Tomkins Cove, NY, November 2 1994
MR: I'm especially interested in the way that electronics came to be the mainstay of the Company's music. That's the body of work that I'm trying to focus on.
DT: Okay, that could be an interesting proposition. One thing that is going to concern me is trying to recall as precisely as possible what sound sources were used, because that's part of the thing which concerns you, if you want to know how the music came to focus on electronics.
MR: I had the impression that there was initial experimentation on Merce's part with taped electronic music, and that developed into a live exploration of amplified sounds.
DT: Well, all of that can be true. We'd have to go through it in more detail.
MR: You were playing piano with the company for many years, before it became the Company.
DT: Well, I've been with the company since it began, and I always remember it as 1953, although Merce thinks it began in 1954 [laughs]. Because I guess that's when he remembers deciding to call it Merce Cunningham Dance Company. But as a matter of fact, the same people were involved already in 1953. That's why I think of it as having started a year earlier.
MR: So what's the year when you began playing as a duo with John Cage? Did you mainly perform on tour with him as a duo?
DT: Yes, mainly. I'm questioning whether we ever called ourselves a duo.
MR: But in the sense that you were both performing...
DT: ...the same work, right. Enough of this flexibility [laughs]. So how shall we think of proceeding?
MR: I'm interested in the development of the electronics as a focal point, finding out from you more about the resources you had to work with, and ways that you found into electronics, coming out of, say, prepared piano, or amplification of acoustic instruments, working with taped sources, and the reasons for that shift in focus, from acoustic sound to circuit-based or otherwise electronic music. I thought that you would have the broadest knowledge of all the musical happenings along the way.
DT: You better believe it.
MR: Atlas Eclipticalis has the option for contact microphones on the instruments. Can you tell me anything about those? Because a lot of your electronic work began along those lines, didn't it?
DT: Sure. Mm-hmm. Well, Atlas caused us to outfit an orchestra with contact microphones. Nowadays it would be impossible, but it was difficult enough ... So that's what your main interest is, establishing the connections between electronics and music.
MR: Yes, and the aesthetic of the electronic pieces that you developed then, how you conceptualized them, even practical details like where the circuits you made came from, the parts...
DT: Just recently I've been speaking about my first electronic piece. I never put it on a resumé or anything like that because I only recently decided that it was my first electronic piece. The first documented piece that I did was Bandoneon, which I did in '66, but I'm aware that my first compositional effort was a piece that I did in '64, and the occasion was in Stockholm and it was a festival which happened at the Modern Museum in Stockholm, and as part of that Rauschenberg asked me to make music for a happening that he presented, and his part in it was to lead a Brahma cow through the museum, so he thought that the cow would most likely shit, which would be unappetizing, so he thought that if the music were quiet enough [laughs] that we could avoid that. Nothing happened, but I did make this music. It was very quiet. And one reason why I've been thinking about it is because in my archival papers in Stony Point I have the score of it.
MR: So what did it consist of?
DT: It was... I made... actually there were two different versions of the score. I discovered that the acoustics in the Museum were quite extraordinary. There were two spaces, one of them is the ... foyer, and behind that there's a very large room. So I first experimented with contact microphones in the foyer and I discovered that you could hear the sound of the neon bulbs turning on and off, so I examined the switchbox, I found out which circuits would control, and it turns out that like one switch in the foyer would control like six bulbs, and it was slightly different in the larger room, that was the reason I had to make two scores, so my score's just switching on and off these bulbs and the... what do you call it... they're... what do you call a group of, you know, how those fixtures are grouped together...
MR: So you have two or more long fluorescent tubes together?
DT: Yes, so one switch controls perhaps three circuits, and so I simply went to the fixture itself and attached a contact microphone and piped it into the large room, and all I had to do is remotely switch them on and off, and it was rather beautiful [laughs]. Although there was a difference between the two rooms, the foyer had a much more beautiful sound than the...
MR: Was it just the initial sound of the lights coming on and then turning off, and there was no sound from the light itself?
MR: So there was a visual effect too, of the lights turning on and off.
MR: And the cow made it through...
So were you traveling with a kit of materials to do this?
MR: So you had contact microphones... what kind? The ones I think of today are piezo discs.
DT: That's the most available today, but before that they were... it was a small... it would be so easy if I could just show it to you... they were sort of triangular, and there was like an outer cover which you could remove and it was just wires and there were a couple of resistors mounted on a circuit board. They were intended to be attached to something.
MR: Were they designed for instruments?
DT: Oh yeah, yeah. Any instrument. And that's what we used to... like the last time that, well, nearly the last time that I saw Fulleman I put a box in his hand which had nearly a hundred contact... hundred defunct contact microphones... out of that, I think six which were usable. That's how many that had accumulated through the work John and I were doing.
MR: So if you were traveling with a kit, ready to prepare sound sources with contact microphones, were you doing experiments before that in Europe or in the States, or were they intended before that strictly for amplifying instrument sounds?
