Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Frederic Rzewski on the Political Use of Music 1968/2015

The text below was included in a 1968 edition of SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine as part of an interview with composers about politics and music. Twenty composers were asked the same single question: Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for political or social ends?  The complete set of interviews, plus a 2015 follow-up interview with 18 additional composers (plus two who had been interviewed in 1968), can be found on my website.

Statement from program notes for Festival Internationale del Teatro Universitario, Parma, March 23, 1968

In times of emergency men find it possible to perform operations necessary to survival without bureaucracy, police, money, and the other obstacles which normally obstruct the way to efficient behavior.  In such moments the organism, acted upon by forces beyond its control, is able to act, to respond to reality in an efficient manner.  It is forced to move, to create space for itself, in order to survive. When confronted with the possibility of destruction, it discovers the alternative of creation. 

Seldom are men able to reap the fruits offered by such moments of crisis.  The memory of the higher state fades as suddenly as the danger which brought it forth appeared.  The greater part of the mind, called into action in moments of threat to physical survival, is content to relapse into a state of slumbering semi-awareness in the interim periods of tranquility.  It re-acts the roles which it invented in moments of creativity, applying them to a new reality which the creative act caused to come forth.  It drifts into dark, uncharted areas of the past, until tempestuous forces blow it back into the blinding light of now.

The organism is perpetually involved in a drunken balancing act, upon the high wire of the present, and over the abyss of the past, into which it rarely dares to glance.  In this precarious enterprise, it extends itself uncontrollably, until some more or less painful contact with the force of gravity forces it to move creatively.  The accuracy of this movement, the measure of its creativity, is determined by the awareness-level of the organism, the degree of its sensitivity to danger and salvation.

Normally human beings are open to the joyous pain of creation only in moments of immediate threat to individual survival. Civilization produces forms of behavior conditioned by such limited sensitivity to the larger organic process, and excludes others which tend to expand such sensitivity.  In fact, the economy of minimum survival-efficiency on the level of the individual organism, which civilization by its competitive games systematically cultivates, is not sufficient to ensure survival.  It results in the cancerous growth of the total life process.

In the last sixty years, 100,000,000 human beings have been murdered by other human beings.  This number exceeds the sum of all who have been known to live and die in the course of human history up to that time.  In order to survive at all, I must do more than merely survive.  I must create.

To create means to be here and now: to be responsible to reality on the high highwire of the present.

To be responsible means to be able to communicate the presence of danger to others.

An artist is a person who lays claim to a heightened state of perception. His perceptions are acts of communication dictated by a sense of responsibility to the life process. He creates the sense of emergency in a state of tranquility, where there is no threat to individual survival, and where the spirit is free to e-merge, to extend its dimensions, to create space.

It is necessary now to create a new form of communication, through which human sensitivities can be awakened to the presence of danger on the highest level, and to the necessity for creation in order to avoid it efficiently.  This form is not telephones, television, newspapers; nor is it theater, music, painting…As Baudelaire said, true civilization is not gas, electricity, or machines, but rather the diminution of the traces of original sin.

The most direct and efficient form of communication is dialog.  Dialog in its highest form is creation out of nothing: the only true creation.

An art form which aims for highest efficiency in times of highest urgency must be based on dialog.  It must reject the possibility of the impartial observer, present but not involved in the communication process, as contradictory to the idea of communication itself.

Such an art form must be concerned with creation out of nothing.  Its decisions cannot be governed by structures and formulas retained from moments of past inspiration, which it is content to re-arrange and re-interpret.  They must be born from marrying the moment, the creative moment in which the organism approaches reality so immediately that it is blessed with the perception of the highest possible future, which is its natural course toward joy.  Such an art form must be improvised, free to move in the present without burdening itself with the dead weight of the past.

Improvisation is the art of creating out of nothing: a lost art form.  It is necessary to rediscover this form and re-invent its rules, now.  It is necessary to embark upon a disciplined search for a new harmony.  Harmony is a process in which speaker and listener agree to communicate.  The responsibility for undertaking this voyage of discovery is everyone’s who may come into contact with these words.

– Frederic Rzewski, SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde Volume 6, page 91, July 1968

Follow-up interview for Leonardo Music Journal in 2015:

Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for political or social ends?

