Monday, April 25, 2016

"Source: Music of the Avant Garde: Everything Changes"


Source: Music of the Avant Garde, 1966-1973 was a radical form of new music entrepreneurship that defined experimental publishing attitudes of the the 1960s.





I well recall discovering it in the stacks as a graduate student at the university library at Colorado State, flipping the pages and sensing that you could leap off the edge of the known musical world. 




Cardew
This was not a journal that provided information or mere perspectives on new music: it showed you the music itself. It brought you into direct contact with the excitement, provocation, beauty, audacity, ingenuity, and insight of the leading experimental musicians of the day.



You might be offended, intrigued, inspired, amused, baffled, but the point was that you were right in there, seeing what was going on and deciding for yourself what you wanted to make out of it. 




The anthology was edited by Larry Austin, the most active editor of the original publication, and Douglas Kahn; and it was published last year by the University of California Press. Austin was on the music faculty at the University of California at Davis for almost the entire duration of the publication of the original periodical, having left Davis in 1972.


Each magazine' measured 14" x 11" and each one is chock full of articles and pictures by the leading composers of Electronic & Avant Garde music from the 60s - included in many of them are 10" 33rpm records featuring compositions of select composers - and SCORES - many of them complete - not just on paper but on mylar, pieces of fur, overlappings, IN COLOR etc.  





Looking through original issues of the publication, it's clear that publishing scores was the focal point of the whole project, and interviews/discussions and other material were intended as supplementary to the scores themselves.  And Source explicitly declared its priority on scores, too.  Consider the opening lines of its inaugural issue, ironically reprinted in the scoreless anthology:




"Next to actual performance--recorded or live--the score remains to date the most reliable means of circulating and evaluating new music.  



Source, a chronicle of the most recent and often the most controversial scores, serves as a medium of communication for the composer, the performer, and the student of the avant garde.  A magazine that is free from the inherent restrictions of foundations and universities (however enlightened), uncommitted to the inevitable factional interests of societies and composers' groups, can probe and be provocative--our first issue contains five new scores. "


Source was conceived to be a variety of things. Most important, however, was that it was a source of scores by composers who were experimenting out on the “bleeding edge,” as they say. Beginning with the fourth number, some of the issues included ten-inch long-playing vinyls, allowing readers to listen to compositions whose scores could be extremely cryptic. There were also reports of concerts at which these compositions were performed, many of which amounted to exercises in description that were both perceptive and imaginative. Finally, there was “commentary,” in the form of both essays by practitioners and transcripts of conversations among such practitioners.
Unfortunately, none of the above paragraph captures the true essence of Source, because the publication itself was a highly unique physical experience that was a work of art unto itself. This paragraph from Kahn’s preface should make it clear why physicality was so important to the process of engaging with the document (note the absence of the word “reading”):

 Perhaps best known, in this respect, was Nelson Howe’s Fur Music, which required pieces of synthetic fur to be meticulously cut and glued into each copy. John Cage’s 4’33” required pages to be cut off-format, and his Plexigram IV (Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel) used screen printing onto a set of transparencies;
Dick Higgins’s The Thousand Symphonies

Dick Higgins’s The Thousand Symphonies consisted of pages from “Symphony #585” made by “machine-gunning music paper”; and Jon Hassell’s MAP2 required a large square of magnetic audiotape fixed into each issue, over which one would move a playback head in not-so-random access. Therefore, there may have been runs of two thousand copies, but each copy was handcrafted. Pages and materials would show up for assembly, collation, and spiral binding at the houses of the editors, where the task would be transformed into a social occasion involving family and friends.  
I have to say that I have a complete set of Source originals, and I continue to value each of the examples that Kahn selected to enumerate. I also have to say that, when I first received the issue withThe Thousand Symphonies, complete with the photograph of Higgins at work (which is included in the anthology) and the photograph on the cover of his gun sitting on the completed score pages (not in the anthology), it scared the hell out of me. Source was that kind of publication.


One would not know from listening to his music just how skillful Morton Feldman could be a polemic. (However, having heard him give a rather innocuous talk at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, back when it was at the University of Southern California, I could certainly imagine his oral delivery of the texts in this anthology.) I was also fascinated by the way Earle Brown could use prose as an ongoing laboratory notebook through which he would both describe the methods behind his doing what he did and then try to explain why he was doing things that way. It also nicely complemented Karlheinz Stockhausen agonizing in conversation over his efforts to describe the results of his work with electronic equipment.
Then there were the contributors who seemed to use their activities as composers as a point of departure for “composing literature.” Anyone who knows John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” (which is included in Silence: Lectures and Writings) would probably regard him as a pioneer in this technique. The anthology provides two excellent opportunities to observe Pauline Oliveros turning this method to her own purposes, and I have to say that her contributions are my favorite parts of the entire collection.
I think it is also important to recognize that much of what has been collected in this anthology is as open to new approaches to sensemaking as it was when it first appeared. Thus, “December 1952,” a single-page graphic score from Brown’s Folio, was used as the basis for an experiment given to composition students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, each of whom had the task of composing an interpretation of Brown’s graphic but with no constraints on how that interpretation could be rendered. The results were then all performed at a concert at which the members of SF Sound gave their own performance of “December 1952” from the “original score”.
Over the course of its eleven issues, the journal Source served as a new forum for the expression and dissemination of experimental music, poetry and art. This space was made possible, in part, by the wider cultural milieux in which Source was published: a well-supported music department at UC Davis, where Source began; an emergent international counterculture that was politically engaged, particularly with the ongoing war in Vietnam; and an entrepreneurial publishing environment that could still, just, facilitate large-scale independent distribution. 

