Friday, 11 September 2009


VARIOUS ARTISTS – Source: Music Of The Avant Garde


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.