Just in time for International Cassette Store Day! Check out some new releases involving your’s truly available on line or at these fine SF stores Amoeba SF, Recycled Records, Explorist International and Aquarius Records!
Just in time for International Cassette Store Day! Check out some new releases involving your’s truly available on line or at these fine SF stores Amoeba SF, Recycled Records, Explorist International and Aquarius Records!
"self-promotion is annoying. … but sometimes you just gotta tell everyone…” - Fslux Xulsf, 7/12/12
So these folks http://www.outsound.org/ asked me to compose a piece for percussion, having never written a note for percussion I jumped at the opportunity. It will be performed next week at this week long event, I encourage you to go to any and all of: http://www.outsound.org/summit/
Tomorrow Outsound head honcho Rent Romus & I will be on KFJC to talk about the summit, play some recordings and MAYBE I’ll do a live solo set http://www.kfjc.org/
Following Lines: Fluxus And Its Parallel Lineages To American Minimalism And German Experimental Electronic Music Of The Late 1960’s to Early 1980’s - Part III, Regions And Elektronische Realisations
“We can go one dimension deeper still” - excerpt of Karlheinz Stockhausen talking to the recording engineer featured within Hymnen (1967)
Meanwhile, another German artist, whose association with Fluxus alternated between tremendous and tenuous, worked on his own vision of audio and dealing with “Europanism”. Through 1966-1967, Karlheinz Stockhausen created Hymnen. In his lengthy residence at Cologne’s Westdeutscher Radfunk (WDR), Stockhausen realized his technique of using collage, which was strongly identified with Dadaism. His materials were quarter-inch stereo audio tape recordings of shortwave radio and international anthems. Talking of human beings and Hymnen, Stockhausen said, “We are all transistors in the literal sense. Waves arrive, antenna receive…”. This parallels Beuys’ terms he used in his Fluxus work; Insulator, battery, transmitter, receiver, which as Caroline Tisdall’s says, are all derived from the passage and storage of physical energy but are drawn into spiritual and anthropomorphic levels… they become symbols and metaphors of transformation and generate a new concept of energy.” This link, personally established with the 1967 marriage of Stockhausen to Mary Bauermeister, and artistically established, like Beuys, by Stockhausen’s attempt at actions and/or happenings through out the 1960’s. As Beuys said in a 1982 interview: “The original Fluxus concerts were organized by people whose interest was in sound rather than painting or sculpture. Hence the link with John Cage, La Monte Young, and even Stockhausen and those concerned with electronic music.”
Stockhausen’s attempt at a holistic, healing international work such as Hymnen might be seen as an ultimate Fluxus work, with its appropriation of ordinary shortwave static yielding a complex polychromatic field along with the normally banal, but here, de-contextualized national anthems. Unfortunately this is undone when analyzing Stockhausen’s career and work. In examining his life one confronts a maze of endless tangents, dead ends and multiple responses.
It is often justified that artistic temperament and irrational incongruence are the hallmarks of creative genius, but with Stockhausen one must ride a rollercoaster of bipolar behavior. As is the case with Hymnen, his attempt of a global piece is undermined by his use of mostly western national anthems, save a few African ones. Further questioning of his placement within Fluxus occurred when, in 1964 George Maciunas and Henry Flynt, both now in New York City again, picketed against the “serious culture” of Stockhausen’s happening Originale. Despite this performance including Fluxus members, Stockhausen’s 1958 Harvard lecture, where he was quoted as saying that jazz was “primitive,” haunted him. This was seen as a blow against Fluxus’s closing Manifesto statement: “FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into a united front & action.” For Fluxus founder Muciunas, the movement came to end in 1964.
Much debt to Ken Hollings’s essay “Background Radiation” and Amy Beal’s book “New Music, New Allies”
Following Lines: Fluxus And Its Parallel Lineages To American Minimalism And German Experimental Electronic Music Of The Late 1960’s to Early 1980’s - Part II, Of Fat And Felt
“Every human being is an artist.” – Joseph Beuys
A year prior to George Maciunas’s move to Wiesbaden, he had befriended composer Le Mont Young in New York City. At the time, both were attending a class in electronic music headed by composer Richard Maxfield at The New School Of Social Research. This relationship continued through postal correspondence, and once Maciunas began having regularly occurring Fluxus festivals in Germany and throughout Europe, a good deal of the pieces performed were the prolific Young’s. These events, some happening in Mary Bauermeister’s Cologne studio space, some at Wolfgang Steinecke’s Darmstadt, feature names that, along with Young, form the early basis of the minimalist movement: Terry Riley and Henry Flynt. Cross-pollination with fellow New York based artists affiliated, or at least sympathetic to the sensibilities of Fluxus, included David Tudor, John Cage and Morton Feldman, who were finding much support and interest in Germany. Tudor would give Young’s For Harry Flynt (1960) and Riley’s Envelope (1960) their European premiers.
A fourth member of this notorious clique known as The New York School, Nam June Paik, became a central figure in Fluxus, most notably by performing a, characteristically Paik, theatrical version of Young’s Composition 1960 #10 To Bob Morris. This piece, known better by it’s instructional content: “Draw a straight line and follow it”, was renamed by Paik as Zen For Head as he performed it by putting his head in a bowl of a mixture of ink and tomato juice and dragging it in a straight line on a strip of butcher paper. This performance, considered the first Fluxus event, took place in Wiesbaden at The Fluxus International Festival of Very New Music, 1962.
A year later, Maciunas held a two-day Festival in Düsseldorf, Festum-Fluxorum-Fluxus. Featuring the work of La Monte Young and Terry Riley, it also had the debut of two pieces by the soon-to-be-mythical figure, Joseph Beuys. Beuys had just been appointed professor of sculpture at his alma matter, The Art Academy of Düsseldorf, and had become involved with Fluxus when he met Paik in 1962, as well as Maciunas shortly after. At this festival, in addition to assisting on works by George Maciunas, Alison Knowles, Addi Koepke and Dick Higgins, Beuys performed Composition for Two Musicians and Siberian Symphony. The latter already contained imagery that would be repeated throughout his work: Piano (a reoccurring Fluxus trope, a classic sound making object), chalk boards and a dead rabbit (found in pieces such as how to explain pictures to a dead hare (1965)).
