by carl wilson

Guest Post: A Chat With Arnold Dreyblatt:
'I had no musical ability at all!'

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Arnold Dreyblatt (right) with Toronto's Scott Thomson on trombone, at the Music Gallery. Photo by Jonny Dovercourt.

My call for guest submissions to Zoilus during my bookwriting downtime has yielded unexpectedly swift & scintillating results: Jonny Dovercourt, co-artistic director of the Music Gallery, contacted me tonight (Friday) to ask if I'd be interested in posting his freshly transcribed interview with Arnold Dreyblatt, who is appearing Saturday night at the Gallery as a co-presentation with the Over the Top Festival. As someone who's been given excitations by Dreyblatt's "Excited Strings" - though only on record before now - I immediately said yes. Jonny's done a terrific interview. Enjoy.
- Carl W.

Play one of my favourite Dreyblatt pieces, The Adding Machine, while you read. Audio via Dreyblatt's website.

Biographical boilerplate: Arnold Dreyblatt was born in New York City in 1953. He has been based in Europe since 1984 and is presently living in Berlin. From 1979-1997, he was director and composer for his music ensemble, The Orchestra of Excited Strings. In composing a performance opera entitled Who's Who in Central & East Europe 1933, Dreyblatt formed a new ensemble in 1991. In 1995, recordings by the ensemble were released by Tzadik Records (produced by John Zorn) under the title Animal Magnetism. He's also released material on Hat Art, Jim O'Rourke's Dexter's Cigar label and Table of the Elements Records, and recordings of his work by the Bang On A Can All-Stars. A four-CD box set of historical recordings will be released by Table of the Elements in 2007.

"As one of the most engaging of the second generation of New York minimal composers, Arnold Dreyblatt has developed a distinctive - and delightfully accessible - approach to composition and performance. Employing modified and invented instruments and a unique tuning system, his music is a vigorously rhythmic and richly textured romp through the natural overtone series." - Second Layer

Arnold Dreyblatt performs Sat. May 5 at the Music Gallery (197 John St., Toronto) at 8 pm, with Toronto's Anne Bourne, cello; Rob Clutton, double bass; Nick Fraser, drums; John Gzowski, guitar; Kathleen Kajioko, violin; and Scott Thomson, trombone; with Dreyblatt leading the band on modified bass. Tickets are $10-$20.


Jonny Dovercourt & Arnold Dreyblatt in Conversation
May 2, 2007 - Toronto, Ontario

JD: Arnold, I believe you grew up in Queens, New York. Do you want to talk a bit about that and how it maybe influenced you getting into music in the early days?

AD: Actually, I didn't get into music in the early days. I was just telling the musicians today that I was taking piano lessons as a six-year-old and the teacher taught me with a number system, ironically, and I was kind of improvising with it. And she didn't like me not playing from the notes, so one day she told me, "Well, it's not actually numbers." And then she showed the five-line staff, and I said, "Forget it."

And then The Beatles came out a few years later, and I wanted to take guitar lessons, and so my parents sent me to this Spanish gypsy down the block, and after one lesson, he said, "It's throwing your money down the toilet to give your son music lessons." So then there was a long hiatus!

But I was always interested in experimental music, even while quite young, and I was also listening to a lot of rock music. I was going to concerts at the Fillmore East in New York while in high school in the '60s. Then I was in upstate New York studying at various colleges and universities, I was interested in video and experimental film, which brought me to Buffalo, not far from here, around '74/'75.

[after the jump, Dreyblatt on portapacks & the invention of video art, how physics explains sound, Alvin Lucier, LaMonte Young, tunings and harmonics, the composition to be premiered this weekend, & the wisdom of Joey Ramone!]

JD: What was your area of study?

AD: This was SUNY [State University of New York] Buffalo, and there was this very interesting department called Media Studies, which was a public access centre and a department in the university, and it was very connected to the New York or national experimental film scene, and also the beginnings of video art, which was just starting around that time. The medium was practically created by the New York State Council on the Arts in the early '70s. Portapacks were just invented at the same time a lot of funding became available.

JD: Portapacks?

