THOUGHTS ON INSTALLATIONS
Even though I love amplification, I don't like to talk in front of people amplified - I don't know why. On the other hand, it means that I can talk softly. I was on a panel last week in New York and the composer Henry Brant said how he hated amplification. He was doing a piece for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and I asked him how many players there were in the orchestra. He said a hundred and ten. I said that sounded like amplification to me. Then I said that when I was a student in the Fifties and Sixties and I came home from Rome - I had been living there for two years on a Fulbright, I went to all the music festivals, including Darmstadt and Venice, and heard all these instrumental and orchestral pieces - it struck me that in the United States at that time there was little opportunity for a composer to have his works played. I lived in Boston, but the idea that the Boston Symphony would ask me to write them a piece seemed very remote.
I'll never forget the experience of hearing John Cage and David Tudor for the first time. Tudor would have a table of electronics. It was his little orchestra. He could perform his music by himself. For me at that time this was extremely interesting and very important. You didn't have to rely on established musical institutions such as the symphony orchestra. Tudor made all his devices with inexpensive electronic components, everything he used was home-made. That was very inspiring. The development of experimental music in the United States, that phase of it anyway, started with David Tudor's table of electronics.
My problem is deciding what work should be installedand what should be performed. I remember somebody askedme after I made "I Am Sitting in a Room",why wasn't I using tape anymore. I thought that wasa funny question. The person thought that one choosesa medium to work in and that was that. He was surprisedthat I had moved from tape to live performance. I couldn'tunderstand what the problem was. You get an idea andyou execute it as best you can. Part of the compositionalprocess is to find the most beautiful way of makingthe piece at hand. When I composed "I Am Sittingin a Room" in 1968 or 1969 - I can never rememberthe date, it changes from catalog to catalog - in thosedays we didn't like the idea of making music on tape.To go to a concert and hear sounds coming out of twoloudspeakers with no one actually performing on thestage, wasn't a lively idea. You'd go into the concerthall and sit there and wouldn't know when the concertwas going to start until the lights went down. Thesounds would simply come out of the speakers. WhenI think about it, the tape pieces that Mr. Cage madewere always performed in some way.
I'm going to jump ahead a little bit to 1965 when Iinvited Cage to do a concert at Brandeis University,where I was teaching. He made a piece for eighty-eight tape loops. I asked him why eighty-eight. He said thenumber of keys on the piano. It didn't make sense butit was a wonderful idea. Tape wasn't just played ona tape recorder, the sounds coming out of speakers;performers actually moved around the space pullingthese long tape loops around. Before the concert Isaid to John, "You know, in the museum where we'regoing to perform, there is a pool of water." Hesaid, "Oh, wonderful! We'll have to wade acrossit." The idea to enliven the performance situationwas always something that Tudor and Cage were committedto. They insisted on playing their works live. Themuseum installation that Cage planned just before hedied for a museum in Los Angeles, which is now on tour- I can't pronounce the name but it's from FinnegansWake, something like "Rolywholyover" - isa beautiful idea. It consists of art works, all kindsof drawings and paintings and sculptures. But everydaythe show changes. Everything is in motion. I haven'tseen it but I've heard about it. I have a piece inthere somewhere. Clocker is in a Macintosh work station,I think. Andrea Keller says it's very touching. Shesaw a Mondrian, which is accustomed to be hung permanentlyon a wall, just hanging in space, and at a certainmoment someone comes and moves it around with manyother pieces. The sanctity of the museum is destroyed.There are Plexiglas drawers with scores and works onpaper which you can see into. The score of my "Navigationsfor Strings", which I traded with Sol LeWitt fora wall drawing, is in one of those drawers. John Cagedecided that even a museum should be a moving thing,not a static thing. He gave it life.
Anyway, the idea that I would have made a piece on tape went against my aesthetic principles. But the necessity of making it work right meant that I had to make it on tape. If I had performed it live it would have been a different piece.
When I decided to do my brain wave piece I asked all my friends what I should do. Every single one of them said I should record some brain waves and then go in a studio and make a piece on tape. Then I could control it. Splice it, filter it.
