Interview with Charles Amirkhanian by Sheila Davies and Susan Stone, 1985
Well, I refuse to use pitches. I use non-pitched sounds, speech and ambient sounds. And I don't compose in conventional ways. It's just because I'm not trained in composing in conventional ways, and I just don't want to do it. There already is so vast a repertoire of composed music which is so highly developed__and I love a great deal of it__so I just wanted to go off in my own direction. As a percussionist I was using many instruments, like the bass drum and cymbals, which we consider traditionally to be non-pitched. Well, we think of speech that way too, as opposed to sung tones which have definite pitch. So, I just considered these speech sounds to be percussion points or sound objects which I could use for composing.
Later, the literary aspect became a part of this too, but at the time in the mid-sixties, I hadn't thought of the possibility of this work having anything but musical implications.
Given the unconventionality of your compositional style, how do you feel about being categorized as a "text-sound composer"?
Well, it doesn't bother me because it's such a small group, and entirely unique. The music people don't consider me a composer and the poetry people don't consider me a poet, and I'm in no way disturbed about that. I think I'm just doing something that falls between the cracks. And text-sound composition to you may seem like a really established genre but when I was starting to work, there wasn't any such thing and no one knew what it was. Whatever I was doing wasn't categorized. I just fell in some crack somewhere.
Then I found out that people all over the world were doing it. The Swedes decided to give it a name_text-sound composition_and before that the French had called it Po‚sie Sonore. What I was doing was more strongly musical than what the French were doing which leaned more toward poetry.
What would you call what you do now, if you could defy all the categorization?
What would I call it? I compose...I'm a text-sound composer, I guess. Does it fit?
What I do? Yeah, I think it's okay. I sort of like to differentiate my work from that of conventional composers because people who look at my work and expect pitches and orchestral instruments are going to be sorely disappointed. And yet there's something about the way I write that isn't strictly poetic. Also, it has musical concerns beyond those that you find in Clark Coolidge's work or others loosely related. It's more strongly musical than those others.
Can you tell me a little about the 1750 Arch Record sound poetry anthology?
I did the 10 plus 2 record which was, at the time, the first LP anthology of sound poetry in American literature, except for the fact that there were a few records called Poetry Out Loud. Do you remember those? They were not very exceptional experiments with home tape recorders that were done by some people in the Midwest, I think.
But the 10 plus 2 record was the first anthology which put together a lot of Americans who were working with speech, not necessarily just poets, but John Cage and Robert Ashley who were composers, and Liam O'Gallagher and Brion Gysin who were painters, John Giorno who was a poet, and Beth Anderson a composer, Aram Saroyan a poet, and Tony Gnazzo a composer. All of these people were from different disciplines, working in speech as an audio form. There had been no defining anthology putting them together and say, this is sound poetry.
And then I did the radio programs. Fifty or sixty of them were broadcast on KPFA after I came back from Europe in 1972 and I had seen with my own eyes that there were lots of people all over Europe making sound poetry. I had really been introduced to it by the opportunity to travel to Sweden to be in the sound poetry festival in April of 1972. And after that, Carol Law and I bought a Saab station wagon and we drove it all over Europe and slept in the back of it: little villages in Italy, to Belgium and Holland and France, Germany, Switzerland and we knocked on the door of every sound poet we could find and interviewed them.
Then for the next year, from 1972 to 1973, I broadcast these interviews. And that was the first time I was taken seriously on KPFA by the audience because it was then that I had information that they couldn't get their hands on, and they felt that I'd really gone out and brought them something that they couldn't have otherwise experienced. I noticed a change immediately in the audience response, so it was a period of maturing for me which was important.
After these broadcasts, I got the idea to do an LP anthology because of having seen one in every country in Europe. There was a French anthology and a British anthology, a German anthology, and we didn't have one. And yet we had a group of people doing all this interesting work.