DT: Just instruments.
MR: So this was the first instance when you attached them to a non-instrumental sound source?
DT: That's how I became aware that... historically I should claim it... I had no intention of, it's like I had no intention of composing anything and signing my name to it, but now it appears that I should have. Because in fact that was my first composition that I could claim as my own. So the only documentation that I have was that I had the diagrams of the switch boxes, whereas the next piece that I did was in '66, the bandoneon piece, and that's very well... there's circuit diagrams for not only the electronic hookup but for many of the electronic components. In those days I was making a lot of my own components, and it even... a lot of electronic activity evolved from Gordon Mumma's participation, which happened before he worked for the Cunningham Company. But I commissioned Gordon to make a few electronic gadgets, the main focus which was modulation. He had designed a box of his own which he called Spectrum Transfer... you get the idea. So I bought that from him, and in later years I even bought earlier models of it from him because he was no longer using them.
MR: So would this modulate one sound source with another?
DT: Yeah. So that's an important part of the focus.
MR: Did it work somewhat like a vocoder, using the spectrum of one sound to control another?
DT: Yeah, you'd have to say that. However, it was extremely primitive. It didn't have... the principle is the same in a vocoder but a vocoder is usually thought as a more elaborate device, but the principle is very simple. So that was what Gordon Mumma did, was he made something available which was very simple and its use was not limited to a single situation but you could use it as a tool.
MR: So was that part of the electronics for Bandoneon?
DT: Yes, mm-hmm. Bandoneon dealt with the Bandoneon itself. It's an instrument, one of the very few instruments which are two-sided, like an accordion is one-sided because the bellows only open in one direction, the bandoneon opens in two directions. But the reed assembly is available on two sides. So I modulated one side against the other side. And that was the beginning of the piece Bandoneon. So, just simply doubling up on... well, it's like I had four pickups on each side, so there were a lot of... and you know, control over the amplitude of eight pickups gives you a lot of power. Not only in the, what do you call it, source power [laughs].
MR: Did the electronics work more or less on their own, like Gordon Mumma's Cybersonics did? Did they have a sort of personality, and the piece went on without having to manipulate controls?
DT: It was totally manipulated. I was doing it myself, but as far as possible I employed... I'm trying to recall if I actually employed any automated devices... I don't think I had the means, or I would have.
MR: So you were playing the bandoneon and also dealing with a range of devices...
DT: ...To modify it, to modify the output signal.
MR: Did you ever do any experiments with tape, before or after those initial experiments with contact microphones?
DT: I'd have to say that I didn't. Tape was not my focus at all.
MR: Ron said he had asked about your past as an organist as a precedent for involvement in the electronics.
DT: You bet [laughs].
MR: Did you ever make alterations, or experiment with the keyboard instruments you played?
DT: I did, but nothing ever happened to it... it was Henry Cowell, you know, when he was asked why he didn't continue a line of experimentation he said, "Well, it didn't lead anywhere" [laughs], but I made, you know, very primitive attempts to alter the instruments but it's a very tricky affair, and so it, uh... And of course, uh, the thing is that the role of the amplifier was central, and so when I look back on those early activities that if a different engineer had been involved, that understood amplification, and that there are different principles you can employ... as... there are not many instruments, but there are a couple of different... In one of my later works I tried to get involved with light, but... not very accessible.
MR: What kind of amplification could you do with light? Using solar panels, that kind of thing?
MR: Using different hues of light, or intensities?
DT: Well that could be... well, mainly intensity.
MR: Weren't light-sensitive devices part of the setup for Variations V?
DT: Well, supposed to be [laughs].
MR: It looks like a pretty complicated setup. Did it ever come together and work the way it was intended?
DT: With great difficulty. I managed to get it sufficiently under control so that it was, like, a viable work to present. But it certainly was troublesome.
MR: Was that the most elaborate musical production?
DT: No, no. I would say it was a close second to my own piece Bandoneon. See, I don't have the score of it here in this house, but it's... or do I, no I don't, it's in my house at Stony Point. Because Bandoneon, uh, there's a lot more equipment. I'd have to have the score in front of me to really detail it for you. And in addition to everything else, I was involved with my friend, at that time, was Lowell Cross, and so in addition to all of the circuitry regarding the change of sound... but I was also involved in changing the display.
MR: By display do you mean moving the sound?
DT: No, I had a group of X-Y monitors, and uh... so X-Y means the display is dependent on two parameters, which I had from each side of my instrument, so I was actually...
MR: This is a graphic display.
DT: It was a graphic... there was a monitor... I've actually forgotten who wrote about it, because the Nine Evenings were presented twice, and uh, the first set I had the display working, but as luck would have it, the display was dependent on two high-quality microphones. And the second set of performances, the microphones got used for audio, and so, you know, I gave up my display in their favor. You know, these days, you know, that would be a must, you know, you would have the equipment, but in those days we were dependent on our own resource, nobody... can you imagine the Nine Evenings? There were only two microphones that the engineers could provide. [laughs]
MR: When the electronics came into use in yours and Cage's work, then you began composing, that was really when you started to conceive of yourself as a composer.
