Perfect Sound Forever

David Behrman

David and a role model?
photo: Terri Hanlon

Inteview by Jason Gross (August 1997)

Even though 'minimalist' composers/musicians such as Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and Steve Reich are pretty well-known outside of their own musical style, David Behrman has not been as heralded. This is CRIMINALLY WRONG. John Rockwell detailed his work in his great book ALL-AMERICAN MUSIC but otherwise Behrman has not seen a fraction of the print that he deserves. It's a waste to speculate why but there are more compelling reasons to consider why he should be well-known: producer of Terry Riley's In C, creator of electronic keyboards well before the Moog, composer of interactive systems with machines and performers and their environment (involving the audience themselves in performances) and on and on. This isn't even mentioning how lovely and stirring his pieces are.

PSF: Could you talk about your initial interests in music before you began any studies?

Probably because there were musicians and theater people in my family, I think I assumed as a small child that everyone in the world spent a lot of time doing music and engaging in the other performing arts. Children take their circumstances for granted. So naturally I wanted to do those kinds of things myself also.

There was always a big black object in the living room which it was a lot of fun to make sounds on. It was called a piano. (When I was young I took pianos for granted, not realizing how precious and historically endangered they would become.)

PSF: Your studies at Harvard and Columbia- how did they shape your ideas about music?

When I look back on those years I think I learned more about music and being an artist from sources having less to do with colleges and more with the outside world.

One person from whom I learned a lot, about music and also about feisty independence, was the composer Wallingford Riegger. One year in New York, when I was 17, I went twice a week to his little apartment to take composition lessons. Riegger had taught Morton Feldman and Bob Ashley and had been a friend of Henry Cowell and Edgard Varese. He was a courageous dissenter; because of his political views his music was blackballed during the McCarthy era. He used to alternate counterpoint lessons with lessons in radical politics. It was from him that I learned about some of the independent voices in American music - about Ives and Cowell, Varese and Cage. And I'm still a fan of Riegger's; his music had a wonderful sense of sonority and rhythmic vitality.

Two friends that I was fortunate to meet early on, Frederic Rzewski and Christian Wolff, had a lot to do with what was on my mind in those days. Christian was a graduate student at Harvard when I met him. He and Frederic knew a great deal about new developments in European and American music. Frederic was always the first person in the area to order the latest scores by Stockhausen and Boulez. He got them way before the Harvard Music Library did.

One day Christian suggested to Frederic and me - we were members of the student music club - that we invite David Tudor to give a concert at Harvard. The music club had only a small fee to offer him, but not only did Tudor accept, but he brought his friends John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown with him. Tudor played new European and American music brilliantly that night; it was a moment that considerably expanded the mental horizons of many of the students who were present.

PSF: You were creating own synthesizers and tinkering before Moog make synthesizers. How did this start? What are your thoughts on commercial synthesizers- are they inadequate?

Twice over the decades I've had the feeling that a great door had just swung open for the first time, inviting artists in to a new way of exploring music possibilities. The first time was in the early Sixties, at the moment when transistors first became available. From David Tudor and Gordon Mumma I learned how to build little battery-powered devices that could radically alter or hugely amplify acoustic sounds. Gordon Mumma's enthusiasm was catching; he wrote me a series of letters in 1964 that were like a basic course in electronic music before there were any books on the subject. The first letter had a circuit for a ring modulator, which I eagerly built. Before that I'd had the experience of composing scores and copying out parts and asking other musicians to play them; one was always in the situation of asking favors and that didn't usually feel very good. Better was the self-reliant feeling of performing oneself, and of using homemade instruments to create sounds that no human ears had ever before experienced!

PSF: 'Runthrough' was your first piece- electronics activated by lights, like latest pieces. Is this something that's been an ongoing fascination?

The connection between light and sound is and was a natural one in the new environment of inexpensive electronics. The 1960s pieces like 'Runthrough' used a simple circuit for light-activated sound distribution.

