#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.
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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.
[Editor’s note: Arlene prepared this paper as her final semester project for a class she audited at Oberlin College and Conservatory, MHST 290: Introduction to African American Music, taught by Professor Fredara Mareva Hadley.]
Music has been a vital part of African American life from the time the first African was kidnapped, sold, shipped to the New World, and enslaved by European colonists in North America. They brought songs and rhythms with them and created new sounds by integrating those with European musical traditions they heard while in captivity. This music became an integral part of African American culture in their daily lives, as well as their Sunday rituals, from the period of enslavement and into the 21st century.
Songs were a natural part of the enslaved people’s Sunday services and many contained coded lyrics reflecting hopes for freedom from enslavement. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, these songs were transformed into freedom songs, a vital element of the movement. This paper addresses how those freedom songs impacted the direct action taken to desegregate public accommodations and bring the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states. Particular focus is given to the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The paper makes specific links between traditional slave songs and freedom songs, noting how the simple substitution of a word or two transformed a prayer to a rallying cry. An accompanying playlist demonstrates those connections. The paper also contains personal reflections of SNCC leaders, members of the Freedom Singers, and the author, who worked for SNCC in the 1960s.
After a short-lived Reconstruction period of relative freedom for African Americans following the Civil War, power shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the south and blacks were subjected to “Jim Crow” laws, requiring strict segregation of the races in public accommodation, and systematic disenfranchisement through such tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests. The “Jim Crow” laws were local or state ordinances, but became the law of the land nationally in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate accommodations for Negroes were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These laws were only part of the systemic, de facto practices of discrimination in employment, education, housing and virtually every aspect of life for people of color, resulting in severe economic disadvantage, and second-class citizenship status. The “separate but equal” policy remained in effect until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court reversed Plessy.
This decision created a sense of empowerment throughout the black community, but the change in the law did not result in the end of discrimination nor the often brutal physical treatment of African Americans. The following summer, 1955, Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted after a five-day trial and only 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury.
Within a few months of that trial, Rosa Parks, a long-time NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) activist, refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama when the driver asked her to move to accommodate a white passenger. She was subsequently arrested, and is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.”1 Parks’ demonstrative action galvanized the local black community into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year, is considered the onset of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Five years later, in February of 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter “white’s only” section and requested service after purchasing goods at the store. When asked to leave they refused. This action was followed by more than twenty students the next day and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the south. In April 1960, many of these students gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and, with the leadership of Ella Baker, formed SNCC, a group that would become a major force over the next several years. SNCC played a significant role in many key actions – the 1961 Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the Mississippi Freedom Summer, culminating in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Mississippi delegation’s credentials to the 1964 Democratic Party’s national convention; and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
The Role of Freedom Songs in the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement
Music played a critical role in all these burgeoning civil rights campaigns, as early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “As a local movement grew in Montgomery, singing became a strong force in unifying people in the struggle.”2 Mass meetings for this action and those that followed in the 1960s typically took place in churches, where singing was an essential element of the service.
Many commonly known hymns, spirituals and gospel songs began to take on a new meaning when they were part of a mass meeting. Soon small adaptations were made which gave even sharper focus to traditional words. “We’ve got the light of freedom, we’re gonna let it shine”3
At mass meetings, music was mixed into the program alternating with motivational speeches of civil rights leaders from the local community as well as from organizations such as SNCC, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization). The music served to motivate people to participate, inspire them to feel a part of something transformative, and create a sense of solidarity not only with their local community but also with a national movement creating “the second American revolution.”4 Most importantly, when demonstrators knowingly faced the terrorism of their oppressors, music served to help calm their fears and steel their resolve.
In an interview by composer/scholar William Banfield, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of The SNCC Freedom Singers, talks of the role of music:
(T)his was definitely the way I saw music working in the Civil Rights movement. There were those times when we were moving in new ways, and going against everything we had been taught that might keep us safe, and as we moved forward, terrified, and possibly facing real physical danger, we used the songs and the singing. It never stopped the bullet or a jailing, or kept you from losing your job or being suspended from school, but music kept you from being paralyzed, it kept you moving.5
Churches were natural places for these mass meetings, as they were the one safe haven for African Americans to gather in the South, a tradition that harks back to the period of enslavement when Sundays were the only day of the week when the enslaved were not under constant scrutiny of the enslavers. Churches were places where blacks felt trust in and connections with all those around them.