DT: For a long time my focus had not really changed, you know, I thought of myself as an interpreter, and I sort of, I didn't reject my role as a composer but I certainly did nothing to call attention to it.
MR: So it seems that after you started composing with electronics, the acoustic side of your work, the interpretation and performance on acoustic instruments receded. I'm interested in what caused the change in your materials of preference.
DT: Well, it's like, um, microphones and sound systems gave me something to work with.
MR: But you preferred to compose for the electronics, rather than modifications of acoustic instruments.
DT: What modifications? [laughs]
MR: Was it an attraction to the timbres?
DT: Definitely, definitely. Well, I have an ear for sound that's, I think it's different from other peoples'. Right now I'm trying to tell, I spent an hour talking to my friend Andy Ogielski, he's an engineer who works at Bell Labs, and he's become a friend of mine, and he's very interested in the neural network principle, and I was trying to convey to him that it was in my experience the first new sound that I've heard, is produced by that neural chip. And I was trying to enlist his aid in helping me understand why. It's the first new sound that's come along for many years, it's got completely different characteristics. So he, maybe the next time I speak to him I'll have thought about it some more. I think if I direct his thinking where to look he'll come up with why it is. It's got something to do with, with the, uh, intensity. But if it has to do with numbers I don't, I wouldn't be able to trace it, because I don't think anybody understands how those systems work, sufficiently. I've spoken to many people about it, and they're all guessing. Exact knowledge doesn't exist why these systems work. And my impression is that they work through vast numbers, but maybe it isn't true. It would be nice if it was not true. But there is really a different, a different principle present, and I tend to think that because that's what the sound tells me. But it's the energy in the sound which tells me that, and I'm not sure that it comes from... is it multiplication, or it could be juxtaposition, cause the circuits are multiple, but in order to trace the... it's very difficult to trace that kind of circuitry linearly, it's almost impossible, because the device itself is so complex.
MR: And there's all sorts of feedback loops within it.
DT: The whole thing is feedback, so...
MR: In the neural net that you were working with, what's actually producing the sound?
DT: It's this chip.
MR: But is it an analog synthesizer being driven by this neural process... I've heard a recording of it and I couldn't tell.
DT: I have to tell people, and insist, that it's the chip itself, because all I did was change the weighting on the feedback loops. But it's the chip itself speaking, in response to different weighting situations.
MR: Did the chip seem to have personality traits?
DT: Oh yes! [laughs] Yes, I did a lot of experimenting with it. In spite of the fact that I had very limited means at my disposal. Now it's going to be different. I have a new synthesizer, and I have control over the weights, so I can... I'll have documentation of each pass that I make in order to produce sound. So I'm looking forward to it.
MR: Is that something you can take on tour?
DT: Don't want to... I don't want to, it's too fragile. I'm hoping that, well actually I'm hoping that Ron could do something to change the situation, but I sort of doubt it, it's really dependent upon hardware design. And the boxes, there's a maze of loose wires, which are... they're traceable, but who has the ability to, uh... The most hopeful thing is that Ron has proposed that we make a separate circuit board that can be connected to the synthesizer and then removed from it, and that will enable a lot of experiment and documentation available. And now it's put off because the next time I'll be able to work with it is when I'm back from France, and I won't have a chance to even see it until after the first of January.
How are you doing? Must be running out of tape. [laughs]
MR: Christian Wolff said that you'd done a performance of For 1, 2 or 3 People using tapes and processing. I wanted to ask about your recollections of that, because that must have been one of your first uses of prepared tape sources in a performance with the Cunningham Company.
DT: Did he tell you anything about the occasion?
MR: No, except that the only time he saw you perform it he was sitting too far back to see what you were doing. I don't know what theatre it was.
DT: Didn't I publish a disc of 1, 2 or 3 People?
MR: Yes, there's a recording... Christian Wolff said that you had outtakes which you used to make the performance with the dance. That was his recollection.
DT: Boy... I wonder who could help recover what actually happened. I believe that one of the very rare times I did attempt to modify an instrument, I was working on Richard Lippold... had a small organ in his studio, and I used that to make those recordings for For 1, 2 or 3 People, but without further documentation I don't recall anything very precisely. But I know that I did alter the instrument and then recorded what I had done. And it was that... the tapes from that, that I used to make that disc, but I no longer know how I related that to the score material. You know, eventually I could recover that, that's why I asked if you knew the occasion.
MR: How did the electronics mesh with the Cunningham Company, the reactions of the dancers when that kind of music started appearing as background for their movement?
DT: Well, generally speaking it was very positive. But not universal. I recall that our premier danseuse, Carolyn Brown, was terrified over loud sounds, she endured it for our sakes but in the back of her mind was that it could cause her to lose her balance, which is a valid, a valid point. I won't dispute that. I never caused her to lose her balance [laughs], but that's small comfort, you know.
