Interview with Richard Zvonar
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #468, 22 May 2004. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Valencia CA at the office of Anne Le Baron. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:14:38–1:59:50].
Richard Zvonar (1946–2005) was a California composer and intermedia artist. His works include pieces for voice, acoustic and electronic instruments, tape, film, installations, music theater and intermedia performance. Zvonar received a PhD in Composition and Music Technology in 1982 from UCSD, where he was a Research Assistant at the Computer Audio Research Lab (CARL) and a Fellow at the Center for Music Experiment (CME). Performances of intermedia works include soul murder (1983) at Berkeley Stage Co., The Board Room (1985) at S.F. Museum of Modern Art, Q (1986) at New Music America in Houston and OX (1987) in Kala Institute’s Seeing Time series. Performances of electroacoustic music, featuring computer-controlled processing of acoustic sounds, include a project with bassist Robert Black, Hex (1987) with the ensemble Relâche in Philadelphia and several years touring and recording with avant-diva Diamanda Galas. Zvonar’s work in the 2000s included pieces for multichannel surround sound as well as solo performances using digital looping and signal processing.
[Kalvos] We are on the road, once again.
[Damian] Again, it’s another day, another road. Today, the road leads to Richard Zvonar!
[K] Here on Kalvos & Damian. Welcome!
[Richard Zvonar] Glad to be here.
[D] Oh, we are glad you said that, because there have been some who’ve been not so glad, but if you’re glad, then that makes everything…
[K] Makes us all beaming.
[RZ] If I wasn’t here, I’d be home, and, you know, I know what that’s like.
[K] You live nearby, yeah. Well, we’re fascinated by your stuff, by your humour, this is one of the things that I like, because you have a good sense of not only the ironic, but also the funny in your work. So, give us your bio. You’ve done some amazing stuff.
[RZ] Uh, okay, I think musically-speaking, if we want a musical bio, we have to go back to my childhood. Naturally. I grew up in New Jersey. Originally in Union, right near Route 22.
[K] Why, that’s where Harmony House was, the record company in Union.
[RZ] In Union?
[K] Yes, it was. On Route 22, right next to the Dairy Queen!
[RZ] Hmm. I don’t remember that, I remember the Flagship.
[K] Yes, it was just down the road from…
[RZ] And the Peter Pan Diner.
[K] Yes, you could practically see it.
[RZ] House of Tile, or World of Tile, I think it was.
[K] I don’t recall World of Tile, I never went tiling.
[RZ] Yeah, well, Route 22 is one of the great treasures of the north-eastern highway system. It’s got the worst road service you can imagine and traffic is coming at you from both sides, because there’s a centre median full of things. The Flagship I mentioned was originally a nightclub and restaurant in the shape of an ocean liner.
[K] Right. Well, Route 22 was where, on the very first day of driver education… that’s where they took us. [Laughter] I still remember that truck horn, to this day, as I pulled out.
[RZ] Well, by the time I was doing driver’s ed., they were living in Summit, so Route 22 was where I had to go for my driving test. So by then, I’d been on 24 and all the other little byways. But you know, 22 was the acid test.
[D] And this is part of your musical upbringing too, because…
[RZ] Oh, I’m sure. Probably before I became actively involved in music, I was actively involved in making mouth noises as part of my play. Since I was into science fiction, probably my first approach to any kind of electronic or electroacoustic sounds was, you know, making laser guns… well, they didn’t have lasers, but you know, disintegrators and… *whoooooooooo* flying saucers and all that sort of thing. But my earliest actual music, aside from the William Tell Overture and such things that were soundtrack music from the TV, was mostly novelty records. When I really started getting into it, and actually my first experiments with tape, was trying to replicate the chipmunk song. You remember? “Christmas, Christmas,” you know that?
[K] [Laughter] Yeah, Alvin & The Chipmunks.
[RZ] Yeah, David Seville. Ross Bagdasarian, I think, was his actual name. That was all tape speed manipulation, so a friend had a tape recorder and we would do that sort of thing. But that really didn’t lead, naturally, to anything more avant-garde. I didn’t really get into anything avant-garde until much later. My earliest interests were little-kid pop music, and then teenage pop music, still a lot of it in the realm of novelty tunes. And my first approaches to composition were actually song parodies. So, for instance, when I was in the Boy Scouts, we were all very cruel, and there was one guy in the troop that we’d like to poke fun at. So I did a version of Alley Oop called Fitzy Oop, because the guy’s name was Harold Fitzgerald. It was quite mean. But, you know, that was how I started, and in fact, I would say that provides the ground for a lot of work since, because I’ve very commonly taken pre-existing material of some sort and re-contextualized. So all of these kind of highfalutin, semiotic, and constructivist and deconstructivist, all this hoo-ha, is really something that came out of my play practice. Then when I discovered that people were intellectually involved in that sort of thing, well, of course I…
[K] Oh, so you just redefined it, and there you were.
