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Interview with Charles Amirkhanian

Voice Crystals; More Talkin’

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #210/212, 29 May and 12 June 1999. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Hannover NH at an Indian restaurant. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:30:35–1:28:10] / Audio Part 2 [0:33:58–0:50:42].

Born January 19, 1945, in Fresno, California, composer, percussionist, sound poet and radio producer Charles Amirkhanian is a leading US practitioner of electroacoustic music, sound poetry and text-sound composition. He is widely known for his live and taped works utilizing speech (or sound poetry) elements in rhythmic patterns resembling percussion music. In his recent works, produced with the Synclavier and Kurzweil digital synthesizers, Amirkhanian incorporates sampled acoustic environmental sounds (which he calls “representational sounds”) and traditional musical pitched sounds (“abstract sounds”) to develop dreamscapes that act as disjunct narratives, evoking a world of memory-triggers which induce a trance-like listening state. His music has been recorded on Starkland Records, Cantaloupe, Centaur, 1750 Arch Records, Other Minds, CRI, Wergo (Germany), & empreintes DIGITALes (Canada), among others. Amirkhanian co-founded Other Minds, a new music organization in San Francisco, in 1992, where he serves as Executive and Artistic Director.

Part 1

Audio Part 1 [0:30:35–1:28:10]

[Kalvos] Some people are known by pieces which go back so far that they hate to have it mentioned, so we can mention it… Our guest today is Charles Amirkhanian […] who called out Rainbow Chug Bandit Bomb which goes back to the American Text Sound Pieces LP that we are proud possessors of back when it was new. Yes we bought it when it was new.

Charles Amirkhanian
Charles Amirkhanian. Photo © Kalvos & Damian.

[Charles Amirkhanian] You guys don’t look that old.

[K] We travel in parallel universes.

[CA] It came out in 1973 and you were both in your 20s. Where did you find it? At a record store?

[K] Yes. Actually at the time we were living in New Jersey and I found my copy in Harmony House in Union New Jersey which was the only place one could buy new music in almost all of New Jersey.

[Damian] And I found his copy, I think that’s the same copy.

[K] Yeah the same copy. Anyway, we have always been fascinated by that text piece of course because of the sound of it, [and have been] following you over the years and wondering what you‘ve been up to. We know you do the radio thing, but a lot of your stuff doesn’t trickle this way, so why don’t you catch us up because we’ve got 25 years to catch up on in the next half hour.

[CA] Well, I have been continuing to write word pieces using syntactically unrelated groupings of words that have a strong rhythmic pattern but I am also now working with the Kurzweil synthesizer and samples; I used a Synclavier for many years. I worked at the studio of Henry Kaiser. Henry is a good friend who is a guitarist, lives in Oakland, performs everywhere, and…

[K] You’re a fan of Henry Kaiser.

[D] Yeah the Fred Frith Henry Kaiser collection.

[CA] Well Henry has this very open way of dealing with people he is interested in: you go to his house and he’ll say “Well, try this, try this, try this.” I got interested in his new Synclavier which he had just gotten, I don’t know, ten years ago. We started to put samples into it that I would select and then Henry would say well here’s one way we could do this and here’s another way and basically we collaborated on a bunch of pieces together that he… where if I got stuck I’d call Henry and say “What do you think would go good here?” and he’d try something; he’d smash his forearm down on the keyboard or play a sequence of tones that were from samples he knew that I didn’t know were in his memory and I remember pieces erupted from that; a very crucial period for me.

[K] What kind of samples were you taking; were they your own samples, material that you had sampled yourself?

[CA] Mostly yes. I would go out into the field and record hummingbirds and footsteps or toilets flushing or ambient sounds.

[K] Always a favourite, toilets flushing, always a favourite.

