I’ve been asked to review records here and, since I’ve been shot down in these pages myself and so am not as immune as most critics, I accepted - with trepidations. To cover the trepidations, I asked for a preface to my first review, and this is it. I had planned a long essayon The Critic’s Role and all, but to leave a little room for the records, I’ll limit myself to one preparatory remark, and let the reviews themselves open my bag of prejudices.
In electronic music, since the record often is the music, record reviews must often be music criticism, and music criticism is a literary, not a musical, exercise. It adds or detracts nothing to or from the music; it just flutters around it. What I mean to say is: don’t leave the testing of your lightbulbs entirely to a moth. The best the moth can do is try and make an entertaining flight and draw attention to the light. Making and listening to music is central; criticism is peripheral. All this should be self-evident, but I’m compelled to say it again before I begin my flight. Everyone recreates as he listens; these reviews are my recreation of events that, fortunately, exist for you to examine, yourself.
“The United States of America” - Columbia CS-9614
This LP is the first to be issued and promoted (by Columbia as part of their “Music of Our Time” campaign) as Electronic Rock. Joseph Byrd seems to be the generator of the group, and the Electric Violinist doubles on ring modulator. The album lists “electric harpsichord, electric drums, electric bass and electric guitar” as well as electric violin and “electronic music”. That should be enough electricity to make electronic rock - but it doesn’t happen. Electronic is a way of thinking, not just plugging-in, and this group (The United States of America, no less) thinks straight pop. The circuitry serves only to produce the familiar burble-glissandi ornamentation that weaves around, but never enters, the music. The motor and melody are still straight rock; the new electronics are wrapped around the rock like colored foil.
The fuel for this music is still acid, not AC. The whole LP has a very strong acid sound: a wide range of sonority and dynamics, some quite lovely songs and some very bad trips with Bosch and belladonna; the new price of drugs is acknowledged (“The cost of one admission is your mind”) in some horrendous imagery - sung through the ring modulator fuzz box. Like the Beatles’ and Stones’ LPs that came before it, this record is a whole show; it opens and closes with what used to be called a Production Number: a three-ring Ivesian sound collage of everything plus calliope. Every cut is a different departure, and that’s the problem: the music seems to go away from you instead of coming at you or into you, and when it’s over, you can’t remember a thing. But, while it’s going on, it’s always interesting, sometimes lovely, and sometimes bitterly funny.
Unlike the groups that have influenced them, the USA haven’t found a personality of their own yet, something to bring it all home. They’re depending on the electronics to lend an overall color to their work, but the color is painted on, not dyed in; they won’t, or don’t yet know how to, let it generate content. What they’ve got to do is let the ring modulator light their fire, instead of fluttering around it like my metaphorical moth.
The Zodiac by Mort Garson. Elektra EKS-74009.
Any LP that’s labelled MUST BE PLAYED IN THE DARK discourages me from playing it at all. I once experienced an unpleasant levitation listening to Kontakte in a totally dark room: about midway in the piece, I found I was hovering up at the ceiling. I don’t know how this happened, but I’ve avoided listening to anything in the dark since then. In a well-lit room, then, this LP sounds a little silly. Obviously, by chickening-out, I’m missing the full effect.
There are a dozen cuts on this record - something for everyone - so, being born in March, played “Pisces” first and found I was by nature a Peaceful Person: “Pisces playing the pipes of peace, painting people with promise” - which seems about as accurate as most horoscopes, considering what I’m doing here. If you can stand all that alliteration, you’ll find the music behind it (by Mort Garson) surprisingly good pop, in a wide range of styles. There are some electronic sounds in it (the instruments are credited to Paul Beaver); they’re minimal, but very well integrated. I expect this is one of those Soundtracks for Mind Movies which Elektra’s so fond of. The trouble is, my mind movies aren’t Talkies yet.
Electronic Music: Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) by Luciano Berio; Animus I by Jacob Druckman; Piano Music for Performer and Composer and Six Preludes for Magnetic Tape by Ilhan Mimaroglu. Turnabout TV-34177.
