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. 1963w

Fun, Games, and Virtuosity, 1966-1969

The lively mood of the late 1960s combined with the collegial atmosphere at the San Francisco Conservatory (and later at UC San Diego) to inspire Erickson to compose a series of uniquely high-spirited works. Exuberant, often extremely funny, and insouciant, they are nevertheless serious pieces that continue to extend the composers emerging style. At the same time they take full advantage of the late-sixties interest in "extended techniques" calling on vocalists and instrumentalists to push virtuosity to previously unknown limits.

Again, the development had begun in Europe, where a few singers and instrumentalists, perhaps bored with the standard repertoire, perhaps seeking to distinguish themselves among the growing number of soloists, had encouraged the composition of new music to show off their virtuosity. The flutist Severino Gazzelloni, the oboist (later composer and conductor) Bruno Maderna, the pianist Aloys Kontarsky, and the cellist Siegfried Palm worked with such composers as Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others. In this country, David Tudor evolved a piano technique that inspired John Cage's epochal early indeterminate scores. Luciano Berio set poems of e.e. cummings, in "Circles", for his wife, [whom he later dumped for a Mill's girl, [added by typist],] the celebrated mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. Erickson himself was to assist the development of two other masters, the trombonist Stuart Dempster and the contrabassist Bertram Turetzky.

He did this in two pieces deceptively titled "Ricercar". The word, Italian for "to search for," has a long application to music--so long that its connotation now is primarily academic. Originally the word seems to have been applied to prelude-like pieces "for lute or keyboard instrument (as in the expression "ricercar le corde", to 'try out the strings')"; by the sixteenth century it implied a severely contrapuntal composition. Perhaps the best-known ricercar today is the monumental one "a 6"--in six voices--by J. S. Bach (in his "Musical Offering"), which Erickson discussed in his book "The Structure of Music" in a section titled, significantly, "Virtuosity, Craft and Play." "Riddles, delight in craft, virtuosity, technical display, all appear in abundance in Bach's "Musical Offering," Erickson points out. Ten years later, with his piano concerto behind him as a first step on the road, Erickson took up Bach's example.

He began with "Ricercar a 5", composed, as we have seen, for Dempster's 1966 solo recital at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Music for instruments and prerecorded tape was already in the air. Berio's 1959 "Differences" for flute, clarinet, viola, cello, and harp included a prerecorded tape to be prepared by the quintet in advance of its performance: it had been heard at Mills College, where the clarinetist and composer Morton Subotnick, one of the early associates of the Tape Music Center, led the Mills Chamber Players in many new-music performances. Rarely, however, could prerecorded tape have been so closely allied to live performance as it was to be in "Ricercar a 5".

The very process of its composition confounds the traditional image of a composer lost in inspiration at this writing-desk. Erickson and Dempster worked together for long days, exploring every kind of sound to be got from the trombone. The conventional method of producing tones was not overlooked, ranging from the lyricism of a Tommy Dorsey to the authoritative snap of a Sousa march, from the deepest notes of the contrabass trombone, whose range drops below that of the grand piano, to the highest notes of the alto trombone, which lie above the treble staff.

Other effects were explored: percussive tapping on various parts of the instruments; slapping the palm of the hand against the cup-shaped mouthpiece; muting the instrument with appliances ranging from the conventional fiberboard cones to rubber plumbers' plungers; making rude noises through the trombone after the manner of Spike Jones; and whistling, humming, and singing through the instrument while simultaneously playing it, conventionally or not.

The composer reduced all this to a rather dry description in the liner notes to the Acoustic Research recording: "In the spirit of the baroque model the 'Ricercar a 5 for Trombones' [sic] is through-composed and characterized by imitation between the voices. The technical demands made on the trombonist are manifold and include simultaneous singing and playing; whistling, whining and bellowing into the instrument; and the imitation of percussion sounds."

In his memoirs Erickson reveals two sources of the sound he was looking for--one musical, one unexpectedly extramusical: "On a trip to Southern California I had recorded a herd of hungry cattle bellowing for food and water, and some of the larger bulls produced remarkably trombone-like upward glides with a characteristic breaking-up at the end of the bellow. Stu quickly learned to make similar sounds by listening to my tape. We were both influenced, in the sounds being developed for "Ricercar" by a composition by Jan Bark and Folke Rabe, "Bolos", for four trombones. These young Swedish composers and trombonists were on grants to work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and they brought as much to the Bay Area music scene as they carried away.

I never intended to mimic the real sound of real cattle in my "Ricercar a 5", any more than the quarreling section of the piece was meant to represent real quarreling or the ocean or traffic sounds in other compositions were meant to mimic real sources. My intent has always been quite different--to make musical transformations in which the recognition aspect and semantic elements are so leached out that the sound can exist in its own right as musical material, uncluttered by its everyday associations. Fake bellowing, properly composed, is musical for me; real cattle, bellowing in a pasture may not be musical but the sound might tickle out a musical idea, and that is what happened in this instance."

