Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Early Tape Music by Alden Jenks from Other Minds

Alden Jenks (courtesy of Other Minds)

The last of the four new digital-only albums recently released by Other Minds Records in its Modern Hits series is entitled Drones. It consists of three all-electronic compositions by Alden Jenks, all of which are being given world premiere recordings. These are all relatively early works in the history of electronic music, having been created between 1968 and 1972. The two earliest of these pieces were subsequently edited and revised when this album was being made.

1968 was a pivotal year for me. During that summer I joined my doctoral thesis advisor (at the time) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to serve as his teaching assistant during his summer visit to the University of Colorado in Boulder. One of the first things I discovered was that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was also on campus, getting their lungs in shape before performing as part of the arts festival for the Mexico City Olympics. A bulletin board had posted an announcement that John Cage would be giving a seminar on “Music and Mushrooms” to those who showed up at a specified place at a specified time. I was one of two to respond (the other being the husband of a dancer taking classes given by Company members).

The “seminar” amounted to hunting for mushrooms while talking about whatever happened to be on Cage’s mind at the time. That led to my spending additional time hanging out with David Tudor and Gordon Mumma, learning about the devices they were building to provide the music for the Cunningham performances. I had just begun to work on some experimental music software for a PDP-6 at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (AI Lab); and the fact that I was working with computers at all was of interest to all three of the Cunningham musicians. Also, it was during those encounters that Mumma introduced me to Source, which, in turn, extensively broadened my perspective of live electronic music.

1968 was also the year that John Chowning’s approach to synthesis through frequency modulation techniques was first established. Back at the AI Lab, one of my colleagues implemented Chowning’s algorithm in such a way that its parameters could be controlled by flipping “sense switches” on the front panel of a PDP-10. A couple of us started playing with the interface, and I had the presence of mind to start a tape recorder. I then took the tape down to the studios of the campus radio station (whose call letters at the time were WTBS, as in Technology Broadcasting System) and experimented with different approaches to changing speed and direction and overdubbing. Eventually, a piece, which I called “Lemniscate,” emerged.

I relate this anecdote because it came flooding back from long-term memory as I read the notes that Jenks prepared for the three pieces on his album. The only real difference was that Jenks was taping either his own home-made electronics or his work on Buchla equipment at Mills College. I had stumbled on a way to do similar things with a computer at a time when just about all other work in “computer music” involved “batch processing” techniques, through which you did not know what you had actually done until the entire process had run its course and synthesized the results on audio tape.

As the album title suggests, each of the three pieces involved sustained sounds whose transformations evolve subtly and slowly (relatively so in the case of the third track). From that point of view, “Lemniscate” was a far “busier” piece. I was more interested in working from some kind of structural architecture, while the Jenks compositions on this album all have evolutionary qualities. Older and wiser (I hope), I am now more receptive to listening experiences that unfold steadily but gradually.

The album begins with “Namo,” which, created in 1971, sits in the middle of the album’s chronology. This is the one piece in which Jenks uses his own electronics, rather than a Buchla device. The title is a word that serves as a salutation addressed to a Buddhist divinity; but I have to confess that my own listening tends to home in only on the sounds themselves (with a certain amount of educated guessing about the electronic components behind those sounds). The piece runs for 23 minutes, but its evolving qualities are readily apprehended. If one accepts the ground rules of its creator, listening becomes an absorbing experience.

The earliest piece, “Lapis,” is the final track. It was made to accompany one of John Whitney’s experimental films. The piece is much shorter (a little over eight minutes); and, to use my own adjective, decidedly “busier.” Since I am familiar with many of Whitney’s films, I could appreciate the role that the music was playing (even though I was not familiar with the specific film for which Jenks made “Lapis”). For those unfamiliar with Whitney’s work, the underlying sense of activity that serves as foreground to a drone background should be sufficient to sustain the listening experience.

The longest piece (almost forty minutes in duration) was created for Stephen Hill to air on his Music from the Hearts of Space radio program. It’s full title is “Space (for Stephen Hill).” Those familiar with that program will be able to engage with this piece with just the right expectations for its approach to long-term sustained listening.

While the album itself is likely to be a trip down memory lane for my contemporaries (who are also Jenks’ contemporaries), I believe that this album still makes for absorbing listening for those in the “immediate present” who are willing to buy into its ground rules.

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