Editor’s note: This essay by Tim Page was originally commissioned by Elizabeth Nonemaker for the now-shuttered 21CM.org. With Tim’s permission, we’re re-posting it here on acornometrics to help keep it available and discoverable online.
Attempting creative work after a brain injury is like setting up your desk in the middle of a rushing river, just above the falls. Any accomplishments will take place amidst ever-present commotion and the fear of washing away.
In 2015, I collapsed suddenly on the platform of a Connecticut train station, felled by a (deep breath) acute trans-hemispheric subdural hematoma with herniation and a two-centimeter midline shift. Translated, that means my brain took such a brutal beating that I “should” be dead or disabled by now. Instead, even with some obvious and permanent damage, I’ve enjoyed some of the best years of my life – pacing myself carefully, seeing people when I can, teaching once more and even writing a bit, however slowly. As Gustav Mahler put it in a famous letter, I find the habit of life sweeter than ever.
Indeed, Mahler was one of the guides who brought me back. When I was still very sick – confused and frightened, with no sure prognosis and the possibility of another seizure looming – I determined to try to rebuild my thought processes with music. And so I spent much of every day listening to complicated pieces which were already familiar but not too familiar – Bach cantatas, Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” Wagner operas and long symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler.
I listened mostly with my eyes shut, often with headphones, always concentrating intently, without interruption. Elaborately intricate music that I’d never heard before was impossible for me then, and technically “simple” works that I knew by heart might bring pleasure but didn’t furrow the neural paths that I sensed from more extended challenges.
Making sense of these larger pieces was hard work, but it was increasingly a fascinated, sportive work that I could take on for longer and longer periods of time. And eventually, my brain began to bloom once more.
No surprise that music should have been my mooring, for it had always helped make sense of the world to me. I was born autistic during a time when the condition would never have been recognized in a friendly, monomaniacal little chatterbox overflowing with data. But I was oblivious to most of the deeper currents of the world. I could not understand human feelings, mine or those of other people, until they had been, in effect, “explained” to me in sound. From the age of four, I was exhilarated by the reiterations and seemingly inevitable construction processes in Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” and Ravel’s “Boléro,” and I loved the “Gayne” ballet suite, enormously popular in the late 1950s, which would inspire wild dances for hours – but these were purely internal pleasures.
Tenderness toward others, on the other hand, was not in my natural language. I think it was defined for me in the Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” and I remember weeping the first time I heard it played, a melting snow-child. “So this is what it’s like!” I thought in my wonderment and tried to absorb the sweet compassion of the music into my personality.
Very few autistic people will ever be “well-rounded,” try as we might. The constant hope is that our elusive virtues will be recognized and valued, despite the obvious challenges that never stop bedeviling us. But as we grow, if we are lucky, we find a way to fit in. By the time I was 11 or 12, it was obvious that I was never going to be good at kickball or understand most of the things that were demanded of me in school. But I WAS good at going to the library and inhaling information about music, old recordings and when and how they were made. This satisfied and warmed me and pointed in a direction where a life might be made.
I’d love to spend some time talking with doctors and scientists about my autism, as I think that their take would be much more helpful than what I got from the Freudians and post-Freudians I worked with as a child. Moreover, I think I might be able tell them some things, for I know what it is like on the other side of the glass.
For example, it may seem impossible to overvalue dogs, but I think they have special meaning for autistic kids and I don’t know what I would have done without them. They were such a contrast to human beings: I loved their unguarded affection and comfortable predictability and they were always pretty much the same as they were the day before – eager, happy to see me, willing to make up silly games with me and play them out, natural companions who did nothing bizarre.
And I wonder whether massage therapy, introduced early on, might be helpful in softening sharply autistic kids. It would have to be done very carefully, though – slowly and gently and almost from infancy. I would have had a panic meltdown if somebody had suggested anything of the sort to me by the time I was three or four and already clenched like a fist, but if I’d grown up with it, my life might have been very different.
And now I am old and injured, and my brain has taken on some of the characteristics of a double reed instrument. In my younger days it worked on force and magnitude of expression, like a trumpet or saxophone. Now I am overwhelmed unless I am working with the tiniest exhalation, in the manner of an oboe or bassoon, and I take new care with every utterance.
It’s especially strange to be old in New York, city of my youth and early successes and deep late-night conversations in the pubs of upper Broadway. These days I hobble slowly to the building lobby down the same stairs I invariably took two at a time. I have trained myself out of volunteering my services immediately – to help out! to join in! to stay late! – as I am quickly reminded that I am no longer who I was. Aging is so terribly personal: I have known people who were old in their 30s and others who were mostly young into their 80s. In 2014, I was a middle-aged man in what turned out to be very poor health. Now I am in many ways happier, certainly thinner and probably stronger, and steadier in my self-understanding, at least on those days when I am rested and my memory is working properly. I am both much less afraid of death and more eager for life.
Still, old is old, and 64, to counter the exasperating cliché, is not at all the “new 40” but barely qualifies as the “new 63.” As such, I’m tired of assurances that I will soon be “better than ever.” I’m sure that such recoveries happen occasionally, but what is the matter with the much more realistic prospect of simply holding on, savoring what I can and being grateful for it all, even in a diminished state?
We discover our bodies when we are about 13 years old. My body discovered me when I was 60, at that stage in life when psychological problems give way to physical ones. Much as I love Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” it now strikes me as a very young man’s idea of what growing older is like. When my own time comes, I will be delighted to go gently. But not right away, please. Another poet, Wallace Stevens, said that “music is feeling, then, not sound,” and I agree with him. And there’s still so much music left to feel – not just concerts and recordings but laughter, songbirds and the wind and distant thunder.
Tim Page is the author and editor of more than 20 books. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1997 for his writing about music for the Washington Post. He lives wherever he is.
Editor’s Note: This profile of composer and cultural philosopher George Lewis first appeared in 2015, in a slightly different form, as the cover story in Issue #10 of the I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine. We are re-posting an updated version here on acornometrics, with links to performances of George’s music and other materials. We are thrilled if this profile succeeds in bringing further much-deserved attention to George’s music. We appreciate, and concur with, Ensemble dal Niente conductor Michael Lewanski’s comment when the article first appeared: “George is one of the most unique and brilliant artists working today, and this article captures a bunch of things I love about him—the integrity of his artistry, his perpetual self-reinvention, and a certain contradictoriness that keeps him unpredictable all the time in the best possible way.”
