. This is the sound space that I’ve been interested in intuitively but hadn’t really found the instrument for… These are the sounds that nobody wants.”

As it turns out, the sounds are indeed wanted, as she has increasingly been receiving grants and commissions to create new work. Her recent installation, 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes, funded in part by a Rubys Artist Project Grant from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, incorporates text, sound, and objects to create, “a layered, intricate, installation work about bodies in migration, the consequences of borders and boundaries, and the imaginative potential of in-between spaces.” This work marks the beginning of an artistic shift for Jones, from improvised performance to the more fixed, less ephemeral experiences that installation work can provide. She says that her focus will still be on sound but will emphasize different ways to experience the work in real-time, such as moving sound through space, or the effect that objects have on the transmission of sound.

While Jones’ work takes many forms, the thread through it all hinges on creating visceral experiences that can lead to an increased understanding of the materials and subjects at hand. In this interview, she discusses the benefits and challenges of combining sound and text in improvisatory settings, her personal development as an artist, and about elevating the art scene in one’s community through participation and service.

At the Intersection of Digital Audible Histories and Experimental Music Practice

large spacial cube

So much of Seth Cluett’s concert music and installation practice deals with memory and embodied experience. Cluett, who grew up in rural upstate New York, recalls the experience of standing on the porch and hearing the wind come through the trees before he could feel it on his body. “There’s always been this haptic connection between being present in a space that makes sound and feeling the source of that sound.” That is what draws me to Cluett’s music—the way it evokes memories and his attention to how the listener interacts with the sound in space.

I recently met up with Cluett, acting director of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, to discuss his current exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories” (January 15 – March 23, 2019). The exhibition adopts the concept of the circuit to rethink the histories that are told about electronic and computer music. Equally significant is how the exhibit sits at the intersection of research on digital audible histories and experimental music practice’s treatment of historical objects and past technologies.

In the process of walking through Cluett’s exhibition, I had a strong sense of the personal relationships that existed between artists and researchers working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) and Bell Labs. Bell Labs, which has been a key site for research and development in technology during the 20th century, regularly engaged artists and composers to work on projects relating to sound and recording technologies.

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse's connection to Bell Labs

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse’s connection to Bell Labs and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; (left) letter from Varèse to Vladimir Ussachevsky, dated March 11, 1960; (right) letter from Ussachevsky, dated May 11, 1972. Photo: Molly Sheridan

I asked Cluett about the circuit between Columbia, Princeton, and Bell Labs, and how it encourages us to think about the history of electronic music in new ways. He illustrated the connections, explaining:

The traditional histories that you read of electronic music often involve a positivist, teleologic unfolding that is tied to available technologies. There’s the classic triumvirate of musique concrète, elektronische Musik, and music for magnetic tape in the United States—all of these things leading to the next step down the chain. Often the histories of electronic music and computer music are even told separately. In my current roles as acting director of the Columbia Computer Music Center and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, I started to see evidence of a blurring of those traditional historical boundaries. I read accounts of people like Charles Dodge, who was a graduate student at Columbia and was working on the code at Princeton and then going on to Bell Labs to have the sound rendered on their digital-to-analog converter. The idea of a circuit of these relationships, interconnections between people who would go back and forth between two of the three poles—or would pop out to Brooklyn College and back—seemed to suggest a non-linear, constellation history that was more generous to the real human relationships that existed between people.

This non-linear history is evident in the exhibition’s juxtaposition of eclectic historical artifacts such as oscillators, an enlarged color photograph of the CPEMC’s RCA Mark II Synthesizer, a loudspeaker from the 1919 Victory Liberty Loan Rally in New York, Pauline Oliveros’s Apple Box, and sketches of Varèse’s Déserts—just to name some of the highlights. I asked Cluett how his knowledge of electronic circuits shaped his understanding of the circuit as a metaphor for networks of people. “As an undergraduate at New England Conservatory in the mid-1990s, I was working in an electronic music studio that didn’t have a single computer in it. Because the circuits in that studio consisted of things like patch chords, oscillators, filters, and ring modulators, I started to get a real appreciation for electricity as a living thing. But even earlier than that, because I grew up around a dad who was a machinist—a sort of self-taught engineer, who builds things and tinkers—and a mom who is a craft jeweler, I’ve always thought of things connecting to other things.” He later went on to add that “circuits are a great metaphor for history. Things come full circle constantly, but they still do new work each pass. I think the circuit is a great metaphor for new music… you have moments where, like a capacitor, something stores up energy and then when it’s time, it releases the energy. There are moments where things slow down because either the culture or the community is resistant to that change. You have composers who are pushing current through in a way that is relentless and non-stop, and when these things interact, you get some magic.”

Cluett’s collaborative project with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts began last year when he was asked by the International Contemporary Ensemble to participate in its OpenICE program at the library. Several months prior to Cluett’s concert in November, he began a research residency at the NYPL and the library commissioned him to compose a series of works in response to their collections of electronic music. However, Cluett noted that his work at the NYPL actually started much earlier. While he was in graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 2000s, he was the processing archivist, digitizing the collections of Pauline Oliveros, Eric Siday, and helping with Charles Dodge. The majority of the Sounding Circuits exhibition consists of materials Cluett selected from the NYPL, though a few items are on loan from Columbia’s Computer Music Center and Bell Labs. Ted Gordon, Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Columbia, wrote the prose for the contextualization of the historical materials.

