Peter Zummo - Experimenting With Household Chemicals

Peter Zummo has been composing since 1967 and has performed his works for solo trombone and ensemble worldwide. He was a significant early founder of the 1970s and 1980s musi­cal movement that included integrating and reinterpreting various genres, includ­ing Western classical-music experimenta­tion, American popular music and jazz, and the indigenous music of non-Western cultures.

Zummo is a wind player whose own performance is an integral part of his compositions. He has pioneered extend­ed trombone techniques and also uses the dijeridoo, euphonium, synthesizers, and his voice in performance. He has an affection for band music and has main­tained ensembles in New York City since 1976, including The Peter Zummo Orchestras, Zummo Labs, The Environ­mental Combo, and The Intermediate Combo. Most of the original group members are working with him to this day. His compositions for ensemble typi­cally build on original melodies and melodic fragments, generating interac­tive situations in which the musicians explore the boundaries of common and extended practice.

An important subset of his composi­tions has been the many works created for choreographers. In 1985 he won a Bessie award for a score for Lateral Pass, by Trisha Brown; two years later he collaborated with visual artist Donald Judd to create the score for Brown's Newark.

Zummo's recordings are available on Loris Records as well as XI.


And he's off! There he goes, over-toiling his way through a sixty-eight-minute trombone(s) solo, letting his fine surrogates thicken the brew now and then. One second he sounds thin and dry, the next booming and "wet" Where did those tiny just-audible sounds from the band come from, those disappearing textures, which others might ignore as outtakes and he leaves in, unformulatable, like neglected urban waste places, suddenly, beautifully, given their moment in the sun?

There's just no single response possi­ble to this music in which the focus seems to keep changing; what category are we in now, you can legitimately ask at any moment, and then have different answers each subsequent listening.

Even his name promises a trip. Zum...... And it's also a trombone sound if you were to say it the way Peter would play his name as a graphic score. Maybe Peter is our new-music equivalent of a Sgt. Pepper band. Trippy. Anyway, some­time in the early Eighties I signed up with Peter for a trip called Subway Dream Music. I remember that journey, that story. Of course, it was narrative music, though I didn't realize it specifically. I knew it used dream material. If I think for a moment about it, it becomes obvious: Incident follows incident, and you specu­late on what will come next, how will it all come out

A subway is already a story. It hap­pens to you all the time. Dreams, no doubt, are the indigenous stories. Stories from dream material. Peter obsesses with the material and writes down many versions, personalizes them, combines them conceptually, has you try things in ensemble—you feel it is dream-like found material because it's so, odd, quirky sometimes, rough-edged. The surprising surfaces are just kept, and then combined.

And now comes another provocative title: Household chemicals, experiment­ing, combining things; what with what does what to what, leaving you with something else? (Alchemy was once a code name for science or for art-remember Faust?) Into this chemical mix comes "free information" (the title of Track 2); popular and dance riffs, also like dreams, can come and go at any time, in any track, just like they do in the inner sound tracks we all (don't we all?) keep running in our heads.

Then, for the player in his ensemble, add the challenging improvisatory factor. You must be able to do that well. Drama, fear, exhilaration, confusion, solution, lis­tening, expecting, waiting, springing in. That's all overlaid, added to the skeletal stuff Peter gives his ensemble on often strangely drawn scores that look like musings that just ended soon enough to get onto a rehearsal schedule. And then there's the rehearsal dynamic, the intense trying out, few words expended, but efficiently used. "You could try that," he often answers. It's got to work and to feel right.

Finally, none of this can appear in its original form on the CD because the CD is itself a macro-composition of Peter's dream logic, mixing in retrospect the bits and pieces of the once-live layers he— they—performed.

The CD, the recording, is a piece, not a document of a previous performance. Yes, that insight goes back to the first recorded commercials and from Sgt. Pepper onwards. Perhaps some in the Cage direction will find the distinction between recording and recorded per­formance uninteresting, because it's all, you know, sound (I agree), but the CD medium with its remote-controllable tracks gives us the art of home CD composing (or at least surfing, if noth­ing else).

Still, the composing with the CD medium in Experimenting With Household Chemicals is about inter­cutting environments, live and pro­cessed textures, foregrounds and backgrounds interchanging, energy levels from the original, or entire virtual energy flows created by the collage process.

