Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Interview on New Music Pioneer

One year ago I had the great pleasure to meet flutist Elizabeth McNutt exactly when she and composer Andrew May of Sounds Modern invited local musicians to participate in the debut of UNSET, Andrew's site-specific sound composition for Donald Judd's works in concrete at the Chinati Foundation.

I was first impressed by Sounds Modern – and Elizabeth's flute-playing in particular – in 2013 when they brought a sublime performance of Morton Feldman's Crippled Symmetry to Marfa. 

I'm very grateful to Elizabeth for inviting me to respond to a few very thoughtful questions for her New Music Pioneer blog! Here's the interview: http://newmusicpioneer.com/?p=206

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

WARPED at Museum of Craft, Creativity, and Design

Photo Courtesy Museum of Craft, Creativity, & Design

My Tell-Tail Sails (After Hurricane Sandy) – woven from cassette tape recorded with sound-samples collected on and under the streets of NYC – are included in "Warped: An Exhibition on Sound and Weaving" at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, NC.

"Practitioners have long observed the relationship between sound and weaving. Appalachian master weaver Lou Tate (1906-1979) remarked how the weaving draft pattern resembles the five line musical staff. Indeed both composing and weaving are time-based endeavors that require significant planning, and are often recorded with the intention of being repeated, replayed, or replicated. Contemporary artists continue to investigate this intersection, mining the connections between sound and weaving for material, visual, and conceptual properties. The six artists included in this exhibition demonstrate a range of approaches inspired by the overlap of sound wave and thread, instrument and loom, composition and draft pattern, sound and weaving."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mentoring Advice for Those Interested in Hybrid Art/Science Practices


Members of the YASMIN(Your Art Science Mediterranean Network) discussion list were recently invited to offer mentoring advice for emerging young professionals interested hybrid art science careers:

1- what is your background as a scientist? In the arts, design or humanities?

As a young person fascinated by science and nature but with a penchant for the arts (including music...inspired by Laurie Anderson's tape-bow violin, I had an electric pick-up installed in my flute during my early teens), I decided that my life's mission would be to communicate about the wonders of science and nature through art. Not knowing exactly what this would look like and having no mentor to guide me (in the mid-1980's, a high school student with an interest in what may now be referred to as interdisciplinary education was steered into "liberal arts"...but this did not quite seem to fit the bill for me...I wanted to be a "real" scientist...), formulated a plan: I would gain a formal education in science first, followed by training in scientific illustration.


As an undergraduate I pursued a BS in Biology at Southampton College, part of Long Island University (this campus and its excellent math, chemistry, and physics-heavy marine biology program unfortunately no longer exists). I am so grateful to have received this rigorous education...from it I learned the kind of critical/analytical thinking and experimental design that informs every aspect of my current work. 

After Southampton I went directly to Providence, RI where I enrolled in Rhode Island School of Design's Graduate Certificate program in scientific illustration. This too was a rigorous curriculum that, in addition to providing solid training in traditional illustration, allowed me to explore other media, such as sculpture and printmaking. Providence in the early 1990's was a fertile place for artists...lofts in old factory buildings were cheap, and silkscreeners, bands, painters, industrial designers, and other creative practitioners lived and worked in close proximity, willingly sharing studios, skills, and equipment. To support myself while going to school at night, I was fortunate to secure a job as a research assistant on a biochemistry and aquaculture project at the University of Rhode Island. I felt like a bit of an impostor in both worlds...by day, my friends at the lab thought of me as some crazy artist, and by night, my artist-friends saw me as a professional scientist who happened to make art. 

Not long after graduating from the RISD program, I got hired as a seagoing oceanographic research assistant on the Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics (GLOBEC) project. I spent three months total a year at sea, in increments of three weeks at a time, floating around Georges Bank in the North Atlantic, for over four years. This was a pivotal time for me...which leads to the next question...

2- when and how did you become involved in a hybrid art/science practice?

