Minneapolis was an ideal location for the largest festival of experimental music ever held in the United States. The Walker Art Center is probably the most progressive of the major museums of modern art in the country, the Minnesota Opera and the Guthrie Theater both went through periods when they were national centers for innovation, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is certainly the most adventurous full-time orchestra in the country. All this activity has cultivated an artistic environment where new ideas are appreciated by a relatively large segment of the population. It must be the only large American city where the major music critics of the local dailies all take an interest in new music, where local radio stations devote a serious proportion of air time to such things, where airport officials would entrust their PA system to a composer with a new idea about background music, where the local botanical gardens have agreed to submit their plants and visitors to a permanent ambience of soft electronic bleeping, where the local population allows the muzak in their bus stops to be reprogrammed with unfamiliar soundtracks, where a local drum and bugle corps volunteers to premiere an avant-garde work, where 30 or 40 cyclists can be induced to ride in caravans with electronic sound devices attached to their bicycles, and where loud outdoor concerts can be presented at noontime right 1980/the-quest-for-freedom-theory to major office buildings. From what I can gather, the composers and visual artists who actually live in the Twin Cities are not very progressive or very numerous, but after being subjected to adventurous art from the outside for some years, the local public has become used to such things. It was a good place to present New Music America.
As in the case of the New Music New York festival sponsored by the Kitchen a year ago, the focal point of New Music America was a concert series. But in this friendly environment the music could extend far beyond the walls of the Walker Art Center, where the nine main concerts were held. According to the official count there were 237 concerts, installations, broadcasts, celebrations, events, and other presentations in the Twin Cities between June 7 and June 15, and it was just about impossible for anyone living in the area to avoid experiencing at least one or two of them. Of course, it would have been equally impossible to take in everything, though the atmosphere was so stimulating, and the general artistic level was so professional, that I found myself trying. After attending eight of the nine concerts and perhaps 20 other sorts of presentations, I decided to concentrate on some of the more effective presentations that cannot be heard elsewhere, and to limit my comments on the formal concert presentations to some of the more impressive works by composers I have not reviewed before.
Max Neuhaus’s new installation in a large domed greenhouse at the Como Park-Conservatory in St. Paul had a particular appeal for me. While I have long sympathized with Neuhaus’s sophisticated electronic devices and his relentless attempts to install them in public spaces, I have not always liked the results, and have been particularly disappointed in his low machine-like pitches that get lost in the hubbub as they drone on in the caverns below Time Square. It’s been a year or more since I even bothered to walk over and listen to them. But the greenhouse project is another story. Here the sounds are little birdlike bleeps emitted from 64 loudspeakers, and the loudspeakers are neat little black circles that run around the dome overhead. They emit their sounds intermittently, as dictated by their individual-computer-driven oscillators, and together they produce unpredictable melodies on four pitches. The pitches remain precisely in tune, and the general effect is lovely. As I passed from the domed room into one of the adjoining rectangular greenhouse spaces, the bleeping could still be heard, but all from one direction. On returning to the space under the dome, I began to appreciate the differences in the directionality of each individual bleep. Even the most sophisticated stereo or quadraphonic system just doesn’t place the sound the way 64 loudspeakers do. The project, which represents over two years of planning and a budget of $43,000, is to be a permanent installation, and is perhaps the composer’s most elegant work to date.
The Empty House
For her installation, Maryanne Amacher selected a large house in St. Paul which had recently been vacated by Dennis Russell Davies and family. Even from half a block away the whole house seemed to be screaming, and as I approached I thought twice about subjecting my ears to the source of the sound just inside the front door. I held my hands over my ears as I went in, but as I passed into adjacent rooms on the ground floor, upstairs, and out onto the terrace, the volume became bearable, and the sound became more and more interesting. At first I had perceived little more than an undifferentiated roaring, but gradually I moved deeper into the sound, picking out complex sliding movements, shifting bass tones, and some of the countless other pitches that oscillated all over the spectrum. I also began to discern radical differences as I moved from one room to another. Of course, the setting was an important part of the project. Vacated houses are strange places to begin with, a little like broken machines. They are not functioning the way they are supposed to. They have no raison d'être. Yet this particular empty house, filled so passionately with this particular roaring, began to take on so many layers of symbolism that I have still not managed to decide on my favorite interpretation.
