John Driscoll /
JD: Could you talk about your involvement in electronic music since there’s such a huge resurgence of interest in analog music instruments right now and homemade analog/digital instruments by a younger generation. You’re one of the pioneers from those early days as a composer musician, electronic design, writer, and inventor/explorer. I thought it would be helpful go back and find out how you originally developed your electronics skills.
GM: Some people get to doing painting or things like that, but it was electronics for me - I had been sort of without electronics when I was very young because the second World War was on, and there were no batteries you could get, so I couldn't make paper clip motors. I was already a performing musician. I’d been a singer as a boy soprano. The thing of performing with others was the big pleasure of my life, and when I took up instrumental music I was offered two instruments: cello and horn, and I took the horn because it was the most convenient to carry.
You had to take care of it. You had to empty the spit out of it, and had to fix the broken spring valves. So that whole thing of tinkering with what you made sound with came out of the natural acoustical world. For me by the time of the late forties into the early fifties, we had a lot to war surplus equipment. You could call it working out of the junkyard, when in fact it was working with the material that was around. Since I was a sound maker from very early on in my life, I just followed my instinct. There was kind of a heroic aspect of a rebellion, if you will, of trying something new inventing things.
JD: So how did that evolve into your electronic skills?
GM: Well we had evolving electronic technology from the late 1940’s into the early fifties, rapidly evolving technology, and transistor technology. Solid-state technology was growing very rapidly, and it was much more practical than the vacuum tube technology. I was building stuff with vacuum tubes too. We were using huge vacuum tube amplifiers that I had built myself from kits with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company all the way till end of the late 1960’s. You used what you had, but the real inventions had to deal with more practical smaller solid-state things that you could run on batteries. We had a lot of post second World War kit outfits like Heathkit and companies like them. We were prohibited from making Air raid sirens and things like that. There was an abundance of things to play with. In my case, because I was a performer and always experimenting with things you just went on.
The technology was evolving and that made it very interesting. It was a rapidly developing technology area and the crossings were remarkable. For example, in about 1947 or 1948 Bell Labs introduced this transistor and they had a big publicity thing in New York City, up on the top floor of the AT&T building or whatever it was called then. It was a big deal and they made a whole lot out of it. Interestingly that introduction was in a space that twenty years later became the Merce Cunningham dance studio.
Then it got easier to work with designing our own equipment. Going to the library and getting a book about electronics was very commonplace. It was also easier because companies made toys, like Heathkit, for amateur radio people. We would get those and had fun building them, and then modifying them. My father got himself a repeat record player. I took it apart and I got the thing to play backwards and to vary the speed. It was just a matter of an ongoing experimentation and the performance aspect finally came together, in my case by early 1950’s when I was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was there because I was working with the theater department. I had already dropped out of the university and I was too busy learning stuff like that to take those damn courses. The little house I lived in was right under the wonderful Caroline bell tower. All around was this energy of sound stuff that was an early inspiration for me. The theater department invited me to compose incidental music. They needed an overture for a play. Sometimes I played it on the piano and sometimes they had a little brass ensemble and we just cranked it out. But very soon, of course, I was working with the early tape recorders. Whether you blow it or bow it, or bang it, or run it through an electronic thing, it was all making sound for music.
Since I was so broadly trained classically, and since I had some jazz background, there were no edges as far as I was concerned, stylistically or anything like that. The nourishment came from the diversity of my colleagues. I thought that was the best part of my life. I was still a singer in madrigal groups. The point was that it was the involvement with exploring, both alone and particularly with others, what we could do musically. There was an interactive aspect. That’s what you folks with your Composers Inside Electronics have always been into, this sharing of interactive nourishments.
JD: One thing that was unique from the period that you contributed to was the idea of home-built electronics. You inspired a whole number of us and even had an influence on David Tudor as well.
GM: Well yeah. But look, it was cross influences here. Nobody was following anybody else really. One of the reasons I got into the Cunningham Dance Company was Tudor. I built stuff for Tudor and after a while they got so entangled - Tudor and Cage with all that wiring and junk that they needed help.
Tudor had done a lot of innovative stuff on his own, but so did Cage. I mean “Cartridge Music” is a perfectly good example. They were not the first people to use those things, but it was significant because what Cage and, eventually, Tudor did with electronics was done with theater performances. It wasn't tinkering in the back garage. They were out there performing. I keep bringing that word back, and performing with other aspects of the arts, visual arts and dance so that we all learn from each other in a lot of ways. We were nourished by each other is actually a better way to put it. We largely learned independently but we were nourished by each other, which is an ensemble experience. It’s as simple as that.
JD: Lately I'd begun to see how large an influence Merce Cunningham had on some aspects of contemporary music. Could you address that?
GM: The significance of working with Merce is similar to what happened in the early twentieth century up until 1929 or 1930 in working with Diaghilev. It was a theater performance situation with visual arts and all the rest of it. All those composers that nobody really heard much about that Diaghilev went and got to make music for this theater thing, for those extended performances. So Merce was, in a way, the second major figure in the dance theater world to nourish a huge amount of musical innovation. It’s as simple as that. We're got to give those two guys credit, and it went on for more than half a century. This is enormous! There aren't any other performance groups quite like that. He outdid Diaghilev in that way. It was just as controversial as ever for some of it worked well and some of it didn't. Great classics were made and real junk was dropped after a two or three performances. It was a huge garden of interactive innovation.
JD: With your work “Hornpipe” you created a system concept with analog computing where you're taking your input signals and simultaneously converting them into logical control signals. I’d be curious to hear how that evolved.
GM: I'd been a crazy horn player doing all kinds of stuff without any electronics for years, with multi-phonics performance laying on the horn using double reeds for input, that sort of stuff. That’s a matter of exploring the acoustical world of acoustical instruments. “Hornpipe” was continuing in that same direction exploring the acoustical characteristics and making them quite complicated by having them transform each other. I mean, I happened to go through electronic processing of filters and comb filters and stuff like that special transfer, but the sources themselves were acoustical. And that seemed to be a perfectly natural thing to do.
With “Hornpipe” no electronic sounds were input. It was all acoustical inputs that were then modified electronically because acoustical sounds are more interesting anyway than most electronic sounds. It was a matter of, conceptually speaking, feedback of acoustical sounds with themselves. Now that goes way beyond mixing because those acoustical inputs were processed electronically, but they made use of the complexity of the original acoustical sources
Some of which I had to get simplified by using filter devices to do that within the processing. The choices of the process of acoustical modification came from the resonances of the spaces in which the performance was happening. That was what made “Hornpipe” quite unique at the time.