While at sea, I had lots of time to think, read, draw, write...and converse with my fellow scientists (this was in the mid-1990's, before the internet was available on ships at sea!). Over the course of the years that I worked on the GLOBEC project, it was becoming clearer that things in the North Atlantic were amiss...counts of zooplankton and larval fish appeared to be dropping. I asked the lead scientists whether and how this information should be communicated to the public. I came to understand that our job as scientists should be to collect data, not necessarily to interpret it. Logically, I could see how scientists putting any "spin" whatsoever on data – no matter how dire the results may appear – could be taken as bad practice. I felt conflicted...I wanted to be a good scientist...but if the scientist's job isn't to sound the alarm bells...whose job is it? I believe that because there have historically been so few individuals in the position of "science communicator"...not just a journalist or an illustrator, but someone whose job it is to cross fluidly between those worlds, and understands what it means to be a "good scientist"...this is in part why we are now in the mess we find ourselves in re: climate change. Fear of bias has actually led to extreme bias...the vast majority of media on science comes from the corporate media, the kind of media that has a vested interest in suppressing the reality of what is happening. 

Alarmed by this, I started making art about the foibles and hubris of science. I began designing "experiments" and making "laboratory equipment" to study the intangible, the parts of reality and the human experience that are unquantifiable. In other words, I became a kind of philosopher...

3- what have been the major obstacles to overcome?

As others have already mentioned, one persistent obstacle is the prevailing view in our culture of "art" as something "extra", an embellishment, something that exists in a support capacity for science but not as something integral, with equal importance or value. The STEM to STEAM movement has been extremely helpful, and "sci-art" and "eco-art" have become much more common and widely accepted in recent years. But there is still much work to be done to dispel the idea all these neat categories are really anything more than convenient descriptors that, upon closer examination, are not nearly as neat in practice as they are in theory.

In addition, perhaps like many people on this list, I work in a nebulous, sort of "genre-free" zone. Some of my work involves sound and music, some of it is sculptural, much of it is ephemeral or conceptual....I tend to use whatever medium I feel is necessary to convey a particular idea. It's the ideas that are, to me, important...the pieces are just artifacts of a concept....and the concepts are free for the taking. For me the joy – and the point – is that ideas should be freely exchanged, open-source, collaborative...information is power, and everyone should have equal access to it. This leads to a variety of problems: a) the work doesn't fit neatly into any handy category that makes it easy to show, sell/buy, or write about, b) it does not tend to generate a significant amount of income.

4- what have been the greatest opportunities/breakthroughs?

Delighted to read that others have mentioned Goethe here! When I first learned of his concept of "delicate empiricism", it was a breakthrough for me. Confirmation of my hunch that we are not as separate from our experiments as we make ourselves out to be...and that "bias", or intuition based on sustained, earnest reflection might actually be useful...these assurances gave me permission to further develop my own "hypotheses". 

5- what would you do differently, knowing then what you know now?

I would have abandoned my role as a "good scientist" and embraced my role as one whose job it is to act as a liaison between scientists and the public sooner...I would have helped sound the alarm bells about climate change in the mid/late-1990's when I could see what was happening and was discouraged from speaking out.

Although my plan to study biology first and scientific illustration later ultimately worked out in its own way, I wish I'd known sooner of other options for someone who wanted to become well-versed in both art and science. I would have liked to pursue a PhD so that I could eventually teach, but I am only just now discovering PhD programs that seem to accommodate interdisciplinary studies. 

6- any advices to someone who may want to walk in your footstep?

• People who understand science and can communicate clearly and/or creatively about it are more urgently needed than ever. Thus far, the problems of our time – when conveyed accurately at all – have been presented in cold, detached ways that have not tended to inspire action on the scale necessary. In my view, "the poetics and aesthetics of science communications" could be a course of study unto itself. A young person looking for ways to combine art and science might consider seeking out or self-directing such a program. 

• Without creativity, there can be no innovation in art, science, technology, or anywhere in between...and if we are to effectively confront the challenges we currently face, we need to teach, learn, and practice creativity. 

• For those whose practices are not well-defined or well-compensated, living simply and staying out of debt are strategies that can result in greater freedom, time, and flexibility.

• A couple of offerings for anyone who may wish to know more about my path in particular:

This is a talk I gave for incoming freshman at the New School in NYC in 2005 on "The Art of Science, The Science of Art". 

