Kitchen Sink Electronics; No compromises
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #128/133, 1 November and 6 December 1997. Kalvos and Damian on the road in New York City at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:32:00–1:24:25] / Audio Part 2 [0:36:15–1:26:00].
David Behrman has been active as a composer and artist since the 1960s. He has made sound and multimedia installations as well as compositions and recordings. Among the installations are Cloud Music, In Thin Air, Pen Light, and View Finder. Together with Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma, Behrman founded the Sonic Arts Union, which was active from 1967 through 1976. He has worked intermittently as composer / performer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company since the 60s and is currently a member of the MCDC’s Music Committee. Behrman has received numerous grants and residencies and has been a member of the faculty at the Avery Graduate Arts Program at Bard College since 1998. Recordings of his works are published by XI, Lovely Music, Alga Marghen and Classic Masters.
Audio Part 1 [0:32:00–1:24:25]
[Damian] Here in the midst of the Merce Cunningham Dance Collective, we’re surrounded by what must be one hundred automatic plié machines. It’s just incredible to watch. We have a very famous sound technician who is currently touring with Merce Cunningham, and he has assembled these plié machines, and it’s just fascinating to watch, you can hear one humming in the background, there, that’s it!
[Kalvos] That’s it, yes, there it is. Yes, I can hear it working.
[D] And, here in front of us, is a collaborator who has done much to further the… furtherance.
[K] A “collaborator,” that sounds dangerous to me, it’s subversive, in fact.
[D] … he… did used to subvert. This we will mention later in the program, there is a connection that goes back 27-odd years! It is, in fact, David Behrman. Welcome to The Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.
[K] Well, bring us up to date. Everyone knows the historical David Behrman, I think. But we’d like to do know what the “alive and well” David Behrman is doing and thinking.
[D] Assuming you are still alive, and it’s not just a holographic image.
[David Behrman] Well, we were just discussing the fact that we’re both still alive, as far as we can tell. We met…
[D] … in Ohio, an out-of-the-way, backwater state — not to disparage it any more than it deserves — and we were both, somehow, in the composition field. Although you were… my mentor. And in those days, you were fiddling about with electronia [sic], and as you mentioned, you had formed the group called the New Music Junta, or “J-unta,” as it was called in Ohio, they couldn’t get the pronunciation in the South-west. I didn’t exactly rankle at it, but my creampie-throwing episodes didn’t fit in well with some of the other members of the Junta. But, you were there, stalwartly carrying the banner for new music in Ohio.
[DB] Very briefly. I remember we did Kosugi’s piece once in Ohio, with some of the students. We’re talking about 1972. And we did your music with the students there, one of those pieces where you crinkle paper. We’re actually in the same room at this very moment, as Takehisa Kosugi was.
[K] We were hoping to get him to join us today, but he decided that he’s going to listen, because the abuse level is liable to get very high.
[D] As I recall, that was a piece of origami gone very much awry.
[DB] Yeah, I think it had something to do with origami, maybe. Had something to do with it, yeah, I don’t know.
[K] How about the present? You’re on a tour, and what does that involve?
[DB] At the moment we’re on a tour. The dance is fragments of things which are decided that day.
[K] And it is with Merce Cunningham.
[DB] Yeah. I didn’t tour with them for 20 years, but this year I’ve started again.
[K] Describe some of this. The setting, how it works, you said something about on-the-spot, what do you mean?
[DB] The dance has nothing to do with the music, except that they occur at the same time in the same space. The music is liable to be anything that the participants decide on that day, and there’s no cross-checking between the dancers.
[K] You mean they make up the music, or they choose it from a repertoire?
[DB] They might make a plan which is to just not to even discuss what they’re going to do. Or, it might be a plan of dividing up the time.
[D] But where do you come in, do you just eat the sandwiches [on] the tour bus, or are you one of the musicians?
[K] How does it work? I assume that it has a set time to start, so what happens when the performance begins?
[DB] It has a set time to start.
[K] And is that the only determining factor?