George Lewis is a burly bear of a man with an infectious laugh that, like his music, is pure joy to hear. In a 40-plus-year career, so far, his many-faceted interests have led him to explore vast territory as a performer, improviser, composer, musicologist, writer, and cultural philosopher. His work in many realms has earned wide acclaim and awards such as a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, an Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, a U.S. Artists Walker Fellowship in 2011, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since moving to New York in 2004 to fill the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music chair at Columbia University, Lewis has concentrated his creative energies on composing fully-notated works for diverse ensembles that are delighting performers, critics, and audiences around the world. A long, fascinating path has led Lewis to this point in his career where he is producing a steady stream of commissioned works for prominent contemporary music organizations like International Contemporary Ensemble, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Dal Niente, and Oberlin Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble. In his most ambitious work to date, Lewis and a team of collaborators have crafted the experimental opera Afterword, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago in 2015. Get ready for an opera unlike any the world has experienced so far.
George Lewis’ Afterword . . . “Get ready for an opera unlike any the world has experienced so far.”
Although Lewis’ music has its genesis on the hard-knocks South Side of Chicago, he had the good fortune to attend the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where his interests in music (trombone), philosophy, and many other topics were encouraged and nurtured. In 1970 he headed for Yale University, intending to major first in political science, then in music. A chance encounter in the summer following his second year at Yale changed his course, when he began a lifelong involvement with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), where he was attracted to its combination of fearless experimentation and artistic communitarianism. Lewis decided to take a year off school to work with AACM musicians and study composition at the AACM School with Muhal Richard Abrams. When he returned to Yale he dropped the music major to focus on philosophy, and turned to the study of musical improvisation from a phenomenological perspective.
In the 1970s, Lewis was earning growing recognition as a trombonist and composer/improviser in ensembles with fellow AACM members Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Douglas Ewart. He was also branching out to work with other kindred spirits, like John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Fred Frith in New York and overseas. Sparked by an interest in the nascent use of interactive computer technology in music performance, Lewis moved to Paris in the 1980s to work at IRCAM, where he did groundbreaking development work that culminated in the Voyager music software system. An academic opportunity through contacts he made in Paris lured Lewis to the University of California, San Diego in the 1990s, where he cultivated his deepening interest in the musicology of experimental music. As the new millennium arrived, Lewis says, “the opportunity at Columbia in New York felt like going home.” And that homecoming has provided the impetus for this ongoing onslaught of new compositions.
FOCUS ON NOTATED MUSIC
Growing interest in Lewis’ through-composed work was sparked by his North Star Boogaloo (1996), for percussion and fixed media, written at UCSD for Steven Schick, with a recorded spoken-word text by poet Quincy Troupe. It may be his most-performed work, Lewis says: “I get requests for the materials every year during recital season.” When he got to Columbia, he found it a conducive place for building on that platform. “I walked into a very supportive and encouraging environment with colleagues like Melissa Smey [Executive Director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre] and Richard Carrick, who I knew at UCSD, and eager performers like Wet Ink Ensemble, who were mostly Columbia students at the time,” Lewis relates. He was also strongly energized by the weekly composition seminars on campus. By 2007-8, he realized that composing fully notated music is where he wanted to channel his creativity and see how far he could take that. “I realized that meant I had to develop a consistent practice,” Lewis says, ”one that enables adhering to schedules and keeping the works flowing.” That started him researching the methodologies of other composers and retooling how he approaches his work.
Percussionist Steven Schick (photo: Bill Dean)
In the process, Lewis has also reexamined his own musical aesthetic. “Works do come from places,” he says. “There’s a community of thought and culture behind every composition, and that is going to be audible in what you do.” Lewis describes his own cultural stance as cosmopolitan. As he puts it: “the past is prologue; where you’ve been is a prelude to where you’re headed.” And where he is headed is to be a conduit for the polyglot of influences he has experienced over the years—jazz, free jazz, improvisation, African American culture, visual art, western classical, avant garde, and contemporary music forms, and more—without limitations or genre pigeonholing. “The furthest thing from my mind is trying to simply translate something as complex and nebulous as the African American experience,” he says, “I’m just trying to make cool sounds.” Lewis’ insatiable appetite for uncovering new cultural threads to incorporate into his music can be heard in the “cool sounds” of his recent works, which bristle with raw energy in meticulously ordered chaos.
SURVEY OF RECENT WORKS
Lewis first connected with International Contemporary Ensemble when (then) co-Artistic Director and clarinetist Joshua Rubin inquired about playing Shadowgraph, 5 (1977), which he had discovered on the original Black Saint recording George Lewis: Shadowgraph. “I sent Josh the score and the ensemble started playing it all over the world in spectacular fashion; they play it much better than we ever did,” Lewis enthuses. That budding relationship led to a commission for a new work for sixteen players, The Will To Adorn (2011), which is named for a section of Zora Neale Hurston’s germinal 1934 Harlem Renaissance essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Hurston discusses the African American cultural tradition of adornment, which she characterizes as “decorating a decoration.” As Rubin puts it, Lewis builds multiple layers “around solo lines that are literally adorned through ornamentation—inflections of the musical line that add motion, direction and complexity. An interesting anti-climax occurs mid-piece when the motion slows down enough, and the texture thins out enough to make the adornments themselves the prominent music, in a strange, bassy, burbling minimalism.”
International Contemporary Ensemble premiered The Will to Adorn, with Schick conducting, at a Miller Theater Composer Profile concert arranged by Smey in November 2011. Music critic Steve Smith, writing for the New York Times, called the work “a lavish charm bracelet of exuberant shades and explosive gestures. Absorbing in scope and expressive in detail, the piece offered compelling evidence of Mr. Lewis’s prodigious imagination and persuasive skill.” The work was subsequently given its European premiere in June 2014 at Southbank Centre by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at the behest of resident composer Julian Anderson, who first met Lewis at IRCAM in the 1980s where they found a lot of interests in common. Anderson, in his program notes, describes the piece as “celebrating the colourful hats worn by African American women, and celebrating adornment and colour generally for their own sake, it is a joyous explosion of sound and energy that involves almost everyone in the ensemble all the time, yet has plenty of contrast and a wonderfully surprising narrative shape.”
