photo Claudia von Alemann


"Space is the Place."
— Sun Ra

The recent passing of the Twentieth Century has given many of us a brief moment to reflect on significant ideas and concepts in the arts in these fast 100 years. The musical arts like all the others are in a state of uncertainty and beneficent upheaval. All the rules are gone. There is no longer a common practice, nor hope that any such messianic dreams will be fulfilled in the near future, while the great traditions of western art music are being drowned out by surging rivers of consumer music - which threaten to destroy not only our fragile ambient sound, but also indigenous musics, and even the possibility of experiencing relative silence anywhere on this planet. For decades, many composers and sound-artists have viewed the music institutions and especially the concert hall as a place of funereal ritual. So it is no wonder that a number of adventurous artists began to seek out and occupy other places, other spaces to carry on their necessary work - questioning each and every aspect of the canon being, after all, the nature of the experimental arts of this century.The theme ORTEN is particularly relevant to my musical thought and practice, for most of my composing has been inspired by or created for particular "places" both real and imaginary since I began making music professionally in 1965. My pure recorded soundscapes, in-situ performances/installations, radio-simulcasts from several nations, and music projects for the internet are all forms of site-specific music, - musics where the chosen place/site/space is fundamental to the musical discourse. Those four categories largely cover the significant uses of musical space that have been consciously explored in the western world since the Gabrielli brothers' brass music conceived for the church of San Marco in Venice, the popular traditions of alpenhorn concerts over large open spaces in the European Alps, to Maryanne Amacher's visionary early 60's"City Links" projects, to our recent flourishing of sound-installation, and finally to the baptism of the Web as a cyber- concert hall of the future.

What are the "places" of my music? A partial answer would include:
Cities, Streets, piazzas, houses, facades, fountains, historic buildings, stairwells, elevators, cellars. roofs, tunnels, parks, ports, rivers, lakes, bridges, coastlines, quarries, caves, trenches, open fields, valleys, moving vehicles , chaos, stillness, ecstacy, history and transcendence and, of course, concert halls. And in a musical analog to the visual creations of the "land artists" of my generation, like Smithson and de Maria, I created many musical events in such places - as if they were natural sound-theaters, waiting for someone to discover them. For a port , say, is just a port and not a concert hall, until a concert of ship horns or other instruments takes place in it.


In 1965 just after completing a DAAD year in Berlin as an invited student of Elliott Carter, I moved to Rome Italy and as an adjunct to my composing, I began instinctively (ignorant of John Cage or Pierre Schaeffer) to record the ambient sounds around me - a loosely structured project, as one might keep a daily journal. Through years of recording every sounding thing around me, my archive grew and became an integral part of my musical vocabulary. There is no question that my attraction to natural sound lay in an intuition that these sounds - whatever they were - were private, very personal sources of music - indeed living musics which de facto belonged to everyone.

Under the influence of my artist friend Edith Schloss I composed my first tapework WATERCOLORMUSIC (1966) using every and all imaginable sounds of water (for which the city of Rome is notorious) including a the famous Beatles cry "Help" followed by a flush of my toilet. That year the group MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA was born (co founded by myself, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Ivan Vandor, Allen Bryant, and Jon Phetteplace), providing an ongoing arena for me to bring natural sounds into live performance, that is to say bringing the outside world into the concert hall.

Jump to 1975. A quirk of fate - my solidarity with a student occupation of the Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica (National Academy of Theater Arts) - earned me a job on the faculty of that institution: Instructor in Collective Vocal Improvisation. From scratch I began to develop a series of exercises and pieces for vocal improvisation; and at the same time began to seek out possible sites amidst the wonders of Rome, that could be used as natural theaters for our work. Around the 300m circumference of Augustus' Tomb we created our first walking/singing piece which the resident cat population seemed to appreciate grudgingly. Then on the monumental steps in front of the Museum of Modern Art - another curious work of sound and silence, walking, jumping, running stopping and singing. Finally a highly publicized festival performance : RITI MARITTIMI, with my students in 8 slowly moving row-boats (6 to a boat) performing from a graphic score to create a choreography of vocal sounds on the space of a small lake in Villa Borghese (Rome's Central Park). These chance-structured events had a profound significance on my future work; for it was from these simple beginnings that I realized how much sonic, spatial and theatrical potential there actually was in making music in any natural environment. Magical coincidental points where landscape and soundscape become one. Where place and music could be paired without limits of time or convention.

