Archive for the “Experimental Music” Category

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Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970

By David Toop

Bloomsbury, 330 pp.

 

Even given the relative expanse of a projected two-volume history of improvised music, David Toop has set lofty goals for himself. In volume one, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970, he discusses a number of musical figures from improvising communities: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy are a small sampling of those who loom large. John Cage is a totemic figure discussed from a variety of angles. Such collectives as AMM, MEV, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Company, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza feature prominently as well. In addition, Toop connects improvisation to a panoply of other reference points, musical and otherwise, such as rock, concert music, fine art, film, and literature. Politics and historical events and their influence on musicians is a particularly well-drawn through line.

 

One would be hard pressed to take a strictly chronological approach to reading Into the Maelstrom. A great pleasure is the oftimes improvisatory feel of its labyrinthine passages. In this sense it jubilantly resembles the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its title. No matter how far-flung a new passage may at first seem, Toop finds a way to integrate it into the fabric of the book. For the most part, Maelstrom is confined to the genesis and development of free playing in the decades leading up to 1970. Digressions from this era, such as transcribed later interviews and personal anecdotes, are used to provide a more comprehensive portrait of particular figures and incidents. Nor does Toop eschew discussion of earlier figures. Indeed, his profiles of musicians such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Stuff Smith trace a lineage of free playing, or at the very least playing on the cusp of free, that is farther reaching than is often enough acknowledged. Flashbacks and flashforwards are also employed to tease out thematic issues, such as audience responsiveness (or non-responsiveness, and occasionally dangerous hostility), interaction between musicians (with its own degrees of responsiveness and even dangerous hostility), and, especially, issues of freedom, both in musical and political contexts. Thus, Into the Maelstrom allows us a glimpse into an ever-changing landscape of varying interactions, all of which contribute to the development of improvisation. I’m eager to read its companion second volume.

 

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Mikel Rouse’s Metronome project has been in heavy rotation around these parts. His latest album, Take Down, had a five-year long gestation. Given the varied reference points, one can hear why. Two parts sci-fi electronica, one part postmodern amalgam (including field recordings), topped off with Rouse’s surefire vocals: most worthy of investigation.

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wulfexteriorThe Last Dance series of events at the wulf continued on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 with experimental music offerings by Carmina Escobar, Casey Anderson and Scott Cazan. The wulf will be moving to new quarters in the fall, closing out a successful eight-year run at the Santa Fe Avenue address in downtown Los Angeles.  A good-sized crowd of enthusiasts gathered for an evening of friendly chatter and three pieces of new music.

Carmina Escobar opened, equipped with a microphone, colored lamps and a camera connected to a computer. According to her website: “Her work focuses primarily on sound, the voice, the body and their interrelations to physical, social and memory spaces.”. Rough ambient sounds began the piece, perhaps the roar of a passing jet. Humming was heard, soon joined by more sounds that were variously alien and industrial in character. Images from the PC camera were projected on a screen – indistinct and flesh colored – while the lamp issued a cool green light that flooded the darkened space of the wulf. Singing tones appeared in the audio and these evolved into indistinct words and the occasional shriek.

As the piece proceeded the lamp turned to a blue color and the images on the screen became a bit clearer – parts of a face that proved to be Ms. Escobar, who was holding the PC camera a few inches away from her head. As her voice increased in pitch and volume, these purer tones provided a nice counterpoint to the ambient and alien sounds in the background. An unintelligible speaking voice was heard in the audio that, combined with the fuzzy and partial images on the screen, created a sense of disoriented uncertainty. It was as if your mind and your senses were struggling to arrange this into some kind of context. The images, different colored lamps and new audio continuously arrived in various combinations, challenging the comprehension of the observer in multiple ways. The singing voice of Ms. Escobar stood out as the brightest and most lucid sound, offering a welcome connection to the familiar. As the piece neared its conclusion the indistinct sounds dropped away, leaving a loud electronic tone that abruptly ceased. Carmina Escobar succeeds in creating a world of sounds and images that float just beyond our comprehension and grasp, and then gives us the critical vocal landmark to find our way.