But I thought that wasn't a very interesting idea because one could tune a pulse wave oscillator to 10 Hz, to sound like alpha waves - well, not quite, it wouldn't be the same. And then I got this image of brain surgery. With a knife, cutting my head open. Ouch! I didn't want anyone to operate on me. So I thought I should perform it live, which was dangerous in those days. We did not have the bio-feedback amplifiers we have now. I had to borrow a huge differential amplifier that I didn't know how to operate very well. I'm not technically very skilled anyway. So it was a risk. I remember Pauline Oliveros arranged a performance of "Music for Solo Performer" in California, in the early Seventies. She got a Zen meditator and a bunch of technicians. They were going to perform it in a Quonset hut. That word doesn't really exist in German I suppose. Quonset huts were used during the Second World War. They were modeled after Eskimo structures, I think. They were fast to build and had metal roofs. The Music Department at the University of California in San Diego was housed in a Quonset hut at that time. Pauline had everything set and the performer sat there and nothing happened. Several minutes went by and the technicians started checking the wires. And nothing happened. Then all of a sudden there was a lightning storm, a huge storm. Pow! And rain came pouring down on the Quonset hut. All this percussion and lightning and thunder. It was a real-time installation.
For me it isn't a question of deciding to make sound installations and that's all I do. I'm interested in many ideas and have to figure out what's the best way to work them out.
I'm going to talk a bit about "Music on a Long Thin Wire". I made it in 1977. It was my first sound installation. We know that Max Neuhaus was the first composer to have made sound installations, at least he coined the term. I think it's fair to say that. I first imagined it to be played on a stage. I was co-teaching a musical acoustics class with a physicist at Wesleyan. I didn't know much about physics but wanted to learn something about acoustics. Our first demonstration was the Pythagorean monochord. I remember we set it up on a laboratory table. We attached a wire to an amplifier, and placed an electromagnet over one end of it, so we could change the flux field. I didn't understand all this so well but I watched, you know. The wire would vibrate and make beautiful sounds. It was only a meter or so long. Being an artist I thought immediately that this would be a wonderful performance piece, to have a wire on a stage, a performer playing either with the amplifier or the oscillator that drives the wire, or varying the magnetic field. All those variables would change the mode of vibration of the wire. It could be an interesting piece. I found some wire in a hardware store. It was called music wire but it really wasn't. It was stainless steel wire used in industry to cut materials - fish, foam, things of that kind. I didn't know much about amplifiers, impedances, resistance, things of that kind, but through trial and error I set it up so I could get the wire to vibrate. I experimented with changing the frequency of the oscillator at the input. I put a microphone on each end of the wire, embedded in little homemade bridges. The sounds were very nice. One night I went home and dreamed of a very long wire. I think it went to the moon and back. I thought of the American West where we have those barbed wire fences that go on for miles. The next thing I did was to put tables on a concert stage and string a length of wire between them. I did not know what to input the wire with. That's a problem for all of us, I think. We have these systems and don't know what to put into them.
I performed the wire with some wonderful players and improvisers. I tried putting one person on one end of the wire and another on the other end, each with an oscillator. It was always very spectacular because a small change in amplitude would make the wire radically change its mode of vibration. But the sounds were always sliding up and down, shifting frequencies in interesting ways, but I didn't like it. It was six of one, half a dozen of another. Is that a German idiom? I found that players would start, go up and come back down again. They'd bend the sounds. It was too predictable. Even though I was trying to make it live, it seemed dead. So I decided to see what would happen if I set the wire up and never touched it. I did the opposite of what I'm saying we were supposed to do, which was to enliven things. I think it was mainly because I couldn't figure out an interesting way to do it live. If I had been a composer like Cage I would have done something indeterminate, but I wasn't interested in that. I'm interested in cause and effect but only when something happens between the cause and effect, so that the effect is not really directly related to the cause. It's hard to do, but anyway that's what I try to do. I would clamp the ends of the wire to tables that I found in whatever place I was setting it up. I didn't want to make tables or bring them along with me. I wanted to find them. I don't know why, it's just an eccentricity. The tables are not fixed fast to the floor. I couldn't control, nor was I interested in controlling, the tension of the wire. For some reason I didn't want to get into those mechanics. I thought of hanging weights on the ends of the wire so I could measure the tension, but that idea didn't appeal to me, so I would set it up and it would be a little slack or at least not exactly tight. Sometimes one of the tables would move slightly. The ecology of the wire was very fragile. I could never really predict what it would sound like. Nor did I ever figure out - to this day I haven't figured it out - the relationship between the oscillator that drives the wire, the length of the wire and the slackness of the wire. I have never really figured those relationships out. For some reason I don't want to control them.
I was on a panel once and a critic said, "I don't like all this music with wires." And I said, "Well, what about the piano?" I tell that story because piano wires are beautifully tuned and tensed. The Steinway and Bösendorfer Companies have computers now that figure out beautiful ways for their instruments not to go out of tune. I didn't want to be so accurate, do you see what I'm saying? I did not want to make a big piano, or rather a big guitar. To this day I can't really tell you what the parameters are. I just set it up.
