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THINKING SOUND MUSIC: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson. Charles Shere. With a Foreword by John Rockwell. Copyright 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press. P.O. Box 10034. Berkeley CA 94709. 2331w

Throughout this period Erickson's own music kept abreast of his younger colleagues. Any traditional teacher-student relationship had long since been replaced, almost entirely, by an atmosphere of convivial joint research and development. His own interest in practical applications of scholarly research had not been dormant: in the late 1950s he had already built a lyre- like "kithara" to prove the practicability of ancient Greek tuning systems that interested him. In the middle 1960s he renewed this practical curiosity. He was, in a sense, rejuvenated by the creative energy around him and took to building instruments himself--partly in the spirit of the 1960s' search for new sounds, partly in continuation of the instincts that must have gone back through his pottery-making days to the dimly remembered scene of his uncle Gus building violins at the kitchen table.

One impetus for this tinkering was pure curiosity. Early in 1965, in a conversation with Lenore's friend and associate Bob Holbrook, a maker of faceted glass windows, the talk turned to ancient Chinese stone-chimes and speculations as to how they may actually have sounded. Holbrook cut some flat pieces of marble into various sizes. He and Erickson improvised a suspension out of rubber bands, "and I heard for the first time the sound that the ancient Chinese valued so highly, a rich, singing sound with many partial tones, like a bell, yet not quite, somewhat softer, less clangorous, and with fewer obvious beats." ("Beats" is used here in a technical sense, to refer to the repeated "warble" heard when two sustained tones are neatly, but not quite, in tune with one another--a common phenomenon in such complex sustained tones as those of struck gongs.)

At about the same time Erickson strung together metal rods, small bells, glass strips, and chunks of metal in a construction that expanded throughout the kitchen and dining space. A push or two on this homemade indoor windchime would result in five or six minutes of tinkling, rattling, thumping, and clicking.

This construction was joined by another, formed by lashing together two toy pianos bought from a local import store. The hammers of toy pianos strike steel rods, not strings; Erickson "damped" one set of rods, stifling their tendency to resonate and altering their sound quality. He recorded the sounds of the wind-chime on a professional portable tape recorder and mixed the results at the Tape Music Center to make a final tape that accompanied music composed for live performance on the toy pianos. The resulting "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" was soon filmed, using experimental montages and other visual effects (but in black and white), for broadcast on San Francisco's educational television station, KQED.

Erickson next turned to a real piano, using C-clamps to attach lengths of welding and brazing rods from ten inches to three feet long to the resonating soundboard of a grand piano. With the lid removed, there was room for several players: Erickson enlisted Rush and trombonist (and, later, composer) Stuart Dempster, who also taught at the Conservatory, and two students, Alan Johnson and George Duke. In a single lengthy session he got them to record the source material for a stand- alone tape piece, "Roddy".

The sounds are quite varied. Deep bell sounds result from struck rods; rich, stringlike sounds result from playing the rods with a cello or contrabass bow; clearly tuned squeaks result from rubbing the strings; and percussive clacking sounds are produced by wooden dowels. Rods, dowels, glass, and metal slabs accumulated over the months, filling the Ericksons' garage; they would soon form a considerable impediment to the next major household move.

"Roddy" was first programmed on a concert in the fall of 1966 at Mills College--not in the capacious 1929 Concert Hall, a Walter Ratcliffe-designed building with early-modern symbolist murals by Ray Boynton, but in the more domestic though equally beautiful wood-paneled student union, designed earlier by the great California architect Julia Morgan. Here a large audience of students and new-music aficionados heard the piece on a concert exploring various aspects of electronic music. In addition to the austerely beautiful "Roddy", for tape only, there was Robert Ashley's threatening, ear-splitting, yet fascinating "Wolfman", performed by the composer wearing gangster-style dark glasses and screaming at top volume into a closely held microphone; and Douglas Leedy's very different and modest "Usable Music 2" for amplified mouth organs (harmonicas), quietly and devotionally played by a number of musicians seated, gamelan-style, on cushions on the floor. Fascination characterized all this music: lyrical in the case of "Roddy", repellant in "Wolfman", microscopic in "Usable Music".

