Ambisonic Cube
At the Intersection of Digital Audible Histories and Experimental Music Practice
Ambisonic cube, an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound. Photo: Molly Sheridan

At the Intersection of Digital Audible Histories and Experimental Music Practice

So much of Seth Cluett’s concert music and installation practice deals with memory and embodied experience. Cluett, who grew up in rural upstate New York, recalls the experience of standing on the porch and hearing the wind come through the trees before he could feel it on his body. “There’s always been this haptic connection between being present in a space that makes sound and feeling the source of that sound.” That is what draws me to Cluett’s music—the way it evokes memories and his attention to how the listener interacts with the sound in space.

I recently met up with Cluett, acting director of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, to discuss his current exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories” (January 15 – March 23, 2019). The exhibition adopts the concept of the circuit to rethink the histories that are told about electronic and computer music. Equally significant is how the exhibit sits at the intersection of research on digital audible histories and experimental music practice’s treatment of historical objects and past technologies.

In the process of walking through Cluett’s exhibition, I had a strong sense of the personal relationships that existed between artists and researchers working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) and Bell Labs. Bell Labs, which has been a key site for research and development in technology during the 20th century, regularly engaged artists and composers to work on projects relating to sound and recording technologies.

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse's connection to Bell Labs

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse’s connection to Bell Labs and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; (left) letter from Varèse to Vladimir Ussachevsky, dated March 11, 1960; (right) letter from Ussachevsky, dated May 11, 1972. Photo: Molly Sheridan

I asked Cluett about the circuit between Columbia, Princeton, and Bell Labs, and how it encourages us to think about the history of electronic music in new ways. He illustrated the connections, explaining:

The traditional histories that you read of electronic music often involve a positivist, teleologic unfolding that is tied to available technologies. There’s the classic triumvirate of musique concrète, elektronische Musik, and music for magnetic tape in the United States—all of these things leading to the next step down the chain. Often the histories of electronic music and computer music are even told separately. In my current roles as acting director of the Columbia Computer Music Center and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, I started to see evidence of a blurring of those traditional historical boundaries. I read accounts of people like Charles Dodge, who was a graduate student at Columbia and was working on the code at Princeton and then going on to Bell Labs to have the sound rendered on their digital-to-analog converter. The idea of a circuit of these relationships, interconnections between people who would go back and forth between two of the three poles—or would pop out to Brooklyn College and back—seemed to suggest a non-linear, constellation history that was more generous to the real human relationships that existed between people.

This non-linear history is evident in the exhibition’s juxtaposition of eclectic historical artifacts such as oscillators, an enlarged color photograph of the CPEMC’s RCA Mark II Synthesizer, a loudspeaker from the 1919 Victory Liberty Loan Rally in New York, Pauline Oliveros’s Apple Box, and sketches of Varèse’s Déserts—just to name some of the highlights. I asked Cluett how his knowledge of electronic circuits shaped his understanding of the circuit as a metaphor for networks of people. “As an undergraduate at New England Conservatory in the mid-1990s, I was working in an electronic music studio that didn’t have a single computer in it. Because the circuits in that studio consisted of things like patch chords, oscillators, filters, and ring modulators, I started to get a real appreciation for electricity as a living thing. But even earlier than that, because I grew up around a dad who was a machinist—a sort of self-taught engineer, who builds things and tinkers—and a mom who is a craft jeweler, I’ve always thought of things connecting to other things.” He later went on to add that “circuits are a great metaphor for history. Things come full circle constantly, but they still do new work each pass. I think the circuit is a great metaphor for new music… you have moments where, like a capacitor, something stores up energy and then when it’s time, it releases the energy. There are moments where things slow down because either the culture or the community is resistant to that change. You have composers who are pushing current through in a way that is relentless and non-stop, and when these things interact, you get some magic.”

Cluett’s collaborative project with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts began last year when he was asked by the International Contemporary Ensemble to participate in its OpenICE program at the library. Several months prior to Cluett’s concert in November, he began a research residency at the NYPL and the library commissioned him to compose a series of works in response to their collections of electronic music. However, Cluett noted that his work at the NYPL actually started much earlier. While he was in graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 2000s, he was the processing archivist, digitizing the collections of Pauline Oliveros, Eric Siday, and helping with Charles Dodge. The majority of the Sounding Circuits exhibition consists of materials Cluett selected from the NYPL, though a few items are on loan from Columbia’s Computer Music Center and Bell Labs. Ted Gordon, Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Columbia, wrote the prose for the contextualization of the historical materials.