This new edition of scores and articles taken from the journal comes at a time when public funding for experimental art is shrinking, pen-and-ink publishing is in decline, and the pop and avant-garde worlds seem further and further apart. The cultural equivalent of The Beatles putting Stockhausen on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s seems unimaginable now. Some token Steve Reich once a year at the Proms is now as close as modern composition gets to wider public exposure.
In this light, the questions that have always been asked of experimental art practice seem more pressing than ever. Is it fundamentally elitist?   More concerned with novelty of form than depth of content? A secret language that demands learning, but offers scant reward for so doing? 

Is it, in short, any fun at all? At first glance, the odds of such an argument being refuted by returning to the material presented in Source look slim. 






It bristles with charts and diagrams; and the first issue signs off by conducting an interview with the go-to grumpy old man of ‘difficult’ music, Karlheinz Stockhausen.  In any case, how much fun can just reading about clangs, bangs, feral bellows and mysterious scraping sounds ever be without actually hearing them?
With perseverance, however – particularly when the text is perused alongside Youtube and Ubuweb – the characterization of the avant-garde in this period as austere or willfully obscure begins to look unfair. 

Who can resist Nelson Howe’s enthusiastic machine-gunning of the score for ‘Symphony 585’ (sadly not fully reproduced here, though we do get a slightly alarming photo of the composer demonstrating the procedure)? Or Stanley Lunetta’s instructions for ‘playing’ David Tudor (“if you are not David Tudor, you must study hard”), or Nam June Paik’s characteristically daft ‘Young Penis Symphony,’ definitely operating at the puerile end of the Fluxus spectrum? 


Such work certainly serves to deflate some of the more academic work on show here, and some of its more insipid practitioners ( there are particularly insightful contributions from Anthony Braxton and Cornelius Cardew in Issue 10).

 But then Source and its contributors always maintained a playful tension with the peripheries of both academia and the mainstream; David Behrman used his A&R contacts at Columbia Records to cut LPs for the magazine on the cheap, Folke Rabe worked in the state-run Swedish Radio studios to compose patient, formally staggering drone. And, lest we forget, John Cage used his residency at the New School of Social Research to teach an amateur mushroom-collecting class. Suddenly, we seem a long way from Schoenberg.
Some of the most straightforwardly beautiful material here, meanwhile, comes from outside the US, particularly from those working in the text-sound realm. England’s Bob Cobbing contributes the stunning poem ‘Chamber Music,’ while Åke Hodell’s furious anti-colonial piece ‘Mr. Smith in Rhodesia’ is another work particularly worth hearing in conjunction with the printed text.




‘MARVELLOUS APHORISMS ARE SCATTERED RICHLY THROUGHOUT THESE PAGES’, reads Gavin Bryars’ score for ‘Verbal Pieces’, and he’s quite right; this is work that’s funny, and moving, sometimes difficult but often rewarding.
Uncovering the riches that Bryars describes demands a bit of effort from the listener. The work of listening and thinking hard about the material presented in Source is, however, aided by a number of tools uniquely available to our current technological and cultural situation. 



An inquisitive listener in 1967 may have seen Stockhausen on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, and then adventurously bought an LP on CBS or Deutsche Gramophon; moving from that point to submersing oneself in the soundworld covered by Source, however, required not only dedication and considerable investment, but to an extent also being in the right place at the right time. 

In 2014, even the vaguest interest in experimental music can be fulfilled by the entire corpus of Stockhausen, or any of the other composers featured in Source, at the click of a mouse. What was once a curious, exploratory path through related musics is now a horizontal plane; or, more accurately, an onrushing wave that threatens to submerge even the most attentive listener.




Looking through original issues of the publication, it's clear that publishing scores was the focal point of the whole project, and interviews/discussions and other material were intended as supplementary to the scores themselves.  And Source explicitly declared its priority on scores, too.  Consider the opening lines of its inaugural issue, ironically reprinted in the scoreless anthology:


"Next to actual performance--recorded or live--the score remains to date the most reliable means of circulating and evaluating new music.  Source, a chronicle of the most recent and often the most controversial scores, serves as a medium of communication for the composer, the performer, and the student of the avant garde.  A magazine that is free from the inherent restrictions of foundations and universities (however enlightened), uncommitted to the inevitable factional interests of societies and composers' groups, can probe and be provocative--our first issue contains five new scores. "


 At the time of its publication, very little of the music covered by Source was being recorded--in fact some of it doesn't lend itself to full representation through recording--and little was being picked up for print publication, either.  To read the scores, or have them available to try yourself or with a group of your friends, was perhaps the most important thing facilitated by its circulation.  