This LP has a theme: Transmutation Through Electronics. Each of the three composers takes a “natural” instrument (Berio, voice; Druckman, trombone; Mimaroglu, piano, guitar, organ, clarinet, and rubber band) and changes its voice in composition - not always for the better. The best is Berio.
I first heard Homage to Joyce in 1960 or 61, in a broadcast, and live remembered it ever since. It’s clear and beautiful, and dramatic. The moment the tape composition enters, after the Joyce text has been read (unaltered), is a great one, a very theatrical event. In this recording, the necessary stage-wait between the reading and the tape has been drastically shortened, and so the effect is reduced, but it’s still hair-raising. The piece is a classic - not because it’s old (1958 is “0ld” in electronic music) but because it’s so good. It has the same exact weight and balance as Varèse’s Poème Élèctronique (also 1958), the same perfect length (eight minutes) and the same sense of reserve-of-riches, exactly placed in time. The bubbling “Bloombloombloombloom” and the repeated “lonely, so lonely”, have a sensuousness of sound lacking in Stockhausen’s vocal work, Gesang der Jünglinge, composed two years earlier. The German piece is angular and a good deal less loving - but then, the setting of the texts are quite different: one’s in bed and the other is in a furnace. (The Italian’s in bed and the German is in the furnace - providing some kind of musical-historical illustration, I do believe.)
After Thema, the other pieces on this record all seem too long and somehow unpleasant in a profound way. Both the Druckman trombone piece and the Mimaroglu piano piece made me unhappy - not constructively unhappy, just feeling bad. The piano piece is particularly harsh: a battle between Man and Machine in which, like Druckman’s piece, the man loses. More musical-historical illustrations, I guess, and you could say I’m on the losing side, so I’ve lost my objectivity about these works. Also, I always have a hard time with serial (or post-serial or pointillist or whatever) work, and these pieces sound serial to me: clumps of notes separated by indeterminate silences. (I mean: beep - pause - beadle - pause - beadlybeep - long pause.) I have to have something else to get me through all those holes, and the synthesizer alone just does not give me enough klangfarben to make it worth the bumpy ride. Druckman does some very skillful things with it: wry little joking back and forth with the trombonist - but when the Machine finally tires of playing with the Man, and literally stomps him to death in a din of metallic slamming and screaming, I want to go back to Molly Bloom’s bed.
I’m not reading something into this that isn’t there. Both pieces are described by their authors in terms of battle. In both, there are moments of real interest, particularly when the man and machine initially collide - but they’re brief, and the fight is fixed.
Mimaroglu’s piano piece might have been subtitled Shoot the Piano Player, but he doesn’t quite do that; he has him end up imitating the Machine. In his Six Preludes, which complete side two, he goes on with these imitations, and I find it remarkable how he can make all the different instruments sound like the same synthesizer. I can remember when it was the other way around: the RCA Mark I trying to sound like a dance band. But the last Prelude is a surprise: totally unlike the others, it has a spoken Turkish poem over the oscillators, and the melody of the voice over the sine waves is lovely. I suppose I welcomed it after all that inhumanity-to-man, but I also welcomed the unbroken line of it. I have to prefer Berio’s whole egg to the scattered Grape-Nuts in these pieces, and - being a Pisces -I have to prefer peace to a war without survivors. This LP has more war than peace in it, but, on the other hand, that’s telling it like it is, isn’t it?
Silver Apples of the Moon by Morton Subotnick. Nonesuch H-71174.
This is the first LP of electronic music I ever heard talked about by people who were not Electronic Groupies. A proper lady in New Haven recommended it to me, as did an improper Head in New York. So I got it and sat down with it and became discouraged by the first side: more Grape-Nuts synthesizer. I turned it over and hoped for better times, but Part Two started out the same way. Then something began happening - a sound like a nervous foot tapping underneath the perfect surface. Someone (was it me?) was impatiently drumming his fingers. The tapping grew, the drumming advanced, a bass-octave motor started up in the right speaker - and for eight minutes (the magic number) a great beating, zapping, rhythmic exercise went on. (I mean “exercise” in the sense of muscular repetition.) It sustained and built in a slow, exactly controlled crescendo, a kind of New Bolero (I like the Bolero). At the peak, great warbles appeared overhead and a skipping white-noise cymbal pattern darted in and out of the croaking, snapping motor. There was no overlaid melody; it was inside the rhythm. Then suddenly, it all fell away, leaving just the low note of the octave beating, then just the original foot-tapping, and then it all evaporated into random twittering, and I was back where I started. But I wasn’t the same.
