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Good, Cheap, Fast


Sometimes I am tempted to have the three words of this title tattooed on my hand. Or even better, have these words tattooed on other people’s hands! Good, cheap, and fast represent the three corners of what is called a Project Triangle—a graphic example showing the influence of time, resources, and technical objective upon a given project. Basically the idea is that one can successfully accomplish any two of these elements in the outcome of a project, but that having all three is not possible.

For example:

  • A project can be completed quickly and well, but it’s going to be expensive.
  • A project can be completed quickly and cheaply, but it probably won’t be all that it can be.
  • A project can be completed cheaply and be really good, but it will take time.

This concept has been so true in my experience that I have come to consider it an undeniable law of the universe. It is surprising how many people and organizations have never heard of this, and do not take these elements into consideration when a new project comes up.

How does the Project Triangle apply to musicians and composers? Take a musical commission. A chamber orchestra wants you to write a brand new 10-minute work for a concert that is two months away. That’s a fast turnaround—you will have to put everything else in your life on hold while you work on the piece. The commissioning fee is $1,000—not very much, but that is the reality of the orchestra’s financial situation. Can you survive on $1,000 for two months, if you have to stop the presses for this commission? Or take a different scenario, that you have a teaching job or are a full-time student, and are in no position to drop off the face of the earth to make this happen. What to do??

Taking into account the principles of the Project Triangle, there are a few options for consideration and negotiation:

  • Simply agree to the initial commissioning idea and go for it. The final product might not be truly well done though. (Fast and Cheap)
  • Tell the chamber orchestra that you really want to make them a fabulous work, and that given the extremely tight deadline you would have to set aside all of your other projects, which means stopping your flow of income. Is there any way they could add a bit more money to the commission if they really want the work for that particular concert? (Fast and Good)
  • Tell the chamber orchestra that you really want to make them a fabulous piece, which would be far more fabulous if they would be willing to present the work on a later concert, maybe in four months, or even next season? This would give you more time to compose, while keeping the commissioning fee at the same rate of $1,000. (Good and Cheap)

There is no correct answer, only different perspectives on the same situation. It depends on values and what end result is most important. The same holds true for companies and organizations, whether the project is building a new website, opening up a new branch of the office, or expanding the services offered by the organization. Careful reframing and negotiation based upon the needs and desires of all parties involved can minimize bumps in the road towards making a plan or venture—musical or otherwise—come to life.

Corny Music

One of my big goals for the summer is to tackle a large pile of leisure reading books I’ve accumulated over the school year. One such book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, investigative journalism about the American, capitalist food industry—both the “organic” and the synthetic—that is seriously making me consider vegetarianism.

From the very introduction of the book, “Our National Eating Disorder,” I noticed a connection between one of the central findings of his research and an argument for why classical music (“art music,” “intelligent music,” whatever you’d like to call it) is necessary:

There exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized. Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures. This is something nature never does, always and for good reasons practicing diversity instead. A great many of the health and environmental problems created by our food system owe to our attempts to oversimplify nature’s complexities.

The capitalist system wants to make money by finding one product (or in the case of music, one aesthetic) that sells and mass-producing it in monocultures. One of the great things Pollan does is describe just how many of the products available at the supermarket, the seemingly teeming diversity, can essentially just be broken down into corn. I had no idea just how many food products depend on cheap corn, or just how much petroleum goes into the transport and manufacturing of that cheap corn. Why are we having corn stuffed down our throats? Because of a series of laws designed to keep farm production high and prices low, “impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn.” (From the chapter, “The Farm,” p. 54.)

Pollan had a biologist at Berkeley run a test to determine just how much corn was in a typical McDonald’s meal and the percentages came out like this: soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%).

Just because it’s cheap and easy to find doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you, healthy, or even natural; in fact, the reality of the situation might be the exact opposite. Let’s take a couple of indie/alternative rock bands and break them down into their constituents. Or compare major pop artists. Or major rappers. Break them down into their percentages and see what they’re really made of (the instrumentation, the chord progressions, the melodic phrasing, the rhythmic variation, the virtuosity, etc.) and examine just how diverse our “diversity” really is.


Recently, St. John Flynn of Houston Public Radio, KUHF’s “ The Front Row,” has been helping me out with my broadcast series of The Shepherd School of Music Symphony Orchestra on the Rice University radio station, KTRU. After thanking him profusely for going out of his way to teach me, he said that any opportunity to get more classical music on the airwaves is worth the time, because people need to have options—a healthy range of music to choose from—so the more classical the better. Programming classical music is important because diversity is natural. More than that, programming new music is important because it gives even more diversity.

Do you agree or disagree with my metaphor? Do you think it makes sense to draw connections between the ways that the system has failed the health of America’s food and America’s music?

Mike Johnson: Thinking Plague

Mike Johnson

The deaths last year of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who were two thirds of the progressive rock power trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, elicited a great deal of renewed attention in the mainstream media for their once extremely popular but frequently maligned synthesis of rock and classical music. ELP’s grandiose and virtuosic performances—as well as those of other popular “prog” outfits such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes—reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s—a time when rock went from being the soundtrack of teenage rebellion to something far more ambitious and, to its detractors, unbearably self-indulgent. But while so-called progressive rock was an attempt to create a music that went far beyond the trappings of rock, there were other even more ambitious musicians working within the rubric of progressive rock that wanted to take that music even further—exploring not just the structures and harmonic language of classical music, but also the rhythmic complexity and tonal instability of contemporary and avant-garde composers. Among the most successful and long-standing of such groups is the Robert Fripp-fronted British band King Crimson (which has included in its various line-ups some musicians from the United States since its early 1980s incarnation). Even more experimental are the German band Can (which was formed by composition students of Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the short-lived Henry Cow (which was rumored to have been named after maverick American composer Henry Cowell, but actually wasn’t), whose personnel included English guitarist Fred Frith who is currently a professor of composition in the music department at Mills College.

Prog rock in its various guises (both mainstream and fringe) was predominantly a European phenomenon, although many of its innovations can actually be traced to Americans such as Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Frank Zappa. However, in 1978, as the heyday of punk led most music fans to dismiss prog as bloated and irrelevant, two guys in Denver, Colorado, came together to form a prog cover band inspired by an unlikely combination of Yes and Henry Cow. Those two guys were multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Bob Drake and self-taught guitarist/composer Mike Johnson, whose heroes were not just Steve Howe (of Yes) and Jimi Hendrix but also Shostakovich and William Schuman.

“I heard Stockhausen just a few times,” Johnson recalled when he visited us at the New Music USA office in late January. “I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do that.’ But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. … I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.”

Pretty soon after Drake and Johnson’s initial rehearsals, they stopped playing covers and by 1982 they had enlisted a classically trained vocalist and morphed into a vehicle for performing Johnson’s own complex compositions, scored for a rock band instrumentation, playing their first gigs in venues in and around Denver in 1983 under the name Thinking Plague.

“I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on,” said Johnson. “Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.”

While not initially successful with local audiences, they labored on in the recording studio, self-releasing an eponymous debut EP in 1984 and pressing only 500 copies of it.

“We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it,” remembered Johnson. “We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable. … We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.”

But some important folks did take it seriously, including the legendary New Music Distribution Service, which took 30 of those 500 copies, Henry Cow’s former drummer Chris Cutler whose own independent label/distribution service Recommended Records stunningly took 200 copies, and—perhaps most importantly—Wayside Music, the mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform, a label whose roster includes pioneering electronic/minimalist composer David Borden and the iconic free jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith. Though the band has gone through tons of incarnations since then—Johnson is the only original member of Thinking Plague—Cuneiform has been the band’s label ever since.

Thinking Plague’s ninth album, Hope Against Hope, was just released on February 10, 2017, and it is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessors. To realize Johnson’s musical conceptions, the musicians in the band—like members of a contemporary classical music ensemble—read from fully notated scores. Because of its instrumentation and volume, it still sounds somewhat like rock but it is light years away from popular music.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry,” Johnson opined. “I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. It’s like I’m a person from another planet, as far as I can tell, where all this is concerned. But when it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living. … I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. … But as to how much money there is in any of it, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.”

Mike Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New Music USA
January 27, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You’re pretty much self-taught as a composer and a guitarist, but you actually studied classical music as well as electronic music. I think these studies definitely wound up informing what you do, both as a composer and as a guitarist, so I’m interested in what you thought you were going to do back then, versus what you wound up doing.

Mike Johnson:  Well, it really goes back even before that.  When I was very little, my uncle gave a record to us—to my mom I guess, because my dad had no interest whatever in any kind of symphonic music but my grandfather on my mom’s side was an aficionado.  So my uncle gave her an LP of Copland’s Billy the Kid with Appalachian Spring on the other side.  I must have been three the first time I heard that—me and all my brothers got sucked in.  This would have been the ‘50s when doo-wop music was on the radio.  I didn’t listen to the radio; I was oblivious.  But then I sort of discovered that my mother had some other classical records so I was listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and some Bach.  There was even a Shostakovich piece in there mixed in on a compilation that I guess was on a 78.  I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was cool. I sort of forgot about all that later.  I went to school and the English invasion took place. All of a sudden, everybody—even my brothers—were all agog and excited about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  And that’s where I went.  I got sucked into that after some resistance.  Then my brother got a guitar, and they gave me a guitar for Christmas.  He got an electric guitar that my cousin didn’t want, so they gave me a cheap acoustic guitar just to keep me quiet.  There was this big trapezoidal box under the Christmas tree and I was like, “What in the world is that?” I was 11 years old.  So when I opened it up I said, “What do you want me to do with this?”  Because there were no music lessons in my family. My mother had had piano lessons as a kid and hated them, so she just decided her kids weren’t going to do that.  More’s the pity is all I can say, again and again.  But by the time I was 13, I taught myself to play guitar.  My brother had sort of learned some, but I passed him right up.  I was a lead guitar player in a rock and roll band with a bunch of guys that were 18 years old, because I was tall for my age.  Then at some point my older brother went off to college. By that time we were living in Colorado.  He came back for a break once with an armload of records. One of them was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, one of them was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and one of them was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.  There was something by Prokofiev—I forget what—and maybe one or two others.  And he just said, “These are great; you’ve got to listen to these.”  And he left them with me.  Anything my brother said, I did.

“I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music.”

About the same time I started hanging out with these guys and we’d go down in this guy’s basement and play records. These guys turned me on to King Crimson.  So I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music. Those things worked into my psyche and I didn’t really know what the heck to do with it.  I was trying to play rock and roll and be a high school student, and I managed to get through high school but I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I wasn’t interested in studying.  I didn’t read music.  I’d never had any lessons. It had not been a supportive family situation where your mom is going, “Oh, you’re interested in that?” It wasn’t like that in those days.  It was just a bunch of boys, and we lived in North Carolina and it was the ‘50s and early-‘60s.  So it was all about “shut up, get out of the kitchen, go outside, play football, we’ll call you when the food’s ready.”  Basically that was the parenting. I didn’t think of myself as a prospective music student.  I’m completely self-taught.  Everything was by ear.  But I was very interested in this stuff that these masters were doing, and I couldn’t figure it out.

FJO:  So what did your family wind up thinking when you actually became a musician?

MJ:  My parents, as far as I can remember, never saw me perform anywhere.  Not when I was in teenage bands, you know, playing like Beatles, Stones, and Kinks.  Not later when I was playing whatever it was, like early-‘70s rock and roll music. They didn’t view being a musician as a meaningful, viable option, particularly being a rock and roll musician.  It was just something that they didn’t believe was legitimate in any way, shape, or form, even though my dad loved Chet Atkins and certain kinds of popular music as well as lots of guitar-type music.  But rock and roll wasn’t acceptable.

Both my older brothers went to college and became engineers.  That was considered how you go.  So I was like, what do I do?  In the meanwhile I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying that the Marines needed a few good men. It was 1970 or ‘71 and the draft lottery was still going on.  I knew that my number was up, because they picked a certain amount of birthday numbers every year and mine was pretty low on the list. So I knew that I was going. My older brother had already gone in because he lost his college deferment.  I ended up spending four year in the U.S. Navy during which time I played guitar a lot.  I actually honed my skills probably more than any other time, sitting around playing scales and copying my hero then, Steve Howe of Yes.  I was trying to learn to play like that.  Before that it had been three-finger blues licks and Jimi Hendrix was my God.

FJO:  Were you ever in any of the Navy bands?

“I never did get any kind of credentials in music.”

MJ:  No, because you had to be a good player to be in those.  I couldn’t read a note of music.  I was a Navy patrol plane radio operator chasing after submarines in the Cold War.  I was a lonely, enlisted man, but I went all over the world.  I was in Iran.  All kinds of stuff.  But I didn’t want to be there.  I figured I’d get the GI Bill out of it at least.  All my friends back from high school were doing things.  It was a tortuous kind of experience for me, but I came out of the Navy with some equipment and a lot more chops. Then I moved back home.  I became a music major at the local city college, but they only had classical guitar or all the usual classical stuff; I was an electric guitar player and I didn’t want to play classical guitar.  So I took all the theory classes, the history classes, sight singing and reading, all the usual first two-year and some of the third-year music classes, and then some general classes.  Then I just wandered away from school because I was playing in bands and I needed to do other stuff. At one point I was playing six nights a week in a really skanky lounge band, from 9 to 2 every night.  I literally fell asleep at one point while playing some song.  I found myself in the next song and didn’t remember how I got there.  But it was paying the bills.  I went back to school later, in the ‘80s.  Thinking Plague was already a thing.  I took a different major and finished a bachelor’s degree.  Then I went back to school later after that.  But I never did get any kind of credentials in music.

FJO:  So, to go back to when you started playing in various bands—I imagine these were basically cover bands. You were not doing any of your own music.

MJ:  Not at all.  Not a bit.

FJO:  So how did you make the transition to doing your own music?

MJ:  Well, when I was getting turned on to all of this 20th-century symphonic stuff, I was in bands with these guys who were turning me on to King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and a lot of other bands that were way more minor than that.  So I was just all aflutter with all these possibilities, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had another band with the same guys a little later and I started trying to write some tunes kind of in the flavor of what I thought was Yes, but I didn’t really have the chops at the time to do that sort of thing.  Subsequently to that—I must have been 18 or 19 and working some kind of stupid job—some friends of mine started a band. They were doing covers of progressive rock tunes and, in some cases, they were arranging them a little bit.  I hung out at a rehearsal and they were working on this one tune. They wanted a middle part and they didn’t know what it was.  I just had this idea jump in my head, and I started saying, “Here, bass, you play this.”  And then I heard this kind of thing. “Guitar player, you play this.”  I built this part for them right out of my head, just talking to them; they started playing it and they used it.  That was the first example of me actually writing something in the genre that worked.  It was really angular and tritone-y

But nothing came of that because that’s when I started getting letters from Uncle Sam.  I was just messing around. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they thought it was pretty cool.  The seed was there, but I had to learn to believe I could do it and had to find a path that I thought was legitimate.  When I was in the Navy, I was living with a friend at one point and trying to write some stuff.  A lot of stuff had a 12-string, and I was doing finger picking, so it sounded a little bit like Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and there was stuff that sounded a little bit like Genesis with maybe a little bit more science fiction-y sounding chords.  A lot of this stuff is recorded, very low quality, but it exists.

Then I was in a music store in 1978 in Denver and saw a little note on a bulletin board: “Seeking musicians who are into Henry Cow and Yes.” So I called the number, and it turned out to be Bob Drake.  We started a proggy cover band that never got out of the basement despite eight months of rehearsing, but he and I hooked up. After that we were hanging out and doing wacky stuff on cassette decks. It was about 1979 or ’80 and we were recording some stuff which I would call early proto [Thinking] Plague kinds of music.  There was at least one tune that never had any words, but it had a part A and a part B and a noise section, and that exists too, if you twist my arm hard enough; it was called “Doppelganger.”

Then I remember sitting down at a little table in the little kitchen where I was living in 1980 and writing this tune “Warheads” which ended up on the second Thinking Plague record some years later. That was when I think of [Thinking Plague] as officially being born; me and Drake did a four-track reel-to-reel demo of it with us singing and no keyboards and all kinds of wacky noise going on.  That exists, too, by the way.  Then by about ’82, we put together a band of sorts to try to play some of these songs, and I was coming up with more stuff.  Basically I had written the songs that I wrote for our first LP.  Then Bob put together a couple of wacky things and our singer at the time put together a zany little tune, and we had enough [material] for a record.  But we had no idea what to do.  We sat for a year trying to figure it out. We didn’t know anything about shopping it.  We didn’t think that it was shoppable to some record label, although we were getting Option and all these other magazines in the ‘80s that were printed on cheap newsprint and which were chock full of ads from record labels and distributors. DIY independent recording was huge. We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on.  We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.  So I talked to my oldest brother, who was the most staid, settled, and established member of the family, and he ended up loaning me enough money to press 500 copies. We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it.  And we hand spray painted the album covers and stuck a little insert in that we had printed.  I think we shrink wrapped them, but maybe we just had plastic sleeves that we put them in.  Then we managed to contact Wayside Music [a mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform].  They took some of them.  And we contacted Recommended Records.

FJO:  I know that Cuneiform reissued the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD many years later, but I didn’t realize that your relationship with them went all the way back to the beginning.

MJ:  All the way back to 1984.  We got on their maps, even though at the time I thought we’re just nobody, small fry.  We also sent music to New Music Distribution Service, which was in New York. They were famous for not paying people, so we never saw anything from them, but they took 30 copies.  Then Chris Cutler at Recommended took 200 copies and boom.  That was the year we established contact with some important people in the future.  And by that time, I was thinking to myself, “I am the writer in this band.”  Drake was the producer-arranger aesthetic vision guy.  But I was writing. I was putting together the notes and the chords and the rhythms.  And the words, too.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1987.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1987. Back row (left to right): Bob Drake, Mike Johnson, Eric Moon (Jacobson), and Lawrence Haugseth; front: Susanne Lewis and Mark Fuller. (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  I definitely want to talk with you about words, but first I want to riff on something you just said vis-à-vis not knowing what to do with this stuff or who would take it, and you making a connection to Cuneiform and, for better or worse, to New Music Distribution Service.  We talk all the time these days about being in a post-genre environment, but during that period, roughly from the late-’70s to the early-’80s, labels formed like Cuneiform which released rock that was on the fringe as well as contemporary classical stuff and experimental jazz.  And New Music Distribution Service distributed all this music without making distinctions between all of these things.  These folks loved all of this stuff.  It was all part of this larger umbrella of new music. In terms of what you were doing, you refer to it as rock and coming out of performing in a rock band, but you were listening to all these other kinds of music. So you were poised to enter this proto-post-genre environment.

“I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde.”

MJ:  From way back when I was a teenager, I had this idea because I was listening to the ‘70s prog stuff, but for the most part they didn’t sound like 20th-century music.  They sounded like 19th- or even 18th-century music combined with rock instruments. I had this idea of using a rock band to somehow communicate content or the essence of what these symphonic 20th-century guys were doing.  I was interested in those kinds of polytonal or atonal harmonies and some of those odd rhythms, not just getting in 7/8 and staying there, but using changing meters as part of what you actually compose with as opposed to just laying down a framework that you now have to work on. The real composers use time and pitch as variables in expressing what they’re trying to express.  This was all very germinal for me at the time, but it was in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do and did ten years later.  So I was 27, 28 years old when I started moving in that direction and figuring out how to do it.  I had to get the proggy stuff out of my system; I had to stop wanting to emulate the prog bands of the ‘70s.  Henry Cow and the Art Bears helped me to do that—Art Bears in particular, and the last Henry Cow album, Western Culture. I was agog at it and it was inspirational for me.  It showed me so many possibilities.  So I wanted to do something more like that.  That’s when the roots of Thinking Plague really took hold.  So I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde, like Stockhausen, and later on I was never into minimalism and the pure aleatoric music of John Cage.  I was into the dramatic, heavy stuff that those composers from the first half of the 20th century were doing, because I was so moved by it.

FJO:  That’s funny because I hear elements of Stockhausen and even Philip Glass from time to time on Thinking Plague records.

MJ:  Well, I have a little section called the Philip Glass moment in one of my tunes, but it was definitely a “Philip Glass moment.”

FJO:  It’s on one of the later albums so we’ll get to that in a bit, but even early on I hear musique concrète elements and I know that you had studied electronic music. But maybe that was not in your initial conception of the material and came more from Drake during post-production.

MJ:  Drake never studied anything as far as I know, other than just what he listened to.  When I was living in California, I had one electronic music class.  It was taught by Alan Strange and it was definitely out there.  It was a junior college class out in the Bay area, basically an appreciation class, but it opened my mind and made me very interested.  So there was a piece of that.  Early on I would try to write these scores, because when I went to school the first time, I learned how to notate.  I never learned to read music well, but I learned how to read music on paper without having to perform.  I learned how to write music.  I would draw shapes and say, “This is going to be a synthesizer.” So I had these graphic things going on in the midst of my muddled notes.  I was envisioning this kind of electronically enhanced rock music—this was before techno or any of that stuff came out.  I was still sort of thinking ‘70s style. And then, as you say, Drake was just into sound and noise.  He and I were both inspired by Fred Frith’s prepared guitar stuff, so we did hours and hours of tape loops of scratching and assaulting pickups with paper clips and files and stuff like that.  And we had a band that got together and we would improvise for two or three hours doing all this stuff with tapes.  We recorded a bunch of it and most of it we’d just throw it away.  We would do it maybe as a transition or as something in the middle of a piece.  We’re going to go into some noisy, weird place and then we’re going to emerge on the other side of it.  But there was never any conscious thinking about the avant-gardists per se because we didn’t really listen to them.  I heard Stockhausen just a few times. I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album.  And I thought, “Hmm. I could do that.” But I guess I’m old fashioned.  I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen.  I also believe that human beings can listen to anything and if they listen to it enough times, they’ll begin to build the associations even if it’s the sound of dirt falling on totally random insects, whatever.  If you listen to it enough times, you’ll begin to hear patterns and your brain will make associations that were never there.  That’s what humans do.  But my preference always is to hear it in my head and guide what’s going on.  To plan.  It’s more old fashioned in that I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker.  That’s extremely high art in my mind.

FJO:  But Shostakovich and William Schuman both conceptualized their music, then wrote it down mostly for other people to play, whereas in a band situation you have a group of people coming together and it’s way more collaborative.  It might be your tune and your chords and your words, but then it’s Drake’s drumming or whichever singer you have at any given time, what she brings to it.  It’s what the reed player brings to it and the post-production. It’s all these levels.  So in rock or other music that is created in a group situation and that is crafted in a recording studio, the urtext usually winds up being the produced album. Of course this music is also performed live in concert, sometimes very much like the original recording but also sometimes very different from it. I know that you made a point in the press release for your latest album that even though many things on it are multi-tracked, everything could also be done live.  So I wonder what the urtext is for you.

MJ:  Obviously the score.  But it wasn’t always like that—only since about 1990. Before that there were rough scores, sometimes just scribbles in a book that I took to a rehearsal where I said, “Listen to this. Here play this; try this. We could stick this with that and we’ve got a song.”

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for “The Great Leap Backward” (which is featured on the new Thinking Plague CD, Hoping Against Hope)
© 2017 Malaise Music. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

(MJ:) The stuff from the ‘80s was written out, but it wasn’t necessarily finalized. I would generally write a primary bass part and I’d write the guitar parts and keyboard parts and I would sometimes write a vocal line, but there were never drum parts for it. For the first two records, I basically wrote the vocals lines and the words as I recall, except for one song by the lead singer on the first album, and then another song by the lead singer on the second album.  For one of the songs on the first album, “How to Clean a Squid,” all the words are literally out of a cuisine magazine.

FJO:  Yeah, that one is really bizarre; I love it.

MJ:  It is bizarre.  The drummer brought in that idea.  He had this magazine and he gave it to the singer, and she went and figured out how to put it on top of the song we were working on.

FJO: I hope the recipe wasn’t under copyright.

MJ:  Well, it was changed sufficiently enough.  I like the part: “Turn body sac inside out.  Turn body sac inside out.” We repeated it several times.  “And clear away any grit or tissue.  And clear away any grit or tissue.”  That was just a Dadaist kind of thing, an Absurdist kind of a thing.  We were into that.  But over time, my tendency to want to compose started taking up more of the air in the band.  By the time we did our third album, In This Life, I had pretty much written all the music, but I didn’t have finished vocal parts and I didn’t have words.  I collaborated with our singer at the time, Susanne Lewis, to do that.  For me, it was always a burden. I would write the music and I didn’t have the words yet.  Sometimes I didn’t have the vocal lines.  Or I did have vocal lines, but no words.  That’s a real problem.  You’re taking this structure and you sing, we need to put some syllables onto this that work. I had it sort of partly structured.  I had motifs.  I had names of songs that I wanted to use.  But I didn’t have any words for them.  So I presented all this to her and let her go.  And that album is the result.

