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Sarah Hennies was a name that was barely on my radar before the pandemic, but after spending over six months mostly in lockdown I listened to a CD released on New World Records, a label that pretty much always piques my interest, featuring two works of hers, both of which were a little over a half hour in duration. One is a trio for piano, double-bass, and percussion with the peculiar name Spectral Malsconcities which was performed by new music stalwarts Bearthoven. The other is a duo for just piano and percussion called Unsettle performed by the Bent Duo, an ensemble which was also relatively unfamiliar to me. The music seemed to evoke everything I was feeling about this extremely precarious and terrifying time we’ve all been living in, despite the fact that both pieces were composed and recorded before the word Covid became an unfortunate daily household utterance.
I was fascinated and intrigued. I had to hear more of her music and listened to everything I could find, from her early collaborative work as part of the Austin-based experimental rock band Weird Weeds to her multimedia documentary Contralto to extended duration solo and chamber music compositions for various instrumental combinations. Despite the extremely broad stylistic range of this material, it all shared a concern for extremely precise sonic gestures and involved a great deal of repetition, but not guided by any kind of structural process as far as I could discern. Again, very much in the same way days and months seemed to pass over the last two years. I had to speak to her and learn more.
The most significant music has the uncanny ability to tap into a zeitgeist sometimes well in advance of its time although, when I spoke to Hennies earlier this month, she said that she hadn’t associated her time bending compositional aesthetic with our current realities. She did, however, acknowledge the relationship. But everyone listening to this music might come away with a different personal reaction to it and that’s fine by her since how we perceive sound on a psychological level as it unfolds over time is key to the sonic experiences that Sarah Hennies creates, whether it involves hearing layers of counterpoint that are the result of the natural reverberation of a particular physical space or hearing ghost sonorities that aren’t actually there because of the way certain timbres combine.
“Everything for me is about the listening experience,” she said. “I don’t even use quote-unquote systems anymore. … Part of the reason that I like working with repetition so much is that you have this sense that the music is staying in one place, but it feels like it’s developing anyway. And so, it’s like the music is stopped in time, but to me, doing something over and over again, even though the music is not hypothetically changing, your thoughts are changing. Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let’s say, eight minutes. And so, the listener is changing even though the music is always changing on a micro-level, but essentially you’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”
Sarah Hennies’s scores are extremely economical; the score for the nearly 34-minute Unsettle is a mere two pages. And yet the sonorities feel extremely generous.
“I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound,” she explained. “I’m not writing melodies and harmonies. It’s like not that kind of music. So it’s about something else.”
Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let's say, eight minutes.
If I find myself wanting to hear something or do something over and over again, and I can't totally explain why, then that to me is a very, very good reason to put that into music because then you can then externalize those thoughts or see it from a listener point of view.
I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound.
I'm not writing melodies and harmonies. It's like not that kind of music. So it's about something else.
The easiest way to get a performer to do what I want without a bunch of extra nonsense is something that has played into how I write music really, really profoundly
Everything for me is about the listening experience.
There's no guarantee that a player is gonna play a mathematically perfect C-sharp every time ... something else that I love doing is playing on inherent imperfections in human performance.
Simple thing equals complicated experience. Not to make it sound it too dumb, but that's really it.
There have been a few moments over the last ten to 12 years where I did something, and I immediately thought: oh, I'm somewhere else now.
It doesn't make sense that Orienting Response would be engaging. You know, it's like 45 minutes of bing-bong, bing-bong. But I just found it addictive or intoxicating.
That is something that I still feel I'm doing, to be strange in a way that's not aggressive or dissonant for the sake of dissonance.
I very intensely identify as a DIY artist ... I don't have a world as far I'm concerned, except my own.
This is a semantic thing, but I don't consciously want to go in a new direction.
I don't want to be permanently attached to any organization, or genre, or movement, or whatever. I just want to be out here wandering around by myself and just going where people want me basically.
My experience generates the music, but that's not the thing that I need people to know about.
I didn't want to be "Sarah Hennies: the Trans Composer."
For a long time now I've thought it would be great to write a piece that was three or four hours long.
One of the hallmarks of many different kinds of music performance—whether it’s a classical piano recital, a jazz combo in a club, or an arena rock show—is the demonstration of extraordinary physical feats on musical instruments. A cult of virtuosity has perpetuated the belief that the harder something is to play, and hence the fewer people who are able to play it, the better the music, and that the rare specimens of humanity who are able to play such music have special superhuman powers. At the same time, embedded in the word virtuoso is the word virtuous, implying that the rest of us who can’t scale these heights are somehow lacking in moral goodness.
Composer/performer Molly Joyce explained to us when we visited her in Washington, D.C. at the Halcyon Arts Lab, where she’s in residence this year, why perpetuating the notion that only a small select few are physically worthy enough excludes most people from the experience of making and ultimately enjoying art:
I think it’s problematic when one type of body or one type of being is reinforced through new music that still seeks a physically virtuosic connection. And I think that’s why, at least for myself, I always try, in my own passive way, to hopefully suggest other types of physicality.
Although she eschewed pyrotechnics in her own music long before she publicly identified as disabled (which was only about two years ago), Joyce has found many alternatives to virtuosity since embarking on exploring disability aesthetics as an artistic pursuit. For her, vulnerability is the new virtuosity. As she explains, “It’s not like you have to necessarily get rid of virtuosity all together, but you can reimagine it through other forms.”
She realizes, however, that music lags behind other artistic disciplines in embracing disability, and because of that she has been drawn to working with video artists and choreographers. One of the most fascinating projects she has been involved with is Breaking and Entering, a collaboration with the disabled interdisplinary artist Jerron Herman, which was awarded a 2019 New Music USA Project Grant. During the course of the piece, she and Herman swap roles—she dances and he sings:
My dance is definitely not super on point, and he’s not super in tune all the time, but the whole point for us is, through the disability aesthetic, we’re coming together. It’s not perfect. There are enough mistakes and we’re showing this, and also showing our vulnerability through that, a breaking and entering through, hopefully, to something else. That’s just as interesting as a very virtuosic piece.
[Ed. Note: This month, guitarist Jiji will perform Molly Joyce’s Plus and Minus at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ (February 1). The South Carolina Intercollegiate Band, conducted by Jack Stamp, will perform her All or Nothing in Columbia, S.C. (February 8). NakedEye Ensemble will perform Less is More at The Cell in New York City (February 16). Cellist Alistair Sung will perform Tunnelvision at Batavierhuis in Rotterdam, Netherlands (February 20), and the Harvard Glee Club, conducted by Andrew Clark, will premiere a new Molly Joyce work with text by Marco Grosse at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (February 21). On March 31, Joyce will moderate a Disability and Creativity Panel at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C., and on May 15, New Amsterdam Records will release her first full-length album Breaking and Entering which features her voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic layering of both sources “in an act to reimagine disability within the human body.”]
Vulnerability is a new virtuosity.
Music and the arts in general should be more a place of personal expression.
There are adaptive instruments, but you don’t see those at concerts.
The first contemporary composers introduced to me by my high school composition teacher were Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Not everything has to be perfect all the time.
I don’t really care about crediting too much.
What does weakness mean for me? I don’t know if I have the answers yet.
As I wrote in my previous post, I view performing with “live sound processing” as a way to make music by altering and affecting the sounds of acoustic instruments—live, in performance—and to create new sounds, often without the use of pre-recorded audio. These new sounds, have the potential to forge an independent and unique voice in a musical performance. However, their creation requires, especially in improvised music, a unique set of musicianship skills and knowledge of the underlying acoustics and technology being used. And it requires that we consider the acoustic environment and spectral qualities of the performance space.
Delays and Repetition in Music
The use of delays in music is ubiquitous. We use delays to locate a sound’s origin, create a sense of size/space, to mark musical time, create rhythm, and delineate form.
The use of delays in music is ubiquitous.
As a musical device, echo (or delay) predates electronic music. It has been used in folk music around the world for millennia for the repetition of short phrases: from Swiss yodels to African call and response, for songs in the round and complex canons, as well as in performances sometimes taking advantage of unusual acoustic spaces (e.g. mountains/canyons, churches, and unusual buildings).
Of course, delay was also an important tool in the early studio tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer (Etude aux Chemin de Fer) as well as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The list of early works using analog and digital delay systems in live performances is long and encompasses many genres of music outside the scope of this post—from Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics to Miles Davis’s electric bands (where producer Teo Macero altered the sound of Sonny Sharrock’s guitar and many other instruments) and Herbie Hancock’s later Mwandishi Band.