Is it an ergodic composition, this CD? (Jim Tenney's term for music textures that are statistically similar wherever you take sample sections.) I think it is poeti­cally ergodic (god, did I say that?) because Peter sets things in motion to achieve a particular dynamic, a certain level of antiphony mixed with unity, and so on, and this is a constant, not dra­matically changing in spite of all this talk of narrative. But on the experiential level, forget ergodic. Things happen dra­matically and unexpectedly, often amaz­ingly and delightfully, and sometimes downright mysteriously, or even diffuse­ly, uneventfully, and anticlimactically, and just as valuable as the reverse qualities, which might equally happen. In short, predictably unpredictable.

Let's take a breather and listen to Track 3. Gorgeous trombone flourishes in a rich timbral penumbra, soon washed by increasingly grooved ensem­ble stuff, finally the lush contrabass pizz., now once again out of the groove, the conga colors the sound, and on and on.

Track 4: Rocket Scientist. He's been able to weave in a process piece on a descending diatonic scale, resurrecting those minimalistic directional processes, yes, even though the Style Setters have tried to bypass such wonderful and straight-forward perceptible forms in favor of "sophistication." Never mind, nothing Peter does is ever just straight­forward. Even a clear process is decorat­ed, often contradicted, by improvised moves.

Or Track 5, someplace in the middle: That's a weird split-personality—trom­bone-solo with an antiphony of nutty, contrasting attacks, low and high, satisfy-ingly full, then a big striding octave-bound melody disappearing quickly into a faster narrow one, mallets to the fore, then what? The whole track ends with what sounds like a fresh new theme in a new key, but after two, short, perky stabs, just plain ends in mid-air. Neat! Where am I?

Because Peter's music is partly pre-composed, partly composed through improvisation, it requires a rehearsal period that is really a live composition laboratory with lots of feedback. Against great odds and risks he tries to keep that scary, exhilarating balance going where chaos and inspired individual moments can have harmonious resul­tants with the larger ensemble, can still leave one tipsy with inconclusion—but it turns out OK, can suggest more than can be carried out, thus can be stimu­lating. And no loss of sensuous plea­sure, or amusing playfulness either, please! It happens.

But wait a minute, I almost forgot. Difficulty in describing crossed cate­gories and reordered time somehow makes me forget something important. I've made a big thing of disjunction. Maybe we should pay more attention to the way the tonal plateaus and the cross-faded valleys gently and carefully replace each other, rhyming, varying, extending each other—but, oh, whoops from where came that shocking fortissi­mo, like a traffic jam in paradise? Whoops indeed. Oh, I see, it's just the overtoning top of a substratum that had been bubbling away all the time.... And he's off, again.

—Daniel B. Goode

The first time we played Experi­menting With Household Chemicals (a trio performance at the LaMama Club), I don't think we rehearsed too much. During or after that performance I felt surprised, or amazed. There was a lot happening, a lot of detail all the time. I hadn't done anything that challenging that allowed me so much freedom in a while. While I was playing, I actually thought, "I have never played music like this before."

A lot of the notation Peter gave us to play was written without any specific rhythmic values; there were also lines you could play forward or backward or even diagonally across the page. Playing a series of notes forward and backward gave me a different spatial sense of music as it was happening. Usually you read music in a certain direction. You have a sense of notes in space in a par­ticular order. What Peter asked us to do was like retrograde, 1 suppose, except that conventional retrograde is written out in the same direction you've been read­ing. As a musician playing it, you might not even know it's a retrograde. In Experimenting With Household Chemicals you're performing a retrograde function physically, so it gives you a dif­ferent sense of it. You're also interpreting the written symbol on the page in retro­grade. Reading backward is not the same as reading forward something that has been reversed. It was very new for me to do that in performance.

Another thing struck me during that performance, which included me and Arthur Russell: as we were playing, Arthur started reading aloud some of the notation. He did it completely seriously, as though it were a vocal part, as though this were a totally sensible way of inter­preting the piece. And it was.

I've always found that Peter's music causes groups to find new ways of play­ing together. His work creates a situation or circumstance that brings about a new ensemble gesture. This particular piece really pushed that idea.

Over the years, every performance of Experimenting With Household Chemicals was very different. The piece was always fresh for me. I never felt I knew the music.