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Next up was The Argument, a piece by Casey Anderson, who appeared with five other performers in a rough circle, all holding portable transistor radios. Anderson began by reading aloud from a poem – “A Wave” by John Ashberry. The performer to his immediate right listened closely, picking out phrases or fragments and repeating them, even as Anderson continued reading. The next performer in the circle listened to the person on his left and did likewise, so that a sort of ringing of words and phrases took place as the piece progressed. When nothing was being repeated in the circle, the performers played their portable radios. The success and texture of this piece depended on the careful listening and sharp memory of the individuals. An interesting variety of words surged around the circle, sometimes an entire sentence and sometimes just a word or two. Often a phrase would shorten as it worked its way around, diminished by the hearing and memory of those repeating it.

The concentration of the performers and the repetition of the words gave a sense of activity and common purpose to this. The patterns and cadences of the voices suggested an earnest conversation or perhaps an ancient incantation. The sound of the portable radios – tuned to various local stations – added an emotional space to the otherwise intimate feel of the conversation and projected a sense of wider importance onto the proceedings. The Argument is an interesting study of how the sounds of the spoken word can transmit feelings and emotion, even when divorced from context or content.

The final piece for the evening was Network Dilation by Scott Cazan and this was realized with a violin, a computer and two large speakers placed about 20 feet apart. The piece began with a series of electronic beeps and chirps that was soon joined with a sort of clatter that gave a strong sensation of movement and energy. It was a bit like being inside an old school pinball machine. Although this was loud, it did not overwhelm and the addition of a booming bass tone lessened the sense of randomness by producing a regular beat. The violin was fitted with a pickup and the energetic bowing by Cazan produced a continuous series of complex squeals and squeaks that resembled the sounds of a working metal lathe. These higher pitches formed a nice melodic counterpoint to the bass and the overall feel was brightly optimistic.

As regular increases in pitch and volume continued, there was a sense of mounting excitement along with the feeling that the whole process was going slightly out of control. Yet even as the sounds intensified, the various elements held together in a kind of primal harmony. After peaking with a very powerful sound, the piece decelerated and gracefully slowed to a stop. Network Dilation is crafted from sounds that are partly alien, partly electronic and partly identifiable – but the sum of these – remarkably – is completely musical.

The Last Dance series continues through the end of this month. New concerts are being programmed for the fall and the wulf will continue to provide events and music in various venues around town. A permanent home for the wulf is planned, and new locations are being investigated. For eight years the wulf on Santa Fe Avenue has been an integral part of the new music scene in Los Angeles. Thanks to Mike Winter and Cal Arts for their support and stewardship of this important venue. September will begin a new chapter, continuing a fine tradition.

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TMC Fellows perform Barbara White's "Learning to See." Photo: Hilary Scott.

TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.

The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.

Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.

Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.

Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.

Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”

Erin Gee's "Mouthpiece 29." Photo: Hilary Scott

Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott

Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.

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Mac7616On Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the Microfest series concluded with Beyond 12, a concert devoted to the music of alternate tuning, present and past. A full house turned out to hear Aron Kallay and Andrew McIntosh perform seven varied works from six different composers.

The first piece was Fugitive Objects (2007) by Kyle Gann, and this was performed by Aron Kallay at a keyboard that was programmed for pitch sets outside the conventional 12 tone equal temperament. Fugitive Objects opened calmly, with a series of solitary ascending notes, conventionally pitched. This was repeated and by the third time through, new and less familiar notes were heard combined with a deep pedal tone that supplied a simple but effective harmony. All of this had a somber, reflective feel, well within the sensibilities of a listener unacquainted with alternate tuning. As the piece progressed the incidence of unconventional pitches seemed to increase, but the melodic line remained clear and direct while Kallay’s sensitive touch added to the quiet, introspective demeanor. Fugitive Objects proved, through its pragmatic approach, to be the ideal piece to begin this concert.