The use of delays changed how the instrumentalists in those bands played. In Miles’s work we hear not just the delays, but also improvised instrumental responses to the sounds of the delays and—completing the circle—the electronics performers respond to by manipulating their delays in-kind. Herbie Hancock was using delays to expand the sound of his own electric Rhodes, and as Bob Gluck has pointed out (in his 2014 book You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band), he “intuitively realized that expressive electronic musicianship required adaptive performance techniques.” This is something I hope we can take for granted now.
I’m skipping any discussion of the use of echo and delay in other styles (as part of the roots of Dub, ambient music, and live looping) in favor of talking about the techniques themselves, independent of the trappings of a specific genre, and favoring how they can be “performed” in improvisation and as electronic musical sounds rather than effects.
By using electronic delays to create music, we can create exact copies or severely altered versions of our source audio, and still recognize it as a repetition, just as we might recognize each repetition of the theme in a piece organized as a theme and variations, or a leitmotif repeated throughout a work. Besides the relationship of delays to acoustic music, the vastly different types of sounds that we can create via these sonic reflections and repetitions have a corollary in visual art, both conceptually and gesturally. I find these analogies to be useful especially when teaching. Comparisons to work from the visual and performing arts that have inspired me in my work include images, video, and dance works. These are repetitions (exact or distorted), Mandelbrot-like recursion (reflections, altered or displaced and re-reflected), shadows, and delays. The examples below are analogous to many sound processes I find possible and interesting for live performance.
Sounds we create via sonic reflections and repetitions have a corollary in visual art.
I am a musician not an art critic/theorist, but I grew up in New York, being taken to MoMA weekly by my mother, a modern dancer who studied with Martha Graham and José Limon. It is not an accident that I want to make these connections. There are many excellent essays on the subject of repetition in music and electronic music, which I have listed at the end of this post. I include the images and links below as a way to denote that the influences in my electroacoustic work are not only in music and audio.
Both the woman and her reflection in Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror are abstracted and interestingly the mirror itself is both the vehicle for the reiteration and an exemplified object.
There are also repetitions, patterns, and “rhythms” in work by Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Sol Lewitt, M.C. Escher, and many other painters and photographers.
In time-based/performance works:
Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, is a dance choreographed in 1982 by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. De Keersmaeker uses shadows with the dancers. The shadows create a 3rd (and 4th and 5th) dancer which shift in and out of focus turning the reflected image presented as partnering with the live dancers into a kind of sleight-of-hand.
Reflection/repetition/displacement are inherent to the work of countless experimental video artists, starting with Nam June Paik, who work with video synthesis, feedback and modified TVs/equipment.
Another thing to be considered is that natural and nearly exact reflections can also be experienced as beautifully surreal. On a visit to the Okefenokee swamp in Georgia long ago, my friends and I rode in small flat boats on Mirror Lake and felt we were part of a Roger Dean cover for a new Yes album.
Natural reflections, even when nearly exact, usually have some small change—a play in the light or color, or slight asymmetry—that gives it away. In all of my examples, the visual reflection is not “the same” as the original. These nonlinear differences are part the allure of the images.
These images are all related to how I understand live sound processing to impact on my audio sources. Perfect mirrors create surreal new images/objects extending away from the original. Distorted reflections (anamorphosis) create a more separate identity for the created image, one that can be understood as emanating from the source image, but that is inherently different in its new form. Repetition/mirrors: many exact or near exact copies of the same image/sound form patterns, rhythms, or textures creating a new composite sound or image. Phasing/shadows—time-based or time-connected: the reflected image changes over time in its physical placement with regards to the original and creating a potentially new composite sound. Most of these ways of working require more than simple delay and benefit from speed changes, filtering, pitch-shift/time-compression, and other things I will delve into in the coming weeks.
The myths of Echo and Narcissus are both analogies and warning tales for live electroacoustic music.
We should consider the myths of Echo and Narcissus both as analogies and warning tales for live electroacoustic music. When we use delays and reverb, we hear many copies of our own voice/sound overlapping each other and create simple musical reflections of our own sound, smoothed out by the overlaps, and amplified into a more beautiful version of ourselves! Warning! Just like when we sing in the shower, we might fall in love the sound (to the detriment of the overall sound of the music).
Getting techie Here – How does Delay work?
Early Systems: Tape Delay
A drawing by Mark Ballora which demonstrates how delay works using a tape recorder. (Image reprinted with permission.)
The earliest method used to artificially create the effect of an echo or simple delay was to take advantage of the spacing between the record and playback heads on a multi-track tape recorder. The output of the playback head could be read by the record head and rerecorded on a different track of the same machine. That signal would then be read again by the playback head (on its new track). The signal will have been delayed by the amount of time it took for the tape to travel from the record head to the playback head.
The delay time is determined by the physical distance between the tape heads, and by the tape speed being used. One limitation is that delay times are limited to those that can be created at the playback speed of the tape. (e.g. At a tape speed of 15 inches per second (ips), tape heads spaced 3/4 to 2 inches apart can create echoes at 50ms to 133ms; at 7ips yields 107ms to 285ms, etc.)
Here is an example of analog tape delay in use:
Longer/More delays: By using a second tape recorder, we can make a longer sequence of delays, but it would be difficult to emulate natural echoes and reverberation because all our delay lengths would be simple multiples of the first delay. Reverbs have a much more complex distribution of many, many small delays. The output volume of those delays decreases differently (more linearly) in a tape system than it would in a natural acoustic environment (more exponentially).
More noise: Another side effect of creating the delays by re-recording audio is that after many recordings/repetitions the audio signal will start to degrade, affecting its overall spectral qualities, as the high and low frequencies die out more quickly, eventually degrading into, as Hal Chamberlin has aptly described it in his 1985 book Musical Applications of Microprocessors, a “howl with a periodic amplitude envelope.”
Added noise from degradation and overlapped voice and room acoustics is turned into something beautiful in I Am Sitting In A Room, Alvin Lucier’s seminal 1969 work. Though not technically using delay, the piece is a slowed down microcosm of what happens to sound when we overlap / re-record many many copies of the same sound and its related room acoustics.
A degree of unpredictability certainly enhances the use of any musical device being used for improvisation, including echo and delay. Digital delay makes it possible to overcome the inherent inflexibility and static quality of most tape delay systems, which remain popular for other reasons (e.g. audio quality or nostalgia as noted above).
The list of influential pieces using a tape machine for delay is canonically long. A favorite of mine is Terry Riley’s piece, Music for the Gift (1963), written for trumpeter Chet Baker. It was the first use of very long delays on two tape machines, something Riley dubbed the “Time Lag Accumulator.”
Terry Riley: Music for the Gift III with Chet Baker
Tape delay was used by Pauline Oliveros and others from the San Francisco Tape Music Center for pieces that were created live as well as in the studio, with no overdubs, which therefore could be considered performances and not just recordings. The Echoplex, created around 1959, was one of the first commercially manufactured tape delay systems and was widely used in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Advances in the design of commercial tape delays, included the addition of more and moveable tape-heads, increased the number of delays and flexibility of changing delay times on the fly.
Stockhausen’s Solo (1966), for soloist and “feedback system,” was first performed live in Tokyo using seven tape recorders (the “feedback” system) with specially adjustable tape heads to allow music played by the soloist to “return” at various delay times and combinations throughout the piece. Though technically not improvised, Solo is an early example of tape music for performed “looping.” All the music was scored, and a choice of which tape recorders would be used and when was determined prior to each performance.
I would characterize the continued use of analog tape delay as nostalgia.
Despite many advances in tape delay, today digital delay is much more commonly used, whether it is in an external pedal unit or computer-based. This is because it is convenient—it’s smaller, lighter, and easier to carry around—and because it much more flexible. Multiple outputs don’t require multiple tape heads or more tape recorders. Digital delay enables quick access to a greater range of delay times, and the maximum delay time is simply a function of the available memory (and memory is much cheaper than it used to be). Yet, in spite of the convenience and expandability of digital delay, there is continued use of analog tape delay in some circles. I would simply characterize this as nostalgia (for the physicality of the older devices and dealing with analog tape, and for the warmth of analog sound; all of these we relate to music from an earlier time).
What is a Digital Delay?
Delay is the most basic component of most digital effects systems, and so it’s critical to discuss it in some detail before moving on to some of the effects that are based upon it. Below, and in my next post, I’ll also discuss some physical and perceptual phenomena that need to be taken into consideration when using delay as a performance tool / ersatz instrument.
In the simplest terms, a “delay” is simple digital storage. Just one audio sample or a small block of samples, are stored in memory then can be read and played back at some later time, and used as output. A one second delay (1000ms), mono, requires storing one second of audio. (At a 16-bit CD sample rate of 44.1kHz, this means about 88kb of data.) These sizes are teeny by today’s standards but if we use many delays or very long delays it adds up. (It is not infinite or magic!)