[RZ] Yeah, yeah.
[K] Astounding. [Laughter]
[RZ] So, as far as any real music… I like to sing, and I did a little bit of choral singing, especially little musicales as part of the school thing. I also took trumpet lessons. I was miserable at the trumpet, and I really hated it. I thought it would be a great, fun thing, but I didn’t count on how hard it is to learn to play the trumpet. Just to make a decent sound is difficult. You know, it’s one of those things where you have to have really indulgent family. I hated it so much that at one point, I stuffed a piece of cotton wool down the bell, and so it wouldn’t play, then I got scared so I tried to get it out, couldn’t fish it out, so I tried to blow it up with a firecracker. And that didn’t work, so then I hid it behind the couch and told my parents that I couldn’t find it.
[K] Was that the end of the trumpet?
[RZ] Well, yeah, they finally took it into the shop and fished out the stuff. So, I didn’t attempt to play another instrument until I’d actually finished high school. I had friends who had bands in high school, and I really wanted to be in a band, but I didn’t play anything. I tried to sing in the band, but I wasn’t a very good singer either. Finally, after high school, I bought a guitar. Like, the day after graduation, I went down to the local shop, bought a second-hand Harmony guitar. It was such a bad guitar, it took two fingers to make a bar, you know, for bar chords. I bought a Mel Bay, it was supposed to be an easy guitar method. And those things, you have to make these chords that stretch out over about five frets, and that was no good, so I used my mother’s Easy Organ books, and by the end of the summer, I had learned the chords to four songs. But they were all in the wrong keys for guitar, they were all in flat keys because of the keyboard. So that was when I learned to transpose. That was the summer of ’63, and as everyone knows, I guess February ninth was when The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. And from that point on, I got serious about the guitar, and got serious about wanting to perform. And that led into a number of years of playing in rock bands.
[D] It’s amazing that people don’t realize that, in many of the movies that The Beatles made, you were really George.
We listen to Diablo Variations by Richard Zvonar [0:22:24–0:28:22]. Interview resumes at 0:30:30.
[K] So where were you playing in these bands, were you still in New Jersey at the time?
[RZ] No, well I started college in ’63, I went to MIT, Cambridge, Mass. I was under the delusion that I was going to become an astronautical engineer. So I was in the Course 16: Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and I found that by my sophomore year, I was spending a lot more time playing guitar than doing my physics homework.
[K] Well, that probably didn’t make you terribly unusual.
[RZ] Well, yeah, I was somewhat unusual then… It wasn’t until a year or two later, and I was sort of one of the first baby boomers in my class, so I was also one of the first dropouts. The way I actually got into playing in bands was we had a co-op program in astronautics, where you could go work in industry for a semester, and I came to L.A. I worked at Douglas Aircraft Company in Longbeach in 1965. The first couple of days I was in the area, I was staying in a hotel on the beach in Santa Monica, and I discovered a place called Ace Loans, it was a little mom-and-pop pawn shop.
[K] [Laughter] Oh no…
[RZ] And their sons were into music, and they were selling guitars. So I put down a deposit on an electric guitar, and with my first paycheque I bought it. I met a bass player and a drummer, and we started a band, and some of my very first gigs were actually playing around the L.A. area. Then when I went back to Cambridge, after a few months I hooked up with a band that became serious, and actually did recording, played all over New England, put an album out in ’68, and…
[K] And we know the band as?
[RZ] Ill Wind. Not to be confused with the Ill Wind Ensemble.
[K] Different group.
[RZ] They’re a nice bunch of fellows, but they stole our name.
[K] Not a rock ‘n roll band, either.
[RZ] No, not at all. So I was in that band, we put out an album that didn’t do very well at all, but now you can buy one on eBay for more than $100, if it’s an original.
[K] And you have a closet full, and that’s your income now.
[RZ] I wish I did. I have a bunch of ratty old copies of it. It’s also been re-issued about three times, in both vinyl and CD. So, that was my outing in rock ‘n roll. After that band, I was in a few more groups, but…
[K] And was kind of the end of your career as a scientist?