2013-14 might be called Lewis’ “Ohio Period.” He was both Composer-in-Residence at Oberlin Conservatory and the featured composer at the 34th annual Bowling Green New Music Festival at the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music (MACCM) at Bowling Green State University, resulting in two commissions for large ensemble works. MACCM commissioned Lewis to write Assemblage (2013, for nine musicians) for Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente, the featured ensemble at the 2013 festival.
Lewis told Dal Niente conductor Michael Lewanski that Assemblage is a piece where “I encourage listeners to catch the bus and go along for the ride, unburdened by expectations of teleologies or global form.” Indeed, this is a manic 16-minute thrill ride for the ears. According to Lewanski, it employs constant, unexpected shifts of tempo, timbre, and texture. He calls it “a delight to listen to. There is something about it that resembles our modern life – a constant uncontextualized TV-channel-changing, as if the piece is looking at its phone and alternately checking its email, Facebook and text messages.” Fortunately, Assemblage is now available on a Ensemble Dal Niente recording from New World Records.
Lewis spent fall 2013 and spring 2014 residencies at Oberlin Conservatory conducting master classes with composition students, improvising from his laptop with students in the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) program, and lecturing on “The Train as Metaphor in African American Music and Art.” During that time, he also composed Flux (2014, for sixteen players), for the conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) and dedicated it to the memory of Wendell Logan, a longtime Conservatory faculty member and founder of its Jazz Program. Flux is inspired by JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila), a 1988 painting by Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), and is full of “jump cuts…a recursive sense of decorating a decoration predominates,” Lewis states in his program notes. “The work features a relentlessly high-contrast sensibility; even quiet, contemplative passages never really come to rest.”
JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila), by Jeff Donaldson
According to Timothy Weiss, Director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Division and conductor of the CME, they do not require composers-in-residence to compose a new piece. But Weiss says that Lewis “being the remarkably prolific composer that he is, wanted us to play a new work during his time here. It was a great thrill for me and the performers to work on Flux with George and he was able to make a significant imprint on the shape and energy of the performance.”
Also in 2014, Lewis had his second piece for symphony orchestra, Memex, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony and its Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov, a longtime admirer of Lewis’ work. (His first, Virtual Concerto, was debuted a decade earlier by the American Composers Orchestra.) Symphony orchestra commissions are rare for most contemporary composers and can be a daunting challenge. For Lewis, it became a little easier when he realized “I could simplify the task by thinking of the orchestra as a giant multi-track synthesizer.”
The name Memex is drawn from a 1945 essay in The Atlantic by Vannevar Bush titled “As We May Think.” Bush imagines a technological breakthrough that prefigures the internet and the world wide web, a “memex,” a mechanical supplement to one’s own memory using inference and association to tap into vast reservoirs of stored knowledge. Lewis found in this a fruitful metaphor for his composing process, as he states in the program notes for the piece. “Engagements with musical structures that operate in the manner of the memex and the Web can present a fecund combination of indeterminacy, agency, memory, and the ineffable moment of choice, all of which link composition out of real time with listening in the moment.”
Memex was premiered in February 2014 at City Halls in Glasgow, with subsequent global broadcast on BBC3’s Hear and Now program in April. The work explodes into a torrent of brilliant colors with the orchestra at full tilt, then unfurls into a maze to which there are as many solutions as there are listeners. Memex was given its second performance in November 2014 by the Radio Symphony Stuttgart, conducted by Volkov.
AFTERWORD: THE OPERA
In 2013, Lewis and his collaborators, director Sean Griffin and media/theater artist Catherine Sullivan, began developing an expansive experimental opera called Afterword. The title comes from the concluding chapter of Lewis’ definitive history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008). In the book’s “Afterword” chapter, Lewis stages a virtual, cross-generational, time-bending meeting of AACM members past and present to summarize the major themes of the work in high relief. This meeting of AACM luminaries, some of whom never met in real life, is drawn from more than 90 interviews Lewis conducted during his research and is the jumping-off point for the opera’s libretto.
Catherine Sullivan and Sean Griffin
Sullivan and Griffin have worked together for over 15 years, “creating historically minded, personally voiced performances in immersive theatrical environments that deploy unexpected turns of logic, deconstructed modes of behavior, and a very tangible and essential sense of ensemble that grows out of an iterative development process based in improvisation,” according to Lewis. The team combined forces to workshop the opera in a University of Chicago course titled “Improvisational Dramaturgy,” sponsored by an Andrew Mellon Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship through the University’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.
While nominally an opera, Afterword is breaking with opera conventions in multiple dimensions. The performances combine “pre-structured music, text, scenes, sets, and movement in juxtaposition with analogous elements improvised in real time,” Lewis says. The singers each fill multiple roles and are called upon to perform notated and improvised music and spoken texts, all while acting and moving to create and transform the stage sets and their own stage personae. The stage settings consist of objects and images from public and personal collections and archives.
Beyond the opera, per se, Lewis was deeply involved in other aspects of The Freedom Principle exhibition. The show presented “Rio Negro, a sound and sculptural/instrument installation in collaboration with fellow AACM member Douglas Ewart,” according to Beckwith, (then) the Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at MCA. First shown in 1992, Rio Negro combines bamboo sculptures with advanced robotics that animate them. “Lewis has done extensive work on the intersection of music and art, making what he terms ‘interart’ analyses of the AACM and visual art collectives such as Africobra.” As a result, she says he “elucidates important parallels in the structure of these groups, pioneering much-needed terms like ‘collective orientation’ and ‘multidominance’ that allow for conceptual and cultural analysis of the visual art movements that run parallel to the AACM’s history.” The Freedom Principle exhibit ran from July 11 until November 22, 2015.
EPILOGUE … PROLOGUE
Lewis’ deep immersion in his compositional practice is not deterring him from his other myriad pursuits. He continues teaching musicology classes, working one-on-one with composition students, and writing scholarly articles about many cultural topics. Another multi-year project he concluded in 2015 was publication of The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, which Lewis co-edited with Cornell musicologist Benjamin Piekut. A massive undertaking in two volumes, the Handbook examines the use of improvisational structures and techniques in a broad range of human activities as diverse as music, theology, critical theory, philosophy, city planning, and organizations.
Despite his many accomplishments in a range of artistic and academic fields, what stands out most about George Lewis is his enormous generosity of spirit.
