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DRAM is Pleased to Present the Experimental Intermedia ArchivePosted on Thursday, February 02, 2012
Experimental Intermedia Archive in DRAM
The Experimental Intermedia Archive in DRAM features live performances, interviews and radio programs from one of America’s longest-enduring committed homes to experimental performance. Since its debut series of concerts in December 1973, the loft space at 224 Centre Street in New York’s Chinatown and the organization around it have been a site of induction for multiple generations of artists pushing the boundaries of film, movement, and music. Over those 40 years, the loft space, now known as Experimental Intermedia (EI), has become not only a center of American and international artistic experimentation, but a social gathering place for generations of composers and performers. And, through it all, there has always been one primary figure driving the activities (musical and social): composer and film/video artist Phill Niblock.
In 2010, after over 40 years of living at 224 Centre Street and providing a performance venue for some of the most interesting thinkers in the New York “downtown” and American minimalist music scenes, Phill was in danger of being evicted. This, sadly, is not a new story to New York artists. Since 2001, real estate prices and housing developers in lower Manhattan have forced a number of iconic New York art spaces and music venues to move or, more often, to close altogether (the best-known being the landmark punk and new wave venue CBGB’s, which folded in 2006). To compound the issue, closing the EI loft also meant the possible endangerment of its archive, seven large boxes containing recordings of almost every concert given in the loft since 1979, including early performances by important musical voices such as George Lewis, Malcolm Goldstein, Eliane Radigue, and Arnold Dreyblatt.
Through a series of musical connections Phill was put in touch with one of DRAM’s curatorial assistants, and impressed upon him the urgency of getting the tapes out of the loft space as soon as possible to protect them against the jeopardies of eviction. Recognizing the severity of the situation, DRAM curatorial personnel took custody of the boxes at 224 Centre Street, catalogued their contents, and within a few weeks’ time had submitted the first series of ¼” reels to Experimental Sound Studios in Chicago for preservation and digitization. Now, a year later, DRAM is excited to announce the availability of this material in its debut of the Experimental Intermedia Archive. This Archive exemplifies DRAM’s ongoing relationship with Phill and EI, and the shared commitment to preserve and disseminate a wealth of historical recordings from one of America’s cultural centers before it is permanently lost.
EI as an organization was originally founded in 1968 by the choreographer Elaine Summers who, along with a group of collaborators from the Judson Dance Theater (including Philip Corner, Trisha Brown and Phill Niblock), formed the collective to provide the organizational structure necessary to access funds from the then recently-created National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and apply for grants from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). Originally named Experimental Intermedia Foundation (EIF), it was Summers who provided the definition of the term “intermedia” which still plays a prominent role in the aesthetic of Experimental Intermedia under Niblock. She says, “Intermedia is when you enter the image and get wrapped up in it. You become part of the image.” A true melding of multiple medias, this definition could be exemplified by her own use of the dancer’s body as a projection screen for the early experimental cinematography of Niblock’s, and it helped to inform the mixture of sound, movement and video/film that germinated into EIs later programming, especially its popular annual winter solstice event featuring eight hours of video, film and music.
Through the mid 70s the three most active members of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation were Summers, Niblock, and composer Philip Corner. For almost a decade, these three artists used the Foundation as a way to secure funding for their work, but Corner ceased EIF-related activities in 1976 and Elaine Summers made Niblock the sole director when she stopped producing projects under its umbrella in 1986. At that time, Phill changed the name to its current Experimental Intermedia (EI).
While it’s very important not to downplay the function of Experimental Intermedia as an organization, one must not forget its other major contribution to the history of New York “downtown” music: the 224 Centre Street loft. Phill moved into 224 Centre Street on June 1, 1968. Since then, the large, open living space, with its informal “house concert” atmosphere, fantastic acoustics, and almost peerless sound system, has been the humble home to some of the most innovative minimalist music made in the late 20th century. The loft was first utilized as an alternative performance venue for another New York experimental music fixture, The Kitchen. Between 1972 and 1973, three Kitchen-sponsored events took place at 224 Centre: twice due to its superior sound quality and/or venue issues, and once in deference to the masses of dried animal blood on the Kitchen’s floor after a Hermann Nitsch performance. The response to the space was in any case overwhelming, and Phill decided that 224 Centre could become something greater than just his own home and studio.
And so, in December of 1973, Niblock hosted his first official series of music at the loft, called simply “A Week of Composers”. Each of the inaugural nights became a showcase for a different composer, including (in order of appearance) Joel Chadabe, Rhys Chatham, Jon Gibson, Garrett List, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, and David Behrman. The programming was very well received, but many of the favorable reviews, including those appearing in The Village Voice and New York Times, made a special effort to enthusiastically recommend the casual attitude of the loft and advocate it as a comfortable and social place to talk about, listen to and meet composers of challenging music. Amazingly, that feeling of social solidarity has not left the loft in the 39 years since. It still manages to maintain its place as a small oasis of listeners friendly to experimentation and boundary pushing in the arts.
During the seasons between 1976 and 1980 the loft’s aesthetic began to solidify. It’s difficult to talk about any one performance venue as having a definitive dogma where it concerns what it chooses to support through programming, and EI is no different. Though one could, through analysis of the last 30 seasons and through talking to Phill, come up with a rough set of “rules” that have guided the programming of Experimental Intermedia they have never become hard and fast, as ideologies could easily be trumped by Phill’s personal taste or the strength of relationships made through the social channels of the loft and other venues such as the Kitchen and Roulette. Still there are certain artistic and political elements that could be said to typify the past 30 years of EI concerts.
