William Duckworth

 

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I

D. How do you categorize your work? Is it all equally musical?

N. I see two main areas - the sound installations and the broadcast works. Broadcast works are very much about music. The installations are related completely to their location. I don't start to conceive of them until I'm in the actual context; and that context is not only aural, but also visual and social. These are ideas which are foreign to music and seem hard for people oriented to music to understand.

In terms of classification, I'd move the installations into the purview of the visual arts even though they have no visual component, because the visual arts, in the plastic sense, have dealt with space. Sculptors define and transform spaces. I create, transform, and change spaces by adding sound. That spatial concept is one which music doesn't include; music is supposed to be completely transportable.

D. Do you have works that you think of as more significant than others?

N. The first sound installation, Drive-in Music, was certainly significant; that's where it all came from. Times Square was the first permanent piece, so it was a milestone. In the broadcast works, I think Radio Net was probably the most important so far.

D. What word is best to describe these works which deal with space?

N. I don't know whether there is one. I called them sound installations because the pieces were made from sound, and I was using the word 'installation' in the visual arts context for a work that is made for a specific place. It seemed like the cleanest description.

When I coined the term in the early seventies, it was neutral; it didn't mean anything. People would ask me what I was talking about, sound installation? I had found a term that didn't already mean something to describe something new: sound works without a beginning or an end, where the sounds were placed in space rather than time.

Now, in the visual arts, people often use sound recordings of voices and things as part of a visual work and call it a sound installation. When people compare that to what I do, I am reminded of the Marx Brothers’ joke: 'I hear you've started to make music. What instrument do you play?' Answer: 'I play the tape recorder.' I don't have anything against it; it can even be interesting. But it doesn't have much to do with what I do, and it's not what I mean by the term sound installation.

Also, people working in the field of music are beginning to use the term to describe what are essentially concerts of electronic music on tape. I am a bit disappointed. I didn't invent a new word to try and make extra long concerts of tape music sound like something new. (Footnote: Neuhaus stopped using the term 'sound installation' in the mid-eighties and started to use the term 'sound works' for all of his oeuvre and 'place' to designate the spatial works. Ed.)

D. So you think of yourself as having invented the concept of sound installation?

N. Yes. I think that Drive-in Music, my first installation, was that moment. It was in Buffalo on a street called Lincoln Parkway, a street beside the main thoroughfare in the city. The installation was about half a mile long, stretching from an art museum down to a residential street.

When I began I didn't have the term 'sound installation' in mind. I wanted to make a work that was part of people's daily activity. Rather than something that they went to at a specific time, an event, I wanted it to be continuous. I wanted it to be something they could pass through at any time, not something they had to plan and go to. Realizing that like many other small American cities, most people in Buffalo didn't walk - they moved in their cars - one way of entering into that daily activity was to make a piece for people in cars.

The fascination with these driving pieces is that they are invisible but, more importantly, silent. They only come into existence within this enclosure with wheels on it, that has a receiver in it; and they exist only for those people within that enclosure. Furthermore, they're determined by how that enclosure moves through these sounds.

D. What was the basic concept of the piece?

N. I set up seven radio transmitters all broadcasting at the same point on the dial, but each one with a different sonority, a different mixture of sine waves. The synthesis circuit was sensitive to weather conditions; it gradually changed the levels in the mixture of those sine waves, creating different sonorities depending on the weather.

I don't think of electronic circuitry as a thing; it's an idea. It's a statement of idea, but not a static one like a drawing or a piece of writing; it also realizes the idea. This was a way of connecting that idea to its environment.

We advertised it in the newspaper, and there was also a map that people could take that oriented them.

D. How long did the piece run?

N. Three or four months. It was battery-operated. I set it up in the fall, and by the spring it had died away. The idea of a permanent installation wasn't in my mind then. Setting up this entity for a period of time - that it was there, that it didn't have a beginning or end, that it existed for each person when he or she entered it and disappeared when he or she left it, that the sounds were placed in space rather than time - those were the important things.