Despite his many accomplishments in a range of artistic and academic fields, what stands out most about George Lewis is his enormous generosity of spirit. Speaking for his International Contemporary Ensemble colleagues, Rubin says, “to have been able to collaborate with, talk with, and be mentored by George on so many levels has been an honor; his music and his writings have changed the direction of my musical life.” With eager collaborators like that, never fear, we are sure to be hearing a lot more of Lewis’ music. The commission requests keep flowing in, and, he says, “at this point, I’m not turning down any opportunity to make more cool music.”
At 5:45 PM on Saturday, August 7, 2021, the other-worldly sounds of composer Olly Wilson’s germinal electronic composition Cetus rang out from the Clark Bandstand in Tappan Square, Oberlin, Ohio, beginning the first-ever CETUS SoundArts Fest. We named this festival in homage to Wilson, who, in 1968, won the first ever prize for an electronic music composition for Cetus. From 1965 to 1970, Wilson was a professor at Oberlin Conservatory, where he taught the first courses in electronic music, the genesis of what today is Oberlin’s Technology in Music and Related Arts program, or TIMARA. Playing Cetus set the tone for what we hoped would be two or three hours of adventurous electronics-centric music, created in the moment, right before our ears.
Unfortunately, CETUS SoundArts Fest got washed out by a torrential storm, before we got even halfway through our lineup. Due to a COVID resurgence, thanks to the virulent Delta variant, we intentionally lacked an alternate indoor location. We also had no rain date, because our visiting headliners, composers and performers Lainie Fefferman and Jascha Narveson, were only available for that day. So we pressed on, despite slightly iffy weather prospects. But the deluge that came shortly before 6:00 PM was not predicted by any forecast we saw.
Good fortune seemed to be smiling on us as we got the program rolling right on time. Our friends from NOYO Lab Group (a project of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra) kicked things off with a bass -trombone-led group improvisation. Each of Ephrem King’s trombone phrases set off a whirl of echoes and counterpoints in Jessica Narum’s synthesizer, Colin Holter’s electric guitar, and Eli Leder’s electric bass.
Next up, still under benign-looking skies, was False Ocean, an avant-garde band from Cleveland, featuring Kai Becker on bass and electronics, Raven Clark on vocals, Josh Hall on vocals and electronics, Michael De La Cruz on electronics and synthesizer, David Lee on guitar, and Max Reynolds on drums. False Ocean provided this impressionistic introduction to the band.
False Ocean is inspired by the city upon whose shores they sound,
where young people adapt to a weathered ruling past
that too often forgets there is a future, theirs.
Echoing the discord of life in post-industrial Cleveland
via electronic experimentation, high-voltage improvisation,
and musical fusion
(though plans for nuclear are rumored on the table),
its noises are belligerently amorphous,
sound waves flowing from one moment to the next
to fill space like hard water and the city on it.
False Ocean is fed by the sounds and attitude
of this industrial landscape, harmonizing to the hum of hurting machines
that carries through the air,
same as the smoke that sticks to our spit and clouds our stories
‘til we have to scream them to strip it out of our lungs.
The atmosphere around this False Ocean is chaotic,
exhausting, and desperate,
and at the same time this is our catharsis.
We punch up with the jaded stubbornness of midwestern youth,
hear ourselves where it is already loud,
and buzz with the static of Rust Belt possibility.
It feels dangerous to be around this False Ocean,
but smelting yourself in sound,
down til we’re something stronger, is survival.
And surviving this together?
You feel strong as steel.
You feel like family.
False Ocean dedicated their performance to those we have lost during the pandemic, as a wake in this time of no funerals, to remember those now gone, and to share our collective grief. False Ocean poured all they had into a cathartic set full of equal measures of pandemic-induced rage and sorrow.
We did a quick stage turn, and just as Arlene completed her introduction of the third act, Drew Smith, light rain began to fall began to fall. Before Drew could even begin, the water was coming down in sheets. Propelled by a 40-mile-per-hour wind, it was blowing rain straight through the bandstand. Everyone scurried to cover equipment, especially the electronic gear. But the storm bested us. Too much equipment got so wet, no one wanted to turn anything back on until it had a chance to dry out. Reluctantly, we called a halt, and CETUS SoundArts Fest came to a premature end.
The biggest disappointment for the performers and listeners was losing the chance to play, or hear, more music. Here’s the stellar lineup of sound artists we never got to hear.
Drew Smith, an improviser, composer, technologist, and artist, who plays guitar, synthesizer and electronics, both as a solo artist and with groups like the Oberlin Synthesizer Ensemble, Chroma Burst, D.O.G., and The Henry Nelson Ensemble.
A trio of Michael Gapsari, a composer, synth player, electronic music artist, programmer, and songwriter/poet; Tempest Baum, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, actor, and director from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently studying in the TIMARA program at Oberlin Conservatory; and Hamish Robb, a guitarist, sound designer, and composer of experimental music, currently based in Ohio and majoring in computer science and musical studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory.
Claudia Hinsdale, a songwriter, composer, and performer who makes sounds to live inside of.
Narvefeffer, a duo composed of Lainie Fefferman, who makes music by putting dots on lines, drawing curves in software, writing code in boxes, and finding new ways to wiggle her vocal chords; and Jascha Narveson, who was raised in a concert hall, was put to sleep as a child with a vinyl copy of the Bell Labs mainframe singing “Bicycle Built for Two,” and now makes music for people, machines, and interesting combinations of people and machines.
Despite all the disappointments of CETUS SoundArts Fest getting washed away, everyone involved expressed a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude, just for the opportunity to be together and making/hearing live music. We sparked so much joy among the performers, the listeners, and even people far and wide who could not be there physically, yet somehow were there vicariously. It made every bit of time, toil, and treasure we invested in this project worthwhile. We hope that somewhere in this vast universe, Olly Wilson was smiling that his life’s work was ringing out on Tappan Square, along with music by others inspired by him and in homage to him, in 2021.
We convey our bounteous thanks to everyone who came out to hear some adventurous music, only to get soaked; to all of our sound artists; and to Oberlin Concert Sound and Wayne Wood at Oberlin College, for all their help in making CETUS SoundArts Fest happen.
#NewsFlash from I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the online journal of contemporary music and related arts and technology founded in 2010 by Thomas Deneuville and now led, since 2017, by editor in chief Amanda Cook.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the award-winning multimedia hub for living music creators, has officially become part of the American Composers Forum. After 10 years of operation as an all-volunteer enterprise, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN (ICIYL) was acquired by American Composers Forum (ACF) this month. “Over the past year, we have developed a number of initiatives in partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN,” says ACF President & CEO Vanessa Rose. “The synergy between our two entities and our shared vision for our musical landscape were clear early on. ACF is thrilled that we can complement our work as part of one family, and equitably support the excellent staff and contributing team at ICIYL.”
