Sunday, December 05, 2010

Avant-Garde Music Etc.

My roots as a composer are with the mid-Twentieth-Century avant-garde. I studied directly with some of its leading lights, and more often with some of its secondary influences. So I have a direct lineage to the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor, to the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and to other branches of sound exploration, tape music, and so forth. I studied with George Cacioppo, and knew many of the other composers involved with the mid-century avant-garde. I still default to this music, at least in attitude, when time and opportunity allow. In many ways it's my "home plate" as a composer, even though a lot of the music I compose these days is far more "inside the box." Well, if you write to commission, you don't always get the chance to be adventurous.

it's bitterly cold right now, well below freezing. I am wrapped up in blankets, still feeling the chill, trying to stay warm. I've been listening to music by Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, and others. I've been editing sounds and music tracks on my laptop as I sit curled up on the couch in layers of blankets.

I am rambling through my memories of the avant-garde musical soundscape. This is a random walk, with no purpose, and far from complete.

This was all brought back to me by recent readings in the history of mid-20th-C. music, and some related topics. And from memories that have been surfacing, of the time I first lived in Madison, WI.

I've been involved in community radio since 1980, when I first got my FCC license. I've had my own Road Journal podcast since 2004, which I tend to view as akin to radio programming. Granted, the podcast veers all over the map, there's a lot of musical and sound experiments on it, as well as readings from my Road Journal; still, it had a pretty substantial listenership when it was mostly spoken word, those first two or three early years. My late-night radio show on WORT-FM in Madison, WI, which I had for 7 years, featured the most difficult avant-garde and challenging music available on record, and had a Nielsen rating of 11 percent of the total local market. I also regularly broadcast live improvised music, made in the production studio, and live mixes of pre-recorded sources.

I broadcast a lot of quality literary and radio drama recordings on my show, ranging from Samuel Beckett plays for radio to John Cage's ROARATORIO and William S. Burroughs reading Naked Lunch on CD, and these always received a lot of positive calls from the listeners. (The only time I ever got in trouble was when a housewife complained about my playing Allen Ginsberg's reading of Howl on the air; I mixed it with live music, namely my Stick set up in the in production studio, leaning against the speaker, and "howling" with continuous feedback; I used that as the background to Ginsberg reading several other poems along with Howl. I gathered later that the complaint was because the housewife was surprised, although I was in truth broadcasting during the FCC "safe harbor" night hours. Nothing ever came of the incident.) And my show always exceeded its goal during pledge drives. I also regularly played syndicated radio spoken-word programs like Ken Nordine's Word Jazz (which now has its own podcast) and the series New American Radio, which included a fair bit of avant-garde radio drama (and which I see one can now listen to again online).

Today I am also thinking of a performance I saw in Madison of the full-length dance piece choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Still/Here. The dancers in the ensemble for this piece were mostly ordinary folks, not professional dancers. There were lots of "non-dancer" bodies onstage. One of the dancers onstage had a body type like me own: tall and blocky and large around the middle; he moved with grace and power, often serving as the fulcrum or center around which other dancers moved. I found this dance concert incredibly empowering, something I will never forget. I had been studying for some time by then modern dance, with Ellen Moore, contact improvisation, and the martial arts Tai Chi Chuan and Ki Aikido.

It was a fertile time in Madison for me: also a time of much self-exploration. I met lots of established thinkers and avant-garde artists, people who had moved and shaken the creative world. I was involved in the local music scene as a musician, a photographer, and a writer of concert, music, album, and dance reviews. I was a music journalist, who also played music. I got to see a lot of amazing concerts; and I got to participate in some, too.

To be continued.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I only have a couple of things by Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros which I dug out yesterday to have a listen to. The Subotnick was a piece called Four Butterflies although for the life of me I can’t see why; a lot of electronics and precious little melody. The Oliveros pieces were for accordion and more to my liking; they reminded me of Sofia Gubaidulina but I’m not sure why.

I don’t have much electronic ‘classical’ music – I have about seventy Tangerine Dream albums – but I think Stockhausen’s Kontakte put me off for life. I exaggerate but it’s still a field of modern music I know little about. I don’t avoid it but if I have a tenner in my pocket and the choice between a symphony or a concerto and something featuring electronics I’ll always choose the safe option. It’d be the same choice between a CD of piano sonatas and a symphony or a concerto – I do veer heavily towards orchestral work. Now if it was a choice between a piano concerto and a flugelhorn concerto I have to say I’d be sorely tempted by the latter; I have all sorts of unusual concertos.

Now if I had a tenner and the choice was between a male and a female composer I’d lean more heavily towards the female. I’ve never done the sums but I bet it’s something ridiculous like 98% of my collection is by male composers and it would be higher if I didn’t look out for female composers. I’m particularly fond of the work of the soundtrack composer Rachel Portman. I remember when I was at school (and studying music) I could only name a handful of female composers: Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Thea Musgrave, Clara Schumann and Imogen Holst – and that was probably my lot and I’d never heard anything by any of them in fact I was in my forties before I did and even now I only own a few scraps by them, probably not a full CD by any of them. I think that’s awful. Since the arrival of the Internet my buying options have broadened and I now have the whole world to choose from. In the past it was whatever was in HMV.

I’ve only ever heard one piece by Beckett on the radio; his last prose piece was read on Radio 3. I have CDs of all the plays though. They’re not his best work but they were intriguing to study. I think I might have complained if you’d read Howl over a background of howling. There was short programme on TV last night where a couple of new poems by Larkin were read for the first time and they insisted on playing jazz along with one of them which made it hard to hear clearly; I couldn’t see the point in it.

I don’t think I could be a music journalist. Music is one of those areas where words let me down. I spend so much of my time trying to convert every other aspect of my life into words it’s nice to have a no-go area.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Subotnick's whole thing has been about process-oriented interactive electronics. A lot of his pieces use live instruments, which are also fed into a computer system, which changes and recycles the sounds in real time, creating a virtual duo.

Oliveros has done a lot of improvisatory work, including somme work with trombonist Stuart Dempster in resonant spaces like huge cathedrals and underground water cisterns with 45-second reverbs. It's somme of her best stuff. A lot of her tape music blends her live playing with tape parts.

Stockhausen would put anyone off electronic music. His stuff is hard, abstract and demanding at the best of times. There are far better tape composers, who are a lot more accessible. Luciano Berio, Cage, etc. Varese's "Poeme Electronique" is a classic of the genre; it's even available as a ringtone for your mobile, if you can imagine.

If I had a tenner in my pocket, I almost always choose the more "difficult listening" music. I always have. I'm attracted to what I don't know anything about, and haven't explored yet. Certainly some avenues of exploration turn out to be dead ends. But many have something interesting. I have a lot of music on vinyl LPs that may never make it to CD; I'm slowly digitizing some stuff just so I can hear it again. Although UbuWeb ( is doing a good job filling in these gaps. They have available several of Beckett's radio plays from LP recordings, including the very one of "Cascando" and "Words and Music" that I once played on my old radio show.

12:14 PM  

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