My book Philosoprops: A Unified Field Guide, which was written with a young reader setting out on a path to combine art and science in mind, is available as a free download (the download button is at the bottom of the page).

7- Add other questions and your responses you think are relevant.

Added question: What are you working on now?

In collaboration with my husband guitarist/composer Julian Mock I am working on developing a means of visualizing the intervals and modes commonly used in the Western 12-tone musical system. This method employs a tertiary color wheel to depict tonal relativity and shapes to depict intervals. As a musician who is constantly seeking to improve my skills and pallet as an improvisor, I developed this method out of frustration for the ways that the modes are taught in most standard music theory books. More on this project here: http://alycesantoro.com/mode_chart.html

• For Issue #25 of Leonard Music Journal, I asked 20 composers of new and experimental music the same single question that SOURCE: Music of the Avant-Garde asked of 20 composers in 1969: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for political or social ends?"

• I am one of the co-founders of Defend Big Bend, a group here in the high desert of far West Texas that is resisting against the 42" high-pressure Trans-Pecos Pipeline. I mention this because the fight is putting all of my skills as both an artist and a scientist to the test – I find myself serving in the capacity of environmental journalist and creative direct-action/social media strategist...in other words, "science communications poetics/aesthetics"! Fascinatingly...local scientists on the ground here whose jobs are funded through the government – including Big Bend National Park employees, UT-funded astronomers, and state funded archeologists – have been silenced by the pipeline company. In other words: the very experts who could comment most authoritatively on threats to this region's plants and wildlife, aquifers, dark skies, etc. have had their jobs threatened by an industry that pours money into the state's coffers. Who is left to fight, and to point out this conflict of interest? The answer is artists, students, self-employed and retired people, and others without affiliations or anything much to lose. This is not just happening here – this is the story of what has been happening on a national and global scale for many, many years. Again, I implore any young person to bear this in mind when choosing a career path: those who can understand the gravity of the issues we are facing and are willing and able to speak out on them eloquently and effectively...you are urgently needed! 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Third Eye Sunglasses as Philosoprop: Protection for New Organs of Perception

Third Eye Sunglasses, 2016
 "The human being knows himself only insofar as he knows the world;  
he perceives the world only in himself, and himself only in the world.  
Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us."
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The idea to design a set of glasses that can provide shade for delicate, newly-forming organs of perception first occurred to me in the Peruvian rainforest in 2002. I didn't get around to actually creating a set until 2008, blogging about them for the first time in 2009. In 2013 one of my sets of Third Eye Sunglasses was included in an exhibition in NYC. In 2015 it was both a surprise and a delight to discover that Prince had developed the same idea.

I have long imagined that brains may be like satellite dishes, and ideas like ambient waves that can be tuned into if the frequencies between transmitter and receiver align.

In the case of the concept for an apparatus that softens the glare of mystical illumination, it seems it has been floating around in the aethers for quite some time...

Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel tweeted this 1970 photo of Swedish prog artist Ardy Strüwer.

I can't be sure exactly what the idea of sunglasses that protect the third eye means to Mr. Strüwer or meant to Prince, but for me I think it may have something to do with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...

The conventional scientific method requires that the scientist conduct her or his experiments in as detached, objective a way as possible. Goethe, however, believed that strict objectivity is a literal impossibility, as the observer is not, in fact, separate from that which is being observed...while there may be an illusion of separateness, both existences are intertwined and interdependent. Goethe called a kind of study that would take into account both the quantitative as well as the qualitative "delicate empiricism". He believed that coming to knowledge through all the senses, including empathy and intuition, is not only valid, but vital.
In modern Western culture, we are taught from an early age to perceive ourselves as autonomous entities...separate from one another, and from  the world we inhabit. When we begin to recognize that this separateness is not the reality of our experience new organs of perception open. This may be accompanied by feelings of euphoria...but it may also be overwhelming, frightening, or painful. Hence the need for an apparatus that can soften the glare...
Several pairs of Third Eye Glasses are now available in the Philosoprop Shop...including a brand new type that – instead of softening the glare, prismatically enhances it (please use with caution).

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Interview with Jon Hassell for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Jon Hassell in the January 1969 Issue #5 of SOURCE: MUSIC OF THE AVANT GARDE Magazine

In July 1969 SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked twenty innovative composers the same single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for social or political ends?"  

