A door slams and footsteps fall across the floor, echoed through a multi-unit tape delay system in a studio at VPRO, the experimental radio station in Hilversum, Holland. A man intones an “ah” and slowly repeats it. The sounds go through the tape delay creating endless overlapping loops that collide with each other. An improvisation takes place between man and machine. The “ah” morphs into other simple syllabic sounds. Along with the sound of the performer’s breath, disjointed shapes are created that echo through the stereo field in unexpected ways, producing a surprisingly engaging piece of music, built from the barest of sources, that lasts just over five and a half minutes.
So goes “Mugic,” the first piece on Lexical Music, the 1980 album from Charles Amirkhanian, originally released on 1750 Arch Records, home to an interesting slice of the Bay Area’s experimental scene in the 1970s and ‘80s. The album is being reissued through Other Minds Records on February 3rd of this year, the one hundred and forty-third birthday of Gertrude Stein, without whom so much experimental literature and sound would never have happened. As noted in the original liner notes by Stephen Ruppenthal and Larry Wendt, the piece is somewhat indebted to the hindewhu flute and vocal music of the Ba-Benzele pygmies of the Congo.
I didn’t know the engineer had started the tape, so I go in and I slammed the heavy, heavy metallic door and I’m listening and the door is in the recording! . . . It was so unlike me because I usually try to structure things and make them formally have some sense to them. “Mugic” and “Muchrooms” were done very differently and kind of fun to do.1
Amirkhanian grew up in Fresno, California and began studying piano at the age of five. “It was inescapable,” he notes, since his mother and her three sisters all played piano. His formal music education consisted of ten years of piano lessons and music theory with one of his aunts as well as playing percussion in school ensembles throughout his youth.
Percussion took over when I realized I could write music that was just percussion ensembles [sic]. I heard music by Cage and Harrison and Varèse and Antheil and I was just completely hooked on it. Because when you’re playing in an orchestra and you’re playing Haydn, the only thing you can do is play the timpani, but if you’re playing Varèse you can play all sorts of stuff and you can even compose for instruments that aren’t instruments. That was pretty intriguing.
Early exposure to Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue left an indelible impression on the young Amirkhanian. Toch was an Austrian composer who fled the Nazis, temporarily settling in Paris and London before arriving in the United States, where he made a living composing film scores. Originally composed in German, the English translation was done by John Cage and Henry Cowell. The piece became Toch’s most well known, though the composer thought it of little value. A short rhythmic study in fugue form for spoken chorus, it consists of about forty words citing famous places and geographical names like “Trinidad,” “Honolulu,” and “Lake Titicaca.” The words and rhythms stack on top of each other in much the same way that, many years later, Amirkhanian would stack words and sounds on top of each other using tape machines.
In college at Fresno State, Amirkhanian attempted to be a good boy, officially studying business and advertising, unofficially continuing to study music in his free time. Self-taught in composition, his most important teachers were scores by composers like Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Morton Feldman. One of the biggest influences on Amirkhanian during his college years was Ron Harlan, the music librarian who shared his interest in modern classical music.
He knew that I was the only guy in the school that was interested in any of these records that he had been squirreling away. He said to me that if I would drive my car up to the loading dock on Friday afternoon after the faculty had gone home, he would give me fifty records for the weekend to listen to. And we did this for three, four years or so. And I listened to every LP in the music library that was twentieth century music.
Amirkhanian’s business studies left him cold and uninspired. His ears led him to a class being taught by Eugene Bluestein. This random occurrence proved to be his pathway into experimental literature.
I was walking down the hallway in the business building and somebody was holding a class and the sounds of Ives’s Concord Sonata are coming out of the room. And I knew that piece, so I went in and sat down and it was a man named Eugene Bluestein. He was teaching a class in Transcendental literature and he was a folk music expert who had gone to the Appalachians and recorded a lot of things . . . . At the end of class I walked up to him and said, “What is this class?” and he said, “We’re learning Transcendental literature.” I told him my predicament, that I was in classes with teachers I really didn’t respect, I just didn’t get it, how I was going to tolerate this. He said, “Son, the administration building is that direction, and go change your major to English.” And I did that!
A similar pattern emerged during Amirkhanian’s graduate studies at San Francisco State. Studying English and writing papers on literature he wasn’t interested in led him to look into alternatives, discovering an interdisciplinary studies department that had been established in 1955, the first of its kind in the country. Amirkhanian was able to study the experimental literature and music that truly interested him. He received a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Creative Arts, writing his thesis on visual scores for performance in any medium. “The idea was [that] you could subjectively interpret any part of the score at any time and you could do it in any medium. You could do the score as a film, or as a piece of choreography . . . you could use this as a score for shopping for groceries!”
