Source Records 1-6 - Music of
the Avant Garde, 1968-1971 (Paris Transatlantic)
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, Im NOT gonna
tell you which ones), therefore my view is as usual uninfluenced
by the composers 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 wouldnt
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 cant
find a single moment of interest, stabbing frequencies and sludgy distortion
becoming overwhelmingly insufferable as the minutes flow, Ashleys warped
vocalizations sounding as inconsequential howling to these ears. This should
symbolize, or at least imply, some sort of theatrical gesture but its
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 pianos 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.
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, Im Sitting In A Room (1970). Well, I cant
fool anyone on this. Is there still someone who doesnt know this disquieting
repetition of a single statement by Lucier? For those who just came back from
Saturn, a progressive alteration of the composers 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 doesnt 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
(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 patiences 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
Gremlins granddad: after seven minutes, either you reach for the aspirin
and stop the playback, or youre headed to MDH (Mental Disintegration Heaven).
And theres 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 sociopaths 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, theres 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 Klerrs
String Structures, which Curran saw at the artists 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 Lockwoods 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 ceremonys end.
- Massimo Ricci, Temporary