FJO:  One of the songs on that album is completely by her, both words and music.

MJ:  She contributed a song.  And then she made decisions like what the vocal line would be in the song “Love,” because I didn’t have a vocal line for that song.  So she just took the top note of the little chords that were going on and made a little melody out of it, which made perfect sense.  And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  It all worked out pretty well.  Her particular musical personality and style, and her whole underground ‘80s background—that Lydia Lunch/Nick Cave flavor—definitely comes across, but it becomes a new thing in that context.  She does a lot of indefinite wandering pitch things. Sometimes it sounds like: can’t she sing the notes? But she definitely is doing everything on purpose.  That woman could nail notes.  Wonderful ear.  It took some getting used to, but then it became like, “Wow, I love what she does.” Some of our fans either love her or can’t listen to it, but she found something. We got lucky on that album in terms of collaboration.

But then the band flew to pieces basically after we put that out. The key players moved, even though we just got onto Recommended Records and we had our first CD.  It was the first RēR CD that was manufactured in the States.  And it was one of the first that was CD-only, because in those days people would make an LP and they would make a CD.  Anyway, I thought, “Wow, we could do something with this.”  We were all working stiffs.  Bob Drake was working for a guy who had a mobile car wash, a truck with a big tank on the back, and they’d go around and they’d wash people’s cars in parking lots in the middle of winter.  Drake was in blue jeans full of holes and crummy sneakers that were full of holes and wet. It was 20 degrees and he got peanuts.  He would go home and he would have generic spaghetti with tomato paste for his supper.  That’s part of the reason he went to L.A. because he was tired of starving to death.  He thought he could parlay his engineering skills into an actual engineering job, which he did.  Susanne wanted to go off to New York because I think she thought New York was the place where her artistic tendencies and vision could be fulfilled. But I just stayed there.  Anyway, we ended up putting together a few shows with some airlines involved, some long distance rehearsing with Dave Kerman and Bob Drake coming from L.A., driving in and then driving back after spending a week in a basement rehearsing.  We were developing and practicing stuff, but then it really fell apart.

FJO: There’s something I don’t want to lose in your referencing of Lydia Lunch—which is something I definitely hear in her vocals, too, so I’m glad that you confirmed that.  Lydia is definitely on the punk end of the musical spectrum. We talked about the divides between rock and classical music, but at that time—from the late ‘70s through the early to mid ’80s—there was also a real schism between the people who were into more proggy things and people who were into more punky kinds of things.

“The proggers were called dinosaurs.”

MJ:  Absolutely. The proggers were called dinosaurs.

FJO:  But now if you listen back there are lots of musical connections between the two. It’s sort of like that famous Stephen Sondheim comment when he was asked what the difference between opera and musical theater is, and he said it’s the venues that they’re performed in.  The biggest difference between prog and punk might have been that they had very different audiences. If you listen to a Public Image Ltd record, it sounds very prog.

MJ:  But it’s very different from the Sex Pistols.

FJO:  That’s true.  But Gang of Four was also very proggy and, only a few years later, so was Sonic Youth.

MJ:  I actually played with those guys a couple of times.  We opened for them in Denver in ’87 in some big old, noisy, echo-y theater and then I had another little band that opened for them in Denver in ’86 or something like that.  I had no trouble communicating with them. They were cool guys.  But they were as loud as loud can be.  The best way to listen to them was outside the building through a wall.  That’s what I got to do once—behind the stage, through a wall. You could hear everything.  You could hear all the weird frequency bending and shifting. But back to your point, I think that in the ‘70s, one of the things about the progressive rock bands was that they allegedly had a level of virtuosity playing their instruments and a lot of the music was about showing off that virtuosity and making big, long songs that were involved and had lots of parts and would get quiet and get loud and blah, blah, blah, stuff like Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready.”  Then the punks came along and it was all like: No. Two-minute songs. Three chords.  Everything’s loud, and we’re yelling. And they were bitching with us because they thought we were pompous. I was calling myself we because I was into the prog thing, even though I wasn’t one of those people officially.  It felt like it was a countercultural revolution.  We were throwing out things we learned and going back to the beginning.  We were actually going back to the ‘60s, just crude rock and roll, except we were trying to be a little bit more crude and the players were even worse.  That’s how I felt, but it quickly changed.  It quickly looked to me like this ethic of rebellion and destruction was literally a wave that passed through and, in its wake, it left the new wave as opposed to punk. And new wave immediately started getting more technical and strict. Then a lot of people, like Peter Gabriel, made this transition. Then The Police came along, and the musicianship levels started recovering quickly.

FJO:  But by the time Thinking Plague officially became a band and started releasing recordings, prog was a dirty word.

MJ:  Yes.  Absolutely.

FJO:  I remember living through that.  The rock critics turned prog into a dirty word, even though you could clearly hear prog elements in some of the punk stuff.

MJ:  But you couldn’t call it that.

FJO:  Right, but you did. Or did you?

“I read something that said, ‘Thinking Plague RIO,’ and I said, ‘What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.'”

MJ:  I don’t think so.  I don’t even remember what we called ourselves. I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on.  I just knew that my influences were everything from Henry Cow and the Art Bears to Genesis and Mahavishnu, to Shostakovich and so on.  I just knew that was what I was interested in.  And Bob was kind of this enthusiastic “yeah, let’s do it” guy who would do anything but who had a Rickenbacker bass—still does—and he was a Chris Squire devotee. He liked lots of other stuff, too.  He was a huge Henry Cow fan, so that threw him very left of the normal field of what most people listen to.  So we stopped thinking about genres. I was always saying, “Well, this song is kind of like King Crimson” but he didn’t know about it.  He didn’t listen to King Crimson and didn’t care.  So we just didn’t deal in that.  We let other people label us. The first time I ever heard this term RIO was in the ‘90s.  I read something that said, “Thinking Plague RIO,” and I said, “What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right?  Uh, whatever.”  Then I read more and I tried to figure out what they were talking about, Rock In Opposition, but there were no musical descriptors in it, so I thought, “How come they’re grouping us with everything from Samla to Stormy Six plus Henry Cow?  We don’t really sound like any of that stuff.” If you don’t like Henry Cow, that doesn’t mean you won’t like us.  It’s what I always dislike about categorization: taking a bunch of things that are different but are similar enough to put into this box so that all the people that don’t like one of those things in that box automatically don’t like any of the things in the box.  That’s why I objected to it.  Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band.  Sometimes I would use the term progressive rock, but that’s not really how I’d looked at it although I was informed by that.  Frankly, I admired a lot of the musicianship of that.  When I heard the term avant-progressive, I said, “Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate I’ve heard.”  Whatever.  I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.

FJO:  But by the ‘90s the word progressive had been rehabilitated.

MJ:  Right. The so-called resurgence.

FJO:  Although after the band fell apart there was this long hiatus in the ’90s.  There was almost a decade where Thinking Plague didn’t really function.

MJ:  Except for what I was doing.

FJO:  I’d like to know more about that.  I know that you were involved with other groups.  I know that you played with Dave Kerman’s 5uu’s.

MJ:  I toured Europe for 2 months with them in 1995.

Mike Johnson playing guitar with Dave Kerman on drums and Bob Drake on bass

Mike Johnson (left) as a sideman for 5UU’s performing with Dave Kerman (drums) and Bob Drake (bass) in Grenoble, France, 1995. (Photo by Laurent Angeron, courtesy Mike Johnson/.)

FJO:  But you never recorded with them.  You were also part of this other group, Hamster Theatre, and you actually made several albums with them as a side man while your own projects were kind of on the back burner.

MJ:  I never stopped working on it, or thinking about it.  People moved away in ’89-’90, but we did a few more gigs in ’90 and we had plans. We had songs in the works.  I would send recordings to Bob or we would get together.  At one point, I went out and spent a week with Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, who was the 5uu’s keyboardist, and Bob, in Bob’s little Burbank house behind the house, a little backyard house.  Dave put blankets over his drums, because we couldn’t make too much noise.  And we spent the week working up one of these tunes that I had sketched out in a book.  But I came to find out later somehow that we weren’t all on the same page about what this project was about.  I thought we were working on a song and it’s probably going to end up on a Thinking Plague record.  I didn’t know, but I thought so.  But I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if there was going to be another Thinking Plague record.  It turns out that at least Kerman, and maybe Drake, were thinking this is a new project.  It was a song called “This Weird Wind” and it’s on the In Extremis record.  It sounds like if Yes tried to keep going in the direction they were going in when they did Relayer.

FJO:  When I listened to it again recently, I made a note to myself that it sounded to me like a bizarre amalgam of Yes and the more experimental moments of The Beach Boys.

MJ:  I never thought of that.  Okay.  But anyway, there was another song, “Kingdom Come,” which was something that I had written in the later part of the ‘80s.  It was sitting on paper.  I made a really awful sounding sequence of it on a synthesizer that I had that you had to step program everything in really tediously.  It sounded horrible. I played it for Bob and he hated the way it sounded.  He couldn’t get excited about the song, so for the longest time it just languished.  But I was going to get this song done.  So I sent Kerman a chart and I sent him that tape, I guess.  He learned the drum parts.  Then we flew him back to Denver, went into a studio, and recorded the drum tracks.  I got another bass player who reads to come in and just play direct-in bass, really clean tones.  Then I just built the tracks.  Bob was never on it because he never showed any interest in it.  He was in L.A. doing all this other stuff, but that song got assembled despite that.  Then we had this song which we ended up calling “Les Etudes d’Organism” which was based on an earlier thing.

FJO:  It sounds like an expansion of the track “Organism” from In This Life that Fred Frith appears on.

MJ:  And there was one before that called “Etude for Combo” on the second album.  We took themes from that and then themes from “Organism” and put them together.  We were trying to figure out a way to make a live performance piece that incorporated this stuff.  We called it “Etude for Organism” and we worked that up in the basement at another place in 1990.  Then we performed it in Boulder and we played it in L.A. once.  It was a little bit rougher, but the parts were sort of all there—this whole big wacky thing with all these silly tunes and big, huge sections.  Bob was determined to finish that.  And we recorded some of it.  He recorded drums, bass, and a lot of other stuff in a big studio he was working out of there in the middle of the night.  I recorded stuff in Denver and I took the sax player into a nice studio to record.  Then we put the tracks together.  It wasn’t finished until ’94 in terms of mixing.  Shortly thereafter, both Kerman and Drake were in France. I was still thinking maybe there’s another chance for this thing, but now that they were in France it got a lot harder.  The internet was not really a thing at the time.  So I went and I spent a lot of time there, but by the end of that I knew this thing was dead.  There’s no practical way with them on the other side of the ocean and there was not enough momentum or interest on their part.  So I came back home and thought about it for a while and finally thought, “I’m going to reform this.” I had four other tunes sitting that I had worked up on Finale that I wanted to record, plus there was “Les Etudes” and “This Weird Wind” sitting in the can—I couldn’t stand over 20 minutes’ worth of music sitting in a can.  This had to get out somehow.

FJO:  As long as we’re talking about the material that eventually surfaced on the In Extremis album, is “Behold the Man” the track that has what you described as the Philip Glass part?

MJ:  Exactly.  We called it the Philip Glass part.  That was a joke.

FJO:  Before we leave this moment when you were finding a way to reform Thinking Plague, I think there’s an interesting distinction between the earlier and reformed groups. While it’s true that in the original line-up it was primarily your material compositionally, the end product was the result of a real collaboration involving several people.  But with the re-formed Thinking Plague and everything that’s been happening since, it’s really been your band.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1990.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1990 (clockwise from lower left): Mike Johnson, Shane Hotle, Susanne Lewis, Mark Harris, Dave Kerman, and Bob Drake. (Photo by Andy Watson, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

MJ:  That’s really true, and the musicians would tell you that.  I became the overseer.  The only way to get the music done was to just do it.  More and more, the only way to get what I wanted was to do it myself.  I was getting more invested in each piece, and I wanted to make sure that it fulfilled what I wanted to get from it.  My experience with other people had always been that it’s a compromise and that things get watered down, so it misses the mark a little bit.  Sometimes, certainly, there’s synergy, and sometimes it’s so much fun, but for the serious stuff when I wanted to really mine a vein, I found that I needed to do it alone.

FJO:  Well I’m going to make a conjecture, and I could be totally wrong about this. We don’t really know each other and I’m reading into your life story.  But it seems like it’s a reaction to that almost decade-long period, where the band was in hiatus and you were essentially a side man in 5uu’s—

MJ:  —Just briefly—

FJO:  —and Hamster Theatre—

MJ:  That was about the same time that the new Plague was formed.

FJO:  Yes, but I wonder if going from being a de facto co-leader of a group to spending your time being a side man in other people’s bands made you think that you really needed to grab the helm and be the leader of your own thing once and for all.

MJ:  I would say it was more the departure of Drake in particular, but also Kerman. Kerman was a strong personality.  You care about what he thinks; he’s got incredible ideas and he was enthusiastic. But he was gone, too.  They were just gone—physically and mentally.  But I was still invested in this thing.  I felt it hadn’t fulfilled what it was trying to do.  It hadn’t reached what I thought it could reach. I had no idea what it was gonna do, but I had to keep trying.

In terms of being a side man, I didn’t do that so much. I decided I needed to get out a little bit.  Dave Willey contacted me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar with this project of his.  So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”  I showed up and it was pretty weird; it took a few rehearsals to feel comfortable.  There was some quick personnel shuffling and then it settled into a thing and it started to work.  Then it got better and better and pretty soon, by ’97, ’98, I was pretty invested, but it was definitely not what I would normally do.  It was much more charming and humorous or sweet sometimes, and a little weird, a little out there.  Sometimes it got really out there because Dave’s got this streak of “RIO” and it’s pretty big.  But that wasn’t really it. It was just the desire that had already been there to fulfill this thing so if nobody else was going to help me do it, then I was going to do it.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003, left to right: David Shamrock (ex-Sleepytime Gorilla drummer/composer), Matt Mitchell, Dave Willey, Deborah Perry, Mark Harris, and Mike Johnson. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  And curiously, you not only played in Dave Willey’s band Hamster Theatre, he wound up playing in Thinking Plague as well.

MJ:  Well, that was a case of needing a bass player. I knew Dave Willey from ten years before, about ’88 probably.  As a matter of fact, he was good friends with Deborah Perry, and when Susanne Lewis took off to New York, Deborah Perry came down with Dave.  Dave brought her down to our little rehearsal basement, and she tried out with Thinking Plague in ’89.  After we did In This Life and Susanne was gone, I was very interested but Bob Drake didn’t like her voice.  He still doesn’t like her voice.  So that didn’t happen.  But I knew Dave was a guitar player.  I didn’t know he was a bass player.  When I got in his band, he was playing guitar, accordion, keyboards, and everything else.  Then I got a taste of what he could do on bass, and I was like “Jesus!” I also realized from playing his music that I didn’t understand how musically deep and capable he was.  So I asked him and he said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”  Then it wasn’t too big of a leap to say to myself, “Well, I need a singer, what about his friend Deborah?” And she was willing to try it as well.  The first song we did was “The Aesthete.” She had a cold and we did it anyway; I think it came out pretty well.  This was after me trying to work with Janet Feder.  She’s a prepared classical guitarist from Denver.  She was recording on RēR for a little while.  She does neat stuff and she’s done some stuff with Fred Frith.  She sings a bit, so I tried to get her to sing.  It was the song “Maelstrom.”  She actually recorded the opening vocal tracks.  I decided, “Nah,” but she made an effort.  She did alright, but I didn’t think it was going to work.  Then Deborah came along and she had a real ability to nail pitches and to find the notes.  And she did homework.  She studied her parts.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about singers, you’ve been referring to all the Thinking Plague music as songs.  One of my pet peeves is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we call every kind of piece of music a song so it has rendered the word meaningless.  A lot of the things on the Thinking Plague albums I don’t think of as songs.  For starters, many things are much longer.

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for the instrumental composition

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for the instrumental composition “Gúdamy Le Máyagot” (which is featured on the Thinking Plague CD, A History of Madness)
© 2003 Mike Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

MJ:  I call them art songs.

FJO:  Okay, but you also said that a lot of time the vocal lines and the words will come much later than your original conception.  They start as instrumentals.  And yet in every incarnation of Thinking Plague you’ve always included a singer, though there are instrumental tracks on many of the albums. Even though you’ve always been the leader of the group, whether de facto or total, you’ve never sung. In fact, with one exception where you featured a male singer, it’s always a female singer.

“I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play.”

MJ:  Well, I never thought of myself as a strong singer.  I still don’t, although I can sing.  I do sing in other things sometimes.  When I was young, I was a backup singer in rock and roll bands.  But I was never strong; I have a soft voice and I have a fairly limited range, although I can do falsetto.  I’m in a Beatles band right now, just for money.  It’s money and kind of fun.  We do realistic versions of Beatles recordings, and I have to sing so I do it.  But, for Thinking Plague, my hands were full.  I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play, so the vocalist is a full-time job on its own for the most part.  The thing about having a woman developed over time.  I began to feel that since the music was oftentimes so male, so angular, so mathematical sometimes, and so challenging and difficult, even off-putting, that if you placed a woman’s voice—and not some kind of growling or in-your-face blues or disco singer—but the idea was to have this little human heart that you could latch onto in the middle of this maelstrom of music that’s going on.  And I think it works.  It gives something for more normal listeners to latch onto.  The human thread that goes through this music, which for a lot of people would not be a nice place to be traveling.

FJO:  But it seems to me that there’s something else going on with having a singer who is singing lyrics. From the very beginning there were lyrics that were clearly political, such as “Warheads.” And almost everything on the last three albums has a political bent.

MJ:  Definitely.  Absolutely.

FJO:  So, if vocal lines and lyrics are often an afterthought, I’m wondering where these things came from.  Obviously, this band was originally formed in the early ’80s during the first term of Ronald Reagan.  That has been called a great era for punk, which is essentially protest music.  Some people have suggested that there could be a real re-flowering of punk now given the current political climate.  Even the title of your new album, Hoping Against Hope, feels particularly timely though I know that you had already finished the album and had given it that title before the election.

“It is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.”

MJ:  Yeah, I know.  It was named well before, even before the campaign. And it was floating around as a possible name quite a long time before that, because the times just felt like that to me.  Part of it was, after the last album, Elaine and I were talking and she said, “Can we do something that’s maybe a little bit more hopeful?  Can we do something that offers some solutions or hope?”  And I said, “Sure, if we can figure out how to do that.”  Well, we didn’t really do that very well, but it made me think about trying to do that a little.  I’ve never been able to go with a direction that’s just celebrating or joy and I have felt for a long time that it is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.  Part of that is my work background.  Since the ‘80s, I have been working in human services programs, like working with the homeless, helping people to get shelter, helping people to get jobs.  Then I worked with poor students to help them deal with all the issues that were keeping them from being able to be successful.  I had a day career out of this, and I was good at it.  That informed my music, because when I went back to college after the music stuff, I took a lot of social science classes—politics and sociology and all this kind of stuff.  My perspective definitely moved left, and I’ve been there ever since.  The cliché is that as men get older, they get more conservative.  Me, I’m moving left.  I’m left of left now.  I don’t even know where I am.

Warheads” was in response to the Iran hostage crisis.  There was a wave of Islamophobia that came to the country then, like ’79 and ’80, and I was appalled by it. So I made a comment about that, and I got my younger brother, who fancies himself a poet, to write some lyrics with me and so the lyrics are pretty abstruse. But there’s this one part that deals with warheads and the board of trustees are counting up their funds, warheads are counting their guns.  This all struck me at a time when our society seemed a lot more peaceful: there wasn’t gun violence all the time; we were not at war.  But it struck me as ugly and that something needed to be said.  I didn’t really try to make much in the way of political statements. The song “Moonsongs” has a kind of environmental pagan slant, using pagan things as kind of an angle for the earth, not that I was on a pagan kick.

Then, with In This Life, Susanne was in charge of the words basically.  “Run Amok” is about when you have too many rats in a cage and their behavior starts to alter and they try to eat each other and kill each other.  That’s what I felt was starting to happen on the planet.  Every now and then, somebody goes nuts and kills a bunch of people.  It was rare in those days; now it seems to be every other day on the news.  I really think that parts of this society are now running amok.  All I did was give Susanne this title and tell her what I was thinking.  She took it and did her thing with it.

Then when it got to the phase where I was fully taking the reins, “Kingdom Come” had a definite angle that way.  “Dead Silence” also has an environmental angle. And A History of Madness had its own themes, but they’re not unrelated.

FJO:  “Blown Apart” definitely has a political agenda.

MJ:  “Blown Apart” is a good example.

FJO:  And on Decline and Fall, there’s “Sleeper Cell Anthem,” which is intensely frightening.

MJ:  It was supposed to be.  The message was about who are really the terrorists here.  “We are your daughters, sisters, and wives.”  We’re the terrorists.  We’re creating the terrorists.  We’re creating the terror that’s creating the terrorists.  Then on the new album, there’s a song about drones and execution from the skies called “Commuting to Murder.”  I didn’t realize how timely that was.  I wasn’t watching it at the time.  People are seemingly being arbitrarily eliminated from on high without due process and without concern for collateral damage because it’s so important to us that we eliminate this Abu blah-blah-blah guy here.  That was the one thing that I most objected to about Obama’s administration, the reliance on that.  In general, I’m not disinterested in abstract poetic expressions that come from deep in the soul.  But, in the absence of anything that’s hit me in the face, I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.

The members of Thinking Plague, all with their mouths open, in 2011.

Thinking Plague in 2011 (left to right): Robin Chestnut, Dave Willey, Mark Harris, Elaine, Mike Johnson, and Kimara Sajn. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  So, to attempt to tie this all together.  You create very sophisticated music, but you perform it with a rock band, which is a medium that’s been very central to our popular culture for more than half a century at this point.  In addition to the very sophisticated music, your songs frequently have super charged political lyrics.  By getting these messages out, through what is essentially a popular medium even though the kinds of things you’re doing go against the spirit of most of what is popular, are you hoping this music is going to change people’s minds?  What’s the goal in terms of changing the listener?  Can the listener be changed?  What’s the purpose of making art that has this charged message?

“I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.”

MJ:  I honestly don’t know.  After this last election, I’m not sure I know anything.  You have to consider who listens to this music.  They are all over the map politically, but they tend to be educated so the differences are not usually cultural at a level that’s just hopeless.  So I always think maybe somebody will be—as opposed to converted—awakened about something, because a lot of guys that are into progressive music are sort of apolitical.  They don’t like to deal with it.  They want to deal with fairies and dragons, or with magic, strange mysterious glories.  I’m trying to hit them with some gritty realities, but not in an overly literal, strident way.  It’s a little bit subtle, I’d like to think, a little bit indirect.  You have to read it and think about it.  You have to actually pay attention, notice what the themes or the words are.  But I keep thinking that somebody will be like, “Oh, that’s interesting.  They’re talking about drones.  I better think about that.  I’d better look and see if I can find out what they mean.”  So it’s kind of like saying, “If you’re listening to us, if you’re following us, if you like what we do, here’s something that we think you ought to think about if you listen hard enough and you care enough.”

But I don’t really have any expectations that it’s going to have any impact.  You know, I wish.  First of all, we don’t reach enough people, not as many as we could, and they are all over the world. There’s never that many on the ground in any one place. But if you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.  If it influences their thinking about social or political issues, great.  I don’t know what else to write about really.  I wrote a song on A History of Madness, which was a love song of sorts.  But there were some other songs on there that had a humanity theme.  So it’s always something about man’s inhumanity to man, the stupidity, the selfishness.  Right now the list is so long of adjectives that you can talk about with things that should be addressed.  It does seem like a lot of people are addressing them.  So, in a way, it’s a hopeful thing.  I like to say it can only get better, but I’m afraid that may not be true.  There’s a lot to write about right now.  I’m not a political activist who’s going to spend a lot of time working on issues in that way.  My mission in life is to do music, so I feel like I’m obliged to have these kind of messages in the music, but not like strident marching songs.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me that from the beginning up to this day, in the year 2017, Thinking Plague has always been about making albums that are these larger statements.  There are pundits who claim that a lot of people don’t listen to albums anymore.  They listen to individual tracks and everything gets mashed up.

“If you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.”

MJ:  Right.  They don’t download whole albums.  They download single tracks.

FJO:  It’s great that you have a label that’s so invested in you.  I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the ‘80s, but I know they’ve reissued your whole catalog.  To have your whole catalog in one place is tremendous—to have that support, and for albums to be carefully recorded, produced, designed, and released. But it’s sort of weird, because the economics of all of this is shifting. How do you survive in this environment if what you want to do is make records?

