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Learning How to Listen

Composing on Hugh Le Caine’s instruments in UTEMS ca. 1962

The centenary of the birth of Hugh Le Caine was celebrated in a special event co-presented by the Music Gallery and the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto on 30 May 2014.“100 Years of Hugh Le Caine” was hosted by Le Caine biographer Gayle Young and included presentations by several guest speakers on this Canadian inventor and instrument builder as well as a concert programme around Le Caine’s artistic creations. The audience was treated to histories and reminiscences surrounding the early electronic music studio in Canada, and Le Caine’s unique role in its development. In this issue of eContact! we are pleased to publish presentations given by Robert Aitken, Norma Beecroft, alcides lanza and Pauline Oliveros at the event.

When I was 20 years of age, Hugh Le Caine represented to me some kind of mythological, inventive genius, a ghost in fact, because we rarely saw him. The Electronic Music Studio at the University of Toronto, as you all know, was a plaything of what we called “the triumvirate”, which included professor Harvey Olnick, Myron Schaeffer and Dr. Arnold Walter, and they really kept it to themselves for some time — at least a year, or longer. Besides Dr. Walter, none of them were considered composers, but it was their plaything and they really kept everybody out (as Norma [Beecroft] suggested 1[1. In her talk at the same event, “Remembering Hugh Le Caine,” also included in this issue of eContact!]). We were all very, very curious about what went on in this mysterious house. At some point, I think they worried about how the university could subsidize this space if there were no students using it. I was fortunate to be proposed as one of the first students to be admitted to the space. And to my memory, it was Paul Pedersen who was the other 2[2. See Paul Pedersen’s own account of working in the studios using “Hugh Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer” in this issue of eContact!], although we were not often there at the same time.

It should be remembered that electronic music was in its infant stages and the studios of Utrecht, West German Radio, Columbia and Pierre Henry were barely 10 years old. There was no course of study, so we basically had to teach ourselves and created a curriculum as we went along. The first thing the triumvirate did was put us to “slave labour” cataloguing tape loops for the Multi-track. Imagine cataloguing loops for a multi-track — there was no system for cataloguing sound! We had to invent one. The walls had hooks hanging on them and the loops could be about six-feet long. There were tapes of recorded sound of every possible type from electronic to concrete, and we had to figure out how to organize these sounds. One way is obvious, isn’t it? High and low. So the “high” would be at one end of the wall and “low” at the other end. But then we had to figure out what kinds of sounds were on there: were they simple sounds, were they complex sounds? Were they animal sounds, were they industrial sounds? And were they electronic sounds or concrete sounds?

I tell you, we spent days and hours and weeks just cataloguing the sounds which this triumvirate had recorded! That turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I credit that, along with my really magnificent teacher, Marcel Moyse (who some of you may know was a foremost flutist at the time of Debussy and Ravel), for teaching me how to listen. Because with electronic music, while you are composing the pieces you are listening so intently for any distortion, any click, any noise. Especially in those days, because we were splicing and scraping tape. And when you hear this piece of mine, Noesis, please keep in mind that most of the studio work was done on the instruments of Hugh Le Caine. But before that, you would scrape the emulsion off a tape for maybe two feet, just little by little by little, so that you would get [imitates brief rising crescendo of a white noise-like sound]. Well, how long did it take you to do that? Probably one hour. And then you heard [imitates knocking sound] five seconds of music. It taught us to listen and I think it taught me to listen more than anything else in my life. So I was really happy with that time.

Robert Aitken giving his presentation at the Music Gallery during 100 Years of Hugh Le Caine, a co-presentation of the Music Gallery and the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) in Toronto, Canada on 30 May 2014. Seated behind him is Gayle Young, host of the event. Image © Claire Harvie. [Click image to enlarge]

But now to try and get back to Hugh Le Caine, he came occasionally and I knew him and he knew me, and there seemed to be a great respect between us — mostly because I played the flute. I don’t think he was particularly interested in what I was composing, although he went to any concerts that we had. Whenever I played in Ottawa, he and [his wife] Trudi would go to the concert. But I, like everyone else here, am really not able to describe his personality very well, or his other interests, or anything like that, which is a pity. And I’m not sure that Dr. Walter or Olnick or Schaeffer could have either; he was really just a very silent, mad genius, composing instruments for us to use.