The political use of music (there is no other use for it, really, except that it can make you feel good): Music is used all the time for political purposes. What is significantly absent is the inverse: some kind of musical influence on politics. Wagner, you might say (but it really isn't clear, in this case, who is influencing whom). One could imagine a politics in which music was not merely "used", but was a basic element: a "jazz politics", for example. A politics in which art, music, and poetry were given priority because they brought enormous savings to the economy, as spiritual activities which reduced violence and hastened the coming to adulthood of the species.

But it is true that, before this can happen, there must be a fundamental change in the common perception of what is necessary for the survival of the species: individuals, or communities?

Music must become conscious of its powers. At the moment it is roving amok, not knowing where it is going and why. If music does find a direction, it could have enormous consequences. Already its power to influence behavior has been demonstrated in history: it played a huge role in influencing public opinion towards the Vietnam War, for example. It seems strangely absent now, when war threatens to become the permanent state of the society. There is nothing now to compare with Dylan's "Masters of War".

Music may or may not be able to change the world. Probably not. But it would be nice if it could. So I think we musicians should act as if it could, even though we know it probably won't. We should not act as if we didn't care. Because, in fact, we do care. Music could really have a significant influence on the course taken by humanity in the next few decades. We are really are living through a critical period in our evolution; and, like it or not, the inevitable revolution has already begun. Will it be musical? Or will it be like all the others? (As Mark Twain remarked: "Prophecy is really hard, especially when it's about the future.") But there are grounds for optimism, since the stakes are so high and the dangers so great. Therefore (with Gramsci): pessimism in thought, optimism in action. The revolution will not be televised, but it might well be musical.

As for improvisation: after fifty years of blather, we have finally come to realize that, when we talk about it, we don't really know what we are talking about, any more than we did fifty years ago. We improvise when we cross the street, and although it is necessary for survival, it is not sufficient to change the world. We can't cross the street without a plan either. We need both of these things; and that's precisely what we don't have.

(The last time I saw Elliott Carter, just a few months before his death, we talked, as we always did when we met, of serious issues facing the world. At one point he said, "The real problem in this country is that there is no communist party." Carter was not a communist, but he was a highly cultured man, and in this case he was right on the button.)

Frederic Rzewski (right) with Elliot Carter in Berlin, 1965

Musicians, like most artists, are frequently refuseniks, in whatever political system. But equally frequently they are collaborators, all too ready to collaborate with the system that feeds them. Some become famous and use their fame to exert political influence, sometimes admirable, sometimes questionable. Others remain in obscurity, although their work is no less important. The great composers are not solitary geniuses creating out of nothing, but simply those who put their names on the collective products of traditions which may be hundreds, even thousands of years old.

The way musicians relate to each other in the production of music can be a model for the way people relate to each other in any social situation. In this way, music is the revolution. The more we can develop it to a higher stage, the more we will be helping the revolutionary cause. As for what the final consequences may be, refer to Mark Twain.

Monday, May 18, 2020

"Vexations" in the Era of COVID-19, On the Occassion of Erik Satie's 154th Birthday

VIDEO: Satie's Vexations Arranged for C Flute and Alto Flute, Digitally Slowed 25%

By defying the logic of social and musical conventions within which he was steeped, Erik Satie apparently intended his short piece "Vexations" to nudge both player and listener into new ways of thinking.

Unlike the constant state of vexation many of us are currently experiencing as a result of the grim state of the world, Satie's contained, self-inflicted version contains an element of almost slapstick humor...a rug is pulled out from under us again and again...expectation is questioned and revealed to have been an absurdity...the mind finds satisfaction in being teased, and in the challenge to find alternatives.

In Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage, the composer writes:
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 it's not boring at all, but very interesting.
In this instance, we might try replacing the word "boring" with "vexing." Vexations was discovered posthumously, so we may never know what exactly Satie had in mind when he included the inscription:
In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.
(Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses).
While, due to circumstances beyond our control, many of us may have become inadvertently prepared, perhaps the point is that no single one of us needs to play (or listen to) all 840 repetitions alone...

On the occasion of the 154th anniversary of Satie's birth (May 17, 1866), musicians around the world have taken on the challenge to realize Vexations collaboratively. My contribution to Lockdown Vexations, organized by multi-media artist Kathy Hinde, is an arrangement for alto flute and C flute.

Inspiration for the video comes from Satie's 1912 "Memoirs of an Amnesiac":
My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.

Monday, April 13, 2020

An Anti-Virus

An Anti-Virus (video). Tracing paper, images cut from February and March 2020 copies of Sunday New York Times

COVID-19 has quickly and profoundly illustrated the extent to which environments, livelihoods, and even microbiomes are globally-entangled and mutually-dependent; the health of one hinges, directly or indirectly, on the health of all.

