Copyright © 1988 Folke Rabe and the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation.
Public reproduction - wholly or in part - without the written consent of the copyright owner prohibited.

Folke Rabe: FROM HOPEFULNESS TO WHAT? Program 4/5, manuscript.
Premier broadcast: 3rd March 1988, Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, Channel 2. Light adaptation 2006 for the Internet publication.

Jonas Ponga, Kiruna, Sweden: Yoik about A Boy Who Became a Policeman, 0'15

FR: No, it's not Robert Erickson who sings, but Jonas Ponga from Kiruna who yoiks.

I do believe, though, that Robert Erickson would like to yoik. His parents derive their origin from somewhere in upper Norrland of Sweden, and Robert has it in his mind that he has a Saami heritage, since he loves music with lots of ornamentation and with broken-down and chopped melodies, which he has heard in yoik recordings.

Robert Erickson was born in 1917 and was raised in Northern Michigan, in between the Great Lakes, rather close to the Canadian border. In the 1930s and 40s he studied with Ernst Krenek, who had escaped Hitler and was teaching at the University of Michigan and Minnesota, i.e., in an area with many Swedish descendants.

Robert moved to San Francisco in 1953, where he, for starters, became the head of a public radio station that was run by a progressive foundation, The Pacifica Foundation. Already in those days they dared providing air time for the critics of the establishment and those who had a hard time voicing their plights: peace activists, communists, homosexuals, marijuana smokers and of course young composers. Bear in mind that it was a time of great restraint. It was during Joseph McCarthy's days in the time of the Cold War.

Robert Erickson also showed a strong pedagogic commitment. At this time he wrote a manual for listeners called The Structure of Music, with a, for its time, strikingly interesting and modern sample of illustrations. Besides Bach and other classics Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Webern, Bartok and Hindemith show up amongst the score examples, which wasn't so common in those days in educational publications.

Soon enough Robert also became a teacher of composition, at first at the big university at Berkley, and later at the San Francisco Conservatory. A group of young talents were attracted to his non-doctrinal but open and listening tuition, amongst them Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Ramon Sender, whom I have presented here on previous Wednesday nights, but also Loren Rush and Stuart Dempster.

These young rabble-rousers turned the musical scene upside down in San Francisco, with their unconventional multi-media shows, eagerly encouraged by Robert Erickson. This resulted in some of them even being expelled from the Conservatory. They instead built their own platform, namely The San Francisco Tape Music Center, a concert space in combination with an electronic music studio, and I presented this organization in the previous program in this series.

As a teacher, Robert Erickson is not the Maestro who hands out tasks to his students, but rather the older and more experienced colleague who listens and has a dialogue with the attendants. This is a tradition he hands on from Krenek. Therefore it isn't strange at all that Robert went to see his own students at the Tape Center a little later, when he got an urge for the electro-acoustic possibilities.

Making music on tape is a decisive experience that really changes your way of thinking musically. The first project he tried was a piece for bells and toy pianos. He had been fascinated by bell sounds for long, collected bells and recorded them on tape.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "The tape center began to get going around….Uher tape recorder with a pretty good signal-to-noise ratio for those days." 1'02

Yes, the giggling concerned the signal-to-noise ratio of the semi-professional tape-recorders of the time. Robert Erickson kept struggling with the tape hiss that became gradually worse the more you mixed and copied. The tape-recorders at the Tape Center probably had an even worse signal-to-noise ratio, bet he assiduously kept on splicing tapes and mixing, even though it perhaps resulted more in hiss than bell music - but it was an important experience.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "From these source tapes....which are set up as a two manual toy piano." 0'56

Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos also show some theatrical - or at least visual - aspects. The bell sounds accordingly come from tapes, but the toy pianos are placed on top of each other so that they together form a two-manual instrument that is played live on the podium by a persistently active performer.