[DB] And it lasts usually an hour and a half. And then it stops. What happens is that the dancers only find out what they’re going to do that day, but it’s parts of the repertory that they rehearse. So, there’s a large repertory of pieces that have been developed over the years. Merce chooses from parts of that repertory. I don’t know, have you ever seen one of these?
[K] Some of his work, yes. What about the music then? We’re in this acoustic lair, here, because we’re on radio. Is there some way we can translate that into words?
[DB] Well, it varies, each time it’s different. For instance, the last one we did a couple of days ago in Glendale was there were four musicians: Kosugi, and Stuart Dempster, John Gibson and me. So, on Saturday, it was a very small, it was a old Vaudeville theatre with a very small pit, and since there were four of us, and there was also a large audio mixer in the pit, which takes up a lot of cubic feet. Stuart Dempster decided he would not be in the pit at all, he would just roam around in the audience. So he outfitted himself… he kind of looked like a woodsman of some unknown culture. He had a kind of a leather bag tied to his waist, and he had a garden hose around his neck, and a cod shell in one hand, and some mouthpieces and other noise-making things. So, the only thing we decided in advance was that he would be wandering around. Then, John Gibson decided he would join Stuart for part of the time, and then come back to the pit.
[K] And, what is the sound like? What would we expect to hear in this kind of a circumstance? He’s playing the mouthpiece, he’s playing the shell, and what else is happening?
[DB] Then, well, Kosugi was making his music that he does in a variety of wonderful ways, using analog electronics, amplified violin, and vocals. It’s an amazing sound that you must hear, if you don’t already know. And then, John Gibson plays various wind instruments: saxophone, flute, alto flute… I guess that was it. And then, I have software and interactive situations that the others can join in if they want, but they don’t have to.
[K] What are you running it on these days? You’re one of the pioneers in that, we’ll talk about it.
[DB] Well, Macintoshes. There are not many people who work in the way I do, but there are a few, do you know Ron Kuivila? Well, he’s a very interesting artist, and composer. He’s also developed a music language, called Formula. Which is something like HMSL, which of course…
[K] Yes. Larry Polansky [see interview in this issue of eContact!], and…
[DB] … Nick Didkovsky. HMSL and Formula are kind of cousins. They’re both sitting on top of the general-purpose language called Forth, and they’re schedulers for music events. They make musical things that would normally be awkward, and take a lot of programming, easy. For example, you set up a process in Formula that runs, that does whatever it does, and you write in Forth, but there are these special Forth Formula constructs that are Forth-like [constructs] sitting there in the software. You set up a process — say it’s a process to make some percussive sequence of events — that’s varying in some way, according to something you’ve set up. You can set that up and put it in, and then it will run independently and not interfere with other processes. It could be a completely different timeframe or tempo.
[K] Are you generating the sounds from the computer, or are you controlling another piece of equipment with them at this point, or both?
[DB] It’s mostly MIDI, not completely, I have some custom things that are not in the world of MIDI, but a lot of the sound-generating stuff is MIDI. And I’m not using the latest generation of things that can run on very fast PowerPCs, I’m not doing DSP yet.
We listen to Interspecies Smalltalk, part 2 by David Behrman [0:43:48–00:55:40].
[K] Let’s go back to those seminal days, as the historians like to talk about them now… of early work with microcomputers before the word “personal computer” was even invented, the days of microcomputers. You were working with what, and what were you doing with it, and bring us up to date.
[DB] It’s called the KIM-1.
[K] For those of you who know about processors, the KIM-1 was a 6502 microprocessor.
[DB] Exactly, how do you know? You’re too young.
[K] Oh, no, I have one too. With 2K of memory, piggy-back. It was the same processor that was used in some of the original Apple [II]. And in the same family that gave us the first video games, as well. The 6507, which is a related processor as well, which was used in those very first Pong games. So, we’re going back quite a ways, and this is a single-board machine, for those of you that use of large screens now, the display consisted only of a series of [hexadecimal] numerals, and the information had to be entered by hand, one byte of information at a time. And out of that, various routines could be created. I’m sort of reminiscing here at bit, but a dear friend and stalwart programmer by the name of Philip Hooper and I worked up a situation where we were able to run 7 simultaneous, time-shared programs on a KIM-1 with 2K of memory. So for those of you with 20 Megs of memory, uh, you can drool now. [Laughter]
[DB] I remember a very exciting day in my life was I decided the memory was too small, so I went out and bought a board of external memory that was 4K. 4K of memory, and it cost $300, and it was very exciting to bring that home and then suddenly I had this vast memory to work with.
