A conversation on the second floor of the historic Ear Inn (est. 1817) in New York City
April 17, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
The variety of activities that Charlie Morrow has been involved in for more than half a century is staggering even by today’s standards, when the wearing of numerous hats is almost a pre-requisite for being successful as a composer. The almost always Bowler hat-clad Morrow was writing conceptual pieces that predicted Fluxus as a high school student in the 1950s, twelve-tone scores under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe at Mannes in the 1960s. He went on to develop alternative performance spaces, environmental music (including a widely publicized concert involving performances with fish), and music for multiples of the same instrument in the 1970s. While immersing himself in all those activities, he built one of the first private electronic music studios and wrote hit arrangements for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as The Rascals and Vanilla Fudge. He also penned some of the most earworm-inducing commercial jingles which promoted everything from Diet Coke and Hefty garbage bags to special express subway service to JFK airport.
Although I had never had a lengthy conversation with Morrow until we met up with him for this NewMusicBox presentation, he was a major role model for the choices I have made in my own life: he was a Columbia grad who, during his time there, immersed himself in world music; a musical creator who was never beholden to any particular musical genre or the limitations that adherence to any genre demands; for many years he was also the publisher of EAR Magazine, a seminal publication for new music which was one of the main inspirations for NewMusicBox. So I had tons of questions I wanted to ask him. Some of his answers led in directions I didn’t anticipate. For example, when I asked him about his earliest musical experiences, he actually spoke about events from the first year of his life and even shared a memory he had of being born.
“I always wanted to remember my birth,” Morrow explained. “I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. … I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved.”
When we talked about his 1967 Marilyn Monroe Collage, which he created at the invitation of Andy Warhol to accompany an exhibition of Warhol’s legendary iterative Monroe silkscreens, I thought it would lead to a discussion of his gorgeous Wave Music pieces, which are scored for multiples of the same instrument—a process that seems aurally analogous to filling up a wall with iterations of the same visual image. Instead, he said, his impetus came from attempting to perform concerts with toadfish!
“I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert,” said Morrow. “In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish … as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other. … Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. … We’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication.”
As luck would have it, the fish concert took place right after Richard Nixon resigned from the United States presidency, and it became an international news story since it was a quirky distraction from current events.
“It was a total accident,” Morrow acknowledged. “He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like ‘a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?’ You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. … Since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics. … I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.”
Although Charlie Morrow is the quintessential DIY composer, he often thinks big—extremely big. Over the past decade, he has developed a revolutionary three-dimensional soundscape design, and his recent projects have included everything from a 72-speaker immersive environment as part of Nokia World in Barcelona to a permanent sound installation at the new display of the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle in England. For next year’s summer solstice, June 21, 2016, he is mounting an unprecedented 24-hour concert that will take place in 24 different time zones.
“A mass performance should be either a totally composed piece like the Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it,” Morrow opined. “I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. … My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings.”
Frank J. Oteri: We usually tend to begin at the beginning, in so far as we can begin at the beginning. There are many beginnings. But where I wanted to start our talk isn’t exactly at the beginning. I wanted to talk with you about your years as an undergraduate at Columbia, because I’ve read in several places that you studied with Colin Turnbull, who wrote a very popular ethnography about the Ituri rainforest pygmies and made some amazing field recordings of their music. So I was curious about how you, as an undergrad, became interested in the music of other cultures.
Charlie Morrow: Well, I’ve always been interested in the music of the world because I’ve been interested in radio. I’m a radio amateur. I started out by being a short wave buff; I would listen on many frequencies to sounds from all over the world. I came quickly to understand that there was a wide variety of music that was—I would say—misunderstood, or marginalized, or made other than mainstream by— at the time—the prejudices that divide anthropology from sociology. It was almost as if there was a racist component to it. If you weren’t white and from Western Europe, or amongst the elite of Asia, that what you did was somehow on a second category.
This impulse has been running through all of my work. A large part of it is because some of the more excellent things that music’s about are actually part of world music and older cultures, and it has been lost by the commodification, commercialization, and conversion to listener-directed product making. I come out of signaling—bugling, music for the time of day and for the location that you’re in, the idea of it being involved in some social structure like the Boy Scouts, the military, or the church calendar. I come from a multi-cultural city, Passaic, New Jersey. We had representatives of practically every religion and many, many countries there. So there was a sense, just walking through Passaic, of a wide variety of people. There were many small communities—Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, many flavors of Judaism, small synagogues the size of this room. But the one thing that characterized most of these groups, I found later on, was the incredible insularity of “we’re right and everybody else is wrong,” which is what I think created an atmosphere, when there finally was a kind of elite majority that controlled the pantheon of Western arts, that they said, “Well, this is ours.” And there were basically too few of everybody else holding onto their own traditions.
That’s a long introduction to the fact that I studied principally with Willard Rhodes at Columbia, because he was my ethnomusicology teacher, and then I met Colin Turnbull informally through the Museum of Natural History. I met him and I would go through the storeroom. Our discussions were based on the functionality of music. Functionality is a huge issue with me. Not just signaling, but ceremonial aspects and particularly the power of materials. A lot of my early writings concerned how, for example, something living has to die in order to become a musical instrument.
