Can Electronic Music Be Humanized?
FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly a great deal of your aesthetic inclinations even in works which do not involve electronics, stem from your early work with electronic sound, particularly your focus on timbre.
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY: The electronic years I spent in Columbia were a seminal moment, as far as the way I understood music or heard music. That was really a major change. Electronic music was kind of outside of music itself. I’m talking the electronic years of ’60 to ’65. But I really didn’t study electronic music with anybody. I came to the States because in Buenos Aires I heard the early work of Luciano Berio, Maderna, Stockhausen, and some of the work of the concrète composers of Radio France. I was very interested. When I came to Tanglewood in ’58, I talked to Copland about that. I really would like to investigate that field. So he said “Right there is the man.” In the faculty dining room was Milton Babbitt. So I went to talk to Babbitt, and he said, “Well, we are in the process of establishing a studio.” It was a wonderful coincidence. I made a contact before the first studio came. I came already knowing mostly European electronic music, and I did very modest work in recording studios. I used to sometimes do some short film music.
When I came, Milton Babbitt was working with the RCA synthesizer, which was a very advanced degree of the technology. There was a Turkish composer that came a year before I did. His name was Bülent Arel—fantastic technician, very gifted man. And Ussachevsky said, “You are going to assist Bülent.” And that’s the way I’m going to learn: basically starting from nowhere, working with Bülent, not really even understanding the equipment. I knew that if you plugged this into that, you get that kind of sound. I did not know what the hell was going on, technically. I would see how he would go around the studio to make a certain sound. And then I would write down, “Go from here to here, from here to here, from here to here.” Then I would come up myself and try to experiment. It was almost an old fashioned apprenticeship. There was no curriculum.
FJO: So what led to your combining this pre-recorded electronic sound with music played in real time by live performers?
MD: There were many reasons why I wrote the Synchronisms. In ’61, Columbia produced a huge first concert of electronic music in the old McMillan Theater [now Miller Theatre]. It was a rather big event in New York. There were a lot of lines. The event was repeated again. McMillan was conditioned with a playback system that had something like nineteen or twenty speakers in the roof, in the sides, on the stage, in the back, all over the place. There were twelve discrete stereo lines; you had twelve different voices going. It was actually a remarkable system using the state-of-the-art technology.
I was incredibly enthusiastic. I was slowly decoding what I was getting into and, in the process, starting to understand where one could go with the limits of electronic music. I think before that I didn’t have a clue really what it meant to have this technology. But one thing immediately occurred to me in being so politically engaged to make that kind of music move on: this stage would be filled up with ugly black boxes playing sounds and people would be sitting like in a theatre looking at a stage where nothing happened. I thought that was a real point of friction. There was no specially designed auditorium for electronic music.
So I thought it would be a good thing to come up with an idea where there would be a human being playing an instrument because the audience would relate to a violin, or a flute, or a clarinet, or whatever, or a contrabass, and somehow through that kind of avenue, the performer, playing, performing music, some of the electronic sounds would become more part of the culture, more acceptable. They would be probably connected in a much more conventional way because there was an instrumentalist playing a piece of music. So I thought both visual-presentation-wise and didactically to have a transition instrument in between you and the electronic sound would be a good thing to do. It’s also very natural that when you learn something new, or something that is very new to you, you try to integrate the new things that you are learning into the total memory. In that case it would be the mainstream of music.
Of course, doing those pieces turned out to be one of the most important things for me as a composer. The work in the field moved me to a space that really was fascinating and new to me, and it changed completely the way I heard and think about music. Up to today what I do is very influenced by the work I did in the studio. To a certain extent, it very much defines a great part of the music I write.
FJO: When you created these pieces, what came first: the tape part or the solo instrument part?
MD: I did basically what I do when I write any kind of music. I indulge a long time thinking about the combination, whether it is a string quartet or a heterogeneous group, or a combination with electronics, before I think about anything, melodies or tunes, or anything. Before the Synchronisms, I wrote one piece for string orchestra and tape. Then I wrote my flute piece. Harvey Sollberger was in Columbia teaching, and he was an incredibly great flutist. And so I had the instrument and I also felt that flute, from all the instruments, would be an easy instrument to ensemble with electronic sounds. It’s not a very complicated sound compared, let’s say, with human voice or with a cello. And it has enormous agility. I was thinking such a procedure in the flute would combine to such a procedure in the studio very well. I was to a certain extent constraining my imagination by those things. So when I start to think about tunes or singing or dancing, those constraints already were manipulating my choices. I was very satisfied to have the instruments I was writing for being a real part of the composition. The spectrum of the instrument was part of the pre-compositional thinking. As I got down to writing the piece, it had a tremendous bearing on what I was going to write.