[CA] Big favourite, and the way I worked out one of my pieces is to have something of my own in there and if you just take the samples that are built into a synthesizer you end up with somebody else’s piece; so that’s what I did, I would record things everywhere. I’d bring them to Henry’s, load them into the memory and then if I got stuck there would be something that somebody else had loaded into his memory. The cooperative arrangement with Henry Kaiser was that if you used his Synclavier you had to leave your samples in his memory so he could use them in one of his pieces. So my samples turn up in his pieces and they turn up in a bunch of his friends pieces and I once was stuck and I said, “What have you got for this place?” and he said, “Here’s something,” and it was great. It was a guy crying, the Russian jazz pianist whose name I forget that he worked with for a while. So I have his crying and his crunching an apple and a couple of other guitar sounds from Henry that keep getting thrown in my pieces, but the point of it is that I like to work with sounds that have a real personality and that are recorded close up so you really get the image to be beautiful. If you record a sound from the distance we are recording now it’s quite different from [mouth very close to microphone] recording at this distance which makes a completely different sound; and so that is the sense of scale that I like to work with in music.

[K] And it’s obvious you’re not carrying around a woolen sack with a 77-DX RCA microphone.

[CA] No. I just use a portable DAT machine like yours over there. What is that, a D7?

[K] An M1.

[CA] M1.

[K] That’s the next generation machine.

[CA] That’s much newer. I had to buy one because I was going to Armenia to record a piece there, and there was no electricity in Armenia except between seven and eight am, at least when I was there. They now have it but it was completely blocked out because of an embargo and because of a war that Armenia was hanging out in Azerbaija. And so I had to get a battery-powered DAT machine and that was the only way to survive there. Now the existence of the portable tape recorder has really changed the face of music a lot. At first you had Luc Ferrari walking around with a Nagra which was a great big heavy thing who worked in radio in those days in the 60s —you’d have shoulder injuries that would last a lifetime from carrying those machines — and now you have the machines the size of a cigarette pack and good microphones and you can really bring home the sounds of the symphony orchestra on one little cigarette-sized machine and a microphone.

[K] Do you use different microphones for different recordings?

[CA] I’m not really about that kind of stuff. I tend to take the same stereo mic around with me; I think it’s an Audio-Tech, I’ve forgotten. Whatever it records well is what I use in my pieces, so I haven’t used parabolic reflectors or gotten into really expensive high-end microphones, no.

[K] Let’s back up a little bit for the audience and explain what this kind of creation is. When you create a piece of samples of sound it’s very different — we’ll be hearing several of them — from either constructing something out of those things which have musical implications already — you know flute or violin — or from creating something which has an attached meaning like a sentence. But this is somewhere in a different place. How do you work with this and how does an audience unfamiliar with it listen to it? What clues do you give them? Let me just also back up: today you gave a talk here at Dartmouth in which you explained briefly where the materials for a piece came from before you played it which very much changed at least how I listened to the piece. So for our audience who will be hearing some of your pieces today, how do they begin?

[CA] Well, if they are in your audience they probably already have begun I’m afraid! If you’re still listening ladies and gentlemen, these pieces are simply dreamscapes or kind of internal fantasies that occur when you put together sequences of sounds that aren’t normally heard together so I guess you just need to close down the visual apparatus in your brain and really just listen, because if you can do that you’ll become involved in the music. If you don’t, if you’re going to walk around the house and type at the computer and do three other things while the piece is playing then it won’t be so interesting to tell you the truth, so it’s important to just start from zero and listen as if a story is being told but there are no words. I guess that’s one way to deal with it. In the work I’m doing now most of the sounds are still recognizable so you can generally tell where they came from, I’m not distorting them so much that you can’t imagine what they are originally; and most importantly they are acoustic sounds, they are not generated electronically and so they have complexity to them in their overtone structure and they have a timbre which has a bite to it rather than simply being mirror-like, very glossy electronic sounds which I don’t like very much to tell you the truth. I find them hard for musical… they don’t convey a lot of musical interest to me even if they’re arranged very nicely. I don’t know why I came to that conclusion but I just have.

[K] You’ve been in radio for a long time so this is also familiar medium through that. Did you come to radio through that or did you come to it through radio or did it happen at the same time?

[CA] Well I was composing before I was ever involved in radio. I came to radio because I liked new music and I new that there was a radio station in Berkley that was looking for a music director and that there was a tradition at KPFA, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, April 1999, for somebody to continue this tradition. So, I would have never gotten in radio if it hadn’t been for that station.

[K] There’s such a strong relationship between sort of the sound piece, the sound portrait today at least in radio. I mean you can’t turn on national public radio without hearing this kind of very very much produced collage of sounds behind voice over.

[CA] Yeah, news stories, essays, everything.

[K] Are you responsible for that?

