David Lee Myers’ Ether Music: A Nearly Lost Thread of Electronic Music


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Starkland 227

There is a certain nostalgia here both in the sound of this album and its provenance.  David Lee Myers (1949- ) is perhaps best known for his work under the rubric of Arcane Device from 1987-1993.  Under that name one finds 23 albums on the discogs web site.

Myers has collaborated with people like Asmus Tietchens (1947- ), a German electronic composer (with a hefty discography), Kim Cascone  (1955- ), an American electronic composer and producer, Marco Oppedisano (1971- ), an American guitarist and composer, Ellen Band, an American electronic composer, and Tod Dockstader (1932-2015), among others.  His output has been in the electronic music genre, i.e. no live components and he works in a style which he calls, “feedback music”.  Like Dockstader, Myers has worked outside of the academy and has relied upon home made electronics and techniques he has developed over the years to produce a rather unique musical style.

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Tod Dockstader with tapes and score notes.

More so than the other mentioned collaborators Myers’ work with Dockstader is the “thread” to which the title of this review refers.  The release of the long out of print early work of Tod Dockstader was effectively the genesis of Starkland Records.  With the release of Quatermass (1992) and Apocalypse (1993) Dockstader was forced out of obscurity and motivated to begin composing and releasing recordings again.  Those Starkland releases were of some long out of print LPs from the early 1960s and Dockstader, who had been working in the music industry but no longer releasing his compositions was inspired to bring that aspect of his work again to the public.  Two of those efforts included the collaboration of David Lee Myers, Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).  (After Dockstader’s death Starkland surprised the musical world by releasing heretofore unknown gems from the composer’s archive in From the Archives (2016).)

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David Lee Myers with some of his electronics.

It is both beyond the scope of this review and beyond this reviewer’s expertise to comment meaningfully about the compositional processes by which Myers achieves his ends but, thankfully, the liner notes by Dan Visconti provide significant insight in this area.  One can assume that his innovations in electronics as well as the devices themselves will become a treasured part of the history of electronic music along with the recordings themselves.

There are ten tracks here all written in 2015, and all utilizing Myers’ “feedback music” techniques.  The CD booklet includes both some of Myers’ beautiful circuit sketches as well as photos of some of his self made electronic processing equipment.  (This actually seems to echo the similar production of the booklet from that “From the Archives” disc of Dockstader’s work.)  Also worth noting is that the mastering is done by Silas Brown whose expertise contributed so significantly to the success of that last Dockstader disc.

The listener is free to dwell on the technical notes and ponder how these sounds and processings come together to produce the final product or simply let the experience flow over you.  There are doubtless many riches to be found in the pursuit of the technical and the analytic.   But the most important thing is that you listen, just listen.  This reviewer’s first hearing of this disc was on a long, leisurely late night drive which allowed an uninterrupted experience of the entire disc.  It was only later that I chose to take in the liner notes and booklet.  And while these enhanced the experience the tracks are sufficiently substantive in themselves to carry the listener into Myers’ unique technological vision which is unlike any other save perhaps for that of the aforementioned thread to Dockstader.

Though related by this thread, Myers’ vision is truly like none other in the field of electronic classical music.  If anything this seems to be a nearly lost thread, one of the self-sufficient tinkerer and explorer who shares his discoveries with anyone who dares to listen.  So, listen, I dare you.  You won’t be disappointed.

Release date scheduled for November 10, 2017.

 

 

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Alvin Curran’s Fake Book at the Berkeley Arts Museum


Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

On a cool Friday evening in Berkeley April 11th I proceeded to the Berkeley Arts Museum which sits across the street from the University.  It is a beautiful modern architectural creation with a large and resonant space where there was a large and colorful rug, a series of pillows and behind that a set of conventional chairs for the audience.  Many chose to sit on the rug close to the performer.

The set up consisted of a piano on loan from the Piedmont Piano Company, an electronic keyboard on loan from Paul Dresher along with Mr. Curran’s computer and and amplifier driving two speakers on either side of the keyboards.  The open space is just off the entry way of the museum and tends to have a fair amount of traffic and ambient noise of the people on the various levels.

Curran, now 75, has been a prominent figure on the contemporary music scene internationally since about 1964 when he was partnered with fellow expatriates Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Richard Teitlebaum and Carol Plantamura among others in the ground breaking Musica  Elletronica Viva.  They created events and happenings using live electronics in the days before such things were easily accessible.  He has continued to explore the leading edge of musical creativity throughout his long and ongoing career.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

The concert began with Curran circumnavigating the audience in clockwise fashion beginning stage right and going around the audience making a full circle and returning to the front of the audience stage center.  he began by playing two simple chords on the instrument repeating them several times.  He then switched to another woodwind type instrument playing some unusual sounds.  When he took his place in front of the keyboards he set those instruments down.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

He alternated between playing the piano and the electronic keyboard sometimes playing both.  He began with some simple sounding piano music and then turned to the electronic keyboard and began playing some of the samples on it.  They ranged from speech to electronic sounds.

At first the ambient noise of the crowd echoed gently in the museum along with the music.  Gradually as the music became more complex and louder the audience seemed entranced, taken on the ritualistic journey that comprises Curran’s work, Fake Book, a reference to books of musical lead sheets that musicians have used over the years to quickly and easily access a variety of materials for live performances.

The louder music then suddenly changed back to a softer dynamic and the reduction in the ambient noise of the audience and casual museum goers had noticeably decreased and one sense an increased attention and focus on the music.  All seemed to be drawn in to the variety of sounds and styles which Curran refers to as his “common practice”, a practice in which the composer uses any and all sounds, instruments and styles strategically to evoke the things the composer wishes to express.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Curran played for just over an hour without pause an encyclopedic diversity of styles and ideas evoking the musical past in classical sounds, jazz sounds, modernist sounds.  The electronic keyboard samples played voices, radio snippets, electronic sounds and electronic manipulations of these sounds.

Curran effectively involved us all in a ritual performance respectfully evoking the past and blending it all into our experience of the moment.  From the beginning as he walked clockwise around the audience and through the complex collage of musical and sonic ideas he created a genuine ritual, a sacred performance if you will.  His music this night was an homage to the past and a celebration of the present.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram's horn) over the undamped piano strings.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) over the undamped piano strings.

He signaled the end of the performance as he blew the ancient shofar, an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, over the undamped piano strings creating a beautiful sympathetic resonance.

The audience responded with warm applause and appreciation.  Curran, who told me that he began work on this music while he was in residence at nearby Mills College, is clearly embraced and appreciated by the local audience.  He continues his tour and will return to his adopted  home in Rome, Italy but this evening he was clearly one of our own.

Overhead view of the keyboard set  up for the April 11th performance.

Overhead view of the keyboard set up for the April 11th performance.

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Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! John McGuire


When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire.  Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s.  His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do.  He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog.  I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.

Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer.  In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts.  However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.

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Cover image from one of McGuire’s recordings.

John McGuire (1942- ) studied with Robert Gross at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he earned his BA in 1964, with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and with Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his MA in 1970. He also studied composition privately with Karl Kohn, composition and orchestration with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen from 1966–68 and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1967–68. He then studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Instituut voor Sonologie of the Universiteit Utrecht in 1970–71 and electronic music with Hans Ulrich Humpert at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne from 1975–77.

I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records  store in Chicago in the 1980s.  It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.

Variations for 2 pianos CD

Variations for 2 pianos CD

My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take  on minimalism and pattern music.  It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development.  It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.

As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers.  After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.

The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label.   Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.

The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer.  The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978.  This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics.  This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation  but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast.  Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.

McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998.  He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.

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Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.

Ilhan Mimaroglu, a Personal Appreciation


I remember first coming across the music of Ilhan Mimaroglu on a Turnabout LP of electronic music in the 1970s. The unusual sounding name stuck in my head. And as I continued exploring and collecting contemporary music I would occasionally run across his name.

In the 1980s I came across tantalizing descriptions of his work in various record catalogs like one which stated that the music included a recording of Che Guevara’s autopsy (To Kill a Sunrise). I remained intrigued.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that I resolved to get a more comprehensive take on his music and to obtain as much of his it as I could find. At that time I had to rely on e-bay where I was able to find a couple of CD compilations and a copy of the anti-war LP “Sing Me a Song of Songmy”, a collaboration of sorts between Mimaroglu and the Freddie Hubbard Quintet. A good representative selection of his work can currently be found on the Ubu web site as well as the Avant Garde Project. And according to the discogs web site (which lists about 58 albums in which he was involved) his LPs are selling for any where from about $10 to about $80.

Born in 1926 in Istanbul he earned a degree in law before coming to the United States. Mimaroglu studied with (among others) electronic music pioneer Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the prominent east coast workshop where Milton Babbitt created some of his masterpieces and where Edgar Varese, Luciano Berio, Mario Davidovsky, Charles Wourinen and other luminaries worked and studied.

Through his work at the venerable Atlantic Records, along with fellow émigrés Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun he produced jazz and blues albums, most notably with Charles Mingus. Here he was able to establish his own record label, Finnadar. He released his own music and that of other avant garde composers such as Luciano Berio, Anthony Braxton, Henry Cowell, Morton Feldman, Pierre Boulez, Frederic Rzewski and others. One of my favorites and a classic, in my humble opinion, is The Adoration of the Clash, a recording by pianist Doris Hays of music by Hays, Feldman and others. In short he strove to promote some difficult listening by avant garde composers of the day.

He had an interest in agitprop, art that expresses political views. (The term is a portmanteau of agitation and propaganda and was coined in the 1930s in communist philosophical circles.) Indeed much of Mimaroglu’s work has overtly political themes. In a 1975 interview with Charles Amirkhanian he expressed his distaste for folk music, particularly that of his native Turkey and that region of the world, because he says it supports oppressive regimes.

In addition to his work with Charles Mingus he is noted for having some of his music grace the soundtrack of Frederico Fellini’s ‘Satyricon’. But his music understandably reached a limited audience. His music can be harsh and is intentionally disturbing dealing with disturbing themes. But it is well crafted and has a distinctive sound. Fans of the avant garde should definitely seek out his work.

In the course of collecting his music I came to learn that Mimaroglu was also a writer along with being a composer, producer and teacher (Ingram Marshall is among his students). He died July 17th of 2012 in Manhattan. And, though anyone’s passing is a time for sorrow, it is a time for reflection and frequently resurrection by renewed interest. I hope that more of this important figure’s work will come to light in the months and years to come. RIP.