Gordon Mumma: Studio Retrospect

stereo and binaural electroacoustic music


Studio Retrospect

STUDIO RETROSPECT is a collection of six compositions made in electronic music studios from 1959 to 1984. All were composed for concert hall or theater performance with choreography, as well as for distribution on recordings. Music from the Venezia Space Theatre, The Dresden Interleaf, and Echo-D were composed for quadraphonic theater systems, and were later spatially remodeled for release on stereophonic recordings.

RETROSPECT (1959-1982) was assembled from four shorter electroacoustic pieces: Densities (1959), Phenomenon Unarticulated (1972), Wooden Pajamas (1973), and Spectral Portrait (1982). Densities was originally a part of Mumma's Sinfonia For 12 Instruments and Magnetic Tape. The very quiet Phenomenon Unarticulated was composed for Merce Cunningham's choreography Landrover, and with the title Echo-A served as music for the Portland Dance Theatre production of the choreographic theater work Echo. Wooden Pajamas is a memorial to Salvador Allende: on the day of his death, Allende responded to a New York Times reporter that "they'll have to carry me out of here in wooden pajamas." Allende's original phrase, in Spanish, occurs at the beginning of the Wooden Pajamas section, followed by an increasingly complex multivoice rhythmic canon of percussive drums. Spectral Portrait is related to Echo-A in the same way as Claude Monet's poplar trees relate to each other—an identical landscape viewed in the light of different times of day. The technology used in the composition of RETROSPECT spans from the vacuum-tube analog-synthesis era in Densities to the solid-state digital-synthesis era in Spectral Portrait.

MUSIC FROM THE VENEZIA SPACE THEATRE (1964) is a three movement excerpt from the music composed at the invitation of Luigi Nono for the 27th Venezia Biennale performances of Teatro dello Spazio in September 1964 at La Fenice opera house. The Teatro dello Spazio production was an hour-long program of image-projection, with recorded and live electronic music, and modern dance, performed by the ONCE Group ensemble. Directed by Milton Cohen, the group included composers Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma, and performers Mary Ashley, Harold Borkin, George Manupelli, Carolyn Player, and Joseph Wehrer.

THE DRESDEN INTERLEAF 13 FEBRUARY 1945 (1965) commemorates the bombing of the city of Dresden in the final days of World War II. Dresden, like Kyoto, Paris, and Venice, had been designated an irreplaceable historic treasure and spared as a military target. The city was used as a refuge for war casualties, prisoners, children and elderly civilians--until February 13. The bombing of Dresden provided the Allies the last chance to experiment with a firestorm on a previously undamaged city. A firestorm is a meteorological phenomenon that rapidly consumes oxygen over a wide area, resulting in suffocating incineration.

The workwas composed during the last months of 1964 at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its concert premiere took place on 13 February 1965, the twentieth anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, at a ONCE Festival concert in Ann Arbor. The premiere combined recorded sound with the harrowing live performance of alcohol-burning model-airplane engines in the central section. The "Interleaf" of its title refers to its parenthetical insertion between two unrelated instrumental compositions in this first and several subsequent performances; performed without a break between it and its framing works, the work evokes the brutally interuptive suspension of normal daily life of that February day.

ECHO-D (1978) is one of four parts of Echo, an evening-long work for modern dance, commissioned by the Portland Dance Theater under the auspices of the Oregon Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The production of Echo was a collaboration between artistic director Jan McCauley, the Dutch scenic artist Henk Pander, lighting designer Peter West, and composer Gordon Mumma, and was premiered at the Portland Civic Auditorium in October 1978.

The dance production of Echo explores antique concepts of space and time. The scenic aspects combined old-fashioned and modern theatrical magic-—painted decor rear-projected on translucent surfaces and reflected from large, flexible mirrors, with illumination from neon tubes, and quartz and point-source lights. The dancers were seen in three modes: directly, in visual echoes from reflective foil, and in rapidly changing shadow images.