It’s a big theme that runs through my work. The relationship of death and life in Western music and, in particular, instruments—that’s what was so fantastic. You know, people play elephant tusk horns, Tibetan thigh horns, and I’m a horn-trumpet-wind person. The idea of blowing the breath of a living person through part of something dead was a connection to a larger world, rather than something morbid for me. I think this is what brought Colin Turnbull and I to our relationship because he felt very much the same. He saw magic everywhere. And he also saw clearly the way people treated each other. I think that he, in his own life—particularly in choosing a male pygmy as his husband—was putting himself on the line. He was a high-risk guy.
FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you say that as a teenager you already had the idea of infusing the past into the present and that it’s been a running theme in all of your creative and theoretical work ever since then.
CM: Yeah, actually it was earlier. I think it came from one particular question which I had had until I answered it, which was that I always wanted to remember my birth, and remember before I was born. I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. And I finally went back and was able to remember my own birth. I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved, so going backwards into that process led inextricably to an explanation of why I thought this way.
FJO: This is amazing! Usually we begin these discussions at the beginning, but we’ve never talked to anyone about the very beginning.
CM: My beginning, anyway.
FJO: So, alright, since you went all the way back there, I’m going to try to go back there with you. Do you remember the first time you heard something that was described as music?
CM: Yes, I do. I remember that my parents had a record. I must have been about three-years old, and they said, in playing the record, that this was music. I remember hearing a recording of Stravinsky, a narrated record about music, and then they said there’s some new and wild things like Stravinsky. And it went on from there. I had limited experience of music making outside of our house. But actually, my first real experience of the power of music was much, much earlier when I was about a year old. I was born in ’42, and my father and mother both were psychiatrists. My dad wanted to practice psychiatry in the military. He had volunteered for the Navy, but he was too short by some tiny amount. So he wound up in the Army. They put him into an army psychiatric hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. And my mom and I took a long train trip down to visit. It must have been the summer after I was born. There was a military parade for the officers. I remember how I could not keep the sound of the drums outside of me. It seemed to penetrate my body. I had never experienced anything that loud or that close. That became the earliest experience for me of music, just that very, very intense military drumming.
FJO: What’s so interesting about that is that one of the instruments you would have heard in that military parade—trumpet—became your first instrument, and also that you wound up doing so many outdoor, environmental pieces. So the seeds of those later developments go all the way back to this initial musical encounter.
CM: I think you’re right. It also came from the intense liberation that I felt as a bugler in the Boy Scouts. The experience of blowing “Reveille” or “Taps” from a hanging metal cone megaphone, and blowing it in three different directions—I think that that completely convinced me of where I was going. It sounded so different in each direction. Having three shots at playing it, having learned and heard the first and then the second, and the third, was an iterative experience that made me well aware of what environments are about.
FJO: That also ties into your whole development of the 3D sound cube and directionality much later on.
CM: You’re absolutely right, because what I wanted to achieve with the 3D sound cube was a natural feeling that you could locate where sound came from. Because it makes you nervous if you can’t, because your life is threatened on a very primordial level if you don’t know where sound is and what’s making it. It could get you, or you might not get it if you needed to eat it or any number of things that are defined by instantly resolving where something is, and instantly making a judgment about what it’s about. You know, is it threatening? Is it appetizing? Is it intriguing?
FJO: In that sense, sound is very different from visual information because we’re trained to sense perspective, which enables us to know how far away something is just by seeing where it is. Sound, on the other hand, we perceive as a non-corporeal, disembodied thing. But of course it is physical, too, but it’s not something we can necessarily see.
CM: Also our eyes are frontal, but our ears—divided left and right—resolve sound in a full spherical environment. Your eye is not trying to invent anything for the portion that it doesn’t see, unless you stick it in an oculus or another kind of enhanced, immersive experience. But your ear does that all the time; your ear is resolving x, y, z, w, and t at least—w is where the observer is, t is over time.
FJO: Before we get too theoretical, I want to head back to Columbia. There’s another person whom you studied with there at that time who is one of my heroes because of his incredible open-mindedness—Otto Luening. So I’m curious to learn more about your relationship with him and what his influence was on you.
CM: Well, I had a class in music history with him, which was quite nice because he was able to speak very personally about the materials in music. I think that his most fascinating teaching was the multi-level interpretation of everything. You don’t just hear the music or see it in one way; he always explained what it was for, who did it, and what the environment was at the time. He was also interested in the gestural aspect of the music. And he had a great sense of humor. I remember once he was talking about one of the Scarlattis, about the tight little playing of very delicate and carefully honed keyboard music. And he said, “They did that ‘cause in those days you couldn’t go like this: bang-bang-bang-bang.” He always had little side trips like that. He was constantly riffing on what he taught, which created open doors because he took everything he said with a big grain of salt.
FJO: Did you have any involvement with the electronic music studio that he was developing?
CM: I didn’t work in it, but I became very familiar with it. Being a techie, I was fascinated and I met a number of the people who worked there. I knew Bülent Arel and some of the South American guys who were working there, and I continued to have a connection to the studio. I maintained a steady relationship with Charles Dodge. I stayed connected because they were proactive in creating a world of their own. Early sound studios were very particularly made to the interest of their creators. I had one of the first privately-owned sound studios in New York. When I moved to 365 West End Avenue, we built a studio there and I had a team of people working with me. Our studio was totally different from what Columbia was about; it was concerned with programmability, repeatability, and the accuracy of a lot of the work. All of those issues distinguish what I’ve eventually done with 3D immersive sound from what the entire industry is doing with it.