There's another idea I'd like to put to you. In a wonderful poem, William Carlos Williams, has the line, "No ideas but in things." The older I get the more I realize that that's the way I work. My ideas come out of the actual doing of a work. I don't think beforehand about a system or need to control or figure out tensions and weights. I do it and see what happens, and I accept or not. When I thought about giving a lecture here and saw all the titles in the program book, I was afraid because some of them looked so important. I thought: "I don't think like that. I'm not so smart." But I have my wire anyway.
I remember Cage - I didn't know I was going to talk about Cage so much - but I met him in Frankfurt several years ago. He was sick and he said, "Oh, I have a wonderful doctor. He goes all over my body with a magnet so that he doesn't need to think." So sometimes I don't think about it. I'm not saying I'm an ignorant artist, I'm not pulling a political...I don't want to give that impression.
Now, I made a recording of "Music on a Long Thin Wire" and had set it up in a beautiful space in New York, The US Custom House, that has a huge dome on the top floor. I had stretched the wire about thirty meters, which is about as long as I've ever stretched it, and had decided that I wasn't going to perform it. I would be true to my ideal. I wouldn't change anything once I had tuned it and set the volume level. I would simply see what happened. I promised myself that for a couple of reasons. One, is that you want to be true to your idea, otherwise there's no integrity to your work. The other was that I knew it wouldn't sound right. If you change something in the middle of a recording, it's usually a mistake. I was all by myself. I had borrowed a Studer tape recorder, I was wearing headphones, I was in the dark up in this rotunda. I decided to make four recordings for four sides of two long playing records, each with a different tuning. Once I put the tuning and raised the volume on the amplifier that drove the wire I wouldn't change anything so that the natural vibrations of the wire would make the composition. OK? So I sat there and put the tape on and looked at the meters on the tape recorder and only a single channel sounded. The other one was barely sounding at all. So I thought, OK., the other one is going to come up. I had microphones on both ends of the wire. I waited. And I waited and got a little bit nervous. I said, "This can't be right. Because if you're making a stereo recording you need balance." Well, that's stupid, because balance is only one idea, right? You have to fight those things. So I waited and finally said, "Oh, gosh, I have to do something." So I cheated! I tweaked the volume and it went "Rrrrr." It was terrible! I turned it off and took the tape and threw it away and put another tape on. I said to myself, "Don't cheat. You said you wouldn't cheat. The listener may not know you cheated, but you'll know." So I started again and let the proportion go. By letting it happen there was a proportion there I wouldn't have decided on by myself. To let one channel sound almost by itself, it took almost eleven minutes before the other channel came in - I would never have thought of doing that. One has these ideas about balance and timing and so forth. So I think I solved the problem in that piece by letting it be an installed work. Mysterious things happen. I remember we installed it in Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, for a month or so. One day the phone rang and someone said, "Alvin, come in, the wire has stopped." I got in my car and drove fifteen miles. I came in and ran up the stairs and walked in. Just as I approached the wire, it started sounding again.
I've only made about seven or eight installed pieces. Since the mid-Eighties I've been making pieces for performers of classical musical instruments. Friends have asked me to make them pieces and I've tried to discover ways to compose works for musical instruments that have the same feeling that my electronic pieces have. "Music for Piano with Pure Wave Slow Sweep Oscillators", which I played last night, is an attempt to re-hear instruments in that way. Single tones are played against pure sound waves, causing a third thing to happen - interference patterns - much in the same way that interference patterns occur in the wire piece, because different things are happening on different ends of the wire.
I just made a new little installation piece for the sound sculptor Trimpin. Does anyone know that name? He lives in Seattle, he's a German man. He makes these wonderful instruments that hang throughout a gallery space. They're made from small organ pipes and accordion reeds and duck calls. The whole system is midi-controlled; he drives it with a computer. One set of instruments can hold long, sustained tones; another group can playextremely rapid notes. It's quite amazing. I simply re-orchestrated a couple of pieces of mine for his installation. One was a serenade for thirteen wind instruments that I composed several years ago for the Aspen Festival. It consisted of long tones, tuned microtonally.The other was "Sferics", extremely short and rapid pops and clicks from the ionosphere thatI recorded on a mountain top in Colorado. I simplymixed the two pieces to fit Trimpin's sculpture. That was the last thing I did. Just a couple of weeks ago,in fact. There are all these things happening.