Experimental Music Studio Interview

Nolan Vallier
Graduate Assistant for Sousa Archives, PhD student in Musicology

Scott W. Schwartz
Archivist for Music and Fine Arts and Director
Sousa Archives and Center for American Music

I’ve been a little behind posting track of the day because the holidays snuck up on me and in part because I’ve been trying to put together this interview post in a way that was informative, interesting, and as accurate as could be. I sat down with Nolan Vallier and Scott Schwartz of the Sousa Music Archives at the University of Illinois to discuss a recent exhibit they had put together documenting the development of the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois.

Throughout the interview, we discussed the EMS’ role in the development of experimental music in the United States during the middle of the 20th century. We also discussed some of the challenges of telling a story like this within the context of an exhibit. Throughout I have attempted to assemble recordings or relevant information about the composers and compositions discussed. The Sousa Archives are currently displaying an exhibit on Partch as well as displaying a working replica of the Harmonic Tone Generator which is a real treat to play, so if you have the time I suggest you check them out. More info can be found here.

I began the interview by asking how the EMS first developed by making use of the ILLIAC I which was completed in 1952 and represents the first computing device constructed and controlled entirely by the University. It is this computer which serves as the foundation for the establishment of the EMS, which came as the University of Illinois prepared to unveil the ILLIAC I’s successor, ILLIAC II:

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Symphonies of the Planets

The artist of the above track is in part the Voyager space probes themselves, who collected the raw electromagnetic data from space which were edited into the sounds you hear. The five disc set was released by Laserlight in 1992 and has been out of print for some time now, though it’s possible to hear all five discs on Youtube.

From the liner notes:

This unique series of recordings (5 volumes) is created from Original Voyager recordings of the electromagnetic “voices” of the planets and moons in our Solar System. Although space is a virtual vacuum, this does not mean there is no sound in space. Sound does exist as electronic vibrations. The specially designed instruments on board the Voyagers performed special experiments to pick up and record these vibrations, all within the range of human hearing.

The data that was collected was then further edited to make it a bit more pleasing to the ear than the raw data likely would have been, but the source of the signal itself is still signals from space, which is in-fucking-credible. The liner notes continue describing the sources of signals present in the recordings:

1. From the interaction of the solar wind with the planet’s magnetosphere, which releases charged ionic particles within a vibration frequency in an audible range (20-20,000 Hz).
2. From the magnetosphere itself.
3. From trapped radio waves bouncing between the planet and the inner surface of its atmosphere.
4. Electromagnetic field noise within space itself.
5. From charged particle interactions of the planet, its moons, and the solar wind.
6. From charged particle emissions from the rings of certain planets.

In 2012 the Voyager I probe became the first scientific instrument to leave the boundary of our solar system and, remarkably, still receives commands and transmits data back to NASA. It communicates using the Deep Space Network which is run by NASA and operates facilities around the world for communicating with Voyager and other exploratory and scientific tools in space. NASA has plans to continue using the Voyager probe until 2025, when it will stop producing enough power to continue communication.

The Voyager probe has another interesting connection to music. Unsure what they would find, researchers attached a golden record to the spacecraft in case another intelligent life form should encounter the probe. The contents were selected by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan and were meant to serve as a sort of time capsule of life on Earth. It featured greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages, recordings of natural sounds like surf breaking on the beach, crickets chirping, a wild dog, and a tame dog. It also featured a selection of music from around the world, including part of the Brandenberg Concertos, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, and a sampling of Indonesian gamelan (which I’ve mentioned elsewhere). Interestingly, Sagan originally attempted to have “Here Comes the Sun” added to the record, which the Beatles supported, but EMI blocked because, and I’m just speculating, they’re lifeless monsters who would probably make aliens pay royalties for playing it on their superstructures. The record also had images on it representing mathematical definitions, the color spectrum, a nursing mother, and others meant to show life on Earth. More information on the contents of this record can be found on Wikipedia.

This track is the third in the series and if it grabs you then I highly recommend checking out the other installments. I snagged it a few months ago and would be happy to post any other info from the release notes if people are interested, though admittedly they are a bit sparse.

