Richard Teitelbaum on the Threshold June 2, 1975

Richard Teitelbaum began his May 20 concert at 224 Center Street without making any sound at all. He took his place at his souped-up Moog synthesizer, started a tape recorder, and turned a few dials, but nothing happened. For a while I thought he was having trouble with his equipment, but then I happened to notice a faint humming and gradually realized that this almost inaudible sound must be Teitelbaum’s music. I began listening harder, straining to hear other musical elements. In the process, of course, I began to hear a lot of other sounds I hadn’t noticed before. A couple of floors above, some machines were running, stopping and starting at odd intervals. Somewhere a long ways away a trumpet player was practicing. Occasionally a passing truck became a major sound event. Teitelbaum kept me interested by playing other very soft sounds, most of which blended perfectly with the natural sounds. Working with a keyboard attachment, so that he could control the electronic sounds by touch, he would ease in a soft hum, somewhat like the distant machines, or send out a curious gurgle that could almost have come from a water line. Occasionally he would introduce a louder element, which would dominate the environment for a moment, but much of the time it was hard to distinguish Teitelbaum’s sounds from incidental sounds. Not that any sound can be truly incidental in a situation like this. In the atmosphere that Teitelbaum set up, even the passing trucks sounded surprisingly musical.

This piece is called ‘Threshold’ because it takes place at the threshold of hearing. But it is not really a piece in the usual sense. Because of the way it works, the composer has to modify the sounds quite a bit depending on the situation, so there is no set procedure. Sometimes he uses percussion instruments. Sometimes he miscalculates his choice of sounds a bit, as he did at his concert at the Kitchen earlier this season, and the music doesn’t draw people in the way it is supposed to. Sometimes it works exquisitely, as on this occasion, hushing the audience into a mood where one could, and definitely would, hear a pin drop.

Of course, it’s difficult to concentrate on extremely soft sounds for a long time, and Teitelbaum did not force the point. After 15 or 20 minutes of this intense threshold music, he allowed his music to break across the threshold into sustained sonorities with rich colors. Eventually several brass players joined in, blending gently with the electronic sounds, until finally the music retreated back into the environmental sounds from which it had emerged. After intermission, the procedure was similar, except that he made fairly extensive use of prerecorded calls of wolves. These were imitated by several performers, the major one being Teitelbaum himself, who is one of the best synthesizer players around.

Teitelbaum can go for a whole evening like this without ever resorting to the simpler and more cliched electronic sounds. And I have heard him hold his own in improvisation sessions alongside players as creative and flexible as Anthony Braxton. He also uses his synthesizer in other ways, one of his favorite procedures being to control it with someone’s alpha waves.

I have never heard anything which draws the listener into the sounds of silence quite the way Teitelbaum’s ‘Threshold’ does, but the basic attitude here is very much a part of mainstream avant-garde music. Cage was the first and most important composer to become interested in incidental sounds as music, and Teitelbaum readily admits this influence. But Teitelbaum’s goals also coincide with a more recent and more widespread concern for semi-religious meditative forms of music in general.

Ear-straining of the sort required by ‘Threshold’ is basically a meditative experience, which is not all that different from a listening problem which a Zen master might assign to a student, and quite similar to the meditative goals of other composers. Philip Corner might do it by asking us to tap on a bell for a long time. Annea Lockwood might just play a recording of a rushing stream. La Monte Young might do it by focusing our attention on proportional overtone vibrations. Stockhausen might do it by asking us to tune in on some telepathic communication going on between performers. Dozens of composers try to draw us into meditative states of mind with hypnotic, repetitious rhythmic patterns. In a way, they are all out to save our souls. But then, that’s more or less what Bach’s music was about too.