What particularly fascinated me about Sounding Circuits is how it provides a fresh perspective on audible histories. (For another important example of audible history, see Emily Thompson’s project The Roaring ‘Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City.) As scholar Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden writes, audible history is not just the recovery of past sounds—whether through sound recordings, historical artifacts, or models of acoustic space—but also the reanimation of past ways of listening. Similarly, Cluett’s exhibition sheds new light on the history of early electronic music by reanimating the experience and feelings that listeners had when encountering this music in its original historical context. Cluett reproduces a similar experience by means of an ambisonic cube: an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound.

Ambisonic cube

Ambisonic cube, an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound. Photo Molly Sheridan

Cluett described how his exhibition works to reanimate the history of early electronic music:

I think so much of the history of electronic music now, the early history that is, is replayed on YouTube or Spotify playlists, or people going to the library and digging through the archives and putting on a pair of headphones and listening to it in isolation. There’s something much different about standing inside an ambisonic cube of speakers. In this environment, you’re sitting in the middle of a voice; you’re embodied in sounds that are creating air pressure around you. By doing things like repositioning these works not as a frontal presentation in a proscenium or in a headphone presentation in isolation, but putting people right in the middle of the sound, you get a remarkable new life to these pieces. That’s been a comment that comes up over and over, as people have gotten back to me about their experience in the exhibition.

Similarly, Cluett explained, the exhibition’s photos and historical artifacts bring new life to the hopes and aspirations that inspired early electronic music composers:

Then there’s reanimating the history by putting the color back into black-and-white photographs. We have a custom green mixer that in the photos looks black-and-white, and it’s kind of boring and scientific. But [in the exhibit] you see this absurd green that could be nothing else but the 1960s, and it breathes new life into these artifacts—in a way that when people see them, they see the sci-fi, the futurism, and the lofty goals of a bunch of people that were really optimistic about the future of electronic music.

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening's studio at Columbia

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening’s studio at Columbia. Image courtesy: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

What makes the audible history of the Sounding Circuits exhibition so different from other projects is the way that it incorporates Cluett’s own personal history. A highlight was learning about his relationship with Pauline Oliveros. The collaboration began with a commission for poet and accordion sent via a postcard from Trudy Morse, who never said Oliveros would be the accordionist. After performing the piece with Oliveros, their work together continued, including making field recordings in Italy and performing her Apple Box Double, a piece that involved contact microphones placed on an apple box and improvised sounds that she had first developed with David Tudor in the 1960s.

A crucial aspect of the exhibition, however, is how Cluett uses sound recordings, historical artifacts, and past technologies as a reference point in his own experimental music practice—in particular the works that he was commissioned to compose for the NYPL. (For more on composers and sound artists who make use of historical objects and past technologies, see the scholarship of Jennie Gottschalk.) These newly composed works are responses to classic works from the history of electronic music, many of which had an impact on him as a composer. They do not attempt to imitate their models stylistically, but rather respond to the experimental mode that the composers were working in. For example, Cluett’s Affordances responds to Laurie Spiegel by being algorithmically generated, but it is in his own vocabulary. Cluett nevertheless acknowledged that his vocabulary “has a lot of Laurie Spiegel and Oliveros in its practice.” In the exhibition, these new compositions are played alongside the classics that inspired them. “The ambisonic cube has a playlist that rotates around the room like a clock face, consisting of Cage, Varèse, Pril Smiley, Laurie Spiegel, Charles Dodge, Paul Lansky, Jean-Claude Risset, and Pauline Oliveros. And as it does that, each of those works has a piece between them that I composed that mitigates the experimental difference between the poles of pieces adjacent to my work.” Cluett aimed to highlight how “audible histories are an attempt to think about how earlier generations of sound practice influenced current practice, and how current practice recontextualizes history—both in a personal way for me, but in a real way for the objects on their own, for everyone who comes to the exhibit to see and hear them.”

Seth Cluett’s Accordion Alone

The exhibition Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories is on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until March 23, 2019.

“Splendid Sonority and Vivid Expressiveness”: The Theremin before Sci-Fi

A photo of a female conductor circa 1930

Most people who haven’t heard of the theremin have heard it, usually in old science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (or spoofs like Mars Attacks). The instrument has a reputation as an oddball, by virtue of its unusual method of playing without touch (players control pitch and volume by moving their arms in proximity to two antennae), its notoriously slippery chromatic sound, and its association with all things alien and strange.

Yet the instrument was popular with U.S. audiences well before its appearance in sci-fi films. A significant surviving reception history documents recitals and concerts during the ’30s and ’40s, often given by women, known as “thereminists,” who played the instrument professionally or semi-professionally. Years before Hollywood cemented the theremin’s association with the alien or otherworldly, critics heard different qualities in its sonority: emotional expressiveness and excessive sentimentality.