What particularly fascinated me about Sounding Circuits is how it provides a fresh perspective on audible histories. (For another important example of audible history, see Emily Thompson’s project The Roaring ‘Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City.) As scholar Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden writes, audible history is not just the recovery of past sounds—whether through sound recordings, historical artifacts, or models of acoustic space—but also the reanimation of past ways of listening. Similarly, Cluett’s exhibition sheds new light on the history of early electronic music by reanimating the experience and feelings that listeners had when encountering this music in its original historical context. Cluett reproduces a similar experience by means of an ambisonic cube: an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound.

Ambisonic cube

Ambisonic cube, an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound. Photo Molly Sheridan

Cluett described how his exhibition works to reanimate the history of early electronic music:

I think so much of the history of electronic music now, the early history that is, is replayed on YouTube or Spotify playlists, or people going to the library and digging through the archives and putting on a pair of headphones and listening to it in isolation. There’s something much different about standing inside an ambisonic cube of speakers. In this environment, you’re sitting in the middle of a voice; you’re embodied in sounds that are creating air pressure around you. By doing things like repositioning these works not as a frontal presentation in a proscenium or in a headphone presentation in isolation, but putting people right in the middle of the sound, you get a remarkable new life to these pieces. That’s been a comment that comes up over and over, as people have gotten back to me about their experience in the exhibition.

Similarly, Cluett explained, the exhibition’s photos and historical artifacts bring new life to the hopes and aspirations that inspired early electronic music composers:

Then there’s reanimating the history by putting the color back into black-and-white photographs. We have a custom green mixer that in the photos looks black-and-white, and it’s kind of boring and scientific. But [in the exhibit] you see this absurd green that could be nothing else but the 1960s, and it breathes new life into these artifacts—in a way that when people see them, they see the sci-fi, the futurism, and the lofty goals of a bunch of people that were really optimistic about the future of electronic music.

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening's studio at Columbia

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening’s studio at Columbia. Image courtesy: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

What makes the audible history of the Sounding Circuits exhibition so different from other projects is the way that it incorporates Cluett’s own personal history. A highlight was learning about his relationship with Pauline Oliveros. The collaboration began with a commission for poet and accordion sent via a postcard from Trudy Morse, who never said Oliveros would be the accordionist. After performing the piece with Oliveros, their work together continued, including making field recordings in Italy and performing her Apple Box Double, a piece that involved contact microphones placed on an apple box and improvised sounds that she had first developed with David Tudor in the 1960s.

A crucial aspect of the exhibition, however, is how Cluett uses sound recordings, historical artifacts, and past technologies as a reference point in his own experimental music practice—in particular the works that he was commissioned to compose for the NYPL. (For more on composers and sound artists who make use of historical objects and past technologies, see the scholarship of Jennie Gottschalk.) These newly composed works are responses to classic works from the history of electronic music, many of which had an impact on him as a composer. They do not attempt to imitate their models stylistically, but rather respond to the experimental mode that the composers were working in. For example, Cluett’s Affordances responds to Laurie Spiegel by being algorithmically generated, but it is in his own vocabulary. Cluett nevertheless acknowledged that his vocabulary “has a lot of Laurie Spiegel and Oliveros in its practice.” In the exhibition, these new compositions are played alongside the classics that inspired them. “The ambisonic cube has a playlist that rotates around the room like a clock face, consisting of Cage, Varèse, Pril Smiley, Laurie Spiegel, Charles Dodge, Paul Lansky, Jean-Claude Risset, and Pauline Oliveros. And as it does that, each of those works has a piece between them that I composed that mitigates the experimental difference between the poles of pieces adjacent to my work.” Cluett aimed to highlight how “audible histories are an attempt to think about how earlier generations of sound practice influenced current practice, and how current practice recontextualizes history—both in a personal way for me, but in a real way for the objects on their own, for everyone who comes to the exhibit to see and hear them.”

Seth Cluett’s Accordion Alone

The exhibition Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories is on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until March 23, 2019.


Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in Historical Musicology in 2015. His interests are performance studies, Regieoper, Wagner studies, and new music and diversity. He is currently writing a book on afterlives of 1968, global politics, and stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle. His research has been published by The Musical Quarterly, and he has received research grants from the Fulbright Program and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Dr. Rothe regularly blogs on musical topics at https://alexanderkrothemusicology.wordpress.com/blog/


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