AUSTIN: Tárogató! Singing!...the music of my own
time. Djuro's Tree. Williams (re) Mix (ed). The Theme
Restored (Williams Mix). Six Short Variations. The Nth
Larry Austin (Octophonic Computer Music: 1996-2001)
EFM CD 039 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:45
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Larry Austin comes from the John Cage-David Tudor wing of American music, with influences from the musique concr╦te crowd. He is probably noted most for his controversial recent completion of Ives's Universe Symphony. Austin has a base in Denton, Texas, an unlikely place on the surface, but which turns out to be a hotbed of activity in electronic, particularly tape-based, music.
Austin conceives of these works as "octophonic" -- that is, 8 independent channels, each channel ultimately hooked up to its own speaker, strategically placed within a room or hall. The idea is to sculpt the ambient space, to put the sound into three dimensions, as opposed to the mere left and right of stereo. What we here on the CD is the composer's mix-down to two channels -- hence the title of the album, Octo Mixes. These pieces undoubtedly lose some of their flair and snap in this format.
Some can't help themselves and will raise the question: Is it music? I'm a fairly traditional fellow myself. Much of it I wouldn't call music, but I think it's the wrong question. One would better ask, Is it effective art? Most of the pieces, for one reason or another, work for me.
Tárogató! (an Hungarian folk instrument) just about raptures me out. It's one of those "overlapping" pieces, where the instrument's song is fragmented and the fragments played against themselves. Austin also manipulates the sound. The phrases that come from the instrument are very beautiful. Singing! ... the music of my own time paints a portrait of the baritone Thomas Buckner, who commissioned the piece. For me, the interest derives not only from Thomas's story, but from the abstraction of Buckner's words into essentially percussion, a bit like Reich's Come Out, but not as relentlessly methodical, and, further, expressively related to the portrait Austin creates.
Djuro's Tree is yet another portrait, this time of Serbian-American mathematician Alexandra Kurepa Waschka and her family. It's, believe it or not, a wistful piece, relying not only on the story, but on sounds made from the wind in the trees and creaking branches.
For me, the least successful work is Williams [re]Mix[ed], based on Cage's classic of electronic music, Williams Mix. The original was based on roughly six hundred sound samples -- categorized as "city," "country," "electronic," "manual," "wind," and "small." Within each category, the sounds were arranged by decay characteristics. From this large set, Cage, Tudor, and Earle Brown snipped and spliced according to five hundred pages of very precise instructions, which also included a lot of randomization. Nine months of this laborious process produced four-and-a-half minutes worth of music. Cage intended that others would make their own mixes. When someone pointed out that after a good long time, no one else had, Cage pointed out that the mass of instructions may have discouraged people. What? Do you think?
At any rate, Austin realized that instructions are duck soup to a computer. A program is, after all, a series of instructions. So he apparently programmed a computer to do the assembly. According to the liner notes, the assembly took minutes rather than months. To kind of add insult to injury, he produced a variation of the mix for each of the six sound categories. We have here something analogous to theme and variations, with the original Williams Mix as the theme and a "new realization" as the coda. To me, however, it all sounds like Frank Zappa's "Are You Hung Up?" and it goes on for far longer (a bit more than fifteen minutes). I stop long before it does.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the original pieces very much indeed. I'd love to hear them octophonically.
S.G.S. (April 2002)