MR: The move to electronics seems in part to have been an escape from the sound world of classical music.
DT: Well, John... it was John's desire to have the things exist simultaneously, and not reject anything. I wondered if by now he might have changed his mind? [laughs]
What other things do you have on your mind to talk about, because it may be if we change focus it may get easier.
MR: Well, did the company own equipment for you to work on in those days, or was it strictly your own resources?
DT: Well, in the beginning it was strictly my own resource. The Company began to, well, let's try to recall, John Fulleman was the first engineer who actually made some things which could be used in the Company performances. And the devices which I had caused Gordon Mumma to make were my own, they never belonged to the Company, and to this day they don't [laughs]. I'm trying to put a year on it, when the Company actually began to own... let's see. Okay, now... okay, I'm... why don't you try to make contact with our previous sound engineers because I think that's going to pay off. So it would be important for you to speak with David Meschter. ... Rob Miller.
MR: I'm interested generally in the reasons for moving to the electronics, and the attitude taken towards the electronics as a new source of sound.
DT: Well, you know, what's... what's important is that it had to appear to be a source, a source of sound. And that's, if I could, uh, if I could think of what year it would be, I'd be on my way to clearing up this mess [laughs].
MR: How did you conceptualize your pieces, was it as an unfolding process in itself, or an instrument with different parameters that you could control in performance?
DT: Well, it became that.
MR: The Bandoneon is kind of an extension of the acoustic instrument.
MR: And a lot of Gordon Mumma's stuff was revolving around acoustic performance as well, with adaptive electronics.
DT: I recall that David Meschter was the first engineer that actually depended upon a... his work was in developing a sound system for performance, and he was the first person I think to address it in those terms. Before that, we musicians owned our stuff separately. But he was the first person to address the fact that the Company had to own a sound system. And after that Rob Miller was his successor, and Rob made the whole thing professional. Now there's no going back. So it'll get worse and worse [laughs].
MR: Do you miss the unpredictable element?
DT: Well I'm careful to make sure that the unpredictable element is in my music [laughs]. That's why I took pains to give Enter the possibility of having sixteen different tracks, even though it doesn't need all that. And as a matter of fact, there are two tracks which have never been used.
MR: Did you arrive at your designs for earlier pieces by experimentation?
DT: Yes... yeah, yeah. No, I didn't do, uh... I tended to make elaborate plans and then attempt to realize it.
MR: And then adapt the plan as needed?
Let me tell you, that if you do obtain his [Mumma's] cooperation, he has hundreds of photos that he did, mostly in regards to the music. Very peripherally there might be a dancer or two, but he photographed a lot of the installations, and upon very rare occasions he showed me some of his photos, and they're very good, and he must be planning something... let's see if you can gain access.
MR: It would be wonderful to have a photographic record of the music side of the Company. It seems it's really in two streams, dance and music, and the archival attention has been towards preservation of the dance. What were the dynamics like between the musicians and the dance side of the company?
DT: Mostly independent. These days they're totally independent.
MR: I think Gordon Mumma talked about the hierarchies in the company, which were always in flux. Did you sense that?
DT: Oh, sure. But, uh, mainly it was specific people. I mentioned the fact that Carolyn Brown was a very important person. She probably wouldn't mind being interviewed about it. I think she's very accessible.
John Cage and I maintained our, not distance, but uh, well we tried to preserve the musical identity of the company. [cf videotape of dinner party] But the company personnel over the years has changed a lot. Just at the time that Carolyn Brown was very active in the Company, there are a couple of other dancers who were female, and they... they were always fighting, they were always fighting. We musicians felt that it was a company of bitches [laughs]. And I guess that's why Merce doesn't put up with it any longer [laughs].
I wonder if you would... have you met Jean, Jean Rigg? Jean was at one time Company Manager, but Jean is a very important person in my life, but I was just wondering if it would be useful for you to talk with her, but I think maybe not yet. If you develop specific questions that she might be able to answer, I'm sure she wouldn't mind, but... She's still very much involved with the Company, she's a member of the Cunningham board, and a long-time friend of Merce Cunningham. She's going to visit me tomorrow night. I'll ask her, just as an exercise.
MR: You seem always to have used source material on tapes, so how do you deal with that material in processing it? You're working often with real-world sounds.
MR: And doing real-time processing.
DT: Well, I do real-time processing...
MR: I'm just trying to get a sense of the aesthetic, the reasons for choice of materials. Has your method of working changed a lot to the present day? The neural net is a new way of working, but till that point...