Symbiosis is a term used in biology to describe cooperation between different species for shared benefit—lichens, a composite of algae and fungus, for example. Certain species of figs, wasps, and the parasites living within wasp guts are mutually dependent; each can exist only in relation to the others. 

While the microorganisms that dwell within humans are not necessarily specific to Homo sapiens, they are so abundant that approximately half “our” genetic material does not belong to “us,” but to microbes that play vital roles in nutrient absorption, immunity, and cognitive function. Microbiology reveals that human beings, at the same time that we are exquisitely unique individuals, we are also dynamic meta-organisms, cooperative communities teaming with life.   

The microbes within us arrive from all around, gleaned from food, air, soil, and water. A bite of apple grown in New Zealand, a potato grown in Peru, a tomato grown in one’s own backyard. A breath of air that arrived on a breeze from the Sahara, captured and imparted to fellow riders in a subway car in New York, Paris, or Hong Kong. Aspects of seemingly distant people and places are constantly becoming parts of our infinitely individual, yet paradoxically multitudinous, selves. Fellow humans, other-than-humans, and even that which is not universally considered “alive” (a water molecule, for example) all become parts of what make us “us.”

COVID-19 brings the question of boundaries between beings starkly into focus: if we are all constantly exchanging biological (and other) material on a global scale, then perceived “others” are, in tangible ways, extensions of ourselves. One possible remedy, then—not only for the problem of the current pandemic but for other catastrophes-in-progress—is to care for everything and everyone as if this is the case.

Perhaps this collective realization is a conceptual anti-virus with the radically beneficial, evolutionarily advantageous effect of driving those it touches into states of deep love and respect for the world and its inhabitants. Symptoms may include increased empathy, sense of wonder, and desire to be of service to others. This contagion becomes active simply by imagining it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Southern Pacific Suite: A Collection of Train-Inspired Sound Art by Alyce Santoro and Julian Mock

A past project unearthed from our archive:

MOVEMENT #1: Prelude: Music for Train Whistles debuted at Southern/Pacific, Lawndale Art Center, Houston, TX, Aug. 2011


In the far west Texas towns of Marfa and Alpine the blast of train whistles punctuates the soundscape day and night. The sounds of trains are so common that many local residents learn to tune them out. Here at PREPARED EAR we became curious about how the chords used in train whistles were developed, since the sounds are neither so ominous as to keep frequent listeners constantly on edge, nor are they so cheerful or plain that they could be completely ignored. After much research, we discovered that most trains in the United States employ some variation on the K5H horn, which emits a D# minor 6th chord (D# F# A# C D#). Amtrak's "motive power development manager" Deane Ellsworth took it upon himself to develop a variation on this tone for it's fleet of trains, and in 1976 Mr. Ellsworth introduced the K5LA, tuned to a B major 6th chord. 

For SOUTHERN PACIFIC SUITE Alyce deconstructed and reconstructed the two chords - including the Doppler Effect - using flute. Julian was inspired by the two chords to create the melody line, played on classic guitar.

The following message is from D. H. Ellsworth himself, received on June 5, 2012 and printed here with permission:

Ms. Santoro:

I just enjoyed your Southern Pacific presentation featuring the K5H and K5LA locomotive air horns. Yours is, in fact, the second audio/visual prepared on this subject. I asked Canadian inventor Bob Swanson to retune his K5H horn for my use in America in 1976, subsequently listed by the Nathan Co. of New York as the K5LA model. I wanted something beautiful for our use at Amtrak in time for America's Bicentennial Year, and am flattered that so many agree I succeeded. A minor correction I might pass along is that Amtrak didn't have to tell me to do this, as I was Amtrak's managing developer of locomotives at that time; I got to tell myself to go get this done, picking my own musical notes to produce the K5LA's Major 6th chord, and going to Vancouver to meet with Swanson on my own time. It was a wonderful side-project, attempting to make Amtrak trains sound as nice as possible when giving audible warning of their approach.

BTW, did you retrieve that video camera before a train got it? (Just kidding...)

Thank you for your tribute! Your composition is a delight.