Beuys describes these early works:
I performed a Concert for Two Musicians. It lasted for perhaps twenty seconds. I dashed forward in the gap between two performances, wound up a clockwork toy, two drummers, on the piano, and let them play until the clockwork ran down. That was the end. The Fluxus people felt that this short action was my breakthrough, while the event of the second evening was perhaps too heavy, complicated and anthropological for them. Yet the Siberian Symphony, section 1” contained the essence of all my future activities and was, I felt, a wider understanding of what Fluxus could be.
A year after that Beuys performed DER CHEF/THE CHIEF (Fluxus Song) in Berlin. Wrapped in grey felt (another reoccurring material used by the artist) with a microphone in his mouth, making noises broadcast into the room via loud speakers. Robert Morris, American Conceptual and Minimalist artist, performed the same piece in New York. Containing the notion of borderlessness, or as Maciunas says in his Manifesto (1963) “PURGE THE WORLD OF EUROPANISM”, and centered on sound and performance, this work contains hallmarks of Fluxus.
For the Berlin youth that made up the audience, whose growing dissatisfaction with the shallow Americanized economic miracle was in full effect in Berlin. In the shadow of communist East Germany, the walled enclave of West Berlin was primed with billions of dollars to become a showpiece for all that was superior about capitalism.
Beuys, meanwhile, would become what biographer Mark Rosenthal calls a “superstar/artist”, equating his stature to Bob Dylan in the States and John Lennon in England. His process of art making, what he termed “Social Sculpture,” was dismissed by Muciunas as being “Wagnerian.” Yet he continued to use the word Fluxus in titles as late as 1967’s Mainstream » FLUXUS. Scholars still debate his belonging in the Fluxus cannon. In 1972 he was more literally dismissed by The Art Academy of Düsseldorf for abolishing entry and admissions requirements, an action expressing his defining statement “Every human being is an artist.”
As Beuys work matured into the 1970’s, one can recognize its connections to Minimalism. Like the composers he shared bills and ideologies with in the early 1960’s, he used a minimal type of material, most often felt and fat, repeated in stacks in otherwise empty spaces. These installations can be seen as reaching a spiritual healing that compares to La Mont Young and his wife Marian Zazeela’s Dream House installations, and the couple’s thorough investigation in musical and spiritual Indian practices along with the likes of Terry Riley and, to a lesser extent, Philip Glass.
Harkening to experience as a World War II pilot who crashed in Crimea, this felt and fat were the healing materials applied to his severely burned body. Found nearly dead, a local nomadic tribe of Tartars saved him by wrapping him in these materials and nursing him back to health. His attempt to heal a world he saw as broken had him repeating the use of these materials:
[The Fluxus artists] held a mirror up to people without indicating how to change things. This is not to belittle what they did achieve in the way of indicating connections in life and how art could develop. Heal like with like, in the homeopathic sense. The main intention was to indicate a new beginning, an enlarged understanding of every traditional form of art, simply a revolutionary act.
His revolutionary acts were to flow into the rising current of counter culture and anti-establishment that was sweeping the younger baby-boom generation in most democratic countries. Armed with the healing power of art, sound and performance, Beuys’s Fluxus-inspired approach, along with John Cage’s and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s explorations into electronic music allowed, as David Toop says in his Ocean of Sound, “access to unskilled players, to draw sounds from instruments rather than subjugate them to systems, open up the music to chance events and create a collectively organized community as an attempt to break from the hard professionalism that afflicted both jazz and classical performances.”
This coupled with the presence in Germany of The Living Theater, exiled from the States on charges of profanity, their confrontational approach would be equally inspiring to the young and upcoming composer/musicians who were beginning to bridge those once polarizing disciplines.
Much debt to Ken Hollings’s essay “Background Radiation” and Amy Beal’s book “New Music, New Allies”
Following Lines: Fluxus And Its Parallel Lineages To American Minimalism And German Experimental Electronic Music Of The Late 1960’s to Early 1980’s - Part I, Synchronize at Zero
“Our real enemies are the ones who send us to die in pointless wars or live lives which are reduced to drudgery” – Dick Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia” 1966
In 1961, American George Maciunas fled his debt-laden gallery in New York City to thrive in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), during its Wirtschaftswunder. There in the small city Wiesbaden he founded Fluxus. This art movement, initially started by a group of expatriates, and, through the postal system, became an international cosmopolitan cadre of like-minded artists. Dick Higgins, a primary participant in the movement described Fluxus as “a very funny word meaning change.” More precisely, ‘fluxus’ is the Latin word for ‘flow’, a word whose meaning we’ll see plays out heavily in the music we are to discuss.
The Fluxist movement was part of an international renewed interest in Dadaism. Dadaism was curtailed in intellectual circles by a sense of urgency and practicality with the rise of Fascism during World War II, the prevailing Hollwoodesque escapism of the post-surrealist neo-romanticism that flourished in the 1940’s art world, and the self-involved art-for-art’s-sake nature of the prevailing (and particularly American) Abstract Expressionism. In fact, Maciunas’s early draft of a Fluxus Manifesto was entitled “Neo-Dada In Music, Theater, Poetry, Art.”
Fluxism reintroduced what remains a controversial approach to the creative process and how one approaches objects. With its roots heavily steeped in Dadaism, the late 1950’s post-war generation of creative minds across the globe took an absurdist view of humankind’s destructive tendencies. With the Cold War reality that the entire globe could be destroyed with a push of a button, the polemic concept put forth by First World War art, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), where anything could be art, was a logical conclusion in our illogical world.
