Vol. 41 Issue 3 Reviews
David Behrman: Performance at Roulette, Brooklyn, New York

A performance of David Behrman’s compositions, March 16, 2017, Roulette, Brooklyn, New York

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

The composer and computer music pioneer David Behrman is perhaps best known for producing Columbia Records’ Music of Our Time series in the early 1960s, which included Terry Riley’s pivotal album In C, and co-founding the Sonic Arts Union in the middle 1960s, along with Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. With the exception of Robert Ashley, who died in 2014, the co-founders of the Sonic Arts Union have enjoyed active careers that continue into the present. Behrman also had a long association with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and worked with John Cage on various projects.

Behrman’s early composition studies were with Wallingford Riegger, who is credited with being the first composer in the U.S.A. to use the twelve-tone technique (although arguably this credit should go to Ruth Crawford). Like Riegger, Behrman, as well as his Sonic Arts Union comrades, can be situated in an iconoclastic, American tradition that includes composers such as Crawford, Charles Ives, Henry Brant, Henry Cowell, and Carl Ruggles. It is this iconoclast quality that fuels Behrman’s work with electroacoustic and computer music. At a March 2017 concert at Roulette in Brooklyn, New York, Behrman shared a program with the vocalist and composer Gisburg (best known for her work with composer Dieter Schnebel). The violin duo known as String Noise, Gisburg, and Behrman himself on laptop, performed five of Behrman’s compositions, which ranged from pure tone, timbral explorations to politically charged text-based pieces. The laptop was featured prominently, used to process, generate, and playback materials. It sat atop a table enshrouded with a black cloth, along with a small mixer and an assortment of electronics modules. Compared with similar rigs from the past, e.g., in David Tudor’s Hedgehog, Behrman’s table foregrounds the current trend toward uncluttered miniaturization.

Behrman’s program began with a politically charged piece entitled Protests 1917–2004 (from My Dear Siegfried). Musically, this piece contains new and old materials, violin phrases, and assorted electronics. The old materials, in the form of recordings, came from Behrman’s My Dear Sigfried, which included recordings of Thomas Buckner’s voice and Peter Zummo’s trombone, Siegfried Sassoon’s text, and musical excerpts by Behrman’s teacher Wallingford Riegger, who, as stated in Behrman’s program notes, had been “blackballed by the McCarthy senate committee for his leftist views.”

Behrman’s text was derived from a 1917 statement Siegfried Sassoon delivered to the British parliament against their pro-war agenda. Protests 1917–2004 includes a violin part that Behrman made expressly for String Noise’s Conrad Harris in 2009, drawing from quotations and variations of Riegger’s music. For this performance Behrman arranged the violin part for the String Noise duo. Taken together, along with the recordings from My Dear Siegfried and Sassoon’s text, this piece represents a collage of different source materials and compositional derivations. But, the materials fit together well, thematically and musically, so they add up to a coherent whole.

Protests 1917–2004 begins with tentative, sustains, spatialized in such a way as to add depth and movement. The sustained material coalesced around secundal, or cluster, harmonies. Gradually the texture thickened through the accretion of subsequent layers. We hear beating created with difference tones and looping patterns. The piece’s overall momentum emerges from a slow, wavelike motion. The violins drop in and out, performing timbrally-fused materials. The rhythmic and timbral coordination was so tight that it was as if String Noise played as one instrument with two bodies. At some point I became aware of a series of slowly ascending glissandi that sounded as if they were infinitely progressing upward, like an M. C. Escher drawing rendered in sound. Behrman’s laptop produced soft sine waves from captured and distilled samples of the strings.

Toward the end of this long piece, Behrman looked over at the string players to coordinate his laptop’s processing controls, like a responsive ensemble partner. Finally the violins faded out, remaining motionless, while the laptop had the final say. This was the kind of piece in which one is happy to simply ‘soak up’ the sound, rather than listen with expectations of traditional, electroacoustic or acoustic procedures, or arch-shaped forms.
The next three pieces: for two violins… after a phrase by Meredith Monk, Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, and High Range featured violin and laptop combinations. The laptop was used to capture the violin materials, adding depth, drones, and resonance to the overall sound. The violins were also accompanied by sampled material, and in the first piece, sporadic tapping of small hand bells. At times there were three or four separate layers of material sounding at once. On the one hand this provided a richly endowed timbral palette to the work. But it also had me occasionally wondering what the violin materials had to do with the samples, and vice versa.

Along with Protests 1917–2004 the last piece, Protest 2017, served to bookend the concert. This work featured vocalizations by Gisburg (whose composition Michel Foucault-History of Madness-Or why Did he need so many words? was performed in the first half of the concert), recordings of a speech Angela Davis gave in January of 2017 protesting the policies of the Trump administration, String Noise, and Behrman’s laptop. Gisela’s voice was modified with reverb and flange techniques, while the violins performed largely dissonant intervals and chords. The text for this piece contained references to saving our flora and fauna, and the recent lead contamination of the water supply in Flint, Michigan. Against Davis’s anti-Trump speech Behrman mixed in sharply attacked, Karplus-Strong timbres along with healthy doses of convolution reverb. The atonal string materials, as in some music from the pre-WWII period, served to wake up the listener while warning him, or her, of the dangers of remaining passive in the face of destructive ideas, policies, and procedures. It is worth noting that Thomas Buckner’s Interpretations, an organization dedicated to supporting New York’s avant-garde music and radical expression, sponsored the concert. In an era characterized by a shrinking opposition to status quo music, this concert was a breath of fresh air.

The success of this concert was largely a result of Behrman’s personal relationships to his material and his equipment. His compositional ideas required the technologies that he used. But the relationships were also autobiographically personal. For example, the use of Sassoon’s text was more than mere appropriation. Behrman’s father Sam was a friend of Sassoon’s and the two young writers corresponded, writing many letters to each other. The text David Behrman used in My Dear Siegfried came directly from this correspondence. Behrman is a force to be reckoned with, a lifelong avant-gardist who began his career at the Once Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After a 50-year career Behrman is in no way resting on his laurels. His work continues to challenge and enthrall, and he continues to engage with the latest technologies to realize a body of work that will stand the test of time.