[RZ] Yeah. What happened was I dropped out of MIT in ’67, and then it was sex drugs and rock ‘n roll for a couple of years, and then I dropped back in for one year to finish. At that time, they had just begun to have film classes, and I enrolled in film class. So I started making 16mm films, little black and white films. The first of those that I did was actually sort of an early rock video. I took some music, and I cut visual on beat and all that, so that would have been ’69. That was the same period of time that I saw Merce Cunningham and met John Cage and Gorgon Mumma. It turns out my film teacher was asked by Merce Cunningham to film one of the dances that was under development. This was sort of a preview mini-tour through England before they did something at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January. So they’re working on this piece, Tread, which was kind of an interesting piece. They had a bunch of these big floor fans across the front of the stage. I went along to tape a reference track, and Ricky Leacock, who was my film teacher, and another student, did a two-camera shoot. This was before video. I mean, the only video recording was big 1-inch machines in the studio, so you didn’t have portopaks.
[K] No, that preceeded portopaks by two or three years.
[RZ] Yeah. So, I went to this dance concert at [University of Massachusetts] Amherst, met Gordon Mumma after the gig. They did another one in Boston, I went to that, and then they also did an event at Project MAC, which was the Artificial Intelligence project at MIT. It was the first interactive computer music I ever saw. They did a program with Gordon’s piece, Hornpipe. He has this little thing called the “cybersonic console.” He’d play the French horn, and it would monitor the resonances of the room, and after it had collected enough material on the resonant profile of the room, it would start to produce its own tones.
Then there was a comparable project with Gordon on musical saw and a mainframe computer. The computer was taking input from the saw, and doing a similar sort of thing, doing an analysis and then producing a variety of digital sounds. So that was very inspiring to me. I was already by that time educating myself about electronic music. In those days and in the ambient culture, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about electronic music. You know, you’d hear little bits of things on TV commercials, film soundtracks, but you didn’t really know what it was.
[K] No, and as a matter of fact, isn’t that the time when Jon Appleton did his Newark Airport Rock (or San Francisco Airport Rock)? The one in 1969, when he went around in the airport waiting area, and asked people what they thought of the new electronic music? And he made a collage of those responses, and they were just terribly funny, because no one had a clue what it meant. Then he repeated the effort in 1999, and no one had a clue! [General laughter]
We listen to Trio by Richard Zvonar and Robert Black [0:37:11–0:43:00].
[RZ] Yeah, so by ’69 I had already been listening to a lot of records. We were just talking about the Gesang der Jünglinge Deutsche Grammophon recording. That, and Kontakte were on a disc. That was one of my first ones. The reason I knew about Stockhausen, was that on the second Who album there was a little short bio/blurp of Pete Townsend, where he said he liked Stockhausen. So I thought, “Oh, okay,” and I heard that The Beatles were listening to John Cage, and so on. I’d go out, find these people, buy the record, read the liner notes, and that was it. So by ’69, I’d been listening to these things for a few years. The Mothers, you know, Frank Zappa was another. The first time I ever heard of Edgar Varèse was that he was quoted, you know, “The modern-day composer refuses to die,” or some such thing, on the first Mothers album “Freak Out.” So I was primed, and I was making films with my film class. So one of my early films was for four tape recorders, spatially separated into the corners of the room, each with its own individual tape, and its own operator, and a film. The soundtrack consisted of a variety of things, things I’d recorded off of Dial-a-Prayer, that sort of thing, you know. William Burrough’s Towers Open Fire soundtrack, clips of that. People talking, this and that. So, I did my first tape manipulation with a Nagra and a Tandberg tape deck, those were what were available in the film studio.
[K] Oh, a handsome couple of tape decks.
[RZ] Yeah, and I developed some techniques, just sort of figured things out. “Well, if I pull this lever here, it’ll go from fast-forward to rewind, and you’ll be able to hear it,” so I was doing all these woopy things. The Tandberg had a little clutch that would grab the tape and stop and start it instantly, and if you did that on the playback deck while you recorded onto the other, you’d get all of these kinds of *peewwwn* effects. So that was my first tape music. I played around with Magnasync dubbers, that was my first multitrack tape manipulation. Magnasyncs are these things that use 16mm sprocketed tape, which used to be the standard of the industry before digital came in. We had a rack of three of these things that we’d use for doing film sound mixing. We also had a Langevin graphic EQ. So that was my early education.
By the mid-70s, I was living in California, I’d moved out in ’74.
[K] You moved out, now, as a performer? Did you have a day job?
[RZ] No, I really haven’t had day jobs. I was living in Cambridge, [Massachusetts], still trying to make a go of it playing on the rock scene. But the scene had changed and just wasn’t going anywhere, so I just decided to hang it up. A friend of mine that I knew from the film classes at MIT was living in Palo Alto. He’d been out briefly from Stanford to do the film study and gone back to finish his degree, and he’d written a script. He was from a prosperous milieu, and he raised some money, a thousand here, five hundred there, so he had a modest budget to do an independent feature.