In this seeming absurdity, however, was a fundamental literalism that championed a concrete quality of the materials of an artist. The sound of a piano being kicked was more “true” than the traditional, yet abstracted, “proper” way of playing a piano; a complex system of a key activating a hammer vibrating a string. Likewise, the pitchless, and therefore polychromatic, quality of someone chewing food was more beautiful than contrived bel-canto singing.
This abandonment of “old continuities”, as German Fluxist painter Mary Bauermeister termed it, created a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo in the face of the continued international saber rattling, and the maintaining of positions of power of known Nazis despite supposed Denazification. Hence a movement named with “…a very funny word meaning change…” was timely. A particular aspect of the status quo the Fluxus most interestingly questioned was the position in the art world of museums, curators, critics and historians. It is with some irony that, without the military presence in Germany and Japan, Fluxus, a movement that can be seen as a seed to the Counter Culture, may not have flourished.
Fluxus, just as the celebrated Beats, was an integral beginning in what established itself in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s as the revolutionary Counter Culture. Unlike the majority of Beats, however, Fluxus yearned to abolish the concept of borders. Nationalism, sexual identity and artistic disciplines were dispelled as opposed to the oratory-prone, notoriously misogynistic all-American Beat poets.
Investigating the parallels of what was taking place globally in terms of Fluxus, one cannot ignore the shell-shocked state of things it was born out of: veterans returning with post-traumatic stress and methamphetamine addiction, war widows, concentration camps fully acknowledged, cities obliterated by bombings (both conventional and atomic). As Bauermeister so articulately described in her recount of her German childhood:
"When we were children we saw a world break apart, destroyed by bombs. Cologne remained only as bricks and large piles of rubble and mortar. Everything that used to have form was now broken… No houses stood anymore, so we didn’t trust them anymore either. So we started over from scratch."
In Fluxus, an all-encompassing need for a critical and healing aspect is put forth in the almost ceremonious celebrating of the everyday. Positivity in the mundane combats the exceptional horror and trauma of the way in which the world tends to conduct itself.
Reflecting and Dwelling; Echo and Reverberation in Pauline Oliveros’s Work
When listening to Pauline Oliveros’s work one cannot dismiss the sense of physical space, from the internal nature of “artificial” echo of the early tape pieces to the site-specific use of natural reverberation of later performances, from recorded uses of her bathtub in her early 1960s San Francisco apartment to this year’s endeavor of utilizing Ann Hamilton’s Tower at Oliver Ranch.
There has been much discussion and thought, both in her own and other’s writing and lectures on her life and work, about community on a macro and micro scale. What is echo and reverberation but a call and response, a conversation with the community around her, whether through wires of technology or through a venue/space which responds to particular frequencies in particular ways?
Pauline Oliveros was born and raised in Texas, big country. Nowhere has the concept of space been more prevalent on this earthly plane than the American West. The mythic proportions of wide expanses, canyons and the dream like perspectives of the lone figure in a vast space call to mind not only the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and his ilk, but also the European surrealist painters such as Georgio de Chirico. When driving on Texas’s highways, the sense of time and traveling are on a different scale than most other locals; one sees another vehicle coming the other direction and the response time of actually passing it is delayed.
Though this desert topography might be more in this author’s imagination than in Oliveros’s real-life childhood in Houston, when she talks of her childhood, formative times she often mentions the Texas wetlands auditorily: “there were lots of insects – it was a like a really thick canopy that changed through the seasons: tree frogs, cicadas, crickets, all these wonderful sounding critters.” One can’t help but see this as breeding ground for the ‘Bog’ electronic tape pieces in the 1960s.
This vast space in turn becomes a time machine, much like Oliveros’s audio delay system, either in the early analogue tape domain, or later in the digital domain of her constantly evolving Expanded Instrument System (EIS): “I think of the delay system as a time machine, because first you have to be present to make a sound and play it. Then it’s recorded and played back in the future, so that what the future is essentially dealing with is really the past. So it sort of expands your sense of time.”
Utilizing first a wire recorder in the 1940s, and then, a tape recorder given to her by her mother later in the 1950s, Oliveros took in sonic elements of the environment, via the machines, and sent out and listened back. Both time and space are recorded and revisited. She talks of hearing the natural world in all of its glorious mundanity, and, in a sense, listening deeply for the first time. These earliest and most basic, yet impactful experiments taking place latterly as she was practicing and performing in conventional, local and youth orchestras.
In addition, she was listening and playing with the dial of her family’s home radio, the hearth in those days. She talks proudly and with glee about the hours spent creating swaths of white noise by turning the knobs between the stations. This unconventional way of listening to broadcasts, or, more specifically, non-broadcasts, sits side by side with her appetite for popular songs heard on the actual broadcasts of that area and era; western swing hits such as Vaughn Monroe’s Ghost Riders In The Sky, which, not so coincidently, is laden with “artificial” echoing and reverb.
While in the territory of the mythic American West, let’s diverge to the myth of Echo. Feminine identity, an issue naturally to be taken up by the initially solitary Oliveros, who is often seen as a sole woman in rosters and documentation of contemporary composers. She has done much work to advance the change of this patriarchal disparity, but to indulge in allusion, perhaps one can loosely link the idea of the myth of Echo to issues of Feminine identity. “The Echo Myth suggests some important attributes of echoic sound effects: echo as feminine, echo as voice (and implicitly, mind) without body, echo as repressed functions, and echo as a kind of sentient (but in that she can only repeat the syllables of others, nongenerative) spirit of place.” writes Peter Doyle in his book Echo and Reverb. Perhaps we can see Oliveros’s work as liberating Echo from her limited role? Perhaps this “spirit of place” can become generative? Is that not what happens in her four channel tape piece from 1961, Time Perspectives, wherein she utilizes elements of domesticity (her home, kitchen utensils, bath tub) to, as critic Bill Meyer claims, “encroach on the men’s club of high-art composition.”
