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Interview with George Todd

Zappa, Ducks & Voices

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #28, 2 December 1995. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:33:50–1:37:30].

I am recently retired from Middlebury College where I taught music for 32 years. My field was electronic composition though I also taught courses in theory, history and introduction to music. My graduate work in music was done at Princeton 1962–64. I also have an MBA from Stanford University. The transition from composition with sounds to composition with visual materials has been delightfully effortless. My musical techniques can be translated almost directly to painting. Color is orchestration. Hue is loudness. Line is melody, composition is harmony. There are parallels in such concepts as background-foreground, echoing of shapes, emotional content, iconography. It seems every time I address a visual problem I find myself thinking musically. And as a composer, my music was usually based on visual models. When I am asked if I have given up composing I answer honestly that I haven't. I just do it in a different medium. (Composer’s website)

[Kalvos] George Todd is our guest on The Sesquihour. He’s getting comfy over there, and… welcome, to the show!

[George Todd] Hi guys.

[K] Hi there. George has come up from Middlebury, he has been a composer of remarkable music for a very long time, music which is unusual and different, and we’re going to hear all about it. First of all, have you been in Vermont most of your life?

[GT] Well, I’ve been in Middlebury 30 years.

[K] Oh yeah, okay. Well, gosh, that’s most of my life — no, no. [Laughter] Then where were you before that?

[GT] I grew up outside of Chicago, in Evanston. I went to school in Massachusettes, lived in San Francisco, then lived in Germany, then New Jersey, then came up here.

[K] And in New Jersey, so ah, that was the trigger. You spent a little time in New Jersey, and that just sprung you right up to Vermont. So tell us about what you do in your composition, and what you do in Middlebury, and kind of mix them together, because I understand you’re one of the really fine guiders of students there in their compositional careers.

[GT] Well, thank you very much, I wonder if they think so.

[K] I think they do, that’s where I heard it.

[GT] We’ve had a studio at Middlebury since 1970, or was it ’72? We started with a little ARP 2000, you remember those machines? The 2100.

[K] Little analog synthesizers, sure.

[GT] The little analog synthesizers. We held classes in a room about this size, a little larger than a closet.

[K] Well this is Studio A, this is monumental, with the banquet of food on the other wall.

[GT] [Laughter] Quite early on, actually I went to Dartmouth on an exchange teaching assignment, just when the Synclavier was starting. The Synclavier was developed, as you know, at Dartmouth.

[K] Yes, right there.

[GT] And the machine that they had at the stage that I was working with, was really in its prototype stage. At the end of the day, I had to record everything on analog tape that I had, because I couldn’t figure out how to get it to remember anything.

[K] Was that before they had a memory sequencer box with it?

[GT] Well, they had it, but I just didn’t know how to get it to work properly. I mean, I really had to learn by the seat of my pants. But at any rate, when I came back to Middlebury, I begged the president at the College then, Olin Robison…

[K] Ah, Olin Robison, whose commentaries can be heard at Vermont Big Pockets Radio every once in a while, yeah.

[GT] Yeah. I said, “Oh please, boss, get me one of these Synclaviers so that I can live the rest of my life in bliss.” And bless his heart, he did, and ever since then I have been working primarily with the voice. Not in the kind of standard ways, not bel canto voice, I don’t write songs. But I use the voice as kind of an orchestral palette, and I do it through a resynthesis program.

[Damian] Speaking of “palette,” did you know that a few weeks ago we did have an introduction that featured some news about bel canto? It means “with food,” it was invented by Donizetti.

[K] Donizetti, isn’t that the drink, the aperitif, “I have a big cup of Donizetti right here right now.” Never mind. Anyway, the Synclavier, as you were talking about, just to tie it together, that was indeed the instrument that we were hearing on the Frank Zappa recording before that. [The Beltway Bandits, by Frank Zappa, from “Jazz From Hell”].

[GT] Yes it was. And he was one of the early owners of one of these, and lots of people, lots of important groups and musicians used the Synclavier because it was more than a synthesizer. Even though the Synclavier company of that time has since gone under (there is another Synclavier company now, but the inventors of it are no longer together), that machine was different from anything that has happened before or since, in that it was a digital music system, and you could do all kinds of things with it besides synthesize. I used the kind of front-end of the system to analyze, to make what are called FFTs, Fast Fourier transforms.

[K] That’s right, that’s taking a sound wave from the form we normally see it represented, which is a sort of peaks and valleys, and re-looking at it through a kind of telescope of where the frequencies are, and how the patterns of frequencies fall.

[GT] Right, that’s very well put. You can get the frequency-amplitude recipe of the sound, and then you can reproduce it. This is very wonderful, because once you’ve reproduced it, you can edit it any way you like. Maybe we should play one of these…

[K] We’ll play one, but maybe we could just give a quick example of what that editing involves. I’ll do it in a physical way, because if I take my voice, I can edit my voice with my hands. And by changing where I position my hands [voice getting muffled], I can change the sound of my voice. It hasn’t changed the way the sound was produced at its point of origin, but I’ve kind of put an “editing filter” on it, a way of changing the sound of my voice just by moving my hand in front of the microphone. And in a way, you can look at that sound, you can observe that sound, and say, “I understand what that sound is made up of, the components of that sound,” and by understanding that, can change them, and change the colour, texture, feel and flavour.