In this period, the first and most consequential work came about when I was commissioned to create an imaginative opening piece for the Frankfurter Festwochen, freely using the entire inside and outside spaces of the old opera house in Frankfurt (Die Alter Oper).

This commission, because of its ambitious spatial requirements and three hour duration, was for me an intensive (and largely successful) proving grounds for my ideas about creating a non-narrative polyphony of sonic gestures, set in spatial movement - through the long hallways, large foyers, in the loges and elevators on all 5 levels of this monumental building. The title was appropriately called MONUMENTI (Monuments). Beginning with a prelude of 10 bass drummers creating a reverberant set of ritual rhythms outside in the Opern Platz, the audience - still unable to enter the Opera house - began to be overwhelmed by a tape mix in which some 70 lyric operas had been mixed in shifting densities. With all the windows and doors open, and the powerful house amplification system set to maximum levels (with special loudspeakers under the roof as well), the opera house itself appeared to levitate as it became transformed into a roaring mix of coloratura and heldentenor hysteria - a building singing its own history as if its walls and floors suddenly released all the sounds that had been played into them in the last 200 hundred years. Once inside, the audience encountered rolling waves of sound made by roving choruses, (Der Junge Chor Kassel), taped sounds and musicians including a core of 20 trombonists from the Frankfurt Feuerwehr and the group Musica Elettronica Viva. Oscillating between a "happening" and a formal concert, the music (composed of structured improvisation and controlled chance) filled every corner of this immense building with festive music and a sense of joyous chaos.

Into polyspace

With my focus turned to the emerging movement called Radio Art in the early 80's I began two new large-scale works: MARITIME RITES and A PIECE FOR PEACE. Both works were not only conceptually based on uniting sounds from very distant places but evoked the literal meaning of "place" in their sonic mirroring of geographic design and shape- what I later called "Sonic Geography." And both works though very different in content, were concieved formally as pure radiophonic art.

MARITIME RITES (1981-2), supported by a grant from National Public Radio (USA), was an ambitious project that led me and my producer Melissa Gould to record all the significant maritime sounds on the entire Eastern seaboard of the U.S. These sounds (fog horns, ship horns, bells, buoys, wind activated signals, birds and voices of fishermen, lobstermen and women lighthouse keepers etc) were edited and composed according to geographical location into 10 fourteen-minute taped soundscapes over each of which I assigned one composer/performer (John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Malcolm Goldstein, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Leo Smith, Joe Celli, Jon Gibson, Clark Coolidge and myself) to contribute an independent improvised music - which by agreement I could integrate freely in any way I desired. This approach loosely paralleled my own solo performances over the previous decade using voice, flugelhorn, synthesizers and keyboards over complex mixes of taped natural sounds. Here however, I was manipulating the playing of my friends and colleagues as one would do today through sampling techniques. But again as in my own solo style, one could not tell where the foreground and background of either soloist or real recorded place/site was. for example (fig.1) here is a simple score of John Cage's five looped words in hocketed counterpoint with a most extraordinary fog horn on the Nantucket Lightship, now a museum. To record this sound the coastguard had to move the boat from its birth in the Boston Harbour to a location some miles off shore, since its two tone sequential sound G-Eflat plays automatically every 60 seconds at around 140 dB - said to be the loudest instrument in the world. This series was broadcast by over 50 public radio stations in the USA and Canada and while never released on disc has accumulated a notable underground reputation.Further extending my dream towards a global concert hall is my premier simulcast: A PIECE FOR PEACE, produced by the imaginative efforts of the producers: Ernstalbrecht Stiebler HR, Han Reiziger VPRO and Pinotto Fava RAI who were able to organize a large number of musicians - mixed choruses, brass bands, percussion , accordions and soloists into a unique radiophonic space linking three churches located in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Venice respectively. Covering some thousands of square kilometers, this work united three groups of performers (about 150 in all) in three different spiritual locations- who neither see nor hear one another - yet through a score of completely notated structures, (based around a sound-text recitation of the names of the then 142 members of the United Nations , from Albania to Zimbabwe) and high quality telephonic broadcasting -are sonically "fused" into a single space between a pair of stereo loudspeakers in anyones living room anywhere in Europe at 20h on Jan 1 1984.