Once in San Francisco Oliveros fell in with a small group of artists and composers dealing with space and time both sonically and visually, leading to a new type of theatre hybrid and recorded media with deep roots in Dada and the wave of happenings taking place through out the western world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This group, initially dubbed Sonics, took on the name The San Francisco Tape Music Center, and as can be inferred, technology was a central part, however archaic and kludged it may have been in reality. It was at this time that Oliveros created what is considered one of the “classics” of 1960s electronic music, Bye Bye Butterfly. Using her tape delay system, oscillators and a phonograph record and player, she created this piece seemingly as something of a response to the demonstration to the center by Don Buchla of his100 series, the Buchla Box, taking place earlier that same night. Perhaps in subtle defiance of the encroaching automatic technology, as she stated: “the days of the classical electronic music studio were numbered.” The piece is very hands on, including hearing sounds of machines being switched on and the needle hitting the vinyl. By stretching quarter inch tape between two machines, one spooling from the supply reel as record and playback (short delay) unit and the other to the take up reel as a playback unit, configuring the audio wired outputs and inputs variously, as well as the distance between the decks creating a delay system that is still hailed to this day. Credit for the creation of this type of tape delay system is debated, and indeed harkens back to some of the approaches, systems, tools, and, in the recording industry, known as “gimmicks” that were utilized by the likes of the afore mentioned Western Swing that heavily relied on echo effects and multi tracking to evoke the scale of the mythic west.
Tape Center cohort Terry Riley, whom Oliveros had met earlier in the 1950’s at what was then called San Francisco State College (presently California State University, San Francisco) both under the training of composer Robert Erickson, heavily relied on these types of systems. The tape loop system can be heard distinctly on early Riley work such as his gossamer-esque Mescalin Mix [sic] and for a long stretch of his live performances in the late 1960s, when he dubbed the tape loop set up “The Time Lag Accumulator.”
The title with the words “Bye Bye” could be seen as a salutation to the classical electronic music studio as mentioned by the composer. Historically though, in its social context, most musicologists see the title is seen as a Feminist gesture, as this except from a release “…composed by an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, symbolically bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th Century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and it’s attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex. The title refers to the operatic disc which was at hand in the studio at the time and which was spontaneously incorporated into the ongoing compositional mix.”
The fact that this section of this recording was chosen at random is startling in the context of discussing space, echo and resonance, for in this scene the singers are located far out of the “sweet spot” of the recording microphone (for the recording) and/or the audience to dramatically imply the sense of distance and space. Oliveros, in her process takes this serendipitous event and broadens it into the time machine like approach she has mentioned, and has the event happen in two spaces, through the delayed stereo spectrum. Likewise, the two Hewlett-Packard oscillators, played with great fingerspitzengefühl and give full sense to the already refined sense of improvisation, move from one speaker to the next, suggesting movement in space via the cross-delay.
Another tape piece of Oliveros’s to use appropriated prerecorded material would be her Rock Symphony. Made the same year as Bye Bye Butterfly, this piece fully utilizes the left/right speakers as a call and response mimicking The Animals’ track, It’s My Life with it’s “Baby, baby” call and response. Also in this audio soup the composer spins in Mario Savio’s wholly moving speech, known as “Bodies upon the gears”, twice, perhaps calling up her audio “time machine” effect, to return on some important words, much like a conventional chorus section in a popular song, i.e., the basic working materials. Whether the rock in this “symphony” is seen as part of the established money maker, i.e., gears in the machine, or as part of the counterculture and revolutionary is hard to say in the current state of “Classic Rock” as the establishment, but judging from the sentiment of the time I would say the latter.
Another interesting point with this piece is how dependent Rock and Roll, from its beginnings, had been on reverb and echo in both the studio/recorded realm and the in live situations. Interesting to note as well, since it was Rock and Roll that was the prime money maker for recording studios, it was Rock and Roll that inspired the mass manufacturing of tape loop machines such as the Maestro Echoplex, used by the likes of Ramon Sender and Terry Riley, and the Roland RE-201, commonly known as the Space Echo, and later on to the digital gear such as the Lexicon’s PCM series. It is doubtful that the contemporary composers of 20th Century Classical music would have inspired such commercial developments.
As the tape center moved from San Francisco to Mills College in 1966, and Oliveros, along with fellow SFTMC co-founder Tony Martin, became the directors, she continued to investigate tape delay, notably in her 1967 piece Alien Bog. Here, the space is created with a subtler and less stereo-panned delay. The composer has successfully evoked the sounds of night of the Mills campus, “It was part of a series of ‘Bog’ pieces inspired by listening to the frogs and creatures in the pond just outside the studio window at Mills.” Frogs and perhaps insects and bats and their musical call and response, once again using her tape delay technique, and the Buchla 100, which in turn has a wonderful internal spring operated reverb unit as well. This Buchla 100, i.e. the same machine that was being demoed to the SFTMC, sending Oliveros upstairs to create Bye Bye Butterfly, was now yet another instrument that Oliveros was comfortable improvising in real time with, further displaying her willingness to embrace new technology, as she suggests natural extensions of us. “It was a different instrument, that’s all.” said Oliveros, “I had to learn what I could get from it.”
Just prior to taking her position at Mills, Oliveros was invited to work at the well-equipped University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio where she set out to fully explore investigations that she had done at the SFTMC. I of IV and on through to IV of IV, and beyond with V of IV, displaying her characteristic light hearted tendency with titles.
Her losing track of how much material she produced at The University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio would suggest she really got engaged and lost herself in that studio with it’s “twelve sine-tone square-wave generators connected to an organ keyboard, two line amplifiers, mixer, Hammond spring-type reverb and two stereo tape recorders.” One can imagine her immersed, listening deeply, and composing in real time, using the keyboard to produce tones that echo, through electronics, and bounce back to be responded to again and again. It is practically a warm up to the Fort Worden Cistern and Rosendale New York’s Tarpaper Cave pieces. Much like a flight captain or Olympic trainer use simulations to practice, there is a sense, with its keyboard serving as an interface like her accordion she was to return to in full effect shortly, that the work she was doing, primarily by herself, in the studio, was a pathway to the acoustic, site-specific improvised and composed work she would do later solo and with groups, small and large.