The impetus for the Echo-D music was the historical use of mechanical devices for the measurement of time and the relationships of celestial bodies in space. The music unfolds in fragments and sequences, isolated in sound-field layers of foreground, background, and various middle-grounds. These layers are related to a pedal-point "D" that is heard continuously throughout Echo-D. The location in space of the "D" pedal-point is somewhat ambiguous, although some of the other sound layers are audibly in front of it, and others are in the distance behind it. The sound of this pedal-point is a Doppler-shifting resonance periodically articulated by a harpsichord (originally at the baroque-era "D" pitch of 293 Hz); the other primary sound source is a digitally-controlled analog synthesizer of Donald Buchla. The musical fragments of Echo-D are isolated from each other in time, analogous to the spatial isolation of the sound-field layers. Some of these musical fragments occur only once and are not further developed; others develop within themselves, mostly with reflective procedures such as canon and isorhythm.

PONTPOINT (1966-1980) is named for a rural village on the Oise River, north of Paris, whose name signifies "place of the bridge." Work on its music began in that village during August 1966, while Mumma and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company were the guests of Bénédicte Pesle, to whom the music is dedicated. Pontpoint is a companion-piece to Mumma's earlier Mesa (1966) and Beam (1969), all three of which were inspired by bridge and beam systems.

The compositional work for PONTPOINT was continued with interruptions until 1980, when it was commissioned for premiere by Jan Dryer McCauley's modern dance company Cirque in Portland, Oregon. PONTPOINT has subsequently been performed with other modern dance choreography. It has also became part of an innovative video composition by Maggi Payne, involving microscopic chemical images and complex water-reflective surfaces.

The sounds of Pontpoint were produced by two acoustical instruments, the bandoneon and the bowed psaltery. The bandoneon is a polyphonic, metal reed instrument with a cube-shaped bellows and button keyboards; a member of the concertina family, it survives now in Argentine tango bands. The bowed psaltery is a multi-stringed zither that was plucked in ancient times. The sounds of these instruments were extensively modified with "cybersonic" analog electronic circuits that Mumma developed specifically for PONTPOINT.

Pontpoint is constructed of eight musical sequences, each separated by silence. The balance of musical ingredients is unusual, with the spatial movement of the sounds of equal importance to the pitches, dynamics, and timbres. The musical activities of the pitches and dynamics are deliberately economical, to allow for greater development of timbre and spatial movement. The musical syntax emphasizes the counterpoint of simultaneous sound movements in space. Extravagant gestures are avoided, and the contrapuntal patterns of pitch, timbre, and rhythm evolve gradually. Pontpoint moves in a complex, asymmetrical three-dimensional space. The spatial integrity of the music is best preserved in a binaural context, by listening with headphones.

EPIFONT was composed in 1984, in memoriam for the extraordinary composer George Cacioppo (1927-1984). The work comesfrom an ongoing series of short electroacoustical and computer pieces, mostly private works, called Spectral Portraits, each of which explores a specific musical problem. Epifont juxtaposes acoustical with digitally-synthesized sounds, and justly-tuned with equal-tempered spectra. It was premiered in April 1985 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in a festival honoring Cacioppo's life and work.

--Notes by Gordon Mumma

Gordon Mumma (born 1935 in Framingham, Massachusetts) was a member of the Sonic Arts Union (with Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Alvin Lucier) and, with John Cage and David Tudor, a composer and musician for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. His compositions include works for acoustical instruments (notably for piano solo), as well as for electronic and computer resources.

Photo credits:

[1] During the 1960s and 1970s Mumma was often dressed in portable recording apparatus, gathering sounds for music resources.  Photo by David Behrman, early 1970s.

[2] George Cacioppo and Mumma, in the labor-intensive process of composing with analog electronic-music equipment.  Photo by Jacqueline Leuzinger, Ann Arbor, 1963.

[3] Mumma, in a recording session of David Tudor performing Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People, at Richard Lippold’s house.  Photo by Barbara Lloyd, New York, August 1967.

[4] A photo-portrait for Mumma’s article “An Electronic Music Studio for the Independent Composer”, requested by Robert Moog for the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.  Photo by Jacqueline Leuzinger, Ann Arbor, May 1964.

The production of this compact disk has been partially funded by a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, administered by the American Music Center.

Art Direction and Design: By Design

Copyright c 1959-1984 by Cybersonic Arts (BMI)
c P 2000 Lovely Music, Ltd.
All rights reserved.

LCD 1093 [D][D][D]