"Properly composed." This is the part that's harder to investigate: the actual process by which a composer considers, edits, and organizes the sounds he has heard, in the concert hall, the studio, or the environment; gradually evolves them into a single time-span; and then finds a way to write enough down that the purely mental construct may be achieved in sound. "Ricercar" is an appropriate title for a piece both as complex and as allusive as this: much of the composer's work involves both research and investigation.

Erickson has not written about the scoring of "Ricercar a 5". Written music is often thought of as visual symbols for sounds, and indeed conventional European music notation is best at symbolizing the pitches of tones and the ratios of their durations, which determine their rhythmic patterns. But there is another kind of written music, perhaps more accurately considered as instructions to the performers by which they are to produce the sounds desired by the composer. Guitarists are familiar with chord symbols that show, pictorially, where to place the fingers of the left hand on the strings in order to produce the desired chord.

The decade after World War II saw the evolution of an extensive vocabulary of pictorial notation, some of it purely symbolic of sound, some of it expressive of the affect of the sound, some of it descriptive of the process by which to make the sound. This "graphic notation" was especially suited to various kinds of indeterminate music, since it admitted of a greater range of interpretive freedom than does conventional notation. Usually less precise than conventional notation, it can often take less space on the page, an advantage for solo performers who are thereby freed from constant page turning. But it is also a feature lending itself to sudden "intuitive" decisions involving different paths through "mobile-form" compositions whose sections can be arranged in different sequences for different performances.

Erickson had used some graphic notation, as we have seen, in the piano concerto, but he turned to it much more freely in the "Ricercar a 5". Each of the five lines is fully written out, and the exact pitch of the many sustained notes, slides, and trills is stipulated, because pitch--the exact placement of a musical tone within the range of hearing--is always a central concern in Erickson's music, even when he takes unpitched natural sounds for his source material.

The exact notation is required by another concern: the careful interplay among the five trombone voices. "Ricercar a 5" is 'about', among other things, the role played by individual expression in an ensemble. The pun on "hearing among a herd" is metaphorical: in its twelve minutes, "Ricercar a 5" manages to present an aural drama on its first level, an extended commentary on the nature of solo participation within a group on a second level.

It begins, not in the feedlot or pasture, but on the freeway--perhaps driving past an airport: for the low growls, rapidly accelerating to an extended higher-pitched warbling in four voices behind a gruff solo statement, suggest both speed and space. The pristine natural landscape of "Sirens and Other Flyers III" has been followed by an excursion through a man- dominated landscape: this pairing will be met again in the sequence of "Pacific Sirens" and "Nine and a Half"...

The opening growls subside into a quietly glittering tapping on the instruments, which soon serves as background to animal- like sounds: the trombonists are barking through their instruments. These give way to vocal growls, the "jungle" growls found in classic Duke Ellington recordings, and a dialogue develops, subsiding into lyrical sustained musical tones in a duet over percussive accompaniment.

A quieter interlude follows, with chords providing a contrasting texture, first produced on single trombones (the musicians humming one pitch while playing another to produce complex chordlike sounds), and the atmosphere is tranquil though still moody. Soloistic behavior again emerges, however: individual trombones provide variations on a single held note, some smooth, others edgy or strident, others pulling the entire ensemble into a texture of trills that become stronger, more eventful, finally descending into the low growls that opened the piece.

The "herd" episode follows. By now the listener's ear is fully prepared: what may have seemed humorous at first is now taken on its own sonic terms, an interesting, evocative voice within a carefully invoked texture. One can hear the "bellowing" as expressive commentary by sentient life; and, hearing it so, one can appreciate the communicative (because communal) nature of calls and responses. A pensive solo transforms the texture once again, reintroducing the chordal quality of an earlier episode; solo voices separate out from the chords, playing with alternating neighboring notes, finally settling on a single quiet note to end the piece.

Much of this description suggests a deliberate program on Erickson's part, but he has never expressed one. Programs inevitably lessen even descriptive pieces of music, because they focus the listener's reception of the music on a single set of "meanings", excluding others--including interpretations that might be utterly unpredictable by the composer or performer. In any case musical "meaning" is elusive. We have suggested earlier (in discussing John Cage) that it emerges from "the possible concepts [the] sounds and procedures [of any composition] could relate to," that the point of a piece of music- -beyond the mere attraction of its beauty--consists in the intellectual and emotional (but, unfortunately for a writer, not verbal) concepts it suggests to its listener. In this case, and certainly in the case of the articulate and evocative "Ricercar a 5", "The multiplicity of meaning can become very confusing," as we have seen Erickson write of "Finnegan's Wake", although there are no nonsense words. Everything has a meaning--more likely, several."


Typed by Barb. Golden, October 1996.