ON WHAT??
by Folke Rabe

I composed What?? in the spring and summer of 1967, and produced the work in the old Sound Workshop at EMS. At the time the Electronic Music Studio was a division within the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation located in the historic radio premises at Kungsgatan 8 in the heart of Stockholm. The technical facilities there at the time were extremely analog and the equipment partly quite old.

As a matter of fact the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation commissioned What?? as a kind of examination work after I had passed a course in the handling of the Sound Workshop. But even without the commission I would, no doubt, have composed the piece anyway because I had been thinking about its form for quite some time.

1967 was two years after my first visit to the U.S.A., which was in the spring of 1965. In San Francisco I had become familiar with the recent music of Terry Riley and in New York with La Monte Young and his Theatre of Eternal Music. These were very early examples of music that much later was defined with the ridiculous label “minimalism”.

Of course I have to admit that these experiences influenced me when composing What?? but I console myself with the fact that there are no repeated motifs of the kind that characterized Terry Riley's music of the '60s. One could say that there are closer similarities between What?? and La Monte Young's drone music, but there are still crucial differences. La Monte Young's music is static in a much more consistent way, usually with just one fundamental pitch all the way from the beginning to the end, whereas What?? has six different fundamentals and partly a more dynamic form. Between the six fundamentals that I chose there are systems of enharmonic relations among the harmonic partials, and as far as I know La Monte Young has never used such methods for organizing his music.

What?? was played in public for the first time in a live broadcast called Signeri that took place on September 11, 1967 in Studio 2, a concert hall in the Stockholm Radio Building. It was Jan Bark, myself and Bo Anders Persson who took responsibility for one third each of a concert that was going on for 1 hour and 20 minutes without interruption. Our contributions were presented in the order I just used when mentioning our names. In the Radio archives there is still a (mono) recording from this concert. In the concert hall, however, What?? was played back in a four-channel version.

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In the early 1960s I studied with György Ligeti during his Stockholm sessions as a guest professor at the Royal College of Music. Later I was employed at the college and part of my duties was to serve as an assistant to the guest professors. In 1968 I had left the college for a position at Rikskonserter (the Institute for National Concerts) but I went to see Ligeti on one of his visits to Stockholm. I asked him if he would like to listen to my most recent work, What??. He listened with great attention during the 25 minutes the piece lasts in its original version. Then he said: “I believe this is one of the most consistent pieces in its genre. If you want I would be happy to propose Wergo to put it on disc.”

Of course I agreed and a few months later I received a letter from the German record company Wergo and that was the beginning of the production procedure. The record was released in 1970 and on the other side there was an electro-acoustic work by Bo Anders Persson, Protein Imperialism, produced in the EMS Sound Workshop at about the same time.

I can easily imagine other prominent persons in the Central European composers' establishment of the time, who would not have been that kind, but Ligeti was helpful and generous. This is also the reason why the highly respected German record company Wergo happened to issue a disc with music by two unknown composers from the remote, northern coniferous forests.

I never got any information concerning the extent of Wergo's distribution of the disc, but I know that it was sold in the U.S.A. since the California composer Robert Erickson purchased a copy and wrote about What?? in his book Sound Structure of Music in the 1970s. Later, one day in the 1990s, I received an e-mail from Jim O'Rourke who told me that he had been in possession of a copy of the Wergo record for many years, that it had meant a lot to him and that he wanted to reissue What?? on CD on his label of the time; dexter's cigar. Later I understood that he and his colleague David Grubbs used this label for reissues of the favorites of their youth.

Jim asked me if I could propose music to fill out the production to a full CD format. When thinking this over I remembered that I sometimes, in private sessions during the 1960s, used to play What?? at half tape speed. Because of the kind of sounds that the piece is composed of, it doesn't simply sound as music on half speed. The character becomes different, the sounds mellower and you get the time to explore all the details.

Jim O'Rourke has described his relation to What?? in his liner notes to Jan Bark's and my CD ARGH!:

”For me, one of the most mysterious composers was Folke Rabe. I had gotten his "Was??" album on Wergo, and was from that moment, hooked. I can honestly say there is probably no piece of music I have heard more in my life than this one. BUT, for years, that was it. That's all there was. I could see concert programs reprinted, I could look for scores, etc, but those 20+ minutes were all that existed for me. Fittingly, those minutes became eternal.”