Intonation after Morton Feldman 1 followed, the first movement of Les Duresses (2004) by Marc Sabat and performed by violinist Andrew McIntosh. This piece is the result of an extensive study by Sabat to create an etude for string players that would allow them to master the famously subtle intonation so characteristic of Feldman’s later music. This began with slow, sustained tones with an altogether quiet and solitary feel. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies emerged, and as the unconventional pitches made their appearance the intervals heard took on a very expressive coloring. This was played with great confidence by Andrew McIntosh who had to contend with both the quiet intonation and the unfamiliar tones. Towards the end a bit of tension crept in, especially in the higher registers, but overall, this movement of Les Duresses is an excellent study of the supremely understated Feldman style.

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NYCEMF_logoMost New Yorkers are walking about, minding their own business, completely oblivious to the international sonic earthquake vibrating through their midst all week: The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF). The first wave of the festival (seven concerts) took place as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial at National Sawdust in Brooklyn last week. Yet the lion’s share of the festival is happening right now: 28 more concerts during June 13-19, at Abrons Arts Center on Grand St., for a total of 35 concerts. Yes you read that correctly: 35 concerts of electroacoustic music, including some 350 works, by almost as many composers from all around the world! Indeed a mammoth undertaking organized, produced, and presented miraculously by Hubert Howe, Travis Garrison, David Reeder, Howie Kenty, and a highly dedicated energetic staff.

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The variety on offer is astonishing. There are pieces for live instruments or voice and electronics (live processing or premade sounds); pieces for synthesized sound, sampled sounds, and both together. Some works feature video. Other works feature graphics generated through live video feeds of the performer, or graphics generated through movement. Concerts are heard alternately in two small traditional auditoriums and a cozy cocoon-like space with 16-channel surround sound, seating in the round, amongst stratospheric ceilings. Sound art and visual art installations are mounted in the hallways and foyers. The concerts are at 12:30, 2, 4, and 8pm; workshops and paper presentations on such topics as “Oral History as Form in Electroacoustic Music, “Orient Occident: An Alternative Analysis,” and “Wireless Sensing” occur in the mornings, at NYU.

Among the international cast of composers and performing artists heard in the festival are Tania León, Ken Ueno, Alice Shields, Clarence Barlow, Elizabeth Hoffman, Simon Emmerson, Alvin Lucier, Shelly Hirsch, Annie Gosfield, Phil Niblock, Alan Licht, Judith Shatin, Michelle Jaffe, Maja Cerar, Marianne Gythfeldt, and Arthur Kampela. Most of them are on hand and the casual atmosphere is conducive to conversation with and among participating artists.

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Togo seed rattle

One of the most interesting works I heard was Precuneus; Sonic Space no.8—Iteration No.4 (2016) by Michael Musick. This is a work for live performer and “sonic ecosystem.” And yes, it sounds as great as that sounds. During the performance, Mr. Musick gently wafted throughout the stage, as if in a trance, while playing sometimes a recorder and sometimes a Togo seed rattle and other percussion instruments. Meanwhile Mr. Musick’s software reacted in the most delightfully musical way. Its “digital agents” listen to the live sounds and spontaneously extract features from them and then generate new sounds sculpted by these features. These sounds percolated and jiggled all around the hall in a delicate lavander tornado for the ears.

Percussion_setupZhaoyu Zhang’s Night Snow brought my ears close up and inside mysterious objects and intriguingly close to strange materials in action—as though my ears were intimately touching the source of the sounds, quiet sounds of brushing, crushing, caressing, burning, scraping, and feathering. Deeper sounds were felt more than heard, creating an altogether visceral experience, evoking what the ancient Chinese poet Juyi Bai’s calls the four senses: tactile (cold), visual (bright), feeling (to know), and auditory (to hear)

On the same concert, Larry Gaab’s Weird Orbits Need Explaining seemed to use the lyrical gestures and sweeps of melody to steer the trajectories of other sonic material. An eerie yet friendly vocality emerged. So much I wish I could go back to hear again

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violinist Maja Cerar in action

The highlight of the late afternoon concert was Xiao Fu’s Longing, a ravishing audio-visual kinetic spectacle that lasted nearly a quarter of an hour, involving two performers supported by a crew of four who manipulated hand-held projectors and sound. It is based on a song of the Huang He Ge from the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Beautifully colored hand-painted animation of Chinese calligraphy was projected on a video screen with computeized sound before two women emerged in flowing costumes, gracefully dancing and singing (both). One of them later played the flute against the sonic digital backdrop while a new, and highly original, ornate style of colorful animation permeated the visual field, zooming and granulating. Strikingly colored calligraphic imagery punctured the progression toward a taut climactic episode in which the second performer dramatically played an accelerating drum pattern against flickering virtuosic lines of the flute.