I played the first side again, right away, and I just began to see the whole piece - all the Apples - as a Work, even with the lumps in the serial which always give me trouble. It’s a beautiful record, very clean and crisp; it seems to glitter with precision, but it’s not cold chrome - there’s a good deal of wit in it. I found there was a kind of preview of the rhythm, toward the end of side one (I hadn’t identified it as any kind of coherence the first time, being severely serial-sick by then), but it was hilariously disjointed, and collapsed on take-off like a garage-roof airplane. I expect I’ll wear out those eight minutes of grooves on side two before I’ve scratched side one.
When you know what’s on the second side, it takes great discipline to start at the beginning. But - if you haven’t heard it yet - do it, because it all belongs together. Nonesuch commissioned this work for LP publication. It’s worth a lot more than a dollar-ninety-eight, and I hope they all make money on it; and I hope (probably vainly) that other companies will start commissioning works in the same way so we can have a rain of Apples this year.
“New Sounds in Electronic Music”: Night Music by Richard Maxfield; I of IV by Pauline Oliveros; Come Out by Steve Reich. Odyssey 32160160.
“Extended Voices”: She Was a Visitor by Robert Ashley; Solos for Voice 2 by John Cage; Chorus and Instruments II and Christian Wolff in Cambridge by Morton Feldman; Extended Voices by Toshi Ichyanagi; North American Time Capsule 1967 by Alvin Lucier; Sound Patterns by Pauline Oliveros. Odyssey 32160156.
“A Second Wind for Organ”: Improvisation Ajoutée by Mauricio Kagel; Mesa, for Cybersonic Bandoneon by Gordon Mumma; For 1,2 or 3 People by Christian Wolff. Odyssey 32160158.
Columbia has been trying to catapult itself into the 20th century of late, dragging the old repertoire along (“Berlioz, the Drug Addict! He took psychedelic trips,” says a recent Columbia ad for the Symphonie Fantastique). Odyssey is Columbia’s poor-relation label (as Nonesuch is to Elektra and Turnabout is to Vox), and these three Odyssey discs are part of M. 0.0. T. (Musi cof our Time) and MOOT is “What’s Happening, the Now Sound!” (another Columbia ad), All this foofarah, of course, makes any adverse criticism instantly reactionary. Reactions:
I listened for new sounds in “New Sounds in Electronic Music”, in vain (by now, I don’t think there are any left), but found two good pieces and one not so. Steve Reich’s Come Out is an interesting looking cut - very dense and regularly patterned, and it sounds like it looks. The Sonic Material (“Now” for sound source) is a looped spoken phrase: “Come out to show them.” When I say it’s looped, I mean an endless loop; it’s too long by half, but it’s a tribal chant - a very Now form, according to McLuhan, who is also a member of MOOT - and you’re not supposed to use Western clocks to measure Eastern time.
The voice-loop is split onto two tracks, and as the piece goes on (and on), one channel lags behind the other, turning the voice into a very rhythmic instrument. (This lag also causes three nice upscale-and-down phasing effects when the piece is played in mono.) As the lag between tracks widens, and more voices (the same loop) are added to the mix, the phrase turns into “Cuma Tish Odem”: “Cuma” is the spoken chant, “Tish” is a guiro-like rasp, and “Odem “becomes a honking horn note. Towards the end, so many voices come in that it all sounds like a cloud of hornets. There’s no dynamic range at all, and the rhythm changes are so slow that the needle could lock in a groove and you wouldn’t know it for half an hour, but if you’re able to abandon yourself to it, it will take you into a very non-European time experience. It bothered me that it just faded out at the end, but I guess, since the piece was made for a civil-rights rally, it had to Go Marching On.
Richard Maxfield’s Night Music is more like a long day in an aviary. The piece is more or less continuous, non -stop heterodyne warbling, and it’s oddly muffled throughout. Like Reich’s piece, it just fades away after a while. The piece was originally used for a dance, and it would work for that because the warbles are strongly rhythmic, but by itself, it’s too long and doesn’t go anywhere at all.
