Dean SUZUKI (USA)
Dean Suzuki (b. 1952) – critic, essay writer, publisher. Doctor of Philosophy, professor at the San Francisco State University (San Francisco). Published a great number of theoretical essays and research articles in journals, books and catalogues on the contemporary musical culture of the XXth century. Regularly writes critical articles and reviews on the experimental and classical music, avant garde rock, progressive rock etc. for the following magazines: Acid Dragon, Audion, Background, CDnow, Expose, Musicworks, Experimental Musical Instruments and many others. Edited and complied (co-editor Enzo Minarelli) thematic sound poetry edition Baobab: Phonetic informations of poetry (The New Worlds, #25, 1994). Participated in a number of international conferences on the issues of contemporary music and art; on the issues mentioned delivered lectures at different universities in the USA, Spain, Italy. Since 1991has hosted and produced regular programs about contemporary experimental music Morning Concerts (1991-95), Discreet Music (ñ 1995) on the KPFA-FM radio (Berkeley). Taken from the author’s manuscript. © 1999 Dean Suzuki, San Leandro, CA.
THE ART OF THE VOICE: TRENDS IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN TEXT-SOUND COMPOSITION
It has been said that the voice is the original instrument. In the modern era, after Dada, Duchamp, Satie, and Cage, the definitions of aesthetics, the arts and music were greatly expanded. Thus, the context in which the original instrument, the voice, could be found ranged from conventional music, to artistic disciplines which crossed boundaries beyond music and into the realm of Text-Sound composition or Sound poetry.
It can be argued that the experimental arts in America derive from the lineage of the Franco-European modernists, including the Symbolist poets, the musical Impressionists, the Dadaists, especially Marcel Duchamp, and the iconoclastic composer Erik Satie. These movements and individuals helped artists transcend the strictures of nineteenth century aesthetics and sensibilities, and even those of the more mainstream modernists (Expressionism, Neo-Classicism, Neo-Romanticism, Ultra-Rationalism). For the experimentalists, music could be defined as organized sound, however loose the organization, and sound could and did include noise. Thus, in addition to singing, the speaking voice and all manner of vocalizations and sounds created into vocal cavity could be and were embraced by composers, audio artists and, of course, Sound poets.
As an artistic tradition in the United States, the number of Sound poets is relatively small, if not minuscule – this is, of course the situation around the globe – and the tradition in the U.S. dates back only to the 1950s at the earliest. While one can identify a significant number of Text-Sound composers in the United States, it is impossible to come up with a defining style or prevailing aesthetic. Sound poetry is, of course, not a style, but a genre which may be practiced, appropriated or investigated by artists of radically different aesthetics. It is what Dick Higgins calls an “intermedia” art which brings together, at the very least, the literary and aural arts: poetry and music, and frequently includes elements of theater, including Performance art, movement (hence dance), and the visual arts (including projections, representing painting, photography, cinema, and video).
One significant distinction which sets the American arts apart from those of other countries and cultures is the pioneering spirit, the mind of the maverick, explorer, and iconoclast breaking with long-standing tradition. American artists were, until very recently, bound by the European tradition. They tended to see themselves as the poorer and lesser counterparts to their European brethren. Europeans often rely, if only in part or unconsciously, upon the traditions of their culture, which extend back many centuries. These traditions virtually demand consideration if not adherence. However, the Americans’ self-esteem began to change and by the twentieth century, a significant number of artists had transcended or moved beyond European traditions. By now, many Americans artists no longer adhere to the European model, and are instead inclined to discover new territories, unbound by the strictures of a time worn legacy. Of course, the United States is quite young when compared to Europe. The fact that an authentic American culture is neither old nor entrenched has proven emancipating for its artists, especially after World War II.
In the literary arts, the Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, were early visionaries. Later ground breaking literary experimentalists included Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs. In the musical sphere, we had pioneering composers in the early twentieth century, such as Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. After World War II, there was a burst of artistic activity in the United States: the Abstract Expressionists, the pre-Pop art innovations of the singular and enigmatic artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; the unique and profoundly influential vision of composer John Cage. What all of these artists share in common is the confidence and belief in their own work which does not rely on a trip abroad, a European education, in short, a working method based upon the European model. In fact, these artists willingly and without reservation threw off the shackles of the European tradition, and without regard for the codes and regulations of their respective disciplines and genres, established their own guidelines and rules, which they frequently broke themselves, adapting the tools and techniques of their art according to their changing needs and expressions. As a result, these artists often moved into a position of primacy, to the point where it can be argued that the Americans regularly became the most influential artists after World War II.
