During much of the Seventies, experimental music pioneer Charles Amirkhanian spent much of his time working on what his Wikipedia page calls “text-sound music.” This basically involved exploring how many of the techniques behind tape music (the “American cousin” of musique concrète, which grew out of the efforts of Pierre Schaeffer dating back to the early Forties) could be applied to source recordings of the human voice. At that time Amirkhanian was Music Director of KPFA-FM, the Pacifica Radio station based in Berkeley. The affordances of a radio studio and an emerging aesthetic for poetry based on sounds, rather than just words, sparked his creating six tape music compositions that were collected on an album entitled Lexical Music, released in 1980 in vinyl by the pioneering label 1750 Arch Records.
That vinyl is now a valued collectors’ item. As of this writing only one copy is available on Amazon.com at a price of $50. Fortunately for those more interested in listening to the music rather than showing off a rare vinyl album, MP3 downloads of all six pieces, along with an impressive (if not a bit imposing) 32-page booklet, are available from an Amazon download Web page. Three of the selections (“Mugic,” “Dutiful Ducks,” and “Muchrooms”) are “solo” works, meaning that Amirkhanian’s is the only voice. He is joined by other speakers in “Seatbelt Seatbelt” and “She She and She,” as is the case in “Mahogany Ballpark” (created in collaboration with visual artist Carol Law), which draws upon field recordings as well as other speakers.
Sadly, much of the sense of a pioneering spirit in this album may be lost on current listeners who see every problem in terms of its solution through digital synthesis. This overlooks the almost visceral qualities of making this kind of music before computers became “personal.” Schaeffer clearly appreciated those qualities, and many of his results clearly indicate how he could revel in them. The same is true for John Cage and his New York School colleagues, who tended to align with Cage over the need for method, even when it was unclear where the method would lead. By the time Amirkhanian had begun his gig at KPFA, the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been around for about a decade; and that institution had become a hotbed of “visceral music-making by other means.”
It is thus worth bearing in mind that listening to a recording such as Lexical Music benefits from an approach that is as curious about the processes of making as about the resulting music captured on these six tracks. From that perspective the booklet that comes with the album is as important as the tracks themselves. The contributing essays address not only the theory-and-practice associated with each of the compositions but also the context of what it meant to think about making this kind of music. Indeed, there is something almost joyous about bringing the experience of listening to these tracks together with the adventure of coming to know the history behind them. To the extent that our current culture has devolved into a condition that takes pride in ignorance of history, this new offering is a significant asset that offers much to teach when it comes to those vital activities of both making and listening to music.