Pauline Oliveros’s I of IV illustrates one of those Laws we are supposed to be overthrowing: Ten Minutes of a Fast Rhythm is Longer than Twenty Minutes of a Slow Rhythm. I of IV, although it takes up all of side two, is not too long, it’s just right. This piece is slow and very spacious, atmospheric and very beautiful. The action is at the extremes: very high glissandi going way up inside your head, and a low motor rumble in the bass, and I suggest you turn the bass and treble all the way up when you listen to it. Like Maxfield’s piece, this is all generator heterodynes - sounds from beyond 20 kHz, difference tones, laid down with crossed tape-echo between channels (a figure 8 circuit loop between tracks) and a long delay (of several feet) between record and playback heads. This technique always results in a vast stereospace being created in a real cathedral - but it only works with legato glissandi (I mean, slow continuous frequency changes) and it’s impossible to edit - there are no holes at all - so this had to be a Real Time piece. There must have been a cumulative exhilaration in doing it straight through - a sense of expanding power in control, and this comes through - particularly the power, which appears in the form of a megawatt pedal tone. Over this are laid the long, lovely tuning wails which develop in the foreground and move slowly back into infinity. The piece is at once delicate and strong, not afraid of the new-old clichés of tape-echo ping-pong and outer-space whooees, and very moving: a beautiful slow voyage in vast spaces.
The other two Odyssey LPs are not All-Electronic, but one is All-Singing: “Extended Voices”. The best pieces on this one are not electronic, and of these, the best is (again) 01iveros’s Sound Patterns. The piece is short, exuberant, funny, and very well-recorded. It’s “electronic” in the composer’s attitude towards her material, in this case an excellent choir who shout, sigh, pop, click, and hiss. Again, the piece sounds like it was fun to do, and it’s good to hear.
The two little Morton Feldman pieces, Chorus and Instruments II and Christian Wolff in Cambridge, are also for unwired choir. Both are unvarying Minimal Feldman: one has chimes and a tuba, and the other doesn’t. I tend to doze off in a series of Edison catnaps dudng the indeterminate pauses, but both pieces are lovely - the one with instruments being particularly fine.
Robert Ashley (The Wolfman) has an unwired piece called She Was a Visitor which irritated me because I couldn’t hear what the choir was doing behind the willowy-voiced Speaker, who stumbled through his part (his whole line is “She was a visitor”, repeated over and over). I know he’s necessary to the piece, but it would have been better if his part had been put on a tape loop, like Come Out - but then, you couldn’t perform it, and that’s the name of this particular game. I like Ashley better when he’s going out of his head in his Altec nightclub.
From these little pieces, we go into the Now Sound, which, as far as I can tell, is Old Distortion. I’ve got nothing against distortion; after all, a square wave is a distorted sine wave - but over a period of time, it’s fatiguing to listen to, because my mind won’t stop trying to sort out the hopelessly tangled harmonics in it. John Cage’s Solos for Voice 2 has the maximum Now in the form of voices who-ing and ah-ing against plastic pickup sheets. (You can hear the effect by clamping a cup over your mouth and trying to sing.) This, and a lot of howling and screaming and unprogrammed circuit noise, is about it. It’s the sort of tape someone does for the Center Halloween Party every year. To me, Cage is the seventh of Les Six; I know I’m supposed to take him seriously, but I always hear him joking, no matter how seriously I read him. Toshi Ichyanagi’s Extended Voices extends, like the Cage, into tedium. The voices are extended so far that there is little point in using a choir at all - except that this is a performance piece. I hope there is a great lot of stage theatricality that is obviously lost in recording. What we get is just residual super-fuzz (the kind that comes out of an overloaded ring modulator) and slide-whistle clowning.
Alvin Lucier’s North American Time Capsule 1967 has a good title and the most interesting sound of all the pieces - for five minutes; unfortunately it runs ten. The basic sound is like that you get from Robert Robot the Mechanical Man when you run the serrated plastic ribbon that grows out of the toy’s back over your thumbnail (except Lucier’s Robert Robot is a Vocoder - made by Sylvania, not Hasbro). This, and fast-tuning white noise, is about all that’s inside the time capsule. It may hold an accurate record of our communications morass for future archaeologists, but to me it sounds like nothing more than Sunday on the Citizens’ Band. Oddly, it’s better heard in mono, because the eight tracks - reduced to three sound points in stereo - only confuse an already confused issue.
Whenever a piece seems too long to me, I play it over again, hoping patience will be rewarded with a hidden organization unfolding. It seldom is. There’s some mechanism in my head that goes into fail-safe past five minutes of undifferentiated noise, and Gordon Mumma’s Mesa is 23 minutes of undifferentiated noise. Mesa is one side of the third Odyssey, “A Second Wind for Organ”, and I have the impression that the only reason it stopped after 23 minutes is because 23 minutes is the optimum limit for an LP side. After I sat through it the first time, I had the feeling I’d been listening to one loud tone for two days. That’s why I played it again, and now I can’t stop the buzzing, Doctor.
I first heard this piece on TV, accompanying a Merce Cunningham dance called “Place”. Being non-technical, and having spent time in California and Mexico, I thought the Place was a Mesa - flat as a table top - and the music seemed to work well. It reproduced the Warhol decor of silver lamé pillows lazily floating around the stage, and it left the dancers alone to do their thing, unhampered by a beat. On a record, it simply represents a synthesis of an acoustic recording of an amateur Gagaku orchestra tuning up, forever. The texture of the single sound is unrelievedly burry, and the piece is interminable, going on into reaches of lost time that Steve Reich never dreamed of. Maybe this is the point, and maybe it succeeds; one man’s drone is another man’s sonata in this wilderness. But, though I like Gagaku, I can’t de-Westernize myself enough to accept this kind of low-speed teeth drilling as a musical experience - or any other kind of experience I would wish for.
The other side of this LP, the non-electronic side, is great. David Tudor (who played the Cybersonic Bandoneon in the Mumma piece - or rather, he played the Bandoneon and Mumma wrung it through the Cybersonic) is here in full control (or full out-of-control) of two different unwired organs, and both - one huge and echoing and one small and wheezing - are marvelous sounding. Both pieces on this side are wildly funny (oh, I see, all he likes is funny music) and both are very well-recorded.
Mauricio Kagel’s Improvisation Ajoutée is true Grand Opera, with maniacal hoots and laughter, offstage crashes, a disorganized claque, and coughing fits. “I’ll huff and I’ll puff!” shouts one of Tudor’s assistants, and the piece tries to blow your bass-reflex down.
For 1, 2 or 3 People, by Christian Wolff, was performed inside and out a Baroque organ on separate tapes, which were later mixed. There are startling slams and avalanches of untuned air, faint pweeps and calliope hoots, Donder-and-Blitzen hoofbeats with sleighbells- ringing, and total demolition towards the end, from which the old organ emerges, still wheezing and clopping. The sound throughout this side is the best: full and clean, even in the densest parts. The contrast with Mesa makes a strong case for moving air as a Continuingly Viable Sonic Material (which is Now for Don’t Throw the Baby out with the bathwater). There are still worlds of sound you just can’t get out of an aluminum box, no matter how exotically you Dymo-label it and how many mesas it contains. David Tudor & Assistants should be credited with a fine realization of these pieces, since realization in this case can represent anywhere from half to all of the composition.
Silver Apples ll by Danny Taylor and Simeon - Kapp KS-3562.