So, after the anthology came out, there was a real wave of activity that started in the Bay Area and mushroomed out everywhere, of people doing these sound poetry things. And all along, Jackson MacLow and people in New York had been doing it. Cage had just begun doing sound poetry at that point. He became interested in Clark Coolidge's work and then read Coolidge's books, which were an inspiration for me also, and started doing text readings. The radio programs and the anthology provided the impetus for a vitalization of whatever interest there was in the country for doing that kind of work. pp253-255
Do you ever feel, like in your situation at KPFA where you are director of music programming, that you are sometimes just courting controversy, or are you really pursuing what others should also see as the correct course?
Well, the latter. I really think that the things I like are more interesting than the things that are conventionally said to be great. I guess everybody feels that way if they have any instincts of their own. Maybe it's my lack of formal training which is maybe more open to things that are less conventional.
When I did that women's anthology*
(* New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, produced by Charles Amirkhanian, 1750 Arch Street, 1977. Composers on recording: Johanna Magdalena Beyers, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel, Ruth Anderson, Megan Roberts, Laurie Anderson)
of electronic music, Laurie Anderson didn't even have a commercial record out at that point; that was her first one. Laurie Spiegel didn't have a commercial record out. Pauline Oliveros hadn't been published on a record for years and years. And Johanna Beyer was totally unknown, still is, but she was an early electronic music pioneer. Most of the women composers who were known for doing electronic music at that time were from the Columbia-Princeton group, and they wrote very derivative music in a style that was taught at either Columbia or Princeton. And it was abstract and abstruse and austere and boring and twelve-tone.
And there were all these other women doing exciting things and couldn't get attention. (It was probably the idea that women were now going to be professional.) And there was a large group of people at Mills who were studying with Bob Ashley and coming out and having nowhere to go. I wanted to do that album, something to sort of fly in the face of the Eastern establishment. And it says it right on the back cover. That's what it says and that's what it is. It's like_here, take this. And the face of the male establishment, really, because there was no effort to document these people's work. The same with Conlon Nancarrow. It's hard to believe, but no one was issuing his records at all.
So not only is it a way of changing the conventional wisdom, it's also a way of bringing attention to people who really deserve it. Other curators and editors weren't standing up for them because they didn't trust their own judgment of them, or they didn't know about them. I think a lot of the people that I embraced in these various forms are some people who were kind of ridiculed by the Milton Babbitt-Charles Wuorinen contingent. I took a kind of West Coast position, the opposite of the East Coast intellectual. It's like being a West Coast intellectual who says_there is wisdom outside of Europe.
So, you _ and maybe some of these other people you've mentioned _ haven't felt any loss of self esteem because you have a vision of your own, a West Coast kind of vision which incorporates stuff from the East but has its own momentum.
There's a real snobbism on the East Coast that prevents a crosscurrent from happening there. And when Tracey Sterne who ran Nonesuch records and who issued all these East Coast composers for years and years, and was sort of a focal point of publishing of the music of American composers, was sent the tapes of Nancarrow, she turned them down flat. And then years later she came up to me and said, "That was the one project that I don't know why I turned down, I can't believe that I was hearing the same tape you were hearing. I just didn't hear anything in it." So there was this barrier beyond which these people wouldn't go. She might have been put off by any number of things, by the fact that it was a player piano rather than a conventional piano and pianist, or the fact that it sounded a little mechanical and tinny. But she wasn't listening to the structure of the music and the excitement of how he put those pieces together which is pure genius_there's no other word for it. And a lot of the other people, like Harry Partch and Cage and Lou Harrison, are considered naive by the East Coast people.
I think you could find the same in the regard of the East Coast intellectual establishment for the minimalist_which, you have to remember, is a movement that started in Berkeley. And it started here because of LaMonte Young's influence from Eastern religion and philosophy, and Steve Reich and Terry Riley's background in jazz_as a drummer and a pianist, respectively. Those confluences couldn't have happened in New York. They were marketed in New York but they were born on the West Coast.
So there's a certain benefit to being outside of the traditional system. But it puts you in a maverick position automatically. I interviewed a composer named Ernst Bacon, who's still living in Orinda and he's very elderly now, and he never could endure the idea of living in New York. He loved walking every day in the forest. He'd been in South Carolina and taught at Converse College there, Syracuse University, and he started the Carmel Bach festival here_he goes for a walk every day here, and he never could live in new York. he feels that composers of his quality in New York became much more famous because that's the center of publishing and you couldn't do it unless you lived there, as a composer or a performer.