For the 2015 Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal, I got to ask the same question of twenty composers working today 

One of those composers is seminal composer/trumpeter and progenitor of Fourth World music Jon Hassell. I first contacted Mr. Hassell in 2014 to express my glee at having been able to "perform" his MAP2, which I happened upon in the January 1969 of SOURCE. I am grateful to him for seeing fit to continue our correspondence!

I have been featuring individual responses from composers included in the LMJ article here on the blog until May 2016, when the entire series of interviews will be made freely available on the Politics of Sound Art page.

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

I'm for full-on pleasure in listening with no excuses necessary – "Les Baxter and Beyond". I'm lightyears away from any idea of "political" with regard to music. But that's my personal credo. This canonization of the chorus-verse form (and all the other conventions that come with it) is unstoppable. It's a colossal loop. (See Simon Reynolds - Retromania - Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past). What would Guy Debord have to say about iTunes and Spotify?

And here's the secret – Music is Invisible. It exists only as an interior experience in an individual. Who can say what this or that person is experiencing? We inevitably try to get close with word descriptions but that is essentially a language experience about a musical experience. In discussing a painting, one can actually touch an area and say, "This is quite Picasso-like" – it's visible – there's a common database for visual culture.

But the Entertainment Industrial Complex knows how to spot an opportunity to supply the "missing" visuals and descriptions to keep those clicks and dollars pouring in. "Political"?  What is NOT political in the megamarket?

PS: To underline the fact that there is an area called "Music as Art" – I've proposed the idea of a SEMINAR around the question, "What is the musical equivalent of a Gaudi?" This question asks those with a visual sensibility refined enough to appreciate the surreal, storybook aspect of Gaudi's architecture to also think about what in their musical universe is conceivably equivalent? All of us, including those of visual literacy and refinement, have grown up with a corporate-supplied background track to our adolescent years that loops forever in movies and online. Without a real effort at broadening the experience of music, they (we) have no idea of what a Gaudi could sound like in the imagination. (Charles Ives? Ravel? Gamelan?) Again, highlighting the gap between visual and musical imagination and sophistication.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Interview with Frederic Rzewski for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Photograph by Michael Wilson
In 1969 SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked twenty innovative composers the same single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for social or political ends?"  

In 2015 I asked  the same question of twenty composers working today for the Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal. Two of those composers – Terry Riley and Frederic Rzewski – also answered the question when it was asked 46 years ago

I am featuring the responses of individual composers here on the blog until May 2016, when the entire series of interviews will be made freely available on the Politics of Sound Art page.



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.)

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.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

SOUNDINGS at Eugene Binder

"Sounding generally refers to a mechanism of probing the environment by sending out some kind of stimulus."

I am pleased to announce that the opportunity has arisen for me to fill a rather large and beautiful space in Marfa, TX with the latest implements and apparatus to emerge from our efforts here at the Center for the Obvious & (Im)Permacultural Research.

Their less tangible functions aside, most of the pieces in this exhibition have in common that they contain both auditory and visual elements. The image shown below, for example, is a way of visualizing a set of pentatonic scales. The exhibition at Eugene Binder will feature charts of numerous musical scales and intervals as digital prints on watercolor paper.

Please join us at the opening from 6 to 9pm on Friday February 12. We invite those who are not geographically proximal (or otherwise unable to be with us in person) to follow along virtually by checking the "interested" box at the invite on Facebook...there we will be posting installation views, excerpts from the evening's intermittent performance-demonstrations, etc.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Interview with Kristin Norderval for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Photo of Kristin Norderval ©Kaia Means

In 1969 SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked twenty innovative composers the same single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for social or political ends?"  
In 2015, for the Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal, I asked  the same question of twenty composers working today.

I'll be featuring the responses of individual composers here on the blog until May 2016, when the entire series of interviews will be made freely available on the Politics of Sound Art page.

Today is Kristin Norderval's birthday, and last night at Roulette in Brooklyn I was moved by the concert reading of her new opera The Trials of Patricia Isassa based on the life of a woman who had been captured and tortured by the Argentine military junta at the age of 16. Thirty-three years later, Patricia Isassa brought her torturers to justice.