After graduating Amirkhanian landed a job as Music Director at KPFA Radio, which he held from 1969-1992. During his tenure at the radio station, he interviewed composers and performers from around the world, introducing the West Coast to their sounds, expanding ears and minds along the way.
That was one of my goals, to make the avant-garde palatable for a large audience of people. Now, fortunately in the Bay Area, where I was doing radio, KPFA had been on the air since 1949, and some of the first people in the station were Henry Cowell and Harry Partch and all the people who were around here, Darius Milhaud and Roger Sessions, these guys were on the air all the time. So by the time I got to KPFA twenty years later, in 1969, there was an expectation that contemporary music would be on the radio, but not Come Out [Steve Reich’s seminal tape piece from 1966].
When I put that on, it was the first thing I played, people called up and said the record was stuck, they asked, “Did you put that on?” and I said, “Yes,” and they said, “You should be fired!” They would actually say that to the management, that this new kid, I was twenty-four, should be taken off the air because this is not music as we understand it. And three years later they were asking for Steve Reich’s music [laughs]. It took a while, though, to get people into minimalism. I think I was the first person in America to play Steve’s music on the radio, and maybe Philip Glass’s, I don’t know . . . I had the impression that it wasn’t being done anywhere else.
Part of Amirkhanian’s legacy is the archive that he has left behind from his time at KPFA. His hundreds of interviews, many conducted in front of a live audience, include in-depth discussions with people like Conlon Nancarrow, Margaret Leng Tan, Pierre Boulez, Brian Eno, Anthony Braxton, Henri Chopin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and many more. His programs included discussions on compositional systems, chance music, inter-media studies, sound poetry, just intonation, the string quartets of George Antheil, and all manners of avant-garde art, music, and literature. (Many of these interviews have been archived at the Internet Archive and RadiOM.)
When I was doing radio I really wanted people to understand something about the personality of the composer or what the idea of the piece was without going into technical details that were over everybody’s heads. I think challenging people a little bit and making them understand [that] music isn’t created in a void, it has a source and a logic to it, and personalizing the composer by interviewing them sometimes is a wonderful thing, because people might listen to a difficult composition if they understand what it’s about.
While on the radio, Amirkhanian was continuing to compose and perform his own work, much of which would fall into the category of sound poetry or text-sound. The term sound poetry comes out of the work of the Futurists and the Dadaists in the 1910s and 1920s. Hugo Ball wrote in his diaries of his desire to perform “poems without words.” These sound experiments continued in Europe through the 1940s and 1950s. François Dufrêne is generally considered to be the first person to explore the electroacoustic aspects of sound poetry by amplifying his voice in the 1950s. There were many others in Europe in the 1950s and ‘60s working along these same lines, people like Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, and Lily Greenham.
On September 3, 1967, at a gathering of composers and radio people in Hilversum, Holland, Lars-Gunnar Bodin and Bengt Emil Johnson, who were both doing work at Fylkingen in Stockholm, introduced the term “text-sound,” which has a somewhat different meaning than “sound poetry.” Bodin gives the definition as “signifying neither text, nor music, but a field of its own between the two, an interface or an intermedium.” Larry Wendt provides a slightly more specific insight, bringing into the equation the use of technology: “Johnson’s and Bodin’s work was a linguistic art form which used electronic and tape techniques to expand the expressive capacities of the human voice.” Wendt also states: “Text-sound composition is just one of the more well-known terms used to describe the technological aspects of this work and to isolate it both by history and connotation from sound poetry.” “Sound poetry,” despite using the word sound, does not historically imply that it is music in the way “text-sound” does. Regardless of the differences between the two terms, they are often used interchangeably, depending on the preference of the composer or performer. In our interview, Amirkhanian frequently switched between the two. There is also a third term that is used significantly less often, electroacoustic literature, which seems to me to give the technology too much importance.
There were also people in the United States working on this kind of text-sound composition, but they were few and far between. Amirkhanian’s position on the radio allowed him to play some of this music over the air and to also put out the call for listeners to submit their own work. The desire to showcase what was happening in America eventually led Amirkhanian in 1973 to release what is widely considered to be the first major album of American text-sound compositions, 10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1750 Arch Records). This compilation featured artists as diverse as Brion Gysin, John Giorno, Charles Dodge, Beth Anderson, Liam O’Gallagher, Clark Coolidge, John Cage (performed by Jack Briece), Robert Ashley, and more.