DT: It didn't change a great deal. I'm just trying to, uh... just trying to recall... well, I spent a lot of time, uh, okay, now I've got it. Okay, now let's see if I can put a date on it. It would have had to have been 1970. In 1970 I was working for the Pepsi Pavilion, and for that I needed to occupy my thinking with programming the Pavilion with sound. And so I, uh, so that was 1970, that means I was already involved with recording, in '68... what I did was, was that I, I made a large library of sound material by which the Pavilion could be programmed, and, uh... it was sort of, well, I, uh, I recall that I solicited various people to get some interesting sound materials. And I gained so many tapes that, uh, well, the Pepsi Pavilion didn't last a full year even, because they were unhappy, not that it was not successful, it was very, extremely, successful. It involved, the complication was that I had, I had gotten other people involved in the programming, so that I had a schedule of people. You know, it was an opportunity to invite people to work, work in the Pavilion, which was a gorgeous opportunity and an interesting space. So, uh, I guess the last person who was invited would have been Pauline, Pauline Oliveros, and uh... But as backups I already had amassed a great number of tapes, and eventually I used all these tapes to make other pieces for the Cunningham Company. One instance was, I did a work called Web. Do you have that one? It's on CD. And that was, it's a compilation of materials from, that originated with, my work for the Pepsi Pavilion.
MR: I think there are some of your source tapes in the archive.
DT: Could be. Mm. Could be, and I have much more [laughs]. I'm still traveling around them 'cause I use them when Merce does Events, what he calls an Event, when the music is sort of free-form.
MR: Did the performances in the events ever come to take on the form of a composition later?
DT: Oh, it did. That's how Web came about. What was originally a completely improvised piece. But it gradually solidified, so I charted it out. And gave it a name [laughs]. And there were others, other compositions like that. One was called Phrases. That's probably the title of a dance, but I did the music for that. I've gotten really behind in my documentation.
Do you have a relation to Alvin [Lucier]?
MR: Oh, yes.
DT: He's been involved. For a while, uh...
MR: His piece Vespers was used.
MR: I talked to him a bit about that.
DT: Nice piece. So what's he say?
MR: About using it with dance? Well he didn't say much except that the dance was abandoned eventually for one reason or another, and it hadn't been performed for a long, long, time.
DT: Well, it can't be performed without the Sondols! [laughs]
MR: And the Company doesn't have?
DT: No! [laughs] Speak of equipment.
MR: He did say that Sondols had been bought by the Company for the occasion, and he thought maybe the Company still had them, and he wanted to buy them back, because you can't get them anymore.
DT: Okay, I'll make a point...
MR: He was curious whether they were among the properties of the Company.
DT: So we should make an effort to trace it, it's worth it...
MR: Maybe John Adams would have knowledge of where they'd be.
DT: Well, I hope so, I hope so. It would be very lucky if they could be found.
MR: Did you perform that piece?
DT: Yeah, sure. I liked it a lot. And occasionally it could be quite astonishing.
MR: Acoustically? For the performer or the audience? I think of that piece existing from the performer's perspective, because it's so much about finding interesting acoustic spaces.
DT: Yes, but we never examined the piece for the possibility of interaction. If that had happened, and it could happen now...
MR: Interaction between the musicians?
DT: Yes, oh yes, if that were to happen you could obtain, like, whole walls of sound, uh, if you were doing it consciously, but that piece wasn't designed to do that. But it could be, and I think it would be within Alvin's concept even, to do that. I'm sure that he would welcome it. Well, I don't need to speak for him, but...
MR: That piece must have been nice to perform in the context of the dance, because the musicians are also moving.
DT: Yeah, yeah.
[recalls] I think, uh, John told me that he had seen the Sondols and wanted to know what they were. Okay. That's good news.
MR: I read in, I think an interview with you, or an article you'd written, that rather than interacting with the dance visually that more often it was aural. Do you interact with the dance acoustically when improvising with electronics, or making a piece?
DT: Well, my latest pieces use that in this sense, that I've designed the pieces to activate space sonically, so my objective when I perform it, is to actually do that. For instance, Enter deals with sixteen loudspeakers. And the reason for that number is that there's two performers, so each one controls eight loudspeakers, so in other words each performer controls four defined spaces, and I wasn't willing to go less than that. And so even though I didn't want to cause the Company to buy sixteen loudspeakers [laughs], I didn't regret it at all [laughs], because after all it works, it works beautifully.
MR: Well, it doesn't seem extreme.
DT: No, it isn't extreme. ... All sixteen channels are used simultaneously.
MR: When you place the speakers for that, are they in a fixed arrangement, or do you place them...
DT: Differently for each theatre. So that's, uh, in a sense that's John Adams' contribution, because he examines the space to see not only the feasibility but with a view to focusing the sound. And the music for Ocean depends on the same situation, so it's again sixteen... oh, no, it's more than sixteen, it's more than sixteen for Ocean. The difference between Ocean and Enter is simply that Ocean has, well originally it was designed that there are sixteen channels available in space, to rotate in space, and that there are four independent channels which are fixed on the floor, so that's an additional eight loudspeakers. I thought that was justified [laughs]. But it works beautifully. Though it could be done differently, but in other words there's a group of sixteen that share the sound space, and there are four independent which have discrete positions. Just recently they made me go to Venice to look at the hall they were planning to use, and I went there, and it was great trouble for me to go there, but I was pleased when we found the solution to the extra four channels. Turned out to be completely overhead. I had no trouble accepting that, it was the only possibility, because the hall is the Fenice in Venice, which, the Fenice is, as halls go, is considered a work of art, so nothing can be changed, nothing can be changed, you can't attach anything to floor, or anything to the walls, impossible, so... so Benedict Pal and I, we celebrated... so I think that'll go through next year, at the Fenice, next fall.