I never believed that, but as I get older I am beginning to believe it. That's how you make it. And Europe's connection to New York is so much stronger than it is here. If you live in New York_people from Europe get at least to New York_you can get a lot of gigs in Europe. But Europeans rarely get to this coast.
Do you ever enter a trance-like state when you're performing?
Yes, when I run out of breath. I first started to do that in "Inini Bullpup Banjo." I was trying to make this piece that would sound like I was running out of breath, and Richard Friedman had told me that there were dancers in New York who were getting into doing dervish things, getting into self-hypnosis. So I decided that I would do something like that in sound poetry, and I just started using tape loops because I heard Steve Reich's "Come Out," so I did this piece called "If In Is" in 1971. It was for a radio program with Richard Friedman, Tony Gnazzo, and myself. And my piece was this one with these words:
inini inini inini inini inini inini inini inini
inini inini inini inini inini bullpup banjo
banjo banjo banjo banjo banjo inini bullpup banjo banjo
Well, "bullpup" was the mascot for the Fresno State Junior Varsity because they couldn't be the bulldogs, they had to be the bullpups, and Inini is that colony the butterfly-man escaped to, Papillon. Inini was a French colony in South America__see, I was a stamp collector, too.
Well__the one thing that became important that I discovered when I was doing that piece was when I mixed my voice over itself I could get these combined words that would be more interesting than having three different voices read the same things. I learned that from Clark Coolidge who'd been making a piece at Mills using tape loops where he'd have one or two or three words on each loop, and they were sometimes the same and sometimes different, and he just let these loops play, all eight of them at once for long periods of time, and then he'd take a segment of that tape and put it on the air. I remember now that he would call these things wordscapes. He was doing all sorts of really interesting experiments like that, and the audio quality was very very poor because the tape loop machine at Mills wasn't very high quality.
I decided I would like to extend that idea somehow, so I sort of combined my interest in what Steve Reich had done in "Come Out" and what Clark was doing with these tape loop pieces into what later became a piece called "Just", which is the "Rainbow-Chug-Bandit-Bomb" piece.
"Rainbow-Chug-Bandit-Bomb" is the piece I did when I went to Sweden for the sound poetry festival in 1972 when I was on that first European trip. That was another example of taking the same voice and juxtaposing it over itself, one of the points being__as Coolidge noted__to make new words by having two tapes of one person's voice sound at the same time in certain conjunctions. Like you'd have the loops playing and sometimes you would hear voices separately and sometimes they'd be in sync. And you would hear the word "rainbow" and the word "bandit" superimposed on one another with the same voice speaking it, so it sounded like the voice had two larynxes, it was as if I could speak two sentences at the same moment. so you would hear words which couldn't be humanly possible, which is sort of like making concrete poetry where you superimpose one word over another and it becomes a visual symbol which is different. Well, what I was doing was the same thing, in audio terms, I was making audio symbols with words which couldn't be physically spoken.
Also, I was using the counterpoint of the rhythms of "Rainbow-Chug-Bandit-Bomb" in different layers so that you would have percussion points made out of the words bouncing around against each other, and that just fascinated me, that you could get this propulsion going with language that wasn't going anywhere. It was just very Gertrude Stein-like, very non-syntactical. You had nouns butted up against one another, so there was no phrase created out of an adjective, a noun, a verb, and it was just a fresher way of seeing language for the first time.
But then you've since refined it in your piece "History of Collage." How does that work?
That's a cut-up piece that's done the way Brion Gysin and William Burroughs made their pieces. I took a text which was an introduction to a book called History of Collage and I took the first paragraph and I cut it up. I looked at it and I divided the whole paragraph into phrases and then I took the phrases and I rearranged them all so they would modify each other in a strange way, surreal ways. And I did that because the book was called the History of Collage and I was using the elements of the introduction and I was collaging the phrases. So that was sort of a play on that idea.
And how about the actual taping of it?