Robert Erickson: from Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos /1965/ circa 1'
Warner Jepson [toy pianos] (recording from KQED, 1960s)

Warner Jepson as soloist in Robert Erickson's Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos on a recording made practically at the time of its composition, i.e. in the middle of the 1960s.

So tape hiss was Robert's worst problem when he made electro-acoustic music. So what do you do with an enemy that you can't get rid of? Yes, you integrate him; build him into that which you're working with. So Robert started looking for hiss or noise that he could make music from. He found them in nature, for example on the seashore, or in industrial societies with its machines, cars, airplanes and so forth.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "The other thing I learned….and you can make something quite beautiful out of it." 0'53

He made several pieces in which the instrumentalists play along with noise and hiss that has been recorded and manipulated on tape, and then played back through loudspeakers. One such work is Pacific Sirens, a sea music, which moves unconcerned in slow, wide arcs. In this Robert Erickson has tried to realize a thought he's had since childhood: How did the songs that the Sirens sang to Odysseus and his crew sound? He recorded the long, heavy swells on the Pacific coast, filtered them so that they resembled pitches, mixed them and let some instrumentalists improvise economically along with the surge, according to certain rules.

Robert Erickson: Pacific Sirens. CRI SD 494, 02.02. 2'30

Another such composition is called Nine and a Half for Henry (and Wilbur and Orville), which means 9 1/2 minute dedicated to Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers; a sound portrait of the industrial America of the 20th century. The high, clear tones we hear come from an instrument that Robert Erickson constructed himself, stroked rods, which consist of steel sticks played with a bow.

Robert Erickson: from Nine and a Half for Henry (and Wilbur and Orville), circa 1'
UCSD Players

And here, of course, came the taped sounds from Henry Ford's and the Wright Brothers' American sound world; traffic - cars - airplanes. Robert Erickson also constructs his own instruments, but most of them have remained models or prototypes. In the beginning of the 70s I once saw him fiddling with a plastic hose to make a model of a bird's throat. A zoologist had told him about the sound-making methods of birds, and now he wanted to synthesize chirping mechanically.

He has also made a surge organ, an unfinished giant contraption made from tin cans and pipes taped together, which by their resonance rendered pitch and buzzing to noise that was fed into them.

Robert claims that there in fact are no new instruments. They were all invented in Africa a very long time ago, and have then been re-invented and improved in hundreds of variants. And those that weren't made in Africa, were built in Asia. If you wonder about any principal question about instrument building, it's just to check out the African or Asian variants.

Well, that may be a pretty incisive wording, but there's a lot of truth to it, and above all I think it's a healthy provocation against our inherent, Western egocentricity and big brother mentality.

Those of Robert Erickson's instrument constructions that have reached a definite stage are on one hand the steel rods played with a bow that we just heard, and on the other hand tube drums that might be a little reminiscent of timpani, though they have a shorter decay time and a clearer pitch,

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "The ones that I'm still using....shorter decay time and a clearer pitch." 0'44

ENTRY 9: /fading in, mixing with the end of the interview/
Robert Erickson: Drum Study no. 7. Netty Simons and Ron George, tube drums. 3'25

That was the end of Robert Erickson's Drum Study no. 7. He has written a long stretch of such etudes for two performers playing his tube drums.

The construction of instruments and the experiments with music based on recorded sounds from various environments were something that flourished the most after Robert had left San Francisco, for in 1967 he was called to the University of California in San Diego, at the southern tip of California, close to the Mexican border.

A new, modern and creatively inclined music faculty was being founded there, and Robert Erickson was asked to become Professor of Composition. A special Center for Musical Experiments was part of the faculty. It became a rendezvous for ingenious musicians. But - take note - it was no exclusive isolate for sound aficionados. It was an open and practically aimed enterprise. There were, for example, courses open to all interested students - even for those who didn't study music - who would go out and record sounds that they liked, which then would become the source material for tape compositions.