[K] So you were doing some very exciting things with this machine, I mean, here you had the very beginnings of computer power, and you had virtually invented, out of whole cloth, the process of using interactive work with the computer. Tell us about that.
[DB] Well, I was sort of in the right place in the right time, I was in the Bay Area in the mid to late 70s, and there were a group of people there were doing that, and I got advice from people who actually knew more about it than I did. Around Mills College, there were a number of smart people who were using microcomputers. As soon as they got cheap and small, they suddenly became interesting. Lightweight and cheap was the key. I remember in Ohio in ’72 was the first time I ever encountered the computer. I don’t know if you remember, but there were lectures on computer arts. Chuck Csuri was developing morphing. It was the beginning of morphing.
[D] Yes, it was pretty dinosaur-like, but he was doing it.
[DB] And, I remember you could write a program, and you punch it into cards and you take it down to the computer centre, and the next day you get back your results, which probably had a bug in it. And, it was like, a huge IBM 370, wasn’t it? So that obviously didn’t turn one on musically, that situation. At least, not some of us. So, by the late 70s, the KIM cost, I guess, $200.
[K] Somewhere in that vicinity, $200–250. And it was about 1976, that it came out, so it’s about 20 years we’re talking about. Less than a generation, and we’ve seen it gone from these single little boards to these massive machines. So, at the time, you were creating what with them?
[DB] Well, I had homemade synthesizers at the time, and they usually responded to switches changing position, to open-and-close analog switches, maybe, or to change the frequency of an analog oscillator. Or, there were digital oscillators also, there were phase-locked-loop chips, which took little word inputs that would change their function. So, these early microcomputers had output ports, parallel output ports, and you could just attach them to these music devices that existed already, and you could do the changes from a program instead of from a board of hardware, or from physical switches. So, it was rather easy stuff, and maybe it was easier than if I had bought commercial synthesizers, which I never did. It would have been harder to connect it to the microcomputer but somehow having homemade synthesizers, knowing the electronics, and having these switching points made it very simple to attach it to this new device, which is like a smart switch.
[K] And it could remember, do it again the same way. Describe some of the music you created with it.
[DB] There’s a piece that’s just been reissued on CD by Lovely Music, it came out in ’78, I guess. It was recorded in ’77, it was the first two pieces that I ever did, actually. One is called On The Other Ocean, and the called Figure in a Clearing. Figure in a Clearing was not interactive. It was the very first thing I ever tried with the KIM, and it was just homemade synthesizers that were switched by the microcomputer. The program was just changing time durations and the switching points where the chords were changed, and they changed with a little bit of a delay, so there’s sort of an arpeggio effect. Although it wasn’t interactive, it was designed to be a sound that happened together with a live performance, and there’s a beautiful live performance by David Gibson, who’s a wonderful cellist and new music composer. I didn’t tell him what to do, that was part of the idea. It was this sound environment that the computer gave, and I think the only discussion we had was that I asked him to use five or six pitches, and not to get faster when the computer rhythm got faster. That was the only communication we had about it, and so he thought about that and he made his own design of what to do, and that was it.
We listen to Figure in a Clearing by David Behrman [1:05:05–1:24:25] before moving on to the second part of the interview.
Audio Part 2 [0:36:15–1:26:00]
[K] You in fact did this piece in 1977 at a concert that I produced in the New Jersey state museum. And I remember it being a wonderful piece at the time, and being very impressed with the absolute lushness of the sound coming out of this tiny computer. It was beautiful, and it still is a beautiful piece.