The idea of permanence, for me, relates to non-destruction. Because the works are attached to their context, they can't live outside of it; they can't be moved. So if one doesn't make it permanent, then it's slated for destruction.

 

II

D. What are your best memories of being a performer?

N. There was a crucial concert, in New York. In a sense it was my debut as a percussion soloist. It was the first concert of Stockhausen's American tour, which meant that the cream of the music world would be there. I was brought into it late because of a disagreement between Kaskel and Stockhausen. It was determined about three months before that concert that I would play Zyklus, probably the most difficult work in the solo repertoire. I'd played it before but only in my Master's recital.

My relationship with Stockhausen was always testy, probably because both personalities were ... Anyway, as this thing got closer, I felt from his rude stare that he didn't have the confidence in me to play his piece. It turned out that Zyklus was the first work on the program. At the concert just before I played, he went out and made an announcement disavowing responsibility, with the implication that a young American couldn't do justice to his music. It backfired. I was ready to play that piece, and I played it like nobody had ever heard it before. It was a beautiful moment.

D. Did he say anything to you about your performance?

N. Not a word. He always used to say I was too intelligent to be a musician. It was a tremendous stimulus to work with him because of the constant battle.

D. Didn't you once study with Gene Krupa - how did that come about?

N. Krupa was an idol of mine from about the age of twelve - the Benny Goodman band and his drum solos. Not so much from a technical side - I really liked the sound of his playing. It was tremendously exciting to me. He opened up a drum school in New York City at some point, and I just walked in. It was like kid and God.

D. How old were you?

N. I guess I was twelve or thirteen, maybe fourteen.

D. How long did you work in that studio?

N. For about a year. Then I left and started studying with one of the teachers who worked there, a guy named 'Sticks' Evans, who was a black New York studio musician. A very good one.

D. Did you intend to be a jazz drummer?

N. Yes. But my parents wanted me to go to college, so the compromise was the Manhattan School of Music. They wanted me to go to Juilliard; but it was obvious to me that Manhattan was the only place for a percussionist to go, because Paul Price was there and they had a percussion ensemble. Juilliard was only producing orchestra musicians.

D. So even when you went to the Manhattan School you didn't intend to be an orchestra musician?

N. No. In fact, my first year I thought I was still going to be a jazz musician, and I was just going through this to satisfy the parental pressures. Then I got intrigued with a whole area of music, which I had known nothing about, and came out a solo percussionist. A five-year transformation.

D. When did you first think about being a composer?

N. I don't know whether I ever sat down and said: 'Now I'm going to be a composer'. I don't think I have. The work that I was doing as a percussionist demanded that I make a lot of the decisions about the music itself; that was the beginning of it. I've never sat down to make a composition. I have ideas and I realize them.

 

III

D. Was Drive-in Music your first idea?

N. No, Public Supply was.

D. How did you first get interested in doing a broadcast work?

N. Ann McMillan, the music director of WBAI in New York, called me up and asked to interview me. I thought about it for a while and decided that I wanted to do this piece instead. At that time as a performer I was interested in the challenge of making a live work from unknown materials, enlisting the aid of anyone who wanted to telephone into this station as the producers of that material.

D. What was the basic concept of the piece?

N. The concept of all broadcast works is gathering lay people together to make music together - music as an activity rather than a product - something that I feel we've lost in our western society.

D. How did the piece work?

N. We installed ten telephones at the radio station, and I built a kind of switching/mixing system and semi-automatic answering system. You've got to remember there were no telephone answering machines in 1966, and live call-in shows didn't exist. The only answering machines around were huge things that the telephone company had. So there was nothing to draw on.

The system for answering the calls was incredibly simple. There was a lever that went under the receiver, and as the phone rang the thing lifted up the receiver. There was a plastic cup with a small speaker in it over the mouthpiece. There was also a microphone in a cup over the earpiece; this sent the sounds of the incoming call into the mixer. All these phones were sitting on the floor popping up and popping down!