So I spent a year working on this feature, which was called Off the Wall. It was a 16mm black and white, quite interesting film, written and directed by Rick King, who’s now a script doctor and director for hire around town. But this was his first feature. So we spent a year on that, after which I was completely exhausted and completely broke, and I moved to Santa Cruz to mellow out. The very week I moved to Santa Cruz, the Cabrillo Music Festival was in full swing, and they had a new music concert featuring four percussion canons by Jim Tenney. I went out to attend the concert, talked to some people there, who said, “Yeah, the music department here’s really great… and registration’s Monday.”
So on Monday, I went in and decided to register for a few classes and then drop the ones I didn’t like. I ended up adding more, I ended up as a full-time student, and among the courses I took were recording and audio systems, and there was a new music ensemble. My first official new music composition was a septet for voices, in which no vowel sounds are produced. It was sort of vocal noise, and was influenced by Pauline Oliveros’s [see interview in this issue of eContact!] Sound Patterns. It used a graphic score, graph paper with a lot of squiggly lines and symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet, and it was conducted by a large clock that I borrowed from the phys-ed department, from the pool. I also used a projector, so that was my first sort of multimedia theatre piece. It’s called Chanson des Muets, which is “Song of the Mutes.”
[D] How was it received?
[RZ] Well, again, it’s one of those pieces that demonstrates some humour. I mean, I’ve got all these people going [makes spitting noises].
[K] Eaaugh! That’s right. [Laughter]
[RZ] But very formally performed, and if I had had tails available, I would have worn them. So, during that period of a couple of years in this community college, Cabrillo College, I was active with the New Music Ensemble, I did a number of pieces. We did concerts quite regularly, a friend of mine, Bob Beade, was teaching the audio courses and he started an electronic music class. He had a Buchla Music Easel, so I started doing electroacoustic performance. We’d set up a couple of 4-track tape decks with the old time lag accumulator patch.
The Terry Riley thing, that was later appropriated by Robert Fripp and renamed Frippertronics, but it was actually Terry’s thing. So there I was, very active in new music and living on very little, because Santa Cruz is a place with a lot of young people and very few jobs. It has a couple colleges. So, I started thinking towards the future, and “What am I going to do after I’ve taken all the music classes?” I decided to apply to Mills College, and I wasn’t sure I would get in, so I figured I’d better have a back up and applied to UC San Diego. Well, Mills took their sweet time about telling me if I was in or not, and in the meantime I’d been offered a Regent’s Fellowship at UC San Diego, so I decided to go there.
I was really scared to death, because I didn’t have any particular background in classical music. I mean, I could read and write music, but just barely, you know. I didn’t have any performance proficiency, my guitar didn’t count, that was strictly rock ’n roll guitar. I could do classical singing to a certain extent, but I was going there as a composer. But, as soon as you show up, they start giving you tests, you know, proficiency tests, and I flunked all of them. But, in any case, I was able to produce some pieces. The first piece that I did there was a piece made out of vocal sounds, choral sound masses. I was very into Penderecki and Ligeti, that sort of thing, at the time. I used some material I’d recorded at Cabrillo, and did a lot of musique concrète manipulation. I did some instrumental piees, and the CD I’ve just given you, which has a piece for percussion and tape, was my Masters piece. And that ended up taking me a whole school year to complete.
[K] What’s the name of that piece?
[RZ] That’s 3 for 5. That’s a tip of the hat to Pauline, that’s kind of a Pauline title, like 1 of 4, that sort of thing.
We listen to War With the Newts by Richard Zvonar [0:52:29–0:56:46].
[RZ] That was written in collaboration with Daryl Pratt, who’s an excellent percussionist now based in Sydney, Australia. It was a piece for 4-track tape, and all of the sounds were manipulated or else not. Some of them were straight percussion sounds, some of them were heavily transformed percussion sounds, the idea being to create a kind of continuum between the live sound and the recorded sound. In some cases, they would match very closely, and in other cases there’d be quite a difference. Following Kontakte. It’s that sort of approach, except not using synthetically generated sounds but recorded material. So that was a big piece, three movements. Wood instruments, mainly marimba and temple blocks in the first. The second movement was three amplified timpani, used primarily as resonators for other instruments, so bowed cymbal, spun crotales, you know, various things. Then the third movement was metallophones, centred on the vibraphone and some chimes and gongs, this and that.