MR: Are you working on anything now, beyond the neural net?
DT: I'm thinking of a new composition to do with the neural net, because I've got a new synthesizer. ... The original box which was presented to me to make, to use the neural net, was, it was sort of limited. And then, uh, the man that I'm working with in California got some additional funding, so there's a new synthesizer which gives me access to its innards. Well, I don't want to predict anything, but uh, lots of things are going to be possible.
MR: Is it analog synthesis?
DT: Oh! That's the beauty of that chip, the chip is analog, and it's unappreciated, the fact that it is analog, that's why it sounds so good.
MR: I thought, when I heard the recording, that it had a very distinctively "analog" sound.
MR: It semed there were very repetitive statesbut then there weremoments when it would just...
DT: Take off, yeah.
MR: It was like, sharp utterances...
DT: Oh, yeah... that's characteristic of it. Now that I have control of the weighting...
MR: How do you control the weighting, or is this to be determined?
DT: Well, I know, I know how to do it, it's just, uh...
MR: Among the equipment sent up to Ron is a little control panel, it had a couple of touch sensitive pads andknobs...
MR: Is that what you were working with?
DT: Yeah, that's it.
The characteristic of it is that it's, it's very susceptible... it's simply because things are not really firmly in place, so the circuit board, if it's disturbed, it has to go back to California for readjustment. And, uh, there are wires hanging out all over the place. That's its nature, so, uh...
MR: Did you ever get interested in doing direct computer synthesis before, by doing your own programming? Because the programming doesn't seem to be that much removed from designing circuits in the way you have done.
DT: Well, I've never been able to arouse any interest in myself for digital, digitally produced sound, and so the computer turns me off. And, uh, it's... I regret to say that I haven't gained any, I haven't made myself gain access to it, because I hate the sound of it. So now that I'm involved heavily [laughs] in a computer [laughs], I'll think quite differently about it.
MR: But for instance, computer manipulations of real-world sounds is an area that might have interested you, it seems to me.
DT: But if you, if you don't like the sound that the computer produces, then it's a matter of making it do something that's interesting to you. And I've done it, upon occasion. I did make a work in, uh, it was another one of those situations that uh, I was asked to make, like, incidental music, it was for a fair, in India, and the uh, I had entrusted the, uh, the sound installation to a woman who was a friend of mine, an old friend of mine, an Indian woman. But she was afraid. She was afraid, she wouldn't accept the responsibility of creating sound. So, I realized that I had to provide incidental music, and so I did it, I did it with a computer, that was all I had [laughs].
MR: How did you use the computer? Making sound directly?
DT: Yes, it was... made sound directly.
MR: Was this through an institution, where you could get access to a computer?
DT: It was installed in the, uh, it was in Ahmedabad, it was called the National Institute of Design, and uh, they had an exhibition and a fair.
MR: Is this one of the Corbusier buildings?
MR: I've been there.
DT: Yeah, well I've been there before, before, and actually I was in residence there for six months, well I'm exaggerating, I couldn't have stood it for six months, it had to be more like two months, I recall that I wasn't feeling very well [laughs], even though I'm an Indian cook, and I love India, and I love Indian cooking, but two months was enough. [laughs] I needed to get out of there.
So I, uh, I found them... oh, just trying to remember what I did actually. I, well, I know that somehow I found the means of overloading the computer so that it became unpredictable. And that's, uh, that's how I proceeded. But more than that I can't recall. At the moment I can't even visualize [laughs] the control panels [laughs]. I know that I overloaded the inputs in the hope that it would be unpredictable, and I succeeded.
MR: Is the woman you mentioned the Gita Sarabhai who's in so many of John Cage's stories?
DT: Yep. Haven't seen her in several years. She was a great friend of John Cage's.
MR: She's mentioned so many times in his different books.
DT: Yeah, yeah. But equally important in my life were other members of the Sarabhai family. Gita was like a recluse, very exclusive, but uh, my friend was Mani, Materama Sarabhai, who would... not born Sarabhai, she married a Sarabhai. And Mani was one of the most delightful, lively and accessible persons in the whole family. And without, uh, without her existence, Gita might have seen me once or twice [laughs].
And I was very unhappy when I'd gone to great trouble to arrange for Gita to present her compositions [laughs] and she chickened out. She was afraid. It wasn't good enough. And so I just had to be satisfied by the fact that it would never be good enough. [laughs]
So then, uh, then I performed this work that I had done, and she said, oh she said, "It was so beautiful," and I couldn't have cared less! [laughs] That wasn't why I did it.