MJ:  Well, like I said, I had a day career.  And, in as much as I am rather moved on in years now, I managed to retire from that. I was working for a state community college system, so I have a state pension, one of those things that our current president would probably just as soon eliminate.  But it’s based on investments, my whole existence is tangled up in the dirty money that I sometimes write about or I’m going to write about.  And I figure that’s okay; we should extract whatever we can from them.  I had to spend many years earning that.

I hear all the time from our label that they are struggling.  They have made all of our records available on Bandcamp.  You can go and you can listen to everything.  Most of the older ones have now finally gone out of print because it is not cost effective to press them and sell them anymore, because they don’t sell enough and you have to be able to manufacture so many in order to have economies of scale. So it became impractical for them to do that.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.”

I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.  I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it.  I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music.  When it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living from recorded music.  They say, “Oh, you’ve got to go out and play.”  Yeah, if you’ve got a wide enough appeal, I guess.  And if enough people have heard you.  I don’t think going out and playing will make you very much money if they haven’t heard recordings of you first.  So we’re at a kind of weird impasse.  The ready availability of music in electronic form has made it basically too easy to get, and now it’s not worth much.  People have gotten used to the idea of not paying much for it.  I remember counting my pennies together until I had a couple of bucks and could go by a Beatles LP.  I would listen to it until there was no vinyl left on it.  You have to wonder if there is something about people’s psychology: if they pay something for it, do they value it more?  Because they don’t seem to value it much now, except for those few people who actually care about the sounds coming into their ears and what it does to them, emotionally and otherwise.

Of course, there are so many people that love music, but they love it in different ways at different levels.  It seems that for so many people now, music is just a background thing.  It needs to keep a certain part of their brain busy, so they have it going in their ear buds as background all the time and it’s on shuffle, and they don’t really care what it is.  And they listen to MP3s; they don’t care about high fidelity.  They don’t care about really in-depth audio detail. It’s much less about what’s going on with the notes. It’s just a little hook melody and this over-processed drum groove and some pitch-corrected vocal parts.  I don’t know what to think about all of that. I don’t know where it’s headed. But I do think that in its current model, it is unsustainable.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue making records.  I’ll have to make them myself or they’ll become electronic downloads only.  I’ve had some guys say, “You should go hi-res.”  But sooner or later, somebody will figure out a way to pirate that as well.  But that’d be great.  Let’s make the audio product something that’s really worth something—you really need to pore over it and listen to it.  Everything that we do in the recording industry is reduced to 16 bits, no matter how it was produced before that.  If it wasn’t, then the files would be too gigantic for most people. There are a certain number of techie guys that would download it all night onto their computer and love it that way.  But most people want to put it on a player on their phones.

FJO:  But there is a different economy that operates for a lot of the other music we’ve talked about— avant-garde music and even the music of people like William Schuman.  All of that stuff doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

MJ:  Of course.

FJO:  And it never has.  It exists either as the result of private funding or through grants from foundations or governments. Shostakovich, for better or worse—definitely worse under Stalin—was a state-sponsored composer. Over the past half century, jazz has also been embraced by the funding community and that has allowed it to continue to thrive now that it is often no longer remunerative in the marketplace.  But that hasn’t happened with rock. We talked earlier about that moment in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when labels like Cuneiform and networks like New Music Distribution Service equally embraced avant-garde music that stemmed from classical music, free jazz, and fringe rock. There was no internet back then, but all of it is what we’d call dot-org music. Certainly what Thinking Plague does is dot-org music in the same way as the music of, say, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, etc.

MJ:  I totally get that.

FJO:  So might this music continue to exist if it’s somehow subsidized?  Could that be the way to make it keep going?

“Nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.”

MJ:  Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up.  I’ve never gotten a grant for this band.  The closest I can say I’ve come is a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded—not on a gigantic scale, but enough to make it work.  I’m looking at some grants that would help us to be able to travel. There’s a RIO festival in Japan that has some money issues, but if I can get a grant they’ll bring it back to life, just for us to go play at it.  So right now I’m trying to figure out where the band is going to be, in what condition. Our singer is completing her master’s degree in music.  She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up and she’s 46. God bless her. I can relate. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music.  So then we’re not eligible for these jazz things.  I’m not sure how many, but there may be cracks that we could squeeze into.  We’ve got a horn player, so does that make us jazz?  I almost got us invited to the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Almost.  So this is something I need to look into.  But as to how much money there is in any of it, again, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.  Nobody.  Not me.  Not anybody else.  There’s never been that kind of income from the music—not even in 1985.  Certainly not from In this Life or In Extremis, which was probably our best received record and the biggest explosion for us.  It didn’t change our situation at all.  We’re a dot-org phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website.  There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is.  It’s not for profit.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009, front (L-R): Mark Harris and Mike Johnson; back: Dave Kerman, Kimara Sajn, Elaine di Falco, and Dave Willey. (Photo by S. Navarre, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

Guy Livingston

Writing from Paris, in the beginning of the new millennium, the city of light seems pretty tame compared to its awesome role a century ago. From about 1880 until World War II, Paris was the rarely-contested center for new and avant-garde music, painting, and writing. This cultural hub attracted vast numbers of foreigners, most particularly Americans. The story of Americans abroad in the 20th century is thus primarily one of Paris, but also one of London, Morocco, Rome, and more recently Amsterdam and Berlin.

What is it that has so strongly attracted Americans to Europe? What was so intriguing about European culture (particularly in the 1920s) that made Americans eager to pack their bags and rush to board the next ocean liner? Was it the food, the music, the poetry, the modernism, or the tradition?

America invented her politics and economy first, and culture much, much later. ‘American’ music existed before 1910, but those who performed it (except for religious music) were minstrels, bandleaders, folk musicians, and other performers relegated to the fringes of society. ‘Cultured’ music in America was defined solely by its relevance and closeness to European models. Pre-1900, the European education was the only choice for any serious composer, and the grand tour of Europe the only possibility of developing a refined musical background for American romantics Gottschalk, MacDowell and their fellow artists.

At the turn of the century, the situation began to change. However obscurely, composers like Ives were defining a homegrown American music, and patrons and critics were beginning to encourage a search for idioms separate from the European tradition. Ives, Cowell, Ruggles, and a few others developed ruggedly individualistic Yankee styles without leaving home, but they were too far outside the system to get significant attention. Meanwhile, more mainstream American composers were coming back from studies in Paris and Rome, full of fresh ideas for an “American Music.”

In the late 1920s, George Antheil, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland returned from Europe with a splash, writing new and vivid music. Ragtime, early jazz, and African-American musicians were becoming popular in Europe and were being recognized for their artistry on both sides of the Atlantic. Crossover Broadway/classical artists like Gershwin began to mix jazz and European music. And by the ’30s and ’40s, mainstream U.S. composers were producing 100% ‘American Music’ for newly receptive symphonic audiences. No longer was the European model necessary to America: the U.S. had gained musical independence.

Not that composers stopped going to Europe. On the contrary: after World War II, the reasons to go abroad had changed, but the pull was still strong. In the ’50s there was the new attraction of Darmstadt, and in the ’80s the glistening underground IRCAM electronic music center. Here, composers could devote themselves entirely to new electronic and serialist idioms, without fear of a hostile or uninformed public (or sometimes without fear of any public at all).

The US-Vietnam war caused many Americans to seek anonymity or peace abroad. But it also made them extremely unpopular throughout Europe. In Rome, recounts composer Richard Trythall, the war and the changing economy “sent a lot of composers back to the States or elsewhere in Europe.” After IRCAM and Darmstadt became institutionalized and gained a reputation for bureaucratic academicism (which didn’t take long), the Dutch improvisation and new music scene exploded in the late ’80s, attracting composers from South America, Scandinavia, and the States. By the ’90s, established Dutch iconoclasts like Louis Andriessen and younger experimentalists like Richard Barrett and Ann Laberge, themselves foreigners, had turned Amsterdam into a major new music center.

Most recently, the burgeoning rave and techno scenes in London and Berlin are having a major international impact. For many young American composers and DJs, West Berlin, with its wealthy and hip audience, is now the place to be, while East Berlin still offers cheap food and accommodations. London balances a familiar language with sky-high rents and explosive growth.

Inner pages:

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

From Wednesday, August 13, 2003 9:33 PM
to Thursday, August 14, 2003 3:15 AM

Videotaped by Randy Nordschow

Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri, Randy Nordschow, Amanda MacBlane and Rob Wilkerson

© 2003 La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela
© 2003 NewMusicBox

  1. Anahata Nada and Long Sustained Tones
  2. Improvisation vs. Composition
  3. The Guru-Disciple Relationship
  4. The Evolution of The Well-Tuned Piano
  5. La Monte’s Approach to the Piano
  6. The Theatre of Eternal Music
  7. Discipline and Relationships
  8. Pandit Pran Nath
  9. How to Learn
  10. On Minimalism
  11. Alternative Concert Venues
  12. The Experience of the Audience
  13. Funding Serious Art in Today’s Climate
  14. The Record Business
  15. DVD
  16. The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath
  17. Working with Musicians and Orchestras
  18. The Sacred and the Profane
  19. Fluxus
  20. Piano Technique
  21. Singing Raga
  22. Future Interpreters
  23. Choosing Intervals
  24. Physical Limitations of Instruments
  25. Perceptibility
  26. Ragas Using Upper Primes?
  27. Appreciation

Guillermo Scott Herren: Cut Through the Noise

Guillermo Scott Herren (a.k.a. Prefuse 73) in conversation with Trevor Hunter
April 21, 2009—11:30 a.m. in Brooklyn Heights, New York
Videotaped by Molly Sheridan and John M. McGill
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Trevor Hunter

The release of One Word Extinguisher in 2003 was a landmark in Guillermo Scott Herren’s career. It was the second album created under his Prefuse 73 alias, which followed his previous project Delarosa & Asora but marked a serious stylistic shift. One Word and its companion CD of outtakes, Extinguished, proved Herren was not only a skilled experimental producer and ambient artist, but an innovator of a freedom in music not unlike jazz. Many of the pieces were casual and relaxed, with melodies emerging and then disappearing into the flow. Each would leave a light imprint on the cerebellum, just deep enough so that on the next listen you might be able to feel that familiar beat coming around ten or twenty seconds before it arrives.

Herren has a knack for finding the freedom and openness he longs for in music while exercising a good deal of restraint. Beat loops usually imply a sort of prefabricated structure, but for Herren the beats are just one of the sonic materials at hand. The freedom is in the composition, the flow and layering of the ideas. Perhaps the best example of this structure is with his latest project, Risil, a “band of 1,000 alternating members with a core of 13.” You may describe Herren’s role in the group as composer—he’s sculpting and directing the group, treating the independent players as sound sources. Certainly this parallels the structure of something like Anthony Braxton’s groups, which follow his graphical scores. The same notion of loosely harnessing unbridled sonic creativity is a common thread throughout much of Herren’s work.

Perhaps one of his biggest struggles is found in the way his identity has been thrust on him by outsiders, even as he works to uncover it for himself. He spent years wrestling with the perspectives attributed to him, as compared to those he was experiencing day-to-day as a developing musician. It wasn’t long before this MPC-tapping producer was critically diagnosed (yes, as in diagnosed by a critic) as a schizophrenic rapper’s wheelman with ADD. Even in those early days they must have been turning a blind eye to his folk-laden Savath & Savalas project, but now with the emergence of Diamond Watch Wrists and Ahmad Szabo, the media’s persistence in describing Herren’s mindset as confined to the styles of the Prefuse project is clearly a bit myopic.

Herren’s other projects are nonetheless routinely compared to Prefuse and often criticized on the basis of whether or not they stand up to Prefuse’s reputation. Luckily for Herren, he is often just too busy to digest what people are saying about his last venture. He’s already moved on to the next. This year sees the release of four albums: Prefuse 73’s Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian, Savath y Savalas’s La Llama, Diamond Watch Wrists’s Ice Capped at Both Ends, and soon the debut release from Risil. On top of all that, he does mixes as favors and takes on production gigs with contracts based more in philosophy than on finance. One needn’t look much further than his blog to understand just how prolific he is.

In the midst of his torrent of recent releases, NewMusicBox caught up with Herren at his apartment/studio in Brooklyn Heights. In the course of a two-hour conversation that covered everything from the role of Prefuse 73 in his career to the state of the record industry, Herren revealed that no matter how far or in what direction he stretches, in the end it’s always about cutting-edge sound.

-John M. McGill

Larry Polansky: Open Source

Larry Polansky in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
November 16, 2009—2:30 p.m.
Video and audio recorded by John McGill
Performance footage featuring Margaret Lancaster and Larry Polansky
recorded on December 17, 2009 by Trevor Hunter
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed and edited by Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon

He’s nowhere close to being a household name (something he’d probably never want to be anyway), yet few people have had as significant an impact on as many facets of contemporary music and how it is made and disseminated as Larry Polansky.

As the co-founder of Frog Peak Music, Polansky has helped make available the music of hundreds of composers and established an alternative paradigm for the distribution of printed music, reading matter, and recordings decades before the DIY era of self-publishing. As a pioneering music software developer, his work in the development of Hierarchical Music Specification Language (HMSL) eventually led to Max/MSP and SuperCollider. As a theorist and musicologist, he has written major treatises on tuning as well as many other aspects of music theory and has also played a key role in documenting and explicating the music of many important American mavericks, including Ruth Crawford Seeger, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, and James Tenney. As a teacher, first at Mills College and now at Dartmouth, he has been a mentor to generations of musicians. As the founding editor of Leonardo Music Journal, he helped to set a broader purview and more open-minded perspectives in scholarly writing about music. And as a composer, Larry Polansky has created a vast body of compositions that defy stylistic pigeonholing, from 2-second canons to massive solo piano showcases as well as works for rock band, interactive computer environments, and solo piccolo in extended just intonation.

To Polansky, all these activities are symbiotically related:

It’s all one world of doing music in lots of different ways, and they feed into each other. I’ll be working on a theoretical idea or a software idea and that will feed into a piece, and vice versa. So it’s not quite as distracting as it might sound.

Every project he gets involved with ties into his social philosophy, as well. In everything he does, Polansky aims to create a model for a better world, a place where hierarchies cease to be oppressive and barriers are abolished. To that end, he aims to create music and promulgate music by others that defies one-line explication.

Every time you give a name to something, you hasten the decay of information; you’ve made things more simplified and less interesting than they should be. I don’t want to have sound-bytes associated with anything I do. I think also the people whose music I respect the most have a similar kind of attitude. I want to follow musical ideas out to their natural fruition, at their most complex, at their most deep, at their most other.

And perhaps most importantly, he aims for maximum availability:

[Frog Peak] gets a lot of people’s work out into the world in a very honest, simple, sincere way, with no cosmetic nonsense and also no hype. I’ve been committed to that all through my life—never selling anything, never convincing anybody of anything, of really staying true to the musical idea as much as possible. [N]ow with the web, there’s no reason not to put all your pieces on the web as well, and, certainly, we encourage that. […] All of my computer music life has been devoted to making cheap, public domain available software.

This non-propertarian attitude applies to Polansky’s own compositions, as well:

Music should be open source and should be a collective activity. It always has been […] It shouldn’t be about me guarding my style or me putting down historical claims on things. It should rather be a fluid bidirectional and N-directional process.

Ultimately, whatever your stance on today’s seemingly irresolvable intellectual property debates, Polansky’s idealism has ramifications that go well beyond music and how it is composed and distributed.

People can do a lot more than we think they can do, especially if you relax ideas like practicality, time, things like that. In some kind of ideal world there should be time enough for the most complicated thoughts and ideas and skills.



Frank J. Oteri: Before we turned the camera on, we were talking about dividing time between composing and other activities. I’m just floored by how much music you’ve written. I’ve deduced from the CV you’ve posted on the web site that you average about seven compositions a year, and some years you’ve written more than ten, which is staggering, considering all your noncompositional activities.

Larry Polansky: I don’t know what those numbers exactly mean. I do write pieces constantly, but some of them are smaller pieces. I work in a lot of series, like The Four Voice Canons or the Etudes or all these rounds I’ve been writing—hundreds of these in the last couple of years. I make a list of everything I write, but some pieces are only two seconds long. Schoenberg lists Pierrot and I’m listing a piece that’s two seconds long! But I always have a couple of big pieces that I’m working on, and I keep going. So I wouldn’t say I’m all that prolific; I’m reasonably constant. It’s slowed down a tremendous amount as I get older.

What is interesting to me is to not distinguish too much between composing and performing and teaching and doing theoretical stuff and the kind of amateur musicology stuff that I do plus working with Frog Peak. I keep pretty busy. But it’s all one world of doing music in lots of different ways, and they feed into each other. I’ll be working on a theoretical idea or a software idea and that will feed into a piece, and vice versa. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past five or six years playing music with Christian Wolff. That directly informs what I write, and, hopefully, what I write directly informs how I play with him. And being at Frog Peak, it’s all with composers. So it’s not quite as distracting as it might sound, although sometimes it can be.

I’ve been editing the works of Johanna [Magdalena] Beyer over the past fifteen years. That’s something that has to be done in a very focused way. Or writing that book on Ruth Crawford [The Music of American Folk Song]—that was an amazing composition lesson, but it also took a couple of years of my life to really address. I find that the one thing that gets sacrificed is my ability to spend long periods of time writing software. That has really ratcheted down. Maybe as I’ve gotten older it’s a less attractive personal activity: it doesn’t involve other people; it’s very grueling. And I also teach full time. So that has changed a little bit over the years. I find myself doing less software, but I suppose I still do quite a bit, relatively speaking.

FJO: You say that all these activities are somehow complementary, and indeed they are—they are all connected to music. The theoretical stuff, the publications of other composers, performing other people’s compositions—it’s all music. But all of these things involve different parts of your brain, or at least occupy different spaces. So I’m curious about how you make the space specifically for composition amidst all this other stuff.

LP: I often exile myself to some place, like I work in the Hanover Public Library quite often. There’s no email and no phone, so I can just sit at a table and compose. When I’m working on a big piece, I’ll often go there three hours a day and just do that. You may mean space metaphorically, but I take it seriously: physically. I have a family. Frog Peak is in my house. I have students at Dartmouth. So I tend to find these isolated spaces, and I tend to work in libraries a lot. Even in New York. NYU, thanks to Kent Underwood, has very graciously given me privileges there, so I work there and I work at the New York Public Library, just because they’re quiet and they’re nice places to sit and really, really think. And when I do that I only think very carefully about pieces.

But it’s hard. Waking up in the morning it’s often hard to know what to focus on. More and more as I get older—one’s brain is not as quick—I work on one thing at a time, and if that thing is big that means I don’t do much of anything else for that period of time. Then I’ll work on the next thing. A lot of this fall I was working on a heavily mathematical theoretical paper, in collaboration with Alex Barnett and Mike Winter, and while I was doing that it was hard to think about other pieces. But once that was done, all of a sudden I was in the middle of a big string quartet. I find it’s mostly the very serious, large-scale activities that completely consume you. I can do that and practice at the same time, or that and run Frog Peak. But the kind of musicology I did on Ruth Crawford, or software, or theoretical work, or composition—it’s hard to do more than one of those things at the same time for me anymore.

FJO: So you don’t allot a specific amount of time every day to composing.

LP: No, but I’m always composing. As I said to one of my students the other day, I think this is true of a lot of composers my age. Most of the time some significant percentage of your brain is working on [your own] music and some lesser percent is focusing on the world. That’s a humbling admission to make to your students or when you go to concerts. You know the feeling. You go to a concert and you love it and might be really interested in it, but you start thinking about your own work. The older you get, the more that’s the case. It’s not a question of not paying attention, it’s a question of paying such hyperattention that everything is focused back on what you’re working on.

FJO: I find it curious that the space that you find to create your own work is not a space of your own making. It’s not a studio. You go to a library, which is actually a public space. And also you don’t necessarily have tools at your ready disposal there. You have to bring your tools with you. So, despite all the work you do with software, are you a pencil and paper guy?

LP: I do a lot of pencil and paper and I do a lot on the computer with software. Often I’ll have a guitar around me or a piano.

FJO: But not at the library.

LP: No, but I find that I don’t need much. I’m getting less and less interested in having devices. And I’ve never done a lot of “synthesis” electronic music; I’ve never used a lot of gear. All of my computer music life has been devoted to making cheap, public domain available software—DIY kinds of experiences. That’s what HMSL [Hierarchical Music Specification Language] was all about, and SoundHack (Tom Erbe’s brilliant program to which I was privileged to contribute a few ideas), and projects like that. So I’ve never needed much, and in fact the less I have, the happier I am. I’ve mainly been a software guy since 1973.

FJO: But that’s a long time ago. [laughs] It’s interesting that public domain availability is important to you because you also run Frog Peak, which is a publishing company, although it’s a very unusual type of publisher. How and why did you start doing that?

LP: My wife, Jody Diamond, and I started it. It was in the early days when I was at the Mills Center for Contemporary Music and Jody was working at the other end of the building with Lou Harrison, as Lou’s gamelan director. At that time there was a whole community of people who really had no outlet for their work. And there were a couple of significant theoretical works I read that I had manuscripts of and that I thought should be out in the world, like Jim Tenney’s Meta-Hodos and John Chalmers’s Divisions of the Tetrachord.

There were no personal computers at the time. Jody and I had just gotten a KayPro, which was an early CPM machine. And we started with this idea that composers would take control over the distribution of their own work. Not to be so much a publisher, but to be what I like to call an availability site. That by pooling resources, instead of composers going to a photocopy store and mailing it out when somebody asked you for something, there’d be one place where people could get it. Make it a collective and to dedicate ourselves to no interest in advertising or promotion whatsoever, and also to try to have no interest in the notion of imprimatur. We weren’t certifying anything. David Mahler joined Frog Peak and David controlled everything about David Mahler. Or David Rosenboom, or Anne LaBerge, or whoever came in. So it was a philosophical, social, artistic experiment in every possible way.

And as it has remained an experiment, it remains fun. Not so parenthetically, but somewhat surprising, it has started to become all those things it has tried to avoid—that is, being at Frog Peak may have a certain kind of non-functional importance to people that we never wanted it to have. But it still serves the community. It gets a lot of people’s work out into the world in a very honest, simple, sincere way, with no cosmetic nonsense and no hype. I’ve been committed to that all through my life—never selling anything, never convincing anybody of anything, of really staying true to the musical idea as much as possible.

FJO: So how does one sign up with Frog Peak?

LP: Well, one asks us [laughs]. We try to take people, but it’s hard. The overhead of taking someone in is pretty significant. We lose money. Jody and I subsidize it. We’re also not a nonprofit. We decided at the very beginning to never apply for a grant and to never devolve into arts administration. It was always two crazy composers running a crazy thing in their house, and we’ve stayed that way. So we seldom, but regularly, take people. We try to take people who are very committed to their music and very sincere. We have to like them, because they become a part of our family. But the other abiding principal when we started was, since there is no imprimatur involved—we’re not saying anything about these people, it’s just a collective—if we’re not a comfortable fit for someone, we can very easily say, “Do it yourself.” That’s all we’re doing. Buy or rent a copy machine, or go to Kinko’s like we did for the first ten years in the 1980s (or whatever the copy stores were called in Oakland!). There’s nothing we’re doing that’s not completely transparent.

FJO: So what are the things that you’re doing—you’re copying and binding scores and then mailing them out; I imagine with big people perhaps you’re also dealing with rental parts?

LP: No, never. Nothing like that. We don’t rent scores or parts, and except in rare instances when really extraordinary people donate them, we don’t take any [ASCAP or] BMI royalties. We don’t function as a traditional publisher in any way. We don’t own anyone else’s work. We have published several books and we’ve put out about 15 CDs in 25 years, but there it’s not really with the notion of being a CD company or a book company. We’re only interested in availability, simple design, no promotion, serving the music itself. There’s a garage somewhere where there’s a master of hundreds of Philip Corner and Dennis Kitz scores and you can get them from us. That’s the abiding principle. We’re not going to try to convince you to get them and we’re not going to make it all that easy (because we’re a small group, so personnel and labor are issues), but if you want it, we will send it to you for a small price. And then we pay rather small royalties to the composers based upon the actual item that we sell, which is not economically viable. A lot of composers have chosen to support Frog Peak by foregoing even those royalties, and in general, they’re not all that substantial. No publisher would survive two weeks if they operated like we do, but we’re not supposed to be economically viable, so we’re O.K.

FJO: So if this is all run out of your house, you must have a big house.

LP: We have a big garage. And we have another older house that we rent out and we keep a garage there, too. It’s gotten a little smaller because of technology. Computers have helped us keep things in PDF. And we also mostly take one copy of a score. Some composers, like Eric Richards, will make their own multiple copies. They want it to look exactly their way. So they’ll send us a box of 15 or 20, but mostly we have big file cabinets full of master copies and more and more of those are PDFs.