I then got stalled trying to do a big piano piece. It took me much too long to accomplish something that I really wasn’t that into. The piece was called PFT-88, and it was intended to be a theatre piece in which the pianist was actually an automaton. It was inspired by Conlon Nancarrow, and it was intended to be very much like Nancarrow’s music, played by a human robot at the keyboard. But instead of focusing on the theatrical aspect of it, I got really hung up in a kind of theoretical, generative process of… I created this matrix of all possible permutations of five elements, you know…
[K] Oh my. You can get hung up with that sort of thing, yeah.
[RZ] Yeah, and all the harmonic structures were symmetrical. I had the geometry of the piano keyboard, with its repeating twelve-note thing, and then the bilateral symmetry of the human body, and the hands, and all that stuff. I finally drew the double bar and said, “To hell with this,” and from that point on, all the pieces I did were theatre pieces, many of them dealing with authoritarian political systems and control systems.
So starting about ’81, I started doing almost exclusively theatrical pieces. The first one of those that I did of any substance was called XTRACT, and that was during my Italian Futurist period. I had just really discovered modernism and the early avant-gardes of the various European countries. Even though politically, I didn’t see quite eye-to-eye with Marinetti and his crowd, I liked their æsthetics. You know, it was very technlogical, and I was being very technologically-oriented in pretty much everything I did, even if it was not, on the surface, about technology, there was something that was driving the process, and even in some cases, the content. Like with the piano piece, the idea of having a robot as a theatrical conceit, Extract was a theatre piece in which there was a figure I called the Oracle. The person who performed that role was Phil Larson, who’s pretty well known as a bass baritone in music circles. He works a lot with Roger Reynolds, he’s on the faculty at UCSD. I had him completely wrapped in aluminum foil, with a tape deck on his lap, headphones, and he was surrounded by four microphones on big studio stands. So he was up on a little dais, and he had this sort of cage of microphones.
Then, marked out on the floor was this large arrow, pointing from him down to a pedestal at the other end of the room with another tape deck. Then I had four attendants dressed in white, and three other characters dressed in black. The attendants were dancers, and they moved in a kind of automaton-like fashion, and interacted directly with the Oracle. While they were making their approach, they were moving through a field of projected text, and I had various texts from various sources. While they were doing that, the other three characters in black, who behaved in a very militaristic fashion, would come up to a microphone and read texts in a variety of languages that had to do with such things as interrogation, confession, oracular divination, these sorts of things. I used texts from as far back as the Delphic oracle, actually in Classical Greek. I had a text in French about the role of the Inquisitor during the Inquisition. I had texts about the sacrament of confession, I had texts about criminal interrogation, and they were mostly in the form of questions, so they were questions about questioning. That was heard through the headphones by the Oracle, and the Oracle would mimic the sound, but not the sense of what was heard. That went into the microphones, and was heard out in the space.
And all the while, you’ve got this tape recorder going on his lap. When the attendants finally reached him, they then unthreaded the end of the tape, and pulled it in slow motion, down along the big arrow on the floor threaded it up to the other tape deck and started it. Then you could hear a voice, while they were doing it in slow motion, you hear this sort of growly, slow motion kind of voice. When they started it, you heard a very lovely woman’s voice, sort of like Laurie Anderson’s speaking voice, you know, it has this great warmth, this kind of motherly thing. But she’s reading a text from Marinetti, in which he’s saying the wings are asleep in the flesh of man. And then at the end, the Oracle rises up, in these ritualistic clothes.
We listen to 3 for 5 by Richard Zvonar [1:05:26–1:19:47].
[RZ] Now, I was explaining this piece to a friend of mine while I was working on it. This is a piece that came to me in a vision while I was sitting in a graduate seminar, this would happen to me a lot. Either there was something really interesting in the seminar or I’d be really bored, you know? I’d be sitting there writing notes. It was Pauline’s seminar in theatre pieces and collaboration, and I had just had this image of this tape being pulled out. So I’m telling my friend about the whole thing, and he said, “Well you know what you’re describing is actually the functioning of the tape recorder. Because you’ve got a signal going in and it’s being received by this recording head stack, and then later it’s being played back by the same system.” And in fact, the tape went left to right, just like on a tape recorder, and there was a certain amount of rotary movement on the part of the attendants, they would walk slowly in a circle, and it was the same way that the supply reel would go.