In a way, Columbia’s studio set me off on a path of being a staunch independent, doing more gesturally-based things, working with cheaper equipment, working with approaches that were more connected to the natural world. I always wanted to get closer to electrons as part of nature; my field at Columbia was chemistry. Chemistry’s an extraordinary embodiment of metaphysics.
FJO: So you weren’t a music major?
CM: No, I was a pre-med student.
FJO: So you were trying to follow in the footsteps of your parents?
FJO: Interesting. I didn’t realize that. So you studied music history with Luening, not composition?
CM: Yes, but I had studied composition. My first composition teacher was a guy named Carlo Lombardi, when I was in Newark Academy. Carlo was a student of Dallapiccola, so I got a really interesting education right away—a really Italian take on Viennese 12-note music. Carlo was also a very good keyboard player; he could play anything I could write, so I suddenly started to have good performances of what I was doing. And he encouraged me to go to Interlochen where I was in high school composition and orchestration classes. I worked with a number of teachers there and things got played. What really took my career along was the idea of having the work played, because I’d written for years before that but I didn’t have anybody to play it, except if I wrote it for trumpet, which was my instrument.
FJO: But what interests me is that already, before you went to college, as a high school student, you were writing conceptually based pieces. And this was music that was 180 degrees away from 12-tone music. You were writing downtown music in high school back before the words uptown and downtown took on polemic meanings.
CM: Yes, I was. I did a slow Gabrieli piece.
FJO: That piece [Very Slow Gabrieli] actually reminds me of the music of a younger composer, Jacob Cooper, who—nearly 60 years after you wrote that piece—has created a whole body of fascinating repertoire based on slowing down older music.
CM: Interesting. It’s nice to know that the door, once it was opened, is happening. But my favorite [among my early pieces] is the surprise music where at a pre-arranged time, when an orchestra’s playing, everyone stops and squirms and belches and makes funny little noises, unknown to the conductor. It’s a guerilla event in the middle of an orchestra performance and it really worked out well.
FJO: That’s a very Fluxus idea, but this is pre-Fluxus.
CM: It is. We’re talking the 1950s.
FJO: But it makes me wonder. I went to Columbia in the ‘80s, which was at the tail end of what some people perceived as the period of 12-tone hegemony in many academic institutions. It was a time when many folks still didn’t really look too kindly on alternative compositional approaches. So I could only imagine what the reaction was there to the wilder side of your music at that earlier time.
CM: Well, basically I divorced myself from the non-ethnomusicological part of Columbia. I played with Philip Corner, James Tenney, and Malcolm Goldstein and was part of the Tone Roads concert series. I guess we had our own world. I met Cage through them, and it was like finding my people.
FJO: Yet in the middle of all that, you wound up going to Mannes and studying with Stefan Wolpe, a fascinating composer who was at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.
CM: I was bouncing back and forth. I have works in different styles from that time. I guess what I was discovering was that I could work in a number of styles. It’s how I wound up in the jingle and film scoring business. I could work authentically and non-imitatively in other styles, and that became interesting for me. Having done that for a while as the business became more codified and referential, that stopped being fun. It was fun as long as the door was open. When I first went into that world, I went into it as a combination composer and sound designer, because those were two separate things: two people that got a job. I could get a job, and they could pay me once, instead of paying two people. But once the ’80s came, I began to look for something else to do with myself because it had become pretty much like Columbia and 12-note music. The commercial music scene had become formulaic.
FJO: But we’re jumping ahead here. You weren’t doing commercial jingles when you were studying with Wolpe at Mannes.
CM: No, that hadn’t happened yet. That happened after I did a piece for tenor and orchestra that won a prize and brought me out to San Francisco. When I came back to New York, I had imagined that since I’d met Leonard Bernstein and had suddenly been introduced to the mainstream world that I’d get phone calls and letters and requests for commissions. It was a wild fantasy. It never happened. I think at that point, I wrote an essay called “View from the Bottom of the Heap” which was published in 1966 in the American Music Center’s newsletter. John Duffy encouraged me to put my ideas out there about being an independent composer and earning a living from it. So it was at that time that I began to part company with the concert hall. I did a protest concert called “For the Two Charlies,” with Ives’s music and my own, and that was the end of my life in the concert hall. I just devoted myself to music outside the concert hall.
FJO: At the time you complained about the constricting of sound in the concert hall, that it’s a very artificial idea to create a blank slate for music to fill up, since in every other environment outside of a concert hall music co-exists with many other sounds. So the concert hall environment artificializes the listening experience.
CM: It’s true. Later on, as an outdoor event-maker turned soundscaper, I began to realize the concert hall was just one of many possible environments. When I started to build things in 3D, the idea was that you make a location and then you populate it with sounds and sound scenery. But first you make an environment. Every place is an environment. I think it was a conceit on my part to see the concert hall as being too quiet for what I had in mind.