FJO: So you don’t keep a stockpile of ten copies of each title.

LP: Well, we do have a lot of things, because we’ve also rescued physical items. We have all the back issues of Soundings. We have all of Lingua, too, which is huge. We have old LPs, cassettes, art objects, books, all kinds of things like that as well, which we simply keep available. Part of our mission has been to enter into the history of the American experimental tradition of publishing, which I trace back to [William] Billings and [Arthur] Farwell, who is a great hero of mine. And [Kenneth] Gaburo and Peter Garland and [Henry] Cowell, a number of people—I mention the people I have personal connections to, but there are a lot of them—Carla Bley, for example. A lot of us composers over the years have decided we need to do it the way we want to do it. And really it’s not an economic decision, it’s a personal and artistic and social and political decision and it’s a labor of love kind of decision.

FJO: So what is the difference between being published by Frog Peak and being self-published?

LP: It’s whatever distinction you want it to have. [laughs] None as near as I can tell, except that you don’t have to send out your own score. That’s from my point of view. Stamina is everything in the world. I always say to a young composer or to my students, that the only thing you want to aim for is that the person keeps composing. It’s almost irrelevant what the piece is today. It’s a good piece, it’s a bad piece, whatever. It’s got to motivate the next piece. It’s got to be interesting enough that you keep composing. And I only consider myself a successful composition teacher if I’m getting letters from 45-year-old ex-students who are still composing. It’s really what I care about.

I think with Frog Peak, its main virtue is that we’ve stayed afloat for a very, very long time. We’ve kept small. We’ve kept to our basic principles, as high in integrity as we possibly can. And to our surprise we’ve gotten noticed. We have a lot of standing library orders. Complete collections are in a number of really good libraries. So now it’s a good thing for composers because they get out in the world, to safe, widely available places. But really now with the web, there’s no reason not to put all your pieces on the web as well, and certainly we encourage that.

FJO: I found it interesting—and now that you’re explaining your philosophy it totally makes sense—that even though you’re the co-founder and co-director of a publishing operation, you’ve made all the scores of your own music available to be downloaded for free on your website.

LP: Sure. I don’t see why not. I think they should just be available in every possible way. The disconnect between paper and PDF is that there’s a whole generation of composers who are not comfortable or facile with those technologies. And in that case, Frog Peak helps them. Or if my friends who are older want to put something up, I have a whole website of my friends’ work as well. There’s a lot of people who still don’t have access to the web, or unlimited storage or whatever. The other thing is libraries are still in a very transitional state, and they’re learning how to deal with distinctions between paper and electronic formats in a lot of domains. And as far as I know, no library has really decided that all their scores will be digital at this point. At a certain point we turned a corner where economically we’re being kept alive by major libraries.

We certainly wouldn’t survive—not that we survive anyway economically—by one person in Belgium needing a Peter Garland score or one person in New York needing a Paul Paccione score. That should be on the web, and we’ve had trouble keeping open even for that level of business. For the first ten or fifteen years, that’s what we did—one-shots to people. But now the web has made it much easier for even someone with no web or computer chops whatsoever to find someone to help them do that to a certain extent. We don’t really want to make money, and we don’t really want to survive if what we’re supposed to survive to do is not interesting anymore.

FJO: Of course the tricky thing there is if the scores are all available for free, isn’t one of the few revenue streams a composer could have gone?

LP: That’s a matter of some contention, and one that I think is widely misunderstood. I don’t think most composers make much money from the physical sale of scores. There are certain cases where they do, of course, if you’re a choral composer for high schools for example. But most of the composers we represent are not like that. And if they want that kind of relationship, they can go to a traditional publisher. We don’t own anything (for the most part). We have no rights. In a few cases we do, but it’s sort of accidental. So there’s no notion of exclusivity. We don’t even have contracts. People don’t sign anything when they come to Frog Peak, because nobody’s bound to do anything. I didn’t want that kind of relationship with anybody. These folks are my friends. I play music with them, I have dinner with them. I don’t want to do business. And finally, I don’t think it’s the score itself that generates revenue for composers; it’s the performance royalties.

I have a lot of respect for traditional publishers. And Frog Peak has always maintained I good relationships with Peters, and other companies, even though I think they kind of scratch their head in wonder when they figure out how we do what we do. Yet the most enlightened of them, I think, understand that what we do has an important function in our world. They can’t take all the people that we can take. When we take Frank Abbinanti, or Frederic Rzewski or Brenda Hutchinson or Daniel Goode, we are willing to take everything they’ve ever done in any form they choose. If Ron Nagorcka wants to write a piece on a paper napkin and sell it, we’re fine with that. My standard joke is that we draw the line at pieces made on bowling balls. But we really don’t care. We make no editorial or curatorial decisions; we choose people. A big publisher has to make economic decisions. We don’t; we make no economic decisions.

FJO: You say that revenue comes from performance royalties, but you don’t track those. So it’s up to composers themselves to contact ASCAP or BMI.

LP: And we don’t take the publishing rights.

FJO: Normally composers share a 50-50 split of the performance royalties with their publishers, but at Frog Peak the composer gets 100 percent.

LP: Yes. That’s why we’re not viable.

FJO: That can be a huge amount of income.

LP: Well, it is the income of a publisher. And we decided not to be a business, so we don’t take it. That said, in a few cases composers have donated one piece, or some pieces, and we call them the angels because that helps. Some people in my mind are saints—Ezra Sims, or Eric Richards, Paul Paccione, just to name a few. There’s no reason for the donation of these royalties that they do donate, but they do, I guess, because they think Frog Peak is doing a nice thing, and we happily take the money. And as I said, many of the composers decide to forego even the smaller royalties on the scores themselves, just to help them get out in the world. These composers do a lot to keep FP viable, and we’re really grateful to them.

FJO: With the roster of composers that you have—a lot of them are friends or at least kindred spirits in some way—is there something that links all of these people’s musics somehow?

LP: Quite honestly they’re the people that Jody and I decide we want to invite to this family. Of course we like their music but it may not even be that, we may like the way they deal with the world, their integrity, how serious they are. Some of the people are very, very different. Some of them can be kind of annoying, some of them are amazingly thoughtful and helpful. [laughs] But they’re all friends. That’s my criteria. I can’t not like someone in some profound way and commit so much of my life and resources to them. On the other hand, I tend to like most people for a lot of different reasons. So we’re fortunate in that way.

FJO: So it might be an oversimplification to say that most of this music is coming out of the American experimental tradition.

LP: I don’t know that that term means much to me anymore. We use it as a kind of shorthand, but it comes from a community, and that community is ever-expanding and ever-malleable. I’d be hard put to find connections between a lot of the people in Frog Peak. I work with New World Records a lot and I’m very dedicated to that company. And [New World’s Director of Artists and Repertory] Paul Tai has a phrase: “things coming over the transom” – things just arriving. And Frog Peak submissions are that way, but not a lot of composers enter that way, although we try and listen and look and respond to everything. We have to establish a relationship with people in some way, or often it will be that core Frog Peak composers will recommend someone very strongly and I’ll take those recommendations seriously. If Christian Wolff or Kyle Gann or David Mahler or Lois Vierk or Jim Tenney and Lou Harrison (the latter two are sadly not with us anymore)—if they said this person really belongs, I take that very seriously, and have in the past, that’s how a lot of younger or lesser-known composers have joined.

FJO: Silly question—where does the name Frog Peak come from?

LP: I used to be a mountain climber when I was younger and I climbed a mountain in Idaho once called Frog Peak. There’s probably a Frog Peak in every state, but that was an unusually tough experience, so when we started it no one could think up a name and I kept saying “Frog Peak! Frog Peak!”—I had this vision of crawling out of the woods in Idaho—and just from my tenacity of saying it over and over again, we stuck with it.

FJO: To bring it back to you the composer—and you are one of the Frog Peak composers—this operation seems like it could be a very time-consuming operation.

LP: Less so for me that it used to be. We have one person who works for it full time and who does all of the grunt work. I do a lot of the curating and steering of the thing. Jody does an enormous amount of the design. She’s a brilliant designer, and she’s also good at the practical and tactical sorts of things in the office. So it does kind of have its own inertia at this point, but that took a long time.

FJO: We talked about how the different streams in your life feed each other—a composition could lead to a theoretical idea, a publication could lead to a musicological idea or could feed a composition. Do you feel that dealing with all of these composers has directly influenced the music you write?

LP: Sure… Maybe. Oddly I don’t see it all. Once somebody joins I don’t need to see their submissions. They could have 300 pieces in Frog Peak that I’ve never seen, because it’s all under their control. It has more to do with my philosophy; it’s just an extension of how I feel about being in the world: You do things with other people and nothing is a solo act. There’s no exultation of person. Everything is a kind of collaboration. So I think that the act of doing it is a composition in and of itself, much like my other pieces. But I’d still be interested in Lois Vierk’s music, or Philip Corner’s music, David Mahler, Michael Byron, Daniel Goode—these are people who are my close friends and whose music I love and respect, and I’m interested in it, as you are. But having their scores in my house doesn’t actually have much of an effect on me, oddly enough, because I feel the act of making this collective is much more important than seeing more of their scores. The only thing I yell at people about is when they send me, at home, a score to put in Frog Peak. I say, “No, I don’t need to see it unless this is for me, the composer. Render unto Frog Peak that which is Frog Peak’s, to the P.O. Box” because I don’t want to get involved in their work in that way in my role as Frog Peak director. That’s not at all interesting to me. It’s their work, and I’m just giving it a home.

FJO: You alluded to using “American experimental tradition” as a shorthand, but admitted that it doesn’t really mean that much to you. How do you think the term relates to your own music?

LP: Only historically and personally. The people I have been closest to in my life, the people in the previous generation who have been my closest friends and biggest influences and probably my peers are called part of that tradition. I don’t know what it means, and I certainly don’t know what I have in common with some of those people other than a long-standing personal connection. My music and Lou Harrison’s music are completely distinct. My music and Christian’s music are completely distinct. I think we’re often talking social groupings, the people who hung out together. I think the longer it’s gone on, the more people feel free to cross boundaries that they wouldn’t have crossed.

FJO: One thing that all this music shares, which is definitely an attribute of your music as well, is that it’s somehow other than what the mainstream is, whatever the mainstream is at any given time. It’s in a different tuning than the mainstream of 12-tone equal temperament, or it uses different instruments than what is mainstream, sometimes homemade instruments, the rhythms are not quite the same as those of mainstream music, so it’s somehow going against the grain of the normative.

LP: Maybe we should just call it “unusual music.” But there’s a lot of unusual music out there that comes from different musical cultures. Gordon Mumma used to say, “Every time you make a tape dub you pick up more noise.” Every time you give a name to something, as Herbert Brün would say, you hasten the decay of information; you’ve made things more simplified and less interesting than they should be. And these things become brands and slogans. And then people argue about the slogans and the brands. And that’s fine. I think there’s probably an interesting musicological socio-historical reason to do that, but I have zero interest in it just by nature. I don’t care about branding and slogans and simplification. I don’t want to have sound-bytes associated with anything I do. So it’s not so interesting to me to figure out why that’s the case. I think also the people whose music I respect the most have a similar kind of attitude. I share that with them. Maybe there’s no time for that kind of nonsense. I’m not trying to sell anything. I’m not trying to get a gig. I don’t want to have a one-sentence: “He’s the tuning guy” or “he’s the “morph guy”. I don’t want any of that. I want to follow musical ideas out to their natural fruition, at their most complex, at their most deep, at their most other. That’s what I want to do with my life. I don’t have time to figure out what school I’m in, nor do I want to be in any school like that.

FJO: Although to some extent it would be fair to say that you’re a tuning guy. Just intonation has been a very big concern of yours for decades and still is.

LP: But you could also say I’m a computer person, or a guitar person. I have interests and they inform my music. But my way of dealing with tuning has nothing to do with Ezra [Sims] or even Lou [Harrison]. It’s maybe closer to Jim Tenney. But that’s sort of like saying someone’s a note composer or an orchestra composer. It may be true, but it’s not that meaningful a thing to characterize somebody’s music. And I sure hope my music survives a deeper analysis and encourages a deeper consideration, as should everyone’s, I think.

FJO: But I would still like to talk to you more about your use of just intonation, just in a practical sense, because it does raise performance issues. You can do a computer piece in just intonation with no problems whatsoever, which is one of the wonderful things about the technology. Or you could retune an electric keyboard and even an acoustic keyboard, and that’s taken care of, if you limit yourself to a pitch gamut of only 12 pitches per octave.

LP: I’ve done all of those things.

FJO: Sure, your Piano Study No. 5 uses a retuned Fender Rhodes, and Psaltery is a good example of an electronically generated piece in just intonation—that’s probably not something that you could pull off live.

LP: There are live versions, but you have to tune a lot of things.

FJO: However, you also have a piece like Piker that does all this oddball tuning stuff with a live piccolo player. That’s amazing. That’s something that’s meant to be done by a human performer in real time in live performance, in this case Margaret Lancaster. I would imagine that she had to learn a bunch of new fingerings, because those aren’t standard pitches coming out of that piccolo, and at times it races by.

LP: And writing it for piccolo was even more foolish, but I’m just blessed to have Margaret Lancaster in my corner and as a good friend. And there are a couple of performers like that who it’s wonderful to be able to ask to do things that you really shouldn’t ask them to do, and then they do it, and do it beautifully. And they still are your friends. That’s the part I haven’t figured out. [laughs]

But my approach to tuning has been to try a lot of different approaches. And that’s different than, say, building a set of instruments or typing in scales on a computer, and I think that has to do with my attitude towards intonation which is it’s really a deep, philosophical topic of interest to me, the whole idea of what is a tuning system, or what is a scale. When I started working on what I call paratactical tuning systems, that piece B’rey’sheet is probably the most important example where computers are thinking on the fly and adapting, thinking formally as an improviser might think about tuning, but making some very sophisticated and very rapid decisions. That in a way comes out of my interest in Lou Harrison’s free style experiments, those three pieces where things are tuned to the previous note. That’s also insane, to ask humans to do things like that. But Ben Johnston asks performers to do very sophisticated things.

I think the best way I can exemplify it is to mention a piece that’s just been recorded—it’s coming out on New World—called for jim, ben and lou. One movement’s for Jim Tenney, one movement’s for Ben Johnston, and one movement’s for Lou Harrison. And what the performers are asked to do is pretty crazy. The piece for Jim is for guitar, percussion, and harp. The percussionist retunes the guitar continually throughout, and the guitar player is playing some pretty difficult stuff. The percussionist is tuning the strings to different just intonations as the piece progresses. As I’m writing this, I’m going: “This is a crazy thing to ask.” And I’m also thinking of the Smothers Brothers, because they used to have a bit where they did that. I remember showing the score to Jim and he said something like “Good for you; someone needs to push it to the next level.” That’s an interesting thing to say, not so much as a compliment, but more in terms of recognition that if we don’t try it, it’s not going to happen. That piece has now been played a lot by a group in Belgium [featuring] a guitarist named Toon Callier, who’s a spectacular player.

So you wait long enough and you have enough tenacity of idea and confidence in what you’re doing and they happen. Toon has done that piece now beautifully, and Margaret does Piker. But you’ve just got to be patient. And you’ve also got to not go for the cheap laugh. What we’re doing is somehow different from entertainment in that we’re not trying always to make an immediate splash. We’ve got to have a lot of faith in history and what comes next, and the possibility of people like Margaret Lancaster or Toon Callier or Nick Didkovsky, performers whom I’ve worked with who do things that are not practical. They’re not in the day-to-day New York practical musical world. They require a kind of dedication to idea that composers have and some performers have.

FJO: Then, of course, there are computers and they can do some things that people will probably never be able to do.

LP: That’s an interesting dynamic. Although, again, people can do a lot more than we think they can do, especially if you relax ideas like practicality, time, things like that. In some kind of ideal world there should be time enough for the most complicated thoughts and ideas and skills.

FJO: So you wouldn’t necessarily think to work on something and have it be a computer composition because it’s something you know that nobody would ever be capable of doing.

LP: No. All my work stems from an idea. And that idea gets manifested through different performance media. But I’m not a practical composer. I really come up with philosophical and aesthetic and musical ideas and they get implemented in some way that I don’t exactly understand. Why write a five movement piece for piccolo like that? It’s probably because Margaret said, “Hey, write me a piece for piccolo.” And I knew that I could ask her to really think about some new ways of playing and she did. And I’m eternally grateful to her.

FJO: Your Hierarchical Musical Specification Language is sort of practical in a way.

LP: [laughs] Not really. Again, it was another kind of experiment. At the time that we started it, there was no real-time interactive, intelligent language for composition. And this was also before personal computers, so we were modeling something that couldn’t really be pluralized. Then when personal computers happened, it did get pluralized. But it remained a very arcane kind of environment, because you had to be a fairly sophisticated Object oriented programmer. It wasn’t shrink-wrapped in any way; it was a pretty hardcore coding experience. [There were] maybe a hundred composers using it seriously and a lot of other people scratching their heads. I think its influence was probably a lot stronger than its use patterns. What Nick [Didkovsky]’s doing with JMSL at NYU, lots of things like that, SuperCollider—HMSL had an impact on all of those things, I think. And that makes me happy, because we had a really theoretical and idealized view of what a language should be and we resisting any attempt to make it easy or more accessible or to implement some kind of stylistic idea. We had this notion that it would be a nonstylistic based platform.

FJO: So how does it work?

LP: How did it work? It was a full-fledged computer language that you could also write a database in, if you were so inclined, that had some fundamental concepts of how music is structured in time: scheduling; hierarchical representations of music, some drawn from Tenney’s work, others drawn from David Rosenboom’s work, others drawn from mine. Phil Burk, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, is largely responsible for the final software design, and is the third author with David and I. And those data structures were implemented so that composers had these tools, but they didn’t do anything that looked like quote, unquote music. They were meant to facilitate real-time improvisational structures or coming up with your own, like what George Lewis does. I think he still uses it, or maybe his computer finally died. [laughs] And you can write your own musical ideas in it, not just your own music: environments for improvisation and/or experiment.

Our goal was that nothing should be precluded, but that also meant that nothing was easy. Later, with an environment like MAX, you could probably do 95 percent of what you wanted to do in about a 1000th of the time it took in HMSL. But that other 5 percent is what we were interested in, and in maintaining a structure that never precluded the wildest possible idea. To do that you had to make it general enough that it was difficult. Generality is inversely proportional to usability, so the more general you make something the harder it is to use. And I think that’s true about the world. The more quickly you can sum up someone’s music—i.e. they work with anvils on reverb units—if you can say that and that’s true, there’s probably not a lot else to say. I’ve always been interested in working in those domains where there’s a lot else to say and very hard to make that first statement. And HMSL was very much about that.

FJO: You’ve used these tools to generate your own algorithmic compositions as well. And what I love is that there’s no stylistic boundary to it vis-à-vis your own music, either. You can wind up writing a virtuoso solo piano piece like The Casten Variation or a piece for a rock band like 51 Melodies.

LP: Yeah, and they have similar structures.

FJO: But very different end results, at least sonically.

LP: Though both are written in HMSL. When I moved to Hanover in 1990, I shifted my focus away from live stuff to scores, because I didn’t want to travel as much. And I was hitting certain computational boundaries doing things in real time, which are interesting and sort of inviolable. If you’re truly in real time, you can’t know what’s going to happen, so you can’t have a structure that depends upon the future. And so I wrote a whole series of works like 51 Melodies and The Casten Variation, which are very complex structurally, especially The Casten Variation. I couldn’t really explain it to you except to say that it’s a kind of reworking of the Ruth Crawford Piano Study in Mixed Accents by abstracting its essences in these distant spaces and then resynthesizing it. After I finished it, my friend Charles Dodge remarked, very insightfully, that it was analysis/resynthesis in the classical computer music way where you take a sound and break it down and resynthesize it. This is a kind of a formal analysis and resynthesis of Crawford’s Piano Study. But those pieces were the result of having this very powerful language that didn’t preclude the wackiest idea you could possibly throw at it. But they were also both really hard to write. They took a lot of time and a lot of software.

FJO: The rock band piece is a piece that you’ve actually played in.

LP: Yeah, and that’s part of my philosophy as well. I should not just write for Margaret and Nick and people like that, but I should be able to play my pieces, and difficult but important works by others, too. So Nick and I played it. And I play with Margaret. I recorded Lois Vierk’s Io on Margaret’s CD. That’s important to me. I’ve always been a musician; I’ve always been a playing musician, and I don’t want to ever lose that skill. I don’t want to simply off-load that responsibility, I want it to be a direct relationship. I play all the time.

FJO: As a performer you also play mandolin and you told me earlier that you had studied with Frank Wakefield, who is one of the legends of bluegrass.

LP: I did. He is a genius.

FJO: So do you play bluegrass?

LP: I did for many years. I mostly played bluegrass guitar and then learned mandolin later on. Then I got a mandocello, which is one of my favorite instruments. But I don’t play much of that anymore. I don’t really play any kind of popular music anymore, just because of time. But last Saturday I played a wonderful gig with Dan Zanes. We did a duet concert down in Washington, D.C. for the 75th anniversary of the school that Ruth Crawford helped found. I was just playing mandolin the whole day in Dan’s music, which is children’s music—or family music, as he calls it—really embedded in the American folk tradition. That’s something that I’m very interested in and love. So I spent hours playing folk tunes on the mandolin for kids. And I’ll do that if the right situation is there. Dan Zanes is definitely the right situation—he’s a great musician and a good friend.

FJO: When we were talking about things that might influence you earlier on in this conversation, we never talked about the impact of being married to another composer has had on you, which is an interesting dynamic.

LP: Another composer who works in a very specific area.

FJO: Gamelan. And you’ve also done gamelan music.

LP: I’ve only done a couple of gamelan pieces. We lived in Java for about a year and I learned to play gender, but mainly as a practical thing to help Jody and not be dead weight on gamelan gigs with Lou [Harrison] and Jody. But I’m not really involved in that world. That’s Jody’s world, and I’m only involved in it by marriage. Her project was amazing. She went to Indonesia in 1988 and interviewed and recorded and documented 50 new music composers coming out of Indonesia. And that was a fascinating experience. I was her sound guy and carried the equipment, and I learned a lot and met a lot of great people, some of whom are still good friends. But gamelan is her part of the house [laughs]. I don’t even carry them anymore. And I’ve only written three pieces—or four, maybe—for gamelan.

FJO: But that’s quite a bit, actually. Most people haven’t written any.

LP: I know, but most people don’t have several gamelans in their house, or have been to hundreds of gamelan concerts, or lived in Java for over a year, or, heck, speak Indonesian! It would be hard for me not to have written a couple.

FJO: What I find so interesting, though, is that the year you were in Java, the piece you wrote was Lonesome Road, a gigantic nearly hour-and-a-half set of piano variations which pretty much has nothing to do with gamelan music, at least directly.

LP: There are a couple of transcriptions [in it], but they’re all kind of woven in. It was, again, a practicality. We travelled an enormous amount, and in Indonesia you travel very, very slowly. We went all over the place, and I realized that I needed a big piece to be working on all the time. She’d be interviewing these guys for two hours and I had nothing to do for a lot of the time. It was a very modular piece; it’s a set of variations. I had plenty of time to write it, but what was hard was being away from the piano. I’m not really a pianist, so that wasn’t that great a problem. Then when I got back to the States, Sarah Cahill, who’s a close friend of mine, sat in a practice room with me on a regular basis for almost a year and played all the drafts, so I could revise it using her as the pianist. I’m very grateful to her for that. And then later when these three Swiss pianists—Martin Christ, Urs Eggli, and Thomas Bächli—started to do it consecutively and then Martin started to do it solo, it kept getting revised and revised and revised. So it was written in a year, but the score didn’t appear until five years ago, and it was almost a ten year process from starting it to making a score of it to having the recording done.

FJO: One of the things I find so frustrating about that recording is that all the variations couldn’t fit on a single CD, so some of them were cut.

LP: That’s a red herring. Together we picked just a couple of minutes of the piece that we left out. But even in performance he’d shift it around a little bit. In the middle section the variations are quite long and heady. The piece is huge and there are places where you can cut down a couple of minutes here and there and you wouldn’t know. I’m not sensitive about that at all.

FJO: But I’m a completist, so I want to hear those missing variations. How could I hear them?

LP: I have other recordings, just ask me.

FJO: How can the rest of the world hear them?

LP: Maybe I should put them up on the web. There are actually some funny bootleg recordings of that piece, some other pianists have done them. One pianist in Berkeley did it in well temperament; it’s quite beautiful. Joe Kubera and Michael Arnowitt have made their own shorter, but quite beautiful suites. But as far as I know, Martin’s the only person to have ever performed the whole piece in public; it’s pretty daunting.