AD: The portapack was the first portable video recorder. There's a question whether Nam June Paik got his hands on it first, or if another artist did. They used half-inch tape, reel-to-reel, black-and-white, really heavy. You had to carry around the whole recorder, which weighed a ton, and a camera, but it was the first time that artists could get instant feedback, audiovisually. It was the first moment that that was possible. So it was very exciting.

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I should say that I was a student, in Buffalo, of Woody and Steina Visulka, who were the founders of The Kitchen in New York. Two years before I arrived they had come up from New York - they were invited by a guy named Gerald O'Grady, who founded this department. They were very interested in producing electronic images, that means not working with cameras but using various frequencies and electronic interference to create electronic imagery.

So I was learning this language of frequency and amplitude; at the same time, during my first month in Buffalo, I was interested in having contact with the music department. Morton Feldman was then head of the music department and there was an event they called "June in Buffalo," the first one with Pauline Oliveros, an electronic music composer called Joel Chadabe, and Feldman.

So I was very happy, after my childhood experience with the numbers and the staff, to learn that the language of physics can explain sound. That it's not just a cultural language with notes on a page and certain letters indicating frequencies and so forth - but that I could escape all that! So that was a very important discovery for me. I was at first applying it more to video, and ironically my early video work was kind of stroboscopic colourfields. I didn't see Tony Conrad's work until much later, but it's interesting that I started with that and then went to music. But I was gradually interested in how this language could be applied to working with sounds, and my videotapes were periodic images; they were in periodic cycles. I was working with putting audio signals into video X & Y and creating different shapes and colours and movements, rhythms. So it was just natural that I would slowly want to move into working with sounds.

And the music department was just as interesting as the media department: They were bringing in a lot of composers from around the country, and in that first year Alvin Lucier came. He did a piece with a snare drum on a stage. It's a piece that I recently had the possibility to realize myself in Dublin. In this piece, he's on the side with a sine-wave sweep generator, with some speakers pointed at the snare drum with the snare on; there's nobody on the stage, other than Alvin Lucier on the righthand side of the stage, and he's turning this dial up, and as it reaches certain resonating frequencies the drum begins to sound. And the audience could feel it, they could feel the standing waves in the room, going through their bellies as the drum would start to sound on its own. So a sense of, "Okay, here's this language of frequency and amplitude, but with video you can just see it on a screen or a monitor" (we were using video almost like an oscilloscope, but with more than one line). But suddenly you could actually feel it, like it was a physical thing - these are like molecules dancing around, up and down.

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Alvin Lucier.

So that made me very interested in sound, and then in the bookcase of one of the experimental filmmakers there, Hollis Frampton, I found [at a party] a copy of Selected Writings by LaMonte Young, which he gave to me. It's a very rare publication, and it was there that I read about his work in the '60s. So I came back to New York, met him and spent a number of years then studying with him. First I was interested in his work with sine waves, and then in the idea of basing an ensemble on his acoustic principles.

You could say that Alvin Lucier, who I also ended up studying with later, his medium was more concerned with sound installation, or sound in spaces, or very directly just transporting acoustic principles through an aesthetic situation, whereas LaMonte in a way took the same principles, and from his own very dense composition background, applying it to an ensemble, which was probably the first amplified "band" in contemporary music. That form hadn't yet existed in contemporary music, a composer with own ensemble, heavily amplified. The band that made him famous was the one with Tony Conrad on violin and John Cale [The Velvet Underground] playing viola.

JD: Was that the Theatre of Eternal Music?

AD: Theatre of Eternal Music if you talk to LaMonte; the Dream Syndicate if you talk to Tony!

JD: At the time that you started studying with LaMonte, had you already started composing your own music or doing your own sound experiments?

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LaMonte Young.

AD: I came back from Buffalo in '75, so I was 22 when I became LaMonte's "slave," and I spent a year living in his loft, trying to understand how he worked. Then I stopped working with him for personal reasons, but continued as his tape archivist for another year. It takes some time to get out from under the influence of someone like that, so I gradually started developing the music in '76/'77, and in '78 started doing my own sound experiments. I was having trouble finding an orientation for this tuning system that LaMonte and Tony had developed, and it wasn't until I started working with strings that I started to understand what the relations are, because on strings you can actually see it. So again, I was looking for a physical model, a geometry you can hear.