Along with electronics, Erickson was pursuing his experiments with improvisation as a performance technique, not merely for the production of sounds to be used as source material in electronically manipulated tape recordings. As we have seen, he first used improvisation in the 1960 "Chamber Concerto". He pursued it more intently in the 1963 "Concerto for Piano and Seven Instruments", inspired partly by the equally artistic sensibilities of the hand-picked ensemble accompanying Peltzer in this graceful, witty piece.

A similar inspiration came next from Dempster, who was principal trombonist in the Oakland Symphony as well as Erickson's colleague at the Conservatory. Needing a solo piece for the 1966 season at the Tape Music Center, Dempster worked closely with Erickson on what would ultimately become "Ricercare a 5"--the ricercar being a kind of contrapuntal music, popular in the baroque period, involving a good deal of imitation among the various voices. The two met for three hours twice a week for several months, Dempster demonstrating the new sounds he was finding in his tenor, alto, and contrabass trombones, Erickson absorbing them completely, considering the uses he could put them to.

When he had determined the scope and nature of the various families of sounds available, Erickson began to mock up a final piece, writing out rough directions for each part, recording Dempster's performances of them, then playing them back in varying relationships and superimpositions, using four borrowed tape recorders. The results were further refined and developed, again collaboratively, and finally four of the five trombone parts were recorded in Lenore's high-ceilinged studio. The time would come, later, when five sufficiently virtuosic trombonists could be found to play "Ricercare" live; for the present, it was completely owned by Stuart Dempster.

An entirely different kind of improvisation is at the heart of "Scapes", a "contest" for two groups of instruments (five or more in each) "with the format of tic-tac-toe". Here Erickson made the structural process of the composition an integral part of its performance. Instead of working out charts and tables of possible sounds or procedures for his own use, consulting them while making decisions as to how his sounds would proceed in order to write down a score of instructions for the performers, Erickson gave the charts to the musicians for them to consult during performance. Arranged in two "teams", each with its own conductor, they were guided loosely (but specifically) through their charts, which resembled such game-boards as Monopoly, by their conductors, who chose their process through the score by playing a game of tic-tac-toe.

"Scapes" was first heard at the Conservatory in 1966 on a concert with Pauline Oliveros's music-theater piece "George Washington Slept Here Too" and a revival of Terry Riley's "In C". Oliveros, playing her accordion, took the title role in "George Washington" , and it was a big hit, especially when Stuart Dempster strode purposefully into the audience, whirling a garden hose around his head, lasso-style, while playing drones on it. "In C", with its insistent percussive "pulse", ended the concert on a mesmerizing, joyous upbeat.

But "Scapes" seemed hardly to start before it was over, its ten musicians falling all over themselves in a game of tic-tac-toe which reached too quick a conclusion. Here-as had been the case, ironically, in the complex but very different twelve-tone and serial music it was in complete reaction to- both the amount of musical material and the method of its organization were too dense, to quick, for the audience to comprehend. "In C" would usher in an era of "minimal" music, music whose point is very soon understood by even an untrained audience. "Scapes" was closer to "maximal" music.

At the same time all this music was seen as "experimental," music being produced in a continuing mood of exploration: of sounds, of techniques, and of esthetics. The composers and performers were co-participants, sharing discoveries that enlarged the dimensions of new music. Many of these discoveries were to be developed further by one composer than another. Oliveros was fascinated by collective meditative participatory improvisation; Subotnick by the mutual inflection of electronic and live instrumental techniques; Steve Reich, then a graduate student at Mills, by the fascinating drifts into and out of phase of almost identical tape loops.

There was no center to all this activity, but the foci were clearly at the Tape Music Center and at Mills College, where Luciano Berio's appointment (as successor to Darius Milhaud) had combined with the already active Mills Chamber Players to spark a new interest in the performance of avant-garde music. There was no center, but Robert Erickson's students and colleagues were everywhere present.

