Interview with Warren Burt
The Coming of Spring; Heat Wave
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #260/261, 13 and 20 May 2000. On the road in New York at Mary Jane Leach’s apartment. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:32:33–1:12:50] / Audio Part 2 [0:37:00–1:21:05].
Warren Burt is a composer, performer, video artist, writer and instrument builder who lives and works in Wollongong, Australia. Currently he teaches audio engineering at Illawarra Institute, and is an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong, developing new microtonal and electroacoustic instruments. He has been very active internationally and in Australia since 1975 in the fields of composition, performance, broadcasting, publication, etc. Current CDs are available on XI, Pogus, and Sonic Gallery (Melbourne).
Audio Part 1 [0:32:33–1:12:50]
[Kalvos] We have our guest, who is Warren Burt, and we have a co-host for this show, along with Kalvos & Damian, we have Mary Jane Leach. We have three people, three Vermont interlocutors here. [Laughter]
[Mary Jane Leach] One real Vermonter, and two pretenders.
[K] That’s exactly true. [Laughter]
[MJL] Even though the real Vermonter lives in New York.
[K] And has, and has lost her Vermont accent, I’m afraid.
[Warren Burt] Well, I grew up in Waterford, New York, about 30 miles from Bennington, does that count?
[K] [Laughter] So welcome to the show. Well, why don’t you actually introduce yourself? No! Better yet, Mary-Jane, introduce Warren.
[MJL] Warren is someone you meet in every city you go to. How is that?
[WB] At first I saw [Mary Jane] in New York, and then she was in Cologne, and I was just in another part in Cologne when we met, and then we met back in New york, and then we met back in Cologne, and then we met back here, in New York. I said to her, I think, in one of those meetings, “You know, I see you more often than I see some of my friends who I live with in Melbourne.”
[MJL] And we have this friend, Guy de Bièvre…
[K] Oh, Guy de Bièvre, sure! Oh what connections, what connections.
[MJL] Except that Warren had two analogies: Warren is like a germ who goes from city to city, spreading disease [Laughter], because he’s one of these people I know who travels around a lot, intersects with a lot of different groups of people, or like a bee pollinating from city to city, so wherever you’ve been, there’s always someone who’s just seen Warren!
[WB] I prefer to think of it as spreading STDs, Socially-Transmitted Digital knowledge.
[MJL] Oh, sorry, you’re totally digital now, not analog?
[WB] Oh no, in fact, just yesterday I was dubbing a whole bunch of tapes that I made back in the 70s, over to DAT, so that when I go back to Melbourne I can dub them to CD. I was really enjoying all the lovely analog things that I was doing back then, and was thinking, “Oh, I’ve gotta do some more of those funky timbres,” like ring-modulating screaming opera singers.
[K] So what is it you do? I mean, I know a few of your works, and they’re all sort of “out there” kinds of sounds and suspended sounds.
[MJL] Warren does all kinds of things.
[WB] Yeah. Yeah, I don’t like to be tied down, I’m very curious. I compose music, and of many different varieties, always with some sort of experimental bent to it. I also do performance art, and in the past couple years, having reached an age when most dancers would be taken out to the pasture and turned into teachers, I’ve started actually doing movement work. I’ve been working with dancers for so many years, with interactive technology, I’ve finally decided to do it myself. I’ve actually taken fairly intensive classes in dance, and movement, improvisational theatre. I also am involved in concrete poetry and sound poetry, and make a bit of my living by doing writing, freelance writing. In fact, just out from Gordon and Breech is Critical Vices: The Myths of Post-Modern Theory, by Nicholas Zurbrugg and Warren Burt.
[Damian] Does this have something to do with art song?
[K] Gorden and Breech is an academic publisher; they pride themselves on calling themselves an academic publisher.
[D] Oh, well, we’re in awe of anything academic.
[WB] Oh, because I don’t have a university job, and the last time I was incarcerated in an academic institution on a full-time basis was in 1981. Since then, I’ve had two or three three-month part-time stints in academia and that’s it, so I make my living as a freelance composer, mostly.
[D] But we did want to explore art song, that seems to be our theme this trip, this tour of composers.