This history isn’t widely known or taught, but it reveals much about how electronic musical sound takes on meaning and significance. While we might take for granted that the instrument’s touchless technique and new electronic timbre would naturally register with early listeners as alien and strange, contemporary reviews and commentary upend such assumptions and reveal the extent to which sonorities take on meaning in specific contexts, and in relationship to specific bodies.

A Theremin for the American Home

RCA Victor began producing the first commercial theremin in 1929 after leasing exclusive rights to the patent for a two-year term from its inventor, Leon Theremin. The company marketed the theremin as an instrument for the home, hiding its working parts—oscillators, vacuum tubes, and circuit board—in a polished wooden cabinet. Working with Theremin (an amateur cellist himself), RCA engineers shaped the instrument’s tone to evoke a cello in its mid-range and a violin at the top, sonorities they presumed would appeal to consumers.

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA launched a campaign to familiarize audiences with the instrument’s sound. Department stores and music retailers across the country advertised demonstrations and concerts, and a series of weekly radio programs on NBC featured theremin renditions of popular repertory of the day and classical melodies like Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” RCA marketed the instrument as a pathway to instant musical gratification for the amateur, promising that anyone could play it “without musical knowledge or training of any sort … without tiresome or extended ‘practice.’” The theremin (RCA hoped) would become “the universal musical instrument,” the piano’s heir apparent in millions of American living rooms.

Claims of universality notwithstanding, this campaign primarily targeted middle and upper-class white women, a demographic frequently associated with (and compelled to take on) domestic music-making and most likely to select music technology purchased for the home. Although men frequently played the theremin in demonstrations and broadcasts, RCA Victor’s promotional material almost exclusively pictured women playing the instrument. In Madison, Wisconsin, the local Ludlow Radio company sponsored several theremin concerts by a Mr. Lennington Shewell, but otherwise emphasized female use. The company launched a search for a “mystery co-ed” at the University of Wisconsin, alleging a gifted thereminist lived among the student body (no record of such a student survives). The local Capital Times gamely took up the publicity stunt, running an image of Ludlow’s office manager Charlotte Hilton with the instrument—although she admitted she did not know how to play it.

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin," Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin,” Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

Despite RCA Victor’s marketing efforts, the theremin was a flop: the company sold only 485 models and abandoned the instrument just two years after its launch. Any number of factors contributed to the theremin’s commercial failure, not least of them the instrument’s $230 price tag (roughly equivalent to $3,300 in 2018), which made it a luxury item at the start of the Great Depression.

RCA Victor’s most notorious blunder, though, was its gross misrepresentation of the instrument’s learning curve. It is incredibly difficult to play tonal melodies on a theremin: with no tactile interface and the entire chromatic spectrum available, the instrument lacks any readily apparent means to make a clear break between intervals, and requires a player’s hand to remain absolutely still in order to hold a steady pitch. Try to pick out even a simple melody on a theremin, and you’ll find yourself fighting a battle against continuous glissandi and poor intonation.

Thereminists and their critics

Despite these technical challenges, in the decades following the theremin’s commercial failure a small number of performers, most of them white women, concertized on the instrument in the U.S. and Europe. Among these, Clara Rockmore remains the most celebrated. A former child violin prodigy, Rockmore took theremin technique and virtuosity to a new level, developing a complex fingering method she adapted for each piece she performed. She carefully curated a repertoire for the instrument drawn mostly from works for violin and cello, with slow tempi and a great deal of step-wise motion that minimized the large pitch slides to which the instrument was prone. A typical program included works like Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata in A Major. Her career included national tours as the opening act for Paul Robeson and a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.

Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” accompanied by her sister Nadia Reisenberg

Throughout her career, critics lauded Rockmore’s virtuosic playing and sophisticated musicianship. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers in Rockmore’s hands, describing its tone as “warm” and “rich” and comparing it to the cello, violin, and human voice. They heard a “splendid sonority and vivid expressiveness” and a “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone in Rockmore’s playing. To this day, she remains influential among thereminists.

Yet critical response to Rockmore and the theremin was not universally positive. A rhetoric of noisiness threads through this early reception history, employed by (mostly white, mostly male) critics to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. During the ’30s and ’40s, when concert thereminists like Rockmore were active, critics often complained about their “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento. There is a practical explanation for such complaints: without the use of these techniques, it is next to impossible to locate pitches, or to create even the impression of accurate intonation, on the theremin.

Critics, however, did not limit themselves to practical questions about technique. Many turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking “excessive” chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. Writers for the New-York Tribune and Modern Music compared the theremin’s sonority to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena,” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such comparisons are inseparable from the (frequently female) bodies that, in concert with the theremin, produced such sounds.

A few prominent figures in the American new music community at the time were particularly vehement in their criticism. In 1932 Marc Blitzstein wrote in Modern Music that the theremin’s “tone color remains lamentably sentimental, without virility. The most perfected [model], like a cello, exposes most brutally the cloying sound.” John Cage complained about concert thereminists in a 1937 talk (later published in the collection Silence). “When Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities,” groused Cage, “Thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past. Although the instrument is capable of a wide variety of sound qualities…Thereminists act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like. We are shielded from new sound experiences.”