Decades later, few of the pieces in its pages were ever subsequently recorded or published outside of their appearance in Source.  


Thankfully, in what must be one of the most significant reissues of the past decade, all of the recordings which originally appeared in Source have finally made it to CD in a generously packaged and annotated 3-CD set from Pogus. It was great to finally rehear some old favorites like Robert Ashley’s still confrontational Wolfman (an extended exploration of microphone feedback) and the original 15-minute version of Alvin Lucier’s process music classic I am sitting in a room. The latter is generated from a recording of a short speech by Lucier which is then played back into a room and re-recorded and then the recording of the recording is played back and re-recorded etc., until all you hear are a series of resonant frequencies. (I still remember playing that Lucier recording on my radio show much to the horror of someone I was training to run the sound board at the time who doubted that it was music.)
The other “spoken word” piece, English Phonemes, by Turin-born-and-based Arrigo Lora-Totino (the sole non-American represented among these recordings), is a collection of recorded speech fragments at the edge of comprehensibility which the composer describes as a “verbophony.” New Zealand-born, upstate-New York-based Annea Lockwood’s Tiger Balm (1971) begins with a recording of a purring tiger (a sound that should be familiar to any cat owner) over which other sounds—some produced by musical instruments, other not—are gradually layered on top of each other. About seven minutes in, the sound of a woman having an orgasm emerges seamlessly from the sounds of animals breathing and then recedes, just as seamlessly, into the sound of an airplane. It’s pretty provocative stuff, and it made it onto vinyl a full four years before Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” got banned from the radio airwaves. The piece makes for quite a listening experience, though probably not ideal for walking around town with a Walkman or iPod.

My favorite memory of rummaging through all of original Source material was seeing a photo of a gleeful Lockwood standing next to a piano that was on fire—the infamous Piano Burning which makes her Tiger Balm seem downright tame by comparison.   David Behrman’s Wave Train (1966) explores what happens when you put a bunch of guitar microphones on the strings of a grand piano and then raise the gain. Accidents, by Source‘s co-editor and mastermind Larry Austin, is just that: a pianist’s attempts at depressing the keys of a prepared piano without making a sound are foiled by having each accidental sound magnified with a ring modulator and various other devices. (The Source reissues also include an early piece of computer music by Austin, Caritas, which was realized on the PDP-10 computer music installation at the Artificial Intelligence Project in 1969.) Allan Bryant’s Pitch Out (1967) generates its sonic material from bizarre Rube Goldberg-type contraptions involving a bunch of mandolin and electric guitar strings mounted on boards with magnetic pickups.
Magic Carpet is a performance on the objects in Paul Klerr’s room installation, String Structures, by composer Alvin Curran in 1971. While the experience would be further enhanced by being able to see Klerr’s installation (luckily there are a couple of photographs on Curran’s own website), the sonic component is indeed a magical forest of sonorities. Similarly, by presenting only the audio component for Lowell Cross’s Musica Instrumentalis: Video II (B)/(C)/(L) (1965), a multimedia work in which “visual and aural images are produced simultaneously and independently,” the real essence and intent of Cross’s work is somehow subverted, although I have no memory of the video component of the piece from my original exposure to Source, so the magazine probably couldn’t and didn’t reproduce it either. The audio material that is featured is nevertheless extremely compelling—a gradually morphing drone that sounds like a great deal of the music being made these days.
But the real joy for me has been rediscovering some pieces that I had completely forgotten over the past quarter century. The score for Mark Riener’s wacko Phlegethon (1970) consists of instructions for suspending a piece of polyethylene from the ceiling on a wire coat hanger and then setting it on fire; at least there’s a recording of something getting burned up here. And it’s remarkably musical—it ultimately comes across as a rogue uncle to Judy Dunaway’s subsequent balloon music explorations from the past two decades. And moosack machine (1971), by Source‘s other co-editor Stanley Lunetta, feels like a bizarre progenitor of both Throbbing Gristle and Merzbow, although I seriously doubt that it was on either’s radars. Arthur Woodbury’s hypnotic Velox (1970) sounds like a fugue which takes as its subject James Tenney’s For Ann (rising), although I know from Woodbury’s explanation (reprinted in the reissues’ extensive program notes) that it isn’t.
The brown square for Jon Hassell's "Map2" is both an instrument and part
of its own score.  It's 3 layers of pre-recorded magnetic tape.  Add a playback
head/amp, follow the directions, and you're playing the most interactively
demanding recording you'll probably ever see.

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