—Bill Ruyle

The release of Experimenting With Household Chemicals has been a long time coming. It shouldn't come as a surprise—after all, the FDA takes forev­er before it releases new products to the consumer. This is how my role in the piece came about:

At the time Peter called me to play for Experimenting With Household Chemicals, we already had some histo­ry: I had worked with him in other com­posers' bands and had performed in his pieces for choreographers Trisha Brown and Risa Jaroslow. Each of his pieces was an experience in which his eclecti­cism allowed me an opportunity to per­form/create without predetermined out­comes.

No project was more challenging than Experimenting With Household Chem­icals. Exactly what did it mean? I felt he was purposely vague during conversa­tions about the project prior to our first rehearsals. "Why ask me what you should play?" he would say, "after all, you're the percussionist."

I felt challenged. I believed my responsibility was to help make the words in the title affect how listeners would feel. I first thought of bleach and iodine and other substances we have in our houses. I also thought of the people in our homes, our grandparents and other family members.

In the end, I focused my playing on two themes: first, the steely, step-by-step approach of the novice scientist experimenting with chemicals in his basement; second, the almost uncon­trolled excitement and sense of danger that would surely have his heart racing uncontrollably as he concocted his (per­haps) explosive potion.

As percussionist, I have to make a basic decision: Do I play heavy percus­sion or instruments that create moods? In the early movements of the piece, I feel the scientist has an idea of what he wants to do—he has a theory to prove. You don't do that with wild abandon, but with a degree of caution. So my choice is to color that mood. With a cymbal strike, for example, I represent a new chemical corning into the concoc­tion the scientist is brewing. At other points the utilization of percussion instruments represents various catalytic reactions.

As we get into the later movements of the piece, I move away from individ­ual strikes to emphasize a rhythmic pulse on the congas. For me, this repre­sents the emotional response of the sci­entist. The experiment has happened, and there is the thrill of discovery. There is no longer the degree of caution there was originally. The scientist doesn't want to become so emotionally involved that he loses track of the evidence he has created, but he does get excited. I glean these points from Peter as his playing becomes more shrill or blaring. As per­cussionist I convey these moments by establishing pulse—but I don't get car­ried away. What we're trying to do here is not just play but convey an image of what is going on.

The hope of the artist is to create a lucid image. That is what I am attempt­ing to do. That is what Peter is trying to do with imagery that's challenging and refreshing and compelling. A lot of com­mercial music today is so highly pack­aged, listeners can't project their own personalities onto it. In Peter's music, on the other hand, we leave room so lis­teners can find a spot for themselves.  That to me is what this particular piece is about. There is no agenda other than that concept.

—Mustafa Ahmed

Over the years, before performances, in some dimly lit backstage nook or cranny, I'd encounter Peter Zummo appearing to be engaged in an unknown ritual of ancient origin. Slowly modulated long tones, fluttering or splattered tim­bres, and indescribable sounds would arise slowly from his trombone, and, without intention, he would project the image of a person born with built-in patience, centered in the stillness of utmost attention, scripture-serious and meditative. I didn't know what was going on and wasn't about to ask. This was more than your usual warm-up.

Rapt attention to the moment, modu­lated by the surprise discovery of stretched inflections (humorous, plain­tive...) and a trust in the rich potential of intuition makes Peter Zummo's music as unique as (and different from) that of other trombonist/composers like George Lewis or James Fulkerson. Zummo's trombone itself roots conceptual pres­ence in the physical world. His "mental notations" with their geometric designs and diamond matrices extend the res­onated breath of life through the brass, creating single and cyclical notes and harmonics directed through space, reminding me of how individual raga tones are described by their duration and emotional weight in four dimensions (the story is the time dimension) by Indian musicians.

Like the forte e piano echoing of brass and choirs beloved by the composers of Venice for centuries, and suggested by the sonics of their architecture, physical space becomes quite elastic as a musical element in the CD version of Experimen­ting With Household Chemicals. The mental architecture created through the digital editing seamlessly transports the listener among the changing dimensions of performance rooms and halls in which the piece was played into the interior dis­tances of the listener's mind—Zummo among the band, down in the cellar, up on the roof addressing the universe.