So actually, what I had done was to take my working environment of the studio (I spent a lot of hours hunched over a tape deck), and I’d used this as a model for the structure of the piece, the dramatic and staging elements of the piece. As soon as I realized this, that gave me another methodology to use consciously, because it was strictly an intuitive thing. So I began to become a lot more acutely aware of how I was generating material, manipulating material. What were my own motivations? And this was actually an important part of the education that I was receiving. In fact, in Roger Reynolds’s composition seminar that I took in my first year, one of the things that stuck with me is he said, “The important thing is to learn how to perform yourself.” And this is a critical thing for any composer, any creative artist. Is how do you…
[D] He was speaking metaphorically, then? He didn’t mean that you should be able to play everything you write?
[RZ] No, no, to perform yourself, yourself being the object. You know, how do you kick start your own creative process? How do you get past that blank page syndrome? So I did focus a lot of attention on that, and with an increasing degree of attention, because I would discover things about how I worked, or where I got things from. I reached back into childhood to discover some of these things. And a lot of my breakthrough experiences also came in that class of Pauline’s. In fact, our final for that class was that one day, Pauline said, “Well, you know, it’s almost the end of term, what do you want to do for a final exam?” In those days, she was doing cheap commissions at the local flea market in Leucadia, where she’d set up a booth and people would give her whatever they had, and she’d write them a piece.
[K] While you wait!
[RZ] So we decided to commission a piece from Pauline, so we took all the change out of our pocket, slid it up the seminar table. So she came in with a piece, and it alternated playing with various blocks and kids’ toys, and meditations. And during one of the meditations I realized I spent a lot of time playing with Tinker Toys, and I was thinking about the way I was structuring pieces. Rather than having things that are sort of through-composed, generative process, big melody kinds of things, I was taking chunks of stuff and sticking them together. I would take a length of this and a length of that, and then I’d have a joint piece. And I realized that a lot of formal ideas were really based on early play behaviours and the materials I was using to play with. I was also doing sculpture and things like that as a kid, you know, playing with Plasticine clay. So a lot of the things I would do in manipulating material was also kind of warping and stretching, smoothing out and this and that. So that became a real epiphany of sorts, and it helped to guide me in future pieces. So that led naturally into a series of other works, when I was finishing up my doctoral degree.
[K] And this is where?
[RZ] This is still at UCSD, I was there five years. I did one piece that was based on a place, and the characteristics of the place. That was a piece called Nocturne II, that was created to be performed in a gallery in downtown San Diego. This was a place that was very reverberant, kind of a shoe box divided down its long axis by a wall that went up 8 feet, with a 12-foot ceiling. The main gallery space was in the larger part of that, and the other side of the wall was the artists’ own studio. I used the reverberant quality and said, “Well, I’m going to do something about echoes and resonances, and I’m going to do something with shadows and repetition.” I used this basic core idea of the echo, and I took it in a lot of different directions. I also took the architecture of the space and I used that as my scenographic, you know, armature. I did an 8-channel surround sound system that was performed by a friend of mine, who’s very good at that sort of thing, Nicolas Vérin, who’s a composer in Paris.
I used some lighting effects, but it was mostly a very dark piece. I used texts on tape that related to echoes and shadows, and came from Classic Greek literature. So I had for instance, the myth of Echo, from Omid Metamorphoses, and I did a Steve Reich Come Out thing with that, where I had this little girl voice on two tracks, and then gradually split them. As they were splitting in time and one was dragging in time behind the other, they were also moving in space. I had my friend move the thing all through the 8-channel surround. And I also used the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic, and I had the four echoes of that. And while that was going on, I had shadows being cast on the ceiling of various objects that had been used during the piece, a trombone, a flute, a roller skate. I had things in the piece like roller-skating flute players.
[K] A good image there. [Laughter]
[RZ] I’m sure that’s been used elsewhere, but, you know.
We listen to Highway Jelly, by Richard Zvonar [1:26:53–1:33:25].
[K] Roller-skating flute players, good idea.
[RZ] Yeah, that was nice because the audience was in two groups, and I had it such that the skaters could move around in two circles, or they could do figure-eights. They were doing little snippets, little licks that would sort of interact. So that was piece that, for one it was drawing on a particular physical reality, which was the nature of this space, which was problematic because it was so reverberant. So I just decided I’d use that, and the other thing was to take a core idea, concept, and then realize it through a number of different media, a number of different methodologies. I was using literary manifestations, acoustical manifestations, graphic elements, you know, that sort of thing.
That was kind of prepping me for the big piece, which was my dissertation piece. That was based on a book, and was called soul murder. The book that got me started on it was of that title, by Dr. Morton Schatzman, who’s an American psychiatrist living in London. He had done a study of the book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber, the celebrated schizophrenic German judge, circa 1900, and in the context of Schreber’s upbringing. His father was a noted orthopedist, who used to invent things to correct postural problems, and he’d try them out on his own kids. So, you know, if you’re hunched over the table while doing your homework, well, you’d have this thing that would thrust your shoulders back, and you’d keep this erect, teutonic posture.