[DB] It’s interesting, because they were homemade synthesizers, and it became impractical at some point to keep using them. It’s one of the real problems of working in electronic arts, is how to keep things current, because everything changes. It’s very hard to use a 14-year-old computer, it’s almost impossible. It is impossible, I think, because you have to keep all this information about details in your head. You can’t do it. And then, the hardware of those homemade synthesizers had qualities that you can’t get from commercial synthesizers, but there’s every reason in the world to use commercial synthesizers now, and not the homemade ones.
[D] For a lot of reasons.
[DB] Well, the homemade things are inflexible, they only do one thing, they tend to break down, they tend to depend on parts you can’t even buy anymore, and the circuit boards corrode, the connectors corrode, and they’re big and heavy. So it’s really difficult. If you were well-funded, and you had specialists working on this issue you could probably do it. This has come into the minds of a lot of people dealing with David Tudor’s work, because as you must know, he just died last summer, and he left behind an amazing… I mean, his work is totally unique and totally amazing, but reviving it is very, very difficult, except through recordings. He left hundreds of homemade devices, and even the people who worked with him are mystified about a lot of the stuff, how it works, what it does, and even to find out whether it’s working or not is a problem. In his case, I mean, I’ve really been thinking about this a lot, because as we’re doing our work with electronic arts, the decades are going by, everything is changing a million times a year. And, I find it almost impossible to have a repertory that goes back into the past, it’s as though the only thing that can exist is the latest thing that you have on the top of your brain, now.
[K] Do you attempt to emulate any of the earlier pieces with contemporary hardware and software?
[DB] I do, for instance, last summer Kosugi and I did a concert together at the Lincoln Centre Summer Festival, and they asked us to do this piece that we developed together in the 80s, and the first version had homemade synthesizers and Apple II software, and also some other things. And I thought, well, “I’ll get this running in 1996.” And, it took me about three times longer than I thought it would. And I did succeed, but it took me, like three months. The old software was much simpler than what I’m doing now, but to remember how to get it to work, and then somehow, you don’t just put those old breath-words in the new computer, somehow you have a new way of doing it, and you have to start thinking again. It just took a long time. And the result is different, it’s not the same as the original piece, because some of the hardware is different.
[K] Is it satisfactory to redo it, or do you get dissatisfied with it, and say, “I don’t want to do this old stuff, I want to move on”?
[DB] There’s some questioning of that. I was glad to be able to bring this one up again. I like to be able to do those old pieces like the Figure in a Clearing. If I put it on commercial synthesizers, even ones where you can affect the tuning, I think I actually could do it very close. Like an Ultra Proteus that has triangle waves, you could get a triangle wave, and adjust the tuning. But it’s not going to be exactly the same, because some of those old things wavered a little bit in pitch.
[K] Temperature affecting things.
[DB] And you’ve got these beeps, with all these oscillators tuned at the same frequencies, but they were drifting apart a little bit. You’ve got all these things that you can’t get now, or you can, but with great difficulty.
[K] It would almost be that you’d have to get the contemporary digital equipment and write a routine to emulate the accidental random de-tuning of the original… [Laughter] It’s a very nice concept.
[DB] And then imagine 20 years from now, to bring back today’s electronic art.
[K] What is it? What is going on today?
[DB] Well, I’m actually out of date, I feel like I’m sort of old-fashioned now, because it’s just rushing ahead so fast. I feel that for me… I mean, of course I’m trying to learn new things, but for me it’s sort of 1990–1991… one has to stop somewhere and work, otherwise you spend all your time learning new techniques all the time, and no time to work.
[K] Well, we had an interview with Eliane Radigue [see interview in this issue of eContact!], and she was using the ARP 2600, and she had done some wonderful work with that in the early days and she is now reworking some of those early pieces with digital. And she says, “Oh, it is so hard to start over again!”
[DB] Actually I was involved in that because Laetitia Sonomi and I together decided that we should arrange for her to use an Ultra Proteus. Laetitia got it for her group, we were talking about it, and we both feel we need to help her. I mean, she’s in Paris, and I want to help her with it, she just needs to be able to use it the way she likes.
[K] It would seem that a piece of contemporary equipment should be able to accomodate the user instead of the other way around, but it’s not always the case.