Meanwhile, Erickson's earlier music, by now more conventional, was also being heard. In 1963 "Variations for Orchestra" was played by the Oakland Symphony, with Gerhard Samuel on the podium. This was not Erickson's first orchestral piece: we have seen that Dmitri Mitropoulos conducted his 1948 "Introduction and Allegro" in Minnesota, and Enrique Jorda had led the San Francisco Symphony in the 1953 "Fantasy" for cello and orchestra. (Samuel, unimpressed by Jorda's performance, scheduled it with his Oakland Symphony immediately afterward.)

But for almost twenty years "Variations" would stand as Erickson's most persuasive music for orchestra, easily demonstrating the composer's practical mastery of the big scale and of the technical demands of writing for orchestra.

The work also took advantage of the resourcefulness of the Oakland Symphony, which had a long history of commitment to new music. Originating as a community orchestra, the Oakland Symphony proudly played Bay Area music on each concert program in the 1920s and 1930s; even after converting to a professional orchestra in 1958 it continued to play new music, reaching a peak of enterprise under Samuel's leadership. Samuel introduced music by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, commissioned an elegy on the Kennedy assassination from Darius Milhaud (who was then resident at Mills College in Oakland), and even opened one concert with Terry Riley's then- notorious "In C".

After the "Variations" Erickson wrestled hard with the problem of incorporating the new-found sounds and techniques of the 1960s into the recalcitrant medium of the conventional orchestra, settling finally on "Sirens and Other Flyers III", finished in 1965 after nearly three years' work. But "Sirens" still awaits its second performance, fascinating and well-conceived though its score reveals it to be. It was composed at the end of a period of progress and expansion, and it fell victim to the subsequent period of contraction and conservatism.

On the public, social level, musical progress had peaked during the Tape Music Center years, the first half of the decade of the 1960s. In 1966, unsuccessful in quests for independent grants, Oliveros, Sender and Subotnick negotiated the Center's move to Mills College, where Oliveros became its director.

Subotnick went to New York University, Riley to the State University of New York at Buffalo. Reich formed his own performing ensemble in New York City. Rush, succeeding Erickson, took on the chairmanship of the composition department at the Conservatory. Sender joined a commune in northern California.

Samuel, his position with the board of directors weakened by his intransigent support of contemporary music, resigned the directorship of the Oakland Symphony. And the rock scene had simplified, focused, and ultimately commercialized much of the inventiveness of the music of the first half of the decade.

In 1966 Erickson was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent part of the year in Europe with Lenore. They attended the Darmstadt Festival in Germany, where "Scapes" was performed, and the Warsaw Autumn Festival, where it was scheduled, but canceled. They did, however, hear some oddly non-American sounding jazz performed by Polish musicians. In Sweden they visited the composer Folke Rabe, who had earlier visited the San Francisco Tape Music Center. They also visited every museum they could find whose collection boasted a Greek vase, for Erickson continued to be fascinated with the problem of reconstructing ancient Greek methods of tuning. (Once again, the confluence of musical tone and ceramic vessel represented a merging of the Ericksons' artistic curiosity and inspiration.)

On their return, they headed for a new job in southern California. Much of the musical energy seemed to flow from the Bay Area with them. But during that heady half-decade, while so much experimentation around him seemed to produce so much fruit, in a burst of energy signaling a new-found enthusiasm and inventiveness Erickson had composed ten pieces that contain within them virtually all the directions he would later follow-- and through which he moved from being a composer of European-influenced mainstream twentieth-century music to a restless innovator, gamely and delightedly seeking new ways of playing with instrumental virtuosity and new sources of sensuously beautiful sounds.

Compositions, 1960-1966: 1960 "Chamber Concerto" 1962 Toccata for Piano, "Ramus" 1963 ""Concerto for Piano and Seven Instruments" 1963 The End of the Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies" for the SATB chorus 1963-65 "Sirens and Other Flyers III" for orchestra 1965 "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" 1966 "Ricercare a 5" for solo trombone with four self-prepared tapes; or five trombones 1966 "Scapes" for two groups of instruments, five or more in each ("a 'contest' with the format of tic-tac-toe") "Roddy" for two-channel magnetic tape

PP. 46-57

typed by Barb. Golden August 1996


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