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

How do you define political and social? For me, any live performance is always necessarily a social event – when we sit and watch and listen together, just being together in a common space is already a social and political act. When we operate in isolation, just interacting with our digital devices, we can easily be divided and controlled. But to sit in the same room together – to dance, make sound, read poetry, sing, discuss, dream – these are the things that will be the seeds for change.

Part of what I have looked at as a musician are the places where we are doing music, and who feels comfortable coming into these places? As a singer, I work with words. So then the question becomes what words? Whose voices? What stories? All of that is political. Even if you say you are not responding politically, that too is a political stance. To not articulate something is also an articulation.

My very first professional commission was for a lesbian and gay chorus in San Francisco – three choral pieces with piano based on Emily Dickinson poems to commemorate all of the losses in the AIDS crisis. This past spring I was asked to write a new work for Joan La Barbara’s group Ne(x)tworks. That piece – Re-Play #4: Name Piece – is about drone attacks. There have been a number of US drone attacks on wedding parties. Can you imagine? I used the names of the 47 victims from a wedding party attacked in 2008 in Nangahar, Afghanistan. It was almost all woman and children, only 2 adult men. My most recent album Aural Histories is just voice and electronics – there are no words on it – but those pieces too have political context, the sounds have background stories that bring up things for people.

For me, the events of September 11, 2001 changed a lot of things because of how people started responding in fear. In the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq I was about to do a tour in Norway with a small chamber ensemble. The European media was picking up all the lies being broadcast in the US media about the imminent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the false argument that there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. I, as an American, had an opportunity to present a different picture. I asked my New York colleagues for materials, and performed works by these other composers and myself that were saying we don’t agree with the mainstream media. It was a really important tour for me. I got a lot of comments from people who were thankful to know there was some opposition.

After 9/11, I felt like I had to provide a counterweight to the mainstream propaganda, even though at times I wondered if there was much point in singing to people who might already agree with me…but to not do it felt like going along with things. As artists we have to project some image of what we wish for the world. 


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Interview with Terry Riley for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art


In 1969 SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked twenty innovative composers the same single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for social or political ends?"  

In 2015 I asked  the same question of twenty composers working today for the Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal. Two of those composers – Frederic Rzewski and Terry Riley – also answered the question when it was asked 46 years ago


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

You mean the big politics in the sky? No, I don't think so.  

Well, in a case like IN C, which certainly is social, were the social elements of that piece a conscious part of its creation? 

Yes, I was conscious of the fact that it was very democratic, no one had a lead part, everyone supposedly contributing an equal part. That was one of the main ideas. In that sense, I guess it's social. Everybody should have the same amount to say, if given a vehicle to say it, regardless of their background.  

Is Cage's music all social? 

That's probably pretty much true. The last thing I went to of his was at the Electric Circus, the reunion thing (Duchamp and Cage), and it was very much like a cocktail party without anything to eat or drink, except that people were performing. 


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


How can we as artists live in a world of such grave social injustice, racism, military dominance driven by dollar hungry corporations, climate destruction and war mongering and not be affected? We are supposed to be the sensitive antennae gathering the emotions and subtle undercurrents of all worlds to nurture and inspire our creations. What could we say if we are still alive and compassionate beings  that could not possibly be driven by these forces? We have witnessed in our times some of the worst war crimes imaginable and yet the perpetrators not only walk free but profit enormously. Why should we artists not be in solidarity in any way we can with the underdogs of this world who are forgotten and their voices blocked out by the loud hyperbole and stink of politicians? It is an age of shocking hypocrisy. A president on his way to committing mindboggling war crimes picks up a Nobel Peace Prize??? Now there is a vibratory wing-dinger for you that could inspire an opera! An Israeli Prime Minister who launches massacres against civilians with a brutality that rivals those atrocities inflicted by the Nazis upon the Jews. The list goes on. Yes, I want my music to be for the downtrodden and forgotten, the victims of racism and social injustice, the poor and the sick and if it reaches a few of them and gives comfort or awakens some spiritual longing I would consider that a positive contribution.  The utopian poem I wrote for the Rainbow in Curved Air album 56 years ago still has meaning for me today and the energy that drives a need to bend the world towards a better place stills fuels my creative ideas. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Interview with Anne LeBaron for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Anne LeBaron at Djerassi, 2006 http://www.annelebaron.com

The following is an excerpt from Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art, Return to SOURCE: Contemporary Composers Discuss the Sociopolitical Implications of Their Work. 