[GT] Yes, and not only in the frequency domain, which is going to change the colour, but in the time domain. So that you can make the sounds… Well, we’ll listen to a couple of my pieces for instance, this is a set of pieces that is just a study of six words. I think I use those six words in this particular set that’s here. They’re “water,” “asleep,” “green,” “idea,” “furiously,” and “word.” And I’ll tell you the story of those after we listen to them, why I chose those particular words. But at any rate, each of those words has been analyzed, and then I have given them some kinds of musical manipulations. Occasionally, you will actually hear the sampled voice of somebody saying this word, but by and large you won’t be able to recognize them. However, if you pay attention to them you’ll hear the “r” sound, you’ll even hear the “ss” sibilances, there’s a little cricket sound in “water” and “asleep”. There’s a manipulation I did of “ss” in “furiously.”

[K] Well, this is a wonderful piece. Regular listeners to our show have heard this before, we have played it before. It’s an extraordinary piece, and I’ve lived with it a long time, because I heard it, I believe, in concert at one point, I heard it played at one other presentation, and I’ve owned the CD for a while, and it is absolutely a glorious piece. Let’s listen to it.

[GT] Thank you.

We listen to Wordscapes by George Todd [0:41:45–0:47:15].

[K] Reiterate for us, if you will, how that’s made, and if you can tell us how to listen to a piece like that. It’s certainly not a combination of sounds that’s familiar.

[GT] Well, I think musically very much the way a sculptor might think, or a painter. I don’t see my works at all, except as a kind of visual objects, things that move. So, all of those instruments are things that go, *tktktktktk* or *ooooooo* or *uhhh*, they’re kind of choreographed sounds. For instance, in that piece, “water asleep,” the word “water” was spoken and heard in that piece. It was a female voice just saying the word “water” on a piece of 1/4” tape, about seven inches long, which I sampled, and put through a very rigourous kind of analysis.

[K] You sampled, which means you took that sound and fed it into a digital form, into the computer.

[GT] Yes, right, into the Synclavier. And the Synclavier analyzes it, and breaks it down into as many parts as I wish to break it down into, and then lets me manipulate the things that I’ve broken down for it. So, for instance, I can stretch the word out so that it goes, “woooooooooooooooater,” or “wateeeeeeeeeeeeer,” or “wat-t-t-t-t-t-ter,” or anything that I wish of, say, the glide from the “e” to the “er” sound. I can capture that sound, and play it high or low, and because the formant region changes, it becomes something absolutely different. And in fact, maybe it’s the next piece, if you have it queued up there on the DAT. It’s a piece that is based entirely again on these words, “idea,” “dream,” “water,” “asleep,” “furiously,” and they are all stretched out to extraordinary lengths. You won’t hear any of the words at all, but the piece which is called Glacier is a kind of a study in long, extended colours in this palette, which keep bleeding into each other, masking sounds, sounds emerging out of other sounds. You asked what to listen for, in this.

[K] Yeah, what to listen for, and how to listen to. Not just what to listen for, but you said that you’re somewhat like an artist, someone who’s moving around colours and shapes and you want us to see not an image of an object, but rather the colours and shapes inside that?

[GT] Well, in this particular piece, it’s kind of a journey. I call it Glacier not only because of its slowness, but I can imagine floating through, disembodied, a glacier, the kinds of lights that you’d see. So it’s a question of not only light, but kinds of motion, and things masking each other, light, dark, large sounds, small sounds, very, very slow-moving sounds. The best idea is not to try to get this piece to end, it’s kind of most rewarding if you put yourself into a zen state and listen to it very patiently.

[K] Will this be a good headphone piece?

[GT] Oh, a terrific headphone piece.

[K] Good, let’s do that. Get your headphones out, put them on, close your eyes, close the curtains, because this is something that’s going to play inside your head. George Todd’s composition, Glacier. Was this, while we’re getting those headphones, the one that was played last year at the SEAMUS concert?

[GT] Yes, the one that was danced to.

[K] The one that was danced to, yes, it was an extraordinary moment.

[GT] Penny Campbell choreographed it.

[K] Wonderful. Okay, headphones at the ready? Here we go.

We listen to Glacier by George Todd [0:52:10–1:08:40].

[GT] Anybody awake out there?

[D] G-flat, eh? How did you arrive at a G-flat chord at the end? Was that just happenstance?

[GT] Oh, no, I think there’s a real kind of cosmic resonance in G-flat.

[K] He has said that to us while we were off the air, and I’m still pondering what the cosmic resonance of G-flat is. It must have to do with food, that’s all I can possibly imagine. [General laughter] And you said you took 18 months to compose, to assemble… what word do you use for that?

[GT] Yeah, to develop the materials until finally the materials had told me enough so that I knew the kind of piece that I wanted to perform.