Besides being used in creating many types of echo-like effects applications, a simple one-sample delay is also a key component of the underlying structure of all digital filters, and many reverbs. An important distinction between each of these applications is the length of the delay. As described below, when a delay time is short, the input sounds get filtered, and with longer delay times other effects such as echo can be heard.
Perception of Delay — Haas (a.k.a. Precedence) Effect
Did you ever drop a pin on the floor? You can’t see it, but you still know exactly where it is? We humans naturally have a set of skills for sound localization. These psychoacoustic phenomena have to do with how we perceive the very small time, volume, and timbre differences between the sounds arriving in our ears.
In 1949, Helmut Haas made observations about how humans localize sound by using simple delays of various lengths and a simple 2-speaker system. He played the same sound (speech, short test tones), at the same volume, out of both speakers. When the two sounds were played simultaneously (no delay), listeners reported hearing the sound as if it were coming from the center point between the speakers (an audio illusion not very different from how we see). His findings give us some clues about stereo sound and how we know where sounds are coming from. They also relate to how we work with delays in music.
Between 1-10ms delay: If the delay between sounds is used was anywhere from 1ms to 10ms, the sound appears to emanate from the first speaker (the first sound we hear is where we locate the sound).pix here of Haas effect setup p 11
Between 10-30ms delay: The sound source continues to be heard as coming from the primary (first sounding) speaker, with the delay/echo adding a “liveliness” or “body” to the sound. This is similar to what happens in a concert hall—listeners are aware of the reflected sounds but don’t hear them as separate from the source.
Between 30-50ms delay: The listener becomes aware of the delayed signal, but still senses the direct signal as the primary source. (Think of the sound in a big box store “Attention shoppers!”)
At 50ms or more: A discrete echo is heard, distinct from the first heard sound, and this is what we often refer to as a “delay” or slap-back echo.
The important fact here is that when the delay between speakers is lowered to 10ms (1/100th of a second), the delayed sound is no longer perceived as a discrete event. This is true even when the volume of the delayed sound is the same as the direct signal. [Haas, “The Influence of Single Echo on the Audibility of Speech” (1949)].
The Haas Effect (a.k.a. Precedence Effect) is related to our skill set for sound localization and other psychoacoustic phenomena. Learning a little about these phenomena (Interaural Time Difference, Interaural Level Difference, and Head Shadow) is useful not only for an audio engineer, but is also important for us when considering the effects and uses of delay in Electroacoustic musical contexts.
What if I Want More Than One?
Musicians usually want the choice to play more than one delayed sound, or to repeat their sound several times. We do this by adding more delays, or we can use feedback, and route a portion of our output right back into the input. (Delaying our delayed sound is something like an audio hall of mirrors.) We usually route only some of the sound (not 100%) so that each time the output is a little quieter and the sound eventually dies out in decaying echoes. If our feedback level is high, the sound may recirculate for a while in an endless repeat, and may even overload/clip if new sounds are added.
When two or more copies of the same sound event play at nearly the same time, they will comb filter each other. Our sensitivity to these small differences in timbre that result are a key to understanding, for instance, why the many reflections in a performance space don’t usually get mistaken for the real thing (the direct sound). Likewise, if we work with multiple delays or feedback, when multiple copies of the same sound play over each other, they also necessarily interact and filter each other causing changes in the timbre. (This relates again to I Am Sitting In A Room.)
In the end, all of the above (delay length, using feedback or additional delays, overlap) all determine how we perceive the music we make using delays as a musical instrument. I will discuss Feedback and room acoustics and its potential role as a musical device in the next post later this month.
My Aesthetics of Delay
To close this post, here are some opinionated conclusions of mine based upon what I have read/studied and borne out in many, many sessions working with other people’s sounds.
Short delay times tend to change our perception of the sound: its timbre, and its location.
Sounds that are delayed longer than 50ms (or even up to 100ms for some musical sounds) become echoes, or musically speaking, textures.
At the in-between delay times (the 30-50ms range give or take a little) it is the input (the performed sound itself) that determines what will happen. Speech sounds or other percussive sounds with a lot of transients (high amplitude short duration) will respond differently than long resonant tones (which will likely overlap and be filtered). It is precisely in this domain that the live sound-processing musician will needs to do extra listening/evaluating to gain experience and predict what might be the outcome. Knowing what might happen in many different scenarios is critical to creating a playable sound processing “instrument.”
It’s About the Overlap
Using feedback on long delays, we create texture or density, as we overlap sounds and/or extend the echoes to create rhythm. With shorter delays, using feedback instead can be a way to move toward the resonance and filtering of a sound. With extremely short delays, control over feedback to create resonance is a powerful way to create predictable, performable, electronic sounds from nearly any source. (More on this in the next post.)
Live processing (for me) all boils down to small differences in delay times.
Live processing (for me) all boils down to these small differences in delay times—between an original sound and its copy (very short, medium and long delays). It is a matter of the sounds overlapping in time or not. When they overlap (due to short delay times or use of feedback) we hear filtering. When the sounds do not overlap (delay times are longer than the discrete audio events), we hear texture. A good deal of my own musical output depends on these two facts.
Some Further Reading and Listening
On Sound Perception of Rhythm and Duration
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1972 lecture The Four Criterion of Electronic Music (Part I)
(I find intriguing Stockhausen’s discussion of unified time structuring and his description of the continuum of rhythms: from those played very fast (creating timbre), to medium fast (heard as rhythms), to very very slow (heard as form). This lecture both expanded and confirmed my long-held ideas about the perceptual boundaries between short and long repetitions of sound events.)
Pierre Schaeffer’s 1966 Solfège de l’Objet Sonore
(A superb book and accompanying CDs with 285 tracks of example audio. Particularly useful for my work and the discussion above are sections on “The Ear’s Resolving Power” and “The Ear’s Time Constant” and many other of his findings and examples. [Ed. note: Andreas Bick has written a nice blog post about this.])
Speculating in 2002 on what a memorial at the former World Trade Center might look like, The New York Times’s architecture critic Michael Kimmelman took a guess. “A memorial, as part of a mixed-use project, will in some way turn out to look Minimalist, Minimalism, of all improbable art movements of the last 50 years, having become the unofficial language of memorial art. What used to be men on horses with thrusting swords has morphed more or less into plain walls and boxes.” And his prediction has proved largely correct: Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence is part of a mixed-use project (a memorial park and museum), with a minimalist aesthetic.
There is no real equivalent in music to the mixed-use space of public art, but the aesthetic of minimalism has been evident in musical memorials to 9/11 as well. Although an accidental tribute, perhaps the most well-known example is William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Created a few months before September 2001 (and based on tapes recorded much earlier than this, in the early 1980s), Basinski’s recording of slowed-down Muzak, looped onto tape and then played back as the magnetic coating of the tapes (and the sounds it stored) began to disintegrate, seemed to capture perfectly the emotions of that day. Having not known what to do with these recordings of sonic collapse and decay since making them in July 2001, Basinski brought them out on the afternoon of September 11, opened the windows of his Brooklyn apartment, and played them as a soundtrack while he and his neighbors watched the plumes of smoke over lower Manhattan and “tried to work out what the hell was going on.” In the evening he filmed the still-smoldering buildings as the sun set, later setting the footage to the first in The Disintegration Loops series, dlp1.1. The film was eventually purchased by the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor.
Looped and layered, with a processual form that, once begun, is left to run its course, The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor. Other compositional tributes have been less minimalist in their approach, however. In contrast to trends within the visual arts there have, for example, been a large number of neo-Romantic responses in which emotional registers are more specifically articulated: among them John Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning, Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem, and Karen Walwyn’s Reflections on 9/11. Even those works by composers of an ostensibly minimalist background have been rather more mixed in their style and aesthetic. In last week’s post I referred to how John Adams used harmony and orchestration to color his piece’s recitation of names, giving each a particular identity and providing his work with an overall emotional arc. In this post and the next, I want to look in detail at two more memorial pieces, both of them by minimalist (or at least post-minimalist) composers and both of them string quartets: Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park (this post) and Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (next week).
Both pieces were also commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. In 2006, having been asked to play a concert at the Herbst Theatre where the founding charter of the United Nations was signed, and to do so on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the quartet devised a program that brought together the world’s music in an attempt to better understand it after 9/11. That program was arranged into three sections. The first comprised traditional music from Iraq, Iran, and Central and Southern Asia. The third drew more on the contemporary classical sphere, moving its geographical focus to Europe and North America. The second, and the concert’s heart, featured Gordon’s The Sad Park (as well as two works not directly related to 9/11: John Oswald’s Spectre and Kronos and Paolo Prestini’s arrangement of ‘Armenia’ by Einstürzende Neubauten).
