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Diary of a Mad Composer

I don’t think it’s possible to gauge even the approximate extent to which we take electricity for granted. Many of us take vacations where we unplug from the digital world, but still have lights to turn on. We can go camping, and even do so with our phones turned off (do we actually leave them behind?), or any GPS device. But the last time civilization as a whole contemplated a world without electricity was during the murmuring panic about Y2K, which was a dud everywhere except for our bizarre imaginations. A decade later we have, Doomsday Preppers, and Revolution.

But electricity in music continues to be aesthetically problematic. Our most common and important exposure to music is mediated by the current running through our walls and the charge in our batteries, but electricity in music has been a battlefront. Plugging in is no problem—the electric guitar has conquered the world more thoroughly than the AK—it’s using electricity itself as an instrument that divides music lovers across genres.

Part of this is the in-your-face experience of technology, where everything new not only crowds out the tools of the recent past, but also demolishes the overall historical perspective. Open up Garageband on your Apple computer and the idea that you can record and digitize audio, use pre-recorded loops, and plug in an arsenal of software synthesizers and signal processors is unremarkable. But consider that the first oscillator dates to 1876, and your mind is blown.

So why should the use of electronic instruments in classical, jazz, and rock ever have been controversial? The dividing lines over progressive rock and jazz/rock fusion were, I’ve always suspected, more over some discomfort about the fortress-like racks of keyboards that Rick Wakeman, Herbie Hancock, and others played than about the music itself. Is “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” somehow less of a blues because there’s an electric piano? Is there something somehow inauthentic about Steve Howe’s fingerpicking because it comes in the middle of “Starship Trooper”? A sound is a sound, it all depends on what you make with it.

In classical music, electronics have always been a mark of the avant-garde and experimental movements, from Messiaen through Ussachevsky, Stockhausen, and beyond. Electronics meant new instrumental possibilities, new ways to orchestrate color, sustain, dynamics, and more. Magnetic tape meant new ways to structure and form music, but the instrumental writing, form, and structure never went away. A newly published book, Composition in the Digital World (2015, Oxford University Press), reveals just how intrinsic technology is to contemporary classical thinking. The book is a series of interviews with contemporary composers, conducted by Robert Raines, and it is informative, fascinating, and affirming. When you read Steve Reich describe how he uses the notation program Sibelius to play his pieces through the digital audio workstation Reason, it makes the commonplace nature of technology revelatory. This comes full circle and reboots in the music of this month’s feature musician, Noah Creshevsky.

This has been at the forefront of my mind, but my one night (May 8) at this year’s Tectonics Festival drove that home. Tectonics was curated by Ilan Volkov and is produced here by ISSUE Project Room, and it’s really what ISSUE is all about, the musical possibilities of a post-electronic world where prosaic and uncommon raw materials can be juxtaposed in new ways, and form and structure can be organized around concepts that lie between the sonata and the pop song, or extrapolate far outside them. John McGuire’s A Cappella opened the concert on May 8, 2015, and nailed the concept. It’s a wordless piece for soprano Beth Griffith, who sings against her own sampled voice that is set into a pulsating chorale. The shimmering textures, regular harmonic motion, and formal structure make for an electronic pop-baroque song.

The Austrian Cultural Forum brought over composer Klaus Lang, and produced a collaboration between him and multi-instrumentalist James Rushford. They did an improvisational thing that didn’t completely hold together over the extent of its own duration, but the first part, which featured the more primitive—but still valuable—technology of the harmonium was mesmerizing. Lang and Rushford played languidly shifting long tones, while Lang’s feet pumped the bellows pedals. It was music that didn’t necessarily go anywhere but felt like it kept expanding.

Pianist Joseph Kubera played a great set, with pieces from Julius Eastman—Piano 2—and Barbara Monk Feldman’s gorgeous The I and Thou. The best was Constellations I-III, by Chiyoko Szlavnics, which took Alvin Lucier’s experiments with sustained pitches set against slow-sweep oscillators, and turned it into a lyrical, delicate mix of piano and oscillator phrases, the latter moving up and down, via glissando, like waves. The music would touch briefly on moments of consonance before sliding toward an undefined destination, which seems to me one of the highest achievements in composition.

David Behrman

David Behrman was also on hand, leading performances of Long Throw and Wavetrain. His place inside electronic music is unique. He’s not only an excellent composer but, while working as a tape editor at Columbia records in the 1960s, produced the Music of Our Time LP series, which collected the likes of Steve Reich’s Come Out, Robert Ashley’s She Was A Visitor, and much more on the Odyssey label. He curated the avant-garde for each future generation.

Long Throw was made for Merce Cunningham, and the performance with Behrman at the laptop, Kubera, flutist Maya Dunietz, and Rushford at the viola, came off as a relaxed, interactive blues jam.Wavetrain is a classic, fantastic and important: guitar mics are placed on the piano strings, and the whole instrument produces feedback, which the musicians then, in Lucier’s words, “ride ... surfing ... one is constantly monitoring one’s position along a surging wave front.” The ur-classical instrument produced rich, singing, rumbling feedback that would have been the envy of Jimi Hendrix or Sonic Youth.

This was all electricity as music. But I realize, thinking through this, that electricity is also, literally, a commodity, something that we have to buy, and have to pay to have delivered. That makes me slightly more sympathetic to the industrial model of EDM and the DJ as some sort of musician, but it’s just the sympathy for consumers who still think they can purchase personal identity. I understand, I have my own weaknesses that some, especially my wife, find appalling: Tears for Fears, Ultravox, Yes, Simple Minds (they have a recent record out, Big Music, and a good deluxe reissue of Sparkle in the Rain), Switched on Bach, and a new, terrific set of arrangements of Bach for electronics and orchestra, Bach to Moog, produced by Craig Leon. Buying these doesn’t make my identity any better than anyone else’s, but it absolutely helps define it.

At the base of my electronic identity is my childhood, when electricity was just something you turned on, and the notion that you had to pay for stuff came when my parents would tell me that there were certain toys they couldn’t afford. I heard songs on the radio, listened to my mom’s strange LP collection—it featured The Threepenny Opera, Sviatoslav Richter, Phoebe Snow, and Joni Mitchell—and it was all just music. But I also heard Delia Derbyshire’s realization of Ron Grainer’s theme for Doctor Who (my first Doctor was John Pertwee), and Louis and Bebe Barron’s abstract electronic soundtrack for Forbidden Planet. I didn’t know what the music was, but I did know it sounded fucking cool. That’s all it took.


George Grella

George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

All Issues