In 1969 twenty innovative composers were asked the same single question. I was honored and delighted to have the opportunity to ask it again of twenty composers working today. I'll be featuring many of the their individual responses on the blog in the coming weeks and months.


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


Although my music was never designed to accomplish any specific political ends, and has been variously inspired by objects of fascination, personalities, events, visual art, science, and literary works, it has on occasion elicited controversy. Two specific pieces I’ve composed—one that is obviously political and the other, feminist—led to unanticipated reactions: walkouts by one or more audience members due to their mistaken assumptions, and hate mail directed toward the presenting organizations. The politically-oriented composition, I am an American…My Government Will Reward You, was inspired by a blood chit: a piece of silk cloth carried by military flight crew members, with the American flag in one corner. A blood chit bears the following inscription written in several languages: 

“I am a citizen of the United States of America. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. My government will reward you.”  

Examples of blood chits

I found the message on this blood chit to be chilling, yet I didn’t ‘take sides’ when composing the music for this piece. However, while researching the use of blood chits, I learned that people who attempted to assist downed American military personnel in escaping enemy territory were sometimes tortured or killed, a fact which had a bearing on the composition. 

For electric or amplified harp with live effects such as distortion, and an electronic accompaniment of sirens, a Sacred Harp hymn, raw beating of chopper blades, a crash, a train, and other sounds woven in, I am an American pits the harp against an assault of sonorities associated with combat. Although far from hawkish, my composition evidently struck some listeners at one concert as being too far to the ‘right,’ and they departed in protest. This was a surprise to me, as my personal politics have always leaned to the left. On the CD liner notes, I dedicate I am an American to “the many selfless and compassionate souls on foreign soil, who suffered as a result of helping Americans escape from hostile territory.”

Moving on to the hate mail episode: when commissioned to compose a piece for a new music ensemble and a dance company, I wrote a dance opera inspired by the contentious legend of the only female who served as pope (earning that distinction disguised as a man), known as Papessa Joanna, or, Pope Joan. She gave birth during a papal procession in the year 848 and was stoned to death for her deception. Following the premiere of Pope Joan, an audience member sent a letter to the director of the dance company, full of outrage that a performance depicting a female pope had taken place, and asking to be removed as a subscriber to the concert series.

A number of my compositions address environmental issues, beginning with Concerto for Active Frogs, for humans and a collage of frog and toad vocalizations. The most heartbreaking post-concert comments began about ten years after the premiere (1975), when people would tell me that they used to hear so many more frogs when they were younger, but the sounds had been disappearing. This piece was like a nostalgic experience. I followed that with an opera, Croak (The Last Frog), inspired by the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, which became extinct almost overnight. Some years later, another opera, Wet, focused on flooding caused by the deforestation and rampant and unnecessary bottling of water. My most recent opera, Crescent City, lays bare the consequences of the final looming natural disaster hovering over the city of New Orleans. In the opera, the threat of complete destruction is so powerful that it lures the infamous Vodou Queen, Marie Laveau, from her tomb, in a final doomed effort to save her beloved city. 

Political and social issues will be embedded throughout the opera I’m now writing. LSD: The Opera charts the powerful historical ramifications—cultural, political, and spiritual—set into motion by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide in 1943. 

Before LSD jump-started the counterculture movement, it was appropriated for nefarious uses by government agencies such as the CIA, and was ostracized, demonized, and feared. Practically half a century had to pass before the value of LSD as a therapeutic agent in medical and psychiatric settings began to once again gain traction and respect. The panorama of dramatic events initiated by the appearance of LSD encompasses scientific discoveries, murders, CIA classified experiments, festivities, and extraordinary meetings of minds among iconic figures such as Aldous Huxley, Albert Hofmann, and Timothy Leary. My hope is that performances of the opera, or even excerpts and scenes performed separately, will help to defuse the negativity associated with LSD, and to communicate its valuable therapeutic potential.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Interview with John King for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Composer/Guitarist/Violist John King: http://www.johnkingmusic.com/biography.cfm


In 1969 twenty innovative composers were asked the same single question. I was honored and delighted to have the opportunity to ask it again of twenty composers working today. I'll be featuring many of their individual responses on this blog in the coming weeks and months.

