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. 1056w

Finding Sound on Tape, 1965-67

"Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" (1965); "Roddy" (1966); "Birdland" (1967)

The relative excess of the orchestral "Sirens and Other Flyers III" may have prompted Erickson to work on its successor, the "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos", written rather quickly in 1965. The piece grew naturally out of Erickson's experimentation with relatively unusual sounds, which had led him to investigate the quiet but penetrating timbres available in small high-pitched bells, wind chimes, and in certain toy pianos--not the familiar, inexpensive variety, in which metal plates are struck by the hammers, but a more carefully manufactured sort that uses metal rods for their purer and more resonant effect. (Such instruments may be sold as toys, but they can put full musical resources at the disposal of serious players, including up to three fully chromatic twelve-note octaves.)

The Erickson home became a sound-studio: "The first sound-producing thing I made was an indoor version of a wind chime--a construction of metal rods, small bells, and assorted junk. Strings of bells, clappers, glass strips and chunks of metal expanded throughout our kitchen and dining space until they were a hazard to foot traffic. A push or two would start a marvelous sequence of tinkling, rattling, thumping, and clicking that could continue for five or six minutes."

To convert this experience into a work for the concert hall, Erickson captured these sounds on magnetic tape. With the moral support of his students Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros, who had by then established the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and with the technical assistance of Bill Maginnis, he re-recorded and edited the natural bell sounds, often altering them by speeding or slowing the tape to change pitch, and by electronically filtering the complex bell timbre to emphasize certain bands of sound.

The final result of this process was a fourteen-minute tape whose technically primitive quality seems to enhance its dreamy, free-form effect, a poetic adaptation of the "marvelous sense of tinkling, rattling, thumping and clicking that could continue for five or six minutes"--a deceptive structure, apparently artless, yet utterly controlled by physical laws of cause and effect: once set in motion, the sounds continue, gradually slowing and fading, in a process unmistakably suggesting organic processes. Erickson planned the tape as one component of the final piece: the other consisted of a single performer and seated (rather uncomfortably) at a pair of toy pianos, one atop the other playing a response, much of it improvised, to the sounds on tape.

Through Bill Triest, who had been an announcer at KPFA and had gone from there to the fledgling public television station KQED, and who had been a friend of Erickson's for a number of years, the idea came about of using the "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" as film--not as musical accompaniment, but as the substance of a film whose relatively crude yet immediately expressive visual technique was suggested by the low -budget, free-fantasy technique of the music. (An unlikely convergence of two influences seems at work here: the grainy black-and-white hand-held cinematography of the Italian cinema verite and the Dada- and surrealist-influenced theater-piece musical form that was just then developing at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and elsewhere.)

Erickson asked a student, Warner Jepson, to perform the "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos". Jepson was interested in film and theater: he had performed in the classic James Broughton film "The Pleasure Garden", and had written the score for the popular "San Francisco's Burning", which enjoyed a six-month run in the San Francisco Playhouse in 1960. The final film of "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" was shown several times on KQED, and the sound-track makes persuasive listening to this day, but the music is even more interesting for its esthetic workings-out of several considerations that would preoccupy Erickson for the next few years--a transitional period, following such early masterpieces as the Second String Quartet and the piano "Concerto", and preceding the second wave of masterpieces that would begin in 1978 with "Night Music".

As it would turn out, the most significant aspect of the "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" is the communion it develops of listener and sound. This is expressed by the relationship of the performer and the tape, of course, which resonates with the relationship of audience and performance. In addition, the tape itself records Erickson's communion with the tangle of bells and wind-chimes in his home. "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos" is a contemplation of sound, and a musical metaphor of the state in which man contemplates nature. It turns inward the kind of awareness that is required by the group dynamics of the "Concerto for Piano and Seven Instruments": instead of awareness and response to other musicians, the performer--and hence the listener--contemplates the sounds themselves, and the state of hearing them.

This aspect, however, was not to be fully investigated until five years later, in the "environmental" pieces "Pacific Sirens" and "Nine and a Half"....Until then, Erickson explored further two other aspects of "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos": the technical medium of recorded sound, and the theatrical nature of the performer's response to a sonic context.

For all his interest in unusual sounds and musical techniques, Erickson produced only two compositions for tape alone, "Roddy" and "Birdland". "Roddy" was a direct consequence of "Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos". As we have seen, Erickson built for it what he laconically described as "another non-instrument," clamping lengths of welding rods to the sounding board of a grand piano. After sketching out rough scenarios of what he wanted on his tapes, he gathered musicians to join him in improvising on the instrument, striking the rods to produce deep bell-like sounds, bowing them, rubbing the piano strings, and striking rods, strings, and the piano itself (as well as its bench) with wooden dowels. The gifted recording engineer George Craig captured the results, and then Erickson returned to the Tape Music Center, by now installed at Mills College, to alter, superimpose, and edit the tapes to produce the final seven-minute composition.


Typed by Barb. Golden. September 1996.