So far we have skimmed some of the studio set ups and processes that yielded a portion of the electronic work of Oliveros during the 1960s. In the context of echo, she had used everything from her tape loop process using two or more machines, and various spring reverb units when available. We mentioned naturally occurring resonant tools such as the bath tub used in Time Perspectives, but skipped over the early tape work utilizing the auditory properties of apple boxes, in which the “interest in resonance is also reflected.” By the early 1970s Oliveros’s work was moving away from the confines of the cave like studio set up, and she seemed more engaged with resonance in the world around her, the world as in both the grand physical space, and the one on one interpersonal resonance with humans.
Though she worked with groups in spaces all throughout the 1960s, perhaps mostly due to the nature of documentation, or in SFTMC’s case, lack thereof, we can come away from the 1960s work of Pauline Oliveros’s and think of it as a solitary practice, in the studio, despite many collaborative works, a good deal incorporating dance and or theatre. She herself states, “Tape delay was cumbersome.” Since she preferred to perform electronic music live rather than present fixed media pieces as quite a few of her contemporaries did, and as for the studio she stated “For some reason, however, I’m not interested in going into a studio anymore. I’m not sure why. I guess I prefer the contact of nice warm bodies to the cold isolation of a studio.”
Perhaps a movement from the elemental character of echo to the more encompassing, grand worldly and elemental properties of pure resonance can be seen in this transference from hermetic to communal? Of note her Sonic Meditations began around this time too and are very much tied to community.
Constant curiosity had her investigate John J. O’Neill’s biography of Serbian Electronic Engineer Nikola Tesla, Prodigal Genius, and it is not surprising that this character would excite the electronic music community so with its dramatic story of the outsider scientist seen as a mad magician, and, particularly, his noted experiment in resonant frequencies causing earthquakes.
Oliveros often refers to experiencing sound not just with her ears, but also as a physical experience, i.e., hearing with her entire body. In this sense investigating what resonate frequencies will effect physical spaces, something she began doing with David Tudor as a performance based work, was a natural extension from her excitement of Tesla’s experiments. Tudor and her even went as far as to incorporate this episode into a score to accompany a Merce Cunningham dance piece entitled Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer. Though, based upon the audio and video documentation, as far as I could tell resonating frequencies were not a central part to this piece, but these resonating aspects often do not translate through recordings. Oliveros has discussed the experiments she and Tudor performed at this period with glee as she described rotating the stationary flags lined up in a theatre with the simple act of broadcasting these low end sounds.
As she moved from the studio to more improvisatory live acoustic work, practicing and performing with her accordion, solo and in groups, Oliveros began working at the University of California, San Diego, which despite her new leanings towards acoustic ensembles, had a decent electronic studio. It was during this time that call and response seems to not only be part of the listening and meditative process of her improvisatory work, but also in her compositional work. Looking at a 1976 score of Willowbrook we see it calls for two groups of players, a “Generating Group” and a “Reflective Group.” Through the instructions on the score delineating tasks between the two groups we get a sense once again of a reverberating space, created by the composer, much like the internal circuit and wire based one of the electronic studio, but now opened up out of the voltaic domain and now in the world of “warm bodies” and acoustical space.
The notion of acoustical space becomes a dominating concern for Oliveros and her work. “Varieties of music and acoustical spaces combine in symbiotic relationships that range from very limited to very powerful for the interweaving expressions of musical art, architectures, and audiences.” This is nothing terribly new in the context of performance spaces, cathedrals in the western world, and communal spaces where weeklong festivals incorporating music, dance, and other aspects of a given culture have existed as long as human kind has had communities and the structures in which to perform them. In modern classical music we even have composers designing spaces for their music to be performed and heard in such as composer Richard Wagner working with architect Gottfried Semper on Bayreuth’s Festival Theater (1876), the Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt (1901) and the Bauhaus’ Artists’ Theater in Dessau (1921), that is, performance venues conceived by artists themselves and specifically tailored to suit their needs and artistic vision.
Alternately we see Oliveros quite content in investigating and incorporating the existing world of performance spaces. The world to her seems not something to be bent and crafted to her creative needs and liking. There is a grand sense of inclusiveness in her work, and a space that conventionally is thought of, as having undesired acoustic properties to most performers and composers is not necessarily a “bad” acoustic space to her. “Oliveros is not about telling other folks how the music they play (or don’t) should (or shouldn’t) sound.”
Perhaps the one of the most spectacular spaces in terms of reverberance and delayed, naturally occurring echo that she has performed in was the two-hundred feet in diameter and fourteen feet deep cistern built as a water supply system for the Fort Worden military base. Emptied of its 2 million gallons, it yields a 45 second delay, and is now named the “Dan Harpole Cistern” in honor of Harpole’s life and work in the arts. The interplay with her small group of players, known as the Deep Listening Band, trombonist and didgeridoo player Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis produced sustained tones that are modulated by the acoustics, making it often seem as if there were more instruments then there are, or as if this music has been electronically processed, which we know is not the case. The unfortunate end effect of listening to such awe-inspiring recording, known simply as Deep Listening, is that, unlike the electronically produced tape pieces, you realize that you are missing something by not experiencing it live.
Yet another subterranean space that The Deep Listening Band performed in and have released recordings of are on the 1990 CD Troglodyte’s Delight. Performed in the Tarpaper Caves of Rosendale New York, a mere half hour from the Deep Listening Institute headquarters in Kingston New York, these caves are also, like the cistern, abandoned by their original inception. A prime source of natural cement, they were dug out prior to the 1900s, its materials used in construction of national landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty two hours south in New York City, as well as for the nations Capitol building in Washington, DC. Limestone being the primary mineral, the walls of these caves are hard and dense, and its tunnels varied and winding yielding an abundance of varieties of echo and reverberation that no electronic effect, digital or other, could compete with. At its base there is a perpetually frozen stream, even in the high tempters of the Upstate New York summers, creating yet another reverberant surface on which the Deep Listening Band, this time expanded as a five piece augmented by guests percussionist Fritz Hauser and vocalist Julie Lyon Balliette, to sound out the space.