FJO: Another big piece, which is ongoing, is The Four Voice Canons. I’d love to talk to you a bit about those.

LP: I tend to do these things over many years, developing an idea. But then it hits a certain point where they need to evolve into some new level of existence, not just my own cleverness in orchestrating another four-voice canon, but rather liberating them from the bounds of my own me-ness. So the Four Voice Canon No. 13 is simply a do-it-yourself manual for other canons. For a while I was talking about those pieces a lot in public, and the talks would simply be an invitation for other people to write them. And a lot of people did. Then Al Margolis put out a wonderful two CD set of other people doing four voice canons and that was really gratifying.

Music should be open source and should be a collective activity. It always has been. Schoenberg invented the twelve-tone system (although I think it was Hauer!). It’s a pretty simple idea, but a lot of people got a lot of interesting music out of those very fundamental ideas. [We need] to change the notion of what composition is, whenever that can be done explicitly and in a kind of truly collaborative way. It shouldn’t be about me guarding my style or me putting down historical claims on things. It should rather be a fluid bidirectional and N-directional process. And I like it when that happens. It was kind of a revelation to me with The Four Voice Canons that that was pretty easy to do. Pieces came out that were charming and funny and interesting and completely different from anything I would have done. And it made me able to continue, because then I knew I was just one of the gang, I wasn’t this precious futzer.

Bay Area Performances Celebrate Cage Legacy

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand.

Composer and performer Pamela Z‘s entry into this month’s worldwide celebration of John Cage’s centenary was Voice Cage, a program featuring eight San Francisco Bay Area artists presenting works using the voice. Part of Z’s ROOM series, the concert took place in the Royce Gallery, an intimate performance space in a former welding shop located in the Mission district of San Francisco. The crowd that showed up on August 31 easily filled the space to capacity, and the show had to be delayed for 15 minutes so that additional seating could be brought in to accommodate the roughly 70 concertgoers.

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery.

Cage made both direct and less explicit appearances throughout the program, which included three vocal works by Cage (The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Experiences No. 2, and Aria), new works by Pamela Z (which utilized recordings of Cage’s voice and texts about Cage), and other new compositions that introduced indeterminacy in a nod to Cage’s influence.

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Julie Queen‘s unaccompanied performance of Cage’s Experiences No. 2 was a straightforward interpretation of the work, whereas Amy X Neuburg took a more individual approach to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, originally for voice (“without vibrato, as in folk singing”) and a closed piano to be struck in four particular spots with specific parts of the hand. Neuburg, whose work for voice and electronics have long made her a prominent member of San Francisco’s new music community, created an electronic arrangement of the piano part with samples of water, over which she sang expressively. Pamela Z’s performance of Cage’s Aria was an unintentional mixture of the two approaches: her performance began with the triggering of sampled noises and processing on her voice used to delineate some of the vocal “styles” that Cage calls for. About halfway through the performance, though, her computer crashed and we had the unexpected treat of hearing an un-effected Z, singing the rest of the piece operatically, suavely, gravelly, quietly.

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel.

Luciano Chessa, a composer and performer who also occasionally delivers lively pre-performance lectures on Italian works at the San Francisco Opera, partnered with Z for two thoroughly entertaining and engaging pieces. In Duetto, which opened the second half of the concert and which was credited in the program to “Verdi/Z/Chessa,” the two sang sections of “Un dì felice” from La Traviata, but with the roles reversed, their voices processed with the appropriate octave displacements, accompanied by Chessa playing a toy piano in a voluminous black skirt. Prior to the concert, he had spent an hour with an eye mask on upstairs in Z’s studio, which was doubling as a sensory deprivation chamber, in preparation for a performance of Joan La Barbara’s Hear What I Feel. Z led him onstage, still blindfolded, and guided him into a seat in front of a table with six glass bowls, which contained a variety of objects such as a small balloon and a dried prickly plant. Chessa palpated each in turn and vocalized his responses with phonemes, growls, and laughter, revealing a surprising level of emotional reaction in the process.

Lee's performance piece The Cage

Lee’s performance piece The Cage.

The wide-ranging program also included a captivating solo performance by Oakland-based performance artist Dohee Lee, who will be one of the artists at the next Other Minds Festival in March 2013. Carrying a small box with a theremin-like antenna and a speaker strapped to her head, she danced throughout the space and among the audience while wordlessly moving through a range of characters, sometimes chirping along with the electronic sounds, at other points singing high whistle tones in an otherworldly duet with the box.


Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433

Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433.

Meanwhile sfSound continued their year-long, 11-concert festival of Cage’s music with two concerts in August: one focused on Cage’s more experimental electronic and noise music at The Lab, a multi-use white box in the Mission, and one dedicated to acoustic works a couple miles north at Old First Church, in a more “uptown” setting.

Matt Ingalls and his colleagues in sfSound have to be commended for their tremendous efforts in preparing and presenting this wide-ranging, devoted, and exhaustive exploration of Cage’s work, in all media and from all points in his career. (I covered a previous concert in this festival here.) Each work programmed has revealed a different aspect of Cage’s music and personality; taken together, a multifaceted portrait of Cage has taken shape in a way that no single concert could achieve.

Matt Ingalls performing 0'00" (4'33" No. 2), in which his “disciplined action" was writing out paychecks for the evening's other performers.

Matt Ingalls performing 0’00” (4’33” No. 2), in which his “disciplined action” was writing out paychecks for the evening’s other performers.

The August 5 concert at The Lab featured works spanning nearly a half-century of Cage’s output, from Living Room Music (1940) to One3 (1988), which was performed by Jon Leidecker as entrance and intermission music. In Ingalls’ introductory remarks, he drew laughs when he said, “I don’t think it matters if you turn off your cell phones or not.” Indeed, a cell phone wouldn’t have even been audible during the performance of Cartridge Music, in which the audience was surrounded by seven musicians with an array of sound-makers that were dramatically amplified using turntable pickups and contact microphones. (sfSound will reprise Cartridge Music on September 6 at SFMOMA as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.)

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes.

By contrast, a cell phone would have certainly be noticed at the August 17 performance at Old First Church, where the program included violinist Tom Chiu playing five of Cage’s Freeman Etudes and Cheap Imitation, and pianist Christopher Jones performing Books I and IV of Music of Changes. (The full sfSound ensemble also performed Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Solo for Voice 1 sung by Ken Ueno, and Atlas Eclipticalis, with Solo for Voice 48 sung by Hadley McCarroll.) As thrillingly cacophonous as Cartridge Music was, Chiu’s performance of Part II of Cheap Imitation was by contrast quietly introspective and personal, a beautiful expression of a simple melodic line. Old First Church is on one of the busiest streets in town and traffic noise is normally a drawback to the concerts there, but somehow during Cheap Imitation it was less an intrusion than a partner in dialogue. In Music of Changes, the outside noise became equal with the music: when Jones paused between the two sections for an extended period of time, waiting for the sirens and motorcycles to pass, he inadvertently allowed for an unplanned, improvisatory musical interlude by the sounds of the world outside.

Glenn Branca: Where My Ears Want To Go

A conversation at Smash Studios in New York City
October 3, 2012—7 p.m.
Video filmed by Alexandra Gardner
Video edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Glenn Branca has had a deep and lasting impact on several music scenes, but he was never really a part of any of them. He was obsessed with sound as early as he can remember, but as an adult he envisioned himself in theatre long before he realized that his true artistic calling was to be a composer. Always insatiable for new sonic experiences, he experimented with guitars and tape recorders to make unusual sounds just to please himself; not long afterwards he became an avid record collector. Hearing him describe his listening appetite at that time is infectious:

I don’t think there’s a single thing you could possibly name that I wasn’t listening to. I was just voracious; my ears wanted to hear new things. … I loved rock music, absolutely loved it. I was collecting rock music. I was collecting jazz. I was even into jazz fusion in the early ‘70s, which I can’t even listen to anymore. It’s like, ugh. And contemporary classical music; I mean, I was even listening to Elliott Carter. I wanted to hear everything that was going on. I got a bunch of cheap components and put them together and I created what I considered to be a tremendous stereo, which I really cranked up. … [A]t one point I got a gig at a record store. And I swear to god, I listened to almost every record in the entire store. That’s when I discovered Mahler.

As the punk scene was burgeoning in downtown New York City, Branca and a friend of his named Jeff Lohn, whose ground-floor Soho loft was going to be used for Branca’s theatrical creations, decided to form a rock band instead. But the band they formed, Theoretical Girls, played a new kind of punk rock music. Critics later described the work of this seminal band, and other similarly anarchic bands in Soho and the East Village, as “No Wave.” Theoretical Girls played only about 20 shows, never released an album during its existence (a lone 45-r.p.m. single was issued in 1978), and is not included on the seminal No New York LP compiled by Brian Eno. Yet listening to the surviving archival live recordings of Theoretical Girls, which were finally released on two CDs in 1996 and 2002, reveals how prophetic their sound would later be. Elements of their visceral sonic assault were subsequently taken up by latter-day groups ranging from Sonic Youth and Helmet (whose founding members played with Branca) to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And, although her music sounds nothing like anything Branca has ever been involved with, there’s even a British singer/songwriter named Amy Turnnidge who records under the moniker Theoretical Girl.

But after forming another short-lived No Wave band called The Static, Branca was pretty much done with the group dynamic of rock bands and was interested in creating larger musical forms. After he composed Instrumental for Six Guitars and performed it at the legendary Max’s Kansas City, it was clear that his music had gone in a completely different direction and that it was precisely where he wanted it to go:

I remember the first rehearsal. I stopped in the middle of the piece. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I had killed myself for so many years waiting for this moment. I had to stop. I couldn’t stand to listen to it one more second. It was everything I had been working towards, everything I had wanted. So it was impossible for me not to go in that direction. … I just kept pushing it. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it to the point of no return.

The point of no return was a series of hour-long pieces for large, extremely loud ensembles which involved retuned and often rebuilt guitars designed to play hundreds of different intervals based on the first 127 harmonics of the overtone series. Despite being for his own rock-based performing units rather than orchestras, he called these pieces symphonies. As his ambitions expanded, so did his instrumentation. In later years, he would go on to write pieces for actual symphony orchestra. He would also take a much less dogmatic approach to tuning. But in those earliest symphonies, Branca redefined the word for our own era in much the same way that Philip Glass and Robert Wilson had redefined opera only a few years earlier with Einstein on the Beach.

While Branca became the doyen of all composers who were interested in shattering the boundaries between musical genres (Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon even dedicated his early totalist composition, Four Kings Fight Five, to Branca), not everyone in the new music scene was enamored of such raw energy at ear-splitting volume. In one of more bewildering episodes in the annals of American music history, John Cage, who in an earlier era had been vilified for ostensibly creating “noise” and calling it music, was very outspoken in decrying what Branca was doing. It was somewhat crushing for Branca, but also sobering:

Cage really does have to be credited with having invented the concept of new music, or downtown music, or whatever you call it. In fact, the whole downtown lifestyle has to be credited to John Cage. … Being crucified by John Cage was actually not a good thing. It made me a lot of enemies, which was really unnecessary. You have to realize Cage was beloved. I was one of his fans. But that doesn’t mean that I was going to imitate him; that I was going to try to do what he does. I was really interested in very specifically composed music. … He made the mistake of coming to my concert. He said he couldn’t sit down at the same time that he didn’t want to stand up. He said that he was shaking. He said the music made him afraid. He went on and on and on and on about it. … He said everything about my music is what is wrong with music. … I don’t have any bad feelings about it. That’s what he felt; that was his opinion. And as they say, he has the right to his opinion.

Branca has tons of opinions of his own. In the two hours we spoke at Smash Studios, he offered salient commentary on everything from the differences between East Village and Soho No Wave bands to how orchestras should play Messiaen. He even had some off the cuff advice for other composers: Learn how to work with any sonic material you’re given. Make sure not to get too bogged down with musical theory. While his language is often as strong as his music, so is his message.

Frank J. Oteri: You once said in an interview that when you were really young you were playing a guitar and your mother thought that you were playing the wrong chords, but they were the chords that you wanted. You were already forging your own path and discovering new things with the instrument.

Glenn Branca: Yeah, I just let my ears take me where they wanted to go. I was only entertaining myself. I wasn’t ever thinking of playing for anybody else. My mother happened to be there, so she had to hear it. I used to go out on my porch. I used to go in the garage. Sometimes, I’d sit in the living room. But I had actually studied guitar for about six months. The guitar teacher just wanted to teach me Bach. I learned it and I learned how to read music, but it was boring as hell. I really just wanted to play folk music and rock music. That was what was going on at that time, the early- to mid-‘60s. But that’s not what I ever had any intention of doing at all.

Bastard Theatre

Members of The Bastard Theatre watching TV on the Esplanade in Boston, 1975. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca

I was an actor, and that’s what I was going to do. I was absolutely determined and when I went to school, at Emerson in Boston, which is a really good school for theater, I very quickly became interested in directing and very quickly after that became interested in writing my own plays because I couldn’t find any plays I wanted to direct. The reason for that was because I was an incredibly bad director. I wanted to incorporate all kinds of ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the play into the play. That’s not the way you’re supposed to direct. You’re supposed to take the playwright’s vision and realize it. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I had a vision. I wanted to realize my vision. So I started writing plays. I wanted to have a theater group, of course, and eventually I did start one in Boston called the Bastard Theater. But at the same time, I never lost my interest in music.

At the time that I was playing these chords that my mother heard, I was also fooling around with all kinds of broken-down tape decks that my parents would buy me for my birthday and for Christmas. They were cheap, junky things that would break down and start making really interesting sounds, because they weren’t working properly. I would set them all up, and use the one that was working to record all of the other ones. I found this incredibly entertaining. I would listen to it in stereo, but I never, ever imagined that this was composition of any kind.

FJO: I would love to hear these tapes if any of them survive.

GB: None as far as I know. My mom pretty much threw out everything I had after I left home: my comic books, my baseball cards, everything. She thought it was all worthless. I had Spiderman #1. Can you fucking believe that? She didn’t know. But the music thing never, never left. I was a gigantic music fan. I was a listener. I was a collector.

FJO: So what were you listening to?

GB: Everything. I don’t think there’s a single thing you could possibly name that I wasn’t listening to. I was just voracious; my ears wanted to hear new things. I’d say the only kind of music I didn’t listen to was country and western music, to be honest, even though there was a lot of it—I mean old country and western—that was actually very good and very interesting. Nonesuch was releasing a lot of really interesting stuff, from all over the world, as well as releasing new music composers. It was a great, great label at the time. One of my favorite pieces was the Ramayana Monkey Chant, which eventually became popular but at the time I was listening to it I don’t think there were too many people listening to it. So many things came about accidentally with me.

I was always working at shitty jobs while I was trying to do my theater to just earn enough money to pay the rent—washing dishes, bus boy, whatever. But at one point I got a gig at a record store. And I swear to god, I listened to almost every record in the entire store. That’s when I discovered Mahler. This was in the early ‘70s, I guess. I had never had any interest in classical music whatsoever, mainly because of the kind of stuff they played for us in school. The stuff in so-called music class was either horrendous garbage or too sophisticated for a 15-year-old ear. To tell you the truth, I don’t really like the Beethoven symphonies, even to this day. But they played us that stuff. I love the Beethoven piano sonatas; those are killer. They’re absolutely gorgeous. The man had a tremendous gift. I wouldn’t even try to begin to fool around with that. To me, that’s what he was really good at. But I shouldn’t get into Beethoven or I’m going to make a tremendous amount of people upset.

FJO: So what was it about Mahler that got you so excited?

GB: Well, that’s an interesting question. He took me places that I had never been before with music. As I said, I was listening to everything, but I had never heard something so complex. My own work in theater, the plays that I was writing and the work I wanted to do, was complex. It was experimental theater. I had studied completely on my own because there wasn’t any school that taught experimental theater. You just had to go into the bookstore and grab plays by whatever Polish, Czech, French, or English playwright. There certainly weren’t any American playwrights who were writing really out there experimental stuff.

FJO: What about Richard Foreman?

GB: This is before Richard Foreman. Well, let’s see, it’s hard to get before Richard Foreman. He goes back to the late ‘60s. I still consider Richard Foreman to be one of the greatest artists of our time. So let that stand as my position on Richard Foreman. But this was before I knew anything about Foreman, because he didn’t get out of New York at all. I was brought up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and when I finally got the hell out of there and went to college, I went to Boston. And that was somewhat of a revelation to me because I was exposed to so much more, but still, Richard Foreman was not something that was known in Boston. But I had read some stuff about Foreman, so when I came to New York in 1976, I immediately went to check him out and he immediately became my hero. And he still is.

FJO: His plays really operate like pieces of music in some ways.

GB: Oh, he’s a great composer. His compositions are fantastic—really interesting stuff. And of course, it goes with his work perfectly. I mean, that’s the point. And that’s what I was doing with theater. There was no narrative. There were no characters. In New York terms, it would have been thought of to some extent as performance art, but not really because they were very much theatrical production—the lighting, the movement, and the text were all very carefully worked out and very carefully rehearsed. I started incorporating music into it, having actors performing the music. They were not musicians. That’s when I basically had to learn how to write for non-musicians, and that was interesting because I did a lot of work with structured improvisation. I’ve never been interested in free improvisation, ever. I was tremendously interested in the ‘60s, what I call Miles-style, jazz scene, but that wasn’t free improv. Even when Coltrane went to free improv I lost interest in him, although many people think that’s his greatest work. I don’t think so. I think his greatest work was in the ‘50s when he was still actually writing music.

FJO: To go from loving Mahler and not liking free improvisation and doing the kind of music you were doing as part of your theatrical work to forming a No Wave punk rock band seems like a strange trajectory.

Ascension Band

Glenn Branca’s Ascension band in dressing room during European tour, c. 1981. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

GB: Well, that was easy as pie. I loved rock music, absolutely loved it. As I said, I was a collector. I was collecting rock music. I was collecting jazz. I was even into jazz fusion in the early ‘70s, which I can’t even listen to anymore. It’s like, ugh. And contemporary classical music; I mean, I was even listening to Elliott Carter. I wanted to hear everything that was going on. I got a bunch of cheap components and put them together and I created what I considered to be a tremendous stereo, which I really cranked up. When I would listen to Mahler, I’d listen really fucking loud, you realize. So when I would go to see the Boston Symphony, I would be tremendously disappointed because I couldn’t hear it. I remember actually hearing the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. Seiji Ozawa was conducting, and Messiaen was actually there to take a bow. He was quite old at the time. I was a gigantic Messiaen fan—I loved everything he did—[but] I thought it was terrible. Then many, many, many decades later, I heard the Juilliard Orchestra play it, and it was a totally different piece. It was absolutely killer. I think it’s one of the finest pieces written to this day. You know, but in those days, and maybe even still, the tendency is to slow everything down and to soften it up and to smooth it out. That’s exactly what [the BSO] did with this piece. Whereas the Juilliard guys played it as it was written—a piece that was meant to kick ass, a piece that was meant to be vicious and ugly and mean spirited. Ozawa leeched all of that out of the piece and turned it into just another generic, orchestral, classical music piece. So I had no idea that this was such a brilliant piece.

FJO: Considering your reaction to that performance, it’s surprising that you eventually wound up writing pieces for orchestra.

GB: Well, with Mahler, I became absolutely infatuated with the orchestra. At the same time, it was the most complex music and the most beautiful music I had ever heard. These composers were really thinking about what they were doing. They weren’t just like trying to get your rocks off. They were trying to get your head off, you know. All this crap about Mahler constantly writing about the fact that he was dying is completely ridiculous bullshit. He was writing music. He didn’t know he was going to die of strep throat in the last couple months of his life.

FJO: Mahler is a far cry from what you were doing musically with The Theoretical Girls, although I would venture to say that it was the most influential rock band never to have released an album during its existence.

GB: I think there are a lot of people who would disagree with you about that. If you didn’t have some kind of backing, it was just way too expensive. And I’m not just talking about New York. I’m talking about all of the indie bands, all over the country. Even releasing a single was an extremely expensive thing to do. We were all broke. We had to scrape together the money as best we could, and we didn’t just want to release a live tape or something. You have to realize these junky live tapes that are being released now are something that no one would have ever considered releasing at that time. You wanted to release something that at least had the potential to have the same kind of production qualities as the stuff that people were used to hearing. If you released a so-called garage band record in 1978, people would have thrown it out. No one would listen to it. No one would play it on the radio. Things have changed since then.

Without prolonging this, my buddy Jeff Lohn and I were both very much into theater. He had a ground floor loft in Soho, and we were setting it up to be a theater. I was going to do the Bastard Theater. He was going to do No Theater: N. O. Theater. Very simply what happened was that I couldn’t hold back my desire to start a rock band. And the truth of the matter is I didn’t even have a guitar at the time. I didn’t have an amplifier; I had nothing. But I said, I’m going to do this somehow, some way; I’m going to get together with some people and we’re going to make it happen. I started putting up some posters around SoHo near where I lived and where I worked. I didn’t even tell Jeff about this. Now, I knew that Jeff was a fine pianist. In fact, he had studied as a classical pianist and supposedly had broken his thumb and it ended his career. I don’t know what the real story is. But when Jeff found out that I was trying to put this band together, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Let’s do this.” And I said, “Great.” The loft that we were in the process of painting black and turning into a theater ended up being a rehearsal space for our band. He had a good friend who was a performance artist and a conceptual artist named Dan Graham, who has turned out to be one of the finest artists of our time. He loved punk music; he absolutely was infatuated with it. When he heard that we were going to start a band, he immediately said, “Listen I’ve got a gig at Franklin Furnace coming up in three weeks. I want you guys to play on it.” We hadn’t written one song. We didn’t have any equipment. Nothing. So we put this whole thing together in three weeks. Somehow we scrounged all this stuff together. We borrowed a drummer from a different band and we wrote all of this music, and they loved it.

FJO: So you and Jeff wrote all the music?

GB: Yes. We didn’t collaborate.

FJO: But the four people in the group were all composers.

GB: The original band actually only had three. Jeff might have learned how to play the bass, because he was a trained musician. It was very easy for him. And he actually did know how to play the guitar. But there were only three of us at the time. What happened was we immediately started getting invited to play everywhere. There was a whole loft scene. So we would play at people’s loft parties and things like that for a few weeks, basically doing the same set. Then we got invited to play at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Phill Niblock’s place, which amazingly is still there. This was very early 1978. I think it was a gig with Peter Gordon and Rhys [Chatham] doing his guitar trio. For this gig, we decided we were going to get our own drummer, and not only that, we were going to add a bass player so Jeff could just play keyboards. We wrote a bunch of new songs, and we kind of changed our sound, because we started out as a kind of skewed punk band. I was an experimentalist all the way. In fact, so was Jeff. Both of us had so many things in common and a similar attitude about work. We decided to say, O.K., this is our theater. Our idea of theater was not theatrical. It wasn’t like glitter or something. It was more Brechtian. So we didn’t wear costumes. We didn’t wear makeup. We didn’t do any of that. In fact, we were in complete opposition to all of that. We were very much influenced by the punk scene. But at the same time, both of us were coming out of the contemporary music scene. The kind of band that I wanted to do was very much the idea of taking contemporary, serious music and putting it in the context of rock music. Both of which I loved very much. As far as what Jeff wanted to do, I don’t know. I mean, the truth of the matter is, it really was very much my band as far as the sound of the band, the approach of the band, and the direction that the band took. Jeff was very quick, and picked up on all of this very quickly. So we were both kind of in parallel universes. But the band just took off immediately. I don’t know what to say. Whether Phill at Experimental Intermedia liked the band, I don’t know. But the fucking audience certainly did. We packed the place out the door.

The next thing that happened was we were invited to play on the X magazine benefit, which incorporated these East Village bands that were doing strange things with rock music—bands like DNA and the Contortions. We knew a little bit about some of that stuff, but not much. The magazine was just throwing a benefit. They wanted to raise a few hundred bucks, and they were able to rent this gigantic Polish dance hall for very little money. They were only charging two dollars, and nobody expected more than 150 people to show up. A thousand people showed up. This was like in early winter of ’78. It all happened like that.

FJO: I imagine one of Lydia Lunch’s bands was a part of that gig as well.

GB: She wasn’t on that gig, but we knew Lydia Lunch. We had seen her play. We had started to find out about these East Village bands. And they started finding out about us, but when I say us, I don’t mean just Theoretical Girls. I mean the so-called SoHo side of the No Wave scene which was The Gynecologists, which was Nina Canal’s band. She’s now known for her band called Ut. She was English, and she now lives in England. She was actually Rhys’ wife at the time, and Rhys was in the Gynecologists. And Rhys’s band Tone Deaf was one of the bands. Then there was, of course, Rudolph Grey’s band, Red Transistor. None of these bands were part of this little clique in the East Village that would eventually be released by Eno on the No New York record, the bands that became known as the No Wave bands. That was really not the case. In fact, I doubt whether there would have even been a No Wave if the art world hadn’t taken an interest in the SoHo bands.