This pioneering spirit and emancipation from tradition also characterizes many American Sound poets. Of course, experimentalism and freedom of spirit have characterized much, if not most Sound poetry and other intermedia arts. As the intermedia arts are, by definition, no respecters of genres, they are thus, iconoclastic. Still, it can be argued that American Text-Sound composers stand apart from their European counterparts, due in large degree to this pioneering spirit. Even when considering the influence of the Dada poets, concrete poetry, Lettrism, Henri Chopin , Bernard Heidsieck , and the Fylkingen studio, the work of Text-Sound composers such as Charles Amirkhanian , John Giorno, Steve Reich, and a host of others are uniquely American.
Many of America’s Text-Sound composers use electronic media and means to create their work. Electronic music and its techniques, while they originated in Europe, have been embraced by Americans. The United States stands at the vanguard in the development of current electronic musical equipment which is studied and mastered by a diverse generation of musicians, including rock, jazz, “classical,” and experimental composers, performing musicians and artists. Thus, it is only natural that sound artists from America have access to and facility with such musical technology, whether it is “high tech” or “low tech.”
In the arena of technology, as it is applicable to Sound poetry, there are three primary genres: musique concrete, electronic processing of the voice, and speech synthesis. Musique concrete, the manipulation and processing of pre-recorded sounds, is inherently musical. This is especially the case if music is defined as “organized sound.” Beginning with Henri Chopin, a whole host of Sound poets have relied on magnetic tape and a panoply of subsequent technological devices, techniques, methods, and equipment, as the medium for their art. Indeed, the originators of the use of magnetic tape and its manipulation as art dubbed the genre musique concrete. Three of the most significant masterworks of American Sound poetry: Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” and Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room” rely on the tape recorder as a part of the compositional and musical process.
| Ernest Robson.
The evening is singing (fragment).
Artists such as Laurie Anderson and Julia Heyward use sound processing devices such as the Vocoder and other electronic devices and effects to alter the voice. It becomes easier to adopt various personae which might be impossible without such devices. Anderson and Heyward both adopt the persona of the child by raising the pitch and register of their voices, and Anderson creates a male alter ego by lowering the pitch, register and timbre of her voice.
Other techniques include the use of the microphone. While this may seem too obvious and basic to be considered part of electronic technology, a more thoughtful consideration reveals that the microphone, as simple and direct as it is, is a dynamic tool for the Sound poet. Not only are dynamic levels raised, the microphone affects timbre, texture, resonance, spatial placement and presence. It is, in fact, a sound processing device.
Those at the vanguard of speech synthesis have been, for the most part, Americans such as Charles Dodge, and their works have been included in the repertoire of Text-Sound works. With the advent of digital technology, speech synthesis has the potential to offer hitherto unimagined possibilities in Sound poetry.
While it is not the intention of this writer to have Sound poetry subsumed as a sub-category of music, it can be argued that American Sound poetry has a strong musical bias. Many of examples of American Sound poetry are considered musical works pieces by their creators, though they fall comfortably in the classification of Sound poetry as well. A great number of the masterpieces in the genre were written by those who considered themselves to be composers of music rather than Sound poets or even Text-Sound composers (Reich, Lucier, Robert Ashley, Pauline Oliveros, Joan La Barbara, Daniel Lentz, Paul Lansky, Ernst Toch, and Diamanda Galas, among others). Many works are created by those whose background is in music and predisposition is towards the musical, even though they may not consider themselves to be primarily composers. Examples of these include performance artists Laurie Anderson and Michael Peppe. They orient themselves to the art world, but their work is frequently manifested in musical works which may also be Text-Sound compositions. Peppe, for example, frequently works in a genre which he calls “Behaviormusik”. According to Peppe, “Behaviormusik is a genre in which any human behavior can be musically composed.”1
In many instances, Sound-Text compositions by musicians are atypical of their ?uvre, though they are ground-breaking or otherwise significant contributions to the Sound poetry repertoire. Witness the following: the aforementioned “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” by Reich and “I Am Sitting in a Room” by Lucier, as well as “In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven there were men and women” and “Perfect Lives,” among other works by Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson’s “United States,” and John Cage’s mesostics and works derived from Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”.
Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) are perhaps the first American masterpieces in the genre of Text-Sound composition. They are also most influential works which impacted and informed the work of Lucier, Amirkhanian, Giorno, Ashley, La Barbara, Laurie Anderson, Beth Anderson, Meredith Monk, and Anna Homler, among others. Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1970) is inconceivable without Reich’s ground breaking work.
Numerous Sound poems include musical accompaniment or the techniques and influence of musical composition. Among the forerunners which led to American Text-Sound composition, one can cite composer Virgil Thomson’s settings of texts by Gertrude Stein in his operas “Four Saints in Three Acts” (1934) and “The Mother of Us All” (1947), and later, John Cage’s text pieces as music (e.g. “Indeterminacy,” and the aforementioned mesostics, etc.). While Thomson’s operas are conventionally musical and can in no way can be construed to be Text-Sound compositions, they, along with Cage’s text pieces, are works in which narrative, dramatic and conventional semantic content were subverted or dispensed with altogether, after the manner of the Dadaists and Futurists. This allows for a freer association of word and sound or music. The dissolution of narrative content paved the way for the use of the voice and text (or word fragments and particles) for their own sake, apart from conventional meaning or at least traditional forms of expression. These works, especially those of Cage, who was perhaps America’s most important father figure in the experimental arts, were immediate antecedents of the American Sound poetry tradition.
| Kenneth Gaburo.
Lingua 1 (fragment), 1968
In the 1950s, poetry and jazz, particularly bebop and West Coast cool jazz, became partners. Kerouac performed and recorded some of his work with the accompaniment of a jazz combo. The Beats and the culture of the beatniks were characterized by their “shades,” black turtle necks, berets, bongos and vernacular, free-verse street poetry with a jazzy flair, if not accompaniment in smoky, underground cafes. And of course, earlier, be-bop jazz included the vocal tradition of scat singing, in which nonsense syllables where sung spontaneously with improvised melodic lines. In the 1950s and 1960s, one could find numerous, albeit small, independent releases of records featuring poetry readings set to the accompaniment of jazz.
Text-Sound artists such as Ken Nordine and Lauren Newton are essentially part of the jazz tradition. Nordine created a new genre, a special hybrid of spoken text and music which he dubbed “Word Jazz.” Influenced by the Beat writers, bebop and cool jazz, Nordine’s Word Jazz was modestly popular in the 1950s, making him a kind of populist Beat. Nordine has made a minor come-back in the 1990s, recording two CDs on Grateful Dead Records with musicians including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, as well as the well known mandolinist, David Grisman. Nordine has a deep and beautifully resonant voice which has kept him busy providing voice overs for television and radio commercials. His immediately recognizable voice is a central feature of his Word Jazz. His work is narrative, but always a bit oblique, indirect, which captures the hipness of his era. Nordine simulates the scat lexicon with its nonsense syllables in Word Jazz pieces such as “Flibberty Jib,” “Faces in the Jazzamatazz,” and “Thousand Bing Bangs.” While his work might not be considered Sound poetry in some quarters (the old high art vs. low art polemic), his work is inextricably associated with the genre.
Newton (an American, though based in Vienna), is a jazz vocalist whose work crosses the boundaries between improvisation, extended vocal techniques and Sound poetry. Like numerous jazz vocalists, Newton has explored vocables, phonemes, and nonsense syllables and words, stretching and exploring far beyond the tradition of scatting. Others who have explored similar territory include Bobby McFerrin, Ursula Dudziak, and Jay Clayton, among others.
The popular spoken word/music tradition in the United States reached into the Black community in the late 1960s and early 1970s and manifested itself in the work of the Last Poets, a group of poets who blended their political street poetry with the rhythms of their African heritage and the music styles of rhythm and blues and soul. The Last Poets were the immediate forerunners of the rap and hip-hop phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s, unquestionably the most successful and popular form of poetry for the masses to emerge from the popular culture of the West. With the emergence of hip-hop and rap, the Last Poets’ career has been revitalized in recent years. The influence of these popular styles of music and poetry has already made its way into jazz and Sound poetry.