Where to go from there? Why not up? Earlier this year Oliveros used the unique performance space of Ann Hamilton’s nearly nine story high Tower at Oliver Ranch in Sonoma County, California. Chiefly constructed from a similar concrete that was excavated to create the caves in New York. Examining the score of Tower Ring one gets a sense that the experience in the bright sun of Northern California will be a more uplifting, for lack of a better term, positively spiritual? This is an interesting contrast to Troglodyte’s Delight, which has in its sound and title almost a black humor quality that is often associated with New York and the North East. “I think there is, of course, a very large difference in the two landscapes. The West coast has more space, so to speak; longer distances between cities. The East coast is more compacted and of course more influenced by traditional values than the West coast.” With its highly expanded orchestra cascading bells and voices, gongs and long wire instruments bounce and reverberate through the tall narrow space up and through the open top. And though there is larger arsenal one gets a sense that it’s not as dense as the underground performances.
An obvious thread leads through all of these experiments, compositions, performances and philosophies. By really listening to the world around us, an echo will reverberate a sound quality uniquely reflected by the receiver/sender who dwells in that space.
Kineticism and Inclusiveness In The Music Of Maja Ratkje
Movement: a musical term yet seldom does one truly get a sense of movement, as in aliveness, that one witnesses in our natural, or “real” world in art — that beautiful sense of chaotic activity of the kinetic street or beach or forest; wind, buses, excited children, birds flapping, branches swaying, fluorescents flashing, smoke, puddles; life. Often in artistic practice there is a solitary meditative focus that solidifies the work itself into a block. Even with the intention of making movement central to the work, be it with dance, film/video or diffused multichannel set up, the music itself can remain a block of sound, settled in the space like a thick fog. Its as if when a composer signs off on a work, be it to paper, recording or even a performance, be it improvised or the “slowed-down improvisation” of composition, it petrifies.
Comparatively, when listening to the never dormant music of the tremendously active self-defined “performing composer” Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje one experiences a sense of the vastness and detail of the living world. This is heightened when she is collaborating in duos and groups such as Fe-Mail and SPUNK.
This dual sense of vastness and detail in Ratkje’s work, and her self-proposed discipline “performing composer” can be seen as a drive towards inclusiveness. Journalists and critics attempt to create controversy when an artist claims more than one discipline or genre. The idea of restricting may come in useful as self-discipline, a way of achieving a specific and sought goal by and for the artist, but is of no help to the arts at large when imposed by theorists. Instrumentation, approach, and execution vary from project to project in Ratkje’s sound world. There is no acceptable reason anyone should be shocked by this, but eyebrows are nonetheless raised, especially, according to the artist/subject of this essay, no more than in the conservatory based composing community.
In turn this inclusiveness can be something seen as a central characteristic of the improvisational noise school of music, according to Ratkje, with its strong tradition of non-musicians, extended community, and so on. Though there is debate voiced by the San Francisco Bay Area Noise Music community overheard by the author, practitioners and critics have questioned the inclusiveness in this scene, namely that of the dominant presence of men as well as a noted cliquishness. However, it could be argued that these features are characteristic of any established art school or genre.
Permanently inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1955/56), upon hearing it when attending The Norwegian State Academy of Music in 1995, Ratkje discovered a newfound love of composition, following two decades studying as player and singer. At the Academy, Ratkje formed SPUNK with three other students, Kristin Anderson (trumpet, recorder), Lene Grenager (cello) and Hild Sofie Tafjord (French horn). Later, Ratkje and Sofie Tafjord would collaborate as the duo Fe-Mail. With monikers stating the all woman make up of these two groups (the name SPUNK was initially a reference to Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking), these projects are primarily improvisation based, taking cues from free jazz, contemporary classical, and most notably noise music.
Of all her releases Ratkje’s vocal performance has the most lasting impact on international audiences. Voice, her solo debut, was released on the noteworthy label Rune Grammofon that ran in the same contemporary music based circles of Oslo. SPUNK had previously put out a few cds on Rune Grammofon. Though one can theoretically conclude a conservatory tradition in Ratkje’s work, citing Cathy Berberian and Joan La Barbara as a lineage leading to Ratkje. She makes a point, however, not to be defined as a vocalist, saying that to put her along side avant singers such as Joan La Barbara and Cathy Berberian would be to apply sort of “circus” element and take away from the music itself. This notion is greatly supported by the thoughts expressed by Berberian herself, heard within La Barbara’s 1977 piece “Cathing.” While overlooking La Barbara’s agenda within the piece for the moment, we hear a recording of Berberian state that extended vocal technique is a limiting and has a “freak element” from which she distinguishes herself as she can “really sing.”
Voice (2002) is sourced entirely from Ratkje’s voice, made an impact on the avant record market and press, and reportedly influenced Björk to record her accapella release Medúlla. Though one could make a case of a thread of commonality between these two conservatory trained, restless genre hoppers, Ratkje seldom ventures fully in what one could call traditional song as Björk more accessibly does.
The duo Jazzkammer co-produced Voice with Ratkje. Comprised of fellow Oslo noise travelers John Hegre and Lasse Marhaug, Jazzkammer met Raktje at an Otomo Yoshihide workshop. With Yoshihide’s workshop incubating an ongoing musical relationship between Ratkje’s and Marhaug, it’s interesting to note the aesthetic similarities of the Japanese and Scandinavian noise scenes. Both cultures have been stereotyped as having an emotionally stifling formalism. Ratjke sees noise music as “a release, or a celebration” and can possibly be seen as a counter a staid, cerebral culture where more immediate, raw communication is shunned. Incidentally, both countries’ noise scenes are of the most internationally respected and referenced.