The deficiencies commentators like Cage heard in the theremin’s sonority were not simply a response to the sound itself, but to the bodies and performance practices of thereminists like Rockmore. Composers of Western art music have long used “excessive” chromaticism to aurally mark women, and the thereminists’ frequent use of vibrato and portamento easily mapped onto the stereotype of the overly powerful and expressive operatic soprano. Meanwhile, new music proponents like Blitzstein often attacked traditional Western repertory in gendered terms as they sought to define a properly “virile” new music of their own. And we cannot dismiss the impact that the image of a woman performing held then (and holds now): such a vision can provoke both admiration and outrage.

Clara Rockmore

Photograph of Clara Rockmore (c. 1930s) by Renato Toppo, courtesy of The Nadia Reisenberg / Clara Rockmore Foundation

“Serious” and “Beautiful” Electronic Music

It is composers like Cage who stand as towering figures in electronic music—not performers like Rockmore—and it is his take on the theremin that you’re likely to encounter in a book on the subject. Rockmore held entirely different opinions on the aesthetics of electronic musical sound. Looking back on her career in a 1977 interview with Bob Moog, she lamented that:

From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of composers,…builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new or strange sound effects….Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don’t think they know how to write really beautiful melody….Now they make sound effects and noises when they write.

Rockmore also lamented what she saw as Hollywood’s devaluation of the theremin’s sound to a sonic cliché. She complained that Hollywood exploited the theremin for its “weird noises…you were supposed to be frightened by the sounds. That was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician…play Bach!” John Cage might have belittled Rockmore’s repertoire choices as “censorship,” but for her, playing “masterpieces from the past” was a way to confer legitimacy on her chosen instrument.

Contrasting Rockmore’s words about the theremin’s sound with Cage’s demonstrates how their relative positions of power and vulnerability influenced their discussions of electronic musical sound. Both were musicians in elite spheres—one traditional, the other avant-garde. Both worked in niche musical areas and proselytized for their chosen work. Both, at least publicly, disdained musical sounds they did not like or found threatening to their own careers.

Cage is often praised for his commitment to artistic freedom, and it is his definition of freedom—freedom from tonality, from traditional repertoire—that has been taken up and promoted by most electronic music historians. Yet in the case of the theremin, Cage argued for the restriction of performance practices, and historians use his words to explain why thereminists are not properly part of electronic musical history. Rockmore had a different take. When explaining how the theremin fit in the broader electronic music scene, she said, “The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can.” It is time we expand our own notions of musical freedom. Our histories will only grow richer when we do.

“Underground” Electronic Music

A black and white brochure photo of a Telharmonium

Electronic musical sound saturates our sonic world. Check the pop charts any week, and you’ll hear sounds clearly identifiable as electronic in almost every track. We expect to hear these sounds, and rarely consider their presence, let alone their significance. Given their ubiquity, it’s clear that electronic sounds matter—but how? What do they mean to us? How did they become so valuable and so popular?

If you go looking for answers to these questions in the pages of electronic music histories, you are likely to read a story like this: in the middle of the 20th century, avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen pioneered various techniques, ideas, and sounds that eventually led to a digital revolution in the 1980s, when electronic music exploded and came to dominate popular music.

Among other problems with this narrative: popular electronic music existed well before the experiments of these “great men.” Thousands of people in the U.S. witnessed electronic musical sounds played on early electronic instruments long before the celebrated midcentury experimentalists. Each of these instruments offers a history with its own answers to questions about encounters between audiences and new electronic sounds.

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

Telharmonium Hall

The instrument that first introduced U.S. audiences to electronic sound was an enormous machine that drew accolades during two short seasons in New York City: the Telharmonium. Invented by Thaddeus Cahill and installed in the city from 1906 to 1908, the instrument occupied two floors of “Telharmonium Hall” at Broadway and 39th Street. In the basement sat half an acre of machinery, including switchboards, tone mixers, and dynamos—the large electrical generators that produced the instrument’s sound. Telephone wires carried the sound upstairs where receivers, somewhat amplified by simple paper cones, piped the music to audiences. Two, three, or sometimes four performers played the instrument’s hodgepodge of interfaces, including multiple keyboards, pedals, and switches.

Telharmonium Hall opened in 1907 to critical and popular success. During its first season, tens of thousands of people attended concerts there. The hall also offered subscription services a century before streaming platforms like Spotify came to dominate music consumption. Some of the city’s most lavish cafes and hotels, among them the Café Martin and the Waldorf Astoria, became subscribers, as did private individuals like Mark Twain. The Plaza Hotel went so far as to wire every guest room for Telharmonic service.