Joan La Barbara is an early innovator in the recent lineage of vocalists, composers and Sound poets who employ extended vocal techniques. Extended or unorthodox vocal techniques, such as those used and invented by La Barbara, have become an important component in Sound poetry. While extended vocal techniques are not new, either to Sound poetry or experimental music, there appears to be a greater proportion of American artists and performers investigating their use than in other parts of the world. Other Americans who have used extended vocal techniques includes Monk, Galas, Newton, David Moss, and David Hykes, among many others.
|| Toby Lurie.
Color Improvisation #2 (fragment).
Many, including Laurie Anderson, Homler, Monk, Peppe, Julia Heyward, and Jana Haimson are Performance artists, who incorporate both text and music in their work. Monk is a inter-disciplinary, intermedia artist whose work encompasses film, dance, theater, music, and Text-Sound composition. Homler, who originally considered herself to be a performance artist, now prefers to be called a musician. She has created her own language, personae and mythology. Her performance/installation piece, “Pharmacia Poetica”, to quote the artist, “examines the symbolic and tonal quality of words and objects.”2
Of course, there are many Sound poets who fit comfortably, if not exclusively within the genre. Among them, Bliem Kern, Ernst Robson (who developed a graphic notation for his concrete/sound poems), Giorno, Wendt , Emmett Williams, and Harry Polkinhorn. However, even Giorno has recognized the potential and power of the musical connection. Giorno’s work, especially that of the 1980s, is characterized by the polyphonic layering of his voice reciting the same, intense, personal and often sexually charged texts via multi-track tape with live performance. It was also in the 1980s that Giorno began reciting his poetry with a post-punk rock group and without the assistance of pre-recorded tape in an attempt to reach a wider audience for his work. While it is clear that the content of such work is primarily poetic, it is equally clear that the power and confrontational attitude of the music plays a very important role in this work.
Even Amirkhanian, perhaps America’s most highly regarded and well-known Sound poet, and one whose primary creative endeavor is Text-Sound composition, manifests a strong musical bias in his work and primary aesthetic. Amirkhanian’s work is polyphonic, featuring layer upon layer of text, rhythm and a quasi-melodic contour. His technique reveals the influence of the Minimalist composers, as well as the great contrapuntal tradition of the high baroque, including the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.
| Tom Johnson.
from “Secret Songs”, 1976
Amirkhanian is an acknowledged music historian and for over twenty years he was the music director at public radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California. While his program, “Ode to Gravity” often featured Sound poetry, the emphasis was generally on experimental music. It was Amirkhanian who compiled and edited “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces,” the first record anthology of American Text-Sound composition which features works by Cage, Dodge, Ashley, Anthony J. Gnazzo, and Beth Anderson, all of whom might be considered primarily composers of music rather than Sound poets. In addition, Amirkhanian’s own works, which straddles genres, are included in the recording
A small but significant number of American Sound poets were or are members of Fluxus or have an affiliation with the loose art confederation. These include Higgins, Williams, Robert Watts, and Alison Knowles. Wendt and Ruppenthal point up the connection between Sound poetry and Fluxus. They state: “With the establishment of several tape music studios in the U.S. and the growth of international artistic ties through such developments as the Fluxus movement <...> a new interest in Sound poetry began to take hold in America. By the Seventies, this interest had widened into something more than just an esoteric fancy.”3 Art historian and Fluxus authority Peter Frank, himself a Sound poet, has argued that Fluxus was, in its essence, musical.4 Fluxus events were often called “concerts,” as opposed to performances, happenings or installations. Many of their works or “pieces” had an auditory or sonic element, albeit, in some cases, ephemeral or cryptic. Even in bona fide musical compositions, the musical content of Fluxworks was often more conceptual than real.
|| Jackson Maclow.
The Black Tarantula
Crossword Gathas, 70s
The art connection with Sound poetry, which extends beyond Fluxus, is underscored by the work of Lawrence Weiner, primarily a visual artist, but one who works with words and text. Often his word pieces are realized on canvas or some other visual medium. At other times, he writes texts which are set by others (e.g. Ned Sublette) or he reads his text in a collaborative work with composer/musicians (such as Peter Gordon or Dickie Landry, among others). Thus, the aural realization of his work brings together the visual arts, music and poetry.