“I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Joins American Composers Forum,” from I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, on September 17, 2020 at 7:00 am
You can read the full ACF press release here. Congratulations to Thomas and Amanda for ten years of tireless effort to make ICIYL a contemporary culture juggernaut and to ACF for its vision for the future. We cannot imagine a better outcome for the future of ICIYL, which we think will be an extraordinary asset for ACF. We also extend bounteous thanks to the ACF Board of Directors, The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization, and individual donors to ACF for their financial support to make the acquisition happen.
ICIYL has been a virtual home for us since August 30, 2012, when our first article was published. Eight years. 92 posts, almost 1 per month. 34 concert/festival reports. 58 interviews with movers and shakers in contemporary music and art. We’ve been busy!
Today, with eternal gratitude to Thomas and Amanda for providing us this platform, we are retiring from active duty as ICIYL contributing editors. To mark this moment, we are pulling our first-ever ICIYL post from the archive, to re-post here today. Enjoy! And please keep following ICIYL as it enters a new era. We care if you read.
In a modern world too often marked by conflicts of humanity versus nature, an exhilarating human communing with nature unfolded in the pouring rain on the fields of that most modern of landscapes, Chicago Millennium Park, on Sunday afternoon, August 26, 2012. Over 100 musicians, led by eighth blackbird and production designer Doug Perkins, performed John Luther Adams’ epic Inuksuit as they mingled with an audience of several hundred stalwart music fans.
Adams, who lives and works primarily in Alaska, conceived of Inuksuit as much as an environmental experience as a music performance. The title is an Inuit word that means “to act in the capacity of the human” and refers to stacked stone sentinels built over the centuries by the peoples of the Arctic. Inuksuit of varied styles and sizes are found marking important sites — migration routes, fishing grounds, memorials — throughout the aboriginal areas of Alaska and Canada. Adams uses this singularly Arctic symbol as a means to require the performers and the audience to confront fundamental questions about who we are, where and how we live, what it means to act in the capacity of a human in an environment in crisis.
Millennium Park, Chicago’s new jewel by the lake, promised to be an opportune setting for staging Inuksuit. Its starkly modern landscape featuring the architecture of Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano incites questions of human relationships to the environment. Perkins and members of eighth blackbird made a thorough examination of the unique topology and features of the park to determine how best to use it a stage for presenting Inuksuit. They designed an elaborate site plan (see graphic) to deploy musicians and instruments radiating out from the music pavilion and lawn area into the Lurie Gardens and on Piano’s bridge to the Art Institute.
Despite his extensive advance planning, a persistent storm system put Perkins’ plans in jeopardy. When we arrived at rainy Millennium Park, the Great Lawn of Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion was nearly empty save for scattered sets of drums, cymbal trees, and glockenspiels like so many inuksuit harbingers of the experience to come. The stacks of instruments were covered with plastic, tarps and other protective devices in hopes the steady rain would subside. But as performance time approached the forecast never wavered from 100% chance of rain. A crowd began to assemble and word spread that plans to deploy instruments and musicians broadly throughout the park were scrapped. But the musicians were adamant they would perform unless there was lightning.
Would the rain prove to be more than these indomitable musicians bargained for? It would not! At the appointed hour of 5:30, 101 musicians began to slowly and quietly convene in an amorphous formation in the center of the Great Lawn as the crowd gathered around them. The music began with sounds evoking the Arctic winds, some players blowing through large paper cones, others using conch shells. The rain suddenly held off.
As the performers began to wade through the crowd and spread out, wind noises gave way to clarion calls on the conch shells, eerie whirring noises from swirling flexible plastic hoses, scratching sounds of wood rubbed on wood and stone rubbed on stone. Performers assigned to the percussion stacks reached their positions and poised to play. Suddenly, eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall struck a thunderous boom on an oversized bass drum, unleashing a cacophony of sound throughout the Great Lawn and Pavilion. And just as suddenly the heaviest rain of the day burst forth. In this piece about communing with nature, we were all completely engulfed by it.
Inuksuit is designed as a participatory piece, with the performers immersed in the audience so there is no one ideal place from which to experience the soundscape. We found ourselves promenading throughout the pavilion area with the same ritualistic style and pace of Doug Perkins’ organically choreographed movements for the performers. Some of us were equipped with rain gear and umbrellas. Others simply allowed the rain to soak them. The magical combination of music and rain unleashed an innocent abandon in the crowd: a little girl running in a “catch me if you can” game with her father, a man sticking out his tongue to catch the rainwater, some in mediative poses with their eyes closed, others holding umbrellas over musicians. No one, it seemed, had any inclination to leave.
The music continued to move in waves from one group of musicians to another, mesmerizing the crowd in its thrall. The dominant notes came from the stationary sets of drums, cymbals, gongs and hand-cranked sirens. Wandering performers added accents by striking triangles, metal bars, and metal tubes. From the stage of the pavilion, safe from the potential water damage, piccolo trills rang out. The waves and crescendos of sound mutated continuously as one wandered about. The rain added its own percussive notes, dancing off taught umbrellas and splashing in growing puddles. The light took on a special glow, reminiscent of the Arctic midnight sun.
Slowly the sounds softened to the level of bird calls, carried primarily by the glockenspiels, triangles, and piccolos. Many performers began a ritualistic promenade back to the center of the Great Lawn, attracting the crowd with them. Gently the music died out, eventually replaced by sustained applause, hoops, and hollers from an intensely joyous audience. The musicians were mostly soaked through to the skin, some visibly shivering; all were clearly exhilarated by their triumphant performance of Inuksuit.