[Clark Coolidge] is the guy who literally was the inventor of Language Poetry. His father was chair of the music department at Brown, and he grew up playing the drums, and his poetry was influenced heavily by Gertrude Stein. There would be a blank page and four adverbs in a square, that’s it. And you’d look at that and wonder, “Well gosh, I wonder what that’s about?” But when you read them out loud and then you turned the page and read the other things out loud, it all sort of came together. And hearing him read was kind of like hearing a jazz drummer. He had a kind of emphasis that he would put on different words, everything in a flat delivery but with a little bit of irony and emphasis in the way he read. That had nothing to do with any European sound poetry. It was something quite different.
I’m trying to remember if there were very many people doing sound poetry [in the U.S.] when I started—Jerry Rothenberg and later Charlie Morrow and some others, but there weren’t a lot of people doing this. And then I started broadcasting things on KPFA and I put out a call for people to send things, and little by little I would get things in the mail, and John Giorno came along, and Bob Ashley was doing things with speech, but it was not at all like what the Europeans were doing. [Robert Ashley] is prose almost rather than poetry.
I also see [my work] as maybe 10% more on the musical side, it’s maybe 60% music and 40% literature, whereas a lot of guys like Cobbing and others would maybe say their work was poetry, just straight poetry. And I don’t feel that way about my work. I feel that the sound of it and the rhythm and timbres are all part of the experience and that there are musical considerations that Jackson Mac Low, for instance, never really paid much attention to.
In her recent book, Experimental Music Since 1970, Jennie Gottschalk describes Amirkhanian’s piece “Heavy Aspirations” (one of two Amirkhanian pieces on 10+2):
[It] uses a single spoken voice recording, but treats it in more identifiable ways through repetition–doubling it and creating two-part counterpoints. The speaker (the conductor Nicolas Slonimsky) has a very rhythmic, highly articulated, accented manner of speech that commands attention immediately. Though there are clear pitch inflections, the ear is drawn to the rhythm and the articulation of the delivery, particularly in the rapid-fire speech of the two versions of the voice in the last minute.
In 1973, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife, the artist Carol Law, who frequently provided the visual element of Amirkhanian’s performances through intensive slide displays, embarked for Holland. Amirkhanian spent five months producing radio shows for VPRO about the history of American music, from Benjamin Franklin’s compositions through to the avant-garde figures of the 1960s and ‘70s. These broadcasts led to a heightened awareness in Europe of what was occurring in American contemporary classical music, culminating in a strong presence of works by U.S. composers at the 1976 Holland Festival, including performances of works by Lou Harrison, George Antheil, and many others.
Much of Amirkhanian’s extra studio time in Holland, where he was granted the extreme luxury of having two engineers to work with, was spent developing and recording new work such as the previously mentioned “Mugic,” “Muchrooms” (his tribute to John Cage, a play on both Cage’s interest in mushrooms and the phrase “much rooms”), and “She She and She” (a tribute to Gertrude Stein in honor of her one-hundredth birthday). Along with three more recorded in California, these three pieces comprise the 1980 album Lexical Music.
One of the striking things about Amirkhanian’s work is the sense of humor and playfulness that courses through it. On Lexical Music, this humor is most apparent in the piece “Dutiful Ducks” which, at just over two minutes, is the shortest piece on the album. Despite often containing serious elements from his own life, humor is a pervasive influence, and a vitality that isn’t often found in other American text-sound work. Phrases chosen mostly for their sounds, like “the Drano ducks collide” or “gather-collide-like/fancy tension/pow-wow” appear alongside references to personal tragedy.
“Dutiful Ducks” was written when my mother had been in a really serious car accident in 1977. She was broadsided by a guy who was escaping, he had stolen a police car and was fleeing from the police, ran a red light and just smashed into her car. She was in a coma for five days and was lucky she lived. When she came out of it, she was writing with pencils to try and regain her motor abilities, and she would pick up three pens at the same time, or two pens, and write her name, Eleanor. She would write “Elly,” so that’s “Double Elly” [laughs].
Apparent throughout Lexical Music is the rhythmic influence from Amirkhanian’s years as a performer and composer of percussion music. These driving rhythms overlap with textures reflecting his interest in Reichian phase shifting and early minimalism. The clearest influence of Steve Reich can be heard on the composition “Seatbelt Seatbelt.” Recorded in Berkeley at the 1750 Arch Studios in 1973, it features the voices of Amirkhanian, John Duykers, Karl Goldstein, Janice Giteck, and Susan Napper. “Seatbelt” is constructed from twenty-seven tape loops, deployed in various configurations across three parts. The first section is constructed simply from the word “seatbelt.” The second section introduces a new phrase, “chum chum quack quack bone,” spoken initially in unison by two voices. The third section is a continuation of the phrases used in part two, but with the addition of the two female voices, and provides a striking change of timbre, functioning as a coda more than as a distinct section in its own right.