We used to stir sounds around multi-channel surround sound systems by waving little flashlights over the photocell mixers in darkened halls.

A couple of years ago I thought it would be interesting to make a sort of Nineties descendent of the Sixties photocell mixer. James Lo and I designed and built the new version. It consists of an array of photosensors linked to a little computer board running software that James wrote. The little computer senses varying light levels on each of the photosensors and puts out MIDI signals that go to the main computer running music software. Unlike the Sixties design which was specific, doing only one thing, but doing it directly and well, the Nineties one is generalized; it can relate light levels to anything, but it takes work (software design) to get there.

PSF: You colloborated with Stockhausen- could you talk about this work?

I went to study with Stockhausen because I was a fan of some of his music, especially 'Gesang der Juenglinge', a wonderful tape music piece made in the mid-Fifties out of boys' voices.

La Monte Young and I were both in his composition class at Darmstadt in the summer of 1959; Cornelius Cardew and David Tudor were there as advisers. Stockhausen's course was an eye-opening experience for me, in part because of his intense devotion to new music, in part because he encouraged my efforts, in part because it was at that course that a long-lasting friendship with David Tudor began.

It seems far in the past now, but there was a kind of optimistic feeling there, as though a good new society was emerging from the horrors of the recent past. Stockhausen, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, David Tudor, Henri Pousseur and others were all on friendly terms and open to one anothers' ideas. But looking back on it from the Nineties, one can see that the world view of Darmstadt in those days was pretty narrow, from a contemporary World Music perspective. (It's curious, for instance, that all the names that seem to pop up as I describe those early early years are those of men!)

For several years after that summer class, I worked intermittently for Stockhausen, as his copyist, taking over that job from Cornelius Cardew.

PSF: You've been a Sonic Arts Union member with Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma. What kind of work did you do there?

The four of us liked very much to travel, to perform, to get to know the people who helped produce our events. (One of those producers, a young private in the Belgian Army named Jacques Bekaert, became our lifelong friend). On some of our tours Sonic Arts had eight artists, not four: Mary Ashley, Shigeko Kubota, Mary Lucier and Barbara Lloyd jouned us and contributed their work.

We were an anthology rather than a band. We shared equipment and stage-managing skills but never did any group pieces; the personalities were always distinct. Our performances explored aspects of music and performance that were outside the bounds of what contemporary music generally accepted. Partly that had to do with homemade electronics, partly with exploration of the nature of acoustics, partly with crossing the lines between theater, visual arts, poetry and music.

I hope that spirit of the Sixties can remain with me. Recently Bob Ashley remarked that if he performs a piece of music and if after five minutes the entire audience hasn't walked out, then he has failed. I thought that was a good expression of protest against the imposition these days of mass tastes by the superstar culture we have to live in.

PSF: You've worked with Merce Cunningham Dance Company for a while now. Could you talk about your work with them and why you think it's been so successful and long running?

Merce Cunningham, besides being a great choreographer whose career has spanned more that a half century, has been a long-term champion of live music. He always has live music-makers in his performances and must be the only choreographer on earth who never tells the musicians he works with what to do. In 'Events' in particular -- Cunningham Company works in such a way that nothing at all about the music is prepared in advance -- musicians can explore the idea that 'a movement, a sound, a change of light' can all independently share the space and time of performance. Often coincidences occur among the media in a way that seems magical and that could never be planned.

The Cunningham Company tours have provided much experience over the years of performing repeatedly for large live audiences. Lately I've learned a lot about the use of interactive software on tours with fine musicians such as Kosugi, Stuart Dempster, Steve Lacy, Jon Gibson and others. Looking back on the earlier years, the memories of touring and performing with John Cage and David Tudor, Gordon Mumma and Maryanne Amacher are very precious.