First is a reliance on electronics for sound and structural/formal material in both composition and performance. Even when acoustic instruments are a part of the composition, as in the works of David Behrman and Niblock himself, there is usually some component of electronic sound or processing involved in either the form or sound world of the music that is presented.
Second is the role of the composer/performer. The composer does not arrive at EI to witness a performance of his or her composition by an ensemble of professional musicians, but is instead an active participant in the public presentation of their music. This insistence upon the composer as performer has given rise to a generation of musicians that have developed highly individual solo performance styles, some imbued with rigorous conceptualism (Carl Stone), others with structured improvisational elements (Ned Rothenberg).
Finally, alongside such purely artistic concerns, there is a conscious social element of fostering creativity through Phill’s support of young and underappreciated artists. Many important composers and performers were able to develop their language through Phill’s practice of allowing them to come back and perform multiple times. This rare opportunity, combined with the friendly atmosphere of musical peers was partly responsible for the flowering of the New York downtown scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Composer/performers such as Jackson MacLow, Malcolm Goldstein, Charlie Morrow, and Joseph Celli in the 70s and Shelley Hirsch, Ned Rothenberg, Guy Klucevsek, and Lois V. Vierk in the 80s found in EI a place to develop their unique music. To this day, Niblock and EI are ardent supporters of young groundbreaking electronic artists such as Byron Westbrook, Alessandro Bosetti and Rafael Toral.
The number of concerts presented at EI rose dramatically between the years 1980 and 1988. This was partially due to Niblock’s increased willingness to make his space available, but also to the substantial support for American experimental music venues that existed at that time. Funding from government sources, such as the NEA and NYSCA, kept the loft’s operations manageable. During this period, EI also became an international force. As Niblock himself increasingly traveled abroad as a performer/composer, the open social atmosphere at 224 Centre Street expanded and became global. The EI loft evolved into one of the most important international centers for experimental music as more and more artists from Europe and Asia were able to travel to the United States and present their work to a hungry New York audience.
Unfortunately, however, following the 1988 Robert Mapplethorpe/Jesse Helms NEA controversy, government funding for the arts either turned toward more conservative projects or was discontinued altogether. Even though Experimental Intermedia continued to receive grants through 1992 (when the NEA stopped supporting the space), the loft curtailed the majority of its programming from 50-60 concerts in the early 80s to 15-20 post 1988. Far from giving up, EI used the opportunity to change its approach, allowing it to survive the decline in government arts support while other organizations around them either gave up or were forced to stop presenting. With a smaller season, Experimental Intermedia was able to sustain its vitality. Since the late 1980s, Niblock’s career as a composer has skyrocketed, providing him with the impetus to expand EI’s international presence, including the opening of Experimental Intermedia v.z.w. Ghent (where Niblock spends part of the year) in 1997. EI also expanded into the recorded medium. Many of the artists that have consistently performed at the loft are also now represented on the XI label, the official recording outlet of Experimental Intermedia (also featured in DRAM). It is important to note that, even in the shadow of doubt regarding the future of the 224 Centre Street loft, EI continues to present a concert series and Phill and Experimental Intermedia remain integral parts of the New York experimental landscape.
EI Archive and DRAM
As is clear from this long history, the music made at the Experimental Intermedia site is something very special and provides a unique insight into the growth and maintenance of an American musical language. For this reason, DRAM is proud to be a part of the restoration, preservation and presentation of this material.
The first group of recordings that are available for DRAM subscribers come from a series of radio programs produced by Steve Cellum and Niblock in the early 1980s. They were chosen as the inaugural works from the archive due to the rapid deterioration of their ¼” tape masters, the broad stylistic range of the performer/composer participants (including loft jazz legends, early experiments with Japanese instruments and tape, and compositions for bells), and the depth of information provided through the well crafted interviews with each of the musicians profiled.
The radio programs are split into two formats. The first is the Concerts by Composers series, which is a short conversation with the composer and then some excerpt of one of their concerts. Often these concerts took place at the EI loft, but there are also performances from other early New York venues such as The Kitchen and Roulette, venues still as important and active as Experimental Intermedia. The other programs are called Ultrasounds, and vary greatly in presentation from complete concert footage (Pauline Oliveros or Alvin Curran) to radio program as assemblage/composition (George Lewis).
Unfortunately, not all of the programs were able to be represented. A handful of these tapes were not able to be transferred at a quality high enough to honor the artistic intent of the composer’s work. Since DRAM was also involved in contacting each of the composers to obtain their permission to stream these programs, there are two that cannot be made available in accordance with their wishes. Whenever there is a specific issue with a program included in the archive with regard to sound quality, misinformation in original presentation, or a change to a recording at the composer’s request, we have included erratum in italics at the bottom of that program’s liner notes.
Many of the composers represented in the Experimental Intermedia Archive are also found elsewhere in DRAM. By accessing the liner notes for each individual program, you will find some biographical information and links to find out more about their work. In some cases, the composer/performer has also provided DRAM with a short quote about the place that the Experimental Intermedia loft occupied in their development. The recordings in the Experimental Intermedia Archive are tools to be used not only for the discovery of unreleased live performances and insights into compositional and performance practice, but a way to discover new and exciting artists. With that in mind, DRAM encourages you to find out more about these artists by exploring the database, and/or purchasing their music.
DRAM would like to extend a very special thanks to Dr. Bernard Gendron, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose paper on the history of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation and the 224 Centre Street loft was essential to the historical and aesthetic portions of this essay. His original history will be featured in a book on Phill Niblock, edited by Yvan Etienne and available soon from les presses du reel. Gendron is also the author of “Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde” from University of Chicago Press.