[WB] Yeah, I think the last time I wrote an art song was in 1984, although I just did an improvisation performance in Melbourne, with Jacqui Rutten, who’s a very wonderful Australian composer and singer who writes dozens and dozens of art songs for herself to do. She did her set, which was in fact 25 little art songs. Tiny ones, like 15–20 seconds long, all based on Latin texts, and then I was doing my half…
[MJL] Well also, you do Latin Music.
[WB] Well, yeah, exactly. I was doing my set which was improvising with a computer, and in between we did this thing where she improvised voice and I improvised computer, put her voice through the computer, so I guess that counts as an art song.
[MJL] Would you consider what you do with Chris Mann art song?
[K] Oh Chris Mann, we should tell who Chris Mann is.
[WB] Yes. Actually, yeah, that’s a very good one, yeah. In fact, when I think of the number of Australian poets I’ve collaborated with in some form of text-setting, I begin to think of myself as almost like, in all due immodesty, like Franz Schubert. You know, he’ll sleep with any poet’s text for a week.
[MJL] My hero. [General laughter]
[K] Chris Mann is well-known to our listeners in modified form, because we have played, repetitively, parts of the Frog Peak Collaborations Project, which starts with Chris Mann’s original one-minute, six-second-long sound text, and was modified by many composers including yourself.
[WB] That’s right, yes.
We listen to Mann-gling #1 by Warren Burt [0:39:45–0:42:00].
[MJL] That was amazing!
[K] Amazing how short those pieces are.
[MJL] Good pieces really seem to just fly right by.
[WB] You hardly hear them.
[MJL] Warren, I wanted to just ask you, the first pieces of yours that I knew were your pieces for special tuning. Maybe you could talk about those a little bit, because those are really neat pieces.
[WB] It was in 1971 that a friend’s father gave me a tuning fork that he had made, and he had been involved in the early days of computers, and as a hobby had made this thing for acoustics testing, it’s not like a normal tuning fork. It’s about 25–40 millimetres, and then it’s about a hundred millimetres long with a little slit cut in it, just a piece of aluminum. And you hit it, and it made this beautiful, high, deep sound. In 1985 I got a grant from the Australia Council, which is an Australian arts council, to work with the Australian Science research body to do research in acoustics, and what I did was build a set of tuning forks. They’re all sizes, from about four inches long, to about a foot and a half long. They are tuned to a just-intonation scale with 19 notes in the octave, based on some of the ancient Greek modes. They cover a four-octave range: the lowest ones need resonators, which are about five inches around and, oh, two feet long. I built them in ’85, and I mostly used them in community music contexts, where say, every member of a group of an amateur choir, for example, would have one or two forks that they can sing pitches with, although I’ve done a number of pieces where I’ve hit them, and swing them, pieces where I mimic a beautiful doppler effect. After the first six tenths of a second where it sounds like you’re hitting a piece of metal, they go down to a pure sine wave — and I’m not exaggerating here (the reputation of the Australian science body is staking on this) — that there is 0.000001% harmonic distortion in that sine wave after the first six-tenths of a second. Aluminum is an amazing material. So I’ve been playing with these things now for 15 years. We’ve built various frames to hold them, as percussion instruments, to swing some, and I’ve used them in all sorts of combinations with environmental sounds, with acoustic instruments, and so on.
[MJL] Warren and I were on this really nice concert in 1987 in Philadelphia, New Music America, in Fairmont Hall. It was in this circular building that was built for the bicentennial in Philadelphia, and has really wonderful acoustics. I had a piece for four bass clarinets, all live clarinet players, and Warren did a piece with his tuning forks, and it was really wonderful, the whole concert was working with pieces that worked with sound phenomenon, and that was really special.
[WB] Yeah, because your piece had all the beatings and things. Some of [the tuning forks] are tuned very closely, so if you work in just intonation system — let’s say C is your fundamental — you can have two different versions of D, and those two different versions of D are tuned about a quarter of a semitone apart. If you hit those two pitches simultaneously, they make a wonderful throbbing. The tuning forks actually aren’t very loud, but by amplifying them with large speakers, we were able to fill the hall, and we actually gave people a false impression that they were these immense booming things, but that’s, you know, it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway.