In 2001, Gordon’s (and Julia Wolfe’s) son Lev attended nursery school in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Shortly after the attacks, one of his teachers, Loyan Beausoleil, began to make recordings of the children’s recollections of that day, and Gordon uses four of these (for example, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came”) as the basis for the four sections of his work. Like Basinski on the roof of his apartment, these kids were trying to figure out the meaning of 9/11—albeit from a very different position of understanding—and this becomes the theme of Gordon’s piece.
Varieties of digital sound processing are applied to the four speech samples: in Parts 1 and 3 the samples are progressively time-stretched until their individual sonic grains can be heard (the first section of Part 3 also loops different fragments of the original sample); in Parts 2 and 4 different granular synthesis techniques are applied that compress or fracture the sample. In Part 4 the sample is also looped and given a stuttering, shaking effect. In all four instances, the original speech is taken in or out of recognisability using audible processes that morph it into sounds evoking howls or multitudes of anonymous, unrooted points of sound. Rather than—in quasi-surrealistic fashion—uncovering hidden, unconscious meanings within the original samples, the effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.
The effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.
The relationship between the sound samples and the string quartet writing is oblique. Although the strings are not an orchestration or transcription of the vocal sounds, there is a certain amount of harmonic complementarity between the two, placing both layers of the work in the same musical space. There are also some loose rhythmic correspondences. In Part 1, for example, the string music gradually slows in parallel with the sample’s gradual stretch, although it does so by stepwise shifts in meter rather than a gradual ritardando, and at a different pace to the electronics. (In Part 3 something of the reverse happens, with the quartet music becoming busier as the sample slows.) Gordon’s music also provides a general emotive palette that is, for the most part, tense, agitated, and anxious. Even when the music and speech act in direct dialogue (as in certain moments in Parts 2 and 3 when the music drops out for the speech to be heard clearly, before stepping back in), the emotional intent is relatively unspecified.
Nevertheless, the work is undoubtedly programmatic in its choice of samples: the references in the children’s speech are clear, even if made through the imprecise and uniquely inflected recollections of kindergarten children (“I just heard that on the news that the buildings are crashing down”). Yet beyond basic statements about the event, Gordon’s chosen texts impose no narrative, and neither does his music, which is minimalistically abstract in its use of disengaged processes and static tableaux. Only in Part 4 (“And all the persons that were in the airplane died”) do the musical cues become clearer. The shuddering looped sample (evoking sobs?) is set against dissonant rising glissandi, which give way to a furious final three minutes of heavily accented sawing, an unfettered release of energy, a final thrash, a question shouted into space, unanswered.
Unlike most post-9/11 works, The Sad Park is barely a memorial at all: its tone is not that of reconciliation. It is not a requiem, nor is it a “memory space” like On the Transmigration of Souls, with all the implications of security and psychological processes of acceptance that term suggests. Rather, it attempts to process the attacks’ immediate aftermath through simultaneous layers of mediation: the reactions of children too young to understand but old enough to recognize fear in the adults around them; the electronic processing that transmutes those words into any number of sonic symbols; and the extrapolation of this into a harmonic and rhythmic palette. What’s left is a rare portrait of doubt, anger, anguish, and bafflement that stands apart from the calming tone of official memorial style.
If one were looking for an official “monument” among musical responses to 9/11, one might expect to find it in John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic early in 2002, it was written to be performed at a concert scheduled for September 18 that year, very close to the first anniversary of the attacks. The timing was a coincidence: the concert had already been planned with an original program of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Yet on realizing the date, the orchestra wrote to Adams to request a commemorative piece to replace the Stravinsky. (The fact that September 2002 also marked the official beginning of Lorin Maazel’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director only added to the significance of the occasion.) The orchestra had already found a public role for itself in the wake of the attacks, offering consolation to the people of New York in a remarkable performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on September 22, 2001, that replaced the scheduled gala opening of the 2001-02 season with a benefit concert for the families of firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, and in the actions of individual members, who had given ad hoc performances to mourners at the Ground Zero site.
Yet for all this, Adams’s piece is far from a typical monument. It may have garnered all the prizes available to it from the American musical establishment—including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and (in its recording by Maazel, the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition—but it sets itself apart from the declamatory, official statement. Instead, On the Transmigration of Souls turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism, national redemption, or even vengeance. The attacks themselves—although present in many other examples of 9/11 music—are conspicuous by their absence; the closest allusion is the text “I see water and buildings,” the last words of one of the attendants on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower.
The piece turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism.
The work’s construction is well documented but worth reviewing. As well as the orchestra, Adams uses a chorus and a pre-recorded soundtrack. The text, which is divided between the singing chorus and spoken recordings on the soundtrack (made by Adams’s friends and family), is compiled from the handwritten missing persons signs that sprang up in huge quantities around Ground Zero in the days after the attacks (photos of which were taken by the New York Philharmonic’s archivist, Barbara Haws), and the short “Portraits in Grief” obituaries that the New York Times ran every day for more than a year after, each one a miniature of someone who had died in the towers. The soundtrack contains a further layer: recordings of New York, made by Adams in the early hours of the morning walking round the city. This is played back through speakers placed around the audience, mixed with the sounds of the orchestra, to create an immersive musical experience that surrounds its listeners rather than simply broadcasts to them from the stage.
The tone of Adams’s work—contemplative, non-dramatic, focused on absence rather than presence—prefigures Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence memorial park, opened on the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2011, two vast square pools with surrounding waterfalls, sunk 30 feet into the footprint of the original towers. It also echoes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (1982), one of the most successful of all contemporary memorials. Cut into the ground, giving it a minimal vertical profile, Lin’s memorial comprises two long wedges of black granite (each around 250-feet in length), which meet at their widest edge at an angle of about 120º. The black walls are highly polished and reflect the image of their viewers. They are inscribed with the names of the 58,253 US veterans killed in the war, arranged in chronological sequence.
The immersive style of Adams’s piece also relates to Lin’s memorial. Much like Lin’s mirror-like granite, Adams’s field-recorded, spatially distributed soundscape folds the listener into the work. Spatiality radically subjectivizes music, since (unlike the flatter, theoretically “even” projection from the stage) everybody’s experience will genuinely be different depending on their seating position. There is no “ideal” position from which to hear, and therefore no projected ideology of right or wrong, definitive or flawed. (It’s worth noting, however, that in practice this aspect of the piece initially troubled Adams: of the work’s premiere he writes that “some listeners found themselves uncomfortably close to a loudspeaker while others, being too far away from the nearest one, barely could make out what was coming from them.”)
Likewise, there is no “right” way to engage with Lin’s memorial. Too large to take in at once, it must be viewed in a combination of detailed attention and generalized scanning. To witness the whole thing is to take part in an active experience that requires at minimum a walk along its 500-foot length. Despite the inclusion of a 60-foot flagpole at the memorial’s entrance and Frederick Hart’s bronze sculpture Three Fighting Men (both mandatory additions not included in Lin’s original design), Lin’s memorial does not privilege one reading over another: part of its success lies in the fact that it can be read as both an indictment of war and a tribute to its fallen heroes.
The use of names is important in both contexts. As Erika Doss suggests, within a memorial context, naming first and foremost creates a sense of social unity: “to be named is to be acknowledged.” Lists of names are a prominent feature of contemporary memorial art, and great attention is paid to matters of sequence and inclusion or exclusion. (Should attackers be listed among the dead, for example? They aren’t in On the Transmigration of Souls.) Inclusion of a name can personalize a work of memorial and deepen its affective power. But names also enable lists, which provide a neutral ordering logic that can counter the “shattering disorder” of atrocity and trauma and that claims those names as a unified body. Adams steps gingerly between these poles. His soundtracked text, softly looping and layering names and appellations (“My sister,” “My brother”) echoes minimalism’s history, from the counting patterns of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach to the looping speech of Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, and My Name Is. It also recalls the recitation of names that takes place on occasions such as the anniversary of 9/11. But Adams’s music is not completely passive: it responds to those names, giving them individual identity through changes in harmony and orchestration, so that they are not subsumed into an undifferentiated mass.
It is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated.