PSF: In your pieces, you've had computers interacting with people musicians, dancers, clouds long before a lot of people were using computer technology and machines were seen as a threat. What are your thoughts on this aspect of your work along with the fact that in this way you've worked on pieces that evolve unexpectedly?

As far as machines being the enemy, I'm convinced that technology is amoral. Whether it's a force for good or evil or neither depends on who is doing what with it and for what reason.

As for my work, the composer Haruna Miyake once spoke of my pieces as 'unfinished compositions' and I think that's an insightful description.

There's the model especially in the European tradition of the Creative Superperson (the Composer), and the lesser worker musician (the performer) which I've wanted to get away from. I like the idea of sharing in the creation of something and don't mind getting less than 100% of the credit for it. I like designing software which can be lifted off the ground, so to speak, by a wonderfully imaginative musician who does something with it that I never would have dreamed of.

Today I was listening to a recording that Maggi Payne just sent to me of a piece we worked on recently called QSRL. She performs the flute (which one normally thinks of as a gentle instrument) in a very strong and sometimes harsh way, making the electronics (which one might normally think of as mechanical and a bit macho) seem sinuous and yielding and gentle. I never in a million years could have imagined this relationship; I felt really happy that the situation was left open enough so that such a thing could occur.

An analogy that I like for interactive music is that it's like a piece of sports equipment - a bicycle, say, or a sailboat. The design is very important, but all the experiences of bicycling or sailing can't be foreseen or controlled at the boatyard or factory, nor should they be.

The tradition of 'unfinished composition' of course is not new. Much of Jazz and other musics primarily designed for live performance have a lot to do with that kind of idea. You could say that when the composition is unfinished, authority is being questioned.

PSF: You've worked on sound installations with non-musicians and audience participation. Could you talk about some of these that you've done?

In the mid-Eighties George Lewis and I did several interactive music and computer graphics installations; the most recent one I've made on my own was called 'In Thin Air.' It was shown at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Massachusetts a couple of years ago, and I hope to do a new version soon in New York. That piece used Buchla 'Lightning' wands and foot pedals to allow visitors to play with the variable elements of a 3-part canon. There was a color graphic image on the computer screen that showed how the interaction was progressing.

The idea of 'In Thin Air' and similar installations was that no matter what you do the music should always remain lively, and that you don't have to know anything about music in order to engage the system and find it rewarding. (Those were the goals anyway!) I chose a canon because it is a very simple, almost intuitive form of counterpoint and has fascinated musicians for centuries.

The most memorable part of that installation for me was a workshop the gallery arranged one day with students at the nearby Perkins School for the Blind. I added audio cues to substitute for the information given on the screen. It seemed that the tactile experience of waving the wands and pressing the foot pedals combined with the audio cues and the resulting music worked surprisingly well for the Perkins students after the situation was explained and demonstrated. Several of them said they got a lot out of the experience. I very much hope to do more of this kind of work in the future.

PSF: You've worked at Mills College- that's been a well-spring of talent. Did this atmosphere enhance your work?

The second time that great inviting door seemed to swing open was around 1976 - 77 in the California Bay Area, at the time when micro-computers first became cheap and small. I was at Mills College, where there were young graduate students who knew a lot about the latest electronic technology. Some of the students began bringing computers to the Mills Center for Contemporary Music; on the advice of a wise Bay Area artist, Jim Horton, Paul DeMarinis and I bought KIM-1 microcomputers. KIM-1 weighed about 10 ounces and cost around 200 dollars. Around that time I'd been building switching circuits that were placed between primitive pitch-sensors and homemade synthesizers consisting mostly of triangle-wave generators. The switching circuits took a long time to solder together and could only do one thing. It seemed that this new device called the microcomputer could simulate one of these switching networks for a while and then change, whenever you wanted, to some other one. It was fun connecting its port lines to homemade synthesizers, and also to sensors, and writing very simple software to link sensor activity with synthesizer sounds.

There was something fascinating about the design of software, even though on the KIM-1 it had to be done in machine language, by pressing keys on a little hexadecimal pad.