FJO: So how did you make the transition from writing for tenor and orchestra to creating music for experiences that were outside the concert hall? Building your own studio and production company takes money and time. And to be successful at it also requires connections. I know one of your classmates at Columbia was Art Garfunkel.
CM: Right. I also met people who had studios. I learned how the studio world worked. At the same time, I had a bit of interesting input from my mother who was a psychiatrist and introduced me to a fellow named Andy Mashberg, whom she’d met at a medical convention. After I came back to New York and actually saw Leonard Bernstein sitting at the Bavarian Inn at the next table from me, I met Andy Mashberg whom my mother had talked to. Andy had said to my mother, “I know how he can survive without teaching.” He met me and he said, “You can be a writer of jingles and corporate music and film scores. This is what you have to do.” And he talked me through it. He gave me a list of people. He told me how to make a demo reel. So I was basically walked right to the door of work. And fortunately, within a half a year, I started to have some good opportunities. I did a kind of humorous Cinzano radio commercial. “Please, don’t pinch Cinzano ashtrays. Try Cinzano vermouth instead. Cinzano vermouth is better than ashtrays. Get it into your American head.” These were the lyrics of a mad man named David Altschuler. We became lifelong friends. And fortunately he had work for me. My career has been meeting people who thought that what I did could be useful for what they did. So in terms of being a producer, I quickly learned to do what was needed by people who liked me and thought I could do it.
FJO: So you were already doing commercial work when you started doing production on pop records in the late ‘60s?
CM: No, the other way around. What happened was my then-wife didn’t like me up all night and away, you know, because in the daytime I was also trying to find work and it was stretching our relationship. So what I’d learned from the pop music world was that I wanted to work in the daytime if I was going to keep a home together. So that’s what happened. I more or less started out by getting into the commercial studios through the pop music connection, but then making connections into the advertising world. I already knew good performers from all the worlds that I was in. And that was from a long history of being a producer as well. I had helped Charlotte Moorman produce an avant-garde festival and I had worked in Norman Seaman’s office, who was a promoter—all of this with my mother behind the scenes trying to figure out how I might survive doing what I wanted to do. She was a great admirer of [Sol] Hurok, and she said, “Look at that guy. He finds the talent, he finds the venue, he finds a sponsor, he spends other people’s money, and he makes money for himself.” She was constantly encouraging me to figure out what was on the table and how to move it around.
FJO: So she never tried to get you to go back to med school?
CM: No. My father did, but not my mother. When I was 38, my father, having seen a concert of mine at MoMA, said, “Haven’t you had enough fun now?” I was trying to figure out what he meant. At the time, I was making a very good living, so it couldn’t have been about money. I think he was embarrassed by my eccentricity.
FJO: So getting into the pop world was through Garfunkel?
CM: Yeah, it happened through Garfunkel. And then I had a business partner named Barry Minsky and through him I wound up doing an orchestra piece for The Young Rascals. Then I met other people. Through Atlantic Records, I wound up working for Vanilla Fudge. Then it went kind of back and forth. Studios would put together teams, and so I wound up doing arrangements on various records; the Record Plant studio became a kind of home for me. It evolved from A & R studios where Simon and Garfunkel had recorded originally. I think it was a Columbia studio on lease, or they bought time at A & R. But from A & R, it led to the Record Plant. And everybody hung out there. It was kind of the club house for all different kinds of music production for the pop scene.
FJO: In terms of its production, Simon and Garfunkel’s record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was radical at that time; it was the first eight-track record. Considering your ideas about the directionality of sound, which an eight-track recording would have emulated much better than any previous technology, did you have something to do with that?
CM: I created hit charts for them. I talked to Paul Simon about the sounds, using a Renaissance keyboard instrument. None of them read music; it was all about sharing ideas. So I had something to do with it, yes. But I didn’t write a note.
FJO: But did you have anything to do with the multi-tracking? It was a vital step toward the way most pop music recordings were subsequently made. Nowadays, with digital studios, you can theoretically record an infinite number of different tracks and then mix them together however you want to during post-production. But before that album, most recordings were one-track or two-tracks as stereo came in. Then George Martin made the first four-track recordings of The Beatles in 1963. But Simon and Garfunkel beat even The Beatles to eight-track, and from thereon in there was no turning back.
CM: Well, I think it came from the engineering side; that wasn’t my idea. I was just a hired hand. I would come in and do the sessions, or talk on the phone before. For the real artisanal work that was done in the studio, there was as engineer involved. I think his name was Stan Tonkel. He was extremely far thinking. Of course, Columbia Records themselves bought a lot of multi-track machines. They had the money. Commercials lent themselves to multi-track machines also because you wanted to be covered for different versions and be able to do very polished work based on a lot of fragments. Directionality was not such an issue. It was more about layers. Layering is still very important in the work that I do, as you’ll see in the software that I’ll show you later. We layer in 3D. We can create as many layers as we like in order to be able to create a world of sound, and that is similar to what an eight-track machine has to offer.
FJO: One of the reasons I thought there might have been a connection here was that you used multi-tracking in the multi-layered Marilyn Monroe piece you did around that time [Marilyn Monroe Collage].