It was also around this time that Robert wrote his epoch-making book The Sound Structure of Music, which deals with the central, formatting roll of timbre in music. He is deeply fascinated with the power that may lie inherent in the individual sound. He has all the while collected objects that can emit exciting sounds. When he moved from San Francisco to San Diego, he brought about one metric ton of paraphernalia of metal, rock and wood. He just couldn't leave them; they were all his found sounds, up to that point in time. His study is crammed with tapes, from the floor to the ceiling, but only a few contain musical compositions. Most of the material is made up of sounds he has found and recorded.

In the 70s Robert Erickson composed a number of virtuoso solo pieces, tailor-made for skilled musicians around him. There were several such persons at the University of San Diego, but that which I'm about to play now was written in close collaboration with an old friend and pupil from San Francisco, the trombonist Stuart Dempster, who to a high degree has developed and systemized the sound repertoire of the trombone. He has presented the result in a book. One of his specialties is to play speech sound; not that he's talking through the trombone, but he succeeds in coloring the played sounds with vowels and consonants so that you almost can discern words.

This technique was the starting point for a piece called General Speech. It's a pun. It can mean the common, general speech that you use everyday, and it can also have to do with a speech conducted by a general… And - sure enough - the text that is hidden in this piece is the goodbye speech that General Douglas McArthur held when President Truman and the other “idiots in Washington” (as he worded it) had fired him from all his positions.

So McArthur was a war hero; American commander-in-chief during the fighting with Japan in World War II. As the UN commander-in-chief he then ran the Korean War in the beginning of the 50s in a very arbitrary way, as if it was his private venture, which resulted in his dismissal. McArthur expressed himself in a demagogic and theatrical way, so his farewell speech naturally was a pathetic and military, patriotic show-off.

In General Speech Stuart Dempster plays this speech in a grotesque way, dressed in tails with fluorescent decorations, shades and a military cap. It's a very strange - yes, unique - composition: in the borderland between music and theater, while also being an absurd political satire.

There are quite a few visual effects in General Speech, light shifts and not least pauses with mimic and other mute gestures, but this, anyway, is how the beginning of the piece sounds, with the recurring refrain of the address: the keywords DUTY - HONOR - COUNTRY.

Robert Erickson: General Speech (Stuart Dempster, trombone) Circa 1'

Robert Erickson's General Speech performed by Stuart Dempster on trombone. I'd like to remain with Dempster a while longer, since he is an interesting part of this group of American musicians, and also a Robert Erickson student.

He's not only a trombone virtuoso, but also a composer, and one of the few in the West who masters the didjeridoo, an instrument invented by the indigenous people of Northern Australia. Stuart made an exploration trip in 1973 to study the instrument closer, on location. It consists of a tree trunk that termites - these wood-feeding insects - have been so kind as to hollow out. You then play that pipe like you would a trombone, while you also can achieve certain vocalizing effects.

Stuart Dempster utilizes different kinds of didjeridoo in a number of pieces. In one, which he calls Didjeridervish, he plays while spinning around like a swirling dervish. The rotation naturally affects the sound with a Doppler effect, somewhat like the rotating speakers in the Leslie cabinet of a Hammond organ.

Stuart Dempster: Didjeridervish. Stuart Dempster, didjeridoo. From private compact cassette. Circa 3'

Wow, it really is a feat to play the didjeridu and rotate simultaneously. Not even the original didjeridoo players of Australia do that. You'll get seasick for less! But Stuart Dempster is very interested in the purely physical aspects of music and music making. He has also worked with music in therapeutic contexts, and when he is giving concerts, it happens that he asks the audience to participate in singing extended tones in some pieces.

He has developed this erasing of the borderline between musicians and audience in a sort of performances that he calls Sound Massage Parlor.

Let's get back now to Robert Erickson and his development during the last 10 years. In the mid-70s he got very interested in hoquetus techniques, i.e. the cut-up interplay form found within musical traditions where two musicians (or two groups of musicians) play for instance a melody by alternately play every other tone, so that when one is playing, the other remains silent, and vice versa. This technique is present in some medieval European music, but also presently, and it's found in many popular music cultures in Africa as well as Asia and Latin America.

