Mar 19, 2018
Synth Nights: Composers Inside Electronics (March 29–31) celebrates forty years since CIE first performed at The Kitchen. In advance of this three-night series, Sara O'Brien spoke with founding members Phil Edelstein and John Driscoll about these early performances and the evolution of CIE over the years, as well as to Cecilia López about her own work and recent involvement with CIE.
For Phil Edelstein, a long-standing member of Composers Inside Electronics (CIE), their early performances at The Kitchen in the 1970s were integral to the development of the collective: “CIE performances at The Kitchen have always been milestones to refine works to more essential renderings and as an inflection point to launch new directions and dimensions. The 1977 and 1978 CIE performances were a formative opportunity for CIE to coalesce and carry forward the collaborative and cooperative performance of electronic works.”
John Driscoll recalls how the performances in 1977 and 1978 “emphasized performing with each other on our works, which created a wonderful blending of the composer/performer relationships and formed a strong model for future Composers Inside Electronics and personal performances. In 1977 there was an assortment of performers each night with two to three works per evening by myself, Phil Edelstein, Linda Fisher, David Tudor, and Bill Viola. In ’78 the works were evening-long works by myself, Ralph Jones, Martin Kalve, and David Tudor with all four composers performing on each work. This created a dynamic understanding of each other’s works and led to reimagining their performance by the unique interpretations each person brought to the works. We are still learning from works that we have been performing for almost 45 years.”
John Driscoll's Ebers & Mole at The Kitchen, 1978. Photo: Stan Ries.
For CIE’s 40th anniversary series of concerts, both Driscoll and Edelstein will present works they performed at The Kitchen series in 1977. This will take place alongside the presentation of newer and early works by other long-term members of CIE Ralph Jones (who will perform Star Networks at the Singing Point, which featured in The Kitchen series in 1978), Paul DeMarinis, and Ron Kuivila. Asked about the origins of his piece, Listening Out Loud (1975), Driscoll once again refers to the earliest days of CIE: “The origins of Listening Out Loud came from hearing Gordon Mumma play the bowed saw at New Music in New Hampshire in 1973. I was charmed by its simplicity of tone, which was enhanced by the resonance of the performance space."
Driscoll vividly recalls performing this work at The Kitchen’s former Soho space: “I placed a speaker in the stairwell at the old Broome Street Kitchen space to give a distant presence along with two speakers in the concert space for the modulation. The saw players (Bill Viola and myself) also used microphone goosenecks, which were blown into as an additional sound source with the benefit that, if they were placed on microphone stands, the saw players could blow into the goosenecks while still playing. I strongly remember the challenge of dealing with the rumbling of the trucks outside and how to integrate them or perform around them–similar to the transients from the sewing machines at Phill Niblock’s space. You can identify the early recordings from those spaces by either the trucks or transients–a true New York artifact.”
Similarly reflecting on the origins of his piece, Shrieks and Nuptials (1976), Edelstein draws as much from the contextual and experiential influences that informed the work as he does the technical considerations. Shrieks and Nuptials, Edelstein says, “came from a confluence of factors and places that are a bit jumbled to recollect. The shrieks were derived from the development of a Moog patch that could move from places of silences to howls by varying a single control parameter that I encountered in Albany, New York, around 1975. The patch had these wild sonic excursions that I didn’t quite understand at the time, but I was hooked on hearing what was for me a new range of sonic possibilities.”
Amidst growing incentives to develop portable instruments and performance works, Edelstein proceeded to translate the patch to a portable circuit, and “the form of the work took shape as a duet for composer with electronics and dancer who are physically coupled by an elastic band and emotional bonds under tension.” While the “shrieks” of the work’s title came from the equipment Edelstein was experimenting with, the idea of “nuptials” seems to have arisen out of his circumstances at the time: “Some point in there, I have this recollection of listening to that cassette sitting in the Zabriskie Point parking lot overlooking Death Valley now clearly in the midst of a brief but precious love affair and clueless of the path to come, and the nature of commitment and marriage.” Edelstein’s 2018 restaging of Shrieks and Nuptials will not include a dancer as did the original Kitchen performance but, given the contextual origins of the work, Edelstein conceives of this performance as “bringing the work forward with a shadow of the emotional context of the original.”