Congratulations and our profound thanks go out to the full roster of performers:
Director – Doug Perkins
eight blackbird – Lisa Kaplan, Tim Munro, Yvonne Lam, NIck Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Maccaferri, Ryan Ingebritsen
Calumet Chamber Musicians – John Wachala
Chicago Civic Orchestrea – Eliza Bangert
Coalescence Percussion Duo – Judy Moonert, Greg Secor
DePaul University – Robert Fletcher
Eastern Illinois University – Jamie Ryan
Ensemble Dal Niente – Shanna Gutierrez, Ammie Brod
Fifth House Ensemble – Matt Monroe, Herine Koschak, Ross Weijer
Fulcrum Point – Kate Flum
Grand Valley State University – Bill Ryan, Dan Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, Josh Dreyer, Sam Gould
Illinois Percussive Arts Society – Jeff Strong, Jeff Brenner
Indiana University – Greg Mesa
Moraine Valley Community College – Andrew Novak, Julio Jimenez, Ben Lisak, Maura Vizza
Naperville High School – Ben Walhund
New Millennium Orchestra -Emma Hospelhorn
New Music Chicago – Jeff Shaw, Andrew Tham, Jennie Brown
Northern Illinois University -Greg Beyer, Brian Wach, Alexis Lamb, Mike Mixtack, Nick Fox, Dan Eastwood, Greg Essig, Zane Cupec, Austin Shoupe, Jonny Gifford, Chris Mrofzca, Daniel Henson, Angela Kepley, Jaime Esposito, Tim Mcallister
Palomar -Alicia Poot
Roosevelt University – Nathan Bushey
Third Coast Percussion – Rob Dillon, Peter Martin, Dave Skidmore, Clay Condon
University of Chicago – Shawn Allison
University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign – Gavin Ryan, Dan McLaughlin, Peter Breithaupt, William Mullen, Tom Siwe
University of Michigan – Josh Graham, Dylan Greene, Jon Brown, Chris Sies
University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point – Tom Bjoraker, Kel Kelley, Rebecca Kolonick, Sean Conners, Matt Clark, Jeff Crowell, Bri Trainor, Andrew Cameron, Andy Neidner, Carissa Tikalsky, Alex Meronek
Other: Yael Litwin, Chris Jasinsky, Ben Runkell, Daniel Reifsteck, Chris Dandeles, Paul Beckman, Emilie Mitchell, Doug Bratt, Christina Foster, Chris Jones, Alan Fey, Megan Arns, Amy Garapic, Ben Fraley, Aaron Butler, John Corkill, Jake Coon, Brett Baxter, Trevor Saint, Simon Munro, Alex Hough, Gabe Gaster
Under the title of “Slicing and Dicing,” we delved in to Boolean logic, the conceptual framework underlying digital processing of signals with discrete voltages, i.e., the entirety of our computerized modern world. George Boole (1815–1864), a mostly self-taught English mathematician, pioneered the idea of applying the mechanisms of algebra to the study of logic, thereby revolutionizing the field. His application of formal methods to studying phenomena that exist in only one of two states − true or false, on or off, etc. − eventually found powerful application in the development of computing and other forms of electronic processing.
Now, flash forward about two centuries. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union propelled Sputnik-1 into an elliptical low-earth orbit, shocking the world. Most unnerved was the USSR’s global arch-rival, the United States, where government scientists were caught off guard that the Soviets had sufficiently advanced their space rocket technology (which we had both harvested from Germany as part of the settlement of WWII) to be able to put a satellite into orbit. The launch set off the Space Race, a new battlefield in the Cold War. And it also precipitated the Sputnik Crisis in American education, a flurry of activity aimed at closing the substantial math and science gap between students in the USA and those in the USSR. Simply put, they were developing rocket scientists and we were not.
In the fall of 1958, my 4th grade class at the Shrine elementary school was suddenly no longer studying arithmetic, we were studying New Math. Instead of a commercially printed arithmetic textbook, we had a succession of mimeographed and stapled pamphlets on topics like the number line; Boolean logic and it’s derivative, the binary number system; and number system bases, like binary (0 through 1), decimal (0 through 9), and hexadecimal (0 through 9, A, B, C, D, E, F). This was purported, correctly I think, to be a better way to prepare us conceptually to understand and excel at the more advanced forms of mathematics and computer technology needed to engineer space exploration.
For me, and probably some others in my class, New Math was more like a fun game than the drudgery of arithmetic (how could it take us eight years of that to get ready for algebra, in high school?). Of course there were some who were confused, though perhaps no less confused than they were with arithmetic.
Many parents in our extremely conservative suburban Detroit enclave were incensed by this sudden change in the curriculum. “If arithmetic was good enough for teaching us, then by god it’s good enough for teaching Jimmy and Sally!” And some no doubt thought the New Math was a communist plot, because many in our parish saw a communist plot lurking behind every lamppost. So the New Math experiment in our school didn’t last very long, and soon we were back to learning good old arithmetic. It’s impact in the broader society was more substantial in the first couple of decades after it was launched. However, New Math eventually was a victim of the 80s and 90s return to the basic ABCs. Interestingly, some of the concepts are finding their way back into the math curriculum for elementary and secondary education in the USA, through the Common Core movement, once again vexing some students, teachers, and parents. So the history and impact of New Math on American education remains controversial.
For myself, I next encountered these ideas when I started studying computer science at Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, in 1980. A required course in advanced algebra, called Functions, began with the number line, Boolean logic, and set theory. I felt right at home.
With the focus of our Synth in Place class being on making electronic sounds, it feels appropriate to close with the signals sent from space by Sputnik-1, captured by radio enthusiasts as it spun around the globe in 1957. Maybe someone in the class will utilize or replicate these sounds in their project.
Our focus in week five of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, turned to west coast style synthesizers, and vactrols and VCF (voltage controlled filters), components they use to great effect.
The iconic maker of west coast synthesizers was Don Buchla (1937-2016), whose Buchla Modular Electronic Music System was the first commercial music synthesizer to to hit the market, in 1965. You can’t talk for long about Buchla and his synthesizers without also talking about Morton Subotnick, one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an early and influential laboratory focused on the development of electronic music. Subotnick, and his Tape Music Center colleague Ramon Sender, were close collaborators with Buchla on his first synthesizer, providing the user specifications for a device with a flexible modular configuration to provide endless variation in how the sound produced by oscillators could be manipulated. Subotnick used the Buchla 100 series modular synth to create the first totally electronic music album to be commissioned by a major record label, Silver Apples Of The Moon, in 1967.