CM: Well, actually, I had to do that piece as a series. I remember, I had a classmate, Mike Shapiro from Columbia, and Shapiro had gone to work for a sound library. They had an excellent mono studio. I think we did the Marilyn Monroe piece by creating all of the elements and rolling them in on two-track machines, doing them as very careful sound on sound. So that was because I had a guy who was really good at being my hands and he engineered the whole thing for me. It was such a juggle.
FJO: It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s just two tracks.
CM: No, it doesn’t. But I think that might have been just prior to eight-track recording. I knew about four-track recording.
FJO: That piece opens up doors to all kinds of things, like taking found sounds and using them as sonic objects for your own ends, which is a very post-modern idea and something you’re still doing now with your recent re-compositions. It’s an idea that has a lot of currency right now—sampling something and turning it into a new creation by remixing it and making it your own. Everything in your Marilyn Monroe piece came from something she actually said that was recorded, but you turned it into something that she never said.
CM: That’s right.
FJO: Also since she was so iconic, and was someone that everyone could immediately identify, there was something very populist about your piece, even though it was experimental conceptual music.
CM: It’s true. It had grown out of an invitation by Andy Warhol to create a piece for his Marilyn Monroe show at a gallery on 57th Street. My motivation for it was actually seeing everything and, in terms of ceremony, thinking of the artist as a sacrificial lamb. And I thought, coming back always with this death image, that I was taking Marilyn Monroe and reviving her for my own benefits. She was a beautiful vehicle for the thoughts I had about her, which concerned, in my way, the exploitation that show business does.
FJO: Another interesting aspect about what you did with Marilyn Monroe, which makes more sense now that you’ve referenced an exhibition of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, is that you’ve taken something very popular and turned it into something much more rarified and abstract, just as Warhol did by silkscreening those images of her. Her image became just a form in which to explore a process, just as he had done earlier by painting sequences of Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. Which connects to another thing you have done as a composer—all the stuff you’ve composed for multiples of the same instrument. Having 30 harps or 40 cellos, all the same sonority, is the sonic equivalent of a whole room filled with the same visual image.
CM: That’s a very interesting reading. I was on a panel about animal communication. I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert and had before that done a lot of field work with peepers where I could get into dialogue with them. In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish and the peepers as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other.
But then you remind me that when I first went to Mannes School of Music, I met a guy from the neighborhood whose mother had an empty flat. He said, “You’ve got to come over here. My mom let this crazy art director from advertising do a show in one of her empty flats. It’s a block away. Come with me, Charlie.” I walked in and there was Andy Warhol, and it was his first show. And the walls were exactly as you say. And I remember thinking about the simultaneity of duplicates at the time. But until our conversation it had not surfaced that this is a piece of that, because I’d always seen it through the herds and other multiple images from nature, rather than from the manipulation of the artist.
FJO: That fish concert happened during the period between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford being sworn in as president. Was that some sort of an artistic statement?
CM: It was a total accident. He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like “a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?” You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. Morty himself was the one who said, “You’re working with all these sounds. Why don’t you do a concert for fish?” And I said, “What a great idea, Morty. We’ll do it.” At the time, I had been working for large industrial, multi-media projects with a guy named John Doswell. Doswell just died a month ago, but he’s been significant in my life because he was very active in the harbor life here. And he arranged tugboat races and so forth later, but Doswell said, “Come on out. Let’s do it from my boat.” So I suddenly had a boat, and I knew the technology, and so Morty Wax’s suggestion turned into reality. And since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics.
FJO: Although I would imagine in terms of it being a world press event, it was overshadowed by Nixon’s resignation.
CM: Of course.
FJO: So that’s the bad part of it happening the same day.
CM: But it was mentioned worldwide. I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.
FJO: At that point, you had already done stuff with birds, the Central Park pieces.
CM: Well, I had done the solstice events. Let’s see; let me put it together: ’74 was when Nixon resigned and we did the fish concert. I had already started The New Wilderness Foundation and the New Wilderness Band. We had already been doing solstice events, and we were communicating with birds in those events.
FJO: So in terms of how that works, you say communicating with birds or with fish. I’d like to unpack this a bit.
FJO: We’re hearing their sounds, but do you have any sense of what they’re hearing from us? Is there really a two-way aspect to this or is it all just our interpretation of what this is?
CM: Well, I would say that it’s both. First of all, I believe in the bandwidth of perception. Every essay in the book I’m working on has to do with the fact that every creature hears and sees vibrations on different wavelengths. Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. It’s absolutely true, for example, that a horse and a human might be riding and spending days together, but they’re not getting the same world because their ears are in different positions and the evolution of our sensory systems are different. So going then beyond a fellow warm blooded animal to reptiles, talking to each other through a black hole, so to speak, we’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication. They basically both have a simple language and it was the complexity of such a simple language that turned my interest.
Toadfish make a sound [demonstrates] and they tend to have a lead toadfish that’s making a sound and the others want to reply. So groups follow the leader. And then that toadfish, once he’s got a group, starts to increase the tempo, jumping the beat, and the group follows until another starts over here at a much slower tempo. This goes on every day. That’s an auditory transactional state that those folks are in, or those critters. So if you make those sounds, and they answer you, they play; if you can play in that band, you’re there, at least for the part that you hear and the part that they hear.