The re-staging of works from 1977 and ’78 will take place alongside performances of newer works by Driscoll and Edelstein, as well as work by newer members of CIE. One of these members, Cecilia López, first became familiar with CIE’s work when she came to study in the US from Buenos Aires, Argentina–where she had been “working with electronics and objects in a very informal DIY context”–a few years ago. “It was interesting for me to find so many similarities with CIE methods regarding the use of materials, sound objects, notions of control, chaos, and the organicity of electronics besides the different genealogy that I relate to. Besides assisting John Driscoll with the construction of some sound objects for a CIE installation, this will be my first performance with them. I am very excited to be part of this 40th anniversary concert with CIE, not only because I belong to a younger generation of experimental sound artists and musicians, but also because I come from a very different context. I think that cross-generational and cross-cultural exchanges are incredibly fruitful and both sides of the equation benefit from them. They reflect on congruencies about sound practices that go beyond other differences.”
Cecilia López's Red at ISSUE Project Room, February 2017. Photo: Cameron Kelly, Courtesy of ISSUE Project Room.
As part of this CIE series at The Kitchen, López will perform Red, which is part sound work, part installation, and changes with every iteration. “Red is the name of a material/device which consists of nets weaved with speaker wire,” López explains. “The project is now about 4 years old and it’s a sculptural feedback piece. I’ve worked with feedback as a main sound matter throughout my practice. I mostly experiment with resonant objects/surfaces, and this is probably the first piece in which the sound body being activated is in a way delineated but missing. The wires map a space and they translate movement into sound, but it’s like having a bare nervous system without a container, they are the resonant body itself. I think that Red is a work that brings my ideas about precariousness, organicity, and sound self-generation to a very raw or basic level.”
Driscoll’s more recent work, Speaking in Tongues, also has roots in experimentations with feedback. He describes it as “a work-in-progress that started in 2012 with an interest in re-exploring an earlier work, Its in them and its just gotta come out, using ultrasonic feedback. The new work continues the exploration of ultrasonic feedback with an ever-expanding orchestra of instruments, which activate the feedback and generate the signals. It is a combination of acoustical analog signal generation combined with microcontrollers controlling the motion of small motors. These instruments suggest a world of playful sound generation unlimited in its materials, direction, and scope.”
In considering how these newer works reflect the evolution of his practice and work with CIE over the years, Driscoll explains how, “In the works presented at The Kitchen in ‘77/’78 my interest was the interaction of electronics and mechanical resonance–be it in materials or in spaces. Speaking in Tongues continues this focus by utilizing newer analog and digital technologies, and perpetuates the CIE tradition of collaborative composers/performers. In many ways, the technologies have evolved and the performers have been numerous, but my underlying fascination with sonic architectures has remained steadfast.”
Edelstein maintains a similar sense of continuity when reflecting on the development of his work and involvement with CIE throughout this period: “I don’t have a strong sense of separation between new and old. I attribute this largely to the focus on live performance and the constant challenge of what makes sense now. We always had some sense of maximizing the effectiveness of materials at hand in this way from David Tudor. In retrospect, through examination of his works in the last few years, largely through the work of You Nakai and Michael Johnsen, we have been able to develop a more fundamental understanding of the functional basis of the structure and nature of that reuse. These lessons have been carried into newer work adapted to contemporary technology.”
As a collective, CIE continues to facilitate the growth and refinement of individual works and ideas through collaborative performances and an ongoing engagement with works and members, both old and new. As Edelstein reflects:
“For me, the cycles of evolution are essential. From the earliest CIE works, new pieces often used elements from previous works or unused ideas that need a new home.”
It is this spirit of experimentation, exploration, and constant adaptation that is at the core of what has both sustained and augmented CIE’s work over the course of the last forty years.
Banner image: Score for Ebers & Mole, 1977. © John Driscoll.