Mind Over Mirrors on electronic music pioneers

Post Author: Jaime Fennelly

Impose had asked me to select five electronic music pioneers that have made a significant impact on me and my music over the years, and fortunately some of the sonic luminaries that first came to mind I’ve had direct contact (or even friendships) with.  Having mentors in my life to cast light into the distance and then push me into the darkness has been integral to my musical development.  Most of the composers mentioned here certainly work within the electronic music genre, but almost all of them also have a distinct relationship to acoustic music or the natural world of sound, which I’ve found to be particularly relevant in my own interests of aiming to sculpt sound through electronics while retaining life-like acoustic qualities.

Maryanne Amacher, Head Trip

Friend, collaborator, former housemate and brilliant choreographer, Miguel Gutierrez slipped me a CD of Sound Characters (one of Maryanne’s only publicly available recordings) back in 2001 or 2002 and I immediately felt like I was finally hearing music that I had only dreamed of since I was a little kid.  Having been diagnosed with a mild form of epilepsy after a head injury when I was eight years old, I experienced for the next 10 years daily episodes of what I later learned to be known as auras – the perceptual phenomenon that occurs just before a seizure, where one experiences heightened or disoriented experiences of sight, sound, taste or other metaphysical sensations.  At its peak, I was having these auras 6-10 times a day, sometimes lasting up to 5 minutes at a time.  As a child with no real reference point, including parents with no reference or understanding, at times this was very scary.  By the time I first heard Maryanne’s psychoacoustic music I hadn’t had any of these auras for over 3 years (my neurologist had said my brain had rewired itself since I was still developing), but when I did listen I had for the first time the realization that what I had experienced for those 10 years wasn’t something to be fearful of, but instead drawn into.  Experiencing a controlled psychoactive sonic piece that was intended to create music from within the ear – or as Maryanne called it “third ear music” – revealed that what we normally experience day-to-day is just the most obvious perceptions, and that we can go much deeper.  James Turrell’s light sculptures, particularly his piece Light Reignfall is another great example of another sensory awakening piece for me that I experienced around the same time.

In the summer of 2003 I began graduate studies at Bard College a couple hours north of NYC up the Hudson River. One of the main reasons I was interested in relocating my music studio to Bard was that Maryanne had been teaching there for a number of years.  She lived not too far away on the other side of the river in Kingston.  Meeting Maryanne was like meeting the mother that you never had, straight out of a space station with cowboy boots, red ski pant overalls, bright red lipstick, dark rimmed glasses, one blonde dread, a bottomless black pouch of rolling tobacco and a total no bullshit attitude with the warmest glowing smile and gesticulating hands.  You could talk to her about the most far-out idea you ever had and she always had amazing insight.  She lived and breathed her work, and knew how to insert herself as a mentor as well as the life of the party.  She seemed to always have a glass of red wine in hand.

Maryanne and I befriended each other over the course of the three summers that I spent up at Bard and I can’t express how much of an impact she made on my musical life in her encouragement and her challenging criticism.  She had turned me onto Gurdjieff and ideas of ecstatic trance, of moving people through cosmic dance – even if that dance was through “all of those fantastic frequencies”, as she used to say.  Upon hearing some of my music that was focused on mixer feedback, she leant me this matrix mixer that Serge Tcherepnin (of the Serge Modular Synthesizer) had built for her in the 70s.  It was barely held together with a lot of old peeling masking tape.  I can’t say that is worked very well, it needed some care for, but it came from a certain intention from a teacher and friend that is unforgettable.

Though Maryanne would frown on her music existing on Youtube (she barely thought CDs had good enough audio definition for her works, let alone compressed, streaming mp3s), this is Head Trip from her Sound Characters CD.  I suggest playing this through stereo loud speakers (not headphones) as loud as possible while walking around that space.

David Behrman, “Leapday Night”

I had first heard of Behrman as collaborator of Merce Cunningham’s, creating the soundscore to Walkaround Time – an ode to Duchamp-ian ready-mades.  Berhman’s score consists of tape spliced collages of everyday sounds being outputted to speakers placed throughout the entire theater space.  This idea of the use of recordings and specifically magnetic tape, as opposed to digital samples, existing in an architectural form was quite impactful to me, and was realized in I succumb, a piece I made with Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People in 2003, in which I used four Sony cassette players placed along the front of the stage, each about 10 feet apart from each other.   As the dancers moved on the stage behind me, I walked back and forth between the recorders, turning them on and off and creating a live mix with my own physical presence an integral part of the piece.     As I later found out, Behrman worked for Columbia Records in the mid to late 60s, first working for them doing tape splicing / editing, then later became a record producer for one of Columbia’s subsidiaries and was responsible for managing to release some of the greatest works of American Avant Garde Music on a major record label.  What seems like an impossibility today, Behrman was able to sell over 10,000 copies of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air within the first year of it’s release.