I spent some time doing a lot of theoretical work, looking at the use, in history, of strings for generating tuning systems. Of course I always give credit to LaMonte and Tony for their work in that area. So I did my first concert with an instrument in this period, in 1979, in an artist performance festival. I bought a double bass for $100 from the visual artist Robert Longo, another Buffalo connection, who was collaborating with Rhys Chatham. In New York, we were living in the same building, and I strung it up with piano wire as an experiment, and found this fantastic sound. So I developed this technique of brushing and bowing the strings rhythmically, which became my signature sound, and I had this solo concert which was very successful; it happened to be a very beautiful, very resonant room.

Then in '79/'80, I founded my first ensemble, my first Orchestra of Excited Strings. The first one was called Arnold's Orchestra of Excited Strings, and Alvin Lucier told me to take the "Arnold" out. Then I went to Wesleyan University [Middletown, Connecticut], where Alvin invited me, I had a kind of assistantship there, I basically just did my band and taught a few courses. I had an ensemble there of students, and then I moved back to New York, had the third ensemble, and then the fall of '83, I moved to Europe.

JD: Was your tuning system established by the time you founded the first ensemble, or did it evolve more slowly over time?

AD: No, it was basically set then. Completely, the full system. I had this little piano I found that was a miniature upright with tiny keys for a rich family and their nice little girl to play, and I restrung it and I tuned it with unwound wires. And I tuned it with the first 23 overtones to see what would happen, using F as my fundamental - the first 23 odd overtones; all even numbers are octaves, so you don't need to tune the even ones.

And I found right away that there were these relationships. First of all, prime numbers, like 3, 5, 7, 11, were new tonalities. And I also noticed that if I played by accident 5, 3 and 15, it made this incredible chord. And that's how I started to develop the system. Of course, Tony and LaMonte use another version of the same thing - it's not anything I invented; it's something that exists in nature.

JD: You just had to discover it.

AD: Well, I had the background from what they did, and then I had to discover it for myself, let's say, and then the version I came up with had to do with this series of experiments which I carried out. It's a slightly different way of approaching it, but Tony recognizes a most of the tones in the system. So I heard those relationships, then I worked as I began to understand the system, I came up with this "magic square," which is a multiplication table with 1, 11, 11 and 121 at the four corners. I can show it to you.

JD: And these are overtones.

AD: My music, from the beginning, was based on the principle of having a very rich harmonic series, enacted very much in the early days, but to some degree still, being produced by a long string. When I play bass, all it is is a big body strung with a long unwound wire, to produce a strong harmonic partial series, and then I mesh with that what I call an intellectual act, which is to calculate these higher overtones, which are related to the lower ones, like those odd numbers in the magic square - I multiply them by each other, transpose them into a lower octave and then sound them together with the long excited strings.

JD: So how did you take this vertical realm of the tuning system and put it into the horizontal realm of rhythm, which also plays a big role in your music?

AD: Well, when you listen to the early music, like Nodal Excitation [1982], I had no musical ability at all! [laughs]

JD: Punk rock!

AD: I went to high school with the Ramones, you know? Well, with Joey Ramone, what was his name, [Jeffry] Hyman? I had social studies class with him. And I read this interview where someone asked him, "Can you really play guitar?" And he said, "Man, you just turn up those Marshall amps, and then you just strum as hard as you can, and then you listen to those overtones, man, that's all I need to do." So, in the beginning, the striking of the bass, I used to call it "juggling." You'd have to keep hitting it a certain way to get those resonances to come up, to coax them out.

Normally in music, people feel like they're the masters of their instrument, but I'm like a servant to the instrument. I'm there to make it sound, to get it into vibration. So in the beginning I was hitting, and the whole ensemble in a way went into that. There was the little crazy piano I made, amplified, there was a hurdy-gurdy in the beginning, then I started experimenting with some brass instruments. We went into what I called "the rhythm of one," and then a year later I discovered that I started playing in triplets. I figured it out at home and then we all played. The ensembles were always mixtures of musicians and non-musicians, often visual artists.

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Joey Ramone and friend.