[D] One quick note, I have not seen this CD in the K-Mart Kutout bin can you tell anyone who might be interested, where to get it?

[K] Oh yeah, I can start that off. It’s called “Music from SEAMUS, Volume 2,” (SEAMUS, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States). And music from SEAMUS is available just about only from mail-order from the society, in the University of Illinois. This is volume 2 of the SEAMUS set, there are 4 volumes now in that. It’s an amazing, amazing recording, many interesting pieces on there, but we’re going to turn to something different and older of yours.

[GT] Yes, I’ve brought a piece that’s made up entirely of FM sounds, that is, there’s nothing…

[K] FM sounds doesn’t mean FM radio, it means…

[GT] No, it’s frequency-modulated sounds. FM sounds are pure electronic sounds made out of putting sine tones together, if you will. Which, of course, as other music is too, but the other music came from samples, and this piece is entirely made up of instruments which I made up out of my head. I didn’t have a model, say, of the human voice, I just sat down at my computer and I designed these instruments.

[K] It’s kind of like mixing your own paints from primaries.

[GT] That’s right. Or making your own paints, period. Just going and finding the pigments and everything.

[D] There is actually an allusion to paint that our most recent caller made. He said he had two reactions to the music that we just played. He was upstairs in his house, painting, and he found the music very relaxing. He said a neighbour came by and said, “Are you using an electric paint-sprayer?” He said, “No, I’m painting by hand,” and “Oh, well, I thought that’s what I heard.”

[GT] I’m flattered. [Laughter] Well at any rate, this piece you’re about to play was inspired by a piece of kinetic sculpture that I bet you’ve seen. It’s in the New York Port Authority, it’s in LaGuardia. There’s one at LaGuardia, and as I understand there’s one at the Boston bus station, too.

[K] Is this like a giant Rube Goldberg type device?

[GT] That’s right.

[K] Oh yeah, that’s an amazing piece! You could just sit there for hours and watch that from every angle.

[GT] Yeah, well, the first time I saw it, I missed my bus. I got hypnotized as everybody else was, standing around to see which ball would drop next and go down which chute, which heliotrope, and it’s such a delightful thing to look at, and listen to. It really inspired this piece, which I call CREATI, for other reasons. I probably should have called it this kinetic sculpture, which didn’t have a name, as far as I know.

[K] Nor do I. Let’s listen to the music. When was this written?

[GT] Maybe 12 years ago?

We listen to CREATI by George Todd [1:13:55–1:18:34].

[K] Inspired by the kinetic sculptures out there in LaGuardia Airport in New York. Go to LaGuardia, go check ’em out, they’re really nice, and so is that piece. Very different from the others. I’m sure you weren’t going for an underlying rhythmic motion, but because of the repetitiveness of the sort of striking figures in it, it gives that feel.

[GT] Well, there was also a kind of underlying scheme there. I envisioned a piece in which all the events would happen more or less one after the other, there’s almost no counterpoint in it, and that’s a challenge, to have this little trail of sounds running around like footprints. Except the animal keeps changing.

[K] Kind of a technical challenge, or a challenge to suppress the kind of desire of one trained to do counterpoint, to do counterpoint?

[GT] Yeah, yeah, there’s a compositional challenge. There are a few places where I cheated, but by and large, I held tough. [Laughter]

[K] This is very… how do you describe? It’s a music where concentration is either demanded or rejected. I don’t think there’s a middle ground with what we’re listening to. This is not exactly background music. I wonder how that fellow who was painting could paint through it, with sort of half an ear. I know I couldn’t.

[GT] Well, maybe it does something to his hand. [Laughter]

[K] Oh, good, yes, there’s an idea. You have something else, I think we should sort of bundle these pieces together and listen to one after another, they’re very exciting.

[GT] Okay. This one was a piece that I did for Penny Campbell, who’s a choreographer and dancer at Middlebury, and with whom I’ve had several joyous collaborations. This piece was done in an unusual way. We talked generally about a kind of motion vocabulary that she wanted to have, and then she just let me do the piece, and she choreographed it afterwards.

[K] A “motion vocabulary,” what do you mean by that?

[GT] Well, I mean, she is a dancer, and gave me some ideas of things that she would like to do.

[K] And you translated the gestures, the motions, into…?

[GT] We talked a little bit about what the dramatic narrative roughly might have been. And I had decided that I wanted to do a dream piece. Most of my work is based on dreams, and this is called Penny’s Dream.

We listen to Penny’s Dream by George Todd [1:21:42–1:36:47].

[K] Penny’s Dream, it certainly was a dream, an amazing, amazing piece. Well, I’m disappointed, we’re at the end of our time today, for our guest composer George Todd from Middlebury. We’d love to have you back, I think that would be a good idea. These pieces are extensive, and they take their time about saying what they have to say, and I think we should have you back again. At least, leave us with some music, so we can give it a further airing.

[GT] Well thank you very much. I enjoyed it enormously.

[K] Thanks very much for joining us on the show, George Todd.

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