[MJL] An interesting smoke and mirror thing during that concert was that we had to amplify the bass clarinet also, and one of the strange physical properties of playing in large spaces, is that the fundamental makes it to the back wall, but not all the upper partials make it. So we ended up miking it, and then turned the speakers to the wall, so instead of the speakers facing up to the audience, is that speakers were turned to the wall, so that they would have a surface to bounce off of, and then the upper partials were kept that way. Interesting little trick.
[WB] Yeah, in that concert I let the sound technicians deal with the acoustics of the hall, because I was too busy trying to prevent the tuning forks from falling over at that point. They were on a very unstable table.
[K] Tuning forks are one of my favourites. I have a piece called Unisons, in which I had an instrument built of 15 identical pitched tuning forks.
[WB] Oh, lovely.
[MJL] Yeah. So that was my first knowledge of [Warren], but that was just a very tiny portion.
[K] Do we have any surviving samples of that?
[WB] Do you have the new Albion CD called Austral Voices? Came out in ’89, and it’s got a piece of mine on it, called Three Inverse Genera. Also Neil Haverstick, if you know his name, out in Denver, was involved in producing a CD called Tuning@eartha.mills.edu. On that is Evening in Landcox Park, which has Brigid Burke, Ernie Althoff and myself, performing four different versions of a score in Landcox Park in Melbourne, on a sunny summer evening.
We listen to 12x12: Evening in Landcox Park by Warren Burt [0:48:00–0:54:10].
[K] Let’s take the history forward. When did you leave for Australia?
[WB] July 1st, ’75, I arrived in Australia.
[K] Why Australia? I mean, a lot of us have had Australian kind of dreams, and we don’t know why, and you took it up.
[WB] Well, what happened was that when I was a graduate student at UC San Diego, in the early 70s, Keith Humble, Australian composer, now sadly playing piano at a permanent gig in heaven, was on the faculty at UCSD. He recruited me and a couple other people to come down to Australia and help him set up a music department with six Australian composers, and it was the first music department in Australia to be set up by all composers. The theorists and musicologists would come later, the composers came first. We set it up, and I worked there for three years, and then I left to do touring and things, came back and was there in ’81, and then I left academia rather permanently, but Australia was so exciting, and I’d made so many good friends there, and it really felt like there was really interesting work to do there, both sociologically and sonically, that I stayed. And, as William Burroughs says in one of his novels, “And so the years passed.”
[MJL] Well, Warren, I just wanted to mention very briefly, we were talking about American and Australian accents, but I also, the first time I ever met Ken Gaburo, I immediately noticed a lot of your speech patterns and ways of talking from him, because you both have a very similar way of talking about things, especially when you get excited about them.
[WB] Not only that, but Ron Robboy in San Diego and David Dunn… Ron and Kenneth [Gaburo] and I and David were very close to San Diego, and that closeness lasted even after I left. Until like ’79 or ’80, we were always hanging out together, and in a movie that Ron and I made in ’79 called Der Yiddisher Cowboy, a two-hour Super8 movie. We called it an opera, speaking of art song. And there are about three sung lines in the whole thing, but in that movie Ron does this long 35-minute wrap at the end, where he’s talking about all this stuff about Yiddish culture, and socialism and cowbows and so on, and while he’s doing it, looking at the film, I’m seeing more and more Kenneth, but then I’m thinking, when I was looking at Kenneth, wasn’t I seeing a lot of Ron? I think the four of us just went into each other’s linguistic gene pool.
[MJL] It’s really amazing when you come across, when you’ve only known one of them, and you come across another, and you’re kind of like, “Whoa…”
[WB] Well, I never met Harry Partch, but David Dunn was taking care of Harry the last few years of his life, and was his assistant for about the last five years of his life, and when it came time for me to do Bitter Music, which is the Partch speaking piece from 1935, speech and piano, which is on the Volume 1 of the Harry Partch stuff that Innova put out, I listened to every bit of Partch recordings I could. I was amazed how easily I was able to fall into Partchian speech patterns, and it’s probably because of my intense association with David, who picked them up. So there was this whole group of males of all ages in San Diego in the early 70s.
[K] We have not had an opportunity to play that recording which we have, and I’m going to take this chance to play that Partch recording.
[WB] Well, play the section called “December 1935,” which is about eight minutes long. This is the big climax of the piece. Bitter Music is Partch’s journal of being on the road in the 1930s, homeless, broke, totally without hope. In December ’35 he ends up living in this little black room in a basement in LA, and a boyfriend of his commits suicide, and so while he’s in this little black room, and it’s now New Year’s going to ’36, he’s remembering his boyfriend, he’s remembering the suicide, he’s remembering being on the road and it’s a wonderful eight-minute collage, almost Ivesian in fact, it’s a wonderful mad scene. It builds this big climax to the piece. What it shows me is that even without microtonality, Harry Partch would have been a major music theatre composer in the 20th century.
[MJL] Somewhat like Beckett, perhaps?
We listen to an excerpt of Bitter Music by Harry Partch [0:59:48–1:09:15].
[K] Amazing. The CD’s been sitting on the shelf on the Kalvos & Damian library and we’ve been trying to find an opportunity to do that, unfortunately it’s finally too late to have Harry on the show.
[MJL] Oh, I don’t know…
[WB] No, you can’t. There’s actually a case of some people, after Harry’s death, who went to a medium to channel him, and the medium just turned pale white and just went numb.
[K] No! [Laughter]
[WB] Yeah, she contacted something and got the equivalent of Harry’s message when he didn’t want to see people, which was “Go away, and do not bother me.”
[MJL] “Return to sender, address unknown.” [General laughter]
[WB] You got it. That recording, by the way, of Bitter Music, is fairly controversial in the Partch sphere, because Partch wrote it for piano and speaking voice, and he said at one point in the early 50s that he didn’t want the piece performed. I felt, musicologically, that 20 years after his death, it really was time to take a look at the whole of his work, and to actually do the piece, and to see how it related to the rest of his work.
[MJL] Even if it was just to figure out why he didn’t want it to be performed.
[WB] Right, yeah. And, I think the reason he didn’t want it to be performed is actually to do with sexual politics rather than anything else. In Bitter Music, it is overtly gay, he is talking about affairs with boyfriends on the road, he theoretically destroyed the score, although obviously some survived, microphones survived, which is how we have it. But he theoretically destroyed the score in the early fifties, and don’t forget that was the height of McCarthy-era repression against the gay artists. I think he had a contract for it to be published, and I think if it’d been published, he knew what would happen. I mean, he’d been homeless and on the road in the thirties, and he’d seen all the violence against unemployed people, against strikers, and all that. So I think he knew that he’d better not chance it. That’s my theory, anyway. Maybe he didn’t like the piece.
[K] And things have changed dramatically, probably more than anyone would have expected in that regard. Let’s get back to you. Let’s hear another one of your pieces, and would you introduce the piece for us?
[WB] Ok. In August I had a leg operation, a knee operation, and in the manner of medical things, things went very badly wrong, and instead of spending a week in bed I spent a month in bed. I mean, a full recovery, dancing like crazy. That month in bed was well worth it, because I began working with John Dunn, who’s a software designer in Texas over the Internet, and we made a very nice little algorithmic program called SoftStep, which I’m very proud of, and I began using that with a little in-the-computer synthesizer, called VAZ, by Martin Fey in England. So these two programs were talking to each other and I did these little algorithmic pieces, which are three minutes long, there are five of them, you can play as many or as few of them as you want. And this is a little piece called Five for the Coming of Spring. Each is in a different microtonal scale, and each is doing different melodic and harmonic things.
We listen to Five for the Coming of Spring, Nos. 1–5 by Warren Burt [1:12:50–1:29:10], before moving on to the 2nd part of the interview.
Audio Part 2 [0:37:00; 1:21:05]
[WB] I have been very intrigued, coming back to the States, with the announcements on the “Smooooooooth Jazz” stations, and I won’t be able to on this trip, but the next time I come back to America, I’m going to be recording as many of those stations as possible, so that I can get all these announcers going “Smoooooooooth” and edit the “s” off, and the “the", so I have a whole bunch of people going “mooooo,” “moooo”…
[D] What do you have in Australia to compare?
[WB] So far, I don’t think there is a “smoooooooth” jazz station.
[MJL] I’ve never heard of that.
[WB] Oh yeah, yeah, they’re all over the place. And the thing is, sometimes they actually play music that I like, but it’s when you get all this ear-candy happening all the time, it’s very bizarre. Radio, in fact, is very wonderful. There are three different levels, there’s commercial radio (which is like here), and then there’s listener-supported stations, which is like college radio.
[MJL] Like WBAI.
[K] And like Kalvos & Damian’s home station, WGDR.
[WB] Yeah, and then there’s the government radio, the ABC. And between the listener-sponsored stations and ABC, radio’s actually a very serious art form. There are a number of interesting producers at the ABC who actually produce serious radio art, they’re a member of the European Broadcast Union. And as a freelance composer, I can count several small commissions a year from the ABC for various things, like music for a radio play, or about every two or three years if I really push and get lucky I can get a commission of a couple thousand dollars to do a piece of radio art for the thing called The Listening Room, or more recently I was working with a wonderful New Zealand madman named Brent Clough on a show called Other Worlds, and a whole series of shows for him on “the voice”, and various ways of mangling it. And, most recently wrote three little techno things for him.
[K] Let’s move on to another one. Let’s move on to this one, that’s in “Sonic Circuits VI,” La Strega Bianca. Tell us a bit about it.
[WB] Ok, I was having dinner one night with my friend Sergio di Pieri, who’s an organist and composer who lives alternately in Melbourne and Venice, he sort of commutes on a six-month basis. And Sergio was saying that noone had written a piece for organ and tape in a while, and so I said, “Okay.” And on the tram on the way home, I actually wrote a piece for him. It was a dark and stormy night, the wind was howling, what else are you going to do on the tram? So then… well, the organ tape piece was quite nice, and I was doing an installation in Warrnambool, Victoria, which is an old whaling town about 150 miles south of Melbourne, they have a beautiful little art gallery there. I was doing a series of sound installations there, and I used the same idea for that piece for one of the rooms. In the gallery there was six rooms, so it’s six different sound installations. It filled the gallery with different kinds of sounds, and one room, when you walk in there was this enveloping piece made up of microtonal chords of sinewaves that are beating against each other, and it seems to be sort of an obsession of mine, very closely-tuned sine waves that beat against each other. It’s not everything I do, but it is a recurring fetish, if you will.
It’s very simply an abstract study in these chords and beats. It’s also, speaking of academic, it’s a twelve-tone piece. I’m one of the last twelve-tone composers, I know. It’s a twelve-tone piece, but the only problem with that for the twelve-tone theory people is that the twelve-tone row is simultaneously played in 12-, 19-, 31-, 17-, and I think 11-tone equal temperment, which is why you get all the beatings, because the twelfth tone was played on the closest pitches of the twelve tones in each of those scales. [The title is] La Strega Bianca Della Luna, which means “The White Witch of the Moon.” The reason it was given that title was that after Sergio and I had dinner, we noticed that there was a movie on TV which was actually an Italian-language movie with English subtitles, and so we just sat down and watched it, and it was a children’s movie from Italy called La Strega Bianca Della Luna / The White Witch of the Moon. And so we stayed up ’till midnight watching this, I got the last tram to where I lived, and so it was just named after this charming little Italian children’s movie.
[K] An Italian children’s movie-inspired storm music on the tram. Just wonderful.
[WB] It seems to me.
We listen to La Strega Bianca Della Luna by Warren Burt [0:43:00–1:51:10].
[MJL] I wanted to talk about the piece you wrote for the Downtown Ensemble, because in a way that incorporates what you were doing earlier, with more low-tech setups, and it’s sort of an elegantly simple piece in terms of performance, I really liked it a lot, and everybody liked it a lot. It’s always hard for composers, unless you’re Warren, to talk about your pieces.
[WB] I’d be happy to let you talk about it.
[MJL] But I would just like to talk about it a little bit, and that was that there were four players, which were bass clarinet, clarinet, flute and electric keyboard that could play sine waves He sent each of them a CD, and then a score, and so what we did was we would play a note that sort of resembled what was on the CD, and the tone on the CD would be changing.
[WB] Very slow glissandi.