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AV artist Michelle Jaffe

The overflowing diversity of creativity witnessed in this festival is simply inspiring. What I described above is only a snippet of what happened on the first day. After today there are still five days left. So most of the highlights are yet to come. It’s well worth the trip to this somewhat neglected corner of Manhattan, between Chinatown and the Williamsburg Bridge.

While in the neighborhood, check out the gourmet ice cream shop Ice and Vice on East Broadway, or Cafe Petisco, also on East Broadway, Cafe Katja on Orchard, or Ost Café on Grand, one block east of Abrons.)

The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF), June 13-19, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street, near the F/M train Essex st. station) Each show $15 (evening shows $20); day pass $40; festival Pass at $160.

http://www.abronsartscenter.org/on-stage/shows/new-york-city-electroacoustic-music-festival-2/

http://www.facebook.com/NewYorkCityElectroacousticMusicFestival/

https://www.facebook.com/events/586542431515565/

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wildbeast10The 12th annual Dog Star series of concerts are in full swing all around Los Angeles and the venue for Sunday, June 5, 2016 was The Wild Beast, located on the Cal Arts campus. An evening of experimental music was presented in a concert titled The Theater of an Open Space and some 30 performers were on hand to realize reference works by John Cage, Manfred Werder and Pauline Oliveros.  Additionally, two new pieces were presented by Casey Anderson and Todd Lerew.

The first half of the concert consisted of four complimentary works given serially and without pause. Four segments of Variations IV, by John Cage formed a framework while From Unknown Silences by Pauline Oliveros, 20121 by Manfred Werder and 0’00”, also by Cage, were woven neatly into the continuous 32 minute performance. The first segment of Variations IV began with the players of the ‘orchestra’ arranged around the interior of The Beast according to a drawing a the center showing lines of direction and spatial locations. The players followed a timed score and at various intervals certain familiar pitched or non-pitched sounds were heard – the rap of a hammer, a ringing alarm clock, a coffee mug vigorously stirred or the knocking of rocks together – and suchlike. These sounds were separated by a few seconds of silence. Sometimes the player would move towards the center while performing – then return – and sometimes the sounds from two or more players overlapped.

At first the familiarity of these sounds evoked their normal mundane context in the mind of the listener. As the sequences were repeated, however, and especially the ones that involved movement of the players toward the center, the proceedings acquired a more ceremonial character. The movement of the players became choreography and the actions took on an imagined symbolic character. All of the segments of Variations IV had a similar pattern, but with some minor modifications involving the number of sounds heard concurrently or the number of players in motion. From Unknown Silences, the Oliveros piece, fit perfectly within this framework with a similar sequence of independent sounds, preceded and followed by periods of silence. The feeling here was perhaps more introspective and acute. Cage asks us to consider familiar sounds in the context of performance; Pauline Oliveros invites us to listen deeply to solitary sounds, processing them in the silence that follows. The two works intertwined seamlessly.

At about the midpoint the players rose and gathered together in the center, exchanging scores they had written during the first half, and this action marked both the Manfred Werder contribution and the 0’00” portion of the program. The last two sections of Variations IV followed these new instructions, with the materials and form similar to the opening. All of this was a bit reminiscent of Water Walk – another Cage composition – that asked us to evaluate ordinary sounds in a musical context. Variations IV aims for same sensibility, but from the perspective of the familiar as ritual. This was ably expressed by the 30 performing players of the orchestra.

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Other Music

This just in via email from Other Music, one of the premiere (and one of the last) record stores devoted to experimental music left in New York City.