MR: But you are concerned with the sound, and the beauty of the sound, if that's how it can be described, or the character of the sound, maybe.
DT: Yes, I'm ultimately concerned with it. Otherwise, electronics would make me rather uncomfortable. But I've learned that I can produce something more than interesting, something lively, something that affects other people, uh, to enliven their, their lives, that's... well, I've had my share of friends who, who look askance at the fact that I'm involved in electronics, and I had to accept their criticism. And I just, uh, well, part of my, uh, part of my interest in life is, is, you know, spiritual endeavours, which I don't speak about them because I don't want them to be identified. And lots of people know, that's enough, that they know.
MR: So the performance is a kind of meditation, or a way to get absorbed in a spiritual act?
DT: I guess that's why I'm content with it, I mean otherwise I would seek something else out as a career, 'cause I, you know, I persist in, in performing. And now I don't do it for, for any person, so why am I doing it? [laughs] You've got a good theory. [laughs]
[looking at German-published book of photographs of Fluxus era European performances, lots of pictures of Cage, Tudor, Paik]
MR: This is a wonderful photographic record.
DT: Oh. (laughs, looking through book) Yeah. [laughs] Lots of stuff.
MR: Must bring back a lot of memories for you.
DT: [laughs] A lot of strange faces.
MR: There must be a lot of familiar ones too.
DT: Yes, true, that's true.
MR: When you're performing, do you do it in the sense of doing a task, or was that an approach that you used in the '50s, the '60s, in the electronic music I'm thinking interms of exhausting the possibilities...
Well, certainly I have done that. Uh... well, it's within imagination to give yourself a task, say "exhausting possibilities," you could try, you know, but uh, it could be that some situations don't offer anything more interesting, uh, so then I would approach it in a spirit of, uh, finding out how far I could push it.
MR: I guess at the same time that the electronics started happening within the Cunningham project, that there were other groups springing up too, in the States certainly, like the Sonic Arts Union, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center, maybe the ONCE group at the same time too. Was there a lot of interaction? There was some overlap, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma in the Sonic Arts Union, and Pauline Oliveros was part of the San Francisco Tape Music Center...
DT: It's all mixed up. Subsequently, uh... I was asked to be musical advisor for Viola Farber, who has her own dance company. Viola was a wonderful friend of mine. She's right now, she's recovering from an operation, she had a hip replacement just last week, and she's fine. But I was asked to be her musical advisor, so I, I, uh... I recommended Alvin, so for several years he was working for Viola's company. That's another connection.
MR: Maybe I should ask about the connection of visual art to the aesthetic of your early electronic music. Maybe in terms of a palette of sounds, or the presentation of the sound, or depiction of processes... I know I read in one of Cage's books that Rauschenberg's white paintings had encouraged him in the direction of his silent piece, 4'33".
DT: Well, at the moment I can't direct you to specific references, but I know that there are people who have written about the connection of the visual arts with sound, but...
MR: No, I just wondered if personally you had experienced any connections in that way.
DT: Well, for awhile I was working in laser display. I spent considerable energy developing it. I was sort of disappointed that it didn't pan out.
MR: What year was that?
DT: Oh, '66 to, to, uh...
MR: This was using lasers to produce images of sound?
DT: Yeah. Live. As live performance. I think my final try at it was as late as '81, and then I gave up, I gave up. 'Cause my friend Lowell Cross, who had given me access to the system, he had developed a four-color laser display that worked with, uh, it worked on a two-axis system, which is perfect for me. I finally gave up on it because I finally saw so that, that it, really what it needs is a new technology. It's something that should be easy and natural, uh, the mechanics of it, there's always something in its way, so I decided it belongs to the next century. [laughs] It was a relief to me to give it up, actually. [laughs]
MR: I guess you've seen planetarium laser shows, that kind of thing.
DT: Yeah, it's just... piddle piddle. [laughs]
MR: So with four colors you were able to make a full-color image.
DT: Oh, yeah. And, uh, laser has enough power to show up outdoors. All of our shows were outdoors.
MR: On a large scale.
MR: So are all of your pieces documented in terms of a diagram, or instructions?
DT: Yes. Mm-hmm. yeah. With some exceptions, you know, I neglected to, to, uh, make a diagram, but most of what I've done is in that form.
MR: Do you think that any of your pieces could be reconceptualized in terms of a different system, by a different performer who may be using different source material, or constructing the circuit in the digital realm?
DT: Well, the answer to that is either yes or no. Because some, I don't think that, uh... well, I think that, uh, that media are very important. You know, I think of analog technology as a medium. And, uh, so it certainly sounds very different from computer-produced sound, so I would say that some works are realizable with different media but others are not.
MR: Later this fall I'm going to do a little realization of Rainforest.
MR: According to your diagram.
DT: You should have no problem. [laughs]
MR: Well, it's more complicated than it looks at first glance.
DT: Yeah, well... Well, if you just realize that, uh, you have to, uh, factor in the power available, that's...