Norway is also noted for one of the longer lasting and highly discussed black metal traditions. Never to pass on stretching her creative muscles into new territories, Ratkje, along with Fe-Mail co-member Sofie Tafjord, have collaborated with members of the Norwegian black metal group Enslaved and produced material under the guise of Trinacria. These songs weave the wordless, reverberated tones of Ratkje voice and Sofie Tafjord’s processed French horn with the melodic pummeling staccato of more traditional rock instrumentation, guitars and drum kit, perhaps producing Ratkje’s most commercial work to date. It certainly sounds as if Fe-Mail is having fun, and by complicating the über masculine tendencies of metal, we hear for the first time something akin to the play with gender norms indicated in Fe-Mail titles and cover images, such as Syklubb fra Hælvete, Voluptuous Vultures, All Men Are Pigs, “Gossip” and “It Becomes Her.” Otherwise Ratkje, who identifies herself a feminist, chooses to allow her music to be absent of direct political sentiment. Recognizing the powers of ambivalent abstraction and its constant ability to move, morph and contradict itself, which creates in turn a humanistic music, which is universally liberating.
When communicating via email with two recent Ratkje collaborators, Norwegian electronic musicians Bjørn Hatterud and Ronny Waernes, Waernes interestingly first calls Ratkje “a well known and acclaimed classical composer” and has said “she masters performing melodies on instruments.” Hatterud points out that “she plays it with the fingerspitzengefühl that only a classical trained composer can.” and besides the musical product the prolific Ratkje has produced, she is also recognized as a philosopher, or as he put it in his non-native English “a thinker”. She has written and been interviewed on subjects outside of music including an article on Philosopher Henri Bergson’s theories about how “all change (movement)… must be understood as a whole.” This concept plays out well, for example, in this recording:
A constant aliveness that presents an understanding of “the whole”, and breaks through this condenser mic in the back of the room recording which could have fossilized a lesser performer. In another piece of writing, Ratkje moves from “thinker” to a teacher in her “Nine Prerequisites for Inspiration”, published in 2006 in the John Zorn edited Arcana. In an article mainly about improvisation, Ratkje’s breaks down of what she calls “communication on three levels” — which, in short, continues from Bergson’s theories as well as perhaps touching on Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space”— when she reasons that the primary level of communication is “the meeting place for the art, the time and the room and the people in it.”
The word “Epic”, in today’s young person’s vernacular, has recently taken on a slightly new meaning. It has taken its place next to that old, square “Neat”, the particularly West Coast American “Awesome”, the now dated “Fresh”, “Hype” and “Dope” and of course, the perennial “Cool”. Personally I love this newish slang status of “Epic” and enjoy using it, perhaps as a slightly sarcastic acknowledgement of my age. Making an “Epic batch of nachos” and saying a good night’s sleep was “Epic!”
Yet the word in its more classic use, has an ancient or timeless quality that comes to mind, especially when discussing the music of composer Ennio Morricone, and particularly his soundtracks to the “Spaghetti Westerns” of Sergio Leone. And “Spaghetti Westerns” don’t get any more “Epic” than Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In The West”
So, in the classic definition of Epic, what do we think of? Big and or long come to mind, and in re-viewing this film for this brief essay I will, perhaps regrettably, concur that it is long. Other words that come to mind when thinking of an epic are “myth” and “archetypes”. These are well-established concerns of the Western as a genre. Who is an archetypical cowboy? Why, Clint Eastwood of course, who made him that archetype? One could surely argue Leone. Even the phrase “Once Upon A Time…” suggests something that has always been. A legend.
George Lucas - John Williams, Tim Burton – Danny Elfman, Alfred Hitchcock – Bernard Herrmann, Federico Fellini – Nino Rota, David Lynch - Angelo Badalamenti, The Coen Brothers - Carter Burwell, etc. The history of cinema is graced (or littered) with classic, successful and /or safe pairings of director composer relationships. This is not anything startling; when people work well together why not continue on future projects?Like members of a band minus the tour van nastiness. But I offer that no other pairing in the history of cinema has been as rich as that of Leone & Morricone. That’s a hell of a thing to say, I know. But nowhere else in film, except perhaps in the Bollywood musical, does one find such an awareness and reverence of what has come before and what is “new” and an almost playful willingness to mix those two. Sure, composers and film makers have taken chances, but I’d like to offer that no one has taken chances and been as triumphant as Morricone has in the realm of what he works in, that of conventional, Western cinema (western here not referring to genre).
When one thinks of Morricone’s soundtracks to Leone’s film, generally one can call to mind the theme to “The Good Bad and The Ugly”. Recently in conversation with a colleague the question was raised if the human voice was used in soundtracks, and someone replied “not much, mostly as ethereal female soprano”. Morricone’s soundtracks are riddled with voices, and not just ethereal female sopranos, though he does use those in spades. All sorts of odd guttural male sounds, indecipherable, “native”, ceremonial chanting, wordless, hymnal melodies sung by boy choirs, etc. These almost play out as a combination of sound design as well as a memorable, though wordless, lyric. Most can mimic on cue the male voices of “The Good Bad and The Ugly”, but what are the actual words? Are they English? Italian? Native American? Are they actually words? Are they even human voices?
Morricone’s use of electric guitar is groundbreaking, it’s not rock music, and it’s not referencing “the youth problem”, and yet it has the power associated with Link Wray or Jimi Hendrix. Much like the greats of rock and roll, these guitars contain a distortion and thuggish purpose that I imagine, in the 1960’s held a degree of coolness (Or epicness) that perhaps has become, like that era’s rock, “classic”.