The Kitchen was starting to book bands. The Artist Space actually put on a festival of bands where they invited not only the SoHo bands to play, but also the East Village bands to play. There were about ten of us in total. We didn’t have anything against them, but they seemed to have something against us. At this point, after so many years, I can be perfectly honest about what the separation was between us and them. They were junkies, and we weren’t. It was just as simple as that. It was the whole sort of Velvet Underground junkie punk scene. Whereas where we were coming more from was entirely about music. We thought, lived, breathed, ate music. I’m not saying we didn’t take some drugs sometimes. I mean, there was one article in which, for instance, John Rockwell said, “Mr. Chatham had a hard time maintaining a vertical position during the concert.” You know, which was an understatement to say the least. But we were friends. We were all friends.

FJO: Now in terms of being in it for the music, though, I’ve listened to the music from those East Village bands, and DNA is unbelievably sophisticated musically. You’ve even compared their music to Webern.

GB: Yes, I have done that. And I stand by it. They were a great band, especially when they got Tim Wright, the bass player. Originally they had a keyboardist named Robin Crutchfield, who was interesting in his own right, and did some of his own stuff. But to me they exemplified whatever No Wave might be. The truth of the matter is we were all doing different things. But some critic—well actually I know what the name of the critic was, his name is Roy Trakin. I think he wrote for the SoHo News. He’s the one who labeled it No Wave. There was no label. None of us thought in terms of being part of a movement. But he gave it a name, and once it got a name, what can I say.

Eno became very interested. Wow, there’s a movement going on in New York of experimental rock. We actually did a gig of an evening of short pieces in Jeff’s loft one night, and Eno was there. He was like an incredibly big deal to us at the time. You have no idea. We were a bunch of scroungers. I mean, we were all working in shit jobs, you know; you didn’t make any money playing music. It’s like things are nowadays for bands. And so wow, there’s a real, honest-to-god rock star who’s interested in this. Originally the word was that he was going to release all ten of the No Wave bands. One cut each, or two cuts each. Actually, it was two short cuts each. But he started hanging out with Lydia. I think that’s pretty much the way it went down. It was really pretty much as simple as that.

FJO: Given this SoHo vs. East Village dichotomy, it’s interesting how remnants of No Wave music survived. In the decades since that time, the band that carried on the sound world that began with the No Wave bands was Sonic Youth, and two of the founding members of that group were people who began playing your music.

GB: Sonic Youth was not a No Wave band. Not even close. The No Wave scene existed basically between 1977 and 1979. After that, it started to change very quickly, because it had become popular, mainly due to the release of No New York by Eno. You started having tons and tons of bands, mainly Talking Heads-type imitation bands that were called Art Rock bands. After 1979, the term No Wave wasn’t used any more. It was Art Rock. Sonic Youth was very much an Art Rock band. And Live Skull, Rat at Rat R, Swans—these were really good, powerful bands. But they had literally nothing to do with No Wave. I don’t care how many concerts they may have gone to. That would be like if we had tried to call ourselves Bebop bands or something. There was no connection whatsoever. I mean, these guys were doing commercial music, even by the standards of the times. It was commercial compared to what we were doing, which was utterly uncommercial, and in fact that was clearly documented in the press. These guys aren’t out to make any money. That’s not what this is about. It’s about music and music alone. Whereas all of a sudden these bands came along and they were using riffs from bands from the ‘60s and the ’70s and kind of incorporating this modern New York sound into it. As I said, it was basically called Art Rock, and it went from ten bands to about 200 bands. And it went from two clubs—basically Max’s and CBGB’s, and then there was always a sort of floating club that would be on and off—to about 20 clubs. The scene was gigantic, and people actually were making money, because it had gotten popular. It was the thing in New York at the time. All these new guys had come to New York to see something and do something exciting and new. What was exciting and new at that particular time was the No Wave scene. A lot of the artists were also starting their own bands, and became part of the Art Rock movement, people like Richard Prince and Robert Longo. Everybody was doing a band. Basically pretty much like it is now. Who isn’t doing a band?

FJO: At that time you also had a second band called The Static.

GB: Yes, because Jeff wanted to start doing his own work independently. And he said, “I can’t play on a regular basis.” I had tons of ideas that I wanted to get out, so I said, “O.K., well that’s cool. But I’m going to start this other band and keep doing my own music. That’s all The Static’s about.” And The Static didn’t last very long either, because I found something really new. This was in 1979. Everything happened very quickly at the time. I had ideas for all kinds of pieces that didn’t fit into the straight rock band structure.

The Static

The Static in a dressing room at Riverside Studios in London. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

One of the pieces was called Instrumental for Six Guitars. Without belaboring the story, I was invited to play in Max’s Kansas City’s Easter Festival. So I very quickly threw this thing together. And the piece, again like Theoretical Girls and like The Static, was very quickly successful. People loved it. At Max’s, the dressing rooms were upstairs. You had to go through the audience to get off the stage. There was no backstage area. When we performed Instrumental for Six Guitars, people were literally grabbing my clothing. I felt like Elvis. “Who are you?” “What was that?” “I’ve never heard anything like that before in my life.” It just so happened that this particular piece was a killer. I was still doing my band The Static at the time, and I remember going back to the guy who booked Max’s, saying “O.K., so when can I do another gig with The Static?” And he said, “The Static? Why don’t you do Glenn Branca?” Because the Instrumental for Six Guitars piece had been billed under my name, basically we had The Static and Instrumental for Six Guitars on the same bill. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, but it kind of developed from there. I would rather be home sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pencil in my hand than go to a Stones concert. I really enjoyed working and this was really just another part of my work.

I saw that I was in a position where I could do absolutely anything I wanted to do, and there was an audience there for it. I mean, New York was nothing at all like it is now. I feel bad about it, because it seems like—relatively—it was ridiculously easy for us. There were a few bands, the audience was much smaller. But we got a lot more attention. It’s so gigantic now. There are thousands of bands and literally hundreds of clubs. It’s very difficult for a band to get any recognition. I don’t care how good you are. There are just too many bands. Too many people have swarmed here. There are people doing very good stuff who are being ignored. But that’s the world. I don’t know what to say. I just kept pushing it. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it to the point of no return.


Dissonance at The Kitchen, 1979. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

FJO: The point of no return: sitting in front of that paper instead of going to a Stones concert; being a composer—

GB: —Instead of schmoozing; instead of going out at all.

FJO: So you had this deep interest in Mahler and all of sudden there’s this piece under your name that’s really a composition rather than a song. Is it fair to draw a distinction at that point between a song and a composition?

GB: Oh, very much so. I dropped the songs very quickly once I heard what a large group of guitarists could sound like. I had already started using different tunings because, as I said, everything I was doing was experimental. I was trying everything in the world. I was doing all kinds of things for years and years and years and years. This one clicked. This one hit. I don’t mean hit like, “Wow, they like it, so I’ll do that.” No. I liked it.

I remember the first rehearsal. I stopped in the middle of the piece. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I had killed myself for so many years waiting for this moment. I had to stop. I couldn’t stand to listen to it one more second. It was everything I had been working towards, everything I had wanted. So it was impossible for me not to go in that direction. And I immediately started developing that direction. I started inventing more tunings, and I started listening very closely to what was really the essence of that sound. I realized that close harmonies were a very important part of that and open strings on the guitar, strings that were ringing and allowing a lot of harmonics to interact. So I started moving more in that direction with a piece like Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, which is the piece that Cage hated. And it’s the first time I wore these sun glasses.

Indeterminate Activity Of Resultant Masses

Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses during the U.S. tour, 1983. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

FJO: The story about John Cage hating your music is one of the stranger episodes in new music history.

GB: I can understand it. It was a festival in Chicago I was invited to play at, New Music America. And everybody was doing one version or another of Cage. Cage really does have to be credited with having invented the concept of new music, or downtown music, or whatever you call it. In fact, the whole downtown lifestyle has to be credited to John Cage. There’s just no question about it. I mean, he went all the way back to the ‘30s with this for God’s sake. He actually got a feature article in Life magazine, which would be equivalent to—I don’t think there is an equivalent to that anymore. I mean, it was just gigantic. So wherever he went, people followed in the new music scene.

So this festival had something like 200 concerts by 200 different composers. For some reason, I was invited, and Cage had stated it was his birthday party. His birthday cake was cut by the mayor of Chicago. I mean, it was a big deal. And he stated, “I’m going to see every single concert at this festival that’s in my honor.” He says, “I don’t usually go out to see music very much, but this I’m going to see.” He made the mistake of coming to my concert. He said he couldn’t sit down at the same time that he didn’t want to stand up. He said that he was shaking. He said the music made him afraid. He went on and on and on and on about it. What happened is that the day after the concert, there was a symposium of composers and Cage started off the symposium by giving a ten-minute critique of my piece. After he had just seen like 200 pieces, he chose me to crucify. He said everything about my music is what is wrong with music.

There are many, many documentations of things that he said. He said things to radio stations; he said things to newspapers. He said things to interviewers and, luckily, I was able to get a hold of a tape. It’s about a 15-minute interview, in which he does nothing but attack my music in what, for me, was a vile and vicious way. Because you have to realize, I felt that the piece was in fact a tribute to John Cage. I mean, just to use the word indeterminate, that word in music is undeniably identified directly with John Cage. And I felt that the piece was very much a Cagean piece. I released the recording of Indeterminate Activity eventually. I didn’t have a recording that I liked, but after many, many years, I said fuck it. I’m never going to play this piece again, so I might as well release this recording. And on the other side, I put the interview with Cage in which he crucifies me. I don’t have any bad feelings about it. That’s what he felt; that was his opinion. And as they say, he has the right to his opinion.

FJO: Did you ever talk to him after that?

GB: No. We didn’t talk to each other before or after. The only thing we did was wave when we passed each other at the festival. I guess he recognized me, and I recognized him and said hi.

FJO: I think it’s so interesting that he reacted so viscerally, because he always gave this aura of being so open to all and every possibility.

GB: As it turns out, I found out afterwards that actually wasn’t true. There was a composer that I knew named Julius Eastman. Cage had basically done the same thing to him immediately after his concert, and supposedly he’d done the same thing to both Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich. So, if you didn’t play what he considered to be politically correct music, so to speak, he would come after you. He would attack you. I wasn’t the first. It’s just that I got more attention, or at least he got more attention for criticizing me, than any of these other people.

FJO: In a weird way, his criticizing you so publicly and all over the place spread the word about you.

GB: Yeah, people like to believe that. People like to think that. That’s not really true. Being crucified by John Cage was actually not a good thing. It made me a lot of enemies, which was really unnecessary. You have to realize Cage was beloved. I was one of his fans. But that doesn’t mean that I was going to imitate him; that I was going to try to do what he does. I was really interested in very specifically composed music. I have used and still use structured improvisation, but it certainly is not improvisation in any conventional definition of the word. I remember when John Zorn emerged in the mid-‘80s, Cage immediately aligned himself with Zorn against me. He wanted to find a young, new composer whom he felt was more connected to the kind of work that he himself had developed. Cage wanted, to be brutally honest, to destroy written music. And I felt that was just outrageous. Not everything can just be improvised or collaborated. Would you want to read an improvised, collaborated novel? I mean, I don’t know if you read. I read a lot. And I can tell you right now, I would not want to read something that was written by five people improvising. I mean, I want to read a carefully worked out and developed piece of work. I can say the same thing about any kind of art.

FJO: It actually is a redux of what you were talking about with the SoHo and East Village No Wave bands where one scene didn’t quite fit into the other. Then, all of a sudden, you became part of this, for lack of a better term, contemporary classical, downtown music scene. But ultimately your music didn’t really fit in with that either. You were your own thing. You were using musicians who had backgrounds in rock. This wasn’t the kind of music that the folks who went to new music concerts were used to hearing at that point.

GB: That was definitely a problem. What can I say? I mean, it was loud. Rock music, I mean, I like it loud. Just like I said when I listen to Mahler at home, I listen to it three or four times louder than you would ever hear it in a concert hall. That’s what got me off. Actually, I’d rather hear Bruckner now than Mahler, but things change. But yes, I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on.

FJO: Perhaps the ultimate affront to classical music sensibilities was calling your pieces for a group of very loud rock guitar players and drummers symphonies.

GB: I was on a plane home thinking, What am I going to do next? I’d like to do a long-form piece of music, something similar to a play, the kind of things that I had been writing before I started seriously writing music. And the term symphony—this is the perfect analogy for creating something that develops over the entire evening in, you might say, acts, the way a play develops in acts. So it seemed like an obvious thing to do, although I knew that I was sticking my neck way, way, way out on the line to call my funky, primitive, loud rock music a symphony. Um, it worked. They liked it. I liked it. It became basically what I wanted to do. Eventually I felt that the kind of music that I wanted to write needed to be more transparent than I could get with amplified instruments. I mean, for me anyway, amplified instruments tend to be murky. If you try to do anything harmonically complex with it, it just turns into mud. In fact, I was used to working with mud. And I still am.

Branca 1983

Glenn Branca in 1983, at the time of the composition of Symphony #3 “Gloria”. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

I feel at this time in my life there isn’t any type of sound I couldn’t create a piece of music out of. In fact, if I was a composition teacher, this is what I would teach my students. I would probably give them very difficult and strange types of sound-making devices, and say, “Make me a piece of music with this.” Two-by-fours, pipes, I don’t know, whatever, because I don’t think the music is about the instrument. I think it’s about the mind. The mind creates the music. Not the instrument. Not even the musician. I mean, I think the musician is incredibly important, don’t get me wrong on that point, and there are wonderful musicians who truly do create magical experiences. But as far as a composer is concerned, I think the composer needs to use his or her mind. And it really doesn’t matter what the tuning system is, whether it’s in the equal temperament system, whether it’s a harmonic series system, or any other system. It matters what you imagine and if you have the ability to put that into real space. For instance, the way Michael Gordon did with his piece called Timber. I don’t know if you’ve heard that piece, but it’s one of the finest pieces that I’ve heard in many, many years. And it’s just a bunch of two-by-fours. He did use some effects, I believe, but it doesn’t matter.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that it doesn’t matter what the tuning system is, since in the 1980s, a very precise tuning based on the harmonic series was extremely important to you. I’m curious about what inspired you to explore just intonation.

GB: I knew of Harry Partch. In fact, I had pretty much everything that he had recorded. And I went to many concerts by La Monte [Young]. One of the members of my band was Ned Sublette. He’s done all kinds of interesting things, and I knew he had studied with La Monte. So I said, “O.K., Ned, what is this harmonic series?” And Ned said, “You know, it’s actually incredibly, ridiculously simple. It’s just a series of natural numbers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, to infinity. Basically you choose a bass frequency, let’s say like 30 Hz, and take that times one, and the second harmonic is two. You take that 30 Hz, times two, then times three, then times four, then times five.” I said, “Wow. That’s sounds like an incredibly interesting tuning system.” But when I started working with it, I realized that no conventional instruments could play in the system. I mean, if I wanted to use the entire system. As it happens, when I say the entire system, the system is infinite, but when Partch, or Young use it, they choose particular sets of harmonics. Like La Monte will choose 12 particular harmonics and then have the piano tuned so each of the 12 tones are differently tuned. But it’s still 12 all tuned the same way. Whereas in the harmonic series, each interval is different. You don’t have half steps, quarter steps, or eighth tones. Every single interval is a different interval. It’s a different length. You can’t give it a name. It gets smaller as it goes up.

FJO: And you found a way to explore those harmonics in your Third Symphony, Gloria.

GB: In Gloria, yes, I was lucky. That was the first grant I ever got. It was an instrument building grant for five thousand dollars, and I used it to have what I could only call harpsichord-like instruments, because I can guarantee you they were nothing like harpsichords, except for the action. I found a wonderful, amazing instrument builder in New Jersey who built me six keyboards that could be tuned in the first seven octaves of the harmonic series: every single interval, 127 different intervals.

The reason why I wanted that was because I could then use mathematics, or—to put it very simply—arithmetic, to determine compositional structures. That’s what interested me about the harmonic series. I started to find that there was more than just music that was of interest in this harmonic series. I found what I would consider to be philosophical aspects. I began to become very deeply involved in the series itself, having nothing to do with music. There were three symphonies that were written for the harmonic series, #3, #4, and #5, just so you’ll have that on record and people will know. I’ve used bits and pieces of it throughout my work.

Symphony 4

A performance of Glenn Branca’s Symphony #4 during a European tour in 1983. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

But I became so involved with it that at one point when I happened to be in Europe for a gig, I made sure to stop at the Institute for Harmonic Research in Vienna, which is basically just an office in the music school there where a composer named Hans Kayser had been working with the harmonic series. He had written a book called the Learning Book of HarmonicsLehrbuch Der Harmonik. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a beautiful book. It’s amazing. I went through the book, and chart after chart that he had made. To visualize what this would look like, there were charts that I had already created at home just sitting in my room. It was like I was right there on the same page with this guy. I mean, this book was written in 1950. The difference was he never attempted to write a piece of music using the harmonic series. He got too involved, as I said, in the philosophical aspects of it.

But by the time I had finished Symphony #5, I realized, O.K., am I going to be a mathematician, or am I going to be a composer? I also discovered it doesn’t matter what tuning system you use. I had become infatuated with it. I’d fallen in love with it. But I realized the real beauty of music is what the mind creates. It’s not something that can be mathematically determined, which was something that had been very important to many of the serious composers of the 20th century like the serialists; I won’t go on about that. We won’t get into that subject, but they were using a lot of mathematics. I had found what I considered to be the absolutely perfect analogy between mathematics and music, because you have to realize these tones were vibrating at exactly the same rate as the numbers. So if you’re using mathematics in conjunction with the harmonic series, you are literally recreating mathematics in physical space. That became very interesting. But I realized that I wanted to be a composer. I wanted to compose music. I did not want to be a philosopher. I did not want to be a mathematician. I did not want to go in that direction. I wanted to be a composer, and I understood that composing is a function of the mind. The harmonic series is a massive subject, but it isn’t what I do now.

FJO: What you do now encompasses so much. You’re still writing for your own ensemble of electric guitars, but you’re also writing pieces for other ensembles—I know you just completed a piece for the Irish new music group Crash.

GB: I sent them my piece a couple of weeks ago, maybe it was about a week ago actually. I’m a bit a burned out from running. I always like to try something a little different. I’ve been working on it for months. And then I’ve had to do a couple of concerts with my ensemble during that time. I’m killed, but luckily it’s one of the rare pieces I’ve been able to write where I really was able to get what I wanted.

FJO: You already alluded to writing for orchestra, and I’d like to talk with you more in-depth about that. But most of the time you can certainly get more from a chamber group than you can with an orchestra—not in terms of the mass of the sound, but in terms of having time to rehearse, working out very precise details, and more flexibility overall.

GB: Well, I don’t live in Dublin, so I can’t really work with them. I’m going to get to hear them rehearse the piece one time in England at the Huddersfield Festival, one of the places they’re going to perform it. Even these small ensembles don’t have as much time as you would think. I mean, a lot of these musicians are working with a number of different ensembles. It’s the only way they can pay the rent. So you’re still stuck in that same situation where you don’t really have enough time to give to a piece.

FJO: Well, writing a piece for other people is always different than writing for your own group. You certainly have much less control over the outcome. But if you’re writing for orchestra, at least it seems to me, there are even fewer chances you can take. You certainly can’t do things like explore the first 127 intervals in the harmonic series.

GB: You’re absolutely right. And if I’ve made a mistake in a composition, I can fix it in a rehearsal. I can cut it. I can change it. I can’t do that when I deliver a piece to an orchestra. That’s it, you know; that’s the piece they’re going to play.

FJO: But given what you were saying earlier about the performance you heard of the Turangalîla-Symphonie which had all its edges wiped away, I’m surprised that would be an arena you’d want to place your own visceral music in.

GB: It depends on who plays it and who conducts it, whether they like it or don’t like it, and how much rehearsal time they’ve got. Working with an orchestra for a living composer writing a new piece of music is very, very difficult. And the reason for that is very, very simple. Most of the music they play is music they’ve been playing since they were in high school, for Christ’s sakes. You know, they don’t really even need to rehearse it at all. That’s what the classical music audience wants to hear. If you give them an entirely new piece of music that’s—let’s say—an hour long, you’re giving them something that they really have to work on. Not only that, we 21st-century composers tend to do things that are very unconventional sometimes, not the kind of things they learned in music school, and that makes it even more difficult. Sometimes they say, “Fuck this. I don’t give a shit about what this sounds like. This is crap. I just want to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.” In a sense, I’m not being fair, but in another sense, it is the truth. So much of the classical music scene is about virtuosity; it’s about the musicians showing off their abilities. The composer is the last man on the totem pole.

FJO: So then why have you invested so much compositional energy writing for the orchestra—the Seventh Symphony, the Ninth, and the Eleventh, which are for chorus and orchestra—

GB: —I want to hear my music performed by an orchestra and I’m willing to put up with the crap you have to put up with to work with an orchestra. I’m not blaming orchestras or orchestral musicians, because I understand the problems they’ve got. I mean, their audience is getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And the costs are getting higher, and higher, and higher. They just don’t have time to work on a piece unless they know it’s going to pack a place and make a lot of money or make their audience happy in one way or another. Now, damn it, personally I want to say this: I think to play to the audience that only wants to hear 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century music is a gigantic mistake. If we are looking at the end of the orchestra, that’s going to end up being up the reason.

There have been a tremendous number of really fantastic, hot, sexy pieces written for orchestra by many composers: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Ligeti, Penderecki Michael Nyman, Louis Andriessen, and the list just goes on and on and on. Throughout the 20th century, there have been really good pieces that people really would like. But they can’t perform these pieces because it takes too much time to rehearse and it’s expensive to rehearse them. It’s going to kill the orchestra eventually. The orchestra is going to become a museum system, as Steve Reich when he was interviewed by The Times was saying it was. I’ve been trying to fight against it.

There are so many musicians here in New York who are really, really good, the best musicians I’ve worked with anywhere in the world. I’ve worked with orchestras all over the United States and Europe, without a doubt the best musicians are in New York. There’s no way around it. And they don’t have gigs. That’s why they very often put together these small ensembles. It would not be difficult, if the union was a little forgiving, to put together a 21st-century orchestra that only played modern music, good modern music. I am absolutely positive that people would pack the place. It would be sold out every night. There is no question in my mind about it: it would rock; it would kill.

Branca: Thought, Instructions

Branca: Thought excerpt

Excerpt from the score of Thought © 2012 by Glenn Branca. Reprinted with permission. World premiere performance by the Crash Ensemble at the Project Arts Center in Dublin, Ireland. November 2, 2012.

Morton Subotnick: The Mad Scientist in the Laboratory of the Ecstatic Moment

A conversation in Subotnick’s Greenwich Village Studio in New York City
September 10, 2013—1:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Photos and video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Pundits nowadays are extremely fond of saying that the digital technology advances of the last decade are the equivalent of the emergence of human language or the Gutenberg printing press. Some believe that the digital revolution is even more significant than either of those seismic events since it have ushered in an era that is beyond history. But Morton Subotnick has been living in a technologically transformed world that is “beyond history” since 1959!
In that year, according to Subotnick, a great convergence of events happened that would forever change his life and, subsequently, the course of society and in particular one of its most significant cultural artifacts—music. In 1959, although he was on his way to establishing himself as a prominent clarinetist, Subotnick decided to stop playing the instrument and to instead devote himself exclusively to creating his own music. During the same time he came to that decision, he read a photocopy of manuscript by Marshall McCluhan that would be not be published until a few years later as the book Understanding Media. He also saw an ad in a newspaper for transistors; they had just started being mass produced and sold commercially. And, as he acknowledged with a slight grin when we visited his Greenwich Village studio, that same year Bank of America issued the first credit cards “which meant you didn’t have to pay anything.”

But Subotnick’s personal musical transformation did not happen overnight. It started with his fashioning a pre-recorded score for an Actor’s Workshop production of King Lear and then an early multi-media work employing four musicians, four speakers, and four light boxes that presaged psychedelia. Together with Ramon Sender, Subotnick founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center which soon emerged as an epicenter of forward musical thinking. Taking an inspiration from painters who could create work in their own studios, Subotnick wanted to have a similar process to creating and disseminating music—to create music and put it directly onto a record that people could then buy and listen to in their own homes rather than in a concert hall. In the mid-1960s he worked with Donald Buchla to develop the first portable electronic music equipment—the Buchla box actually predated the Moog synthesizer. And in 1967, Nonesuch Records released the first piece of music created expressly to be experienced through the medium of recording, Subotnick’s virtuosic exploration of the Buchla box, Silver Apples of the Moon (an album contemporaneous with The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Now, forty-six years later when live performers often lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks, it’s hard to imagine a world in which music fashioned in a studio was not the norm. Subotnick himself confesses that at the time he assumed what he was doing “would not be commonplace until 100, 150 years down the line.” But that now seminal LP almost didn’t happen as he related during our talk.