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

JOHN KING (by phone)

Many of my pieces, going back to the 1980s, have been based around political and social issues. One that comes to mind is a set of pieces called Immediate Music for looped and processed electric guitar, violin, and voice. One piece called Move was about a series of events. There was a black activist group in Philadelphia called MOVE, all the members lived in a house together…they’d come out of the Black Panther Movement. They played political messages over loudspeakers, neighbors complained and the cops didn’t like it…the cops surrounded the house, fired into the house, MOVE members returned fire, then the cops dropped 2 bombs, which started a fire, burned the MOVE house plus about 60 other buildings in the neighborhood, firefighters let the blaze go until it was out of control. Eleven people including 5 children died in the fire. And around the same time, there was a New York Times editor named Joseph Lelyveld who came out with a book called Move Your Shadow about South African Apartheid. The title came from something he overheard a golfer say to his black caddy while taking a putting shot. Then there were a bunch of racial killings in New York both by police and by racist citizens in different neighborhoods. At the end of the piece, I listed all of the people who had been killed: Willie Turks, Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith. Because of recent events, I’ve been thinking…how long would that list be now? The piece premiered at the first Bang On A Can Marathon in 1987. At the end of the concert, someone came up to me and thanked me for remembering these people, for keeping them from disappearing from our consciousness.

Another piece called Corn was about an incident that happened during the farm crisis in Minnesota, which is where I’m from. Farms were being repossessed by banks…the farm community was being devastated…everything was on the auction block. One farmer and his son pretended to be buyers…they asked a banker to come out to their farm, where they shot him. They went on the lam. The father committed suicide and the son was arrested and charged with being an accomplice. The piece was like a country fiddle tune, like a hoedown. The chorus was “swing your partner, swing your banker, shoot your banker, shoot yourself” all done with a do-si-do kind of a groove. 

Even before this, I was very much into Bertolt Brecht. I chose a radio play of his called The Trial of Lucullus. It’s an anti-war play. Lucullus was a Roman general who was known both for his cooking as well as for his rather brutal campaigns. I turned it into a solo piece using projected slides of Oliver North, General Secord, George Shultz, and Ronald Reagan with their eyes kind of blacked out like a porno film might have. Interwoven with my own music, I projected as much of the original text as I could. The hour-long piece went back and forth between Roman historical times and modern times in Central America…El Salvador, Nicaragua…

When these pieces came out, I got more critical response from the left, claiming that my work was too elitist, that I should have been playing music like Woody Guthrie. I was making avant-garde, experimental music because I felt like the politics were avant-garde…of this time. 

I think art and music can make people realize that some things haven’t gone away, that someone is still talking about it now. Under certain circumstances I believe it can have a great deal of immediate impact. On some level, I believe it’s about just making people aware, and bringing issues to their attention…and then they can decide whether they want to act, or to look into things a little bit more. People might hear a piece of mine, and next time something crosses their field of media vision, they might look at it a little more carefully. James Joyce said he wrote Finnegan’s Wake to encourage people to think…he did it with incredibly dense language, referencing the names of every single river in the world, completely wild writing…it encourages people to think, and to move into the future. We can use this same kind of mindset to move forward culturally, musically and politically as well.

I also recently finished a series of string quartets titled Free Palestine. The music uses the Arabic pitch and rhythmic modes as its starting materials. It also asks the players to combine their material in different, non-traditional, improvised, chance-determined ways – exercising “freedom” in their interpretations. It caused (the “title” caused) some controversy at its premiere, some people boycotting the concert, the title needing explanation, etc….so it goes, though I see no need for explanation – all one need do is SPEAK the title and it somehow feels right, to me anyway.

