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

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:


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 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.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Introduction to Rhythmanalysis: Psychogeography and the Phenomenology of Acoustic Atmosphere

My article on how sound shapes the experience of living is now out in the July 2015 issue of Chilean sound art magazine AURAL: Geograffias Audibles, a publication of Tsonami.

The piece is available in English with (with added illustrative audio media!) here:

“Everywhere there is interaction between a place, a time, and an expenditure of energy there is rhythm”. [The rhythmanalyst] is capable of listening to a house, a street, a town as one listens to a symphony…” – Henri Lefebvre

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Art of Ontonlogical Revolution

My article "The Art of Ontological Revolution" is included in the Karen Barad-inspired Summer 2015 multispecies intra-action issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.

Here's the abstract: 

Karen Barad’s concept of intraconnectedness brings to light paradoxes inherent in many commonly held views, not only with regard to science and the scientific method, but also involving common everyday perceptions. By identifying ourselves as simultaneously independent and interdependent, as both observer and observed, and of nature yet separate from it, a cognitive (quantum?) leap occurs: we begin to accept these perceived dualities as merely different sides of a single, shared coin. Suddenly all of us are participatory agents in a phenomenon that responds to our existence, because it IS our existence...all of our existences, all at once. How would our experience of reality be different if existence were commonly imagined to be a collective affair?
The entire issue is freely available at
My paper can also be found at

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Rubens' Tube demonstration for the opening of VISIBLE SOUND at CENTRAL FEATURES from alyce santoro on Vimeo.

The wonderful VISIBLE SOUND exhibition at Central Features in Albuquerque runs until June 6. In addition to a video of the Rubens' Tube in action, two Sonic Fabric Scroll Scores and the Mode Charts are currently on display.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

how flounder metamorphosis metamorphosed me

Flounder Metamorphosis, India ink on scratchboard. Alyce Santoro, 1993

I am now an interdisciplinary conceptual artist (for lack of a better descriptor...), but I began my career as a marine biologist. After receiving a BS degree in Biology in 1990, I moved to Providence, RI to enroll in Rhode Island School of Design's graduate certificate program in Scientific and Technical Illustration. While attending classes at night, I worked by day as a laboratory assistant at URI, first on salmon aquaculture research, then on a multi-year study of microzooplankton for the seagoing GLOBEC project.

In honor of the March 1 - 7, 2015 #SciArt twitter storm, I offer the following excerpt from my book PHILOSOPROPS: A UNIFIED FIELD GUIDE on how a fish was the catalyst for my own metamorphosis from scientist to artist:
One early drawing in particular made it clear that I was indeed headed into territory not charted by formal education in either science or illustration. I was investigating the life cycle of flounder, which, when they are born, seem to have all the skeletal and other characteristics of an ordinary, bilaterally symmetrical fish. I learned that over the course of their first two weeks of life, however, flounder begin listing to one side, swimming increasingly sideways, with their eyes slowly migrating over to what is to become the top of their head. By the time a flounder is about a month old, it is a fully-formed (if a bit skewed-looking) flatfish, with both eyes on the same side of a camouflage-colored body, white-bellied underneath.

I found this metamorphosis completely astounding, and wanted to know how a fish that begins its life in a "regular" body would know that the time had come to begin transforming into an entirely different shape. The scientists studying flounder at URI could tell me that the process is likely triggered by hormones but that, as yet, there had been nothing discovered about the physical or chemical composition of a newborn flounder to indicate the impending change. 

In the process of studying and drawing flounder, I gained a deeper appreciation for the strange beauty and mysterious habits of these creatures. In examining their every scale, their odd gaze, and the velvety, slimy feel of their skin, I developed a sense of respect and empathy for these fellow life forms that I did not see outwardly expressed by my fellow scientists; any feelings we may have had about the fish were not relevant to the research. But the sensation of awe and wonder was part of the science that I craved and felt most compelled to pursue. If I had known then about Goethe's idea of delicate empiricism, I might have felt less like a misfit. 

More information on this illustrated book about life and work at the intersection of art and science, including long excerpts and a link to download the entire text for free, please visit my website.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

re:purposed at the ringling museum

I am extremely pleased to have work included in the Re:Purposed exhibition opening this Friday night, February 13, 2015, at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. In addition to several of the sonic fabric dresses, I've made a new work especially for this show. Introducing the Scroll-Scores, made of sonic fabric and patches of cassette tape:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

graphic mode chart

I have created this visual aid for practicing/understanding the modal system used in Western music. For more information and examples with color added to highlight tonal relationships, please visit

Friday, January 02, 2015

2014 was an intense...i might even go so far as to say outrageous...year for advocates of the obvious. i've whipped up this heartfelt rant in lieu of a standard end-of-year missive. here's to a more (post-)humane 2015:The Post-Anthropo-Scene: Reclaim the Humane, Addendum to the Manifesto for the Obvious International