This appropriation and/or reference of the big, rock and roll electric guitar sound resonates as an important aspect that cannot be overlooked in postwar international art: the exchange of US 1950’s pop culture. A kind of force feeding took place after WWII, Hollywood movies, pop and rock and roll music, all consumed by the occupied territories as well as the destitute postwar axis countries reeling from the gutting effect of having its major cities bombed to smithereens, financial ruin and the general change from a rural, agricultural lifestyle to the cosmopolitan that the modern world demanded. US pop cultures almost seemed like an opiate that could sooth these changes and perhaps increase desire for more, an escape. What comes, in return, from theses countries is a sort of response. Reverent yet critical. By the time of the mid 1960’s, the US had been exposed for its “man behind the curtain” qualities with the growing Vietnam war. This coupled with the entertainment industry’s seemingly endless parade of recycled, tired ideas like the Elvis movies, one more insipid than the last allowed for a cultural hole to be filled. It’s been well established that a country like Britain took to the American Blues and Rock and Roll and turned it around to sell back to states. Similarly, I offer the French New Wave’s love for American Noir cinema was a response to their love for this particularly US post war genre. (Of note: noir directors and composers often being refugees from Europe just increased the Mobius strip of this Atlantic cultural exchange, but that’s another essay). Meanwhile, Japan with its nuclear fallout took an American classic monster movie such as King Kong and gave us back Godzilla, some suggesting that the monster IS in fact analogous to the States. And the Italians? With their penchant for machismo, and an operatic grandness and simplicity of good vs. evil, they gave us back the twisted and surreal Spaghetti Western. What was once low, pop art, through the heightened aesthetics of “Old Europe” becomes high art to the late 1960’s cinephiles.
I could not help but correlate Claudia Gorbman’s mention (in her book Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music) of film music’s ability to create spatial depth to Morricone’s soundtrack to “Once Upon A Time In The West”. Depth of field plays a major role in Leone’s visual compositions. He is often cited as being influenced by Japanese cinema for its sense of composition, even as far as Kurosawa’s producers successfully suing the Leone’s production company for “A Fistful of Dollars” references to Yojimbo. Although it’s hard to argue against that particular case of influence, I feel that Leone has a particularly Italian aesthetic. A quality of his depth of field can be seen in both ancient Roman architecture and in Di Cherico’s seminal work. This element is of course echoed further with Fellini’s films. A certain dreamlike/surrealistic quality established by extreme perspective and figures in space. Perhaps nowhere can one get a more surreal sense of proportion and perspective then in the American South Western desert. While Leone captures the sun cracked crevices of the actor’s face in close up, he simultaneously layers in the image of the Navajo cave dwellings and South Western plateaus and canyons made iconic by the likes of John Ford.
Morricone’s score resonates with this expansiveness as well as a certain claustrophobic quality. Besides adventurousness in instrumentation, Morricone seemed excited by the new development of using the recording studio as an instrument itself. In the “Man With The Harmonica” theme, for example, the harmonica itself has a processed sound, as if it was put through a tape reverb machine. This reverb not only echoes the vastness of the landscape, but also harkens to memory. The repeated loop of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica is like the gadfly in Io’s head, bouncing off the walls of his skull & driving him mad with grief and revenge.
The intentional lack of music in the opening scene also suggests newness to approach. It’s reported that various ideas of music were offered but none worked. As a result one can perhaps argue that there is a John Cage influence, which may seem annoyingly handy in the context of my interest in contemporary/20th century composers. Handy but defendable, Morricone is, of course, familiar with Cage’s theories; I doubt that any young composer in Rome in the 1960’s was not. It’s a city with a history of being open & supportive to new music, well documented on the Cramps’ Nova Musicha series. Morricone himself was part of a groundbreaking improvising collective of composers, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. I’m not sure how much Morricone was involved in the sound design “Once Upon A Time In The West’s” opening title sequence, but I would not be surprised if Morricone was given a supervisory role in the sound design with Leone seeing the composer as such a driving force for his films, and this film in particular. So much so that Leone had Morricone compose & record the entire soundtrack to be played on set. This creative luxury is unusual and exceptional for a film composer. It was afforded by the large budget from Paramount Pictures following the success of the “Dollars Trilogy”. This on set broadcasting of the soundtrack was also no hindrance to the location sound since Italian cinema of this era NEVER used location sound. This constant ADR always added an additional surreal quality to Spaghetti Westerns to my young eyes & ears. “It’s dubbed, but these are English speaking actors?!? What’s going on here?” The lack of location sound greatly differentiates the Cageian qualities of the “natural” sounds in “Once Upon The Time In The West’s” opening versus the “true” location sound of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” seven years later by a fellow countrymen of the same generation.
Upon one full viewing of “Once Upon A Time In The West” we immediately get a sense of Morricone’s high regard of what Roy M. Prendergast calls in his book Film Music: A Neglected Art , the “monothematic score”: the use of one melodic theme to define a character. But here we have three main scores defining the three main protagonists; Cheyenne, Jill McBain & Harmonica. There may be one for the railroad baron and his lust for manifest destiny, but it escapes me now. Cheyenne’s is the “horse clopping”, slightly comic relief complete with banjo. Jill McBain’s is the closest we get to a traditional Hollywood score in this film, perhaps suggesting Hollywood’s “the whore with a heart of gold” character. The interesting thing about Harmonica’s theme is that it seems as if elements, primarily the electric guitar, are shared with Henry Fonda’s “against character” casting as the bad guy, Frank. This suggests that these two characters are intertwined, a ying yang (played out, of course with the iconic bad guy in black & good guy in light/white costumes).
I first saw this film home alone, as a child, flipping through the channels on a black and white TV. I stumbled upon it quite late in the film; I remember it as a “pan and scan” version before letterboxing on TV was as commonplace as it is today (adding yet another layer of surrealism coupled with the ADR). It was at the climatic, penultimate duel scene with Frank and Harmonica. My first thought was “Charles Bronson, a poor man’s Clint Eastwood” since both the Dirty Harry and Death Wish films were all the rage at the time. Though I’ve never seen either of any of those series of films, the Death Wish films always seemed seedier, cheaper. And Clint Eastwood, despite the crags always seemed conventionally handsome and American. Bronson seemed other, ethnic, and perhaps less handsome and more dangerous in the sense of conventional Hollywood language at the time. As the scene unfolds the flashback happens combining incredible music with the most brutal imagery. I had no idea what I was watching, and still am amazed by the audacity of this film and its soundtrack.