David Lee Myers’ Ether Music: A Nearly Lost Thread of Electronic Music


ethermusic-large_orig

Starkland 227

There is a certain nostalgia here both in the sound of this album and its provenance.  David Lee Myers (1949- ) is perhaps best known for his work under the rubric of Arcane Device from 1987-1993.  Under that name one finds 23 albums on the discogs web site.

Myers has collaborated with people like Asmus Tietchens (1947- ), a German electronic composer (with a hefty discography), Kim Cascone  (1955- ), an American electronic composer and producer, Marco Oppedisano (1971- ), an American guitarist and composer, Ellen Band, an American electronic composer, and Tod Dockstader (1932-2015), among others.  His output has been in the electronic music genre, i.e. no live components and he works in a style which he calls, “feedback music”.  Like Dockstader, Myers has worked outside of the academy and has relied upon home made electronics and techniques he has developed over the years to produce a rather unique musical style.

tod-dockstader-01

Tod Dockstader with tapes and score notes.

More so than the other mentioned collaborators Myers’ work with Dockstader is the “thread” to which the title of this review refers.  The release of the long out of print early work of Tod Dockstader was effectively the genesis of Starkland Records.  With the release of Quatermass (1992) and Apocalypse (1993) Dockstader was forced out of obscurity and motivated to begin composing and releasing recordings again.  Those Starkland releases were of some long out of print LPs from the early 1960s and Dockstader, who had been working in the music industry but no longer releasing his compositions was inspired to bring that aspect of his work again to the public.  Two of those efforts included the collaboration of David Lee Myers, Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).  (After Dockstader’s death Starkland surprised the musical world by releasing heretofore unknown gems from the composer’s archive in From the Archives (2016).)

myers

David Lee Myers with some of his electronics.

It is both beyond the scope of this review and beyond this reviewer’s expertise to comment meaningfully about the compositional processes by which Myers achieves his ends but, thankfully, the liner notes by Dan Visconti provide significant insight in this area.  One can assume that his innovations in electronics as well as the devices themselves will become a treasured part of the history of electronic music along with the recordings themselves.

There are ten tracks here all written in 2015, and all utilizing Myers’ “feedback music” techniques.  The CD booklet includes both some of Myers’ beautiful circuit sketches as well as photos of some of his self made electronic processing equipment.  (This actually seems to echo the similar production of the booklet from that “From the Archives” disc of Dockstader’s work.)  Also worth noting is that the mastering is done by Silas Brown whose expertise contributed so significantly to the success of that last Dockstader disc.

The listener is free to dwell on the technical notes and ponder how these sounds and processings come together to produce the final product or simply let the experience flow over you.  There are doubtless many riches to be found in the pursuit of the technical and the analytic.   But the most important thing is that you listen, just listen.  This reviewer’s first hearing of this disc was on a long, leisurely late night drive which allowed an uninterrupted experience of the entire disc.  It was only later that I chose to take in the liner notes and booklet.  And while these enhanced the experience the tracks are sufficiently substantive in themselves to carry the listener into Myers’ unique technological vision which is unlike any other save perhaps for that of the aforementioned thread to Dockstader.

Though related by this thread, Myers’ vision is truly like none other in the field of electronic classical music.  If anything this seems to be a nearly lost thread, one of the self-sufficient tinkerer and explorer who shares his discoveries with anyone who dares to listen.  So, listen, I dare you.  You won’t be disappointed.

Release date scheduled for November 10, 2017.

 

 

Impossible, you say?


einsteintrain

The first scene

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th.  I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony).  It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.

The production was beautiful.  The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat).  The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography.  And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.

Dance with spaceship

The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach.  It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976.   It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.

I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction.  I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull.  But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals.  It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived.  However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised  by the original creators.  Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71.  Lucinda Childs is 72.  And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times.  Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations.  It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance.  Don’t get me wrong.  This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing.  In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.

But it has been embraced by many.  Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work.  A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus.  And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.

Spaceship scene

Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.

I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc.  And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.

When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed.  I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing.  But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time.  With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.

Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it.  And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.

What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations.  The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket.  I hope that it is not lack of interest.

For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs.  It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.

Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals.  I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear.  And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.

When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience.  I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here.  And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things.  Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.

Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole.  There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings.  The issue here is the emotional impact.

Epilogue (Knee Play 5)

‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part.  When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times.  After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene.  The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?”  This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky.    Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon.  Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”

This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level.  And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations.  While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes.  Great art succeeds only sometimes.  The salient issue is having tried.  Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try.  The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration,  “Impossible, you say?”