We waited with great apprehension for the next [Le Caine] invention to arrive. Dr Schaeffer would say, “Oh, he’s going to bring something new next week.” And we were all like: “Wow, what’s it going to be?” And then when it came, of course we tried to use it. As alcides [lanza] and I were discussing, often the stuff really didn’t work! 3[3. See alcides lanza’s article, “Hugh Le Caine and the McGill EMS,” in this issue of eContact!] It was always in a state of repair, whether we broke it or it broke en route, I don’t know. But he was often there repairing things, and we were fixing things, especially that Multi-track machine — my, that thing could be a disaster! As Norma began to describe, you could have tape tangles like fishing line in a bushel basket! Still, out of it came some very interesting pieces. Because of this talk today, I re-listened to a lot of things, pieces that others did and that I did as well. It’s some very convincing music, isn’t it? It’s like a potter who is working with clay, working with his hands, and at the end you get that beautiful pot. Today, everything is much more sophisticated, and with all the wonderful technology we have, you don’t have any of those problems; but somehow you miss that hands-on touch, which really carries you away.

The pieces I did that I recall were this one we are going to hear now — it was a four-track piece. We didn’t have stereo for that first concert, we only had mono. So that was four mono Revox machines running in synch — you can’t even get two Revox machines to run in the same time. Nobody dared to make a 20-minute piece because the machines would be out of phase by five seconds by the end of it. This piece is about six minutes long. It was fine, but here was something very funny. For that same concert Murray Schafer did a piece for solo voice and four recorded flutes. The tape in those days was quite brittle and just before the concert, everything is ready to go, Myron Schaeffer bumped into one of the machines and the tape just went like confetti, all over the place. Of course we weren’t able to play the piece, there is no way you can glue that one back together, it was like a broken glass. Then I did a piece for flute and tape, which I was not very happy with, and haven’t played again, but want to dig it out and see what it sounds like, thanks to this symposium.

Just to finish, I did a soundtrack for Hamlet at the Crest Theatre, and Richard Monette at that time was just building his career, he was only 20 years old and he had the part of Hamlet. I spent two weeks in that electronic music studio, night and day. I slept there, I used the refrigerator and ate [at the studio] — I was there all of the time to come up with that tape. It came out and we did several performances, a couple of weeks of it. And just a few days ago, by sheer accident — life is like that, isn’t it? It just gives you some coincidences — I came upon the review. It’s not all about music, but I’ll read it anyway, it’s quite short, and because it sort of all fits together. It says:

Hamlet — A Tragedy
Stop reading right here if you happen to be Richard Monette. Anyone else is welcome to stick around while we examine the grizzly remains of Hamlet now on display at the Crest Theatre. But Mr. Monette should skip what is to follow. You see, he is a young man, 19, to be exact, obviously impressionable and I should not like to be responsible for leaving scars on his psyche. For he is an actor of some promise: tall, handsome in a fleshy fashion with a good voice and splendid presence. But he has been caught in a sorry misadventure as the star of the Crest’s Hamlet. He is sadly inadequate to play the most demanding role in English theatre, and it shows, oh how it shows. Musical ferrets. And then, there’s the electronic background music. Half of it sounds as though the 9:14 freight from Hornepayne is coming thundering out of the wings. The rest of the time you’d swear a herd of ferrets were trapped in the heating system. 4[4. Ed.: The original source could not be located for this excerpt.]

Audio 1 (5:50). Robert Aitken — Noesis (1962). Composed in the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS) using Le Caine’s instruments.

I was proud of that! You, know, electronic music composers were really proud when they got terrible reviews… but not performers. So here is Noesis (Audio 1),which actually means “comprehension by the brain alone” — we young people often thought of titles like that.

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