D.H. Ellsworth 

I proceeded to inquire as to Mr. Ellsworth's musical background and how he had come to compose that particular chord and received the following response:

I am a musician solely by virtue of piano lessons as a youngster, playing the trumpet with the Cornell University Marching Band, teaching myself the guitar and also music notation so I could transcribe Gershwin piano rolls to sheet music, joining my wife singing in several choirs, and tape recording trains and whistles in stereo from 1969, none of it ever performed as a professional musician. I am a professional railroad mechanical engineer (retired) & photographer (still at it) of 42 years.

To the best of my knowledge, the first use of a Major 6th chord in North American railroading appeared in the early 1900's, when the Nathan Mfg. Co. of New York began marketing a five-chime steam whistle for locomotives designed to sound GBDEG (fourth piano octave). Fifty years later, inventor Robert Swanson (1905-1994), took it upon himself to design a chime-tone air horn who's voice would convince the average Joe that it's a train's voice: i.e., 'making trains sound like trains'... his exact words to me one day, and now the title of my book. His fourth try was a highly successful & marketable air horn for trains in Canada, the USA and eventually around the world. It was his "M" series, marketed through the Nathan Co. from 1950. Many of his M5 horns were tuned to sound C#EF#AC#, a gorgeous A Major 6th also in the fourth piano octave, and considered by many rail enthusiasts to be the prettiest locomotive air horn ever conceived. When the M's became too expensive to manufacture, by 1975, I took a look at Bob's newer K5H horn, an exceptionally well-engineered device he was using on trains in Canada, and asked him to retune it for me. I wanted a B Major 6th (flattening the #3 & #4 horn "bells" to make the chord) thereby Americanizing it for my use on Amtrak locomotives. Within a few years, nearly everybody's railroad in the US was (and still is) using them, or their K3LA sisters (D#F#B). I did not ask for a royalty, I just wanted to be able to hear Amtrak trains sounding this new voice I had given them. 

MOVEMENT #2: Between Stations 

BETWEEN STATIONS consists of 14 tracks inspired by life in New York City, and is composed of sounds collected between 2002 and 2005 on and under the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn interwoven with a range of created and found sounds and music.

This collection of collages is recorded onto cassette tape and woven into an audible textile called SONIC FABRIC. The album has been played at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego as part of SOUNDWAVES: THE ART OF SAMPLING in 2008. It was broadcast via low-power radio transmission in Los Angeles' Union Station on April 14, 2012 as part of RADIO BREAK. 

For SOUTHERN/PACIFIC, the collection was heard in Portland, Oregon in June, 2012.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

An Intricate Ensemble: the Art-Science of an Ecological Imaginary

On Monday morning I will be defending my thesis for Rhode Island School of Design's brand new MA program in Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies alongside four other women who have been part of this inaugural cohort.

For those paper is basically a manifesto, a call to develop and deploy all manner of creative tactics that can challenge and subvert any and all "logics" that allow for exploitation, oppression, and destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants.

It's about undoing undue dualism and the joy of paradox. I plan to post the whole project on-line as soon as possible. The thesis is now available in its entirety at RISD Digital Commons. Meanwhile, here is a short summary:


Some early-to-mid-20th century avant-garde artistic movements, notably Dadaism and Surrealism, came out of a wholesale rejection of a “logic” based in European Enlightenment philosophy that could result not only in the slaughter of billions during World War I, but in the destruction and enslavement of people and the other-than-human world in the name of a “progress” from which the most powerful disproportionately benefit. Declaring the right to determine what should be considered an acceptable reality, the Dadaists and Surrealists developed methods by which to tap into the “irrational” – techniques including collaboration, improvisation, and chance operations.

Approximately 200 years prior to the Surrealists, the Romantic Naturalists also expressed misgivings about the mechanistic, positivist, dualist modes of thought their countrymen had been bringing to prominence in Europe since the dawn of Scientific Revolution – humans (some far more than others) were coming to see themselves as separate from, and superior to, an externalized conception of “nature.” Science, heralded as an unbiased form of inquiry based on “natural” laws, was being used to justify hierarchy, competition, and exploitation. The Romantic Naturalists countered with the view that sustained appreciation of the qualitative does not diminish the value of the quantitative; in fact, sensations that transcend reason and logic may provide an ethical basis from which to develop fairer and more just social and ecological frameworks.

Today, in a spirit akin to that of the Romantic Naturalists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, paradigm-challenging artists and philosophers are working to bring about an “ecological imaginary”…the view that, to quote feminist-philosopher Karen Barad on the central lesson of quantum physicist Niels Bohr, "we are a part of the nature that we seek to understand." 