Well, each time I cut from one phrase to another I had the voice on a different channel so that it sounds like two patterns that are separate. They have a narrative quality that the other pieces don't have. And all that time until 1981 I wasn't using any rhythm generators because the words were generating rhythms themselves, but then with all these electronic drums coming out I decided I would try to use them in some of the more recent pieces. So I've used those and I've found that you could really speed up the sense of rhythm by playing very fast drumbeats underneath words that are going relatively slowly. And then, in the more recent pieces, I've also been using digital delay and harmonization and other kinds of digital modulation that give a timbral quality that's different than regular speech.
Up to that time I was using just regular speech with no alteration. I would have layers of speech, I wouldn't have alteration of the speech because I felt that had been done so well by the European composers who did tape music __ Stockhausen and Berio and others. And they'd done very extreme kinds of expression and electronic interaction with voices that was almost unbelievable in its complexity. So I went the other direction and did something very stark with just the regular human voice but layered, so that the recording studio came into play as a device but not the electronic studio. It's just recently that I've begun to incorporate digital modulation which interests me a lot.
Is it human speech that you work with more, that is, language, the words? Or is it the sounds?
That's hard to say because, you know, when I got into radio I started thinking about the idea of speech and the delivery as being very important, whereas when I was performing the pieces with quartets of vocalists, people speaking, my directions on the scores were all musical. I'd write forte and pianissimo and all that. I'd also have crescendo markings on the scores. When I got into the radio station I started using just my own voice and I started becoming very aware of how it sounded and how I delivered the lines.
Coolidge had a way of delivering his lines that was very dry, so that there was no implication of or suggestion of emotion, leaving you to confront just the words, and I sort of took that up. But my voice is much different from his. His sometimes has an almost sarcastic edge to it and is a thinner voice. Mine is a richer sounding voice and I use the mike differently from the way he did in '69-70, so I have this very close-miked presence in the pieces. I was trying to develop something that he had started but do it in my own way.
But aren't the words that you choose very emotional?
I don't know what system I have for choosing them because it's all very intuitive, but it's partly sonic and rhythmic, and musical and partly literary.
Sometimes, yeah. But that can be really corny, so I try to avoid that, being really overt about that.
When you listen to your own music are you moved emotionally?
I don't know if the word would be emotional. But yes, I'm strongly affected by hearing it. I guess it's mostly dependent on which pieces. I'm not terribly emotional about "Go Van Gogh," but I am about "History of Collage."
You always listen for technicality, right? You want it to be technically perfect.
Yeah. I'm also listening for cleverness in "History of Collage" because those phrase juxtapositions ... I could only work within the parameters of the original text. In "Maroa,' I'm listening for rhythmic drive and kind of a juxtaposition of peculiar words that sort of tweeks something in my brain that I like. The "Dog of Stravinsky,"* I'm __ I just love that dog bark. I'm not a dog person but I'm definitely a bark person.
Bliss, your cat, figures into one of your pieces, doesn't she?
Bliss is on a piece I did at Arch Street called "The Type Without Time"... she wouldn't perform, she froze. Usually I can squeeze her like an accordion, just put my hand on her belly and squeeze. But she wouldn't do it in the 1750 Arch Street Studio, she was petrified. It was an unfamiliar environment. So we left her in the room with the microphone and after a while she walked up to the mike, and Bob Shumaker captured her purr.
*In San Francisco, where the repetitive music movement was launched by the activity of composers LaMonte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, certain newspaper critics have taken a conspicuously rabid stance on the subject. While working in Stockholm at EMS (the Institute for Electro-Acoustic Music) in October 1982, I happened upon the perfect homage to these journalists: "Dog of Stravinsky." This interspecies text-sound composition documents the remarkable, perfectly periodic bark of the late Begian sheepdog "Dashiell Hammett," to which I added pitch to pitch by modulating pre-recorded barking via a Buchla synthesizer vocoder." _C. A.. from the liner notes, Mental Radio, Charles Amirkhanian, Composers Recordings, Inc., 1985 CRI SD 523
I open a notebook and just start writing because I've got 15 minutes free somewhere. That's what really happens. And some of the things that come into your head when you have a short time free in the middle of a chaotic day are loaded with oblique images of your activity just as when you dream and those images are brought to you from something that might have happened in previous hours of waking time.
