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  • Thom Holmes

Music of the Body

My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


In going through my archives, I noticed a trend for recordings made using human body sounds. For the associated podcast, I’ve chosen a few select electronic works that either incorporate audio recordings from within the body, such as the heartbeat or breathing or otherwise derive their audio signals from some internal process such as digestion or brainwaves. All of this is dressed up in the style of the individual composer, so most of these works will sound quite different from one another. One thing is for sure, body sounds have been an inspiration to electronic music composers.


I’m dividing up the works according the parts of the body, as indicated in the playlist for this episode. We will travel from The Heart, The Brain, The Human Voice, The Breath and Lungs, and finally along the entire digestive tract in a section called Endoscopy. Works I’m featuring include two quite different approaches to making music with brainwaves: Music for Solo Performer by Alvin Lucier and the seldom heard Levitation by Pierre Henry. Both of these works involve processing of brain waves in real time during a performance. In the Lucier case, the vibrations are used to drive loudspeakers that in turn rattle various percussive objects placed on vibrating surfaces such as drumheads. For the Henry work, the brain wave signals were ingested into an audio signal processor that Henry adjusted and played during a performance.


Later in the program I featured the twelve-part Musica Endoscopica by Teresa Rampazzi, a rarely heard electronic work from 1972. Rampazzi was head of an Italian electronic and computer music studio. Musica Endoscopica was a soundtrack made in 1972 for a documentary film called Gastroscopia. Rampazzi wove the actual sound of “gloomy sound blocks and textures of convulsive rhythms” into electronic works for each stage of the digestive system.


Mixed-in will be an assortment of shorter works by Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, Johan Timman, and the contemporary electronic duo Orphx, masterminded by musicians Christina Sealey and Rich Oddie.


Playlist for Music of the Body



The Heart

1. Orphx, “Biorhythm” from The Living Tissue (2001 Hands Productions). Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey, modular and analog synthesizers, software, location recordings and feedback circuits. Includes the modified sounds of the heartbeat, breath and synthesizer.


The Brain

2. Alvin Lucier, “Music for Solo Performer” from Music for Solo Performer (1982 Lovely Music). Performance by Pauline Oliveros. Percussion Arrangement, Ron Kuivila; Engineers, Jack Stang, Nicolas Collins; Producer, Alvin Lucier. Recorded January 21-24, 1982 at Nickel Recording, Hartford, CT. Reportedly, the first musical work in history to use brain waves to generate sound (whereas the sonification of brain waves has been around since the 1930s). Composed by Lucier during the winter of 1964-65 and first performed with the help of physicist Edmond Dewan on May 5, 1965. Lucier had the brilliant idea to let the amplified brain wave signals create music through sympathetically vibrating various percussion surfaces and objects through loudspeakers. For this recording, Nic Collins also created a number of voltage-driven solonoids to act as “electric drumsticks” to play various metal instruments and small drums, all controlled by the Alpha waves generated by the brain of the performer.


3. Pierre Henry, “Levitation” from Mise En Musique Du Corticalart De Roger Lafosse (1971 Philips). Live improvisations recorded Feb. 15-21, 1971 by Pierre Henry from Roger Lafosse's Corticalart device, allowing to transcribe the electric cortex waves in electronic signals for further raw manipulations.


The Human Voice

4. Orphx, “Mother Tongue” from The Living Tissue (2001 Hands Productions). Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey, modular and analog synthesizers, software, location recordings and feedback circuits. Includes the modified sounds of the human body and voice.


5. Ben Patterson, “A Fluxus Elegy” (excerpt) from A Fluxus Elegy (2006 Alga Marghen). Limited edition of 345 copies. Patterson, a double bass player, was an original member of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. This elegy to Fluxus artists consists of the initials of the names of key Fluxus artists, encoded into basic Morse code and then performed using a Yamaha DJX keyboard (voice pattern setting) connected to a Digitech JamMan Looper (over-dub setting) connected to a Eurorack MX 602 mixer.


The Breath, Lungs

6. Johan Timman, “The Windpipe” and “The Lungs” from Trip Into the Body (1981 Fleet). Composed, performed, recorded, and mixed by Johan Timman. Timman had a massive private studio consisting of Moog synthesizers, some privately made, plus other electronic music instruments. Brands represented include Moog, Oberheim, Roland, EMS, and Synton (vocoder). His was an elaborate analog studio on the eve of the digital revolution.


7. Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, “Body Transport” from Music From the Body (1970 Harvest). Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, guitars, body sounds, field recordings, tape composition. Geesin was a composer and tape music technician who worked with Pink Floyd on 1970’s Atom Heart Mother. He collaborated with Waters on this set of songs inspired by the human body, the most tuneful of which were used in a 30-minute television production. The rest of the material not used for the TV production included this piece for clapping, vocal and other sounds.


Endoscopy

8. Teresa Rampazzi, “Musica Endoscopica” (1972/2008 Die Schachtel) in entirety. Teresa Rampazzi was an Italian pianist and composer of electronic music. After meeting John Cage in 1958 she devoted herself to developing electronic music. In 1965 she founded the Gruppo NPS (Nuove Proposte Sonore) in Padua which also experimented with computer music. This is a soundtrack made in 1972 for a documentary film called Gastroscopia. Rampazzi wove the actual sound of “gloomy sound blocks and textures of convulsive rhythms” into electronic works for each stage of the digestive system. The sequence is named after sections of the digestive tract: Fibre Ottiche, Laringe, Stomaco, Esofago, Stomaco, Esofago, Stomaco, Stomaco Più Esofago, Stomaco Operato, Duodeno Normale, Duodeno Patologico, and Papille Di F. E Altro (optical fibres).


The Archive Mix—where two tracks are played at the same time to see what happens.

  • Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Nasal Retentive Caliope Music (1968 Verve).

  • Johan Timman, “Heart” from Trip Into the Body (1981 Fleet). Composed, performed, recorded, and mixed by Johan Timman.


Other Notes

Opening track: Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, “Our Song” (excerpt) from Music From the Body (1970 Harvest). Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, guitars, body sounds, field recordings, tape composition.


Also heard from time to time, excerpts from Auscultation Of The Heart (1966 London) by J. B. Barlow* & W. A. Pocock, narration by Stephen O'Reilly. A medical reference recording with discussion and examples of various heartbeats and pathologies. “Provided as a service to medical students as a part of the Medical School Program of Warner-Chilcott Laboratories.”


I encourage you to pick up a copy of Alvin Lucier’s Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music. This is the most digestible and thoughtful book about the avant garde since Cage’s Silence and it is grounded by Lucier’s real-world experience teaching and mentoring musicians for his many years at Wesleyan.


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.


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