I don’t know if this is Son of Silver Apple or not. These Silver Apples are two rock musicians named Danny Taylor and Simeon (- just Simeon; Silver Simeon, I guess). Or rather, the album notes tell me, “Silver Apples is an organic mechanism” composed of the two. Taylor plays the Taylor Drums, a vast expanse of traps and cymbals, and Simeon plays the Simeon, a vast expanse of wires. The Simeon, as far as I can tell from the pictures inside the album (“Full Color Souvenir Inside!”) is composed of nine Lafayette sine / square generators, a Gibson Maestro unit, and some Army-Navy radar surplus . In order to turn the nine generators into a Simeon, Simeon pasted black tape over the Lafayette label and re-marked the dials - and the photographs were reversed, so that everything reads right to left (“FFO-NO”) - but I’d know them anywhere because he didn’t cover the switch labeled “WAV FORM” - which is Japanese for Wave Form. You have to be a compulsive killjoy like me to point all this hankypanky out, but it illustrates that even in rock, the Synthesizer Mystique is with us. “The bass oscillators are played with the feet,” we are told, leaving Simeon’s hands, elbows, and knees free for Lead and Rhythm Oscillators. While tromping on the bass and elbowing the rhythm, Simeon also plays flute and sings. Truly an Organic Mechanism.
(The Gibson Maestro, if youlre not familiar with it - and there’sno reason you should be, since it’s designed and marketed for pop musicians by Gibson, who made the first electric guitar [and we all know what that instrument led to] - is a bass-octave generator, primarily; it does other things too, and there are two different units. I think Simeon uses the reed unit, and this is odd, because if held used the rhythm unit, he could have done away with six of his generators and freed his extremities for something more interesting. In fact, with a little additional circuitry, he could have done away with Taylor. But then, there wouldn’t be anything very impressive about one Apple sitting on stage, doing nothing while all that rhythm rolled out of a few little boxes.)
The result of all this organic mechanizing is interesting the first time, dull thereafter. (The album Instructions read: Play Twice Before Listening; I played it twice and stopped listening.) The main attempt here is to generate electronic rock rhythm - something no one has done before, that I know of. On Lovefingers, the Simeon and the Taylor do manage to get together and have a success, but the beat throughout the LP is metronomically dull: all the cuts are chants (one is a try at making rain) and all the lyrics are full of weaving-waving, flying-floating, and Seashells by the Seashore. The Taylor tomtoms beat heavily along, and the redundant Simeon rhythm generators seldom depart from a steady ding-dong doorbell.
This LP is one more step towards something that’s coming, and it’s interesting for that reason. I don’t know if these Silver Apples fell off Subotnick’s Apple tree or not; there’s noacknowledgement on the album, except to Yeats, who started it all with his Silver Apples poem. But, if they did, they fell far afield. Subotnick’s rhythm - that eight minutes of it - is an organic mechanism, a powerful, witty, swinging machine, finely made. I doubt he could perform it, but I don’t care; I can buy it for two dollars and take it home with me. I hopefully imagine one of the reasons for the restricted rhythm of the Simeon is the need to perform live. But they had no such restrictions on this recording (it’s obviously multi-tracked and overdubbed).
On stage, the Apples probably make a mind-blowing impression - drums, wires, light, twirling dials, and Simeon’s flailing hands, elbows, knees, and feet - but on record, without something to look at, the poverty of invention becomes increasingly evident as the cuts multiply. On stage, I’ve heard incredible walls of sound come forth from the minimal efforts of a few pale children, and the contrast between what you saw and what you heard was enough to blow all your cool judgment fuses on the first bar. A lot of this is pure level: you can’t record (let alone reproduce at home) 0-120 dB attacks, and rock LPs are fourth-carbon copies of the stage sound, even when they try for it, as they do in the Holding Company’s new Columbia LP, “Cheap Thrills”; when you witness these five people doing their Combination of the 2 on stage, you’re sure you’re not going to survive it, but all the record can do is stir faint memories of that sound. So some groups (like the Doors, a live-assault group onstage) turn to something else on records: detail, perfection, technique, even thoughtfulness, which makes them eminently re-playable. If the electronic rock people (and some electronic not-rock people) are going to succeed on record, they’ll have to accept this difference; if you accept it, one is not better than the other: I don’t like to listen to records in a room full of people, and I don’t want the Holding Company live in my living room.
I of IV is singular, Combination of the 2 is plural. Either we accept that, or take time out to develop new instruments and performance skills to bridge the gap. But these groups aren’t likely to have the patience or to take the time to acquire these things. Right now, it’s jump-in time, or ready-or-not-here-we-come. I expect the Very Next Thing will be The Finley: four hundred Eicocraft solid-state burglar alarms, wired in series and played with Finley’s nose.
- Tod Dockstader