Due to some scheduling conflicts, I wasn’t able to travel up to Bard for my entrance interview, so after some coordination with the program secretary, I was told that David Berhman, who was faculty at that time and lived in downtown Manhattan, would be happy to interview me.  I prepared my materials and trucked over to Tribeca on that day, and met him (and Brenda Hutchinson – also Bard MFA faculty at the time), and talked about what I was working on, played some pieces and showed some video of the more performance related work I was doing in collaboration with contemporary dance choreographers.  I got invited into the program on their recommendation and the next few summers provided many insightful conversations with David particularly in relationship to electronic music technology – using amplified acoustic objects, building oscillators and manipulating consumer electronics.  David even passed on to me the very resourceful (and then not-yet-published) cracked electronics manual by his former student, Nic Collins.

This track from Leapday Night was created by a custom computer system David created, which features some really beautiful portamento.  Guitar orchestra guru, Rhys Chatham also appears on trumpet.

Eliane Radigue, “A Portrait of Eliane Radigue by Austrian IMA”

Back when Table of the Elements were releasing music in the early 00s, I had purchased a copy of Adnos I-III, a three CD collection chronicling French composer Eliane Radigue’s epic trilogy for ARP 2500 synthesizer and tape constructed over the course of nearly a decade (1973 – 1980).  I was immediately drawn to the static nature of each piece and how seemingly imperceptible shifts in the present culminated to create some of the most successful drone music ever made.  In my early twenties, I’d lie in my bed at night listening to each part falling in and out of various stages of sleep, awakening to these dramatic shifts which had occurred, but when listening cognitively seem almost imperceptible or tectonic-like.  Her music is like watching natural life forms grow.  Being so moved by her work over the years, I began corresponding with Eliane a couple of years ago.  Interestingly in recently years, she has abandoned the use of her signature ARP synthesizer (well featured here in this documentary video) to focus on composing acoustic music for other musicians, which occupies similar intentions as her electronic music.

Henry Flynt, “Violin Strobe”

I first caught wind of Henry Flynt through Dawson Prater, head honcho of the now defunct record label Locust Music who I was working with for one of their Object series releases in 2003.  In the early 00s there was a surge of Flynt’s music being reissued or released for the first time on Locust and Baltimore’s Recorded Music, run by John Berndt.  I was overwhelmed by the forward moving drive of Flynt’s music, much like most Appalachian and Boogie music where the succession of rhythmic notes creates a whirling effect, but maybe more impactful was hearing music that is very much part of the American Avant Garde lineage and simultaneously having a very personal and organic existence, again found in folk music.

I recall working a day job in Soho listening one afternoon to the entire 3 hour interview with Flynt on WFMU and it felt like I was downloading a direct feed of insight from the recently unearthed Flynt, waxing poetic on the dismantling of high art and why he stopped making music in the early 80s.   I’d have to say I am deeply indebted to Flynt through his use of a traditional acoustic folk instrument – the fiddle – and extending it’s sonic capabilities through tape delays and speakers to create music somehow equally footed in traditional and Avant Garde music.  His ability to operate on this thin line between outsider and insider music, specifically mountain music which doesn’t have a whole lot of history of experimental music reference points (as say in comparison to rock music, for example), is a true rarity, and definitely was inspiring to me when I bought my first harmonium and sought out to extend it’s voice through electronic processing.  Fortunately, a lot of Flynt’s music has been made available via UbuWeb.

Laurie Spiegel, “Old Wave”

Laurie Spiegel’s music has been until recently fairly unattainable, unless you are perhaps an alien form encountering the Voyager records, gold plated phonograph records sent into outer space on the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977, meant to act as a sonic time capsule of the Earth.  If found by alien life forms they would hear Laurie’s early computer music interpretation of Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi in which he had envisioned 360 years earlier the motion of planets being translated into interstellar polyphonic music.  But with a 2012 reissue on Unseen Worlds of her 1980 debut The Expanding Universe her music is once again with us here on Earth, showcasing some of the earliest digital computer music that is simultaneously light years ahead of anything I’ve previously heard, all realized while working at Bell Laboratories in the 1970s.  Her music exists both through slow moving, emotionally direct drones to constantly evolving staccato notes that leaves me spell bound by it’s complex counterpoint and sheer musicality.  Like Flynt, Spiegel was able to bring certain key characteristics of mountain music to her own music – not by strictly borrowing, but by using tonal and rhythmic ideas of Appalachian music to create a new language that was highly melodic and unique to her own musical vision which connected the natural world to the mechanical.