Laudatory accounts appeared everywhere from McClure’s and The New York Times to Scientific American and Literary Digest. “It is wonderful,” said Alfred Hertz, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, “and I believe in telharmony as an art of music.” Famed tenor Enrico Caruso foresaw a musical “revolution,” and journalists agreed, predicting the end of the orchestra, a new era in musical appreciation, and the improved health and family life of Americans (at least some Americans) who would now have music, day and night, “on tap.”

Dinner from the Future

“Dinner from the Future” (depiction of an “ideal” family experiencing Telharmonium music, piped through their lamp, during dinner)

“Purer and Better”

For proponents of the instrument, the Telharmonium was an ideal vehicle for revolutionary changes in music production and consumption because of the quality of its tone, widely perceived as “pure” and even “perfect.” Purity has long been associated with whiteness. Rhetoric about racially “pure” musical aesthetics and sounds was already decades old by the 20th century, and was exacerbated by anti-immigrant policy and sentiment. “Purity” was central to a nationalist voice culture movement of teachers and musicians that thrived in the U.S. from around 1880 to 1920. Scott Carter, who has documented the movement, notes an obsession with pure vocal tones, rooted in racist beliefs about vocal clarity and anxiety over non-white immigrants.

Within the new science of acoustics, which Cahill carefully studied, purity of tone had a similar racial component. Tara Rodgers notes that acousticians like Hermann von Helmholtz equated “notions of the sine wave as ‘pure’ and ‘lacking body’ with whiteness and scientific objectivity,” and timbral variations away from this norm with “material embodiment (e.g. raced, gendered, classed) and transgressive pleasures.” Cahill designed the Telharmonium to produce and combine sine waves and to create various timbres, and touted the instrument’s tones as being “purer and better than those of the orchestral instruments.”

Journalists happily took up this talking point about the instrument’s sound, describing it as particularly pure in review after review. The Telharmonium’s audiences and commentators were almost exclusively middle- and upper-class white people, and while it’s impossible to know whether the average listener heard the instrument’s sound as pure, it is safe to say that they experienced it through the lens of their racial experience. White audiences were used to having all kinds of products marketed to them as “pure” (and therefore healthy and superior)—from soap to food to medicine. Telharmonic music was for this population: created and sold in elite white spaces, consumed by white audiences, and widely described as sounding white.

Telharmonium Performers

Telharmonium Performers, Ray Stannard Baker, “New Music for an Old World,” McClure’s Magazine (July 1906)

Insiders and Outsiders

Nowhere does a journalist or marketer make the whiteness of the Telharmonium’s sound explicit; as Jennifer Stoever points out, when whiteness is the racial default, its sonic qualities are rendered inaudible. Yet one New York Times story—“An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy”—comes close, pitting the Telharmonium’s sound against music made by a pair of immigrant street musicians.

During the Telharmonium’s brief time in New York City, the number of Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the city and nation was rising rapidly. Then as today, overblown fears about immigrants fed—and were fed by—racist stereotypes and discourses about citizenship (at the time, these immigrants were not considered white). In “An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy,” a pair of street musicians—“two swart Italians, man and wife”—set up their barrel organ just outside Telharmonium Hall during a performance. In the story, as the husband begins to crank “a syncopated air” out of the instrument, his wife stops him, crying, “Somebody in dis-a place ees playing da bigga org” and pointing to Telharmonium Hall. The “Sicilians,” The Times reports, “were awed. They realized that against the massive tones that came from the building their instrument offered a thin and hopelessly unentertaining substitute for such rival music—although theirs had the merit of being real.”

Yet awed as they were, the musicians themselves posed a threat to the order within Telharmonium Hall: the sounds of their barrel organ disrupted the concert. In response, the hall’s manager, who had been giving a demonstration of the instrument, directed the players to begin a performance of Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei,” assuring the audience that this would “put an end to the hand organ.” As predicted, the performance silenced the street musicians into awestruck and dumb appreciation.

Every aspect of this New York Times story carefully designates the Telharmonium as an instrument fit for white bourgeois society, using the immigrants on the street as a foil that drives the point home. The bodies inside Telharmonium Hall (both the “society folk and prominent New Yorkers” in the audience and the management) are racially unmarked, and therefore white, unlike the “swart” immigrants outside. The “great massive tones” and the comparison with the pipe organ connected the Telharmonium to Western art and sacred music traditions, while the sounds of the street musicians registered as disruptive noise rather than music. The Telharmonium’s repertory—mostly slow, lyrical “classical” and popular melodies—likewise drew on white Western traditions in contrast to the “syncopated” music of the street musicians, which easily could have been a popular ragtime tune with roots in Black musics.

Even the “unreal” status The New York Times assigned to the Telharmonium’s music appears as a (racial) merit that signals a freedom from materiality, not unlike the supposed immateriality of sine waves. In describing its sound as “unreal,” the author emphasizes the ephemerality of music emitted by hidden sources beneath Telharmonium Hall and transmitted over wire. In contrast, the physicality of the street music is almost excessive. Its means of production—the barrel organ and its player—are not only visible but conspicuous, marked as outsiders by their speech and skin.