[CA] No, certainly not, I don’t think so. I think traditional radio drama is the source for that, and that the portable tape recorder is the source for that, but I was working with sounds on tape before I was involved in radio and I just didn’t have very good hearing in those days.

[K] But those of course are sounds which are clearly associated usually with a text story. In your case you’re creating what you called a dreamscape…

[CA] It’s sort of a soundscape. You’re walking through an environment and a number of sounds are coming at you and the sequence is up to the composer. That’s what makes it art. It doesn’t tell you anything literal. If it said something literal it might be a news story but it wouldn’t be much of an artistic statement; so what, do you want art or do you want news?

[K] You did something interesting again today, before you played one of the pieces during your lecture you had the lights go down. Do you prefer to have other input, other distractions gone, and if our listeners are about to hear a piece of yours, now as they are, would you prefer them to have it heard through headphones?

[CA] It depends, if you have great loudspeakers in your environment it would be just as good to turn them up all the way and turn out the lights, but definitely turn out the lights. That’s very important. I did do performances for years with Carol Law, my wife, who does projections of slides that are slowly dissolved by computers in control of several projectors. Those were intentionally done for that purpose. These that we are going to play now are to be heard in the dark. So, do darken the hall, and headphones would be fine.

[K] Let’s hear something. What’s a good choice?

[CA] Well, I think it would be great for people to hear a composition that I did called Walking Tune, which is a portrait of Percy Grainger, whom I never knew, but he was a concert pianist born in Australia — where some of these sounds were recorded — and lived most of his life in White Plains, New York. He traveled around and played in the 30s and 40s virtually everywhere in the US.

[K] He was an unusual composer because he’s best known for his folk arrangement and compositions, but he did experimental music as well. Very striking unusual pieces, and I think most people used to listening to the Percy Grainger of the “in the garden-type” pieces are very surprised to hear some of this.

[CA] I got to think that he worked the last 20 years of his life trying to make his synthesizer which never quite worked out and just as he died in 1961, Moog came out with the Moog synthesizer and there were other possibilities he could have used which was kind of sad. I began to wonder what it would have meant to him to have a Synclavier in his house. I’ve been to his house in White Plains and it’s loaded with instruments; it’s still there you can go visit it (7 Cromwell Place), fascinating place. I decided to take some of the sounds I gathered in Australia and mix them with the sounds of various ambiences that he might have participated in. There is a long section of Carol and myself walking on gravel down a long path in Utah. It was leading up to a hot springs, and I remember he wrote a piece called Walking Tune, which was a piano piece which he made while he was hiking. He loved to hike, he was an outdoors man; he was a vegetarian, he was a health nut and he sometimes got arrested while walking on the train track between one city and another where he was giving piano concerts. He wanted to walk for health reasons but he was arrested for being a vagrant many times. And that’s the funny thing about him. He would also walk into concert hall and instead of coming out from the wings to play music he would run in from the back of the hall and leap up feet first on to the stage. That kind of thing.

[D] Peter Schikele wrote P.D.Q. Bach at the time…

[CA] So Percy was a real character but he had a dark side, which was that he was bisexual, he was involved in sadomasochism, he had people whip him. And…

[K] That’s only sort of recently become public knowledge, I am not sure how many people in the composers community knew about that before.

[CA] Anybody who would have read John Bird’s biography of him would have known about it but that came out 10, 15 years ago now. So this image of this guy who wrote this very sweet music, these arrangements of folk songs that were just awfully pretty, turns out to have a dark side and kind of another life. So in the middle of my composition there’s another dark side that comes out. I use some bass guitar samples and some other sounds and a squeaky gate I recorded in Australia to portray that other side of him. Throughout the music there’s a recurring musical phrase from a J.C. Bach aria with a countertenor singing and this is echoed in a violin pattern that repeats the same sequence of tones; in memory of the fact that Grainger took a lot of pieces by Bach and arranged them and other people; and also because this sort of arose while I was thinking about Grainger and working on the Synclavier with the piece. I am trying to think of some other images, there are sounds of… let’s see…

My violinist was an interesting woman. She had many talents; she could also do Donald Duck talking. I said “Well say something and I’ll record that,” and she said “Well I can’t think of what to say,” and I said, “Well, just talk about Mozart,” and she said “Mozart.” So it went on and on and on; so she got in there with her Donald Duck speech, and anyway it’s a very contemplative piece for me. Very relaxed and spacey and very emotional and… Kind of a new turn for me, but it’s 26 minutes long, so the good thing is that once you turn out the lights you get to now lie down on the floor and listen to it too, because that’s even better if you can really surrender yourself to the sweet sounds of this piece of music I think you’ll enjoy it.