Repetition & Minimalism
When considering American arts since the 1960s, it becomes clear that extensive repetition has been an important component and technique used across the boundaries of the various artistic disciplines. Extensive repetition has been used from time to time in the twentieth Century arts: Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” and Tristan Tzara’s “(brullt),” among a host of others. Extensive repetition, however, has been a critical technique and component of some of the most important American art movements after World War II. It can be found in Minimal music (e.g. Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young), the work of Jasper Johns (flags, targets, etc.), Pop art (Andy Warhol), Minimal art (Frank Stella, Donald Judd), Conceptual art (Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra), Structuralist cinema (Michael Snow), Minimalist dance (Lucinda Childs), experimental theater (Robert Wilson), and in numerous works by American Sound poets, among them, Reich, Amirkhanian, Giorno, and others.
Much art in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Pop art and Minimal art, began to concern itself with repetition. There are repeated motifs which appear in the works of Jasper Johns (targets, numbers, flags), which may appear from work to work, or within a painting. In such works, one often encounters the element of mystery which is underscored through repetition. Andy Warhol made use of repeated pictorial elements, whether in death scenes to numb the viewer and deplete the picture of its violence and malevolence, or row upon row of Campbell Soup cans or celebrities in his deadpan portrayals of contemporary pop culture. Repetition or stasis is also found in Warhol’s “Sleep” (1963), a six-hour film of a man sleeping; “Empire” (1964), an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building, in the work of choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, and eventually, the Minimalists, whether artists, composers or Sound poets.
The Minimal artists used repetition along with the simplest visual elements: geometric shapes and solid, unmodulated color in an attempt to remove the last vestige of emotion. Similarly, the Minimalist composers used repetition along with the simplest diatonic or modal materials to create works which were emotionally austere. Depleting an art work or musical composition of emotional content turned out to be an impossibility. Though the emotional content was much different, “cooler” than that of preceding styles, some manner of emotional content was inevitably perceived since humans, by their very nature, are emotional beings and read emotions into art.
| John Cage.
For the Minimal artists, repetition and regularity also helped to underscore the objectness of their work. Fried explains: “Endlessness, being able to go on and on, even having to go on and on, is central both to the concept of interest and to that of objecthood. <...> [T]he repetition of identical units (Judd’s “one thing after another”), which carries the implication that the units in question could be multiplied ad infinitum.”5
Jean Perreault has responded to some of the criticisms leveled at Minimal art. His remarks can be used quite effectively in responding to similar criticism leveled against Minimalism in other artistic disciplines, including Sound poetry. He writes:
“The term “Minimal” seems to imply that what is minimal in Minimal Art is the art. This is far from the case. There is nothing minimal about the “art” (craftsmanship, inspiration, or aesthetic stimulation) in Minimal Art. If anything, in the best works being done, it is maximal. What is minimal about Minimal Art, or appears to be when contrasted with Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art, is the means, not the end.
Minimal Art is really not as cold, boring, and inhuman as its opponents claim. Minimal Art is only cold if by “cold” we mean a minimum degree of self-expression. But it should be remembered that “self- expression” is often merely a cover-up term for self-indulgence. <...> Minimal Art, in spite of the polemics, is emotional, but the emotions and the experiences involved are new and unexpected. It must be remembered that the rational and the conceptual are also capable of evoking emotion. There is also the emotion and the aesthetic pleasure of efficiency and of surprising proportions.
Some art called Minimal Art is boring and it is bad art. But a great deal of the boredom associated with Minimal Art is in the mind of the beholder. The viewer will be bored if he does not know what to look for or if he expects something that is not there. <...> [I]n Robert Morris’s work, for instance, there is much to occupy sensuous and aesthetic inspection...”6
| La Monte Young.
Composition #7, 1960
Like the Minimal artists, the Minimal composers were interested in a music where, to paraphrase Stella: “You can ‘hear’ the whole idea without any confusion <...> what you ‘hear’ is what you ‘hear.’” The composers were interested in creating a music where the structure and content were abundantly apparent. As Reich states, “The use of hidden structural devices in music never appealed to me.”