Later I realized that Jim had been a guitarist, lap top player etc. in avant-garde rock groups during the 1980s and '90s, in Gastr del Sol, Red Krayola and others. In recent years he has been a member of the famous indie group Sonic Youth. He has been very active as a record producer as well and as such internationally active all over the world. Recently he has settled in Tokyo and reduced his traveling.

dexter's cigar has frozen its activities. Jim and the person with whom he co-directed the label have gone different paths. But dexter's cigar survives under the auspices of a Chicago company called Drag City. They have recently undertaken a third pressing of the What?? CD, so by now (early 2007) it has sold two thousand copies.

These were some facts about the history of the work. Now I will describe how What?? is constructed, and why.


THE CONSTRUCTION OF WHAT??

I decided to make a continuous music, completely without breaks. This was a way to escape the tape noise that, with the technique of the 1960s, inevitably turns intermissions into noise instead of silence. Simultaneously I found that this was an expression of the electronic media's untiring persistence. (NB: This was the time of Marshall McLuhan and his theories on “Understanding Media”!) Electronics have no muscles; electronics do not have to breathe. It can be switched on for ever, or at least as long as some volts remain in the wall socket.

I was also striving for a measure of ambiguity and illusion and thus I decided to limit myself to harmonic tone combinations only. Harmonic chords are tone combinations where the partials have harmonic relations to each other, i.e. the frequencies of the partials are the frequency of the fundamental pitch x 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and so on. Such sounds have a strong inner stability and the partials are not always experienced as separate pitches. They melt together in their entirety and constitute tone color rather than pitches.


Enharmonic changes

However, I did not want to build the work on one fundamental only and then I got the idea to link a succession of sounds by using enharmonic changes among the partials. Thereby it should be possible to create extremely gradual modulations between harmonic sounds with different fundamentals; modulations that can be quite difficult to notice before they have already taken place. I made an experiment (the same modulation as the first one in the finished composition, between 4'30-6'00 in the original 25 minutes version, “What?? 1”) and the result was overwhelming. It worked better than I had expected!

By “enharmonic changes between the integral partials” I mean that a certain partial changes its function in the following harmonic sound. The fundamental pitch G may e.g. change its function and become the major third in the following harmonic sound, the fundamental of which instead becomes an E flat. In order to realize this principle with the technique of the 1960s I had to build the sounds by producing each partial individually and, as the next step, mix them together (additive synthesis).

I started out by making a diagram of harmonic sounds where certain partials continued into the following sound by means of enharmonic change. (Here it is impossible to avoid a theoretical discussion with lots of numbers. Readers who are allergic to such things are recommended to skip the following eight paragraphs and continue after the next headline; Lack of tape channels.)

I decided to use the pitch G (98 cycles pr sec.) for the fundamental in the first sound. The 4th partial (392 cycles, 2 octaves above the fundamental and consequently still a G) changed its function to the 5th partial (a major third) of the second harmonic sound where the fundamental consequently becomes an E flat (78 cycles).

The 6th partial (470 cycles) in this E flat sound is a fifth (B flat). In the subsequent harmonic sound (No. 3) the B flat changes its function and becomes the 5th partial, i.e. a major third and the fundamental consequently becomes a pitch close to a G flat (94 cycles). As the harmonic partials do not exactly correspond to the tempered tuning of the piano, wryness in intonation may occur when comparing the harmonic pitches with the notes on a piano, defined by their common letter names. This phenomenon becomes obvious especially when making enharmonic changes with partials in the upper part of the harmonic tone row. Therefore partial No. 5 (major third) is a little low and partial No. 7 (minor seventh) much too low in comparison with the piano.

We have now reached harmonic sound No. 3 on its way over to sound No. 4. Here partial No. 7 (658 cycles) becomes partial No. 8, the third octave in the fourth harmonic sound. I just mentioned that the 7th partial is much too low compared to the tempered tuning of the piano. For that reason we have by now removed ourselves a bit from the possibility of defining the pitches by the common letter names. The fundamental in the harmonic sound No. 4 is 82 cycles, and at least in the neighborhood of an E.

In harmonic sound No. 4 the 5th partial, 411 cycles, (major third about G sharp) is transformed into the 4th partial (octave) in harmonic sound No. 5 with the fundamental 103 cycles. In this harmonic sound (the 5th) partial 5, major third, C (514 cycles) changes its role to partial 7 (minor seventh) in harmonic sound No. 6 with the fundamental 73 cycles, a D. The harmonic sound No. 6 is as a matter of fact two. 6A has, as mentioned, the fundamental 73 cycles whereas the harmonic sound 6B is one octave higher and consequently its fundamental has the double frequency: 146 cycles. In this case it is not really a matter of modulation, just doubling the frequencies.