[K] I’m getting uncomfortable just remembering, seeing those pictures.
[RZ] Yeah, and there were books that Schreber published of exercises. He had this little home exercise machine that you could use, it was a sort of combination of some stirrups and hoops that you would pull up on, and there were pictures of these little guys doing the exercises. So what happened was his son, Daniel Paul, became a judge, but at the moment when he was really starting to rise in his career, he clutched and he went crazy, and he was hospitalized. He became convinced that God was afflicting him with rays that were attaching to his nervous system, injecting his body with the nerve language, and that also he was sending down these fleetingly improvised men, who were these little guys that would come down and torment him, they would squeeze his head together in the head-compressing machine. They had all these horrid devices. And the main purpose of all of this was to transform him into a woman. So that he could become the mother of the new race, after the general devastation. So, there’s an analysis of this by various people, including Schatzman, which is that the guy couldn’t live up to his father’s example, he couldn’t become the father, and so the only thing left for him was to become the mother.
[K] Wow, what a terrific concept.
[RZ] Freud did an analysis of him, and it’s available. He never actually met Schreber, but he felt that he had the book that Schreber had written, and that the words of the patient are enough, you don’t actually need to meet the patient. So he did an analysis. For many years, Freud’s analysis was the one that people were going by, and they were discounting the actual realities of the torture that these kids were experiencing growing up. I think a couple of his siblings committed suicide, so it was a real dysfunctional family.
So what I did with that was I took Schatzman’s book, I took Schreber’s original book, I used those as sources of text, and sources of visual text. So I would shoot slides of pages of the book, illustrations. I found an edition of one of the original exercise books with the little men. Then I went out from there, and I took the basic idea of control, isolation, I went into areas of cybernetics, information science, kinesiology, structural linguistics, all of these areas that had to do with control systems and analysis (especially analysis of language). Because we’re talking about the nerve language and the transformations that are taking place in terminology, where Schreber is thinking about the nerve language, and some of the things that are being injected into him are actually transformations of terminology that his father had used. And there were examples in the Schatzman analysis, he’d go back to the father’s writing and say, “He says this, his son says this.”
We listen to Quartet Richard Zvonar and Robert Black [1:40:09–1:44:12].
[K] So how are you transforming all of this?
[RZ] Well, some of the things I did, one thing in particular…
[K] Wow, this is so ambitious.
[RZ] Yeah, it was a big piece, about 45 minutes long. One example is the thing about the text where an original text is kind of a template for the new text. There’s a kind of transform of the imagery contained in the original text, into the new. The way I did that was, first I did a little riff on nerve language, and I deconstructed the text on the computer. Now this is ’82, and we didn’t have a lot of fancy computer graphics programs. I just used the vi text editor, and I took a text, created a series of versions of it, where I would delete different classes of phonetic material. First I would delete all the letters ‘e’, then ‘i’, work down through the vowels, and through different classes of consonants. So I’d take stop consonants out, and then I’d be left with just fricatives and punctuation, all the fricatives went out and you just had punctuation that looked like a little starfield, and then *poof*, gone. Then I shot each of those on 35mm slide film, and I would project them in reverse order, so you had the coalescence of this block of text. Then I just did a dissolve to the other text.
Then I had my little performers, one of whom, by the way, was Brian Woodbury, who’s coming in next [on Kalvos & Damian]. Elma [Mayer] was on projector. They came out with these little black cards on poles, so that there was a card that was a rectangular, maybe eight inches to a foot wide, on these very long poles. They would come out and then raise the poles up into the projected field of the text and pull out individual words. It was kind of like, this is before refrigerator magnet poetry but it was that sort of thing. Because one of the things I was really interested was concrete poetry and sound poetry. So in my projections of a lot of text, I was using ideas that I’d pulled from the world of concrete poetry. So, this was one little section of the piece in which text was being manipulated in various ways. The one thing is the coalescence of the text, the transformation of one text into another, and then the excerpting of elements of the text to make new text.
Now while this is going on as the visual and theatrical element, I’ve got my voice, heavily processed, in a 4-track playback. And I did the same sort of thing with the voice that I did with the text, in that I used gating. I started out where you would hear just the little fricative sounds and all the stops. So you’d have this *ch* *ch*. Gradually I’d let in other elements of the sound, so then that would coalesce into the running text. And it also spread out spatially, because I would have vowels… I had two layers, I had the high-pitched ones and then all of the deeper, vocalic sounds, heavily reverberated, were creating a kind of drum track at the bottom. So I had these two parallel processes going on that were based on the same idea, of fragmentation and reconstruction. One of the main elements of the piece was that it was a multiple slide projector visual system.
[K] All of the material tossed in here in terms of media.
[RZ] With mobile screens, yeah. I had a set of three projection screens that were on castors. Two of the screens were 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide, and the other one was eight by eight. There were four different configurations throughout the piece, so at key moments in the piece, the things would change position. So, I’d start out with a kind of triptych arrangement, front projection on all three of these. And there would be space in between the three, and performers could come and go from the space. Then, later on, the middle one went away and the two sides pulled in. It was a section called The Four Courts of Heaven, and I had a set of exercises being done by my four performers, and they were exercises based on the exercises from Schreber’s text. The projected images were the images from the text that went along with that.
Then, there was a very massive sound that accompanied the moving forward of these screens to form a wall, practically in the laps of the front row, and I had bricks projected on them. It was kind of an Edgar Allan Poe Pit in the Pendulum reference, of this big heavy wall bearing down on you. The centre screen was actually two layers. It was photo backdrop paper covering over rear-projection screens, so I had a performer come out who tore off the front layer in strips, until it now became a rear projection screen. Then, we had a little mirror play. I had two performers that had very similar body types, so their silhouettes would match, and I had them doing slowed down versions of the exercises. At first you just saw what looked like the single silhouette, and then gradually things would go out of sync, or people would go asymmetric to each other. So that was in this very slow, lyrical passage with a lot of breath sound.
So, those are the sorts of things that the piece was based on. Having an environment that was both surround sound, because I had a 6-channel surround system, and also it was a black box theatre with a fairly high ceiling and grid. You had a kind of environmental surround in the visual elements of the piece, and then there were all of these different networks of association between different manifestations of the same underlying concept. So, if you had the image of cutting, which I used a lot, I had scissors. You know Der Struwwelpeter? It’s an old German book of, “Now you mustn’t suck your thumb…”
[K] No, don’t know that at all.
[RZ] Oh, well there’s one of, “Well, I’m going out now, and if you suck your thumb, the tailor’s going to come and cut your thumbs off.” I used that poem, and I had the image of scissors. The idea of cutting being a physical manifestation of the idea of separation, these things would be used in different ways in the piece. You’d have physical images of scissors, and I used actual scissors, I had projected images of scissors. I also had projected images of hands, and I had hands with and without thumbs, you know. Then you’d also have, say, a Noam Chomsky book on structural linguistics, where you’d have all these sentence diagrams, where you’re taking language and you’re cutting it up into its constituent elements, and then attaching it together with these lines, and the lines are like the lines of the nerve language. You know, so God sending that down, rays.
[K] [Laughter] And the nerves… yeah.
[RZ] So it’s very complex. One reviewer said it was Joycean, and that’s kind of the idea, that you’re building up this very dense, very complex environment of images and ideas, and most of it’s going to, *whoosh*, go right over people’s heads.
[K] Well yeah, it’s in real-time, unlike Joyce, you can’t review, unless you go back to see it again.
[RZ] Right. Which became possible after I was out of school, when we did a three-week run of it, so we had three or four performances a week, and some people were able to come back and see it multiple times. I don’t know how many people did it.
[K] And this is when?
[RZ] This is early 80s.
[D] Is it possible that during this chat that we’ve had, that we could sample any of the sound portion of it?
[K] We will drop some of what we can into the broadcast.
[RZ] I can provide you a some examples. I don’t have any right handy, but I’ve got all the tapes, and I’ve been meaning to digitize them anyway.
[K] We have to consider this a part one.
[RZ] Well, we’ve probably run on for a bit, what’s the time now?
[D] Almost an hour.
[K] Yeah, we’re about at the end of our broadcast for this. So, we’ll consider it a part one, we’ll grab you again, and take you from the 80s to the present, and finally catch you up.
[RZ] Yeah. Well, I’d say that the more interesting work is already in this part, but… [Laughter] No, I’ve done some things since, but I haven’t done anything as ambitious as that. God, we didn’t even talk about Diamanda [Galás].
[K] No, we haven’t, and we’ll save that as a treat for next time, for part two. Our guest today was Richard Zvonar, and we’re leaving! And we’ll be back next time with part two of the interview that will take us to, say, the last 15 years.
[D] Or, maybe even beyond by that time.
We listen to Two in the Hand by Richard Zvonar and Robert Black [1:55:33–1:59:50].
[Ed.: Richard died of cancer the following year, August 3, 2005, so the planned second interview was unfortunately never to take place.]