Friday, June 08, 2007

A Time Capsule from Robert Erickson

It's always interesting to rediscover reports from past generations assessing the then-current states of affairs and making predictions about the future. Going through a pile of correspondence, I recently came across a letter from the composer Robert Erickson, accompanied by a draft of an article, The Way the Wind is Blowing, from 1982. While some of the specified genres and media have mutated a bit, it is surprising how prescient Erickson was about his central theme of audiences and it is striking how close he came -- a quarter century ago -- to some themes that have become obsessive in recent public discussion. I've transcribed, with minimal correction, this article, and it's online here.

I never met Erickson (1917-1997), but know quite a bit of his music and his writings on music. His development as a composer often followed intense periods of study and experiment -- initially with melody and counterpoint, then with time relations, improvisation, instrument building, and, finally, an intense exploration of timbre which is realized in the drones, hockets, loops and filagree fragmentary melodies of his later music. (I find that the mysterious sparseness of his last pieces , written during a period of disabling illness, are an experience somewhat akin to that of the startling Ninth Symphony of Malcolm Arnold; one sometimes wonders whether one is actually listening to "music"). Erickson is perhaps best known, however, through the impact of his students, who include composers from Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros in studied with Erickson during his years in San Francisco, through Paul Dresher and David Dramm, who studied with him in his San Diego years.

Erickson's life and music receive an eloquent account in Charles Shere's book, Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Works of Robert Erickson, and an analytic essay about his later works by John Mackay is online here. I heartily recommend Erickson's own books: The Structure of Music, A Listener's Guide, Sound Structure in Music, and (with John MacKay) Music of Many Means: Essays and Autobiographical Sketches on the Music of Robert Erickson. Erickson's scores are published by Sonic Art Editions (wouldn't it be great to have some of these scores available online for study and to promote performance?).

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