And how do Zummo's instrumental sensibilities translate into music for a group of performers? Like most Downtown composer-performers, he has played and is familiar with all the types of music that have made their way to or been developed in America—from bebop to conceptual music, from rock and con­cert classical to the deliberately under­played commercial gig for a new sham­poo or whatever. What is reflected in his own music from these experiences is not a collection of stylisms that add up (as some critics would have you think music composition works) but methods of going about making music: The intuitive-interactive sensibility of group playing, for example, that exists in much world music and in avant-garde American music since the Fifties, is assumed by Zummo and his group as a given, allow­ing momentary forms like canonic imita­tion to arise in a "natural," dynamic man­ner, as if this event were happening for the first time, fresh.

The dean lines and direct gestures which wind player-composers favor are in the material that Zummo provides to his performers, but then their sensibilities mold the destiny of the performance, create its moods and time. In other words, the music is not the notes and rhythms; rather the music is this sense evoked in the performers and listeners. Zummo is able to create works that encourage that evocation, works that the musicians, each with a different thing in mind at any moment, enjoy performing with their whole being, and that is price­less, and even holy.

—"Blue" Gene Tyranny


The two basic diagrammatic shapes used in the notation are the diamond and the X. Looking at the slide from the side, inward and outward movement are represented by the horizontal axis of the diagram. Embouchure movements, upward and downward through the partials of the harmonic series, are repre­sented by the vertical axis. Starting on middle C in third position, for example, and moving up to D in fourth position, then down to Cj in fifth, then down to B in fourth, and then back up to C in third completes a looping sequence of four notes (ex. 1). To perform the sequence, one can traverse the diamond in either direction, improvisationally choosing

(ex. 1)

places to reverse direction-all the while adding articulations and rhythmic varia­tions that go with and against the ongo­ing meter (if any). A diamond with a wider horizontal girth could be made by moving in units of two slide positions, that is, starting on middle C in third posi­tion, moving up to Ct in fifth, down to B in seventh, down to Aj in fifth, and back up to C in third (ex. 2).

(ex. 2)

An X shape can be constructed by choosing a center pitch and then moving in and up, back to the center, out and up, back to the center, out and down, back to the center, in and down, back to the center, and then back to in and up, and so on. Symmetrical diagrams with slide movements in units of three posi­tions can be constructed if fourth posi­tion is chosen as the center.

Similarly, the vertical dimension of the diagram can be increased to create a diamond narrower than it is tall. This is accomplished by skipping over an adja­cent partial to the next higher one. Thus an X with middle C as its center pitch allows the trombonist to move to adja­cent slide positions (second and fourth positions), but requires skipping to the second-nearest partial of the harmonic series; that is, up to E in second posi­tion, up to F in fourth, down to C in fourth, and down to E in second, and so on (ex. 3).


Diagrams that are asymmetrical in either dimension can also be constructed.

Melodic lines, fragments, and phrases composed of notes without stems, as well as any sequentially numbered notes, are repeated by going backwards toward the beginning. Melodic move­ment is stepwise forward and backward (sometimes indicated by horizontal or sloping arrows). The repetition continues ad. lib., sometimes engendering an extended vamp of these sections.

Notes stacked vertically and sequen­tially numbered (that is, horizontally) are performed as monophonic lines moving in logical patterns among the notes; the movement is symmetrical around the center pitch. These sections may also become extended vamps.

Notes stacked vertically and not num­bered are sung and played.

Vertical arrows associated with notes indicate microtonal pitch adjustments, particularly those arising from using a fixed (not 'humored') slide position for all partials.

The Six Movements

First movement, Fresh Batteries (6:57): A sequence of spin-off melodic and harmonic material leads to an improvisation in the seven-note mode constructed by beginning in first, or closed, slide position with pedal Bb and moving to the next higher partial in the next lower slide position; Ihus, A—second position, En—third, G-fourth, CS-fifth, (there is a skip of a partial here), G-sixth. (two partials skipped), and finally B (another skip) in sev­enth position (ex. 4). Movement is stepwise forward and backward with me slide in order to go up and down the mode. Final cadence is from the high B to El? in first posi­tion.

Second movement, Includes Free Information (17:33): A tone row of drones with more modes and melodies. This movement begins with a recurring ostinato that initially has no tonal reference, but is later set against E, A, F, and B (ex. 5). The complete tone row, which begins with the ensemble entrance following the solo trombone introduc­tion, is Ab, Gb, Bb, E, A, Eb, G, Db, F, B, D, C. On the final C, the keyboard bass multiple-pulse funk is in F major/ A minor.