Minor adaptations in the words of traditional hymns sung in these churches transformed them into the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. In an interview with John Lewis, chairman of SNCC from 1963-66, Bernice Reagon quotes him:
One of the earliest songs I remember very well that became very popular was “Amen”
Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen
Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom
This song represented the coming together, you really felt it – it was like you were part of the crusade, a holy crusade. You felt uplifted and involved in a great battle and a great struggle.6
She continued with her own comments: “A simple change from ‘Amen’ to ‘Freedom’ made it a musical statement of the ultimate national goal of the student activists.”7
Most of the freedom songs were upbeat and had a call-to-action message, with titles like Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, We Shall Not be Moved, Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom and Which Side Are You On? In addition to these songs motivating and inspiring participants, they also played an important external role when they were sung during marches and demonstrations, and even in jail. They reached out to supporters who might not have joined yet, and many of them would be on the picket lines the next day. The songs made a strong statement to the police, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Councils and the people who snarled racial epithets and spat at them that there would be no cowering in this movement. SNCC and other organizations, and particularly local community members who were risking their jobs, homes, even their lives, were declaring that they were serious, they meant business, and they were not going away until their demands were met.
We Shall Overcome held a special position in the civil rights movement in general, and in SNCC in particular. Each mass meeting and even each planning meeting ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. We all stood, crossed our arms and held hands with the people next to us, creating a bond throughout the room that could not be broken. This song was much more solemn and prayerful with words of hope for the future that all the hard work of the day would pay off someday.
The SNCC Freedom Singers served the movement in another significant way by supporting the organization’s fundraising efforts. They toured the nation, playing in front of crowds of supporters where they spread the word, and helped finance SNCC’s operations. Accompanying them on these tours were well known activist/entertainers like Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte helping to boost attendance. A group of original Freedom Singers continues to perform, especially at 50th anniversary commemorations of specific events of the 60s.
Musical links to the past
The freedom songs of the civil rights movement draw from a rich historical culture beginning hundreds of years earlier in our nation’s history. During the period of enslavement African Americans were allowed to congregate in groups on Sunday, their day of rest. Early on, white ministers taught them the Christian religion of the European colonists. Later they were often allowed to meet alone, so long as what the enslavers heard were recognizable as prayers and hymns. These gatherings became the birthplace of African American church culture, much of which is still alive today. Music played a vital role in that development and spilled over into their secular world as well.
Following the Civil War and emancipation, the African American culture evolved, in part, through the establishment of Black churches and new institutions to educate free black men and women (what are now referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In both cases music played significant roles in their infrastructure and in the ability to raise funds for their operations. The hymns sung by the enslaved people in their enclaves on Sunday became the hymns they sang in their churches. Many of the freedom songs of the 60s were directly derived from those slave songs, supplemented by hymns and spirituals composed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the Freedom Singers and others were also inspired to compose new songs. This section focuses on the connection between freedom songs and the historical songs of enslavement, with one major exception, We Shall Overcome, which is based on a composed hymn from 1901.
There are many sources for understanding the traditional hymns and spirituals upon which freedom songs are based, including liner notes of recordings, periodicals and research papers. One website, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of Spirituals,” with a focus on connections to slave spirituals. states:
The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s and 70s, many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of old slave spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement.8
This site also contains illustrative examples of the connections between freedom songs and the slave songs on which they were based. From this list I chose four and added a fifth to create a playlist of five freedom songs paired with the traditional hymns or spirituals that inspired them. The fifth, I’ll Overcome Some Day is a gospel hymn composed by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901. It is included because its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Specific Song Lineages
Following are links to the ten tracks pairing each historical antecedent with the freedom song that was derived from it.
Examining each of these pairings illuminates how relatively simple changes in lyrics and style transformed traditional prayerful songs into tools of the civil rights movement.
Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus is sung by Mississippi Fred McDowell, accompanying himself on the guitar. It sounds so authentic one can imagine it is an enslaved person singing at a Sunday service. The matching freedom song, performed by the original Freedom Singers, replaces “stayed on Jesus” with “set on Freedom.” It is sung a capella, has a much faster tempo and is much louder. The slave song has verses beginning “walkin’ and talkin with my mind . . . ” and “singin’ and prayin with my mind . . . ” The freedom song also has the “walkin’ and talkin’” phrase, while later verses begin with adaptations such as “ain’t no harm to keep your mind set on freedom.”
Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round sung by the Pilgrim Jubilees is performed as an arranged spiritual with a lead singer and a choir, accompanied with several instruments. The freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round is performed a capella by the Freedom Singers. The slave song’s lyrics include “walkin’ up the King’s highway” which are substituted in the freedom song with “marchin’ up to Freedomland.” The pace is quicker and the attitude one of fighting and protest. Additional verses in the freedom song include “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round” with other words substituting for segregation, such as “jailhouse,” “nervous nellies,” “Chief Pritchett,” “Mayor Kelly” and “Uncle Tom.” Noteworthy in this version is the inclusion of local opponents such as the police chief (Pritchett) and mayor (Kelley) of Albany Georgia, thus inspiring people to face them the next day.
I Shall Not be Moved, performed by “Pops” Staples is paired with We Shall Not Be Moved by the Freedom Singers. The traditional hymn is sung as an arranged spiritual with many instruments, and the freedom song is a capella with strong multi-voice harmony. The words in the main chorus do not change other than changing the first person singular to first person plural:
I (We) shall not, we shall be moved, I (We) shall not we shall be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, I (We) shall not be moved.
Lyrics change in the verses, however. The slave song has ones including “Jesus is my Captain, I shall not be moved” and “I’m on my way to Glory, I shall not be moved,” while the freedom song substitutes “we’re on our way to victory, we shall not be moved” and “segregation is our enemy, it must be removed.”
Neither the title nor the refrain is adapted for the song Oh Freedom, which begins: “Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” These lyrics suggest that this spiritual was not likely sung during enslavement, but perhaps after emancipation.
The spiritual Oh Freedom probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.9
On the playlist The Golden Gospel Singers perform the traditional song in an arranged a capella fashion, with a choir background. It contains lines like “no more weepin’” in place of “Oh Freedom!” The freedom song by Sweet Honey in the Rock is from the movie Freedom Song and is part of a mass meeting scene. It is performed a capella, with tambourine. It is more upbeat than the gospel rendition and is similar to a lined hymn with a call/response form. The leader speaks, not sings, the lead verse for each section to make sure those present at the mass meeting know what to sing next. In place of “no more weepin’” are such phrases as “no more beatin’,” “no more Jim Crow,” and “there’ll be singin’.”
The final pairing is not based on a slave song but a composed hymn, I Will Overcome, written by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most prolific African American gospel hymn composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was sung more often than any other freedom song and permeated American political culture so fully that these words were spoken by President Lyndon Johnson when he introduced the Voting Rights Bill in a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.10 The traditional song is performed by the Reverend Gary Davis, accompanied by guitar and a mixed choir. The singing is interspersed with preaching and contains lines such as “by the precious Lord” and “I heard a voice one day” followed by “I Shall Overcome.” The Freedom Singers, with Chuck Neblett providing strong bass lines, sing a capella with some well-arranged call/response, and such substituted phrases as “we are not alone . . . today (for someday)” and “black and white together” introducing new verses.
I was a member of SNCC from 1960 to 1966 and worked as a field secretary in Arkansas in 1964-65. During that time I had many opportunities to sing freedom songs and listen to the Freedom Singers perform. The experience was invigorating and helped me appreciate the importance of the work my colleagues and I were doing. These were also joyful times when we would look into each other’s eyes, understanding the sacrifices we were making, and believing (or, at least, hoping) that the work we were doing was really making the world a better place for African Americans, and, as a result, for all of us. When we sang We Shall Overcome at the end of every meeting, we would shout out the new verses such as: “We are not afraid,” “Black and white together,” and “The truth shall make us free,” but when it came time to finish the song with one more refrain of “We Shall Overcome” it was a little more solemn and prayerful, knowing that there were many obstacles ahead of us before we achieved our dreams of freedom for all.
Though we have come a long way in the fifty years since the peak of SNCC’s activities, the long march to justice is not over. The power of those freedom songs, and the legacy from which they are derived, still resonates. Composers and musicians in various genres – folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and contemporary classical – continue to write and play pieces connected with the civil rights movement. In 2012 composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a four CD set entitled Ten Freedom Summers,11 which treats this musical legacy in a more abstract but no less effective manner. At a concert I attended at which he played selections from those recordings, he spoke movingly about the work and its meaning:
This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.12
 Guy and Candie Carawan, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom, The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs
 Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964
”The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” in Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, William C. Banfield, 2004. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland.
6] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987
 Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C
 Wadada Leo Smith, speaking at Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012 Edgefest, October 31-November 3, 2012
Books, Periodicals and Liner Notes:
Banfield, William C., Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, Chapter entitled: The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Carawan, Guy and Candie, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ASIN: B000001DHL
Lewis, Anthony, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’”, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987
American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY), website of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/