At the Telharmonium keyboard

At the Telharmonium keyboard, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

The End of Underground Music

After the promise of the Telharmonium’s first season, the instrument’s fortunes nosedived. Unable to navigate the enormous legal and logistical challenges of delivering music via telephone wires to subscribers across the city, the instrument’s financial backers extracted themselves from the project and Telharmonium Hall closed permanently in the spring of 1908.

Even if the Telharmonium’s backers had managed to create the infrastructure the instrument required, its success was hardly guaranteed. Despite the accolades from the white press, the instrument was notoriously inept with popular music of the day like ragtime. While the Telharmonium offered performers an array of controls for dynamic expression and timbre, Cahill seems to have thought little about how the instrument handled music that relied on rapid rhythms and clear attacks.

The Telharmonium’s history points us to a version of electronic music history rich with meaning and uncomfortable truths about how musical sound comes to matter to us. Its brief popularity suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we have long located profoundly human qualities in electronic musical sound. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the humanity we find there is a deeply troubled one, rooted in our nation’s ongoing struggles over race, identity, and belonging.

Daria Semegen: So Many Awareness Pixels Going On at the Same Time

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.

Daria Semegen in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
In the Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York
June 14, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

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.

“I think our audio and visual world, as well as our reactions to it, are coming from defense mechanisms.”

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.

Daria Semegen in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

Daria Semegen in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

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.

“We are every day and every moment, a different listener and a different viewer.”

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.

DS:  Exactly.

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.

DS:  Yes.

A vintage patch cord analog synthesizer at Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

It seems like a great distance from Daria Semegen’s earliest music training, piano lessons, to this vintage patch cord analog synthesizer in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University. But after learning about her earliest sonic memory, it all makes sense.

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.

DS:  Yes.

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.

DS:  Mhmm.

A reel-to-reel containing recordings of several classic 1950s tape music compositions by Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Bruno Maderna is one of the treasures on display in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

A reel-to-reel containing recordings of several classic 1950s tape music compositions by Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Bruno Maderna is one of the treasures on display in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

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.

“My piano teacher wasn’t always thrilled when I’d come in with a little sketch of something.”

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.

A group of "benders" on top of a canister.

A group of “benders” on top of a canister in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University is one of the many personal “intuitive” quirks scattered around the space.

FJO:  It’s extraordinary that you had an experience hearing music you wrote for orchestra live so early in your life.

DS:  Very.

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?

“I had never heard the words ‘electronic music.’ There were no courses in this thing. This was basically experimenting from scratch.”

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.

FJO:  Wow.

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.

“I remember meeting Sam Adler for a lesson and he asked me, ‘Are you applying to BMI?’
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.

Daria Semegen still manipulates sound using reel-to-reel tapes and teaches her students to do so as well. And, after more than a half century of experience, she has well-tested preferences for what the best angles are for splicing. This is why there is a slab of wood positioned on this reel-to-reel machine (one of four at her Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University) which enables people working with the tape deck to precisely eyeball where to position a razor blade in order to make a splice on the tape.

Daria Semegen still manipulates sound using reel-to-reel tapes and teaches her students to do so as well. And, after more than a half century of experience, she has well-tested preferences for what the best angles are for splicing. This is why there is a slab of wood positioned on this reel-to-reel machine (one of four at her Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University) which enables people working with the tape deck to precisely eyeball where to position a razor blade in order to make a splice on the tape.

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.

DS:  Yeah.

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.

“Tonal music is a world that has definite, prescribed behaviors, etiquettes, and expectations.”

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.

The whiteboard in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University which includes the phrase "tonal obligations" as well as a couple of twelve-tone rows and a diatonic scale.

The whiteboard in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

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 IntoTrill 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.

The Buchla Synthesizer at Daria Semegen's Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University.

The Buchla Synthesizer at Daria Semegen’s Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University.

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.

“By comparative listening, I said, ‘Hey, what would this trill be like if I actually spliced the freaking thing together?’”

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.

“When some systems become ergonomically too gadgety, it does not intrigue me very much.”

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.

A vintage ARP 2600 is still in use in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

A vintage ARP 2600 is still in use in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

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.

Some of the extraordinary vintage equipment in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

Some of the extraordinary vintage equipment in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

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.

DS:  Yeah.

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.

“Editing is a constituent part of what my pieces are about.”

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”!

“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.”

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.

A collection of loops created by Stony Brook students using magnetic tape saturate a wall in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio.

A collection of loops created by Stony Brook students using magnetic tape saturate a wall in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio.

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.

A page from the movement and lighting "score" for Arc which was fixed before Daria Semegen began composing the music for it. (Image courtesy Daria Semegen.)

A page from the movement and lighting “score” for Arc which was fixed before Daria Semegen began composing the music for it. (Image courtesy Daria Semegen.)

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.

An archival photo from the original Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre production of Arc in May of 1977 which featured a portable computer-controlled lighting system by Mimi Ganard and James Seawright and an electronic musical score by Daria Semegen. (Photo courtesy Daria Semegen.)

An archival photo from the original Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre production of Arc in May of 1977 which featured a portable computer-controlled lighting system by Mimi Ganard and James Seawright and an electronic musical score by Daria Semegen. (Photo courtesy Daria Semegen.)