Liz Phillips’s electronic installation stood in a pool located on an attractive downtown plaza. Here the sounds were controlled by a little weather vane. When the wind drifted in from the north we got one sound, from the northeast we got another sound, and so on around the compass. Since the wind tended to shift a lot, the musical sequences often moved quickly between high-pitched beeping, low-pitched drones, and some more complex effects. Additional variables were controlled by wind speed, passing pedestrians, and a screen that responded to the touch of passers-by. The installation aroused much curiosity, and whenever I passed by at least 20 to 30 people would be hanging around, listening to the sound, and waiting to touch the screen. I was bothered by the rickety nature of the structure that held the weather vane, and loose wires that flapped around, and the general visual untidiness of the installation. It seems to me that projects of this sort must to a certain extent be regarded as sculptures, and regardless of budget, it seems that some care should be taken with visual as well as aural matters. But in purely musical terms, the work was quite successful, and again some symbolism was involved. The site, you see, was adjacent to the hall where the Minnesota Orchestra continues to provide a steady diet of standard repertoire and where, until Phillips installed her project, one could have been completely isolated from any radical musical ideas.
Another project I liked was the ‘Assembly Line,’ installed by Megan Roberts and Raymond Ghirado in a large lobby at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Here conveyor belts, levers, ladders, a large flywheel, and other apparatus one might find in a factory had been assembled as a sort of theatrical set that manufactured music. I could have done without the rather tired machine-oppresses-modern-man theme, which induced the Minnesota artists to send human heads along the conveyor belt, strap a man to the rotating flywheel, and perform the piece like robots, but I was nonetheless enticed by the complex texture of prerecorded sounds that were triggered when the seven performers began setting everything in motion. Afterward, when we were invited to run the factory equipment ourselves, I found that I particularly enjoyed pulling one lever that stimulated a super squeal and allowed me to feel momentarily very powerful.
Charlie Morrow organized a ‘Sunrise Celebration,’ which drew a couple of hundred spectators, despite the early hour. This time the site was a city park in Minneapolis and the performers were about 25 members of the St. Croix Rivermen, a local drum and bugle corps. Morrow faced east and chanted an introduction from a hilltop, and then, precisely at sunrise, the corps began a slow moving sequence at the other end of the park. As in some other Morrow pieces I like, there is a counting system and rigid formalistic control. In this case the musicians counted out loud to 21, over and over. While the drums kept a steady beat, the brass players entered and exited on particular counts, playing the notes of a major chord. At the end of each 21-count sequence, everyone took a step forward. In a later section the musicians began stepping more often, and eventually, about 40 minutes into the piece, they reached the top of the hill. There they moved into a kind of snake dance that permitted some improvisational liberties. The performing group did not have the kind of musical and marching skills I have seen in some competitions, but they looked splendid in their uniforms, and they enacted this odd musical ritual with commitment. I later learned that if they had played the music much faster, perhaps 200 times faster, it would have been recognizable as a literal rendering of ‘Reveille.’ Bus Stops
All this time the sound systems on the downtown bus stops were also playing new music. Usually the tapes were soft and pretty and I wouldn’t pay much attention, but once this background music came very much into the foreground for me. That day, I could sense that the loudspeakers on the roof of the bus stop were alive but all I could hear was normal traffic sounds. I listened for a while, puzzling out the situation, when I heard a loud siren approaching. I didn’t see any ambulances or police cars, but the siren was so realistic that it took me a minute or two to realize it had come from the speakers overhead. The situation was intriguing, and I stood there for some time listening to the interplay between the real traffic on the street and the recorded traffic overhead. I felt quite disoriented, and I’m not sure I would recommend this approach as a permanent solution to bus-stop background, but I found it provocative as a work of art. I later learned that the tapes that day had been the work of Richard Teitelbaum.
