Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Pragmatic American Composer

"i put a cheap microphone in front of a cheap instrument and press record on a cheaper recording thing" — composer Dan Stearns, in response to a question about hard- and software
I've mentioned Stearns here before; he just might be the most honest Ivesian of us all.


I've been reading, with great pleasure, the new David Bernstein-edited book The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960's Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. It's full of amazing little things, like this from Morton Subotnick, in a conversation describing the creation of the Buchla 100:
"We wanted to be able to control amplitude and frequency, etc. I used the Boulez, Le marteau san maitre [1953-55], first page as an example. I would imagine patching the Boulez and see something was missing and we would add another knob."
The book is also quite touching at times, for example in Pauline Olivero's appreciation of her teacher, Robert Erickson, and in Subotnick's tender memories of his, Darius Milhaud; I believe that it is very important to this narrative that the teachers who appear to have been most critical were, to a certain extent, outsiders in the local academic music scene, and not the emerging stars like Berio, Imbrie, or Shifrin. (The name of William Denny might well be added to this group of mentors). The text has reinforced my sense that the group of composers around the Tape Music Center (as well as a number of younger colleagues around the Bay) shared and developed a set of common elements, which I have previously identified as a radical aesthetic, and the better-known minimal (and minimalist and minimalistic etc.) music which would later be identified on the other coast grew largely out of this.

Among theses elements were:

— a conscious departure from the prevalent academic styles (both the waning neo-classicism and the emerging 12-tone and serial styles) beginning often with atonal frameworks which focused ever more closely on single tones and smaller groups with tonal implications,

— an intense examination of real sounds as a phenomenon in time, as opposed to only traditional "musical" sounds as represented, for example, by notes on paper, and the development of techniques to focus attention on such phenomena,

— the use of electronics as a practical means (see Dan Stearns, above) for both the institutionally-independent production of sophisticated music, and for framing details of sound, through amplification, repetition, and extending the continuity of musical sounds,

— a free exchange of techniques between electronic and acoustic instrumentaria, particularly with regarding to the framing devices described above, (it is also very tempting to locate one source of the emergence of just intonation as a concern in the some of the "natural" qualities which emerge with the electronic techniques, include the spectral effects of filtering and biasing),

— experience and interest in music from African-American and non-western traditions and, to a more limited extent, early western music,

— experience in improvisation and the consequent development of modes to integrate improvisation with composition,

— multi-media and new forms of musical theatre tending toward the sensibility — one might today say wholistic — that musical performance existed within a larger field of performance, including performances like the "Trips Festival" which were well outside the realm of traditional concerts and clearcut audience/performer distinctions.

While there are a number of details which are unique to the San Francisco project — the dislike for splicing, for example, which would lead, on the one hand, to tape looping and delay techniques, and on the other to the development of the modular synthesizer as well as the unique intensity of the Bay area cultural scene in that era — I think that identifying these aesthetic elements places the San Francisco Tape Music Center (alongside the Project for Magnetic Tape in New York and the Cooperative Studio in Ann Arbor) more in the mainstream of the subsequent developments than that of the now largely forgotten work done in the institutions to which the Center was an alternative.

An afternoon's postscript: I should have written something about the issue of control here. In contrast to, say, the work in the Columbia-Princeton studio, in which the studio (and the RCA Synthesizer in particular) was seen as a tool for the obtaining greater control over the production of sounds*, the musicians in the San Francisco studio exploited the enormous potential of the technology to create environments in which the composer or player often had less rather than more control.

The preference for live delay over splicing and editing and the use, in the Buchla instruments, of modules specifically designed to introduce unpredictable elements are both examples of techniques which imply the acceptance of results beyond the composer's immediate intentions. Open acceptance of such risks also illustrates the general sympathy felt by the Bay area radicals for Cage's works involving indeterminacy and chance operations, but must also be recognized for its relationship to improvisation, for which Cage personally, at least at that point in time, had little interest. The issue of control was, of course, central to the independent and cooperative structure of the studio as a formal organization, and that was another strong point of contrast to the Columbia-Princeton as well as the European studios founded in State-owned radio stations.

I also should have something more about the accompanying DVD: It's great. Basta.

* (A day later's footnote to the postscript:) Has anyone else noted the somewhat ironic situation that now, with the present digital technology, rendering scores in which all parameters are closely controlled — as in a number of high serial/twelve-tone works — into precisely realized sound files is such an easy task (12 different dynamic levels? no problem!), that it's no longer an interesting thing to do? Recently, to warm up a bit on a new version of a notation program, I entered the score to one of those classic 1950's serial-bebopperies. All of that famous detail and complexity was not only visibly but audibly present: wild pitch constellations, complex rhythms, individual dynamic levels and articulations on every note played accurately, with discrete levels, and completely vivid. But it also felt — and here's an odd combination — both facile and mannered; it's like visiting your elderly Aunt in Morro Bay who, for dessert, serves a pineapple upside-down cake that looks exactly like a photo of a pineapple upside-down cakes from a 1957 issue of Sunset magazine. Fashions do change.

1 comment:

Kalvos said...

Re: your footnote. Those compositions felt mannered long before electronic renderings, don't you think? However deeply I was influenced by the music of the 1950s and 1960s, hearing much of it even 20 years ago was almost embarrassing. It was really old-fashioned, like the pineapple upside-down cake (which I love now and hated for years after I left home). In time it will become a rich experience again (the music, not the cake) -- when those relationships take shape in performance in a way the composer grasped when writing them down -- but for now I'll not listen before 1985, thank you.