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?

FJO:  Yeah.

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.

“I don’t think of old school and new school or in between schools.”

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!

Various vintage oscillators and reverb units surround a state of the art digital mixing console.

Analog and digital equipment co-exists in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

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.

“The job of a composer is to choose!”

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.

DS:  Yes.

FJO:  That’s a very long time—44 years.

DS:  Mhmm.

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.

“I’m not going to tell an audience what to do or how to react. That’s not my job!”

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!

Daria Semegen with a bunch of wires in her mouth sitting in front of the Buchla synthesizer at the Stony Brook Electronic Music Center.

Daphne Oram’s Sound Houses

I’ve been writing a play haunted by Daphne Oram. “Who?” many a composer or music professional has asked when I’ve confessed my current creative obsession.

British inventor and composer Daphne Oram, a pioneer of electronic music and co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic workshop, died impoverished and relatively unknown in 2003. Oram’s system of Oramics, an early form of sound synthesis developed in the late fifties, involved generating sound from drawn image. When, in 2010, a relic of the composer’s “Oramics machine,” a behemoth of a contraption designed to house multiple strands of film running through a series of scanners, was unearthed moldering in a barn in France, the composer’s legacy was exhumed. Oram experienced the beginnings of a revival of sorts, one that has been growing steadily ever since. In June 2016, Still Point, the piece Oram wrote for two orchestras and tape machine in 1948, when she was 23—thought to be the world’s first composition that manipulates electronic sounds in real time—premiered in London as part of the Southbank Centre’s Deep∞Minimalism festival to ecstatic notices 70 years after Oram composed the work. And yet, although Oram has clearly become a beacon for contemporary composers from Missy Mazzoli to Rene Orth to Anne LeBaron, the question, voiced by many a respected music colleague, keeps resounding: “Who?”

Oram has clearly become a beacon for contemporary composers from Missy Mazzoli to Rene Orth to Anne LeBaron.

Daphne’s invisibility is at the center of my new play Sound House, which runs from February 20 to March 4 at the Flea Theater in New York City, produced by New Georges as part of a repertory project entitled “Steeped in Sound.” Two research trips I made to the Daphne Oram archive at Goldsmith’s University in London fueled my work on the play, which has become not just an investigation into Oram’s sonic legacy but a meditation on the nature of trust (Daphne’s complicated relationship with her engineer) and doorbell ditching. (I found, in the archive, that Daphne was obsessed with a barrage of buzzes and bells she was convinced she had heard, and obsessively recorded all possible arrivals—no one was ever there.) Daphne’s alter ego in the play, Constance Sneed, who has come to the theater to tell us her own story involving a disappearing mother and Constance’s own struggle with invisibility, serves as the lens through which we view Daphne. Ultimately, Daphne’s and Constance’s stories bump up against each other, two parallel narratives converging at a distant vanishing point that envisions a world in which old ladies do not die alone or forgotten, trusted accomplices prove their mettle, and young women make themselves seen and heard. Oram’s pursuit of Francis Bacon’s vision of a utopian society clamorous with heretofore unknown sounds and music resonates at the core of the play, in which text, sound, and movement all function as primary modes of expression. Sound House is, I hope, a lot like Daphne’s music—visceral, strange, haunting, at times funny, a conjuring of psychic space through sound, a landscape one garners a sense of having journeyed through.

As a playwright who has, in recent years, become an opera librettist as well, writing this play and exploring it off the page, in three, perhaps even four dimensions, has been for me not just an inquiry into the various shadings and mind-bending qualities of invisibility, but an investigation into the architectonics of sound in the theatrical space; the collusion, or collision, of text and music; how it is that one composes a durational object.

Thanks to the generosity and the vision of New Georges, the company producing the play, my collaborators and I have been lucky enough to engage in a process that has involved four workshops over two years and a production rehearsal process with a sound designer frequently in the room. Sound House’s team of makers includes Debbie Saivetz (direction), Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Walcott (sound), Brendan Spieth (movement), Marsha Ginsberg (set), Kate McGee (lights), Olivera Gajic (costumes), and Christina Campanella (additional music), and actors Vicky Finney, Susanna Stahlmann, and Jim Himelsbach.

The composer’s almost hermetic relationship with the sounds she produced came from literally living with the music and her Oramics machine.

Just as Daphne’s story and her music have served as jumping-off points for my own idiosyncratic theatrical imagination, the sound designers of Sound House, Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Wolcott, have chosen to dream in to how Daphne’s music might sound to us if it were written now. The music in Sound House comes not just from Daphne, but from a wide array of sources, including composer Christina Campanella, my collaborator on Red Fly/Blue Bottle (2010), whose music for the play explores the tactility of Daphne’s sound world—the ways in which Oram coaxed sounds out of her machines—via a loping, slightly off-kilter composition created out of found sounds and Moog synthesizer. Campanella is compelled by the connection Daphne had with her music, the composer’s almost hermetic relationship with the sounds she produced, which came from literally living with the music and her Oramics machine in her studio, which was also her home, a former oast house in Kent entitled Tower Folly. Campanella’s music communicates Daphne’s sense of wonder as well as the ways in which Daphne’s sound inventions became, for Daphne, characters or companions. Campanella has also created a theme for Constance, which serves as a metaphor for the process my collaborators and I are undertaking as we venture into Daphne’s world, a journey of exploration and discovery that Constance concurrently undergoes as the play unfolds.

Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed in Stephanie Fleischmann's play Sound House

Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.

Incorporating Campanella’s work into the mix, the sound designers are, in this case, functioning as composers. But then again, in a way, so am I. So is everyone in the room. We are, in a sense, making a piece of music, a multidimensional sonic object in which movement and sound serve as text, text becomes music, and sound carves out not only space and time, but also story. The play is replete with refrains, for instance, the buzzes and bells Daphne keeps hearing, recurring images (sonic, textual, visual) that serve as motives. Its complex and elliptical dramaturgy defies narrative logic even as it is, at least on some level, rooted in character and story. There is clearly a need to tell, an urgency to the telling—but the shape of that articulation is elusive, an open field in which anything may be possible. And yet the work demands a remarkable rigor, a precision to the carving out of its moments in terms of the integration of text, sound, and movement that I have not previously experienced, whether working on a play, a performance, or an opera.

The sound designers are functioning as composers. But then again, in a way, so am I.

Inspired by Daphne Oram’s maverick vision, her life and her music, I find myself challenging what a play can be, the narrative structures it can hold. As opposed to hewing to a more conventional narrative arc, the play’s structural underpinnings arise from the cyclical and associative patterns of thought, in turn forging a shape whose logic (or illogic) has its roots in Oram’s music, which Horace Ohm, Daphne’s fictional engineer in Sound House, describes as “the underside of a half-remembered dream, like a distant thought, coated in rime, like memory itself.”

By the time she was in her sixties, Daphne found herself reduced to putting on outdoor concerts of recorded music to make ends meet. Calling on her early experiences as a junior engineer at the BBC, she installed sound systems in the forecourts, on the rolling lawns, in the apple orchards of the great houses of Kent, curating eclectic programs for a scattering of old-age pensioners, keeping meticulous notes as she wired up these sites: “20 paces from apple to yew to cherry.”  “Daphne Oram’s Recorded Music Society” is a centerpiece of the play, which attempts to get at what my rendition of Daphne describes as “the endless ostinato that is the opposite of renown.” Daphne’s struggle to disseminate her system of Oramics to a wider audience, and for recognition as both an inventor and a composer, dogged her until the end of her life. What is the moment, the turning point that determines that a person’s dreams are not going to come about? Sifting through the clues contained in the Daphne Oram archive, musing on the trajectory of my own life and those of many gifted artists I have known, no one answer emerges. The experience of invisibility is not a linear phenomenon. Neither are the ways in which invisibility undermines a life. Daphne’s eroded hopes are not unlike the infrasonics, the low unheard frequencies that pervade the play, wearing away at Daphne’s resilience in all sorts of insidious ways. Charting the depths of the condition of invisibility from the point of view of music and its modalities is making the space for discoveries I’m not sure would have come about via more linear means.

Foregrounding sound means that the text becomes something of a scaffold—not unlike an opera libretto.

Foregrounding sound as a primary compositional tool means that the text becomes something of a scaffold—not unlike an opera libretto. How is it that writing a play like Sound House informs my work as a librettist? How does my work as a librettist inform my approach to a play such as Sound House? In many ways, the two forms and the processes fueling them are somewhat antithetical. Creating an opera libretto requires an intense amount of premeditation—outlining, problem-solving, planning, all of which transpires prior to the actual writing process. Paradoxically, I have never outlined any play I’ve ever written. Sound House is, in part, structured around the conceit of a trio of first-person testimonials. It contains many more words than any libretto I would venture to write. And yet, working in opera for the past six years has sharpened my ear, deepened my understanding of musical dramaturgy, which has clearly informed how I am making my way through this play.

Daphne Oram was obsessed with Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis (1624). She kept a  passage from it—“We have also Sound Houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”—pinned to her studio wall as inspiration. My contribution to an opera, the libretto—a fashioning of text as a scaffold for music, for drama, for lived time, for inhabited space, for story—must be all about a crystalline, almost cut-throat dramaturgy. But taking this leap into the more nonlinear terrain of Daphne Oram’s and Francis Bacon’s “Sound Houses,” however, has yielded invaluable insight into the machinations, if one dares use such a word, of music making, which can’t help but inform how I approach my next opera libretto. Working on Sound House has opened up new possibilities, leaving me to ponder what a libretto that does more than simply leave space for the music might look like; and ask not just how might I best serve the composer, but how can I build structures with my texts that truly house sound?

Jim Himelsbach (as Horace Ohm, Daphne Oram’s engineer), Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed, and Vicky Finney as Daphne Oram in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.

Jim Himelsbach (as Horace Ohm, Daphne Oram’s engineer), Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed, and Vicky Finney as Daphne Oram in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.