David Behrman – Music With Memory (2017)
Of those American composers who emerged in the decades following the Second World War, David Behrman is unquestionably among the most important, yet, for reasons unknown, his name and seminal contributions are often allowed rest in the shadows of his more famous peers. While far from neglected, he’s also never entirely gotten his due.
With more than a half century of activity behind him, Behrman occupies a crucial place in the history of the musical avant-garde. He is an axis point, ushering, through a series of subtle shifts in thinking and approach, a sea of change. His work has defined a series of eras, and remains as remarkably fresh, engaging, and visionary it was the day it began to catch the public eye. He is a near perfect representation of his generation’s spirit, with its intellectual and creative ambition – those who followed behind John Cage, proceeding and running parallel to the Minimalists. A radical free thinker, embracing the optimistic and utopian spirit of Modernism and technological innovation, with little obligation to the constraints of orthodoxy, however new or old. He stands outside of easy categorization or concise movement, having assembled an entirely unique body of work.
Behrman emerged onto the landscape of American music as a member of the Sonic Arts Union, which, with Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and Alvin Lucier, he founded 1966 – a collective which entirely shifted the paradigm and potential of experimental practice. He was early to embrace the symbiosis of advanced technology and music, becoming a rapid innovator in the growing field of computer music, which, when he came to it, was the product of unwieldy and often unpredictable room size machines, confined to the studios of universities like Columbia and Princeton. During the 1970’s, this limitation began to dissolve with the development and introduction of microcomputers – equipped with memory, for the domestic marketplace. Behrman was among the first to take the plunge and capitalize on the innovation for live performance and installations. In many ways, the entire conception of live computer based creative practice, as it understood today, begins in a single place – with David Behrman. It is this crucial development which Music With Memory, the latest LP in Alga Marghen’s long standing dedication to the composer, attempts to illuminate, offering a series of astounding recordings made during the 1980’s on microcomputers.
Music With Memory is comprised of three archival works. The first, Interspecies Smalltalk, was commissioned in 1984 by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, to accompany Cunningham’s dance piece Pictures, taking form as a collaboration with the violist and renowned experimental composer Takehisa Kosugi. It’s an astounding piece of work – as incredible and beautiful as they come, stretching across an entire side – a wild intertwining of two worlds of resonance, structure, and tonal, which is decades ahead of its time – the organic timber of Kosugi’s instrument carefully punctuating Behrman’s thick tapestry of drone and appreciating tones. The second side begins with the work Circling Six, an early version of Leapday Night, which would appear later in 1987 on the album bearing its name (a later version of Interspecies Smalltalk also appeared on Leapday Night). It utilities six looping synthesizer phrases, accompanied by Werner Durand on saxophone, forming a strange and bent alternate vision of what Minimalist music might have been, but wasn’t. The LP’s final work – All Thumbs, is a short work for two electrified mbiras – the outcome of a collaborative sound and video installation that Behrman created with George Lewis for the opening of La Villette, the Paris science museum, in 1986. Realized through a process of linking the metal tines of the mbiras to sensors, triggering a computer music system, the result is creatively and sonically thrilling – the perfect illustration of how, through the simple elegance ideas, Behrman has entirely shifted our landscape of sound.
While different iterations of these three works have been in circulation for years, Interspecies Smalltalk and the reworked realization of Circling Six on Leapday Night, and All Thumbs on S.E.M. Ensemble’s 1992 release, Virtuosity With Purpose, as far as I am aware these recordings have never before been released. Each is imbued with a raw immediacy which makes them distinct, and thus, even for listeners who already own those two aforementioned recordings, worthy of approach. Crucially, as retrospective compilations of archival releases often do best, Music With Memory offers its works a cohesive sense of historical and conceptual context, something which, in the case of Behrman’s often overlooked contributions, is and incredibly important and noble cause. An essential entry, offering insight into one of America’s seminal composers. Beautiful, challenging, and visionary – what archival releases should always be – the heights of creativity bound to the specificity of time. Unfortunately Alga has only made two short samples available. You can check them out below, and pick the LP up via SoundOhm or your local record shop. Limited to an edition of 500 copies, so move quick.