FJO: That’s absolutely fascinating. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that at the same time that you’re doing this really out there stuff like this concert for fish, you’re making a living doing commercial jingles. I’m curious about the spillover. Some of your commercial stuff is quite avant-garde in some ways. Your Hefty garbage bag theme, in particular, is pretty wacky musically; it’s full of really unusual harmonies which never resolve.
CM: My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings. Soundscapes are like that. We build soundscapes that people will hear for a permanent installation. There is this balance that has to be achieved between every element in relation to the other elements.
That’s something you learn from orchestration. This is just a contemporary equivalent of orchestration. Whether it’s a trumpet orchestra in West Africa, or a Western orchestra, or an opera. It functions transactionally. Everybody’s got to have a role in it and have a good time somehow. Like in a good gamelan piece, the social fabric is illuminated when all the pieces come together and the music ticks. A trick with being in the jingle world was always to find that balance. However, I don’t think it’s possible in the same way now. I have a job right now, which shall go nameless. The environmental pieces of it were created and were fine with the client. But all the tiny sound effects that were in it they wanted copied exactly from today’s latest high-tech, game-oriented feature films.
I had an argument with people who were half my age—actually in this room—in which I said to them, “I think that you’re making a terrible mistake. I think that just simply copying that without a reason other than that you think people will identify with that is basically to burn them out faster. What you’re doing will be trivialized faster in my experience.” At which point, I put somebody else from our team on the job. And a note came back. “It’s a problem working with Charlie; we have to listen to philosophy.” From my point of view, I’d given them sound economic advice, and from their point of view, I was wasting their time because they were in a hurry to do something they thought was right. It kind of epitomized what has happened at all stages of my career.
At one point I was asked by an agency guy to write a Pan Am commercial. He said, “Would you make me a commercial? I want you to do this with an original flair. It shouldn’t sound like anything that anyone’s heard before.” I said, “Do you really mean that? He said, “I do.” I said, “Well, it’s opportunities like this that I live for.” And so I wrote two pieces, for the same ensemble. We read through the first one, and the guy came out screaming. He said, “What is this shit? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life.” I said, “Well, did you hear what you just said? Wasn’t that my assignment?” He said, “Don’t fuck with my head.” I said, “Well, I’m just teasing.” We played the other one. He said, “Don’t ever do that again.”
FJO: Do you have a recording of those? I’d love to hear them.
CM: I actually do. I have to dig them out.
FJO: The jingles you created for Hefty and WINS radio were both used for years. Those were really successful.
CM: They still are.
FJO: And they’re both instantly identifiable. So there were—and clearly still are—folks that were accepting of these more unusual kinds of sounds. People obviously liked them, because they’re still popular.
CM: There are tastemakers who do it right. There’s also such a thing as good luck. But my style has always been to create something that’s a little bit on the edge. Generally that seems to work to keep it fresh for as long as it lives. I mean, that’s in my mind and what I’ve learned from composers of the past. The good stuff still sounds fresh and sounds right. So I try to impart that, whether it’s a three-second logo or a ten-day event.
FJO: At that same time, you also wrote a tune that could very well have been a Billboard hit single, if it wasn’t written for a commercial—your “Take the Train to the Plane” jingle for the New York City subway system. It’s actually almost a pop song.
CM: It really is. Well, that was a remarkable situation where I wrote for two very bright marketing guys who were great fans of things that were just like that. They wanted me to write something that’s memorable, that people would sing, and that would possibly have a life outside of the use by the MTA.
FJO: And did it?
CM: Yeah, there were a number of releases of it. It’s been licensed for a number of feature films. It hasn’t been what you call an avalanche of coverage, but it has lived.
FJO: So you worked in all these different genres. You created avant-garde music, and you have this academic music that you’d written earlier, you did pop music production, you did improvisatory stuff with the New Wilderness Group, and then commercial jingle work. Then you were part of the creation of EAR Magazine, which was a publication for new music that embraced it all. It makes sense now, because your background was doing it all. But I’m wondering what made you decide to participate in a publication for this stuff.
CM: Well, it’s just like my mother or Morty Wax suggesting something. I’m not so much an inventor of things, but a selector of good ideas that float past my nose. First of all, Beth Anderson and a guy named Charles Shere from San Francisco developed a community mimeo publication called EAR. And Beth came and lived in this house. R.I.P. Hayman has had many people come and share his roof with him. He’s a very generous guy. And Beth and he put out EAR together, and then Beth wanted to get out. Magazine fever is something people usually have for short periods of time—I mean, a certain number of years. But Rip wanted to keep it going. So Rip asked me, since we were already working together on so many things, whether New Wilderness could be its fiscal agent, its bank account, and its tax status. And I said of course. Then I wound up working with EAR a lot. I took an interest in EAR because I believe in thematic publication. So under my tenure with EAR, we had issues on music of healing, poetry, politics; the EARs were basically anthologies.
I also have to say that I’ve been very much inspired by my long-term relationship with the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who was a master anthologist. Poetry appears in the first person. You print the poem and there it is before you. The idea of EAR was that we’d have essays and actual compositions, a direct communication from the creator to the reader, which is quite different from the way music is generally handled. Music is generally written about—it’s critiqued, it’s promoted, but the actual primary content is very rarely presented other than in books of scores. So I would say that in that way we fell together as people who were interested in what the other was doing and then seeking a community through publication.