Of the several techniques which characterize much Minimal music, a style which emerged in America around the early 1960s, two are especially important in this discussion of Text-Sound composition. One of the most important techniques in Minimal music is abundant repetition. A small motive or cell is repeated numerous times before proceeding to the next. Secondly, a gradually unfolding musical process is manifest as the work proceeds. It is usually the composer’s intention that the process is readily understood or perceived. The traditional narrative structures of music with their inherently dramatic tensions and heights are absent. Repetition serves any number of functions which cannot, or at least, has not been achieved through other means. One of the most obvious uses of repetition is for the sake of humor or satire. Simple redundancy often results in a humorous effect. Depending on the textual content of a sound poem, repetition can highlight biting, even bitter satire, as in the work of Giorno. Repetition can also emphasize the angst and viciousness in Giorno’s already painful and anguished work.
| Jonathan Albert.
Love Songs II, 70s
Works which are based on a gradually unfolding process (e.g. works by Reich, Lucier, La Barbara) are easier to “read,” understand or follow through repetition and extended durations.
Work which is non-narrative or non-goal oriented utilizes repetition to help create an unorthodox time scheme, an extended time or suspended time. Such time is often characterized as being like “drug” time, or the alternate time reality which attends the drug experience, or meditation time. While such non-narrative time may share some characteristics of these other alternate time frames, what is makes all of the most alike is that they are not ordinary time frames. It is found in Minimal music as well as repetitive Sound poetry. It is a type of art which Dick Higgins describes as being “without catharsis.” It is a work which does not rely or contain the narrative antecedent-consequent or tension-resolution dialectic. In such works, repetitive structures have replaced narrative structures. In his book, “Silence,” Cage states: “In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”9
When the aesthetic content of repetitive Sound poetry explores the link between form and content, when form and content are, in fact, one and the same and revealed through repetitive structures, the work becomes nearly sculptural. One has the time to aurally inspect the poetic “object” and perceive its structure and all of its details. Frequently in such repetitious works, the semantic content is depleted and one becomes aware of the musicality of the text, with its melodic contours, topography and rhythm. In Amirkhanian’s pieces, one not only has repetition, but also a polypoetical structure of counterpoint as different words in different voices are juxtaposed one against another. The listener is captivated not only by the musicality of the individual words, but the interplay of the different lines.
At the same time, repetition serves to eliminate memory and anticipation, the hallmarks of perception in traditional art. Through repetition then, the art experience becomes a moment by moment experience, rather than a linear experience. This takes place in the most reductive repetitive works in which perhaps only one word or phrase is repeated incessantly, as in Tom Johnson’s “Wolo Yolo” or Anthony Gnazzo’s “Population Explosion” (“bang”).
Æèçíü - óáèéöà, 1992
Life is a killer, 1992
Whereas a painting can have immediacy – the whole canvas can be seen at a glance – poetry and music are time bound, thus precluding an immediate understanding. However, due to the simplicity of the materials and processes, there is the perception of immediate understanding. The paradox is that most Minimalist poems and compositions are relatively long. In Minimalist Sound poetry and music, as in Minimal art, there is more complex information beneath the superficial simplicity. However, the listener must be willing, often patient, if it is to be perceived. Likewise, the non-narrative content of Minimal music which parallels the “objectness” of Minimal art makes unusual demands on the listener.
Reich’s single most important tape piece is “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965). It yielded a new and unique compositional device which was to occupy the bulk of his efforts through 1971. Reich had been working extensively with tape loops since 1963 and was recording and collecting various sound materials which might be used for his tape pieces. One Sunday afternoon, Reich recorded Brother Walter, a black Pentecostal preacher who was delivering a sermon on Noah and the Flood in San Francisco’s Union Square. Brother Walter’s voice is highly musical, and his sermon was virtually chanted or sung. In seeking ways to utilize the sound of Brother Walter’s voice, Reich decided to make two tape loops of the same material, reflecting his penchant for homogeneous timbres.
|| Brion Gysin.