What?? ends with this sound 6B. (In my original planning there were three more harmonic sounds. Partial 5 in 6B became partial 6 in harmonic sound No. 7. Partial 8 in sound No. 7 became partial 7 in sound No. 8. Finally partial 3 in sound No. 8 became partial 4 in sound No. 9. But, as mentioned, these three harmonic sounds were never used in the final production of the work.)

When it came to the crunch I did not use the true fundamentals (partial 1) either. It was enough with the second partial one octave higher to constitute the experience of the fundamental pitch. Thus I saved one of the precious tape channels.
The time for the entries of the different partials, sound manipulations etc. were fixed in a score with 2 x 6 channels for premixes 1 and 2 (explained below). In the transitions between the different harmonic sounds, the enharmonic changes, I chose to introduce the pitch changes from top to bottom. The highest partial is consequently the first to be changed and the fundamental the last. Thus I maintained to the very last moment an uncertainty of the identity of the following harmonic sound. If I had made it the other way the result would have been trite…

Here are the rough moments when the various harmonic sounds are established. They can easily be checked by listening to the CD recording. (The points of time refer to the original version of What?? 1 with the duration of circa 25'35.) Sound 1: 0'00-6'00. Sound 2: 7'15-9'50. Sound 3: 10'30-10'50. Sound 4: 12'10-13'40. Sound 5: 14'00-circa 17'00. Sound 6A: circa 17'50-circa 20'30. Sound 6B: circa 20'30-25'35.

 

Lack of tape channels

In the Sound Workshop at EMS there was no multitrack tape machine at the time when I composed What?? (1967). There were only five Telefunken M-5 studio tape recorders. Three mono machines (full track) and two stereo machines (half track) that makes a total of seven available channels. Six channels could be used for composing. One full track machine had to be saved for recording purposes. Six channels were not enough, in my opinion, and consequently I decided to produce the music in two layers, one for the lower partials and one for the upper. This limitation made it possible for me to filter (by electronic means) all sounds under and over the chosen compasses respectively and thus get rid of at least some of the constantly present tape hiss. When these two six-channel layers were produced (on two mono tapes and two stereo tapes) I mixed them down to two premixes, one mono tape each. Using these I could, at a later stage, make a final mix to a mono tape recorded on the third mono machine.

 

Sound material

However, what kind of tone material did I use for producing the partials? I started out with sine waves from an oscillator in the Sound Workshop. It was a tone generator built for measuring purposes so it had fixed positions defined in cycles per second. That suited me well since I had planned the form of the work with exact pitches. (There was another oscillator in the studio as well but it had a continuous pitch control, i.e. you were supposed to slide between the frequencies using a knob. If I had made use of that one I would soon have got lost among the pitches. As my plan for What?? was based on fixed frequencies defined in cycles per second, the measuring generator was the adequate instrument.)

But already at an early state of the work I was afraid that the pure sine waves from the oscillator would lead to a much too sterile and clinical result when the partial were brought together forming harmonic sounds. Therefore I was trying various methods to sabotage the purity of the sine waves, making them more alive.

At the time (the mid 1960s) several composers (and I was one of them) worked with delay and feedback of tape-recorded sound material. This means that you are recording on a tape machine to the left, leading the tape from this machine to another tape machine to the right. This machine is set in playback mode and consequently reproducing the sounds recorded on the first machine but delayed, depending on the tape speed used and the distance between the two tape recorders.

If you direct the reproduced sounds from the machine to the right back to the recording machine to the left, mixing these old sounds with the new, recorded sounds, you will get a continuous temporal drift where the sounds are stacked in layers on top of each other in a kind of spiral form. Simultaneously the sounds are gradually broken down as each repetition means a new tape copy procedure with the concomitant destruction of the recording quality. However, this kind of distortion may also result in certain musical qualities…

My experiments with the feedback of sine tones were rewarding and interesting. For instance, I experienced how a sine tone in feedback could extinguish the original sine wave when the two were mixed and not, as rather expected, lead to a reinforced result. This happens when the delay between the two tape recorders makes the two oscillations meet in counter-phase. But it was also possible to take advantage of this effect. By feed-backing sine waves with quite small differences in frequency I managed to get beats and drifting effects which, when mixed to harmonic sounds, made these come quite alive.

The feed backed sine waves can be heard in What?? 1 (the original version) mainly between 0'00 - 7', 13' - 14' and 15' - 22'.