MR: Power available to...
DT: The power to the transducers.
MR: Well, you've got the transducers attached to some object that you're using as a speaker. Then you've got contact microphones feeding the sound back.
DT: Right. Uh-huh.
MR: You have to be able to get enough amplitude to the...
DT: ...to the material.
MR: Uh-huh. To make it actually sound.
DT: To make it sound, and, uh, not only sound, but uh, to , to displace its characteristic... you can easily tell, like, if you increase the amplitude to the transducer, and see that, that the harmonic resonance has changed, then you're in business. But that's what the piece is about.
MR: You mean seeing the material actually move?
DT: Well, it does, but you, you're not looking for that. That's a different piece, you know. [laughs]
MR: Yes, I'm sure it's in the experimentation with it. I just have to hear it and experiment with it.
DT: Well, yes, and different materials will react differently. Any, uh, anything solid like, uh, metal... For instance, plastic is hopeless.
MR: Because it's too absorptive?
DT: It's too absorptive, yeah.
MR: Metal, better?
DT: Oh yeah, metal's... wood is, uh, wood can be quite interesting but wood is an instance where the power available to the transducers can be very important.
MR: What kind of transducers do you use?
DT: The heaviest possible that you can find.
MR: Can you get them commercially?
DT: Well, maybe, maybe. At the moment I don't know. We could ask John Adams if he's found, uh... 'cause occasionally they pop up. And, uh, a couple of years ago, uh, we were hunting, you know, urgently, for transducers, then we found some in a warehouse, that were still unpacked. But occasionally, uh, somebody has the same idea, and it's, uh, the thing is that, uh, you know, they're magnetic, and it's driven by a voice coil, and the, the tooling process is, uh, critical, so, uh, it used to be you could buy a transducer and they cost about, uh, twenty dollars, usually, but occasionally you would buy one and it was already dead before you tried to use it. But the principle of the piece could be adaptable to different kinds of transducers. So... I wish you a lot of luck.
MR: I have these Japanese transducers... they seem to be pretty sturdy.
MR: They have some kind of limiter circuit in the too, so they'll actually cut out if they get too hot.
DT: Uh-huh. That's great. That's great. Heat destroys them. Voice coil heats up, and you can feel it, but the chances are that...
MR: ...by the time...
DT: [laughs] ...by the time you're aware of it, it's already too late. Where are they available from?
MR: Well, this I don't know. A Japanese student brought them.
MR: And I don't know if they're available here. But they're supposedly 50 watts.
DT: That's great. Though don't attempt to put 50 watts in it. [laughs]
MR: I'm using one of them now for this version I made of a piece of Alvin's, Queen of the South.
DT: Oh yeah, yeah.
MR: Which is sort of similar in its means, to Rainforest.
DT: Oh yeah.
MR: You were using a lot of, sort of lower-end comercially available devices, when I saw you perform at the Joyce recently. Those are things you must have acquired over a long time, guitar pedals and things of that nature.
DT: Yes. Well... well, most of it is not necessary, but a few things are really necessary. EQ is a must. EQ, and auxiliary amplifiers.
MR: There was a black guitar processor box, the Zoom. Were you using that in that situation?
DT: Oh yes, yeah.
MR: What were you asking it to do? I was interested to see that your working equipment was a combination of this very specifically designed custom equipment, mixed in with this more generally available commercial guitar processor equipment. And I wondered whether you made any modifications to it yourself, or just used it as found.
DT: I'd hate to get involved with modifying any of those devices. [laughs] If I do, my modifier, my modifications are completely external. You don't want to mess with the insides of that.
MR: Some people have made interesting modifications of consumer products, like Nicolas Collins.
DT: Oh yes, yeah. Well, he's a whiz at it, but he always does it for a specific purpose, and uh, I tried to convince him that his work has more general application, but he's not interested. [laughs] So, I can't help him. [laughs] I wonder how he's doing. Have you heard from him lately?
MR: He came to Wesleyan to perform a couple of weeks ago.
DT: Oh, great.
MR: He was an assistant of yours for a number of years?
DT: Oh yeah. Yeah. Oh, you ask him about Rainforest. He performed in Rainforest. I had, like, a, I had a core group that I worked with for, oh, several years. We had more than one tour across the country. As a matter of fact I just saw, just last night I spent with Phil Edelstein, who was one of my performers. The core group that I'm speaking of was uh, John Driscoll, Phil Edelstein, uh... let's see, who would it have been... there were four people, myself, Phil, John... who would it have been?
MR: Somebody on the LP of Rainforest?
DT: Yep. Oh, Bill Viola.
MR: People connected with Composers Inside Electronics.
DT: Yeah. And then there were, I expanded the group, there were other people involved. There was Martin Kalve, who was a member... when I, uh, uh, when I went to France I traveled with, well, the maximum I traveled with was twelve people. But uh, in France I traveled with eight.
mattr Sept. 13 1995
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