The idea of the mass remains part of the aesthetic of Adams’s work, however, just as it is part of Lin’s. He has described how his initial difficulty in beginning the piece was overcome after watching amateur footage of the New York attack and seeing the clouds of paper falling from the top of the towers: “an image of millions and millions of pieces of paper floating out of the windows of the burning skyscraper and creating a virtual blizzard of white paper slowly drifting down to earth. The thought of so many lives lost in an instant—thousands—and also the thought of all these documents and memos and letters, faxes, spreadsheets and God knows what, all human record of one kind or another—all of this suggested a kind of density of texture that I wanted to capture in the music, but in an almost freeze-frame slow motion.” This is almost an image of the sublime, in which the sheer number of documents and the mass of data they contain overwhelms and, in turn, becomes a means to absorb and come to terms with the horror of that day. This sensation is reflected in Transmigration’s use of document masses—the missing persons signs, the Portraits of Grief obituaries, the list of names—and its orchestration, “refracted and rendered into particulate matter.”
Adams’s combination of soft orchestration, gentle harmonic palette, slow tempo, and steady intonation of phrases—“We will miss you … We all love you”—can verge on the sentimental: the mass can become too personalized. And the composer himself has expressed misgivings about the success of the work’s surround-sound element, something that may have been better achieved through more radical means. Nevertheless, it is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated. Its greatest success lies in its adaptation of minimalist tropes of immersion, massification, documentation, looping, and repetition to create a neutral space that can record without moralizing. My next posts will prise open the function and limits of minimalism to commemorative music by comparing two contrasting but closely related examples.
1. John Adams, Hallelujah Junction (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), p. 266.
2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010), p. 150.
3. New York Philharmonic, “Interview with John Adams,” available at https://www.earbox.com/on-the-transmigration-of-souls/ (originally posted to New York Philharmonic website, 2002).
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin
Countless forms of experimental music took place communally in the sixties, but much of that music eludes our histories of American experimentalism. Many groups didn’t produce scores or recordings or even hold formal events or concerts; many people didn’t assemble officially as “groups.” When we do reflect upon communal experimental music, we might recall well-known ensembles like the Theater of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate and the Sonic Arts Union, or slightly less-known groups like USCO and Group 212. These ensembles were communal to different degrees and at various stages of music making—from the collaborative creation of works to each individual’s prominence within an ensemble to the eventual ownership of compositions and recordings. One collaborative group that sought to both live their lives and make their music communally was the collective Pulsa. As a group dedicated to exploring “perceptible wave energies” through light and sound, Pulsa created art and music that not only made group collaborations audible and palpable, but they also reminded their audiences and participants—through light and sound—that actions have effects.
Pulsa, Harmony Ranch, Oxford Connecticut, ca. 1969 (source)
Pulsa participated in a massive communalist movement in the United States. Between 1967 and 1970, tens of thousands of Americans turned away from outward political action and went “back to the land,” joining what historian Fred Turner has called the “New Communalist” movement. Unlike the more explicitly political New Left, many of these New Communalists believed that the revolution wasn’t outwardly political but inwardly transformative—a revolution attained through interpersonal relationships and experiments with consciousness. Although many who joined communes eschewed electronics and large-scale technologies, a certain strand of this movement embraced small-scale tech like strobe lights, amplifiers, and slide projectors, along with bodily technologies like yoga, meditation, and hallucinogens. Pulsa was thoroughly plugged into this techno-powered back-to-the-land movement.
Pulsa was thoroughly plugged into this techno-powered back-to-the-land movement.
The Whole Earth Catalog—called by Todd Gitlin a “Sears catalog” for the sixties counterculture—is an eclectic artifact of the time period. This catalog incorporated, among hundreds of other things, pamphlets on how to build a teepee, a yurt, or a geodesic dome; tips on organic farming, mountaineering, and hitchhiking—practical information for going “back to the land.” But the catalog also included blurbs about books on cybernetics and early systems theory; advertisements for tape recorders, Moog synthesizers, and John Cage’s most recent books Silence and A Year from Monday. The catalog also featured an ad for the art and science organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), of which Pulsa formed the New Haven E.A.T. Local Chapter.
Founded in 1966 and active through 1973, Pulsa was an experimental collective based in Oxford, Connecticut. The group consisted of 7-10 people working in various disciplines, including painting, architecture, film, music, electronic engineering, psychology, mathematics, and computer programming. They lived together communally on a property called Harmony Ranch, and they also organized events at a downtown New Haven loft where, over the years, they hosted La Monte Young, Steve Reich, James Tenney, Terry Riley, Maryanne Amacher, Serge Tcherepnin, Richard Teitelbaum, and many others.*
In their essay “Notes on Group Process,” Pulsa—who always published collectively—described their central objective as developing “techniques for controlling perceptible wave energies.” Despite the varying specializations of its members, Pulsa aimed for each individual to be familiar with every dimension of a project to allow for the “complete interchangeability of roles.” By 1969, Pulsa was collaborating with a neuro-physiologist, attempting to model their working processes on the parallel processes of the human brain, which was “capable of simultaneously performing a variety of interactive operations.”
Pulsa described gardening as equal in significance to their more public projects and further emphasized the symbiotic relationship between their creative and agricultural work.
In working with wave energies, part of Pulsa’s work dealt with often invisible or inaudible materials like heat, sound, and light. For instance, in early 1970, Pulsa held an installation in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art’s Outdoor Sculpture Garden. In the MoMA garden, Pulsa aimed to gather “environmental information,” including sound, light, movement, and heat, using microphones, infrared sensors, and photocells. They then fed that information back into the garden using strobe lights, infrared heaters, and loudspeakers. Pulsa’s installation persisted 24 hours a day for two months, in the winter of early 1970, so even in the middle of the night, a strong gust of wind, the headlights of a passing car, or falling snow would trigger a response within the garden. And since Pulsa’s MoMA garden was receptive to heat, the mere presence of a body walking through the garden would be detected by infrared sensors and responded to with strobe lights and loudspeakers.
Pulsa Installation for Spaces Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, NYC, 1970 (source)
Beyond their larger installations, the majority of Pulsa’s work took place at their commune, where they could experiment with wave energies in everyday life, including tending to their farm at Harmony Ranch. In an essay from György Kepes’s collection Arts of the Environment, Pulsa described gardening as equal in significance to their more public projects and further emphasized the symbiotic relationship between their creative and agricultural work.
We grow many kinds of vegetables organically on the farm. Out of a half-acre garden we grew enough vegetables to feed ourselves, supply our neighbors, and barter with organic food stores. Agriculture provides information about long-term growth rhythms and is comparable in scale and as an energy to Pulsa’s other art works.
One of Pulsa’s main investigations with wave energies was conducted through brainwave experiments. In these experiments, participants would attach electrodes to their forehead and receive sound or light feedback when they achieved a certain frequency, most often an alpha state (around 8 to 12 Hz). Energies like brainwaves typically go undetected in day-to-day life, but by transducing it into sound and light, people could hear and see these energies. Such experiments, though, were not concerts or even formal events; they took place most often gathered around a circle at Harmony Ranch.
Serge Tcherepnin, brainwave experiments at Harmony Ranch, 1970 (source)
Pulsa’s experiments worked towards making wave energies more tangible and served as a reminder that when you make music—let alone move or breath or plant a garden—you affect the world around you. Although Pulsa’s example is perhaps an extreme one, it’s also a useful one. Pulsa’s work attested to the myriad ways that human beings are entangled—with each other and with environments—and you can hear this involvement; you can hear community through sound. Pulsa created a musical community that privileged not just the people within it but the sound and energy that sustained them.
* Members of Pulsa have uploaded numerous documents, including photos, event reviews, programs, and essays to achive.org.
Kerry O’Brien is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Indiana University and a percussionist with Nief-Norf. Her current research examines postwar experimentalism, media studies, and countercultural spirituality. O’Brien lives in Seattle where she is finishing a dissertation titled “Wireless Experimentalism: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), 1966-1971.” Her work has been supported by grants from the Presser Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, the Paul Sacher Foundation, and an American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women.
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin
What could minimalism possibly have to do with community?
Community is not one of the words typically included in descriptions of minimalism. It does not take its place alongside austere or process or repetition, nor does it fit into the formalist “family similarities” listed in the recent Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, including drone, repetition, stasis, audible structures, pure tunings, and so on.
Indeed, more often than community, minimalism had to do with conflict. Kyle Gann, in a 1998 piece for The Village Voice called “Minimalism Isn’t Pretty,” writes, “By the time minimalism emerged as a public phenomenon in 1973, it was squeaky clean and spruced up for company… Before its emergence, however, minimalism was a nameless, cantankerous Downtown movement of many composers and musicians.” He continues, “So many minds collaborated that it was not always possible to tell who introduced what innovation. In fact, the original minimalism scene so bristled with tension that it virtually exploded, and when the smoke cleared, newcomers Reich and Glass just happened to be the only ones left standing.” Likewise Branden Joseph argues that “the history of minimalist music is, to a surprising degree, a history of authorship disputes.”