Silver Apples spawned an entirely new genre of electronic music created for home listening. Nonesuch followed it with several others including Andrew Rudin’s Tragoedia, Charles Dodge’s Earth’s Magnetic Field, as well as Charles Wuorinen’s Time’s Encomium which became the first all-electronic composition to win the Pulitzer Prize. Other labels followed suit as well, such as Vanguard, which issued People The Sky by Michael Czajkowski. But it went way beyond the realm of academically-trained avant-garde composers. Arguably electronic music artists from Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre to Aphex Twin and all of today’s laptop musicians emerged as a result of Subotnick and Silver Apples opening up the possibilities for such music to exist. Subotnick himself went on to create additional albums of electronic music which showcased the sonic variety this new medium was capable of producing—The Wild Bull, Touch, Sidewinder, Four Butterflies, Until Spring—records that have the depth and breadth of symphonies. But never being content with resting on his laurels, Subotnick soon started exploring other kinds of work, creating a new form of interactive music involving live instrumentalists and electronic soundscapes which he called “ghost electronics.” When CD-ROMs appeared, he was one of the first people to explore the medium as a basis for new creative work. Yet, despite his fascinating and extremely varied compositional output, Subotnick views his own compositions as being far less important than his attempts to create a medium that could release creative impulses for everyone else.

But in addition to Subotnick’s contributions to the development of electronic music and the various tools that help people to compose it, his own compositions—which now span some seven decades—have set a very high standard. His music not only shows us what is possible; its inherent humanism and its ability to communicate on an instant visceral level ensures that we never lose track of what it means to be musical. Though some of his most exciting pieces are now nearly half a century old, they still sound like they are very much of our own present time. He still lives up to the name given to him by members of the Mothers of Invention in the late 1960s: The Mad Scientist in the Laboratory of the Ecstatic Moment.


Frank J. Oteri: I thought a good place for us to begin is with something you said during the interview Maggi Payne did with you for the book on the San Francisco Tape Music Center. You mentioned your desire “to break away from being a composer of instrumental music who was just adding more to what was already a great literature.” Of course, looking back 50 years later, what you wound up creating has also become iconic literature; it too is now part of history, something that people look up to and have to respond to. So I wanted to get inside your mind about that time and when it crystallized for you to do something completely other.

Morton Subotnick: It’s the central issue for my life. At the moment you’re talking about—not the moment I said it to Maggi Payne but that moment that was probably between 1959 and 1960—I was 19. I was studying with Milhaud and Kirchner at Mills College, but I had just gotten out of graduate school a year or so. I was a very good clarinetist; some people think even more, but at least very good. I was subbing with the San Francisco Symphony, playing part time, and doing concertos and so forth. I had a career as a clarinetist if I wanted it. I was also doing well as an instrumental composer. I had already won some awards and I was getting performances, so I had a career and I was making a living. It was hardly very much money, but you know, I was doing it.

But then a few things happened. One was that I had decided I wanted to just write music. I wanted to write music for anything. So I was creating music for dance companies, I did music for KQED films, and I was commissioned by the Actors Workshop to do a score for King Lear. It turned out to be a monumental historic production. We worked for a year and half on it. I basically had been writing music for instruments, but I had played a little bit with recording things—musique concrète sorts of things. It seemed weird to create a movie score for a play; it seemed like it ought to grow out of the play itself. I thought maybe this was a place for musique concrète. So I created a score with cutting and pasting and recording, and forwards and backwards, and faster and slower, everything including the trumpet calls. And the storm scene turned into this monumental thing. I recorded the voice of the actor—remember I was working for a year and a half on this thing. The storm is all made from his lines, but you don’t recognize it at all. It’s all a big huge storm. At the end of the scene, I had this whooshing sound that was moving—I had speakers all over the auditorium—but it was all made out of his breathing. At one point, [the director] Herb Blau allowed me to interject some directorial things. I said that this storm is raging in his mind, from his mind, and the way to get that is for him to drop for one moment to his knee, and we’ll turn the sound off just for that second, so that it grounds when he touches the ground. It was that carefully done. It was really beautiful. At the end of it, he’s lying down, breathing, and I bring the sound down, he’s breathing to the rhythm that I made of his voice, and his chest is going so that as it gets softer and softer, everybody in the auditorium imagines that they can hear him breathing on the stage. It was just incredible. I still occasionally hear from people who were there about that score. I knew at that moment that I was doing something special. I was creating sound design. I don’t know that it even existed. Maybe it did, looking back now, but I didn’t think about it at that time. Then I imagined myself spending my time in my studio day after day creating music and sending it out on a record, like a painter puts a painting on the wall. But this is even more special, because records are cheap, so anyone who wants to listen to it can listen to it, and I don’t have to go into an auditorium. I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. This is the real thing with the new technology. This is where it could really take you: a new kind of composer who is a studio artist.

Subotnick Work Station

The current work station in Morton Subotnick’s studio.

Then another thing happened. [Beat poet and pioneering multimedia artist] Gerd Stern came to see me. He was introduced to me by Michael McClure, because he wanted somebody to help him with music. So I got to know Gerd, and the three of us met at Gerd’s apartment because he had just met Marshall McLuhan. Marshall McCluhan’s book, Understanding Media, hadn’t come out yet, but Gerd had photocopies of a lecture that McCluhan had given that was going to become the new book. He had only one copy, because it was expensive to copy things, so we were all reading page by page, and then the page passes to the next [person]; we were on the floor reading this, the Holy Grail. We were reading Understanding Media, at least two or three years before there was Understanding Media.

Then there was a third thing that happened right around that time, which was there was a big announcement in the newspaper that the transistor was going to be used for the first time in a commercial object, so that they were ready to mass produce transistors. There was another event, too, again all happening in 1959: Bank of America issued the first actual credit cards. [Before that there] was Diner’s Club and things [like that], but you had to pay at the end of the month. This was a credit card that meant you didn’t have to pay anything. So not only was all the technology that would deal with media going to be cheap, but you didn’t need any money to buy it. And reading McLuhan, I realized that it wasn’t just me in my studio but it was the whole world that was going to change. Everything was going to change and that’s when I decided if I have the aptitude to move into this direction, to be at this edge. We were living at the crest of a wave like the beginnings of the printing press, the edge of something so enormous, like the first writing or the first language; this is the first of a huge change for the entire world. I could continue writing music and add to it. I could play the clarinet. But there’s no way I could offer to the world anything like what Beethoven did. There’s nothing wrong with not doing that, but if I truly have the ability to be at this moment and be part of this, whatever it’s going to be, and have even the tiniest impact on it, how could I give that up?

And the fact is I knew it, and that’s why it was important that I did it. I mean everybody was around, but not everybody knew that this was about to happen. [At first] I thought, “Well I can’t give up the clarinet and writing for instruments. I don’t know anything about technology, so I have to see if I have the aptitude before I say to the San Francisco Symphony, ‘Goodbye, I don’t want to see you anymore.’ I’m going to put the clarinet away. I’m not writing any more music.” So I created a piece called Sound Blocks. It was in the fall of 1961, right after King Lear, and it used the lighting flats that we had used in King Lear. And in fact, the artist that worked on King Lear did the visuals for it. [Each lighting flat] had all kinds of things in it; you could rear light it using different colors and it would literally transform. It was like what would later be liquid projections; but this was an early way to do that. We had those four big lighting flats and we had four musicians, one in front of each lighting flat; the audience was in the center. I had four tracks of tape, two stereo tapes. And Michael McClure read from Flowers of Politics at the end. It was about a 40-minute piece and it was a sensation. I mean people were wiped out. We got offers to keep doing this. We performed every Sunday night for three weeks, or something like that. Reviews in the newspaper were saying a new art form had been born. We got offers to tour it. But my daughter was about to be born so I said, “No. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t know what this is that I made. I’ve got to re-think this whole thing.” But I thought, obviously I’ve got some aptitude, so I made my decision. I was given reinforcement from the live performance, not that I just wanted to do it. This psychedelic event that I made was three years before psychedelia, so you know, looking back, it wasn’t so surprising.

Then I worked for two years with Ramon Sender. We both worked on trying to figure out what it was. I decided at that point that I would give up. I’d put this piece away. It hasn’t been played since. But I was going to take every element of the piece, and really learn what it’s about. I knew how to write for instruments since I knew what instruments were about, but not this new world that we were moving into and that we were creating. We were literally at the edge of what I assumed would not be commonplace until 100, 150 years down the line. Visuals, I wasn’t so sure about, but I knew enough about it. What I didn’t know anything about was this electronic medium for sound, because what I was working with was not the way to go—cutting tape wasn’t it. So I started to look for something that would be more meaningful, to be able to be in the studio painting with sound.

FJO: Prior to that pivotal decision you mentioned your studies with Milhaud and Kirchner, and how active you were as a clarinetist. You gave what I believe was the West Coast premiere of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

MS: Yeah, I think that was probably true.

FJO: I want to take it back even further to what music you were exposed to growing up in Southern California. It probably wasn’t electronic music, although by the time you got interested in electronic music there had already been a whole decade of people messing around with tape and with mainframes in studios like the one at Radio Cologne or at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center.

MS: No, I didn’t hear any of that. The closest I came was Spike Jones, but that was when I was really little. I was a wiz at the clarinet from an early age. By 9, 10 years old, I was playing concertos. I could play almost anything that was put in front of me. I didn’t listen to popular music. I listened to jazz. And the only jazz I cared about was bebop. When I got to high school, I was offered a tour with Tex Beneke, which was terrible music, but it was a chance to go on the road playing the tenor saxophone. But my parents wouldn’t let me go. I was too young to say it myself. So I didn’t go on the road at that time.

The music that I was attracted to from my first instance of getting involved in music was when I was, I guess, seven years old, whenever my teeth came in. I don’t remember. I had a bronchial condition or something in my chest. And the doctor told my mother that they should give me a wind instrument to blow on and that would maybe help my lungs. So my mother came to me and said, “What instrument do you want to play?” I had seen a move with Tommy Dorsey, so I said that I want the instrument that goes like that. [Makes sliding trombone gesture. ] But my mother didn’t know the name of that and I didn’t either. So like a good Jewish mother, she goes to the library and gets a book with no pictures in it, only descriptions with words. So I go through it and I decide clarinet. The description about clarion sounds like that. So they ordered it from the school. I was very excited. I was listening to the radio every day, and I said my favorite is [sings the theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture]: da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum-dum-dum—the Lone Ranger! And I said that as I soon as I get that instrument, I’m going to play that, I know it. And she said, “Well don’t be disappointed if you can’t do it the first time.” I said, “I know I can do it. I just know it.”

And so the instrument comes, and first of all, it’s not a trombone. I don’t even know what this is. I can’t get anything out of it, because I don’t know how to put it together and I didn’t know what a reed was, or anything. And she said, “Oh, it’s not the right instrument.” I said, “No, no, no.” I never could make a mistake. “It’s the right instrument. I just don’t know how to play it yet.” So I got a teacher, a young guy who came in, a graduate student probably. I don’t know who he was, but I could almost see him today: He was skinny and tall, and very shy. My mother would stand in the kitchen and we would have lessons in the dining room. She’d be in the kitchen with her ear to the door listening, but on the other side of the door. I guess it must have been the better part of a year. And one day there was this squawking going on in the dining room. And she opens the door and runs in and says, “He never did that before.” And the teacher said, “That wasn’t him; that was me. [Laughs. ] Your son can play the clarinet better than I can at this point. You need another teacher.” So that’s what I remember as the first inkling that there was something, but it didn’t make any sense to me. You just showed me how to do it and I just did it. So it didn’t mean anything. It was when he said that, that I realized that maybe I can really do this thing.

FJO: But there’s a bit of a leap from playing an instrument to writing your own music.

MS: Well, I was seven-years old. But when I was nine-years old, we had moved. We were living in Boyle Heights. And we had gradually left Boyle Heights, and moved south of Pico Boulevard and the Pico Robertson area, which was the Jewish area, but the poorer part of the Jewish area. The main part was in the Fairfax. This was the poorer area, but it wasn’t as solidly Jewish, it was just where we sort of joined in as close as we could get. I had a few friends, but I didn’t have much of a social life. That’s why I mentioned that it was the Jewish area; it was sort of isolated in many ways. It didn’t bother me particularly; it ended up that I started reading a lot. At one point, I read a biography of Mozart. I read comic books, but I didn’t read any books that were fiction. My parents were in the Book of the Month club, so they had all the latest stuff which I never bothered with. I don’t know why. But they had a bonus, the classics. And the classics went in the garage on a shelf. And because it was in the garage, and isolated from the house, it was special. So I glanced through several of the classics, and I ended up with Stoic philosophy; I read three volumes. Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and I don’t remember the rest. It took me a long time, I was nine years old, but I got through them maybe by a year. That plus the Mozart somehow went wham. And I decided, I don’t want to play the clarinet. I want to be a composer. That’s what I want to do. I want to write music, not just play it. I actually want to create music.

I started a regimen, I don’t think right at nine years old, probably around when I was twelve. I took a couple of theory lessons with an Italian man who taught at one of these store front music schools that sold instruments in the front and gave you lessons in back. I don’t know what caused this guy to do this, but he said “Come up to my place; I’m going to show you some music.” He was writing twelve-tone music. It certainly wasn’t the earliest twelve-tone music, but it was still esoteric at that point. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know the name Arnold Schoenberg. I didn’t know anything. We couldn’t afford the lessons, so he said, “O.K., I’m going to give you a present: books that you can study. I can’t give you regular lessons, but if you want help, just call me on the phone and I’ll help you. He gave me the entire library of Ebenezer Prout that goes through counterpoint, and I went through the entire thing. I saw him occasionally, when there were questions. And then, by the time I got out of junior high school and into high school, I was starting to write my own music.

At that time there were five symphony orchestras [who worked] with the studios. But they had a lot of time off, so they were playing classical music, chamber music and things. When a clarinetist would get a call [from the studios] and have to go off and [therefore] couldn’t make a rehearsal, and sometimes even a concert, they would call me since I was such a good player. I could sight read anything, so I’d come in and I’d play Dvořák or whatever it was. I could just take their place. And so I got to know the studio musicians, and when I wrote music, they put [together] a group of people who played my music for me so I could hear it. I had a little private conservatory going. Several of them took me under their wings; they helped and guided me, told me if I wanted to play in a symphony orchestra what I’d have to learn, and how I’d have to do it.

FJO: So were your early pieces twelve-tone?

MS: No. I only know that [the music of] this guy [I was studying with] was twelve-tone [now] when I look back. He told me that it was, but I didn’t know what he meant.

I was a terrible student, by the way. From the time I started writing music, I just couldn’t deal with going to school at all. I hated high school with a passion; it was like being in prison. I did my composing in the early morning before school for three or four hours; I’d get up at the crack of dawn. Then I’d go to school, and pretty much sleep through it. Then I’d go home and practice the clarinet for three or four hours. That was my life. But the orchestra conductor in my school, North Hollywood High, allowed me to play every instrument of the orchestra. I had two weeks with every instrument, just so I could play and get a feeling of what it felt like. And—I think it was in the last year of high school—there was a man who was teaching music theory whose name was Joel Harry. So I decided I’ll take a course in music theory. I get in and he gives us a little test to see who knows what. He looks over all of them and he reads my name. “Morton Subotnick, would you stay after class please? You already know all of this; how much do you know?” And so I told him. And he said, “Have you been writing music?” And he said, “Bring me some music.” So the next day, I brought him some music and he said, “You don’t really need to take this course, but if you do, I will introduce you to some new things.” So, I said, “Oh, that sounds good.” Krenek had done a twelve-tone counterpoint book and he put me through that. I did twelve-tone counterpoint. He took me to the Monday Evening Concerts, to every single Monday evening concert, and he introduced me to the music of Ives. And so I knew Schoenberg’s music, I mean somewhat, in my last year of high school. There was very little available. Schoenberg lived there, so we had some of his music. But Webern—there was only one score available at that time. We’re talking 1950-51. There was only one score that I know of that was available. I believe it was the Concerto for Nine Instruments, and there was a recording of the Saxophone Quartet. There was one recording and one score, and they didn’t match. But this was the introduction.

The next year I went to USC. I was actually paid a stipend by the month, free tuition, free room and board, but I had to play in everything. I had to play in the orchestra and the opera orchestra. When I got to USC, I had two days of placement exams. The first day was the English placement exam. I was 45 minutes late to an hour and a half test, so I flunked it. And I took the best course in English I ever took in my life—with the football players—five days a week. The next day I got there on time and took my placement exams in music, and passed four years of music theory. So I had no undergraduate music courses, except history, in order to get my degree. But they didn’t want to let me take composition lessons; I was too young. Ingolf Dahl, who was the conductor of the orchestra, got word of it—probably from the studio musicians—and he gave me lessons as long as I didn’t tell anyone I was taking lessons from him at USC. But the musicians said to me, “This isn’t for you; you’re sitting there playing music for 500 dollars a year. That’s what they’re paying you; you’re not learning music because you [already] passed it all. You could be playing in a symphony orchestra. There’s an audition for the Denver Symphony, and we’re going to line you up with the audition if you want to do that.” So I said sure. I took the audition, got the job, and went to Denver the next year. That’s where I met Jim Tenney and Stan Brakhage. Jim and a few other composers just out of high school came and every Monday night we got together and I taught them twelve-tone music. It was like what happened later with Gerd Stern and McCluhan’s book. This was the gold; it just wasn’t available.

FJO: So tell me more about your early, pre-moment of epiphany pieces. I know on your website timeline, you list a quintet for clarinet, mandolin, violin, cello and piano. That’s an interesting combination.

MS: It was more than a quintet. It was about seven or eight instruments. The mandolin came from two sources. It came from the Schoenberg Serenade which I was absolutely in love with. It was great. It was pre-twelve-tone, and it had a mandolin in it. Also, my father had played the mandolin. So I’ve used the mandolin and mandolin-type sounds all my life in various ways.

FJO: That’s the earliest piece listed on your website there, but according to a Wikipedia page that someone created about you there’s an even earlier sonata for viola and piano.

MS: Yeah, that was my thesis under Milhaud at Mills College. That was a twelve-tone piece. I still have it now and it’s going to get published, because Schott’s going to publish all this stuff. But I have no idea what it sounds like at this point.

FJO: There’s also a two-piano piece that Milhaud was actually in the audience for the premiere of, and there was a near-riot at that performance.

MS: Yeah, that’s right. That was before the one with the mandolin, too. That was my breakout piece. I was graduating from Mills in 1958 or ’59. I don’t know, something like that. I was also conducting during that period. I conducted a concert of Terry Riley’s music with a piece by Terry that was in the style of Zeitmasse by Stockhausen; it was in three tempos at the same time. And I was conducting a concert of Milhaud’s music. This was when I was graduating. At that point I had one child, a boy, and a very, very ill wife. We had medical bills and psychiatrist bills. I was earning money, but it was really tight and Milhaud knew. He said to me, “I know you have a hard time. I teach at Aspen in the summer. I’ve invited all my seminar students to come and study.” But he didn’t like my music. It was too gnarly and chromatic—twelve-tone. He really didn’t like that at all. But he liked me and he had great admiration for musical ability and all the stuff I was already doing already in public. So he said, “I’d like you to come and just write music. I don’t want you in my class. But you can come and just write music.” And he had a scholarship for me. I think it was something like $500, which was a lot of money in those days. And I said, “I really appreciate this, but I can’t do it. I can’t survive on $500.” I was conducting at a rehearsal of his music in the Mills Auditorium. There was a big middle aisle and it was where he sat because of his wheelchair. And so we had a break, and I came up to him and asked, “Is there anything I’m doing that you’d like me to change?” He grabbed my hand, which he often did between his two hands, and he said, “No, my dear. When you conduct my music, it’s perfect. Thank you.” And as I pulled my hand out, he had asked me how much I needed. I said I needed twice that, so I pull my hand out and there’s a check there for $1000. He said it’s from an anonymous donor. When I tell the story, I could cry. It was so moving.

So I went to Aspen. I was given a little practice room, with a piano in it and no electricity. It was cold in the mornings. You lit a candle to keep your hands warm. But I had my son to take care of. My sister came along to help, because my wife couldn’t do it. Early in the morning, four o’clock, before everybody got up, I’d go [to the room] and start writing. I wrote a clarinet quintet. It was not in the style of Milhaud, but something he would like. It didn’t have chromatics; it wasn’t twelve-tone. It was nice. And I brought it to him as a present. And he said, “Oh, this is beautiful. Thank you.” Before I was going to leave Aspen, he programmed it. It was going to be played the week before I left, which was five weeks down the road. And so I was going to have my first, big public performance with this clarinet quintet. So then I start writing a piece for piano four-hands. I couldn’t play [through] the piece obviously, [since it was for] four hands. [Plus] I wasn’t that good of a pianist. But there were two composers who were great pianists in the seminar. So they played it for me and we all decided—the three of us—that this was dynamite. I mean, it was so fresh and so new. So I went to the office and I took my clarinet quintet off and put this piece on. A week before the performance, I thought, whoops, I better tell Milhaud what I’ve done. So I bring in my music and I tell Milhaud what I’d done. “Ahh,” he said, “No.” He was like this. I said, “Oh, Milhaud, believe me, this is fresh. This is new. You told me to open the window to get fresh air. This is it.” So he said, “O.K. It’s alright.”

So the performance comes. I’m expecting a major ovation, because it’s no question: this is great; this is fresh. I think there were three movements. At the end of the second movement, there was so much commotion that the two pianists had to stare the audience down to get to the third movement. They play the last movement, and people rose to their feet like I expected, except they were shouting and screaming. People ran up to the stage and started pounding on the piano. The two pianists ran off. It was just before intermission. I’m walking out, sick to my stomach; I never experienced anything like it in my life. Milhaud was at the edge of the tent. He had his little hat with the brim up, and he pulled me down. And he said as tears were coming down his cheeks, “Thank you my dear. It reminds me of the old days.”

FJO: So aside from that early clarinet quintet, Milhaud really was not an influence on you.

MS: He was, but not musically. He didn’t like my music. He didn’t spend any time with it in the seminar, or as little as possible. But I would have tea with him once a week. I’d tell him what was happening in the avant-garde, my avant-garde in San Francisco, and he would tell me about Paris in the ‘20s. So, for a year, we did this. Not every single week, but lots of times. And he gave me an early edition of the Sylvia Beach book; it was a limited edition. That was his graduation present for me. It was so positive. And I kept up with him. He really wanted to come to the Tape Center. When we got to Divisadero Street a couple of years later, he really wanted to come visit, but he couldn’t get up the stairs. Later when we got the grant from Rockefeller, Ramon and I didn’t want to stay with the Tape Center. I had this offer in New York. At one point, we were talking about not accepting the money, but that was stupid. We had to move it to an institution. Everybody wanted it. Berkeley wanted it, the Conservatory wanted it, but we gave it to Mills mostly because of Milhaud. He really cared; this was important to him. It wasn’t just a feather in the cap to get a Rockefeller grant.

FJO: But still, Milhaud didn’t really influence that big epiphany you had. You mentioned bebop and we talked about your early pieces and some other early teachers. What about Kirchner?

MS: No. [chuckles] No. Zero. The opposite. Leon thought this stuff was terrible—tape, electronics, Stockhausen; it was like the devil to him.

FJO: But he eventually did tape music in his third quartet.

MS: Come on! He came to me and said, “I’m writing a string quartet, and I’d like to use tape music. Can you help me?” You don’t know this story? Oh Christ! He came to me and he stayed with us about two weeks up in my studio on Bleecker Street, and he was hopeless. He couldn’t learn anything. So I said, “O.K., what do you want?” He said, “Well I want blahhh.” I did the whole thing, beginning to end. So he wins the Pulitzer Prize and when they asked him about the electronics, he said, “Oh, electronic music is simple. There’s nothing to it. I learned it in two weeks.” To his dying day… He had me over for dinner several times. He said, “I’m going to make it up to you. I’m going to let people know; I’m going write program notes now for these concerts for my 80th year.” He sent me the program notes which, again, didn’t do it. He mentioned that he learned it from me, but that was his notion, so I gave up on it.

FJO: I was curious about the precedents for all those conceptual pieces you did early on at the Tape Center, none of which I’ve ever heard but which I’ve read about. You mentioned bebop and you talked about discovering twelve-tone music. And we spoke about your teachers—Dahl, Milhaud, and certainly Kirchner would not have been an influence on that sort of music, pieces like the fish tank piece.

