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  • Thom Holmes

Those We Have Lost—Electronic Musicians Who Passed in 2021

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

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


In this episode, we will listen to some music by composers and electronic musicians whom we lost in the year 2021. This is not intended as a complete list, so please, no complaints. But this list should represent artists who were near and dear to the listeners of the Archive.


We will listen to eleven works by eight artists including Alvin Lucier, Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire, Joel Chadabe, Jon Hassell, Sophie, Malcolm Cecil, Peter Zinovieff, and R. Murray Schafer. In each case, I tried to select works that were lesser known but equally as interesting as electronic music as their better-known works.


With a person’s passing always comes regret. At the same time, much of how we know them is from what they’ve done and the memories they leave others. In the case of composers, their music is what will be with us forever.


I have just a couple of recollections to share. The piece I am going to play by Alvin Lucier, Vespers, was performed by members of the Sonic Arts Union: Lucier, Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma. For this work, they each had a handheld device called a Sondol that emitted echolocation sounds, likes clicks and beats. I was at a live performance of this work in Philadelphia in 1972 and I must admit I was taken by surprise by the way in which this work was performed. I had no expectations. It was, I believe, the first work on the program. The players entered from the lobby and began to work their Sondols as they made their way toward the stage. Each was blindfolded. The sound was totally absorbing as were the movements of the performers as they echolocated their way toward the front of the theater. This result was a work comprised of four independent streams of percussive pulses that sounded as if they had their own relationship to one another as each musician made their way about in the space.


I also wanted to mention Joel Chadabe. I was not a close, personal friend of Joel’s, but I had known him for years. In fact, it was just before the pandemic hit in early 2020 that I last spent some time with him in New York. I sat in on his small graduate course in composition at NYU. Before class, over coffees, we caught up on things. We were planning for me to speak at one of his upcoming classes, and I was thinking that he should talk to my publisher about reprinting his famous text from the 1990s, Electric Sound. I thought the two of our books belonged on the same bookshelf together. We parted that night, corresponded a bit, but I never heard from him again as the pandemic prevailed to disrupt our lives.


Playlist

In this episode, we pay tribute to electronic composers and musicians who passed in 2021. I’ve put together what I hope will be a satisfying playlist of these diverse artists and their works.


1. Alvin Lucier, “Vespers” from Electric Sound (1972 Mainstream). This work was performed by Lucier and other members of the Sonic Arts union, David Behrman, Robert Ashley, and Gordon Mumma. The musical instrument was a device not intended for making electronic music. It was the Sondol, a hand-held pulse oscillator designed for “boat owners, acoustic engineers, and the blind.” Lucier bought a few of these devices and worked out a piece for echolocation. Each performer was equipped with a Sondol and asked to move blindfolded inside a defined performing space. This resulted in a work comprised of four independent streams of percussive pulses that sound as if they have their own relationship to one another as each musician moves about in the space. VESPERS is written as a prose score in which Lucier invites the performer to explore the world beyond human limits: “Dive with whales, fly with certain nocturnal birds or bats (particularly the common bat of Europe and North America of the family Vespertilionidae), or seek the help of other experts in the art of echolocation.”


2. Richard H. Kirk, with Cabaret Voltaire, “Let it Come Down” from International Language (1993 Plastex). This album was released during a period of transformation for CV. Founding member Chris Watson had left to pursue other sound interests, while Mallinder and Kirk remained and headed into the instrumental direction embodied by dance music. The liner notes for this album state, “Abandon thinking. Everything you will hear in the next seventy-four minutes is true. This music is dedicated to the Merry Pranksters past present & future.” Not sure what that means, but hey. This group was fantastic.


3. Richard H. Kirk, solo, "Information Therapy" from Disposable Half-Truths (1980 Industrial Records). This was from Kirk’s first solo cassette release while he maintained his parallel work with Cabaret Voltaire.


4. Joel Chadabe, “Rendevous” from Rhythms for Computer and Percussion (1981 Lovely Music). Joel had such a long list of accomplishments in electronic music, a pioneer of analog systems as well as computer music. On this album, his collaboration with percussionist Jan Williams was startlingly fresh. Electronics, computer synthesizer system (Synclavier), Joel Chadabe; percussion, wood block, vibraphone, marimba, slit drum, log drum, temple block, cowbell, singing bowls, Jan Williams. "The equipment used in RHYTHMS is a portable minicomputer/digital synthesizer system designed and manufactured by New England Digital Corporation in Norwich, Vermont, expressly for making music."


5. Jon Hassell, “Abu Gil” Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (2009 ECM). Trumpet, keyboard, composed by Jon Hassell; bass, Peter Freeman; Live sampling, Jan Bang; guitar, Rick Cox; drums, Helge Norbakken; violin, Kheir-Eddine M’Kachinche.


6. Jon Hassell, “Wing Melodies” from Power Spot (1981 ECM). Trumpet, composed by Jon Hassell; guitar, electronic treatments, Michael Brook; electric bass, Brian Eno; electronic keyboards (bass, percussion, string sounds), Jean-Phillippe Rykiel; percussion, acoustic and electronic, alto flute, J. A. Deane; produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.


7. Sophie, Eeehhh” from Nothing More to Say (2012 Huntleys & Palmers). Electronics, vocals, composed and performed by Sophie Xeon. I chose a couple of earlier tracks that were largely instrumental experiments.


8. Sophie, “Elle” from Bipp/Elle (2013 Numbers). Electronics, vocals, composed and performed by Sophie Xeon. Sophie was primarily known for electronica dance music.


9. Malcolm Cecil, “Gamerlonia Dawn” from Radiance (1981 Unity Records). Composed By, Performer, Producer, Engineer, Malcolm Cecil. English bassist and inventor of the unique TONTO synthesizer ("The Original New Timbral Orchestra"), a massive integrated synthesizer system that was used on many analog electronic albums in the early 1970s. Episode 36 was devoted to Cecil’s work so you might want to catch-up with that to get more detail about this amazing musician and producer. This track uses TONTO and also features the “golden flute” of Paul Horn.


10.Peter Zinovieff, “M Piriform” from Electronic Calendar—The EMS Tapes (2015 Space Age Recordings). Computer music from 1981 by the founder of EMS, Peter Zinovieff, with composer/conductor Justin Connolly. Collaborating with classical composer Connolly, Zinovieff created the electronic music in his Putney studio, using computer-controlled audio generators, and combined it with instrumental parts written by Connolly for soprano, flute, and violin. This performance of the work was staged in 1969 and featured Jane Manning (soprano), Judith Pearce (flute) and Pauline Scott (violin), who all played along with a tape recording of the electronic part.


11. R. Murray Schafer, “Threnody” from Threnody (Youth Music by R. Murray Schafer) (1970 Melbourne). This Canadian release features an instrumental work with electronic sound by Schafer, who is perhaps more familiar to us as a creator of soundscapes and ambient audio experiments. But he also worked in traditional instrumental music and featured electronics in some of these. There are not many recordings such as this example from 52 years ago.

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