In 2013, Arlene and I had the distinct pleasure to hear Morton Subotnick’s live performance of From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY, an 80th-birthday-year reprise of sounds from across the broad swath of his extraordinary career. We wrote a piece about that experience for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the online journal of contemporary music and related arts and technologies, where we are contributing editors. I’ve dug that piece out of the vault to present here, because I think it perfectly captures the ethereal experience of hearing an expert practitioner spin out a unique sound universe using a west coast synthesizer with an array of input and manipulation devices.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Morton Subotnick Performs a Sorcerer’s Brew of Music at MOCA Cleveland
Morton Subotnick, a true pioneer of electronic music, celebrated his 80th birthday this year. Yet only his halo of white hair, snowy goatee, and a slight limp gave any sense he was a day over 65 when he mounted the stage to perform From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland on Thursday, November 14, 2013. No doubt staying in the avant garde of electronics in music has kept him surrounded by younger people. Perhaps he has continuously re-absorbed youth by osmosis along the way. His performance was both historical, in that it contained many recorded samples of all his previous work since the 1960s, and of-the-moment, as he spontaneously mixed his samples and vocalizations into a sorcerer’s brew via live manipulation and processing.
Looking like a learned shaman, Subotnick seated himself at an elaborate workstation consisting of a Buchla Music Easel (an updated version of the first-ever music synthesizer, which he helped develop in the 60s), microphone, multi-part touchpad interface, laptop, and more. It was all routed through a quadraphonic sound system from the TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) department of Oberlin Conservatory, which co-sponsored Subotnick’s visit, including a lecture at the conservatory the following day. Four large monitors surrounded the audience, one in each corner of the open ground-floor gallery. After pausing a moment to ready himself, Subotnick launched into a series of wordless vocalizations that were transformed into pure sound and shifted around the room like they were powered by a cyclotron. This set the tone for his hour-long program full of shifting textures, timbres, density, and dynamics. Although there were no definitive stops, it was composed of three distinct sections that seemed to embody new ways of hearing the energy of the universe.
The opening section evoked the scene of some primordial swamp, full of gurgling water, croaking frogs, and buzzing insects, intersecting with wild winds and ghostly beings. Subotnick gradually built the complexity of the texture, adding waves of samples to the mix, creating more layers of sound. As the tempo and dynamics increased, it became difficult to discern the individual elements. One became immersed in its totality, mesmerized by the engulfing sound, only to be jolted awake by a loud blast and then returned to long steady tones eventually fading to near silence.
Subotnick initiated a new construction in section two as a thin gauzy fabric was punctuated by a persistent low-frequency 1-2 thump. He transported this beat throughout the gallery as this soundscape unfolded. Over this beat were crazy, wild combinations of shrill sounds morphing from disorganized chaos into more parallel structures. It was like being transported into a hidden dimension where we could hear energy darting around the room as light rays and thermal currents caused gas molecules to collide. Subotnick added more materials to the mix, thickening the texture and increasing the intensity, sounding as if we were caught up in the tail of a comet flying high above the earth. The texture gradually scaled back to only two or three lines, with Subotnick’s humming vocalizations bringing a momentarily subdued calm. He then rebuilt the complex texture at a rapid pace, increasing the volume to a crescendo with that thumping bass vibrating the entire room. With that climax exhausted, the sounds slowly dissolved and faded.
The final section inhabited a more human sphere, beginning with the haunting sounds of a disembodied female voice chanting quietly. Subotnick added processed live vocalizing and a steady percussive tapping, soon joined by the orbiting sound of a ball bearing rolling around the outer rim of a hubcap. The human vocal sounds continued to dominate and morph into moans, sighs, and heavy breath sounds as if trying to communicate with the universe on a new channel. It was fascinating to observe how the specific gestures Subotnick made on his touchpad and with his mouth at the microphone gave shape to the sounds that emerged. The texture soon thickened and became more complex as intricate plucking and striking sounds joined the mix. It sounded like some ancient sonic communication system using muted marimba, hammered strings, and kalimba. The textures and dynamics built to another crescendo of enormous beauty, then suddenly dissipated to silence.
After a sustained standing ovation, Subotnick returned to the stage for a short improvised encore with a free-jazz feel. He opened with a rapid riff of processed vocalization that reminded us that he had an early career as a virtuoso clarinetist. His voice receded and electronic samples came to the fore at nearly manic speed, dominated by heavy low frequency thumps. It seemed at once both chaotic and precise, and came to an abrupt halt.
Following the performance, Subotnick described his workstation set-up to us in a little more detail. His Buchla Music Easel is equipped with only two oscillators, but he multiplies their effects using Ableton software on the laptop. Two ten-button keypads on his left, enable him to select which samples go through which software multiplier. With the multi-part touchpad on his right he manipulates the shape, tempo, and volume of the samples he selects to play. In the program notes, he stated: “For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla ‘instrument’ loaded with prepared samples from all my previous works and performances and new patches that will allow me to modify the samples while performing brand new sound gestures created especially for the new season.” He plays from a score, displayed on the laptop, which defines the order of samples to be played but allows ample space for spontaneity in how he manipulates those samples.
In week four of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, we focused on the basic components and technology of commercially produced music synthesizers, and we looked at plans for making two simple synths: one that sound like crickets, and one that can replicate the sounds of 1980s Atari games like Space Invaders.
Our inspiration this week came from Thaddeus Cahill’s prescient 1897 invention, the Telharmonium. This awesome contraption was a synthesizer long before the invention of synthesizers, music amplification before the invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers, a music streaming service long before the internet. Sadly, the Telharmonium was never a commercial success, because it required the nascent telephone network for transmission services. But the demand for telephone service grew so rapidly, that there was no available bandwidth. However, its concepts didn’t disappear completely, as they led directly to development of the Hammond organ. And where would jazz, and rock, and church music be without that?
Breaking down the inner workings of a commercially produced music synthesizer was a revelation for me, as I’d never put much thought to how they work. I’ve just always been content that they make cool sounds. As an introduction, we fist learned that all the commercial synthesizers out there are using the same fundamental technologies and components to synthesize sound, whether those sounds are in the realm most people would call music, i.e., imitating the sounds of acoustical music instruments, or less readily recognizable sounds we’re more likely to hear in the experimental music realm.
We also learned that there is an east-west divide in the synthesizer world, not in underlying technology, but in the nature of the human-to-machine interface, the mechanisms the operator uses to elicit sound from the electronic beast.
East coast synthesizers typically provide a primary interface in the form of a piano- or organ-style keyboard to play the instrument, along with various knobs and switches to customize the nature of the sound. The epitome of this east coast style are the Moog synthesizers, the name that many people think of when the topic of synthesizers comes up in conversation. Robert Moog (1934-2005) was an engineer, not a musician. So he spent a lot time with musicians when he was designing his device. His objective was to make the Moog Synthesizer something musicians would find interesting and easy to play, thus, the keyboard interface so you can play it like a piano or organ.