Dear friends,

It is with heavy hearts that we share the news that after more than 20 years in New York City, Other Music will be closing our doors on Saturday, June 25th. It’s been an incredible run for us, and we cannot thank you enough for the support and inspiration that you’ve given us over these past two decades. We’ve learned so much from you and are so grateful to have had your trust, curiosity, and passion as we’ve discovered and explored so much great music together since we first opened back in December of 1995. Times have changed, and soon we will be moving on, but in the coming weeks we hope you’ll come by and see us, dig through our racks, and reminisce about what has been a truly special era for all of us. We’ll also be announcing more events and celebrations soon, so stay tuned. Once again, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.
-All of us at Other Music

You can read more about Other Music’s history in a press release here.
The New York Times just posted an article on Other Music, including an interview with co-owners Chris Vanderloo and Josh Madell.

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Anthony Braxton

3 Compositions (EEHMH) 2011

Firehouse 12 3xCD/blu-ray/digital

Anthony Braxton: composer, sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones, iPod;
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, iPod;
Mary Halvorson: guitar, iPod;
Jessica Pavone: violin, viola, iPod;
Jay Rozen: tuba, iPod;
Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone, iPod;
Carl Testa: bass, bass clarinet, iPod

“As a culture, we are slowly moving away from target linear experiences that are framed as stationary constructs that don’t change on repeated listening, to a new world that constantly serves up fresh opportunities and interactive discourse. American people have made it clear that the new times will call for dynamic inter-action experiences.”

  • Anthony Braxton

Compositions 372, 373, and 377 are the next phase in Braxton’s use of recorded sounds as part of the musical fabric of his work. Each of the musicians playing on the recording is not only responsible for their respective instruments; they are each also equipped with an iPod on which they can call up past Braxton recordings to add to the proceedings. While one might expect a fair bit of chaos from this approach, the results are surprisingly focused. Recorded when Braxton was sixty-five, his skills as a player remain undiminished in their vitality and improvisational acumen. Correspondingly, his collaborators possess, to a person, both strong vantage points and enviable chops.

The compositions on display here are filled with swaths of variegated textures. One of the cool things about the addition of the iPods is that different instruments than those possessed by the live cohort get to take solo turns. Thus, we hear voices and piano interject asides amid the vigorous exertions of the players. As a trope on listening in the digital age, with the dangers of information overload and the distractions of an increasingly saturated environment rife with visual and sonic information competing for attention, this current Braxton project is certainly a successful experiment. But the ability of the players to pace their exchanges, exquisitely varying the saturation level of the discourse, also allows listeners a way to recalibrate that is most musically compelling. Recommended.

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Rainforest2On Saturday, April 2, 2016 the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for Rainforest IV, the landmark sound installation by David Tudor. Presented by People Inside Electronics and the Southland Ensemble, Rainforest IV filled the ample sanctuary and attracted a sizable crowd to witness the unique interaction between acoustic instruments, electronics and found objects. The world premiere of Other Forests, by Carolyn Chen was also heard, a work written especially for performance in conjunction with Rainforest IV.

The Rainforest IV (1976) installation consists of several stations, each with a series of found objects suspended from a framework made from small pipes, much like a tall coat rack. The objects varied in size, shape and materials – there was a piece of sheet metal about two foot square, metal bowls, plastic objects, a tambourine and a number of unstrung string instruments. Each object was fitted with a transducer that imparted vibrations from various recorded pitches and other sounds. Additionally, there was a pickup attached to each object and this transmitted the individual sonic response downstream to amplifiers and speakers – the idea being that each object was voicing an interpretation of the applied input as a function of its mechanical properties. The input signals to each found item could be rerouted – or several summed electronically – as needed during the performance. All of this was accomplished with a bewildering array of cables, connectors, analog amplifiers and speakers as based on David Tudor’s early circuits, specifications and schematic diagrams. Computers could also be seen as part of the installation – a more contemporary way to record and direct the signals.

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In a 1988 interview, David Tudor explained the intent of Rainforest IV: “The idea is that if you send sound through materials, the resonant nodes of the materials are released and those can be picked up by contact microphones or phono cartridges and those have a different kind of sound than the object does when you listen to it very close where it’s hanging. It becomes like a reflection and it makes, I thought, quite a harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, because wherever you move in the room, you have reminiscences of something you have heard at some other point in the space.”

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