Most of the electronic music we hear is produced on the many brands of no-fuss-no-muss music synthesizers. They are available now for as little as $1000 or $1500, so composers everywhere have access to them and, in many cases, own their own units. With such wide availability, one might expect the synthesizers to be the lingua franca of new music, but instead, they seem to me to have become the bane of new music. It’s getting hard to tell one synthesizer composer from another, because they all tend to make use of the same convenient automatic devices supplied by the manufacturers.
I’m not suggesting that the synthesizers are bad. They are excellent for teaching purposes, and they often work extremely well in combination with voices or instruments, particularly when the synthesizer itself is played live, rather than recorded on tape. What I am suggesting is that, as far as pure electronic music is concerned, much of the most interesting and original work is coming not from the fancy synthesizers but from homemade gadgets designed by specific composers for specific purposes.
David Behrman is one of the best examples of these do-it-yourself electronic music composers. A while back he did a piece called ‘Runthrough,’ which is actually just a complicated set of cheap circuitry. Several participants are allowed to improvise by activating photo cells with flashlights and manipulating a few switches. It must be great fun to play this musical game, and judging from the Mainstream recording of the piece, the raucous music which results is remarkably interesting just to listen to at the same time.
Now Behrman has designed a more sophisticated set of electronic equipment and written a score to go with it. The equipment is rather limited in many ways, but it is much better suited to his current concerns than any ready-made synthesizer would be.
Behrman and Katherine Morton played ‘Homemade Synthesizer Music with Sliding Pitches’ for about an hour at the Kitchen on January 23. It begins as a collage of sliding sounds, mostly in the upper register. The tones come in like little sirens, starting very softly, getting louder as they slide up a few notes, and then fading out on a lower pitch. A few soft, sustained pitches in the background serve to orient the ear, creating a minor-key feeling. Later, the sliding effects become less prominent, and stable pitches take over, fading in and out in various ways.
Unlike most electronic music, there is a great concern for harmony. The tones often overlap into fairly thick chords, and every note is precisely in tune. The basic sounds are all triangle or sawtooth waves, so the tone color is relatively consistent, and the music has a pleasant quality as it drifts from sound to sound, always maintaining a moderate volume level.
The concert was also interesting to watch, as the audience sat in close proximity to the performers. It was an intimate atmosphere, almost like watching them in their studio, and one could try to puzzle out which dial was controlling what.