So perhaps dispute and tension are more accurate descriptions of minimalist social relations. Nevertheless, an important point remains: scene-based tensions and disputes occur specifically because there is a community. Disagreement occurs within a commons; it takes place on a stage constructed and articulated through community relationships and sense-making.
Disagreement occurs within a commons; it takes place on a stage constructed and articulated through community relationships and sense-making.
In the case of minimalism, eventual authorial disputes were the result of a long series of close collaborative engagements. Anyone familiar with the historical foundations of the “aesthetic, style, or technique” can draw up a list: during the late 1950s at UC Berkeley, the relationship between La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Terry Jennings, and Dennis Johnson are all closely tied up with, among other pieces, Young’s Trio for Strings, Riley’s Concert for Two Pianos and Tape Recorders, and Johnson’s November. In 1964, Steve Reich helped Terry Riley organize the performers for the premiere of In C in San Francisco; he also introduced the pulsing Cs that create the work’s rhythmic grid and, as Terry Riley told Robert Carl, kept hippies out of their rehearsal space. In December of that same year, on the other side of the continent, Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela were performing their first concerts under the collective name The Theatre of Eternal Music. A short time later, Reich moved back to New York where, in 1967, he became reacquainted with his Juilliard colleague Philip Glass, leading the two to work together for several productive years (including a couple of European tours) during which they developed pieces such as Pendulum Music, Four Organs, Phase Patterns, Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music with Changing Parts, and more. The examples could continue, though I imagine many readers of this site are well aware of these early instances of collaboration. What’s important is that the subsequent disputes that resulted from these periods of collaboration—between Young and Conrad, Riley and Reich, Reich and Glass, and later Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, as noted by Joseph—frequently overshadow and seemingly negate the original fact of community for many writers on minimalism. That is, the focal point becomes the inevitably failure of collaboration in art music, rather than the results it produces.
What if we consider instead the early foundations of community among the minimalists? What was it that pushed them to collaborate in the first place? Under what principle of community were these collaborations possible? If there can be no dispute between parties that have nothing in common, then the answer to these questions is best found in the years prior to dispute. We can look in particular to early pieces of minimalist writing—particularly by examining what was manifest in a few early minimalist manifestos.
What was it that pushed them to collaborate in the first place? Under what principle of community were these collaborations possible?
The best known of these is surely Steve Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” (1968). While many musicologists have focused on Reich’s claims about process, and subsequently analyzed his works with close attention to the relative “purity” of the process in each piece, different portions of the essay strike me as more important. Reich’s focus is less on the technical application, and more on its perceptibility: “I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.” He continues, “to facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually.” There is a clear hierarchical relationship between the two terms: it’s not that gradual processes should be audible, it’s that gradual processes are the means towards the end of making structure audible. Listening and perceptibility are prioritized, with process as the means of actualizing the goal. And listening remains dominant when Reich makes his central historical claim. He points out that both Cagean chance and the serialism of Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen—musics thought of as the opposing poles of the compositional spectrum when he was writing in 1968—share one principle of commonality: “the compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection.” For all their differences technically and stylistically, Reich offers a simple though powerful critique that finds in these opposites a shared, underlying principle. Again: disagreements construct the stage of their own appearance; the terms of their dispute.
From this commonality, Reich sets out his primary goal, which gradual process appears to be the most functional means of achieving: “a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.” Reich argues for an egalitarian practice of music-making in which the composer joins the audience in listening to a plainly audible structure such that he or she, as he quotes James Tenney saying, “isn’t privy to anything.” Indeed, Reich writes this egalitarian listening into Pendulum Music (1968), which he composed alongside his manifesto. Several scholars have noted the relationship between the two, pointing to Pendulum Music as the height of a “pure” gradual process in Reich’s music, and criticized Reich for never having followed up on this rigorous, impersonal austerity. No one, however, has drawn any relevance from the score for Pendulum Music directing the performers to “sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.” That is, scholarship highlights Pendulum Music as a supposedly isolated example of a pure, formalist process, rather than acknowledging how pure process allows the composer and performers to join the audience as one listening community. In all listening together differently, it constructs the perfect stage for dispute.
Reich was not alone though; the manifesto seems to have been deemed an appropriate genre by the minimalists for simultaneously outlining their critiques of contemporary compositional practice and supplementing it with their own ideas. A lesser-known manifesto written by Tony Conrad in the summer of 1965 appeared later that year in the journal Film Culture. Conrad gained enough attention for his film The Flicker that the journal dedicated several pages to him, including his own written manifesto about his work with Young, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela. Titled “Inside the Dream Syndicate,” the first-person plural essay outlines the group’s manifestation of compositional collectivism:
The title “The Obsidian Ocelot…” is the one the group used throughout much of 1965 in concert programs. Throughout the essay the twenty-five-year-old Conrad writes in a style somewhere between, on the one hand, quasi-scientific music theory journals of the time like Die Reihe and, on the other, ecstatic, mid-1960s, stream of consciousness political critique. He writes, “Noises are not ever pitchless, to say the least. Pitched pulses, palpitating beyond rhythm and cascading the cochlea with a galaxy of synchronized partials, reopen the awareness of the sine tone—the element of combinatorial hearing.” More importantly, the essay is peppered with collectivized statements of purpose, framed around listening, tuning, and performance practice: “We don’t touch the 5th harmonic… [because] 7 sounds to us as clear as vulgar 5 once did”; “Our music is… droningly mon[o]tonal, not even being built on a scale at all, but out of a single chord or cluster of more or less tonically related partials” which introduce a “a synchronous pulse-beat.” He argues for the “genius of conglomerate action” in that it “raises the overall harmonic operative level beyond what is rationally controllable” by a single author. On their performance practice, he writes, “The string fingerer fights to find the right spot to press a motionless digit for months before noticing the demands of the right arm for microscopic fingerboard digit rockings, compensating periodically for the tiny variations in string tension with each change of bow.” As a result of this collective, long-duration practice, “we fail to have consciousness of [timbral] changes: the voices sound like something else, the violin is the echo of the saxophone, the viola is by day frightening rock ‘n’ roll orchestra [referring to Cale’s work in the Velvet Underground], by night the sawmill.” Because they are “the first generation with tape, with proper amplification,” the necessary technological changes are in place to “break down the dictatorial sonority barriers erected by the master instruments of the cultures.”
Both composers outline their compositional practice in opposition to existing “dictatorial sonority barriers” for Conrad and “secrets of structure” for Reich. In both cases, an appropriate response is formulated to work against those practices, whether it be the use of pure tunings, amplification, and drone for The Theatre of Eternal Music, or gradual and audible process for Reich. Similarly, both focus on moving away from the singular, privileged composer in favour of a music in which, on the one hand, a collective of droning performers can lose track of their own performance as each instrument begins to “sound like something else,” or, on the other, a desire to write a music in which the composer sits down and listens with the audience. Further, both highlight the centrality of listening as a means of breaking down the singular privileges of authorship: whether it be Conrad’s attention to the pitches internal to noise through “combinatorial hearing” or Reich in his central concern that the connection between process and sound be plainly recognizable through listening.
We can perhaps consider one earlier piece of pre-minimalist writing mentioned by La Monte Young in his “Lecture 1960”:
When Dennis Johnson and I were staying at Richard Maxfield’s apartment in New York, we discussed the amount of choice that a composer retained in a composition that used chance or indeterminacy. We generally agreed that the composer was always left with some choices of one sort or another. At the very least, he had to decide what chances he would take or what he would leave to indeterminacy in his composition. [Later] at my apartment in Berkeley Dennis mentioned that he had been thinking of what we had discussed in New York and that he had discovered a piece which was entirely indeterminacy [sic] and left the composer out of it. I asked, “What is it?” He tore off a piece of paper and wrote something on it. Then he handed it to me. It said, “LISTEN.”
Johnson’s piece of paper inscribed “LISTEN,” if we can consider it a manifesto, might be the shortest example of that genre across any artistic or political movement. Nevertheless, it points to the central concern developed by many of the people who would come to be called minimalists a decade later: prioritizing listening over writing is the dominant means of moving beyond the Cagean challenge to authorship. It seems that many of the impulses that define how we think of minimalism—drone, stasis, pure tunings, audibility of structure, process, repetition—developed as means of enacting a non-coercive compositional authority, a way of composing music in which no one has privileged knowledge of the structure. That these features all developed long before 1973 when Gann argues minimalism appeared “spruced up and ready for company,” points all the more to the fact that the sound of minimalism was developed as part of a community that, like any other, was equally open to collaboration and to dispute. The complex problem is this: while minimalism was still cantankerous and nameless, the composers were writing from within a collaborative community; it only took on its historical image as a “pretty” style of repetitive diatonicism once musicologists turned away from the complexity of collaboration, accepting instead the inevitability of dispute.
 Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll Ap Siôn, editors, The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music. (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), 4-6.
 Kyle Gann, “Minimalism Isn’t Pretty” in Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 203-7.
 Branden Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Verso, 2011), 37.
 Robert Carl, Terry Riley’sIn C (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 44.
 Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 34-6.
 See, for example: Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music (London: Kahn & Averill, 1983), 54; Keith Potter, Four Musical Minimalists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175; K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon,. 1996), 227; Edward Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 198; Sumanth Gopinath, “Contraband Children: The Politics of Race and Liberation in the Music of Steve Reich, 1965-1966” (PhD Dissertation, Yale University 2005), 59 (footnote 78); and Ross Cole, “‘Sound Effects, (OK Music)’: Steve Reich and the Visual Arts in New York City, 1966-1968” in Twentieth-Century Music 11/2 (2014), 239.
 See Reich (2002), 31.
 All quotes from this paragraph from Tony Conrad, “Inside the Dream Syndicate”, Film Culture 41 (1966), 1-8.
 La Monte Young, “Lecture 1960” The Tulane Drama Review 10/2 (1965), 73-83.
Patrick Nickleson is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto. His dissertation–supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada—focuses on the politics of authorship, collaboration, and dispute in early minimalism.
I only met Tony Conrad twice—once after a performance at Issue Project Room in September 2014, and again, almost exactly a year later, at his apartment in Buffalo in August 2015. The second time I had come to interview him as part of my dissertation research on authorship in early minimalism. He was—as those who knew him much better have consistently portrayed him—funny, painfully intelligent, generous with his time (we spent about eight hours together), respectful of those with whom he has worked over the years, and impatient with praise or questions that read too far into his own career and ideas.
In his book Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage, art historian Branden Joseph argued for Conrad as someone too complex, heterogeneous, and self-critical in his work to allow for the formation of a heroic “major” narrative. Joseph’s brilliant book presents an artist who aimed always to work at the margins, and in response to whom a straightforward “life and works” biography would do a great disservice. Nevertheless, the major narrative has appeared: particularly in obituaries, it leaps across a number of media, always carefully noting his problematization of authorship. But still, we can now trace a line that connects The Theatre of Eternal Music to early films like the Flicker and Straight and Narrow, before diverting to Germany to discuss his album with Faust, the Yellow Movies, his 1980s work in public access television, and his 1990s return to recording. That this narrative leaves out important works is inevitable—this is the case in any posthumous overview of an artistic career.
As a musicologist, I’ve been consistently impressed by Tony’s work as a theorist and historian of music—the way he has created critical foundations for his own work, within the long history of Western art music, all the while undercutting and mocking those very conditions of possibility.
Still, across all of this outpouring of attention, a few roles have taken center stage: filmmaker, violinist, and teacher/collaborator. As someone who met him relatively recently, and spoke to him as a researcher, I would like to uphold some level of the “minor” status Joseph attributes to Conrad by leaving aside his films and music. As a musicologist, I’ve been consistently impressed by Tony’s work as a theorist and historian of music—the way he has created critical foundations for his own work, within the long history of Western art music, all the while undercutting and mocking those very conditions of possibility. The avant-garde lineage within which he articulated his work is one of both depth and contingency. It is revered and mocked simultaneously, with Conrad enjoying the spoils of the tradition while outlining its unspoken power structures (and offering guidance in how to topple them).
How did he do this? The answer is strewn across an entire career’s writings and interviews. Anyone reading along the last few weeks is surely now aware of the extensive liner notes from his 1997 Early Minimalism, including his infamous assertion that “history is like music—completely in the present.” In those essays, Conrad framed a polemical narrative of his work with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and John Cale in the original Theatre of Eternal Music as a deliberative and democratic collective rather than as a group formed, as historians like K. Robert Schwarz have written elsewhere, for the sole purpose of performing drones under Young. Perhaps most powerfully, Conrad ties his travels in the avant-garde to the Western canon in an entirely novel way, drawing on the influence of the 17th-century violinist-composer Heinrich Biber, whose music Tony claims he heard as organized according to timbre and tuning rather than harmony or melody.
Tony Conrad. (Photo by Bettina Herzner, courtesy of Greene Naftali Gallery.)
Similarly, as Jeremy Grimshaw has argued, with the earlier CD Slapping Pythagoras, Conrad criticized Young in the guise of Pythagoras for substituting “a Theology of Numbers for the pragmatics of counting.” He considers this a profoundly anti-democratic confiscation of political potential from regular people, and shows how this initial theft becomes the organizing principle of specialized Western music against the heterophonic principles of community music-making. The articulation of this argument is, as with everything Tony did, paradoxical, messy, even silly, as it shifts between first-person attack and a more “objective” historical voice. He seems to have developed some of these ideas in the less publicly available works to which scattered reference can be found online, such as “Inducting Lully” and “Roughing Up Rameau.” This series of projects—as much scholarly as artistic—articulated a relationship between Western art music, tuning, and power that is perhaps Tony’s central theoretical contribution. Most importantly, it has inspired generations of musicians and artists, not only introducing to them the mathematics of just intonation and tuning, but doing so in such a way that is attached to the critique of power in art music.
This mode of anti-authority historiography continued outside of writing: it existed equally in his archival releases of his own music and that of others. His small imprint Audio ArtKive provided a number of releases that were avant-garde and probably unsellable even by the exceptional standards of their parent label, Table of the Elements. Several of the pieces on the three-CD set New York in the 1960s—archival recordings made with John Cale and others from the circle around 56 Ludlow St. (Angus MacLise, Terry Jennings, among others)—show their effort to formulate a new music making that was neither sole-authored nor purely “improvisation” in the wake of what Conrad saw as the post-Cagean challenge. The recordings show, more than anything else available, the problem of marking a strong dividing line between, for example, The Theatre of Eternal Music and the Velvet Underground, or treating Young as an inherent influence on the latter, or placing those two groups as obvious examples of an “avant-garde” and a “popular” impulse towards similar ideas. Similarly, the three Jack Smith CDs are incredible documents of the interaction between those same musicians and the experimental film scene occurring in that same apartment. To shift the locus of historical writing—which has yet to happen, at least in musicological thought on the period—from Young’s apartment at 275 Church St. to Conrad, Cale, and Smith’s at 56 Ludlow reveals an entirely different relationship to performance, labor, time, and intermedial influence.
We can further expand Tony’s mode of historiography into his “writing” in public space. One of my favorite examples of his historical practice—which is also a political practice, and an artistic one—comes up in an interview he conducted by email in 1996 with Brian Duguid of EST Magazine. Asked about the times he picketed performances by Young in Buffalo in 1990, Conrad explained himself in this way:
But picketing—picketing for or against something, and handing out literature—these are conspicuously formal actions. They have to be understood as indirect communication. Yes, I am “in communication” with La Monte Young, of course, when I picket and he is there to perform his public action—but by clearly shaping my own action as “picketing,” even though there is only me there, I am making my action interpretable only as a public or political action, not as a private communication. What I’m trying to say is that both the message conveyed through my picketing, and the picketing itself, were not communications primarily intended for La Monte Young personally. They were communications which took place on the public level, which is the level of culture, of symbolic statement. These were symbolic or formal statements, which are as much a part of “Music” as this interview is—even though this interview is actually silent, and we aren’t even speaking out loud.
Conrad chose picketing to be in communication with the public sphere, rather than only with Young. He stood by his proclamations and found the appropriate means of circulating them during a period when, we can assume, several letters by lawyers may have changed hands. Around this time, Young attempted to get Conrad and Cale to sign contracts admitting that they were merely performers in what Young claimed were his (and only his) compositions for the Theatre of Eternal Music. By standing in the street, Conrad publicly articulated these protests as part of the history of this music. His mode of engaging and reinserting himself into the history of “early minimalism” (a phrase which he frequently noted was intended to be ridiculous) was by asserting a continuity between his formal actions, the sounds on Young’s tapes (still inaudible to most listeners, since Young refuses to release them), and the public memory and context for any of the sounds that might eventually become available—which happened ten years later with the Table of the Elements release of Day of Niagara. In this public articulation of his argument—a means of taking to the streets as a solitary, weird protester to make history—Tony was building off his work from around the same time in his public access project “Studio of the Streets.” This is yet another project which is likely to receive little attention in the near future, as it breaks with not only economies of art, but also modes of historicizing art. (For some interviews, photos, and writing around the project, see Doing the City, a program published by the 80WSE Gallery in New York.)
