Intermedia Art

New Media, Sound and Performance

Opening Systems of Sound   

An opening introduction by Seth Kim Cohen

While folks like Mel Bochner, Adrian Piper, and Bruce Nauman were rethinking art c. 1970, others, like Alvin Lucier and John White were rethinking music. If Duchamp was the man who gave the go-ahead to the visual artists, it was John Cage who wrote the permission slips in the music hall. After Duchamp initiated a non-retinal visual art, Cage seemed on the verge of initiating a non-cochlear sonic art. Alas, he was too fond of music, too attached to the ear, to leave them behind.

On this side of the Atlantic, the rethinking of music accommodated leftist politics, a complimentary improvisational freedom, and a distinctly British humor. The Scratch Orchestra, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and, most literally, Hugh Shrapnel's Houdini Rite - which featured performers bound together by ropes - struggled against the confines of the European concert tradition. John White fully embraced the possibilities of a Duchampian musical turn. He formulated the concept of the musical readymade, as exemplified by his c. 1970 "machine" works (Autumn Countdown Machine, Drinking and Hooting Machine, Cello and Tuba Machine, etc.) Mid-century debates about tonalism are rendered obsolete by the system-centricity of White's machines. Because, as pointed out in Michael Nyman's landmark survey, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, "the emphasis on process means that the primary material may be quite insignificant".

In America, the Minimalism of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass, for all its ability to annoy the neighbors, was little more than an extreme, yet logical, extension of traditional forms. Alvin Lucier's experiments were far more radical. His I Am Sitting In A Room (1969) has earned epochal status (see Ben Borthwick's essay, included here). Systems are of paramount importance in Lucier's methodology. Systems may be employed to painstakingly explore the sonic properties of an object (i.e., a triangle, in tonight's Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra), elsewhere extra-musical systems are used to dictate sonic parameters (Vespers (1969) explores the dimensions of the performance space using echolocation devices; the resulting sounds being incidental to the systemically-determined movements of the performers). Lucier's experiments - along with those of Max Neuhaus - must be heard as the seeds which have blossomed decades later as "sound art".

We are pleased to present the work of Alvin Lucier and John White, along with four younger artists in receipt of their legacies: Alvin's former student, the late Stuart Marshall; Andrew Morgan, composition fellow at the Royal Academy of Music; and Tim Parkinson and John Lely, whose recent concert series Music We'd Like To Hear, established their devotion to open sound systems.

Tonight's concert is dedicated to the memory of Luc Ferrari, who passed away last month. If he had a million listeners, the world would be a better place. Without him, we are undoubtedly diminished.

Many thanks to the performers for their great good will and to the Centre for Creative Research into Sound Art and Performance for their generous support.

Open Sound System

Live performance recordings of compositions by Alvin Lucier and John White performed in collaboration with a group of emerging musicians

Alvin Lucier

Live Performance at Tate Modern

John White

Live performance recordings of John White's compositions

Composition, Repetition, Entropy

Text on aesthetic strategies c.1970 by Ben Borthwick