[DB] It’s not always the case. So, actually I’ve been thinking about that, what could Eliane use in terms of auxiliary equipment that would help her, and it’s related to these other problems that we all have.
[K] So, we talked about some of your early stuff, and some of the recent stuff. Bridge us, from the mid 70s, late 70s, to the present, what were you doing in those interim years? What interesting things were happening?
[DB] Well, actually, after the KIM-1 days… do you know Martin Bartlett? He was a wonderful composer, he lived in Vancouver. He was the one who started us on Forth. He came down to the Bay Area. At least he started me on Forth, the Forth language, which was the one that I learned for music. I just happened to be there when Forth seemed to be very convenient. I’ve tried other languages, and I haven’t been able to learn them, or I just haven’t liked them. So, around then, the end of the 70s and early 80s, I started doing music in that language, Forth. And I’m still really working that way, except that for the last 6 years, I’ve worked with Formula. There have just been different pieces since the late 70s, that all have to do with software, and most of them have to do with pitch-sensing.
[K] And that means what, that there’s a live performer who’s playing, and this has some relationship to that?
[DB] Yeah, one or more live performers playing, and not being told what to do, but just using the system as though it were an audio game-like situation, like improvisers. I try not to use that word too much somehow, because it has a lot of contexts. But yes, if one says, “There’s either written music, or there’s improvisation,” then it’s closer to improvisation. But sometimes the software moves from one situation to another. So, the software could be compositional, but without being fixed, the performers are not told what to do. But, they might have to deal with several programs, each of which is quite different, or somewhat different. Some might respond to specific pitches, others might respond to volume changes, or non-pitched sounds, or waving of Buchla wands, or something that’s not necessarily musical, but for myself I’ve always just been working with interaction of one sort or another. … You could think of a soloist, and then there’s an automated orchestra.
[K] We’re talking about Forth and Formula, as languages. Those are actually, in a sense, you gotta to program. You really have to program. One line at a time, you write words and commands. There’s another movement in creating computer algorithms. One of the best examples is Max, which is a graphical interface. Do you have any opinions on the differences, of feel, or whether you think that’s a good direction to go?
[DB] I’m sure that if I were starting out now, I would start with Max, and not with Forth. A lot of my composer friends use Max.
[K] Is it as flexible, does it have a bias or point of view different from, say, programming a line at a time?
[DB] I haven’t used it in detail, I’ve played with it a little bit, but I’ve never made a piece with it. But, some people I know who have worked in both, could speak at greater lengths about the differences. George Lewis has worked with them. He likes Formula, he uses Formula. He also knows Max, and he teaches it at UCSD to his students. And David Wessel, of course, developed it at IRCAM with other people, and teaches it at Berkeley to his students. It’s a much easier way into interactive music than the way I work. But, some people who work with both will tell you that Max can get kind of clogged up when it gets complicated. At first, it’s very wonderful, but as you get more and more complicated, it starts slowing down and gets difficult. Now, I can’t say that first hand, because I’ve never followed that through. I’ve never made a complicated piece in Max, and compared it with a complicated piece in Forth, so I don’t know it firsthand. And as the computers get faster and faster, that will be less and less of a problem. And actually, I’d like to use it, because I’m sure it’d be a lot of fun. But I just haven’t yet because I’m always working on something.
[K] You said you use MIDI stuff now. That tends to get clogged up though too, doesn’t it?
[DB] For me, not so much, because I don’t do tremendously dense, tremendously fast things. I just never have had, like 64 channels, going very fast. George Lewis has talked about that, he tends to push those envelopes of maximum density and speed. But, for me, I just haven’t run up against that, although I’d like to have a faster computer.
Unforeseen Events by David Behrman plays in the background.
[K] So we’ve heard chunks of stuff from the 70s, from the 80s, and you’re going to bring us up to the turn of the past decade.