[MJL] Yeah, and we would try to maintain the constant pitch, but when we would hear the pitch change, drastically, not just microtonally, we would then play the next note on the score. So it was very simple, it took no rehearsals, [Laughter] which is perfect.
[K] The only rehearsal required was to get all the CD players to work simultaneously, as I recall. [Laughter]
[MJL] Because some of the performers weren’t exactly technically-apt, who didn’t realize that when you pressed pause, it didn’t start at the beginning, and then they would press it again… So it wasn’t totally foolproof, but, I mean, just technically, from a performer’s viewpoint, it was a very easy piece in terms of being able to execute, and then it sounded really good. Is there anything you’d like to say about this piece? Which was Heat Wave, which during the second performance, I finally got the title… the shimmering, you know.
[K] From the audience perspective, being out there listening, I picked that up, and it was just absolutely lovely. But how did you conceive the piece, this is always an important…
[MJL] Oh, and each performer had their own, I couldn’t believe this, each of us had our own little playback system, so we each had our own little speaker that we played with.
[K] Right, there was no master mixer doing this.
[WB] Well, the “low-tech” comes out of the work that Australian Ron Nagorcka and I began in 1974 in San Diego, when he was a student there as well, and we consciously began working, in a burst of proletarian sympathy, with very low technology to make it accessible, so rather than alienate someone with a big synthesizer, we would work with little mono cassette recorders.
[MJL] Oh, Warren, in a way it’s practical too, because it means that your piece actually has a chance of being performed. Because if you put too many requirements in it, then the chances are it’s going to be performed less than once.
[WB] Yeah, and also in Australia I did a lot of work with amateur groups over the years, and so I was very aware of, say, practicalities in getting things done, and getting things done quickly. The previous year I had actually written a piece with a vibraphone player where there were sine wave chords happening on the computer and he hitting chords on the vibraphone, an improvisational piece, and we were playing with the beats. And so I thought, Oh, I could take that idea, keep it practical so everyone has their own little sound system, and work with that idea with four players.
[MJL] So you’re a beatnik.
[WB] Yeah, yeah. Well, in fact, my pun is that I was born in ’49, so I was too late to be part of it, but this is my way of being part of the Beat generation.
[WB] And in fact, I conceived of a piece…
[K] My cheeks are hurting… [Laughter]
[WB] I conceived of a piece when I was in California walking in the Redwood forests around San Mateo, which is probably where Gary Snyder was walking as well, so I felt a real… arboreal connection to the Beat generation.
[K] Here it is, [Laughter], Heat Wave.
[WB] Written during a ferociously hot February in Melbourne and performed in a ferociously hot June in New York.
[MJL] Yes. As a matter of fact, we almost passed out during the last performance, in Kingston.
We listen to Heat Wave by Warren Burt, performed by the Downtown Ensemble [0:55:55–1:06:10].
[K] This is the first performance at the Greenwich House in Manhattan. That was a great show, by the way. I attended two of the three and they were quite wonderful. The third one, where you almost passed out, was an astounding performance as well.
[MJL] It was, but unfortunately it was performed during a heat wave. And it was so stifling in the performance space that I almost passed out, several times.
[K] We had the fans on, and the birds came to visit during one of the pieces.
[MJL] We should have gotten some silent fans. Because the fans weren’t silent, so we had to turn them off.
[K] Where are you going with your work? You talk to me about this, I don’t know if “reduction” is the right word, but the simplification of some of the technological tools to make it accessible to more people to perform. I’ve noticed that a number of composers have started to do that…
[WB] Well, I’ve been doing that for 25 years. I’ve really been trying to work on that simplification of means without necessarily simplifying the sonic surface, or the ideas behind it. But, at the moment, where my own work is going is much more into a theatrical form of presentation, which is, to say, in the past year, I’ve been doing a lot more improvising than I’ve done in the past. Improvisations involve me talking and moving and making music, often with interactive technology, sometimes not. A typical piece would be a piece I did on the 20th of October, 1999, called Charles Ives’ 125th Birthday, which was indeed Charles Ives’ 125th Birthday. In that piece I was playing my laptop (which is my main performing instrument these days) and on the laptop was my reconstruction of the “life pulse music” from the Ives Universe Symphony, which I realized I had later read Ives’ instructions wrong, so it’s nothing like the life pulse, but it’s my own version. While that’s happening I also had a number of samples taken from Ives’ work, and was having little things happening with those as well, and I was also talking about my relationship with Charles Ives. I mean, how can you have a relationship with someone who died when you were five, but you know, an artistic relationship. I was also reading the memos, reading bits of the Ives memos. The conclusion of the 35-minute piece I performed in a bookstore. They had a series of sound poets and readings and so this was my contribution to it. It was the Collected Works bookstore in Melbourne, your one-stop-shop for literary theory. So, there’s a free ad on the internet for them.