Craig Leon – She Wears a Hemispherical Skullcap

Craig Leon got his start in music in the mid-1970s working as an assistant producer at Sire Records where he was involved in the discovery and development of New York groups like The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads. Nommos is his first release and it represents one of the more unique entries in the catalog of John Fahey’s Takoma Records, which is perhaps better known for releasing blues and fingerstyle guitar records more in the style of its founder. Though he was more involved with pop, electronic, and experimental work during the 1980s and 1990s, his material in recent years has been decidedly classical, working with the likes of Pavarotti. He talks about the difference in working in these two worlds in an interview with Moog:

The pop people picked up on synths a lot earlier–I was doing pop at the time–and what fascinated me was the way the so-called pop artists were doing with synths at the time were using synthesizers in their work which was close to what I wanted to do in classical. You would hear something new on a Beatles or Beach Boys album … where yes there would be one or two obvious synth sounds on a given song but theres ton of these little things that shape the sound.

He is still active as a producer, composer, and arranger of classical pieces living in England. Nommos was recently reissued by Harmonia Mundia along with his other early electronic work Visiting. Check out that Moog interview because he talks through arranging Bach for the Moog modular synth and talks more at length about using electronics in classical composition.

M. Geddes Gengras – Magical Writing

M. Geddes Gengras has been active in the experimental scene in Los Angeles for a number of years, releasing material under his own name as well as the moniker Personable. I initially heard this release in excerpted form on the Umor Rex compilation Collected Works Vol. 1 (The Moog Years), though the above represents the full cassette. He works primarily with a combination of modular synthesizers and other non-modular electronics, though he does play bass with Warm Climate. He is also active on the technical side of releases, producing albums for the likes of Sun Araw and Antique Brothers and mixing/mastering releases from Plankton Wat and LA Vampires (with whom he also performs).

Along with Sun Araw, Gengras founded the label Duppy Gun. The label came about following a trip to Jamaica to record an album with the reggae group The Congos. The dizzying blend of dub, dancehall, and Gengras/Sun Araw’s array of experimental electronics is definitely worth checking out on Duppy Gun’s Youtube channel. If you’d like to hear more of Gengras’ experimental works like Magical Writing, check out his Bandcamp.

Henk Badings – Electronic Ballet Music “Cain and Abel” (Abridged Version)

Despite having little formal musical training, Henk Badings held teaching positions throughout the mid-20th centuries and remains one of the most prolific and influential Dutch composers. Unfortunately, he accepted a teaching post at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in 1942 offered by the Dutch government, replacing a Jewish director who was ousted at the request of the Nazi regime. While this allowed him to remain productive during WWII, it largely destroyed his reputation in post-war Europe and his work has only recently been re-contextualized outside of this decision.

He was born in the then-Dutch colony of Java (present day Indonesia) and remarked later in his life that the native sounds he heard as a child influenced his compositions immensely. I find some of the repetitive elements of his “Cain and Abel” ballet are reminiscent of the gamelan music that was so important to man early 20th century composers. He wrote for more conventional instruments in addition to his electronic compositions, including a cycle of 15 symphonies and various radio operas which share the ominous and frenizied experimentation of this ballet piece.

Mathias Grassow – Meditation Waves

Mathias Grassow has been recording synthesizer music since the mid 80s, where he drew inspiration from fellow German groups like Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream and began recording a meditative blend of New Age and Krautrock. His first release, At the Gates of Dawn, came out on cassette in 1986. In addition to synth he also records with flute, guitar, and other electronics and while live performances are rare, they are crafted to create an immersive experience.

In this kind of music it’s very important, to have a nice place to play – not normal locations, but more places like a church, caves (remember my ‘Lanzarote concerts’) and open-airs.

I tried to find some pictures of those concerts but was unable to find any, but this video of a performance seems to capture the spirit nicely. In fact a recent concert of his took place at a retreat in Germany where all the guests had just completed a ten day vow of silence! While much of his output consists of solo works, he has released collaborations with Agalloch member John Haugm and Closing the Eternity in addition to projects like Nostalgia and KarmaCosmic. Most if not all his discography his available for streaming/purchase on his Bandcamp page. Those interested in physical releases should head over to Discogs.

Ancient Beyond Knowledge

I’ve been wanting to put something like this together since I started recording music and it is through the inestimable patience and talent of Miranda Langevin that I am able to bring this to you. There’s more information about the full length release here. Because the whole thing is about 40 minutes long and Miranda had gotten an amazing job on a feature set we had to film an excerpt.

At the risk of over-explaining, this video attempts to capture an experience with hypothetical extraterrestrials. It has been postulated that encounters with extraterrestrials are so bizarre because the visitors are coming from other dimensions and our means of perceiving them are too rooted in our own dimension to make sense of them. In part influenced by the computer animation team at Ancient Aliens and by the wild imagery of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, this is my attempt to create visually what I hope the full piece accomplishes aurally.