Moog presented the first public live demonstration of his synthesizer in 1964 at the Audio Engineering Society’s New York convention. A 2014 video made by Moog’s company looks back on that day and the legacy of the founder’s creation.
Soon thereafter, it was clear that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument musicians could and would actually play, to amazing effects. Composer and performer Wendy Carlos blazed the trail for the possibilities of the Moog in the classical realm with her 1967 release Switched-on Bach. And Keith Emerson, of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, rocked the pop world with his Moog break in bandmate Greg Lake’s Lucky Man, changing pop music forever.
One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.
At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.
It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.
We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.
The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.
The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.
After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!
Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.
Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.
Create the Future! Building our own amazing oscillators was the objective for week 2 of Synth in Place, the online course in building DIY electronic music-making machines, taught by Kirk Pearson and presented by Dogbotic sounds labs and Thingamajigs. We took our inspiration for this challenge from a couple of truly awesome, and famous, installations, made by pioneers in the electronic museum field. One of these was composer and sound artist David Tudor‘s Rainforest V (variation 1), at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, as shown in this 360° video.
Of course, our first oscillators could not even scratch the surface of the genius of the work of these transformational thinkers and makers of electronic instruments. But we nonetheless are doing our work in homage to their path-setting work.
Oscillators are a foundational building block of electronic music synthesizers. For the uninitiated, an oscillator is an electronic gizmo that makes electrons move back and forth in a normal predicable manner. That predicable pattern can be exploited to activate other electronic components such as led-lights and speakers. With the proper setup of circuits and wiring to control the frequencies in the pattern of electron movement, what comes out of a speaker in such a setup can be pitched sounds in the range we typically call music.
Using a breadboard (a temporary circuit board made for prototyping electronic gadgets); a 555 Timer (a ready-made microchip that can control electron pulses in a variety of ways, depending on how you connect it); a handful of capacitors, resistors, and wires; a bare-wire LED bulb; a potentiometer; a small speaker; and a 9-volt battery, with snap-on connector; we set out to create the future. Our first oscillators evolved through several versions. The first, show above, implements a simple strobe light. The frequency of flashing is controlled by your choice of capacitors. If we add a potentiometer (a sort of switch that can be used to vary the flow of electrons) and a speaker into our design and rewire things a bit, we suddenly have a user-controlled noise-making machine. And if we can get the frequencies in the right range, our noises will be pitched sounds we could call music. Below is a look at that setup.
For the final trick, we ventured into Daphne Oram territory. Remove the potentiometer and do a bit of rewiring to connect a piece of corrugated cardboard filled with a heavy smear of pencil lead (graphite, i.e. carbon, i.e., a conductor of electrons) using an alligator clip in contact with the graphite smear, with a bare wire at the other end suitably connected to the breadboard. Use another wire of the same configuration, similarly connected, and you can “play” the graphite smear using a drawing gesture with the other alligator clip. Here is the way that setup looks.
I struggled to get my own version of these oscillator variations working properly. These components, especially breadboards, can be temperamental, to begin with. And whatever manual dexterity I once had (which was not that much) is fading fast with age. As arthritis and other woes take up residence in my hands, you can call me Klutzy McFumblefingers. But, despite the challenges to actually get these things working, learning how they go together to make newly-imagined instruments is a thoroughly engaging experience.
Last week I attended the first session of an eight-week online class called Synth in Place (SIP). Our friend and sometimes collaborator Kirk Pearson is teaching the class, which is presented by Kirk’s own Dogbotic sound lab in collaboration with Thingamajigs, a genre-crossing arts organization that fosters music created with made and found materials and alternate tuning systems. I’m unsure what I may do in the future with the knowledge I gain in this class, but, at the very least, it seems like a fun way to chew up some pandemic quarantine hours.
There are nine brave souls in our section of the class (Kirk is juggling several similar sized sections, some with teenagers, and others with older folks like us). In our group, we range in age from 20s to 70s and bring an interesting mix of backgrounds − several composers and performers, an electrical engineer and circuit board designer, a graphic artist and animator. We are also quite geographically spread out, one of the benefits of online classes, with folks in London, New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, California, Oberlin, and places in between. Two of the attendees are people I know, and who also know Kirk (much longer than I have), which Kirk said was unique to this section. Jim Pugliese is a composer, percussionist, and educator, who recently retired from teaching at the LaGuardia high school for music and the arts in New York City. Nick Dunston is a composer and bassist, who has know Kirk since they were both at LaGuardia, which is where they met Jim. Small world.
The objective of the course is to learn the basics of making electronic music by tinkering with the various component parts and sub-assemblies that can be created and manipulated to make sounds come out of a speaker. A few weeks back, Kirk sent us all a box full of components and connectors, packaged in envelopes with delightful Dogbotic graphics, designed by Maisy Byerly. He also sent us a list our own tools and supplies we will need − soldering iron and solder, batteries, tape, wire cutters and strippers, etc. After we gain some facility with all these pieces and parts, we will start plotting how to choose specific components and put them together into a working synthesizer.
Our first experiment in electronic sound-making involved connecting a box grater to a 9-volt battery and a small speaker, and then playing the grater with a spoon. Kitchen tool music is right in my zone!
Next we riffed on the old saying about having, or not having, two nickles to rub together. Due to rampant inflation in the intervening years, we used quarters, which we electrified, again with the nine volt battery, and also connected to the speaker. Paper clips in the speaker cone add a nice buzz.
For our final exercise in this session, we experimented with piezoelectric microphones, which pick up sound and vibrations from things they are attached to (or are resting upon them). We made some cool sounds with a metal ruler held over the microphone and extended off the table for twanging purposes. We also did some drumming directly on the microphone surface with the quarters. In both of these cases, we connected the microphone via alligator clips and a mini-plug patch cord to a powered speaker.
The most profound lesson of the day was Kirk’s assertion that making DIY electronic music is an inherently political act. The electronic instruments we are creating make sound by manipulating electric voltage patterns. And these are sounds that no acoustic instrument can make. Thus making DIY electronic music is a rejection of the known universe and the creation of your own.
Stay tuned, to learn about the new worlds my Synth in Place colleagues and I create.