We listen to Walking Tune by Charles Amirkhanian [0:51:34–1:19:25]

[CA] Beautiful piece isn’t it?

[K] It’s a gorgeous piece.

[D] Let’s listen to it again.

[CA] Well it’s available on Starkland, which is a small company in Boulder, Colarado and Laurie Anderson [see interview in this issue of eContact!] wrote the introductory notes for the CD. I was very curious to see what she would write and it was kind of nice that she took the anthropological point of view, that I was gathering sounds from a culture and putting them together, and in a way that’s true.

[K] So this could go on the next Voyager space craft…

[CA] Could well do… [Laughter]

[K] Well you know you were talking about a very interesting thing earlier today, the little 50-second clip. Now explain how that came about again, the United States / France clip, was that a commission? Hhow did that come about?

[CA] It was a commission that was channelled through the American Center in Paris, which no longer exists. The idea was that a rock and roll station called Radio Luxembourg wanted to have 60-second long spots devoted to artists, and so they came up with the plan to commission six French and six American composers and each of them had to portray the complex ethnic array of cultures that comprise both French and American populations. So I began to think about what I could do for this and I hit on the idea of taking the traditional musics of the former French colonies and then some Cajun music from America and some Native American music from Arizona, and all of these things were blended together to make this 60-second long piece called Chululu which is the title of one of the pieces I think from Tahiti, a former French colony.

[K] You asked during the lecture what people in the audience would think of doing that, if someone had commissioned them to do that.

[CA] Yeah, did you come up with an idea?

[D] I had one but I didn’t know if I should have said it.

[K] What I came up with was that I would just make a recording of the sound of a can of Franco-American spaghetti being opened and then modify that. What was yours?

[D] My idea was the sound of a guillotine in the back of a Dodge pick-up truck.

[K] Ooh… That’s a good one. I like that! [Imitates sound of guillotine and decapitated head falling] I like it!

[D] Driving down a rutted road…

We listen to Chululu, by Charles Amikhanian [1:22:48–1:23:40].

[K] Where are you going with your work? I ask you the question because we’re in an era now where what you were a pioneer at, has become possible for absolutely everyone to do. So where are you gearing toward?

[CA] I have just been to London and recorded a whole bunch of historical player piano rolls and I had the pianolist Rex Lawson perform the music in several ways. He would take a segment of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and play a segment of it and then play it slower and then play it with stops between, and now I’m taking all these samples and mixing them together in a big collage piece telescoping the history of the player piano using Antheil’s rolls and Nancarrow and rolls made in the 20s by Antheil, Honegger, Ernst Toch, I have some Gershwin in there.

[K] Joplin? Joplin did some rolls too.

[CA] Did he?

[K] Those are early though.

[CA] Don’t have any of those. Well I only had a collection of ten thousand to choose from. It was kind of… not much of a selection. [General laughter] Now I’ve loaded all these into my Kurzweil and I’m playing around with the idea of how to put them together, how to string them together; and it’s become a challenge because they all of the things have such strong profiles…

[K] What do you mean by such strong profiles?

[CA] Well, let’s say you are a composer and you want to write a piece of music and you take somebody else’s music; in fact you take 62 other people’s music. Each time you depress a key you’ve got Honegger or Gershwin or Stravinsky and they are so recognisable; so now how do you treat that so that it becomes your thing and it’s something that gives a new view of it, and a view that probably you would be the only person who would give. So I tried various strategies and I tried making them like word pieces where you’d have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, very fast transformations between one or the other, but the harmonies prevent that from working sometimes so you had to find pieces with related key signatures and then the rhythms were wrong. It’s become a big deal. I’ve been working on it now for two years. I’m almost stuck but not quite, I’m forcing myself to finish this thing. So that’s what I’m doing now. It’s being done for the West German radio and they’re waiting for it for a year now. They keep calling and saying “Well, do you think you’ll be finished soon?” and I don’t know.