FJO: Well, as I’ve told you before, EAR was one of the main inspirations for the creation of NewMusicBox—people who create this work talking and writing about it themselves, rather than there being filters. Initially, for the first few years that NewMusicBox was online, each month was a thematic issue. Ultimately, though, we realized having a monthly thematic format wasn’t the perfect fit for the instantaneous 24/7/365 communication mechanism that the internet was evolving into, so now we post stuff almost every weekday and the pieces don’t all connect to each other in the same way. But I’m curious; you talk about EAR on an aesthetic level. I always thought of it as a socio-political act. We have this world outside of what we do that doesn’t necessarily understand what we do. So the media often gets it wrong in terms of how they describe it. Sometimes they’re dismissive and at times they’re downright hostile toward it. But we can create our own publication. We can create our own world. Let people know about what we do by telling them ourselves. Rather than relying on tastemakers to do it for us, we can be our own tastemakers.
CM: I agree, and program makers, too. Our solstice broadcasts were lengthy compilations of material done in celebration of a holiday, and promoted to the world through broadcast and getting people to physically show up. So I agree with you. The idea of artists curating artists, and artists writing in the first person was definitely in the air and I felt very strongly about it. After all, my whole career has been stepping out, making my own studio, making my own way as a producer, and I thought that in this sense a community is built by people who are able to do that and then sharing the skill sets. Bringing that together, how wonderful EAR became under different editorial leadership and different art direction!
It was quite unusual for a publication within music to take on such great graphic interest. This is where R.I.P. Hayman’s particular inspiration—and all of us, in that way—all feeds back to Philip Corner. Rip and I met through Philip Corner’s sound out of silence spaces. Philip had learned calligraphy in Korea and made calligraphic music; his calligraphic scores had opened the door between graphics and communicating and music and sound. So we were looking to get the word out. At that time, I became the music critic for the Soho News, and I wrote essays about Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, and a number of other people who were important in their thinking to me, because no one knew who they were. They weren’t mainstream artists. They were just doing their work and I think that publishing the work and also writing about it within a framework of the art community is very positive.
FJO: The other thing that I found so inspirational about EAR was its definition of what new music was. It was really open-ended. I first became aware of the rock band Sonic Youth through EAR magazine. EAR was a portal into a broad range of genres, not a place that passed judgment on what was “uptown” or “downtown” or what had pedigree or lacked it. It presented everything on an equal footing, which was incredibly mind opening and made for a more inclusive new music community.
CM: I think you’re right, and in that respect, EAR also demonstrated that a community could be supportive of each other. While there had been this weird uptown-downtown split, it was really a tiny fissure in a community of people who otherwise were quite frankly really hungry to be more connected to other people and to know about things. I mean, your own experience shows what we found with EAR, because the readership went up. People were hungry to learn, and it was easier to understand it if you could see the real work, and understand that it had been either an impulse or been thoughtfully put together. It was transparently primary materials. What made it exciting for all of us was that we were constantly amazed by the breadth of the community and the diversity of what was called new music. It didn’t have to be pigeon-holed. Every time anyone would describe it, it would become something else.
FJO: But EAR eventually went away. We were talking before we began recording about finding ways to digitize the EAR archive to make those incredible issues available again, but it’s weird. All of this existed before the internet. It almost predicted the internet in terms of its interactivity and its attempt to join communities. At one point, I know there had even been an EAR Music East, and an EAR Music West on the West Coast. All these things are so much easier to do now that there’s an internet, yet by the time the web became used by the general public, EAR no longer existed, which is a tragic irony.
CM: It was unfortunate. You know, EAR kept evolving, and at a certain point EAR wanted to separate itself from New Wilderness Foundation and I think it was a time of a changing world. In my own case, I became a father in 1989 and producing the big solstice project that year for June 21, I barely was able to attend my daughter’s birth and be there for when she came home. I suddenly had a whole other world. After that, it kind of came to an end. EAR got a board together and then it went bankrupt. One of the differences throughout the whole project was that Rip and I, when there was no money, would put money in. That’s a necessary and magical ingredient; no matter what happened, we would keep it floating. The new board for EAR had a situation. The printer had gone out of business for some reason and EAR was impounded by a creditor. But EAR had already sold substantial advertising like in tens of thousands of dollars. In order to collect it, EAR had to appear. Generally speaking, EAR paid for its printing after it got its advertising money. So, this chicken-egg effect worked out that then the board, who were a lot of nice people, a lot of them with money, when it came time to put their hands in their pockets, they put their hands in the air. And something very wonderful came to an end. I think no project like this can exist unless there’s somebody who’s a tireless fool who will pay the bills.
FJO: The other amazing thing about it is that magazine was created in this space, the Ear Inn—a building that’s been here since the second decade of the 19th century. In a way, it’s a remarkable parallel that connects back to what you were saying earlier about creating new work through a relationship with old things. We’re in this really old place, certainly by New York City standards, that became one of the meccas for really new music. It seems wonderfully contradictory and yet it makes total sense.