Of course, over the years, some other things happened. I remember when Rhys Chatham gave me a gig at the Mudd Club [in NYC], he said to me, "Do you have drums?" I said "No." And he said, "Without drums, you're dead." [laughs] I was very good friends with Phill Niblock then, and I was having a very hard time putting drums in, but then when I moved to Europe I realized it was a very natural thing to help propel the music along. And of course, from all those years of listening to rock music, under the influence, I had that feeling in me, actually. So I started with a snare drum, one snare drum. I've never used a full trap set - I don't like that. I've introduced percussion to the music, and always tried to keep the percussion non-resonant, that means drums are tuned up very tight, so they can cut through all the overtones but don't cloud it. And that gave another rhythmic possibility for the music, and that changed the rhythmic possibilities for the strings, which started becoming more complex.

In the '90s, I realized that the music was wanting to become more complex, and that it wasn't taking away from this other aspect. So I stopped performing with the group then, because I wanted to score it out. So then I had to learn how to notate - and then computers came out, and that helped out a lot - but then there was the question of how to notate it? There were in fact no "bars" in my music until not that long ago, around '99 - which means there were internal systems within the bands to give cues from chord to chord. In the '90s, I began to develop what I call the "Next Slide" structure ("Next Slide" being a cut on Animal Magnetism [1994]). I would have different rhythmic and tonal patterns and it would just cut from one to the other. It's from my film background, to contrast different scenes in the music. Gradually I started to notate some of the more recent material.

In '97, I stopped maintaining an ensemble. I'd been working with the same group of musicians for years in Europe, who knew everything, but I felt like I needed some fresh air, to see what I could do with other musicians. Jim O'Rourke invited me to Chicago, and then in New York, Bang on Can invited me to work with some other classical ensembles. So I started to embark on some new directions, either longer-term commissions where I really write a piece, sometimes for classical musicians. I actually wrote a quartet and an octet. Took me forever, especially when trying to find how to communicate this to musicians that actually don't have the time to learn the tuning for months.

When I did the quartet I worked with a very famous new-music quartet from Germany, the Pelligrini Quartet, but there was no way they were going to sit there and learn how to do all this. So they retuned their strings, they played only open strings and harmonics, which is beautiful.

And then I've also done a number of projects like we're doing here in Toronto, which is meeting a group of musicians and trying to put something together in a shorter period of time - sometimes for two days, this time for a week. There's a certain risk in that, but it's also exciting to see what comes out of it.

JD: Do you want to talk a bit about the pieces you'll be playing at the concert this Saturday?

AD: Actually, there's going to be three pieces. First I'm going to play what I call a recreation of Solo Nodal Excitation from 1979, on this prepared instrument, the "Excited Strings bass," which I started playing again in the late '90s in some club situations, and I feel like it's really developed, in some ways more than it was originally. And then we're going to do a piece which I'm actually quite excited about - with the ensemble, they've actually retuned their instruments and they're struggling to learn that the 5th harmonic is really the major 3rd. This drives them completely mad! But they have actually learned to play in this intonation, and we have a great percussionist, so it's going to be what I call a very sustained, very meditative piece going through these different tone combinations, which is quite long for me, because I'm used to having very short pieces. I'm not sure how long, I'll know tomorrow morning [at the next rehearsal].

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Nick Fraser, percussionist for Saturday's show.

And then we're going to do kind of a rhythmic piece which is based upon a similar technique to what I do on my bass, but by bowing on the violin-family instruments, and to some degree guitar. Listening to the different tones in an open string, and playing tones against it. So there are those three things that show three different aspects of my music. Not that it represents everything. I talked to John [Gzowski] and we agreed that it would have been too time-consuming for me to write out a whole complicated score and have everybody learn to play it, so it is a workshop situation of a week with them, so it's a challenge to see how far we can go. They're going to have charts with what the sequences are, for what they're going to play.

JD: Are these two ensemble pieces relatively new then?

AD: The sustained piece in that form I've never done before. It's actually been created here ... it's a premiere! [laughs] The second piece has aspects which I've used in other pieces, but it's going to be a more complex version than I've done before.

JD: It seems that in your relationship to your music, you're working with something you invented more than 25 years ago, but you're still letting it evolve. That seems really rare. What do you think it is that's kept you committed to this idea of making music?

AD: Well, I have one good excuse - that I can't play anything else!

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 04 at 11:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson