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Source Records 1-6 - Music of the Avant Garde, 1968-1971 (Paris Transatlantic)

Source Records 1-6  Music of the Avant Garde, 1968-1971"Between 1967 and 1973, the semi-annual magazine Source, founded, edited and run by Larry Austin and Stanley Lunetta, was an invaluable wellspring of information on new music, and the six ten-inch LPs that were issued along with it have long been sought-after collectors' items. So hats off once more to Al Margolis and Pogus for bringing them back into circulation in a beautifully remastered triple CD box set with a 20-page booklet jam-packed with descriptions of the 13 works on offer and biographical background on their 12 composers (Austin himself ends up with two pieces, and they're both crackers).

Disc one, originally published in July 1968, kicks off in style with Robert Ashley's The Wolfman, for amplified voice and tape in a live recording made at the First Festival of Live-Electronic Music a year earlier at UC Davis. Ashley handles the "vocals", and his ONCE / Sonic Arts Union partner in crime Gordon Mumma the live electronics. All you kiddies who hang out in the noise forums and think Wolf Eyes are where it's at should check out Wolfman, "sinister nightclub vocalist, spotlight and all"; as one blogger puts it, this is "the real primal shit." But if looking for precursors of today's live electronics scene is your thing, David Behrman's Wave Train, which once more features Mumma surfing the waves of feedback from guitar pickups placed on piano strings, is just as impressive.

Both the Ashley and Behrman pieces have been available elsewhere (in different versions) for some time, but Larry Austin's Accidents, for "electronically prepared piano, ring modulators, mirrors, actions, black light and projections" has been out of circulation for too long. It's great to have it back – and David Tudor's spectacular performance deserves as much acclaim as his reading of Cage's Variations II on RZ. Austin's score calls for the pianist to negotiate a number of gestures, with sound produced "through accidental rather than deliberate action; i.e. all notes are depressed silently, and sound occurs only when a hammer accidentally strikes a string. Accidents occur, depending on the key action, the pressure applied to the keys (i.e. the velocity), and the preparation of the strings. [..] When an accident occurs, the player immediately stops playing that gesture and proceeds immediately to the next. Arriving at the last gesture and trying to complete it, the player returns to each of the gestures in which an accident occurred, always trying to complete them without an accident. [..] The piece should always be played as fast as possible – at the most hazardous pace, making accidents highly probable." Yeah!

Tudor's dazzling virtuosity is a hard act to follow, but at the correct playback volume (i.e. as loud as you can get away with) Allan Bryant's Pitch Out, for modified guitars / mandolins and electronics, performed by members of Musica Elettronica Viva in their Rome studios, will not disappoint. However, those of you who, like me, treasure their old Lovely Music LP version of Alvin Lucier's 1970 masterpiece (the word is entirely justified, I think) I Am Sitting In A Room might find the 15-minute version of the piece here a little rushed. Lucier's voice is also higher in pitch, which results in a different harmonic field, even though both versions were apparently recorded in the same room in the composer's Middletown CT home. Still, I don't mind – I could listen to this all day.

Arthur Woodbury's Velox dates from the same year, but, unlike the Lucier, the swooping glissandi of the PDP-10 computer and the Moog synthesizer have aged somewhat. But the glorious glittering gobbledegook ten-channel information overdose of Austin's Caritas, which also uses sounds created on the venerable old DEC computer, still sounds pretty damn wild. Just as well we get only a 15'07" "excerpted composite" of a piece that originally lasted 32 minutes. For sheer weirdness though Mark Riener's Phlegethon needs a bit of beating: scored for polythene film wrapped round suspended wire coat hangers and set on fire (!), it sounds as good as it must have looked in performance ("the audience should be surrounded by the mobiles, lights being turned off before the instruments are ignited", Riener writes – how about this at next year's No Fun fest, eh Carlos?). Source co-founder Stanley Lunetta's moosack machine was also an installation piece calling for a sculpture consisting of oscillators, power regulators and input sensors surrounded by four loudspeakers. The sensors "detect changes in light, temperature and wind direction as well as movements of people around the sculpture", the composer writes. I have no doubt it was great fun live, but it tries the patience somewhat on disc – Frank Oteri over at New Music Box hears it as some kind of forerunner of Throbbing Gristle and Merzbow, but I'm afraid I don't.

Inventor extraordinaire Lowell Cross is perhaps best known for devising the 16-input / 8-output electronic chessboard Marcel Duchamp and John Cage used in 1968's celebrated mixed media merry-go-round Reunion. The rich, slowly shifting harmonies of his contribution to Source LP 5, Musica Instrumentalis: Video II (B)/(C)/(L) are easier on the ear than Lunetta's gnarly machine, but once more one feels the visual element is lacking, and wonders how the music worked in performance in conjunction with the visual images it generated.
After a brief but enjoyable detour into the world of poésie sonore with Arrigo Lora-Totino's English Phonemes, a "verbophony" originally conceived for the Fylkingen Festival in Stockholm in 1970, Alvin Curran's Magic Carpet takes us back to the world of sound sculpture, this time a jangling "aviary of sound", a roomful of suspended twanging and clanging stringed instruments, guitars and chimes. The sound of traffic rumbling by Rome's Gallery Arco D'Alibert is also clearly audible at times. Pleasant enough, but there are plenty of more rewarding entries in the Curran discography.

In contrast, Annea Lockwood's recorded output could, as far as I'm concerned, be much larger. Tiger Balm is an intriguing 14'50" montage of veiled gamelan, gasps, sighs, delicate gurgling glissandi, low flying planes and, yes, purring tiger (presumably culled from the BBC sound archives, as the work was created in studios in London). It's sensuous and evocative, even if it ends too suddenly (though if you're interested there's a 21-minute version of the piece – it can last up to 40 minutes in performance – also available on Lockwood's Early Works: 1967-1982 (EM, 2007)). It's a shame Source didn't last a bit longer, too – but this fine reissue provides a fascinating picture of a riotously creative period of history, and it's something no self-respecting devotee of avant garde music can afford to be without.–DW

Source was a biannual new music journal published from 1967 to 1973, which contained articles, interviews and scores by notable names of what, at that time, was considered the pioneering fringe of XX century composers. The issues were enriched by a series of 10-inch LPs, all of which have been digitalized and cleaned up for this triple CD release. An important historic document, for which I settled on a track-by-track review. Bear in mind that a few of these compositions were unknown to this writer before (and no, I’m NOT gonna tell you which ones), therefore my view is – as usual – uninfluenced by the composer’s repute in the circles of sapience but is only determined by a liking/disliking of the single selection, regardless of the prestige.

Robert Ashley, “The Wolfman” (1964). Noisy, mucky and ultimately annoying, not managing to sustain the weight of time – and I wouldn’t have liked it even then, the year of my birth. Voice and electronics (by Gordon Mumma) are the basic constituents of a confused mayhem in which I can’t find a single moment of interest, stabbing frequencies and sludgy distortion becoming overwhelmingly insufferable as the minutes flow, Ashley’s warped vocalizations sounding as inconsequential howling to these ears. This should symbolize, or at least imply, some sort of theatrical gesture but it’s just a mess.

David Behrman, “Wave Train” (1966). A great composition mixing freckled drones from the insides of a piano and rather tense feedback, the whole generated via the manual control of the level of guitar microphones placed on the piano strings. Ominous and obscurely resonant, almost perfect dynamic pacing, with sudden outbursts of violence amidst long moments of quasi-stillness. Mumma is here again, always handling the electronics chores. A cadaverous coldness transformed in splendid odes to spurious echo, music that David Jackman could be envious of. Nearly a masterpiece.

Larry Austin, “Accidents” (1967). David Tudor on “electrically prepared piano”, Austin assisting him on electronics. Intriguing disproportion between the soft approach to the instrument, noises appearing only when a note is “accidentally” hit while trying to depress the keys silently, and the chaos of a percussively rumbling, hard-hitting piece which amazes repeatedly. Bouncing, throbbing, menacingly roaring sounds all over the place, a comprehensive dismantling of the piano’s acoustic personality coming from a complex set of instructions and gestures. Like a minefield for sensitive pianists, who are forced by the score to complete the course without generating further trouble. Great stuff.

Allan Bryant, “Pitch Out” (1967). Three hybrid guitars (Barbara Bryant, Carol Plantamura, Frederic Rzewski) plus Bryant on electronics. Unconventional methods, atypical manifestations of pluck-and-strum deformation (the instruments are not similar to your typical Strat but are described more or less as boards with different kinds of strings). Transcendental reverberations and wacky figurations abound, and there are sections in which the alleged influence on Elliott Sharp and Sonic Youth quoted in the liners is almost agreeable. Modern-sounding daydreaming with the right dose of candour: I like this piece for its large part.

Alvin Lucier, “I’m Sitting In A Room” (1970). Well, I can’t fool anyone on this. Is there still someone who doesn’t know this disquieting repetition of a single statement by Lucier? For those who just came back from Saturn, a progressive alteration of the composer’s voice is achieved by recording subsequent generations of tapes engraved by the same content until what is said becomes completely indecipherable, at first sounding like a minimalist underwater robot which stutters a little and, in the end, as a flock of hoarse birds caught in a wind gallery. One of the absolute musts of contemporary music, mandatory listening for the novice.

Arthur Woodbury, “Velox” (1970). Computer music “enriched” by the analogue sound waves of a Moog synthesizer. An uncomplicated piece, kind of a second-hand version of the sound effects of Plan 9 From Outer Space: scarcely variable, not amusing, very superficial in terms of emotional response (which in my case was nil). Not even bad enough to be hated, it just stands there with all those “whooaeeyy, whooaeeyy” and really doesn’t mean anything. With the passage of time this repetitive insignificance verges on the ridiculous. Forgettable, without regret.

Mark Riener, “Phlegeton” (1970). Take a sad Arthur Woodbury and make it worse. This is one of those items who may have caused certain individuals to hate experimental music in the first place. At least this lasts only five minutes, containing unimpressively chaotic reiterations of ugly sounds obtained via…(the piece ends before I manage to make sense of a tortuous description whose complicatedness is inversely proportional to its importance, a “who cares” attitude prevailing at the end). Delete? Hell yeah!

Larry Austin, “Caritas” (1971). Computer-generated substances that get definitively enhanced (mashed?) by a Buchla Electronic Music System. Variegated and polymorphic, this stuff does not strain our patience’s muscles, possessing a volatile quality that renders the listening experience at least interesting, if not amusing. Picture a humongous malfunctioning calliope played by the bad Gremlin’s granddad: after seven minutes, either you reach for the aspirin and stop the playback, or you’re headed to MDH (Mental Disintegration Heaven). And there’s still the second half to endure. But this is a nice one.

Stanley Lunetta, “Moosack Machine” (1971). More computer music obtained from a so-defined “sculpture” full of oscillators and transducers, which apparently was sensitive to “changes in light, temperature and wind direction as well as movements of the people around”. They must have been bad human specimens, as this temperamental machine attacks, spits and hits with clamorous outbursts of hostile emissions which often sound absolutely great in their complete uncontrollability. One of the loveliest moments of the whole set, the perfect soundtrack for a sociopath’s tranquil evening.

Lowell Cross, “Musica Instrumentalis: Video II (B)/(C)/(L)” (1965). Now, THIS is a piece that has aged well. Designed to be generated by a two-channel tape or “the stereo phonograph record”, the system connected to modified monochrome TV sets, this is a splendidly sober example – which should be followed by many imitators - of how drones must be used. A hypnotizing, enthralling matter, shifting weights and slightly changing intensities attributing to the music a sense of “motion in stillness” which is exactly what separates art from mere experimentation. The final five minutes are characterized by abrupt variations of frequencies and arching trajectories, but the allure remains.

Arrigo Lora-Totino, “English Phonemes” (1970). The composer call this a “verbophony”, words gradually reduced to fragments or phonemes which ideally “keep their peculiar semantic power and are sound transmissions of concepts”. Very cerebral stuff, interesting in parts, slightly tiresome in others. It seems to follow the typical Italian habit of forgetting about vital essences (of music and, indeed, most everything else) in favour of the ostentation of an affected intellectualism. A little bit like explaining all the positions of Kama Sutra to an aroused partner without effectively performing them. Still, there’s something here that keeps pecking at our attention, and the fifteen minutes are swallowed with ease.

Alvin Curran, “Magic Carpet” (1970). Suspended strings and chimes in a room where anyone can walk, pick, pluck and touch these dangling sonic sources. Pleasurable enough to listen to on record, probably much better having had the chance of participating directly. This was inspired by Paul Klerr’s String Structures, which Curran saw at the artist’s home and fell in love with. The second half is preferable in terms of (involuntary) aural gratification, as the music seems to flow more naturally, becoming highly suggestive at times. Additional points given for the fact that the composer now lives at ten minutes distance from where I grew up in Rome (yet we never met).

Annea Lockwood, “Tiger Balm” (1971). A great tape piece which the composer also calls a “ritual”. Strange, unclassifiable music halfway through electronic manipulation, theatre and musique concrete which testifies once more the originality and freshness of Lockwood’s concepts. The central section is somehow unsettling, deformed utterances, sighs and moans walking us across the aural depiction of an altered state of mind – or an orgasm, if you will. The finale is totally mystifying, a mix of motors and reiterative tuned percussion that lingers in the memory even after the ceremony’s end. - Massimo Ricci, Temporary Fault

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