Robert Erickson developed an interest in hoquetus music. He discovered that the Central African pygmies were among the foremost musicians in the world (We're hearing them right now).

Song of Rejoicing / Ba-Benzélé pygmies. 0'50 (Mixed with speech 0'35)

It also was the hoquetus interest that directed him to the gamelan orchestras of Bali in 1974; a visit that became infinitely important for him, and it was the hoquetus interest that made him start to realize that he might have Saami blood in his veins.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "And along about the mid seventies….some different kind of music is emerging.” 0'49

It was among other things the collective aspect that caught his interest. The interplay… A musical from where the interplay between several individuals is the prerequisite itself, unlike our Western music that he calls dictatorial.

His new music emerged out of hoquetus, out of drones - extended tones - and out of micro intervals. But when Robert Erickson speaks of microtones he does not mean quartertones or eighth part tones. That is much too stereotypical and mathematical. He is opposed to music theory and compositional systems that have been constructed at the desk. He has a sensual and intuitive attitude towards sound and music. His microtones are more related to the kind you find in the Indian and other ancient musical traditions.

Now in the 1980s he doesn't experiment any more. Now he's harvesting instead. Through all his earlier trials he knows what kind of results he can achieve. It also has to do with a serious illness that has made him immobile. He is restrained to the bed and a specially designed chair, and can no longer enter his studio.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "Now I feel (number one…).I know what kind of results I can get." 0'31

From an international as well as a national perspective Robert Erickson is - completely voluntarily - an anonymous public figure and an outsider. He has not sought success in New York, London or Paris, but - as he says - “I try to make it sound as good as possible at home in my garage in Encinitas”… Lately his music has gotten the attention that it's worth. It is printed and played, and commissions keep coming in. But now he is retired and seriously ill.

He often ponder on how music functions in the society; the huge American society. He means - somewhat paradoxical - that the fact that everything is brought on large-scale also gives the odd minority music that he writes - the unpopular music, as he says - a chance.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego: "The thing about being an American… is slightly less unpopular." 0'51

You realize that there is a larger potential audience than first noticed, but you shouldn't invest too much on account of that. It does not mean that Robert Erickson's music has become popular. It's just a little less unpopular…

What's the reason for this development that Robert Erickson begins to see? Well, a reason is that the audience stock in the USA is so enormous that even an interest minority can form pretty large groups. That's why media - seen as a whole - cover everything. This way, the interested person may sometimes find also a little unpopular music.

Interview with Robert Erickson, 1985, San Diego:: "This is probably a result of intense media coverage of everything in the U.S… ...but it's there." 1'27

Robert Erickson's opinion on the prospects for New Music in the USA is chastened but optimistic. He feels that a new, sensitive audience is emerging. Let's hope he's correct. I don't think all of his colleagues agree with him, but that doesn't have to mean that they're right…

Let's conclude this portrait of Robert Erickson by listening to a complete, uninterrupted piece by him. I have chosen the latest composition by his hand that I've been able to find; Night Music from 1978. It is an 18-minute chamber work for wind, percussion, low strings and a trumpet soloist.

Here are all the Ericksonian ingredients: microtones - especially in the solo trumpet part -, some hoquetus show up a few minutes past half-time, and a drone on the tone C runs almost all the way through, but in the end it has evolved into F-major.

Alan Rich - Newsweek music critic - used to choose this piece to prove that beauty stubbornly lives on in New Music.

Robert Erickson has said about his Night Music that it isn't a Kleine Nachtmusik in the late 1700s' tradition, and not a night music in the spirit of Mahler. No, it has been conjured up through the night of dreams; the oceanic night.

Robert Erickson: Night Music. Arch Ensemble, trumpet soloist: David Burkhart, conductor: Robert Hughes. Composers Recordings CRI SD 494. 18'00


English translation: Ingvar Loco Nordin