 

Chopped sounds

In the mixing console of the old Sound Workshop at EMS there was also a device for the processing of sounds called the Chopper. It was an electro-mechanic apparatus (possibly a relay) that connected and disconnected the introduced signal. The chopper chopped the signal with adjustable speed in longer or shorter pieces. It was also possible to adjust the length of the surrounding silences. I wanted to use the Chopper as a possibility to make the partials in my harmonic sounds more alive.

When chopping a sine wave, however, the cuts may sound as if you were hammering a nail. I found out the reason for this: If the sine wave is cut when the wave is on top or in the bottom there will be a sudden vertical in the smoothly moving sine wave. We experience such a change as a very short noise, like beating a nail with a hammer. I realized that if these hammering sounds in principle were short noises with a wide frequency range, I should be able to get rid of them by using one of the Sound Workshop's rather sharply limiting filters and thus strain out just the pitches I wanted. Once again I found that theory did square with the facts!

The chopped tones appear in the original version of What?? 1 mainly between minutes 7' to 13'.

 

Other tone material used

In order to further vary the tone material used for the partials in my harmonic sounds I also recorded pitches from a Hammond organ. (I have to admit that this can be considered a far-reaching compromise as it meant that I was back in the well-tempered world of keyboard instruments. However, I was very careful with this tone material and I avoided pitches where the difference between the pure and the tempered varieties was too obvious.) The Hammond pitches I chose were recorded using a so-called Leslie cabinet, i.e. a system of revolving, directional speakers producing a floating, evasive sound. This was of course another method to get away from the too clinical sounds. Hammond sounds appear in What?? 1 mainly between 6'-8' and 17'-22'.

As earlier mentioned I decided, during the composition process, that the piece should end with the 6th fundamental used (73 cycles per second, a D). I also decided that this sound should be raised one octave to 146 cycles. Thus I allowed the piece to end rather inconsequently with a kind of very slow culmination, mainly manifesting itself as an expansion of compass. This gives What?? a kind of drowsy grand finale.

In order to render this culmination a maximum of brilliance I recorded a sequence of D major chords (with added minor 7th) played tremolo on a grand piano. This piano tremolo was recorded with plenty of reverberation (acoustic echo chamber) both backwards and forwards. I realized that the piano tremolos, rich in high frequencies as they were, called for a low frequency background to make the listener really experience the wide compass of this finale. I produced the depth needed simply with a low frequency noise that was introduced in the final mix “wie ein Hauch”, as Schoenberg says in his op. 19… Towards the end of the piece the remaining sounds are fed into a tape feedback system of the kind described under the headline Sound material above. No new material is introduced and the piece ends with the feedback system gradually fading itself out with the sounds distorted to a sound close to the bells in a cathedral.

 

Final mix

The material used for a final mix of What?? are premixes 1 and 3 followed by premixes 2 and 4. The premix 3 tape is followed by the low frequency noise matching the piano tremolo available on a separate tape. This separate tape begins with a ringmodulated intermediate sound that serves as a bridge between premix 1-2 and premix 3-4. It can also be used to adjust possible delays between the two premix tapes. The ringmodulated interlayer is on a separate tape followed by the prerecorded piano tremolo that is supposed to be faded in carefully at the total time 21'00 and mixed with plenty of reverb leading to the end of the work.

Premix 1 (the lower layer) runs from 0'00 - 14'30. It is followed by Premix 3 15'00 - 21'30. After 21'30 this tape contains the low frequency noise that is supposed to match the piano tremolo on a separate tape. Premix 1 and 3 may be filtered sharply from 130 cycles and downwards as well as from 650 cycles and upwards in order to eliminate tape noise.

Premix 2 (the upper layer) runs from 0'00 - 14'30. It is followed by Premix 4 15'00 - 21'30. Premix 2 and 4 may be filtered sharply from 550 cycles and downwards as well as from 1.800 cycles and upwards.

All tapes necessary for a final mix are kept in my studio (December 2006). However, in practice no new final mixes should be needed, since the work is available in a splendid CD version. This was just a description of how the piece was mixed back in 1967.

 

Final mixes mono, stereo and multichannel

A final mix as described above produces a mono version. Stereo versions are obtained by making one final mix for the left channel and another final mix for the right channel with approximately 5 seconds delay. Versions with four or more channels are made correspondingly, i.e. with circa 5 seconds delay between each channel.

Folke Rabe, March 27, 2007