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“Participle Dangling in Honor of Gertrude Stein”

Composing with Hugh Le Caine’s Special Purpose Tape Recorder at UTEMS in 1966

Closing the 2014 Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium (TIES) was the Special Session “A Noisome Pestilence: An afternoon of Hugh Le Caine,” which brought together composers and researchers around Le Caine’s instruments. The session was moderated by Gayle Young on Sunday, 17 August 2014, and featured presentations by Kevin Austin, Richard Henninger, David Jaeger, Pauline Oliveros and Paul Pedersen.

I had heard of Hugh Le Caine and his instrumentation before I went to the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio in the summer of 1966. I spoke about that a bit in my Keynote at this year’s Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium (TIES), where I mentioned that this was a very, very important connection in my early career. 1[1. The author’s Keynote Address at TIES 2014, “What Matters? Make the Music!,” is published in eContact! 17.3.] This was a summer course. I read an ad somewhere. I can’t remember exactly where I had read about Le Caine — maybe it was in Musicworks? Haha, too early for that — I only met Gayle Young in the 1970s.

I was newly appointed as the director of the Mills Tape Music Center, which had previously been known as the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and as I mentioned in my Keynote I had a lot of experience using lab equipment. No equipment that I used to make electronic music had been made especially to make electronic music — it was all test equipment of some kind. All of those pieces of equipment at UTEMS looked very familiar from that time.

Nobody taught me how to make my electronic music. I had to teach myself and I had to put together a way of making the electronic music that I made. 2[2. See the author’s TIES 2014 Keynote for audio examples of her early electronic works, including I of IV, created at UTEMS. ] I was very excited about becoming the director of the Mills Tape Music Center but I felt that I didn’t know much about studios. It was just the studio that we had, and my home studio that I worked in, so I was delighted to have the information about the course and I went to UTEMS to take the course.

Gustav Ciamaga was teaching the electronic music course and Hugh Le Caine was teaching a circuitry course. I took the circuitry course as well as the electronic music course. I was very interested in building things. Of course I had no training in electronics or physics, because I was a musician.

I was very struck with Le Caine. He was very kind and generous with his knowledge and very helpful; as has been said, he wanted to know “What do you need and what do you want to know?” So this was a very welcome atmosphere to be in and to do this work.

I guess the Hugh Le Caine instrument that was the most fun for me to work with was his 20-channel loop machine, the Special Purpose Tape Recorder. 3[3. This Hugh Le Caine instrument was later renamed the Multi-track.] I made a piece using this instrument called Participle Dangling in Honor of Gertrude Stein (Audio 1).

Before listening to the piece, I also wanted to mention my colleagues in the course — one was Murray Schafer. He was just learning about electronic music that summer. We have stayed in touch since that time. There was Jeanne Eichelberger-Ivey from Baltimore, J.D. Robb from New Mexico and Ivan Tcherepnin from Cambridge, as well as Dick Robinson, who people really ought to find out about, because he is a really amazing composer. He lives in Decatur, Georgia, and was a violinist in the Atlanta Symphony orchestra for many years. He has made tons of electronic music. Someone should study that music. We had a lot of fun at UTEMS, and Dick had a wonderful sense of humour that we shared.

Ivan Tcherepnin fell in love with the Special Purpose Tape Recorder. It was in a separate room from the larger studio. You could always find him there working with the loop machine. One day the door opened and smoke came out. He had run the machine too fast and too long — the machine smoked him out. He was lucky that Hugh Le Caine was there. Not at that moment, but because he could take care of repairing it.

Now the Polyphonic Synthesizer was later. It was after my stay at UTEMS, so I didn’t get to hear about it much at the time. 4[4. Paul Pedersen talks about his experiences with “Hugh Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer,” also in this issue of eContact!] There was something important that I wanted to mention and that was that I agreed with Hugh Le Caine for sure about the need to know more about sound. It always irked me — after the Buchla Synthesizer was made and also the Moog system — about the idea of control: of controlling everything but then what were you controlling? It seemed to me that there was never enough attention to how things sounded.

When there was this shift from analogue electronics to digital, I could hear the difference for sure, especially because of the way that I was making my music. I didn’t like the sound of transistors. It took me a long time to warm up to that. I think it’s because there wasn’t, and still isn’t enough understanding of listening and of how to listen to sound. This was a resonance that I had with Hugh Le Caine at the time.

Audio 1 (8:48). Pauline Oliveros — Participle Dangling in Honor of Gertrude Stein (1966), for tape, mobile and work crew. Composed in the University of Toronto’s Electronic Music Studios UTEMS using instruments built by Hugh Le Caine.

Okay, when we listen to Participle Dangling, we have to realize too that this recording is coming off of a digital file — it’s been digitized. The disappointment for me in one way is that the sounds that I heard and listened to at UTEMS are not reproduced. They’re really not there because the experience of the sound was so intense; I can say it’s nice and wavy. Analogue sound is very warm, and the transition to transistors to digital had a colder feeling to it. This representation, or this documentation, of Participle Dangling does not have the quality of sound that it had in the studio at that time.

[Gayle Young] Oh, then it’s very important that you mention that.

[Pauline Oliveros] Yes, you have to know that. So we are hearing a document of the piece.

Yes, its been flattened. We are “seeing” a black and white photograph of a full colour image. It’s been flattened.

Yes, it’s been flattened out.

On listening to that piece again, I realize that you were able to bring out some sidebands from the vocals, so this is not so different than your pieces with oscillators. Can you tell us about the reference to Gertrude Stein that is part of the title?

The reference to Gertrude Stein is of course her use of repetition. Repeating things over and over again. At that time in the sixties, the question that often came up was: “But is it music?” — about electronic music or tape music from a variety of sources. So I decided that “But is it music?” was the participle that I wanted to dangle, and of course I wanted to honour Gertrude Stein because she also had opposition to her art such as: “Why do you repeat things over and over again?” You can ask the minimalists that too, in painting and music — so that’s the way it goes.

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