FJO: You mentioned how in the first arrangements you did, you’d bow the violin and the rest of the people would play pizzicato. That music was almost a pre-conscious “Synchronism” between the melody and the other sounds going on.
MD: That was purely a childhood egotism that I am going to play the lyric tune and all the others will kind of be accompanying. The violin was the media where I could feel or play music. I was very involved with myself.
FJO: But you set up a similar kind of dialogue which you subsequently explored in the Synchronisms, and more recently in a series of acoustic pieces—the Quartetti—where you pit a wind instrument against a string trio. In all these works, you’re dealing with two different realms and putting them together.
MD: The rhetorical situation between two opposing things is inherent to music. It’s almost having the two themes, or you have the tonic and the dominant. Having two extremes to create tension, love or hate, or on/off, is a natural way of creating narrative. So in a way, I don’t much relate it to the violin or the pizzicato, I relate it just to the fact that the ambiguity and the rhetorical opposition of two elements is almost placid in music.
FJO: In your comments about the Quartetti pieces, you’ve talked about how these pieces translate the ideas of what went on in the Synchronisms. The string trio functions the way the electronic sound functions.
MD: What happened is that I wrote one piece and then another piece and another piece, and then I realized as I was writing them, somehow they had a connection with a very skeletal situation that I understood. Basically, the trio is a homogenous element. And, in a way, the strings were the repositories of the function of the tape. Not really 100 percent, but in a way. I was following that very simple idea of having two things clash against each other. It is a very basic and simple principle.
I said before that I was always trying to mainstream electronic things. When I went to work in the studio, I was in a space where there were no players. There were no instruments. And then I started to look at certain types of sound that I have available. I discovered that sound can behave in ways I never imagined before. In the past, the space was limited by or framed by performers. And here I was almost free of performers, free of muscular, physiological laws, and perception was the limit. So I discovered these beautiful ways of articulating or using dynamics or using inflection that I was able to do in the tape. And as I like those things very much, I tried to derive it here, to bring them back into orchestral or chamber music. Many things, because of the speed with which electronics can move, were not possible to be done by one instrumentalist because one instrument wouldn’t have the natural resources to do that so fast or so drastically. So I would have two instrumentalists or three instrumentalists making one sound, essentially.
FJO: You refer to the string trio as homogeneous. Electronic sound is anything but.
MD: Right, it’s not homogeneous, but it’s homogeneous in the sense that electronic sound is electronic sound, whatever it means. The trio’s a trio. In that sense, they were kind of a family. But I wouldn’t take that point too far, because what happened is that I made the association because the trio plus one instrument is so agile. And it’s almost as agile as a fast deer, in a way. It can respond very fast because of the nature of the instruments. So in that sense, it also facilitates the translation of the way sounds move in the electronic space. But then those things become part of the instrumental tradition. There are ways of building timbres in chamber or orchestral music. An awful lot came from electronic music and became now part of the repertoire of performers.
FJO: Considering how important electronic music has been in your output, I’ve always been perplexed that you took a hiatus from working with electronics for over a decade soon after you starting achieving your greatest acclaim for it. You had even won the Pulitzer for one of the Synchronisms. Why did you stop?
MD: I worked full time in electronic music and nothing else for five or six years, until the late 1960s. [After] four or five years, I really had an understanding of what it was. I understood that that was a fantastic way of diversifying, but that it was not the Messiah. In the beginning I thought, well, that’s it. And then I started to really understand more of what the space of electronic music was. And as technology was developing, I somehow became less interested. It’s funny because I enjoyed greatly the challenge of not having any technology and living on my wits. I always use the image of somebody giving you a knife and a can of water and dropping you in the desert and saying, “Pick you up next week; good luck.” I like that challenge where you work in a situation where there is very little history or very little tradition. Electronic music in the beginning was pushed by composers.
Once the technology was developed by Robert Moog and others making early synthesizers, it started to be pushed by profit-oriented organizations. It became something that money could be made from. The synthesizer got into the rock scene. And as technology became as fantastically good as today it is, somehow technology almost took over the operation. Somehow a lot of the people in the field were fascinated by developing software, which in a way is almost like a form of composition, but not quite.
What I was really interested in is what electronic music taught me about music, not what electronic music taught me about electronic music. The impact of the experience was much wider than just in the studio. So I almost got a little bored. Before I went into electronic music, I was really a composer with lots of orchestral and chamber music, and I wanted to go back to it and apply everything I learned in those five or six years. Forty years later, I’m still finding innumerable ideas that stem from what I learned in the studio.