Yeah, this is a real shopfront, on the main street of Melbourne. You go down into this basement and suddenly there’s this amazing little bookstore that’s bravely fighting off the Barnes & Nobles and Borders and all these people.
[MJL] Those, they have those in Australia now?
[WB] Borders has started, yes. And I have to say that I have sent people there because they were the only ones, except for Collected Works who were stocking Harry Partch’s books, and Chris at Collected Works ran out, I said, “Go to Borders… don’t tell anyone.” But the conclusion of the piece was where I was reading the bit from the memos where Ives is talking about his 1933 Abbey Road recording studio session, which was the recording session from hell, where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. In fact on the CRI recording of Ives plays Ives, the first four cuts are from the Abbey Road session and you can hear Ives making mistakes and swearing and all that. It’s quite wonderful.
[MJL] So he did Abbey Road before the Beatles.
[WB] Oh yeah, he was well ahead of this time. I don’t know if he walked across the street not wearing shoes, but… and while this was happening, I just had all the things, the life pulse music, the samples, just playing. The life pulse music playing out of little speakers, you know, the computer speakers, and the samples playing out of little tiny internal speakers on the computers and I turned the sound up full, so it was really distorted. And, interleaved with the Abbey Road recording-session-from-hell story, I told the story of that morning, how I had tried to burn a CD-ROM of samples of Ives to use in the performance, and my CD burner, for the first and only time, had fouled up, and I didn’t make the CD, and so I was reading about Ives doing a technological failure, I was moving around on this bench in this bookstore, doing this sort of dance that was a failure, because, you know, it was a high stool, like this chair I’m sitting on, and I was letting the computer foul up and was telling a story about technological failure, so the whole thing came to this wonderful, you know, collapsing-on-itself sort of conclusion. That’s the sort of thing I’m getting more and more into, a sort of live theatrical presentation. Talk, movement, theatricality all merged together.
[K] We spoke to a composer this morning who predicts, who very strongly predicts, the future of new music as theatrical.
[WB] Oh. I do recall a certain New York composer with a crew cut, who back in 1960 said that we’re heading in the direction of theatre, which is John Cage. With all my work that I’ve done with dancers, I mean, about a third of my work is collaborations with post-modern dance. Because I do so much work with dancers, and so much work with interactive technology with dancers, it seemed the natural thing for me when I was demonstrating what I wanted them to do, or you know, “What do you want to do with technology, here is what the movements will produce,” then I would just get out there and do the movements myself.
In 1989, I did a project with another composer in Melbourne, Ros Bandt and three dancers, Sylvia Staehli, Jane Refshauge, and Shona Innes, and an inventor Simon Veitch. We worked on Simon’s video movement detection system, which would detect movements and then turn them into MIDI signals for controlling synthesizers. The way we worked on it was absolutely collectively for about five months, the three dancers, the two composers and the technician. In performance, the dancers insisted that we also move. It was very interesting because the dancers, filled with post-modern dance’s ideas of the body were moving say, from the pelvis and moving from the breastbone, or moving from the spine, and Ros and I, being the composers, were moving from our ears. And they would say, “You’re actually leading with your ears, you know, your head is being pulled along by your ears,” they could see that. So we had very different movement types. Then, in the early 90s I began taking theatre movement classes with Al Wunder (who’s originally from Jamaica) in Queens, but danced with Alvin Nikolai before moving to Australia in the early 80s. He’s a wonderful teacher of improvisation, and I just began getting more and more into the whole theatrical, movement, sounding, improvisation side of things, and it’s really affected my work, and affected my whole awareness of my body as a performative thing.