I’m working on a piece right now that is designed around a large ensemble and the idea of the conductor, the person who usually controls that large ensemble. In this piece, I make sure that the musicians are given the opportunity to follow or not follow, sometimes based on chance operations and sometimes because of the way the music is laid out. I would like to see the conductor making a big gesture for a downbeat, and no one following that “order”. That, I think, is a kind of political statement, too – we don’t have to look to one person and think that that is the one person we need to follow. Maybe look to the people around you…make your own alliances. Time and sound can be organized around different kinds of egalitarian processes – putting them into practice. To me these kinds of endeavors can be really interesting, both socially for the people involved in making the music, as well as for the listeners – they get to experience new possibilities, new imaginations, new viewpoints.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Return to SOURCE: Contemporary Composers Discuss the Sociopolitical Implications of Their Work

46 years ago, the editors of Source: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked 20 composers to respond to a single question: "Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?" It was my great honor and pleasure to invite 20 composers I respect and admire to respond to the same question for the 2015 Leonardo Music Journal Politics of Sound Art issue. 

Currently one must be an LMJ subscriber to access to the piece. On May 1, 2016 – after the 6-month exclusive publication agreement with Leonardo/ISAST elapses – I will add the responses to the publicaly-accessible archive page where the original SOURCE #6 article can currently be found in its entirety. In the coming days and weeks, I will be highlighting each artist's response as an excerpt on this blog, one by one (to receive notification when new posts are added, please engage the "follow by email" feature found at the bottom of this page).

I really can't begin to describe what a thrill it was to facilitate a collaboration between these 20 brilliant artists...it was like hosting a giant jam session, with each person contributing an individual track. While waiting nearly a year for the article to be published, it felt very strange to be the only one who could hear what the tracks sounded like all together. I am so pleased to be able to share it now...

Many thanks to Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Annea Lockwood, Kristin Norderval, Rinde Eckert, Billy Martin, Jon Hassell, Anne LeBaron, Elliot Sharp, Brenda Hutchinson, Stuart Dempster, John King, Rhys Chatham, Pamela Z, Ben Neill, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Ben Barson, Christian Wolff, and Laurie Spiegel for their generous contributions to this collaboration.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

DIY GIFT IDEA: Homeopathic Remedy for Violence

Shortly after 9/11/2001, I found a bullet on the street in New York City, which caused me to wonder if it could be used to create a homeopathic remedy for violence. Before long, I had created a set of 5 homeopathic remedies: VIOLENCE, ALIENATION, GREED, CONSUMERISM, and DETACHMENT. More HERE on that project.

Unfortunately, the remedies seem to be needed now more than ever. While I believe the five remedies work synergistically together, just in time for the holiday gift-giving season I am offering up instructions on how to make your own remedy for VIOLENCE, which is a 6x10 to the -12 power dilution (according to homeopathy, the more dilute a solution, the higher potency).

1. Acquire a bullet.

2. Measure out a quantity of distilled water in a glass receptacle.  In the photo above, I have used a 50 ml graduated cylinder. 

3. Prepare a fresh receptacle containing the same quantity of distilled water.
4. Pipette one single drop of water from the receptacle containing the bullet into the container of fresh water. 

5. Repeat this process five more times, for a total of six dilutions. 

6. Pour into a labeled glass bottle. Shake well.

If you would prefer to purchase a ready-made quantity of this solution, please visit the Philosoprop Shop (December 2015 Special: Buy One Bottle VIOLENCE, Get One Bottle FEAR free!).

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Autumn News

Installation view of Texas Design Now at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2015. Photo by Paul Hester.
  • My article The Art of Ontological Revolution using the philosoprops in a discussion of feminist-physicist-philosopher Karen Barad's notions of multispecies intra-activity is included in the Summer 2015 issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.
  • 4. UPCOMING: I'm very excited about an article that's set to come out in the Nov/Dec 2015 "Politics & Sound Art" issue of Leonardo Music Journal. This piece is modeled after one that appeared in the famed SOURCE: MUSIC OF THE AVANT GARDE magazine in 1969 – twenty composers were asked a single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your work for political or social ends?"  I look forward to being back in touch with an update the moment LMJ #25 is available!
  • For anyone interested in having a look: SONICFABRIC.COM has recently received a total re-design.