In October 1988 I expanded this form in CRYSTAL PSALMS to include some 300 musicians from 6 European nations broadcasting from 7 cities - Kopenhagen, Hilversum, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Rome in a work which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the infamous Reichskristallnacht. This 53 minute work infused with the sounds of Jewish life created a complex layer of places, memories, cities, forgotten people, extending from Yemenite Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to the brutal sounds of broken glass in some unidentifiable radio studio in Europe. What place is that? Where history and horror and the musical arts meet in one electronic audio mixer and broadcast grid. What is the possible locus of such sounding chaos? At what point does natural sound lose its powers of evocation and memory and become pure sonic energy, unambiguous abstraction? Or is radio still and only our modern bard of - simply our mythical story teller who recites the words, songs and noises of the ancient tales over and over, then moves on to the next place? In short , is pure abstraction at all possible through the medium of Radio?? These were some of the questions I asked myself during this emotionally exhausting creative process.

In Situ

I have often described my ship-horn concerts to those who have never heard one, as if a jazz Big-Band of Dinosaurs were playing playing on colossal sized saxophones each tuned to one random low tone.

A number of these concerts took place on three continents ( in Amsterdam, Kiel, La Spezia, Philadelphia and Sydney Harbors) culminating in two works where large ship horns were transported and installed by themselves, far from the sea. In 1987 I was commissioned by the City of Berlin for its 750th anniversary to compose a piece for large ship horns on installed on the banks of the Tegelsee - WASSERKORSO. Using 11 large horns from the Zoellner Co. in Kiel, I wrote a normally notated score which was then translated into a computer language in order to play these horns automatically - a cumbersome engineering feat but one allowing remarkable precision. For WATERWORKS, the same technique was used in Linz, as the final (KlangWolke) concert of Ars Electronica '89 but this time using 22 ship horns - 11 installed on the roof of the Brucknerhaus and played manually by students, and 11 (computer controlled) placed along a kilometer of river bank, opposite the Brucknerhaus. To this gigantic sound machine were added a brass choir, tapes of roaring lions and the sky-drum fire works of Pierre-Alain Hubert. It was certainly the largest physical space I'd ever worked in and one which was audible for kilometers in every direction. The entire city of Linz heard this concert without ever having to enter a concert hall. People were heard to say that they thought we were celebrating the end of a war.

An especially fruitful collaboration with the visual artist Melissa Gould was FLOOR PLAN/NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND a 1991 commission from Ars Electronica and again a work which focused on a multiplicity of meanings of the word "place." Gould's concept was to recreate in light the floor plan (Grundriss) of a former Berlin Synagogue (fig. 2). To this I added "conceptual walls" by creating a trench where 72 loudspeakers were buried, surrounding the four sides of the flourescent lit structure, which emitted 4 different simultaneous mixes of some 1,000,000 voices literally coming out from inside the earth. This was installed in the Donau Park just in front of the Brucknerhaus in Linz - requiring 3 weeks of construction. The piece is unmistakably an evocation of visual and sonic ghosts of our recent past and one which elicited a sense of respectful silence, perhaps even apprehension, as one might feel on entering a holy place, a cemetery or the site of some unspeakable crime.

Ubiquity / nulliquity

In my childhood the word "sampler" refered either to a fancy box of chocolates or to a small wooden hoop for doing embroidery. Today, when we say samplers or sampling, we refer to the digital recording technology and machines that have become a global multibillion dollar audio business. Everything can be sampled: from Sonic Youth to Marilyn Monroe's footsteps to Hildegard von Bingen's raptures, to buffalo mating in Montana, to giant turtles leaving Tierra del Fuego, to Pavarotti's long high C, to John Cage's full-mental laugh, to the sound of Stockhausen's conducting baton. Nothing is left unsampled anymore. Any sound or any sounding object, from any physical or electronic source, may be and probably will be sampled by somebody whose musical imagination goes beyond the boom-boom requisites of the 4/4 time school. I fell into the sampling black-hole as early as 1988, and have been unable to extricate myself since. A blessing in disguise- this "fall" sent me back to my own vast sound archives with the goal to create musics which, conceptually speaking, would enable me to play the whole world with my ten fingers and with lightning-fast access.

This is where we get off the bus. There is no more to say about "place" once you can experience "being" in any sounding place or in all possible places at once simultaneously, sequentially or in repetitive looped cycles. This universal digital technology has in many ways opened a new world of "place" and "space" to anyone. We no longer have to go on dangerous treks to record the sounds of lions ripping the flesh off of a live Gazelle or the breathing of a Tibetan lama in meditation - you can now have these from any sound library and mostly at no cost. While I continue to think in terms of the temporal freedom of analog tape, my personal world of sound has been marked by the sampling revolution. I have employed these techniques exclusively in works like ERAT VERBUM (a six part series based on all forms of communication for the Studio Akustische Kunst -WDR), as well as in my most recent solo work, ENDANGERED SPECIES which features the voices of Giacinto Scelsi, Antonin Artaud, John Cage, North American Elk, Austrian yodelers and Sudanese hyenas and central African Gorillas etc etc among the 100+ sounds that I may utilize at any moment in the piece.