[MJL] I just came up with this new theory, having been to the opera recently. There’s a style of opera acting which is that they move through their hands. You move your hands and then you move your body towards your hand. It’s like whenever, it’s kind of like this, that all movement stems from their hands as if they’re marionnettes. And if you look at it, there’s a whole group of people who are opera singers, who act on stage that way. They do not move with their bodies, just their hands. They move their hands and then they move their body toward their hands. It’s hard to explain it if you haven’t seen it, but once you sort of catch on to, you can’t help but notice it, because there are some people who move very naturally and are just very aware of their bodies, but there are other opera singers who just don’t have the faintest idea what to do, so they get this kind of schtick, where they move the hand, and then the body toward it, and then they move back, and you know, and then they move the hand up, and then like this. It’s… well, check it out sometime, not everybody does it, but I would say at least a third of opera singers move that way.
[D] We’ll have to start investigating many more operas than we’re accustomed to.
[K] Yes, we don’t do the big opera thing on Kalvos & Damian, as a matter of fact, our motto has on the website been for five years, that it’s “tunes and talk, and not the opera.”
[WB] Very nice. Speaking of opera, my very next project when I get back to Melbourne is to actually work on an opera, or a music theatre piece of some sort. I’m working with a librettist who’s also a computer graphics artist named Robert Randall, and it’s two one-act operas, or two one-act theatre pieces. The first is called Lost and Abducted, and Abducted has a subtitle of UF-Opera. Lost is about a true story of a young man who got lost in the Australian bush, and this is a theme in Australian art, the terror of being lost in the bush. So Robert has written 12 poems and I think it would be praising them too highly to call them “doggerel.” I mean, they are… I say this about my very good friend of 25 years, and my constant collaborator…
[K] Who has no Internet connection, and couldn’t possibly hear this…
[WB] Yeah. They are putrid. It’s just some of the most putrid poetry I’ve ever seen. And Robert has really worked hard to get them that bad. And so, Robert will be reading them in a William McGonnigal or Florence Foster Jenkins type voice while I’m making environmental sound behind it, and he’ll have computer graphics of the very forest where the young man got lost. Now, hopefully we aren’t going to get lost when we go to that forest, although Robert has about as much bushcraft as that Proteus synthesizer. I, on the other hand, know how to survive in the bush, so I think we’ll be okay.
The second one, called UF-Opera, actually has a libretto, which Robert’s working on as we speak, and a plot and it concerns two people who are abducted by aliens, a male and a female, who are now in their respective psychiatrists’ offices, trying to recover the memories of what happened there. Or, maybe it’s about two unscrupulous psychologists who are manipulating their patients to have false repressed memories, or rather, false recovered memories. And we never let the audience know which. And the nice thing about this one is that it’s only for two voices: two singers, who are also composers and improvisers. Hartley Newnham, who’s a renaissance countertenor, and for my mind, the best of writer of neo-romantic art songs in Australia. And Carolyn Connors, who’s an extended vocal technique singer and a comedy pop singer. So I’ve got these two beautiful voices, this beautiful renaissance countertenor who also sings bass. And then this very pure pop singer with no vibrato, who can also sing bass, and who’s an expert in extended vocal techniques. And both of them are very good improvisers, so I think the three of us, with Robert’s libretto, are going to have a lot of fun. And then Robert, of course, will be able to do wonderful computer graphics with stretched faces about alien experiments. It should take, hopefully they premiere in July, at the State Film Center in Melbourne.
[K] We gotta go out with something. What do we got?
[WB] I got something here. Ok, it’s “Microtonal Fake Chamber Music from 1993–1997.” And, let’s do an eight-minute piece called Tuning the Furniture of Chaos. This is a live recording from St. Paul, Minnesota, done in the hall, which now, I forget, but it was the first piece performed in [the new concert hall of Metropolitan State University]. They’d just opened it in ’94 when I was there.
[K] Let’s thank Warren Burt for joining us, and Mary Jane Leach for co-hosting today’s show.
We listen to Tuning the Furniture of Chaos by Warren Burt [1:21:56–1:30:56].