[DB] There’s this piece called Unforeseen Events, which was from around ’90. It’s an interactive piece, and working with Ben Neill, who plays “mutantrumpet”, which is a trumpet he’s developed himself that has several bells. I’m sure you’ve heard it in other things, he’s a composer-performer and has done a lot of things with it on his own, developed it himself. We worked a lot together for several years. So, this piece from around ’90 is a set of programs that are in different sections, and each one is based on sets of nine pitches, which do things when he hits them. So, the idea is similar to the 1984 idea, but in character, it’s a little different.
We listen to the conclusion of Unforeseen Events by David Behrman [0:52:40–1:06:20].
[K] How does an audience, particularly a younger audience, brought up on the smoother, new-age-ier, post-minimalist tonal, crossover music, come to listen to this? If they’ve not come through the history of this interactive work with computers, how do they approach it? How does a new listener, even if it’s not a young listener, but a new listener, come to your music, and sense what it is?
[DB] Uh, I guess you should ask them. [General laughter] It’s so remote from my own experience. I wish I could erase my brain cells and have that experience myself, and then I could probably learn something.
[K] Because we have a deal, our listening audience is general, and they’re going to say in these few musical excerpts they’ve been able to hear today, “Well, maybe we don’t get it.” What is it that you, as a composer, hope they’ll get?
[DB] Well, I always think that if it’s fun for the performing musicians, if they’re enjoying it, then that’s a sign that people who aren’t performing will enjoy it too.
[K] But that was said for years about some of the more obscure and complicated sides of jazz, for example, during the years when the general listening public ran away from jazz, because they said, “We don’t get it.” And often it was said, “Well, musicians love it, they understand what’s going on, how come?” How would you invite someone into it? How would you cushion the surrounds, so that they can step out of their everyday, sort of 90s economic-values-laden environment, and walk into your environment?
[DB] You know, in the arts, there’s no right and wrong, and you never appeal to everybody, and some people will like what you do, and whether there are 12 people who like what you do, or 40 million, it’s kind of mysterious.
[D] So you need a good publicist.
[DB] I’m not sure, I guess it would probably help, but I don’t know, I’ve seen publicists who work very hard on things and it doesn’t seem to make any difference. It’s mysterious. People are bombarded with this multimedia corporate barrage… it’s such a money-making thing, in the arts. Huge companies that are not interested in moderate sales, they’re only interested in superstores and blockbuster sales. The situation is sick now — that’s true of music, it’s true of publishing, and it’s true of movies (American movies) — in general. Of course there are exceptions, but it’s very hard to find a book publisher who can take on a book that’s only going to sell 12,000 copies, even though they might make a moderate profit from 12,000 copies, because the huge companies are only interested in enormous profits. I worked as a record producer in the 60s at Columbia Records when the head of Columbia Records was Goddard Lieberson, a composer, and he cared about music rather than profit. He did a lot of things that just made moderate profit or no profit. Toward the end of that time when I was working there, the first computer printouts of sales started coming up, and around 1969 the sales managers started walking around with these computer printouts, and that was the beginning of the end. It started getting more efficient, and the phrase “Dollar return for cubic foot” started being used. It’s funny because there was a time when the technology seemed to be offering a utopian solution. Marshall McLuhan, and Cage was influenced by that too. That turned out not to be true, because human nature follows the technology. Whatever characteristics there are in a human character gets carried over into the technology, so there’s evil as well as good.
[D] We embrace it if it gives a profit, but… perhaps not entirely.
[K] We talked about interactivity a couple of times, and we are seeing a high level of interactivity now, with digital stuff, everything from games and Internet stuff, through even interactive drama, where you choose the process it goes through. This doesn’t seem like the direction you were looking for.
[DB] Well it is, it’s just that everything has become interactive, so that you almost don’t have to use that word anymore. It was an exciting word back in ’77 and I like to avoid it now, because everybody uses it all the time.
[K] Do you think your work has been co-opted?
[DB] Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. I just think that now since everything is interactive, you can pick and choose to see what sort of interactive things you are interested. I’m doing one kind, other people are doing another kind. I mean, sure, we were ahead of our time in a way, like Laurie Spiegel [see interview in this issue of eContact!], and others. There was a time when there were only a dozen people working in interactive music, and now it’s not even worth using the word anymore. But that doesn’t mean that it’s been co-opted, it’s like there was a time when no-one used a printing press, and then everyone had access to the printing press, and then there’s still a question of which books are better than others, or more interesting, or whatever.