Third movement, Sung, Played, Heard (13:45): Here are two more modes for a linear sequence of the seven positions, as well as subsets of those modes for four and three positions (ex. 6). Two other back-and-forth and looping slide sequences surround an E drone, with B and Bb in the treble, which is marked 'Sung, Played, Heard.' This section ends with a long flourish in the key of F, with a flavor of Db.

Fourth movement, Rocket Scientist (9:45): This section begins with a seem­ingly ever-descending diatonic sequence prescient of a subsequent large-scale composition The Time Land Forgot. Then slide sequences oscillate about a central pitch as they jump down more than two octaves into the bass in two stages (ex. 7). Finally there emerges melody, which itself blooms into dia­grammatic registral jumps.

Fifth movement, In Three Movements (9:54): This includes: weaving in a large, packed diamond of notes (ex. 8)­ing the slide by whole steps and not 'humoring' (not correcting for natural intonation that isn't consistent with the tempered scale) the resulting microtonal intervals available in the alternate slide positions (ex. 9, 10)...slower motion and a coda. In this movement, there are fewer edits and therefore longer real-time performances.

Sixth movement, Peaceful Transportation (10:50): Here we find open and muted trombone glissandi with changing reverberation and chordal punctuations. Glissando performance follows several points of technique: Glissando is continuous, reversing at the first and seventh positions of the slide, thereby using the entire tritone length of the slide. Movement upward to the next partial is accomplished by 'lipping up' during a downward glissando; move­ment downward to the next lower par­tial is done by 'lipping down' during an upward glissando. The speed of the glis­sando is steady and may be changed at the reversal points. The chords played by the other instruments in this move­ment are derived from the first five sec­tions of the piece. This recorded version of Peaceful Transportation was assem­bled from recordings of four performances. The editing process was not restricted to following the above guide­lines (or upward and downward move­ment through the partials. Abrupt changes in reverberation recall the shift­ing among rooms and spaces brought about by the digital editing in the earlier movements.

This disc is edited from recordings of seven performances and various studio sessions: La Mama Cub, 23 January and 22 May 1989 (trio); Snug Harbor Cultural Center, 25 June 1989 (septet); Knitting Factory, 14 September 1989 (septet); Walker Art Center, 31 May 1990 (solo); McGraw/Hill Park, 18 July 1990 (quartet version 2: Ahmed, Gibson, Russell, Zummo); Knitting Factory, IB August 1991 (quintet); studio sessions at Cedar Sound (solo) and Zummo Labs (solo, trio, quartet). Recording engineers include Dan Evans Farkas, Mark Freedman, Reed Hayes, Ben Manley, and Peter Zumrno. Digital editing by Dan Evans Farkas; pro­duced by Peter Zumrno. The project was completed with support from the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship program, Ellen Stewart, Helen W. Buckner Charitable Trust, and Doug Simon.


Here is how it came to be.

From 1987 to 1992 Peter Zummo cre­ated his full-length composition Experi­ menting With Household Chemicals. For Zummo, as for many trombone players, it is the kinetic, kinesthetic aspects of the trombone that make the instrument attractive. In composing the piece, Zummo explored his fascination with slide movement in relationship to the harmon­ic partials. The approach he developed provided him a new logical strategy for slide movement-one that was different from using chord changes, perhaps more similar to a modal, or multi-modal, approach. The notation (see Notes by the Composer) allows him to follow well-defined mental diagrams while gen­erating unexpected melodic material not conditioned by other, more common musical habits. Experimenting With Household Chemicals also includes a collection of related material, pitch sequences, and chaotic orchestration for ensemble.

During the time Zummo was compos­ing Experimenting With Household Chemicals, he performed it many times as a solo and as an ensemble piece with up to seven instruments (see Personnel, below). Having run its initial course in live performance, the piece continues its evolution with this release, which inter­weaves performance tapes with studio recordings. The digital-editing process was the final stage of composition, con­densing the musicians' flights of fancy into a layered, stacked, dovetailed version of the score that exists only in this disc's time and space.



solo: Peter Zummo, trombone, voice trio: Arthur Russell, amplified cello, voice, keyboard bass; Bill Ruyle, marim­ba, voice quartet: Mustafa Ahmed, per­cussion quintet: Jon Gibson, soprano and alto saxophones, flute septet: Joseph Kubera, electronic organ and syn­thesizer; Dennis Masuzzo, contrabass