Work emerging from fields related to the Environmental Humanities invites science to examine a paradox inherent within itself: science’s esteemed objective stance, while undeniably useful as a mindset for the purposes of research, by distancing the observer from that which is being observed, tends to reinforce an impression that humans and nature are inherently separate.

While science can, and very often does, provide elegant evidence that “we are a part of the nature that we seek to understand,” supplementary qualitative practices may help to instill in its adherents a sense of what this feels like in practice; the arts are particularly well-equipped to foster experiences of the sublime. Vacillating between – or the simultaneous holding of – states of objectivity and subjectivity, individuality and collectivity, direction and improvisation – may be of use in the collaborative formation of an ecological imaginary, a constructive image of oikos, our shared home, regardless of one’s primary discipline.

Dualisms and paradoxes abound, but we do not need to remain bound to them. It is possible to imagine an “intricate ensemble” in which beings and/or constructs can exist as separate and together.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Notational Shift at MUSAC

The Notational Shift exhibition opened at Spain's Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y Léon on January 26, 2019 and runs until September 15, 2019.

It's truly an honor to have work in this wonderful exhibition of alternative forms of musical notation alongside so many friends and muses, including Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Barbara Held, Benton Bainbridge, and others.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

10000 Things - Mass Recognition - Vernal Equinox 2019

Frottages, Providence River Oysters, 2019

In mid-February I received an invitation to participate in a project conceived by some friends on the west coast, including composer/sound artist Brenda Hutchinson (noted for, among much wonderful work, her Daily Bell Project).

This is the original call for participation:
Equinox: Emergency of Joy 
Bringing together the 10,000 Things to a moment of poise
How do we as artists recognize each other in community? What does this community do, in its union, and how? How may we rehearse our strengths so that we are ready to serve emergencies of grieving and celebration? 

The challenge at hand is for individual artists or teams of artists to generate ten thousand things each, and, as possible, to bring them together in a live encounter on the occasion of the Spring Equinox, gathering, balancing, and releasing them, at a focus on joy, recognizing an urgent need, born of compassion, for creative elation and expectancy during heavy and tangled times. 

MARCH 20th, 2:58pm 
Sharing of the work throughout the day, as forms suggest 
Food to follow 

“Ten thousand” is rooted in the Buddhist concept of the ten thousand dharmas – an image for all observable reality. We are meant to recognize, and ultimately move through this reality, to a state of levity – a surpassing of fact, a merciful gaze on it, a move into light. 
We bring everyone together, with everything we have, and set our tens of ten thousands free at a given moment. The character of that moment is joy. Any moment realized by art is compound, we match vulnerability of change with precision of purpose (vibratory, sonic). Joy includes expectancy, and joyful expectancy is hope; hope is a kind of woundedness – admission not only of uncertainty, but also of a willingness to anticipate the good despite uncertainty. We gather to affirm a manifesto of joy in all its precarity.

This is my response:  

Invitation to a Week of Mass Recognition 
(or: A Mass of Mass Recognition. A Mass Recognition Mass)

13th century Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dogen wrote:

That the self advances 
And confirms ten thousand things 
Is called delusion 
That the ten thousand things 
Advance and confirm the self 
Is called enlightenment

A group including some Surrealists in mid-20th century Britain organized a peoples’ ethnography practice called Mass Observation Days; all were invited to record ordinary (or non-ordinary) events that occurred during an agreed-upon 24-hour period. 

Poet Allen Ginsberg advised, "Notice what you notice.” 

Upon noticing a thing, a dynamic relationship is formed. Whatever is observed becomes a known extension of the observer. Even science now agrees that there is no such thing as objective reality. (What we don't everything an extension of the observer too...but that's another story...).

In other words: when we notice something, we recognize a part of our "self" in the "other"..but with this realization comes the awareness that there is no "self"...or "other".

A quick calculation reveals that there are approximately 10,000 minutes in a week. All are invited to participate in a "mass recognition” beginning on March 13, 2019 at 2:58pm, one week prior to the Vernal Equinox, and ending at the same time on March 20. On the evening of the Equinox, those in geographical proximity are invited to gather to share some of the things which you recognized (and in which you recognized yourself).

A very important part of this project is the in-person (ie: non-social media) aspect. Please be in touch if you would like to gather in Providence on the evening of the Equinox. Several artists and groups who are contributing to 10000 Things in this and other ways are planning to meet at a downtown location. More info TBA.