Listening to the crowd from his window, placing it in opposition to its filtered presentation for mass mediation, draws to attention the dissonance between history as it actually occurs and history as it is mediated for us through the memorialization of experts and specialists.
Perhaps my favorite historical record, though, in Tony Conrad’s long career, is from another Table of the Elements CD, The Bryant Park Moratorium (1969), that went entirely unnoticed among all of the roundups of his “best moments” in the news these last weeks. In 1969, Tony Conrad lived just off Bryant Park in New York City during the famous “Bryant Park Moratorium” aimed at demanding an end to the Vietnam War. While the protest is remembered today for the involvement of and speeches from prominent celebrities and politicians—Woody Allen, Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary), forgotten Broadway stars (“please sit down so people can see them” the producer introducing them yells), Dick Cavett, and so on—Conrad provides an entirely different mode of listening to the event. In place of the representatives, delegates, and stars that so frequently stand in both for regular people and for the importance of an event, Conrad takes a unique approach to presenting the tension at hand in media coverage of such democratic mobilizations. Conrad sat in his apartment with one microphone and tape machine pointed out his window at the crowds below, and another mic’ing his television set’s news coverage. In the Table of the Elements release from 2005, the two tracks are panned left and right, showing the stark tension between the noise of the crowd and the clear, singular speech of the television set, focused on representative individuals deemed able to speak for the crowd. What’s remarkable on the CD is how rarely the sound of the speakers at the podium are audible above the roar of the crowd. Amid the celebrities constantly interpellated from the crowd by the reporters, and the politicians speaking to the crowd through loudspeakers, one might expect to frequently hear the same sounds booming across the park and up to Conrad’s window. Instead, we hear rhythmic applause, percussion, shouting, street noise, always in stark contrast to the bland platitudes of politicians and actors. Only rarely does any event in the media coverage rise to the level of street-level attention.
While Conrad was only 28 at the time, the method of recording the moratorium clearly set a standard for his approach to many issues of history and representation throughout his career. Listening to the crowd from his window, placing it in opposition to its filtered presentation for mass mediation, draws to attention the dissonance between history as it actually occurs and history as it is mediated for us through the memorialization of experts and specialists. His entire approach as a historian, artist, and all-around trickster, seems to be: How do I supplement the count of people assumed responsible for this public action? For the sound of minimalism in the early 1960s? How do I remind popular memory that an event was messy, collaborative, collective, and noisy? Is there something that occurs comparable to a difference tone that can result from listening to a heterogeneous collision in the realms of history and politics?
Tony Conrad’s writing is an incredible model of thought for any composer or musicologist. Studying his work as a historian means not only dealing with facts and details about the life and works of an important musician; it means engaging in a dialog with a thoughtful writer and thinker himself, someone whose thought and writing provokes reflexivity in my own writing studies. As several people noted in a fascinating piece on NPR that drew on the comments of several important collaborators, Tony could not help but be a teacher—including of generous and critical music-historical practice.
A couple weeks ago, on Twitter, Alex Temple cut to the chase:
Why do so many contemporary piano pieces have either 1,589,719,857,193,846 notes per second or two notes per second?
— Alex Temple (@alextemplemusic) April 28, 2014
The piano’s most distinctive characteristics—its gratifyingly hammered attack and its koan-like decay—are undeniably bewitching, so much so that a century’s worth of music has piled up devoted to exploring one extreme or the other. (More than a century, really—the difference between early Liszt and late Liszt is, in large part, the difference between fast notes and slow notes.) But you can still run into piano music that takes the middle path, as it were. Meredith Monk: Piano Songs, a new compilation performed by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, is one such cache: music that is expressively moderate, which is to say, it finds expressive possibilities in the act of moderating between extremes.
Monk’s most notable mediation is between the poles of minimalist repetition and modernist continuous variation. The music is almost always ostinato-based, and each piece maintains a pretty consistent mood and modality; but different melodic cells come and go, the tiles get slightly bigger or smaller, the texture will stack up in layers only to circle back to sparseness—there’s a kind of Brownian motion built into even the simplest structures. Instead of sitting in her rooms, Monk moves through them. It lends shorter pieces, like the shuffling, unsettled “Tower,” a certain density and longer pieces, like the bright and determined “Parlour Games,” a sense of travel, of considerable covered ground, even as the themes recapitulate and round off.
There’s also give-and-take between strict, locked-in musical processes and a more unpredictable theatrical sensibility. “Urban march (shadow)” is understated, gray, then suddenly accelerating into a crush of flinty, crunchy harmonies. “Paris” throws a brash tumble of pawed clusters into the midst of its Satie-like leisure. “Folkdance” opens with rustic flair—the pianists clapping and shouting in mutual accompaniment—balancing the level of sophisticated harmonic polish that emerges by the end. Monk is an indelibly dramatic composer: not melodramatic or grandiose, but rather attuned to the rhythms of entrances and exits, expositions and reveals.
This collection is, at least partially, a cover album—the swaying, vaguely jazzy “Windows in 7’s,” for instance, composed for pianist Nurit Tilles, first appeared on Monk’s album Do You Be; “St. Petersburg Waltz” (also written for Tilles) was on Volcano Songs. Four of the selections—“Tower” (the earliest piece here, from 1971), “Parlour Games,” “urban march (shadow)” (from the opera mercy), and “totentanz” (from the album Impermanence)—were arranged by Brubaker. Given such a range of vintages and sources, the collection proves remarkably cohesive. And much of that, I think, is Monk’s inclination to use the piano as a tool, a means to an end, the sound of it a vehicle for ideas; the pieces refracted through the piano are congruent with the pieces conceived for it.
But, then again, the whole album sounds, at the same time, completely idiomatic. The timbre suits the music, and the music suits the timbre; throughout, Oppens and Brubaker find ample opportunity for expressive variations of touch and tempo. (The recording sessions came after a concert performance of the same program in Boston’s Jordan Hall, and at least a little of that live, why-not interpretive freedom made it on to the recording.) In the liner notes, Monk cites Mompou, Satie, and Bartók as early favorites, and all might be heard to be putting in guest appearances: Mompou’s haze in the “St. Petersburg Waltz,” Satie’s lazy insouciance in “Paris.” The oldest influence, Bartók’s resonant dissonance, pervades “totentanz,” the most recent music on the recording. Old and new, traditional and experimental, memory and transformation always appear as dance partners. Within all those competing forces, Monk’s music seems to hover at a point of balance.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of our sensory-overloaded lives, but I have a special appreciation for musical works that also offer a visual focus point. Like a mandala, such pairings, when done well, can be more of an attention enhancer than a distraction.
In both Alcatraz and Eberbach, the two audio/visual compositions by Ingram Marshall (composer) and Jim Bengston (photographer) included on a recent surround-sound DVD release from Starkland, the artists offer an especially effective marriage of these two realms. The visual poetry of the architectural images provides a rich compliment to the aural landscape. Taken together, they arrive like a series of postcards relaying vivid, complex impressions of places—perhaps sent by residents now long gone.
Alcatraz opens with a long display of the infamous California prison island positioned off in the inky darkness, the light from its tower beckoning while brooding piano lines rock us rapidly forward with a liquid rush and flow. From here, images of the grounds of the penitentiary dissolve in and out of the frame, in compliment with the audio scoring but without either party reduced to a slavish game of follow the leader. Delineated by brief audio pauses between the eight movements, the work takes the listener deeper and deeper into the prison, the piano lines leaving to make way for a music built of foot falls and cell doors slamming. Processed vocals intoning about regulations and the clanking of harbor bells further put us in this place, haunted moans and decaying cells cinching the experiential noose even tighter. Towards the end of the piece, the piano returns again, and when we are let outside, the vibrant green of the grass is a shocking relief. Electronic sounds seem to suggest a certain joy and optimism as we are invited to gaze across the Bay towards urban civilization and take a deep breath.
Moving on to the second piece on the disc, Eberbach, do not adjust your volume. This time we are visiting a German monastery, and Marshall allows the sounds of the countryside and ringing church bells to patiently creep in, later accompanied by delicate, wind-like (though seemingly human) vocalizations. These voices that are not quite voices color the start and end of the work, mixed with other drones and chirping birds. The music at the center of the piece is more obviously instrumental, with Bengston apparently stepping in to play some of the material that Marshall recorded on-site and later processed. The images move from detail to detail, the dissolve transitions often making a geometric commentary of their own.
Alcatraz was by no means in your face with its narrative, but Eberbach seems to be an even more subtle and nuanced presentation. No people appear in the landscapes of either piece, but perhaps it’s possible to read both as haunted spaces in a sense, echoing still with the experiences and activities of different ghosts.