This was the dawn of 'interactivity' in California, the moment when Jobs and Wozniack were introducing the Apple computer. There was a Bay Area composers group of that era, the Microcomputer Network Band, which liked to do concerts in which the participants would wire together a group of computers on a table, turn them all on, and stand back and watch to see what would happen.

Those were the years also when Terri Hanlon and I met and did multimedia performances together with the San Francisco-based group called The Eva Sisters.

PSF: You've worked at Columbia as producer- In C for example. How did this all come about? What are your thoughts on the series of records you produced at that time?

I happened to join Columbia Records at an opportune moment in the mid Sixties. Goddard Lieberson, the president, was a man who knew the arts very well (he was a composer himself) and cared about much more than profits. Music was changing fast and it was clear that unexpected new things would emerge, but nobody knew from where. John McClure, the director of Columbia Masterworks, gave me the go-ahead to produce some albums of new music, provided that they weren't too expensive. The ones I was able to do ended up as part of a series called 'Music of Our Time'. The Terry Riley 'In C' recording came about because there was a group of musicians in Buffalo who were close to Terry, loved the piece and were performing it anyway. It wasn't too difficult to arrange some recording sessions on one of the Buffalo group's frequent trips to New York. Recording and producing that piece was wonderfully enjoyable. It was the first time we'd had the chance to work with multitrack recorders. 'In C' was beautifully suited to multi-track recording.

PSF: I find there are meditative qualities of pieces- therapeutic quality Would you agree? Is this intentional?

I do like to think of music as a healing art and an aid to meditative states. The world is filled with busy noisy music and noise in general and I'd rather contribute to the quieter end of the spectrum most of the time.

PSF: The setup of electronics in performance are complex yet it looks homey- wires hanging out, using milk crates. Is this consciously done?

Somehow the truth always comes out in music whether you want it to or not, and I like the look of the performance environment to honestly reflect the reality of how the work is made.

PSF: With regard to changes in technology- sequencers, MIDI, samplers- has this effected your work?

It has become hard to keep up with changing technology. There are so many new possibilities opening up all the time in the field of computer-related arts that one could spend all one's time buying new equipment and software and studying manuals, with no time left to do any creative work at all! Sometimes it's better to sink your teeth deeper into devices and methods that have been around for a while.

Technology has become too much for any person to handle alone. I've learned to rely on other artists - for instance, my work in software for quite a while has owed a lot to Ron Kuivila and Dave Anderson and their language called 'Formula'.

PSF: Is there any recent music you've heard that you've really enjoyed?

It was wonderful listening to Meredith Monk do an outdoor solo performance a few weeks ago at Jacob's Pillow and reassuring to know that some of that amazing music is available on her CD called Volcano Songs. Another intense recent music hit was walking a few nights ago through the trees towards the house of Maryanne Amacher in Kingston; the most extraordinary sound was emanating into the summer night from her studio, where she could be seen pacing back and forth. Today I heard Laetitia Sonami perform her cybersonic glove piece at the Lincoln Center Outdoor Festival and became absorbed in its shadows and subtleties and stark urgencies.

"On the Other Ocean"   performed by Maggi Payne and Arthur Stidfole  
"Figure in a Clearing"     performed by David Gibson
-------- Lovely Music  LCD 1041     (1996 CD reissue from 1977 LP)

"Navigation and Astronomy"    performed by Kazue Sawai  
------- Music from Japan, Vol.1    Classic Masters CMCD-1027, 1992       

"Unforeseen Events"     performed by Ben Neill                
-------- XI 105, 1992

"All Thumbs"     performed by Petr Kotik and Ben Neill
-------- Ear-Rational ECD 1034, 1990 

"Leapday Night"      performed by Ben Neill and  Rhys Chatham  
"Interspecies Smalltalk"      performed by  Takehisa Kosugi
-------- Lovely Music LCD 1042, 1990