And then I just finished an octet for ratchets.

[K] Orchestral ratchets?

[CA] Eight orchestral ratchets, fully amplified.

[K] Oh yeah, do they they need it!

[CA] They need amplification in a big hall. And I’m thinking of taking some of my text pieces and making new ones somewhat similar but with big percussion ensembles behind them. I think that’s maybe another step.

Part 2

Audio Part 2 [0:33:58–0:50:42]

[K] One more thing Charles Amirkhanian; let’s hear one more thing.

[CA] Ok. Let’s play a piece called Gold and Spirit which was composed for the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles. There was a radio component to the Olympics and an arts component and lots of things happen that don’t have to do with sports at the Olympics. So Carl Stone [see interview in this issue of eContact!] was in charge of commissioning some pieces for radio that year. Joan LaBarbara, John Cage and other people did them, but mine was a composition in which I recorded sports sounds and collaged them into a piece, mixing them with the sports cheers that I am so fond of like “rae man rae” and “go van go,” and these are blended together into a kind of sports fantasy. I have been a sports fan all my life even though I don’t participate. I have to save my delicate hands for the recording studio [laughter] but I do like to see other people destroy their bodies for my benefit. I didn’t really realise when I got hooked on sports that these people were hurting themselves. I just thought that it was all wonderful. But now as I’m older I realise that the people I went to school with who were great athletes probably have pretty bruised up bodies about now. I’m like, 54 years old now; boy if I’d played football in high school, I’d be a walking pain in the ass! [Laughter] So, in this piece you have the gold from the medals and the spirit from the cheers of the people participating in the Olympics. And it starts with a… [Telephone rings in the background]

[K] That sound!

[CA] A basketball, but it’s not unlike that sound! [General laughter]

[Telephone rings again] In fact that’s a very nice sound. [Pretending to answer the phone] Hello?

[K] If we can get through, let’s see if we can, and then we’ll play it! [Laughter] I guess that’s it. Ok. It starts with those sounds!

[CA] I wanted to invite everybody to come out to the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. It happens every March. We have unusual people who do incredible performances, and if you wanted to know more about it you should probably check out the website for the Other Minds Festival.

[K] It’s a great website by the way. It’s got amazing stuff on it and it’s quite beautifully set up as well.

[CA] Thank you. Well Jim Newman, the president of the organisation, does all that stuff in his home. He’s a great web master and he has put a lot of sound samples on, and recordings of the entire festival from last year and this year will be up soon. But it’s and if you’d like to be on the mailing list to get our fancy newsletter which has all sorts of amusing articles like “Who killed Classical Music?”…

[K] Stolen from elsewhere by Kyle Gann.

[CA] Right. No, he didn’t steal it. He wrote it, but we stole it… you can do that through the website. And I should also say we put out a fantastic new first CD about two months ago. It’s called The Virtuoso Pianolist and it features Rex Lawson playing Stravinsky’s Les Noces and a bunch of other bizarre material that he has arranged for the pianola by other classical composers. But this is the first time that Stravinsky’s rolls for this fabulous piece of music have ever been released. They were made in Paris in 1923 and just then radio came along and killed the player piano and Stravinsky never sold any. He thought he was going to make a fortune doing this. So we have the first recording of those rolls out, of this famous ballet. It’s pretty amazing, those were the rolls that inspired the Ballet mécanique of Antheil. Now you know Antheil’s Ballet mécanique exists in a version for eight pianos. That’s on the Music Masters label.

Now, the other thing is that in Lowell, Massachusetts on November 18th, 1999, a version for 16 midi-controlled pianos is going to be performed and you should be the first to know about it. Paul Laraman’s organising this event, the first perfomance ever — as Antheil originally envisioned it — of the Ballet mécanique for 16 grand pianos.

[K] I think that sounds like a place we should be.

[CA] I think you should be there. Anyway, nice to be on the programme. Best of luck with the radio show, you guys are stirling interviewers. I’m stirled up!

[K] That’s just because we play twenty-five minute tunes that’s why! Charles Amirkhanian, thanks so much.

[CA] Thanks very much.

We listen to Gold and Spirit, by Charles Amirkhanian [0:40:25–0:50:42].

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