You can hear the influence of Steve Reich’s music in “Seatbelt,” but also the influence of Gertrude Stein and Clark Coolidge and some of the experimental poets I was interested in. And when I heard Steve’s music I was thinking, “Gosh that’s great! You can just take these two loops and have them going in and out of phase with each other, but what if you could in the middle of that change the image on the tape imperceptibly so the listener couldn’t figure out how that was happening?” And that was the kind of restless minimalism I was really interested in developing after having heard Steve’s music.
One of the major benefits of Amirkhanian’s time on the radio was the development of his own speaking voice. Though his work often features other voices in addition to his own, his unique, rich tenor voice and crisp enunciation provides the backbone for much of his text-sound work. His natural yet polished speaking voice is a striking contrast to the smooth as duck shit, overly-compressed-to-nearly-hellish-levels sound that one hears from radio “personalities” today.
An important difference between Amirkhanian’s work and that of other composers is his insistence on not following rigid, pre-determined scores. While he frequently worked from preconceived ideas and sketches while in the studio, he would follow his ears down the path they took him. In the 1980 book Text-Sound Text, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, Amirkhanian discussed his working process:
My sound poems derive from texts such as “Sniro” which are first read by me in a control room and then altered in various ways. My procedure is to listen to all recorded materials and choose the most remarkable (to my ear) sounds. These are then made into loops and mixed to create a situation in which one hears the words formed from the random synchronization formed when one hears several loops played at the same time. But the works are not fully scored in advance of working in the control room. This would put the emphasis on rational, coldly pre-thought-out forms before one actually hears the sounds to be utilized. The work is composed in the control room utilizing the materials of the text in many different ways with the exception of filtering and modulating which has already been adequately explored by composers of electronic music and musique concrète.
I am particularly uninterested in producing scores of my word/sound pieces for printed media. My background is as a composer and a poet. I have produced many music scores, intermedia scores, and straight and concrete poems. As for the text-sound compositions however, these are really finally done while listening to the sounds on tape and are not pre-composed.
This provides a striking counterpoint to works by someone like John Cage, for instance, who determined much of his work through chance operations with the I Ching, or by throwing dice, the musical consequences be damned.
“Mahogany Ballpark” from Lexical Music features location recordings Amirkhanian made with Paul Oppenheim in San Francisco, as well as sounds Amirkhanian recorded in Paris.
I went all over San Francisco with a recording engineer from CBS Radio who had a Nagra, which is a really fine reel-to-reel machine. We would go into underground subway stations where there was a resonant cavity, and he would turn the volume up and point to me, and I’d say a word, then he’d put the volume down. And my idea was we’d have all these different sorts of fadings-in and -out and they would fall in counterpoint with each other, so you’d have different locations and different timbres of the voice and different words that would somehow add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
Amirkhanian’s text-sound work didn’t stop with Lexical Music. In 1985 he released Mental Radio: Nine Text-Sound Compositions on CRI. The album continued his work with sound and language, incorporating more studio tricks, notably the synthesized rhythm tracks that accompanied some of the pieces. (Amirkhanian: “I love those bass drums that sound like cardboard.”) Owing mainly to advances in technology, pieces from the album were performed live much more often the previous works from Lexical Music. In 1997 he released the album Walking Tune on the Starkland label, though much of the album features electronic compositions where the voice plays a less central role than it did in his earlier work.
Amirkhanian’s interest in text-sound work continues. His most recent text-sound work was the 2007 piece commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival called “Quince Quinoa”, a play on food words, an appropriate idea given that Amirkhanian was to be the opening act for the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.
I thought of all the interesting foods I’ve had in different cultures and I made these lists of words and put them all together, went into the studio, recorded them, had percussion sounds mixed with them, and then I performed one of the vocal tracks live.
That was the last thing that I did that was a text-sound piece. Basically, for the last ten years I’ve been working really hard to program the music festival I do, the record company, the radio programs that Other Minds does, and [to] keep the fundraising going. Not too many people who run non-profits are both the programmer and the executive director. I’m the artistic director and I’m the executive director and it’s a very small organization, we just barely have enough manpower to keep it going. My [current] “art form” has been more or less to support other composers and put their music out there, because there is so much good stuff going on.
1 All Charles Amirkhanian quotes are from an interview with the author conducted January 8, 2017 unless otherwise stated.
David Menestres is a bassist, composer, and writer currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. David is the founder/leader of the Polyorchard ensemble and was the host and producer of Tone Science, a weekly two-hour radio show on taintradio.org from 2010-2016. <http://davidmenestres.com>
Banner image credit: "Mahogany Ballpark," Carol Law