MS: Oh no. That was, that was not mine. Ramon got the idea for the fish tank.

FJO: When I was in high school I had a teacher with whom I talked about experimental music who first got me interested in a lot of this stuff. And he told me about some free jazz musician who drew a staff on a fish bowl and played according to what line on the staff the fish swam in back of. In preparing for our talk today, I learned that this was Tropical Fish Opera which was done by you, Ramon, and Pauline Oliveros; I wish I had known about it when I spoke to her for NewMusicBox!

MS: Pauline, right! Well, we didn’t actually take credit for it. In recent years, Ramon has taken credit for it. I honestly don’t know whose idea it was. We did a lot of improvisation. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. But we did a performance at RPI, they did a Tape Center retrospective—Ramon and I and Pauline and Loren Rush, who was [also] in the original one. There is a DVD of it.

FJO: Wow! Anyway, that fish tank idea as well as the other conceptual piece that I read about in the book about the Tape Music Center—like the Fluxus concerts that were happening in New York or the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor—seem to be an extension of Cage’s ideas, and I know that you mounted a Cage tribute at the Tape Center pretty early on.

MS: I don’t think I ever thought of it as Cage, but it could be. It wasn’t thought of as a tribute to Cage at that point; it was more in line with happenings. Paint was coming off the wall for us. [Same thing with] music; we reconceptualized it. But none of that was the impetus for the electronics. The electronics came just at that point of understanding that electronic music wasn’t a continuation or an offshoot and didn’t have to be. Its potential was the result of a big bang, the technological big bang that would resonate.

From at least 40,000 years ago—that period when humans became human as we know them with tools—that’s probably the beginnings of instruments and this whole thing. From that day, you only learned music by someone playing it, and you imitated it, until the printing press. But even through the printing press and everything, we believed music was a continuum. It belonged to five percent, two percent of the population. Because you could only hear music if someone played if for you, or you played it yourself. So the evolution of music was like religion and everything else. It was a very narrow evolution of a continuity, until 1959—the technological big bang in my mind at that moment.

Music is a cultural artifact of musicality. But people could be musically creative and create something that may not be part of that. In fact, it might become all kinds of things like painting became because it was easy for people to get their hands on. They didn’t have to learn; they could be Grandma Moses. They could do whatever they wanted. And we would have that opportunity in creativity with music for the very first time in a history of 40,000 years. And what would happen, I don’t know. Nobody could know. If everybody had the capacity to make music without ever studying it, we would have genres all over the place. Some of them would be musical, some, who knows what they would be? What I saw was that I could bring a history of musicality to this moment. What I thought was that I could impact the development of the technology so that there would be the possibility that people would have a more musical interface to the technological world. That’s what I saw myself doing. My thing was not that I was going to write something that was going to change the world, but that I would approach technology in such a way, and I would have to not only do it, but I’d have to share how I did it with people so that I could make good the promise to be human and say this is what I can do with it and how I do it. Use it if you want. Don’t use it if you don’t want, but not to become famous and rich, just to be more human in some way.

Pens Amidst Electronics

A moment of humanity amidst all the machinery in Mort’s studio: tons of pens and a notebook.

FJO: It’s interesting how your own music developed immediately after that point of realization; how the Buchla music box developed as did the music that you created with it. You talked about how there was this moment where it opened up this whole new door. I mentioned all that electronic composition that happened in studios with the giant RCA synthesizers and people splicing tapes. Back then there were all these competing musical “isms” in the realm of instrumental music: the twelve-tone serial stuff at one extreme and the Cage-ian indeterminate stuff and the conceptual stuff at the other. And then minimalism started happening. Composers from all of these camps dabbled in studio electronic music: Babbitt with his Ensembles for Synthesizer, Cage with Fontana Mix, then Reich with It’s Gonna Rain. All these polar opposite styles were also possible with electronic music. But what you did seems to transcend what was going on before and contemporaneously; it’s not about a compositional style, per se.

MS: It was different. All of the things you mentioned, what was happening with the RCA synthesizer was twelve-tone music with a synthesizer. The first study of Stockhausen is a twelve-tone piece with electronics. This is making what I call new-old music—with machines. I thought that was a dumb idea from day one. I mean, we’ve got a new machine. What we want to do is approach it with musical creativity, which has nothing to do with scales, or anything else. Technology allows you to move back to your inner self. What if you grew up with didgeridoos? You can’t have twelve-tone music. Now you have technology which doesn’t have anything. So here’s what we did. Buchla comes along and says I can do what you want to do. I said the one thing we do not want is a black and white keyboard; that’s the most important thing. We built what I called, at that time, an electronic music easel. It does not introduce what you’re supposed to do, like—do anything you want with my three-holed flute. Play anything, but you’ve [only] got seven pitches and that’s all you can do. Great. There are all sorts of things you can do [with that flute]; you can spend a lifetime doing it. But I didn’t want to introduce something that said, “What you’re going to do is anything you want to do with these seven pitches.” I wanted it to be wide open. But I found out that it was much harder.

FJO: Ironally, what wound up happening with electronic musical instruments for the most part is that they essentially became vehicles for what you call new-old music, twelve-note seven-white-keyed, five-black-keyed keyboards with a bunch of pre-set timbres like an organ.

MS: In the lecture I gave yesterday, when I get to that point, I show a picture of all the wires and everything of the first Buchla which was a year and a half before the Moog. In 1965, the Buchla was full blown; in 1966 or ‘67, the Moog is full blown. And the first piece, Silver Apples comes, almost a year, about eight months before Switched on Bach—that wasn’t even new-old music; it was old music played new. I didn’t know why it didn’t dawn on people what had happened when it happened. At that moment it was very hard to conceptualize a new thing. I didn’t understand how hard that was going to be. And it was brilliant. My brilliance was in not using a black and white keyboard. If I’ve offered anything in the world, it’s that. It’s saying, let’s go back to musical creativity. Let’s not call it music. Let’s not call it a book. Let’s call it verbal communication. Let’s call it musical verbal communication or whatever you want. Let’s not give it a generic name. Let’s express ourselves. It’s hard to do. It’s actually just as hard for a person who’s never had the background, because it’s sort of a double edged sword. Everyone can hear anything and they hear it before they’ve tried anything, and so they imitate. They’re imitating what they’re hearing, not doing what I did—get in the studio, isolate myself, and without the apparatuses that make the normal music, to force myself to start over again in some kind of way.

Original Buchla

Part of the original Buchla music box which Subotnick still keeps in his studio.

FJO: Yet the irony about that is that in Silver Apples and then other pieces that you did very soon afterwards, even though you’re creating this whole new thing that’s not beholden to any genre or any style, there’s something about those pieces that’s more inherently musical in an almost old fashioned sense than most electronic music that had come before it. It triggers emotions in a way that’s not all that different from the way standard repertoire classical music does.

MS: The inherent musicality that I grew up with, why should I throw that away? That was the whole point. The whole point to me is one should not be creating genres; one should be going to one’s inner musicality. Not music. Musicality. Express new thoughts, new feelings, new vision, or I don’t even know if they’re your visions. Not even new. Who knows? They’re going to be unique for you. But you do it without the artifact. That’s why we get so taken with an indigenous music somewhere, like with the didgeridoo, because for us it’s raw emotion. They don’t worry that it doesn’t express something. We worry about it because we think of ourselves as a march from 40,000 years ago to the present and on to the future. We don’t know for sure, but Schoenberg is said to have said to one of his students, “Now that I have created this technique, I have assured the dominance of the German composer for the next hundred years.” And then something like 30 years [later], Boulez writes, “Schoenberg is dead. Long live Webern.” They were thinking of these threads moving forward. They were creating the future. You can’t create the future with 19th century musical thought, right? So you have to get rid of everything as you go. But everybody’s on their own. There is no march. There was no evolution. Yet that’s all we had, so that’s the way we thought about it. But we don’t have evolution anymore. What we have now is a kind of quantum existence of everything at the same time. Nothing is going to go away and history is gone forever. Time has been collapsed because we now know, for sure, when we look in the sky, that we’re seeing millions of years into the past. Things that aren’t even there anymore we’re still seeing. And it won’t be, not in my life maybe, but maybe in yours and certainly in our children’s, they will probably see the edge of the Big Bang. Now if they see the edge of the Big Bang, what is the past? That’s in the present. They’re seeing the past and the present. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.

So this idea of the next hundred years doesn’t mean beans. It means now, and we’re seeing that there are new things being born, like new universes developing all the time, or things that are potentially universes. That, you know, it’s a constant. And it doesn’t mean that this has to die before this can exist. They can co-exist. And the only reason they didn’t is because there was this minority, this tiny percentage of people who were like kings carrying this thing forward; anything else was secular. It was not worth it. If you read Aristotle on music education: “There’s all this other kind of music, but it’s not worth teaching because the only thing worth teaching is this.” And that’s why we had only the modes and all this kind of stuff. And they’d keep that going forever, but the rest of the stuff now is dominant.

Silver Apples of the Moon

The original LP cover for Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967)

FJO: Well, that’s the other thing that happened in the 1960s. All these other kinds of music were happening at that time that suddenly really kind of took over the world. Jazz began to be taken seriously, various world music traditions suddenly got international exposure, and rock became ascendant in mainstream culture. You read all these histories of rock that talk about psychedelic rock and the advent of concept albums. They claim that the Beatles invented all of that with their 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because it was created in a studio and was designed to be listened to at home from start to finish. You were creating Silver Apples of the Moon at the same time they were in the studio recording that album and your record deals with these very same issues. The way people used to think about listening to music—music was what you heard in a concert hall or in a club. There were records already, of course, but they were perceived as just artifacts of those live experiences. Creating music that was intended exclusively for home listening was something totally new. Now we take this for granted in an era where people walk around with earbuds listening to their own personal soundtracks created from recorded music. But this was a completely new idea at the time.

MS: On the liner notes of Silver Apples, I say this is the new chamber music. When interactive CD-ROMs came, I made a piece for that right off the bat at the moment that the color monitor was coming in. Wired quotes me—I don’t even remember doing it, but I must have done it—saying that the computer has now becomes the medium for chamber art because it’s the chamber. It doesn’t keep you from going to galleries, but it offers another medium. Long-playing records with high fidelity were just coming in. It was so good it sounded like the real thing. You couldn’t separate them. And I would give lectures saying now that we’ve got long-playing records, it will just be a matter of time before the people will rise up and say: “It’s immoral and unethical to take a piece of music written for musicians to be in person playing for other people in real time and put that on a record, freeze it, and use that in the living room.” We’ll use 78rpm records for that, because it will be like black and white photos. You’ll get to know the music, but you get the real experience when you get the real thing. So we need a new medium, a new music, and we will commission composers to come in and write music for it.

Wild Bull LP

A year after Silver Apples, Nonesuch released Subotnick’s The Wild Bull (1968).

That’s what struck me when Jac Holzman came to my studio in the middle of the night. I thought he had been to one of my lectures. It was 2:00 in the morning. I had, I think, someone from the Mothers of Invention and Ultra Violet there. I don’t remember who, but these were people who came into my studio at 2 or 3 in the morning and just sat around. And, this guy comes here on Bleecker Street in a double breasted suit and he gives me my talk: “Immoral, unethical, record companies.” And he said, “I’m the head of a record company, and we think record companies should commission composers, and we’ve chosen you to be the first one.” And I said, “Get the fuck out of here!” And I pushed him out the door. I thought he was making fun of me. And the next morning when I got home to see the kids off to school, I had this cheap record on of a Bach Brandenburg to calm me down, to get me in position so the kids would get up, and I could give them breakfast and get them off. And it was on Nonesuch Records. This guy said he was the President of Nonesuch. He was real! And I tried all day to call him on the phone. I couldn’t find a phone number because they were part of Electra-Asylum or something. So that night I’m thinking, “What a nebbish I am! I just destroyed my life; the opportunity came and I blew it.” And around the same time, he comes in again. The next night! I’m ready to get on my knees and beg forgiveness. He had offered me $500; I’ll do it for nothing. He thought I was coming to push him out again. So he says, “Just listen to me. Don’t kick me out. We talked about it all day long, and we’ll offer you $1,000.” So I said, “O.K., I’ll take it.” That’s how it came about.

FJO: It’s amazing to me how much resonance what you were doing had with the people who were shaping popular culture at that time. Soon after Nonesuch released Silver Apples of the Moon a rock band formed named Silver Apples which used tons of electronics. This was a major moment of cultural convergence, and you were in the center of it somehow. So-called high art, low art, popular culture, jazz, rock, classical music, the avant-garde, it all converged at that time. How did members of the Mothers of Invention wind up in your studio in the first place?

MS: Well, I was right in the middle of all the rock clubs. So when they got finished, they heard that there was this guy, Morton Subotnick, who is the mad scientist in the laboratory of the ecstatic moment. Someone used the term, and it passed through people—the Mothers of Invention, Lothar and the Hand People. It wasn’t a lot of them, but people would pop in. This was the Ecstatic Moment Laboratory. And that’s how the Electric Circus came about. These guys came and they said, “We’ve bought this name, Electric Circus. And everyone says you know what that would be.” I said, “Sure, come tonight.” And I gave them these lights and strobes and the whole thing, and they hired me as artistic director. They gave me what they called at the time a lifetime contract where I’d get $4,000 a year for the rest of my life for doing nothing.

FJO: For the rest of your life?

MS: Yeah, of course, the thing ended. I quit and I said I don’t want your money after the second year. And then two years later, they got bombed out, so it didn’t mean very much anyway.

FJO: Well, one thing that didn’t end were these pieces of electronic music created specifically for LPs. It became a whole new musical genre. You did seven of them yourself, but after that, it seems, you missed having a live performance element and started writing works that incorporated musicians performing in real time with the electronics.

Touch LP

The original cover for Touch (1969), Subotnick’s first album on Columbia Records.

MS: No, remember with Sound Blocks, that 1961 piece for four musicians, four tracks of tape, image and someone speaking, my first problem was to solve the electronic problem. I thought I would get it solved quickly, but it wasn’t until 1978 that I felt comfortable with that for myself, with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur. I now had my language, or my whatever it is, my personal tools for electronics. So now that I finally get the electronics done, it’s my time to start working back with instruments and see what I can do with instruments and electronics. It started with [what I call] “the ghost pieces.” I tried MIDI and different kinds of things, and then the next thing was to add visuals back. I actually started to add that back in in the ‘70s. First there was The Double Life of Amphibians, then Hungers, and then finally Jacob’s Room. And in Jacob’s Room, I felt that I had put in a long time. Double Life of Amphibians had no words in it. Hungers had two words in it: “I,” “Want.” Actually I think it had “I Want” and “I Need.” I can’t remember. But it had subject matter. Both of them had subject matter, but people watching Double Life of Amphibians would not have gotten it, except for the program notes. Hungers had—by the title itself—human needs. But Jacob’s Room was an opportunity to write with a real important text. The very first premiere of the multi-media version of Jacob’s Room came in 1993 when I turned 60. And that I felt was close to the end of the trek from 1961. I put it all together finally. But the final version will be premiered at Juilliard in October.

FJO: What’s ironic, though, is that even though you decided to re-introduce instruments and a live performance setting for the music, these pieces then got released on recordings and this is probably how most people have heard them.

MS: Right. It’s a big problem for me. I could have turned down the recordings, but what I decided to do, which is what the rock bands had already done, is that we could make a recording of it, but it wasn’t the live performance. It would not just be edited, but it would do things that a live performance couldn’t do. The Key to Songs is a dynamite record, but when people play it [live], it doesn’t sound like the thing. Because we did things that you couldn’t have done on the stage. But it’s not one of my great thoughts in the world. I wasn’t trying to make records; I was trying to make live performances. But I wasn’t about to not have the records made.

Anyway, what happened is I finished this Sound Blocks piece, now in its final form, which was Jacob’s Room. I’m still working with it, but the basic notion is there and it’s done. So then the final way to go was… The composer as studio artist works and works until it’s just right and makes a record, and that’s its life. You end up with this distilled thing. But in the process of the year’s work—or six months, or two years, or whatever it is—a lot of stuff has been thrown away. A lot of ideas have gone, and they’re good. So what I decided was that with the new technology—Buchla’s new version and Ableton (the guy who programmed Ableton, by the way, was partially inspired by my work)—what you could do is, like a jazz musician, go in public with Silver Apples of the Moon. What I perform in public is from Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur—“revisited,” colon, and a name. This year’s name is Lucy, which is all the new stuff I’m doing. I go back, and I give myself this bank of stuff in Ableton, outtakes and new versions of all the old stuff, plus some of the original stuff that got put in.

Digital Controllers

Some of the newer gear Subotnick uses to create music.

I work and, for that season, I make a new instrument with the Buchla, so that I get really good at it. I begin to evolve a plan. I make sure that I have control over everything, and there’s enough material to be able to go from 45 minutes to an hour. And then each performance is an improvisation. It’s practiced in the way you practice scales. And so each performance for a season is for the moment. You could record that, I suppose, although those I wouldn’t let out as a record. Someone took a film—nothing wrong with someone doing that. But to me that’s real time. What the audience is getting may or may not be great on a record, but what they’re getting is me playing for them, taking my studio to the auditorium and being free and spontaneous with it.

FJO: So you’ve found a way to bring back the live human element even for the pieces that were created exclusively in the studio. When the reissue of Until Spring came out on Mode you also released Spring Revisited, which I believe was your first attempt at doing a performance version of one of these studio pieces.

MS: Yeah, that’s right. That was the beginning. That was the beginning and now I’ve gone all the way back to Silver Apples. I’m taking the entire span of stuff, each year with a new emphasis. You know who Lucy is? The ape. That’s the beginnings of musical creativity and that’s what I’m dealing with now.

FJO: I’m curious about the performance materials you work from for these concerts. The original Nonesuch LP of Silver Apples of the Moon has a little excerpt of a score.

MS: That’s a mistake. I didn’t mean that. The big thing that had happened at that moment was I had used a sequencer for the very first sequence; I was the very first human being to have what became things like drum machines and all that. I helped design the sequencer. It had three knobs, and it was assumed that one of one of the knobs would be the duration between beats. The power of the sequencer—the power of the pulse—was so striking to me. When I sat there and started working with a pulse, I could articulate new things, but the pulse was going underneath the whole thing. I could divide it up into threes, fours, sevens, and it was so powerful that it opened up a whole new area for me. So with that score I was trying to visualize it. No one knew what a sequencer was. I was working with something I didn’t think I had words to explain. So I used a graph. Those lines coming up in the graph and the notes and so forth are what you’re actually producing in the sequencer, I mean, if you were to visualize it, that’s the way it would look. I didn’t mean it to be a score. When I used the word score, I was thinking of a score of the turning of knobs and making them go up, and visualizing them that way. I didn’t realize until I re-read it that I had actually misrepresented what I was trying to say.

FJO: So you never had a score for any of these pieces in advance?

MS: No. There were patches, though. But imagine what I’m trying to do at that point. It’s like some magic thing. Unfortunately, I did a good job of making people understand the wrong thing. And I feel badly about it to this day.

Endless Patches

An endless cascade of patches are still a central component to Subotnick’s work station.

FJO: But now that you’re going back to those pieces, and performing new versions of them again—now that this is living music once again—what do you have to go on to recreate it?

MS: Well, I don’t recreate it in that sense. The process of creation was the process of creating patches that would create sound worlds that would get recorded. Put that on this tape recorder. Play it back and play against it. And then take recordings of that, mix it with that. I’m doing what a DJ does. I was doing that before there was such a thing as a DJ. I was organizing things in groups of things that I could bring in and out at will with the Buchla. I’m doing that now with Ableton. There’s a combination of playing things against things that I am changing—literally changing pitch, amplitude, sending it through the room, transposing a single thing five times at the same time, and bringing this part out over here. Everything in my vocabulary I can do somewhere between post-production and live performance.

FJO: You’ve written all this other repertoire for ensembles, like the pieces you describe as being for instruments and “ghost electronics.” We haven’t talked about those yet.

MS: No, we don’t have time to do that.

FJO: But since for those pieces there are scores, there could be a performance one day in one part of the world and a different performance somewhere else. This is a repertoire that could have multiple interpretations.

MS: Yes. But my job was not to make music for people for the future. My job was to impact the possibility of using technology for other people. That’s all I intended to do. I tried to put my ghost pieces to sleep, but people want them. A tuba piece I actually thought I threw away, a bunch of tuba players wanted it. We finally did find the thing, and so I’m not going to keep them from playing it. But it was never my intention to become famous, or to have music that would become a literature. It wasn’t my intention. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but that wasn’t why I was doing it. I had something I wanted to put together in 1961, and I wanted to get it so I really understood it and it was as good as it could be and I could explain to people what I did, and how I did it. Not for them to do that, but to have some kind of impact on possibilities for people. That’s all I was thinking. I was never thinking that I would write a masterpiece. Johnny Carson invited me twice on The Johnny Carson Show, and I turned him down two times because it just seemed like a stumbling block; it seemed like getting in the way. I was too busy to do that. I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to get my work done. I thought I only had until I was 30-years old and I was going to die. And then when that didn’t happen, I thought, I didn’t know how long I could go on. But I was driven to get this thing done.

Subotnick Mode DVD

In 2011, Mode records, which has reissued many of Subotnick’s classic electronic albums, issued a DVD including some of his video experiments.

I had given up a lot to do this thing in my life. And I wasn’t about to stop, not for a Johnny Carson Show or a publisher or any other thing, until I got the thing done. I’ve been driven to this. So the fact that people interpret the music, or they play the music, or they like the music, they don’t like the music, is a sideline for me. I was just doing the ghost pieces as an attempt toward this larger issue, which—it’s very ironic—turned out wasn’t with instruments at all even though instruments are in Jacob’s Room. But when I got to Jacob’s Room, I had real subject matter. Important subject matter trumps media. No longer can it be just a part of a media presentation. It has to require the media it needs for the subject matter. I used the Holocaust. Nothing trumps the Holocaust, so all the ideas of interactive technology fell to the wayside. I realized that subject matter can require technology, but technology doesn’t require subject matter. It is the subject matter. That’s too big a subject to talk about. I really shouldn’t even have said it.
FJO: Well, in some ways, despite your desires, you have created these iconic pieces that people love, and people play, and people listen to. And your other really lasting contribution, which we only touched upon very indirectly, has been getting other people to create. You’ve done particularly revolutionary things to inspire young people to create. Early in this conversation you mentioned that music traditionally only belonged to two percent of the population and how it could be much more than that. More than fifty years have gone by since that epiphany you had. Few people would deny that music has totally changed since then. But there are some things that haven’t changed at all. What could we be doing, as people who are interested in fostering musicality, to get more people to share in this phenomenon that we know is a joy?

MS: It’s a good question. It’s more important than what I could do by writing more pieces. They’re not going to miss me; there’s lots of beautiful literature there. I’m 80, and I’m doing all this: writing a book and doing all this stuff, but I’m also doing an online K-6 curriculum called Multi-Dimensional Ear Training and Musical Creativity for Children. That’s going to be my contribution to what you’re talking about. I don’t know the answer to the question. I would like to write another book, after I finish this one, and that book would deal exactly with what you’re talking about—trying to re-identify musicality and music, to recombine them, instead of what we have which we could call an Olympian notion of music. Everyone can walk—some people can’t, but generally, as a human being who has two feet, you can walk. And you can run. We wouldn’t have evolved to where we are if we couldn’t run and can run quite well, actually, as a group. But not all of us can be Olympic stars. So you wouldn’t say don’t walk or run because you’re not good enough. Right? That would be a stupid thing to say. But if you can’t sing the Queen of the Night aria, we say don’t sing. Or if you can’t sing a tune in tune, don’t sing. Don’t use your natural musicality unless you can be an Olympian star of one sort or another. So the metaphor we’ve got is singing in the shower; don’t sing in public. That’s what we’ve got to get away from.

There’s nothing wrong with the enormous contributions human beings—Chopin, Beethoven, Stravinsky— have made. To me Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron is one of the great experiences of all time. Symphony orchestras—these are huge, mammoth, constructions, like cathedrals, and they’re wonderful. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fix up your house because you’re not an architect. You know, it doesn’t take away from it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do all sorts of things. But that’s what we’ve done. People are afraid to sing. They’re afraid to express themselves musically. So afraid that you know, when I was in high school or maybe early college, I remember sitting around, working on a piece, in a room with an upright piano, and I went over and closed the door, because I was going to play a major triad. I just loved the sound of it, but I couldn’t use it in a piece. Isn’t that stupid? Luckily, we’re not there anymore. And what’s interesting is that electronics have not generally filled the world with a continuation of traditional classical music. It’s gone its own way, and rightfully so, because it didn’t belong there.