David Behrman, New Sounds, March, 7, 1985
Minimalist composer David Behrman is in town this week, playing ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn on July 20 and 21 with the Sonic Arts Union. On March 7, 1985, Behrman visited New Sounds to discuss his work with host John Schaefer. At the time, the composer was working on a piece for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, “Interspecies Smalltalk,” with violinist Takehisa Kosugi, himself an important composer and the leader of the Japanese experimental ensemble Taj Mahal Travellers.
For Behrman, writing music is less about putting notes onto paper than it is about designing systems that allow sounds — timbres, tones, and sonorities — to emerge from improvised and chance interactions between acoustic and electronic instruments. As the composer says of “Interspecies Smalltalk,” “That’s really the idea of the piece: to stress the acoustic character of an instrument in relationship to an electronic system.” The personality and attitude of the performer is a crucial element of the composition. For all the emphasis on the “system,” the music itself is warm, expressive and conversational, a chat across a digital language barrier.
Schaefer and Behrman also chat (with no apparent language barrier) about the composer’s role in the Sonic Arts Union (SAU), a collective of heavyweight minimalists who came together in the late 1960s as part of the scene surrounding the legendary ONCE festival. Comprised of the late Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, and Behrman himself, the SAU were known for their anarchic and occasionally abrasive performances, each composer presenting a piece, with the others providing for technical and musical support. Describing his music from that period, Behrman tells Schaefer that “it was more in the noise family of things. I was interested in interactive systems, but in those days, I remember using little flashlights that would make sounds and whirl around in space, and analog electronics that weren’t so involved with steady pitches … It was the discovery of those electronic sounds that hadn’t been used much by composers, but were available with the transistors in those days — it was kind of a fresh resource.”
The conversation also touches on Behrman’s time as a producer for the “Music of Our Time” series at Columbia Masterworks — where he worked on the legendary first recording of Terry Riley’s In C — as well as a “collaborative installation” he’d been working on with composer George Lewis. This project, which would later be called “All Thumbs,” was recently included on an archival release from Alga Marghen records titled Music With Memory. The piece resembled an interactive video game, with participants using a kalimba, or thumb piano, to interface with an electronic system. Like Behrman’s other work, “All Thumbs” is playful, but there’s also something radical and even transgressive about the way it erases distinctions between professional and amateur performers. Schaefer notes: “It seems almost as if the performer is the machine. You have a person standing up there playing an instrument, but once you set the process in motion, it just sort of creates the music itself.” To which Behrman replies: “Part of the idea is to make sort of game-like situations for the performers. They might be experts or they might novices.”
The two Brooklyn shows this week are being billed are as a reunion of the three surviving members of SAU, and as a tribute to the late, great Robert Ashley. Mumma, Lucier, and Behrman will all be performing, with support by like-minded musicians including Stephen O’Malley, Oren Ambarchi, Cleek Shrey, and others. Listeners will have an opportunity to experience the playful, transgressive, and possibly flashlight-induced music of David Behrman and the Sonic Arts Union.