The peak of my sonic "megalomania" may have been reached in the very recent TOTO DONAUESCHINGEN - a work which, alas, falls into the "installation" subgroup of second-class musical citizens. It remains a fact of life that in the context of the "E-Musik" establishment worldwide, the acceptance of sound installation or better the placement of any sound work outside the center stage of the concert hall, is viewed with suspicion and often disdain, for its uncertified, impure musical qualities; Armin Koehler's unusually creative programming for the Donaueschingen festival must be praised as a sterling exception. Installation is tout-court a bastard form; or is it the new Gesamtkunstwerk? Who really cares? For now, it's what's happening.

In this installation project, with great respect and joy, I created for the1999 edition a personal representation of the entire archival history of the internationally renowned Donaueschingen festival from 1922 to1998. In effect I was making a "new music" of all the new music of this century.

To do this I collaborated with two brilliant computer musicians, Nicola Bernardini and Domenico Scianjo. We linked two computers (a Mac running MSP and a PC-Linux OS running CSound) which independently and in tandem processed 8 simultaneous streams of samples from the source material, warping, morphing, splitting, stretching, extracting, shuffling, looping polar frequencies to create minute or gigantic blocks of new music from the original sources. These were then sent through a mixer to 16 amplifiers and speakers, a pair of speakers for each stream, equidistantly spaced in over 5000 sq mt of the Schloss Park.

In this work I was aiming my creative sights beyond the confines of sampling, far beyond collage, or other well worn concepts and techniques of our post-post-modern condition. I was simply trying to make a piece of eternal music e basta. A music not simply "ewig" in the 19th century sense, but in the practical everyday sense of an ongoing process which creates and recreates itself anew in every moment - something akin to living Buddhism (though that is not my religion), or like the impossible feats that enable Morton Feldman's music to float weightlessly and timelessly. Using quite different machinery from Morton's universal acoustic instruments, I and my colleagues created a computer system which could extract , as it were, the molecular essences of sound and recompose them into new and evolving galaxies according to a set of randomly selected rules. So with the entire facade of the Schloss Furstenberg and the surrounding trees, shrubs, flower beds, fountains and streams all seemingly emitting aperiodic sound structures of recombinant historical origin, this work was a true theme park, not just some Mickey-Mouse avantgarde adventure, but a genuine attempt to take MUSIC for a walk in space as part of our expanding notion of music-theater and our unending efforts at cultivating the seductive magic of "place."

The nature of this kind of music making is related to the ancient traditions of ceremonial and celebratory music: that is, music written for special occasions. These occasions are usually unique, unrepeatable events and therefore the musics themselves are created and consumed in those special moments. As John cage said of the now defunct New Music America Festival, "we should have one every day" and thus the Web could in fact be the place where such a wish could come true.

The Souk of Souks

There is in fact one more place, perhaps the current place of places, mall of malls, park of all theme parks, the Souk of Souks, -
Life beyond shopping. A life of eternal surfing.
The Internet and its globalized remix of human behavior is the last major invention that the Twentieth Century may be remembered for as we all carry our new electronic toys with us furiously and with intrepid pride into the unknown spaces of "anyplace.com." Barring some kind of catastrophe, this unparalleled but fragile technology is according to most cultural critics becoming vital for all forms of human communication, behavior, and economics in the future.

As for the performing arts, if cyber-space is to become our new-music-making place, it has a long way to go in terms of simultaneity and audio quality. Nonetheless, I have conceived a project for the Net which exploits its present potential while not having to compromise my usual musical standards: MUSIC WHILE YOU WAIT - employing the same real-time composing and processing software created for Toto Donaueschingen, can be offered as a limited or permanent sound-Installation on the Internet . Based on the premise that this system can transform any sound of any duration into a coherent, evolving piece of music, the producers will extend an invitation to anyone, anywhere to send in a brief sound-file. These in turn will be stored on hard disk and be utilized by the system's random choosing algorithm. The resultant sonic transformations form the music menu of the day, a conceptual portrait of the moment. The place where this occurs is not "anywhere.com" but the unique locus in every individual that collectively define the human species as a musical one - one that will never cease to discover places that we can not even imagine today.

Alvin Curran

Published, in German, in Positionen, issue 42 ("Orte"), February 2000.

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