Kick That Habit Man, 1967
After making the tape loops and attempting to synchronize them on two tape recorders, Reich accidentally discovered what he later dubbed the “phasing process.” Due to small variations in motor speed of the two tape recorders, one ran at a slightly different speed than the other. As a result, the two tape loops began, very slowly, to move out of synchrony or “out of phase” with one another. In effect, one of the loops accelerates ahead of the other resulting in a sliding or moving canon which begins in unison with the dux continually moving further ahead of the comes. Thus, by the terms “phasing” and the “phase process,” Reich means the gradual acceleration or deceleration of one or more of the voices in the canonic texture. The contrapuntal intricacies yielded a great richness: multifarious cross rhythms and polyrhythms, secondary or sub- melodies of various rhythmic contours (later dubbed “resulting patterns”), changing harmonic content, and complex textures.
Phasing not only gave Reich a process that defined form and structure, it also helped define his aesthetic. He remarks, “I began to see that what was interesting was the slowness and the continuity.”10 Though the discovery of phasing was purely accidental, Reich correctly notes that the process itself “couldn’t be more determined. It’s a very austere and completely pure working out of this process.”11 Nothing is left to chance in defining the process, though the realization of the process is, at least in part, indeterminate or contains unforeseen results. The composer cannot predict or anticipate all of the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic complexities, number of repeats, or precise duration. Because of the extensive repetition of a very limited amount of material and a relatively long duration secondary melodies, rhythms, and harmonies arise from the layering and phasing of the voices. Additionally, extraneous sounds captured on the tape, such as traffic noises and other environmental sound, are details which emerge and gain importance.
| Charles Amirkhanian.
Varsity Pewter (fragment), 1997
“It’s Gonna Rain,” along with “Come Out” (1966), a companion phase/text piece which is rather more complex, influenced a generation of composers and had a long lasting and far reaching effect on the trends in music and those followed by other sound artists.
One very clear manifestation of the influence and import of Reich’s tape phase pieces is Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1970). Like “Come Out,” “I Am Sitting in a Room” employs repetition, and, more importantly, a gradually unfolding process which is readily discerned by the listener. That the musical process which comprises “I Am Sitting in a Room” yields both the form and content of the work is evident as the composer, as a part of the work, reads a text which explains the compositional process and the means by which the work is realized.
The steady state quality of Ashley’s “Automatic Writing,” the droning elements of Homler’s “Steel Drum Song,” the textual repetitions of Giorno’s “I Don’t Want It, I Don’t Need It, and You Cheated Me Out of It,” the unfolding and immediately perceived process of La Barbara’s “Circular Song,” and many other works attest to the power and compelling nature of Minimalist techniques in numerous Text-Sound compositions. It can be asserted, without exaggeration that very significant number of American Sound poets create works which are either informed by the techniques and aesthetic of Minimal music or use structures and devices which are similar or parallel to those of Minimalism.
1. Michael Peppe, “Introduction to Actmusikspectakle V,” The guests go in to supper (Oakland, California: Burning Books, 1986), 310.
2. Anna Homler, press kit, n.d.
3. Stephen Ruppenthal and Larry Wendt, “American Text-Sound Composition and the Works of Charles Amirkhanian”, liner notes for Lexical Music by Charles Amirkhanian, 1750 Arch Records, S-1779, 1979, p. 1.
4. Peter Frank. “Fluxus/Music: Two Views. A Critic's Overview”. Journal: Southern California Art Magazine, No. 22 (1979), 18-20.
5. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, Gregory Battcock, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), 144.
6. Jean Perrault, “Minimal Abstracts,” in Minimal Art, 260-61.
7. Bruce Glaser, Questions to Settla and Judd,” in Minimal Art, 158.
8. Steve Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process,” in Writings about Music (Halifax, Nova Scotia: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; New York: New York University Press, 1974), 10.
9. John Cage, Silence, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 93.
10. Wasserman, Emily, “An Interview with Composer Steve Reich”. Artforum, 10, No. 9 (May 1972), 44-48.
11. Wasserman, “An Interview with Composer Steve Reich,” 44.
Battcock, Gregory, ed. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968.
Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
Frank, Peter. “Fluxus/Music: Two Views. A Critic's Overview”. Journal: Southern California Art Magazine, No. 22 (1979), 18-20.
Homler, Anna . Press kit, n.d.
Kostelanetz, Richard. “Text-Sound Art: A Survey”. Part I. Performing Arts Journal, 2. No. 2 (Fall 1977), 61-70.
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Peppe, Michael. “Information”. Private collection of Michael Peppe.Previous (Michael LENTZ), Next (Arrigo LORA-TOTINO)