But the energy that is accumulated from whatever happens during the day comes out in my pieces in rhythms that are almost free-associated, and very often the words that I actually use are used to fill in rhythms that come into my mind. So I'll think of a rhythm. What am I saying? It's true. I think of these rhythms and then I think of these words to go into the rhythmic spaces. So I'm just writing drum cadences like a kid in high school. Very often the words have nothing absolutely to do with anything that's happened to me during the day. sometime they do or sometimes they're from signs on the street or from something I overheard somebody saying, but other times they're just patterns that are used because I thought I had this great rhythmic idea. But within those rhythms, I have to find the right words. And that process I can't spell out. That's the art part.
What about the different personas that you may manipulate or present to us when you're on stage?
That's mostly because I can't dance; that's why I look funny like that. I really am awkward up there and I never feel really at ease unless I have a music score in front of me, in which case, I can go like this and gesticulate wildly. But when you're up there without a score to look at or something to focus on, you have to be Frank Sinatra __ you're carrying a mike around, you've got this cable leading off and you have to be a pop singer. There's just no way for me to pull it off.
Do you see yourself as being different on the air than on stage?
Yeah, because I'm not visible, so I can be much more in control. A couple of times I've heard tapes of myself while I'm driving in my car. It's a pretty spooky feeling.
When people see you after listening to you on the radio for years, what do they say? Oh, you're not blond?
No, they always say that they thought I was much older. Of course, now I am much older, so they don't say that anymore.
What about twentieth century music?
Well, as Henry Brant says, twentieth century music is the best music ever written, the most exciting, the most incredibly interesting, better than nineteenth century music, which all fitted into very strict patterns. There are no patterns, and so much more variety. In general, the composer-artist today has to command much more facility __ at least in composing __ than before. You have to know so many more things and usually you devise your own system of scoring for each piece __ everything is made more complex using traditional techniques. I feel that, from the cumulative point of view, we've seen contributions in this century that are as profound as those of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven __ and in every way as stimulating.
Notes about the texts
"Church Car" is a work which can be performed live by two speaking voices alone but which I prefer to perform with the two vocalists doubling their pre-recorded parts on tape, giving an offset quality which adds complexity of timbre. The vocalists speak a series of 24 phrases three times each in progressively more complex counterpoint. Uncharacteristically, the word imagery (church car, box car, auto-bump car) has a thread of related subject matter, and the humor in this piece is perhaps more direct as a result.
"History of Collage" is based on the text of an introduction to an art book on the subject with all of the phrases rearranged in cut-up fashion. A drum synthesizer, set at its lowest speed (quarter note = 40mm) is heard along with natural sounds of ducks, birds, and bubbling water __ also a very tame cricket, recorded so close to the microphone that the aggressiveness of the sound is greatly magnified. Artist Carol Law, with whom I often collaborate in performance, has used collage techniques in many of her projection slides for my pieces. And I myself, using the control room as a compositional tool, often juxtapose aurally diverse found and composed materials by collage methods. Therefore, the text of this particular piece holds a shared meaning for us which extends into our fascination with the Dada, Futurist and Surrealist work of the earlier part of the twentieth century.
"Dutiful Ducks" is a live performance piece for solo voice with pre-recorded voice. The reader performs live, amplified, and in synchronization with his/her own voice which has been pre-recorded. The tape-recorded voice is played back through the same speakers which amplify the live voice. The impossibility of making the live voice sync exactly with the pre-recorded one results in slight out-of-phase shadings which lend an ambiguous quality to the aural focus. The text is composed of five thirteen-line stanzas and five choral-like refrains. The words which make up the stanza sections often have a fragmentary, though syntactical, sort of cohesion to them. The associations that they can signify are open to several interpretations. pp258-267
Dutiful ducks dutiful the drano ducks collide and mercy gater-collide-like fancy tension pow-wow dutiful dutiful ducks than double Elly Macy treetops pray the signal hay in may says dutiful __ dutiful ducks __ dutiful __ dutiful dutiful ducks __ P. 270