The Sonic Arts Union: Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma June 7, 1973

The Sonic Arts Union performed more or less continuously in WBAI’s Studio C for three days, May 25 through 27. I have attended Free Music Store concerts there many times, but have seldom heard one on the radio, so I decided to listen to some of their performances on my FM tuner. This turned out to be a very poor vantage point. David Behrman’s ‘Home Made Synthesizer Music with Sliding Pitches’ and Gordon Mumma’s ‘Cybersonic Cantilevers’ sounded all right, but I was never able to really involve myself the way I do when I am on the scene, watching them manipulate their equipment. And Alvin Lucier’s ‘Vifarb Hyperb,’ which apparently has something to do with moving loudspeakers around the room, did not make any sense at all on radio. This was frustrating, of course, but at the same time it was deeply encouraging, because it demonstrated that the concert hall is still alive and well and necessary. Even in purely electronic pieces, radios and phonographs are hopelessly inadequate as substitutes for a well-organized concert presentation.

However, a wonderful crazy tape piece called ‘In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women’ came across fairly well on the Saturday night broadcast. This is Robert Ashley’s setting of a poem written in 1944 by John Barton Wolgamot, and it is quite unlike anything else, chiefly because of its unique text.

Wolgamot is a minor poet, if there ever was one, though he seems to be famous among many artists who were around the University of Michigan in the early ’60s. The 128 verses of this poem are largely a long list of ‘really grand men and women,’ including all the names eulogized in our history books and a number of unfamiliar ones. Throughout the reading, a great variety of electronic sounds go on busily in the background.

Apparently Ashley spliced out all the breathing points, because the reader’s voice goes on and on without ever coming up for air. The text is delivered in a rhythmic monotone, and I became restless after 20 or 30 minutes, but I also became more and more fascinated with the absurdity of listing all those names, just for the sake of listing them. Perhaps I would not have been so restless if I had just turned my attention to the consistently interesting electronic sounds accompanying the reader, but for some reason I seldom did. It is a hard piece to come to grips with, even on a basic perceptual level. But that’s partly what makes it so wonderfully crazy.

Early the following afternoon I visited the studio to see how the Sonic Arts Union would be set up during normal visiting hours. I found a casual gallery atmosphere, with people dribbling in for varying lengths of time. Some 16-mm films were running, but I was more interested in the ‘Cybersonic Cantilevers’ which Gordon Mumma was pumping into the room. This is not really a piece, but rather a process, involving a special set of equipment which will run on any sort of sound you want to feed it. No matter what sort of input you use, the sounds go through the same circuitry, where they become distorted in particular ways, and come out as ‘Cybersonic Cantilevers.’ While I was there, Mumma was working mostly with a large pile of cassette tapes. Every once in a while he would grab randomly at the pile and find something fresh to plug into the system. He explained that some of the time he had been making ‘Cybersonic Cantilevers’ out of WBAI’s broadcast signal, and that he sometimes set up microphones, so that interested passers-by could feed their own voices into the system.

Mumma also had a couple of little do-it-yourself units. An individual visitor could put on a pair of headphones and manipulate a few simple controls, directing several varieties of distortion into either ear. It is a neat gadget, guaranteed to keep you interested for quite a while.

It is difficult to say what these ‘Cybersonic Cantilevers’ sound like, since much depends on the nature of the input, but they are usually raucous and tend to flit nervously from one kind of squawky sound to another. It is fairly easy to tell if the machine is feeding on verbal, musical or electronic material, but the specific identity of the input is never very clear. One of the fascinations is trying to puzzle this out.

Mumma’s goal is not to create lovely effects, or to convey human emotions, or to create good music in any traditional sense. It has to do with machines: communicating with them, playing games with them, trying to accept them, and simply letting them do their thing. His machines are telling us something. And when we tune in on their level, the music seems fascinating and important—even to people like me, who never soldered a single wire and have trouble remembering the difference between a watt and an amp.