[K] So where are you taking your work now?
[DB] I’m trying to work with voices, I’m trying to work with several people at once. For a long time it was mostly one person, and sometimes two, and now I’m trying to work with more, and with voices. The last piece I did had two vocalists and two instrumentalists, and the voices were interactive, with text, and that was something I just started a couple of years ago. And I’ve done one piece that uses that technique. It’s a text by Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen and Sassoon were both poets who wrote poetry in the battle trenches of World War One. Wilfred Owen is better known, because Benjamin Britten used his text, but Sassoon was also a wonderful poet. I made a piece that has texts by Sassoon and by my father who was writer, and became a friend of Sassoon back in 1920, and I made a piece last year that was commissioned by Thomas Buckner. It was because of Thomas that I worked on this piece. I mean, I’d been wanting to do it anyway, but I did it, and we performed it twice. So, in this case, in the piece that I could play, the interaction is not based on pitches, but it’s just on changes in dynamic. It’s a different feel with the voice. Again, the vocalist is not told what to do, but he has a text, and whatever he decides to do with the text, there’s an interaction of changes of dynamic of his voice. It doesn’t matter what pitch he sings, or whether he sings or speaks, or chants or something between singing and speaking. He plays in this situation, he works with the situation. In this piece, there’s also interactive inputs for the two instrumentalists, one of which is Ralph Samuelson playing shakuhachi and Peter Zummo playing trombones and other wind instruments. So, the three of them have interaction all based on changes of dynamics, rather than hitting specific pitches. And the computer does things on its own, also, which sets up a kind of modal feeling, in this case.
[K] In what context do the performers understand what they’re to do? How much instruction do you give them? And let me sort of cushion that in this question: How much of it depends on a kind of a vocabulary that is yours, or part of a specific subset of musical culture?
[DB] I think that the vocabulary develops as you work on the piece. But sometimes, a performer can break out of the vocabulary, and do something that seems strange, and sometimes that’s very nice. So, I think what I’ve learned about the way of working, is that the environment that the synthesizers and the software offer, suggests a way of performing. But different performers might get different ideas of what to do. And, if they’re very good musicians, then whatever they decide is alright with me.
We listen to and excerpt of My Dear Siegfried, part 1, by David Behrman [1:18:55–1:23:30].
[K] My Dear Siegfried, music by David Behrman, and improvisational, responsive, interactive, to use the word that now everybody has expropriated for their own interests.
One of our other friends in the compositional world, Joel Chadabe [see interview in this issue of eContact!], has suggested that there was a thing we should ask everyone, and I think it was absolutely wonderful. He said, “Why don’t you ask people what they believe their pioneering act was?”
[DB] I’ve gotten to the age where I’m sometimes referred to as a pioneer, and I always think, well, that means I’m over the hill.
[D] Even in 1972 we were referring to you as “The Pioneer,” with an uppercase ‘P.’ We wanted you to take that Mormon Tabernacle choir, and mold it to your own will, have them just mutilate beyond belief, we really believed you could do it. And, it hasn’t happened yet, but we’re still hoping.
[K] Interactive Mormon Tabernacle Mutilation… wow!
[DB] [Laughter] I used to edit them, their Christmas carols, in July, which was very strange. In the heatwaves in New York, I used to edit the Mormon Tabernacle choir doing Christmas carols. But I never got my hands on it, with my own devices.
[K] Notice he’s avoided the pioneering era question entirely. [Laughter]
[DB] Everyone hopes we’re still alive, right, we hope we can still get some new ideas. So hopefully, there’s more than one pioneering act, if there are any at all. Maybe there’ll be one tomorrow…
[K] Good. Thanks very much, David Behrman, for being our guest on The Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.
[DB] Thanks a lot.
We listen to Refractive Light, part 4, by David Behrman [1:26:00–1:29:28].