CM: True. It’s a nice thought. I think that very much has to do with R.I.P. Hayman and his great generosity, imagination, and tenacity with keeping a space like this from being totally wiped off the face of the earth, which it’s been threatened with so many times. It makes this a very vital location for doing things.
FJO: I know your feelings about the concert hall and what it represents. So you created a musical existence beyond it and I think, to some extent, that idea translated into your idea about recordings as well because for a very long time your music was never available on recordings. Once again, just like a concert hall captures sound and puts it in this one place, a recording does that even more so because it captures time. John Philip Sousa rallied against canned music a century ago, but unfortunately in our world, unless you can your music and commodify it that way, people aren’t aware that it exists. A few years ago, after all these incredible things you did across many decades, XI finally put out a three-CD retrospective so people who weren’t around to hear these things when they happened could actually hear them.
CM: I think that I’m not so good at making records. My whole career has been in making soundtracks, making events, and broadcasts. For all of these things I’m an expert, but I was never a good producer for my own work. They say that a lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. I think there are people who are excellent record producers for themselves, but it just was a skill that I lacked. There was no other reason for there not being recordings of my work. There were small editions of my work along the way, as part of anthologies or some collection or another, but my work was primarily in broadcast and in media and in public spaces, because that’s what I knew how to do. It is a picture of my limitations, about presenting what I do to a wider audience in that medium.
Now I have marvelous spatial systems. I’m quite capable of presenting large spatial events. I do them once, and I have not attempted to publish them and make them repeatable. It’s just simply a limitation that I’ve got. I think that if I had somebody helping me over those years, that side would have been much better handled. Without Phill Niblock saying that he would like to do a triple CD of my work, I would simply have not done it because it’s just a little bit off of what I do well. So I worked on it with a group of people and they helped select things that would be good on CD. I think what makes me a terrible record person is that I’m a terrible A & R guy. I can’t figure out what belongs on a disc, what’s a reasonably good experience and so forth.
FJO: Well there are certainly some pieces on there that work wonderfully as stand-alone sonic experiences, particularly that gorgeous multiple harp piece [Wave Music VII]. But of course it makes me eager to hear more. I read that there are three string quartets that you wrote early on. Are there recordings of those? Might those be released on another recording one day?
CM: Well I’ve assembled an archive now. I’ve started to put together collections on SoundCloud that are private. Jerome Rothenberg and I have done a lot of collaborations, so I’ve put all the Rothenberg ones together. A friend of mine has an online radio station, so we did a Rothenberg celebration for a bunch of months. But radio is a funny medium because people aren’t necessarily going to listen to long works on radio. But everything’s available in the archive. So we have a number of solutions. David Rothenberg thought there should be a retrospective museum. Owen Bush has suggested since I’m working in virtual reality that we create in virtual reality our own virtual museum, and put all the work in there, since it is site specific. It could then be performed in a more or less site-specific way. And we’re building that virtual reality museum right now with the help of the Unity Studio in Denmark. I think that will come along, but if any of the pieces are interesting to you, and you had some idea how they might be best presented to others, I’m totally into it. I just haven’t taken that step.
On the other hand, we’re remastering all the audiographics cassettes. We had 42 of them. It’s probably the seminal series of sound art and anthropological music: Philip Corner’s first recordings, Dick Higgins’s stuff, Alison Knowles’s stuff. I’m going to make all that available, because there’s a French label that’s interested in doing a sampler and then helping to collect orders for it. I have such big chunks of things that making them meaningful and making them available in a way that’s sensible is just slowly coming to me.
FJO: Since you mentioned Denmark and a French label, there’s one last thing I want to ask you about. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time doing projects in Europe. For some of the larger-scale activities that you’ve done there—like that piece of yours that involves 2,000 people—we certainly have the people and the enthusiasm to make it happen here, and yet these kinds of things seem to happen more in Europe these days.
CM: I think as always, it has to do with who the organizers are. I’ve been recently talking to Aaron Friedman, who was my successor to Summer Solstice celebrations as large scale music events. But I discovered that one of the biggest differences between the stuff that I did and the stuff that he does is that we paid people. He doesn’t pay anybody anything. So therefore the group that’s going to organize itself as 15 percussionists are going to play their own works because they’re there for free and they’re going to want to organize what they’re doing. So it’s a pinch point in doing a curated performance. We were able to do what we wanted because we paid for it—we went to the music performance trust fund and got half the money from the musicians’ union, and they matched the funds. Nobody got a lot of money, but it made it easier to rehearse, say, with cellists or more or less mainstream performers whose time is very precious and now even more so as it is even harder to live in New York.
But I don’t think it’s any easier to organize these large-scale things in Europe any more. First of all, anything like that tends to bear the aegis that they’re retro, ‘60s events; they’re post-hippie stuff. I mean, there’s a variety of ways in which mass performances are described. And in a way, a mass performance should in fact be either a totally composed piece like the [Balinese Ramayana] Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it. I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. The fact that you and I are sitting here talking about it hopefully will lead people to go to the website. Because now on my website, I have a sample of all of the major works. You can see the piece—not on video, but there are photos—and you can hear a good sample of what they’re like. At this point there’s now a lot of material, so hopefully people will find it useful and want to bring it to life.