Jerry Hunt, who lives in Dallas, presented his ‘Haramand Plane’ in a performance that I found profound, skilful, completely original, and utterly baffling. His actions as he paced quietly around the stage were incongruous and I find that I can’t remember many of them. Yet I can’t get the piece out of my mind. I recall that the light was very dim, that Hunt kept walking downstage to whack a large cardboard box with a curious stick, that he rattled some unidentifiable objects in one hand for a while, that a recording of electronic sounds sometimes accompanied him from the loudspeakers, that there seemed to be no explanation for anything that happened, and that I was simultaneously fascinated and disturbed. I think I must have dozed off during part of the performance, but I’m really not sure. The piece already existed in some strange dream world. Later I asked Hunt how he structured the performance and he explained that the work has a steady beat and that it all has to do with counting and structuring phrase lengths. This surprising answer helped me a little, but it didn’t really account for the mysteriousness of the piece. All I can say for sure is that Hunt was doing something very strong, and very different from anything I have ever heard from New York composers.
William Duckworth, a composer who has been teaching at Bucknell University and is now moving to Syracuse, offered ‘The Time Curve Preludes.’ Twelve of these 24 short piano pieces were played by Neely Bruce, a man I knew mostly as the adventurous director of choral activity at Wesleyan University, but who is also a composer and who turned out to be a fine pianist as well, playing with a unique combination of precision and warmth. The pieces themselves are unique, too. Each prelude seems to be in a different mode, and while these modes are relatively simple, they are also quite unusual. I had the feeling I had never heard any of these combinations of notes before. The music ripples along in fairly regular beats, though it never confines itself to steady eighth notes. The modal qualities, the rhythmic interest, and the purely pianistic discoveries add up to the rather complex sequences that defied my efforts to find specific patterns in what was going on, and yet there was something very smooth and orderly about the way the music progressed. This is no doubt the result of underlying mathematical structures which, according to the program notes, were derived from the Fibonacci series.
‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny (also known as Robert Sheff), who is familiar around New York mostly for his collaborations with Robert Ashley, came from San Francisco to present ‘Country Boy Country Dog.’ As a composer who works with pop sounds he was, after all, being compared with Laurie Anderson, Peter Gordon, and Julia Heyward, all of whom had brought with them whole stagefuls of personnel and equipment. For Tyranny, however, the stage was completely bare except for one little electronic keyboard dwarfed in the middle. But as soon as he walked out, dropped his old sport coat on the chair, sat down, and began playing, I knew everything was okay. The music has harmonic richness, physical intensity, and coloristic brilliance all at once.
Eric Stokes is an older composer who has been teaching at the University of Minnesota for some years. But while most of his counterparts in Midwestern universities tend to work very seriously within whatever neoclassic or serial boundaries they started with, Stokes continues to have fun and to probe new areas, even at the risk of being considered naive or unfocused. The first movement of his ‘Phonic Paradigm,’ was a zany little ‘spring song’ in which five players made a variety of boing-boing sounds on a collection of metal springs of varying sizes. The second was a little zanier. Here a few assistants provided sound effects by playing bird whistles all around the hall, while two sopranos sang about an outing they were having. The performers swatted flies periodically and finally fled from the imaginary insects altogether. The last movement was perhaps even zanier. This was ‘Rock and Roll,’ a title Stokes took literally. At first the five players hit rocks together in interesting rhythms from the periphery of the hall, and later they gathered on the stage and rolled their instruments around. One player broke his rock, the audience had a great time, and the whole affair was quite shocking when viewed as the product of a senior professor at a major university. I was delighted.
By official count, that still leaves 227 events that I haven’t described, including some of the most spectacular ones. But somehow completeness just doesn’t seem to be the point. This was, after all, the largest festival of experimental music ever held in the United States.