D. What kinds of sounds were the people giving you?

N. An incredible variety. That's what is always amazing about those pieces; they are much more than you could ever imagine. There are also many mundane things, such as people trying to practice their trumpet, or down in the basement with their band saws.

D. Were you mixing or altering these sounds?

N. I wasn't altering. I was mixing and combining people. I had control over the calls coming in, switching control over which people were on the air. By monitoring what was coming in, I formed groups to be put on the air and adjusted their levels according to what they were doing - not as a manipulator of the material, but as a balancer of people. Callers with their radios on added delayed feedback, which made a nice texture to the work.

People heard the sound that they were making but also the other people that were combined with them. At that moment it became a group activity - a process of people making sound together, listening to it, and adjusting what they did according to what was going on. I think this is the heart of the musical process - this dialogue.

D. How long did each person's sound last?

N. Some of them went on for a long time. I remember one person reading a long poem, which became a continuum for fifteen minutes or so.

D. How was it accepted?

N. Who knows? There is no applause after a radio program. There was the usual confusion about whether or not it was music, whether I was a performer or composer. My real motivation was to generate the activity. That has become clearer and clearer in my own mind. But even later, in Radio Net, it was still hard to get National Public Radio to understand why it couldn't be pre-recorded.

D. You mean, because the recording is a product?

N. Yes. The work is a process; it's an activity.

D. Why is it a process? What's the difference between sounds coming out of the radio or sounds coming out of a record player?

N. The main difference in this case is that the person listening to a recording isn't part of it and doesn't have the possibility to be part of it. That changes the nature of what it is.

D. In these early Public Supply pieces, how did you tell the people to be ready to call in? What kind of advertising did you use?

N. It's easy with the radio, because you've got the radio itself to tell people about it. But we also did a mailing of a sheet of instructions which had the date and time.

D. Are the Public Supply broadcasts you did from 1966 to 1973 basically the same piece done four times, or were there alterations in concept?

N. Separate works, certainly. Is every conventional concert the same just because the audience sits in seats in a concert hall and the musicians are on stage? More to the point, are all violin concertos basically the same piece just because they all have a violin soloist and an orchestra? The broadcast/telephone concept is a form, not a work.

There were alterations in the way each one was built, an evolution of complexity as I reacted to the realization of each one, essentially progressing towards a removal of myself from the process. But even if the systems had been exactly the same, completely different sounds and structures would have appeared with each realization.

D. What was different about Radio Net?

N. I had managed to get to the point where it was completely autonomous. I was no longer performing it; the callers were. All 190 stations of the network were connected in a loop. By doing this, I had made a sound transformation circuit which literally stretched across the country.

Each station heard this circuit at a different point and broadcast it. The preliminary studies were in 1974, and we realized it in 1977. It is the most gigantic thing I've ever tried to do in scale and complexity. For the first time I was confronted with a situation where it was impossible for me to work the controls of the piece, even if I had wanted to. There were five call-in cities. I obviously couldn't be in five places at once. So I built a system for each city, which was shipped to that city and installed by the local engineer.

D. What were the five cities?

N. New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis, and L. A.

D. So the system came in the mail and the engineer installed it?

N. Right. I went through the system over the phone with each engineer as they hooked up and de-bugged it. A day before the broadcast we had a kind of dress rehearsal. I had reconfigured their whole telephone network. In order to set it up, it meant getting a set of orders to the phone companies at each switching point that caused them to throw the right switches at the right moment to form this new network. The producer of the program was a man named Steve Rathe, who had a good deal of the responsibility for making it work. Administratively it was an incredible thing.

D. How did you communicate with the five stations during the performance?

N. All throughout the rehearsal and the work, I was on a conference call with all the engineers. So by voice I could make adjustments in the system.

D. What kind of adjustments did you make?

N. Each one of these cities was on a large wire loop, which came from Washington, went through the city, and circled back. The loop wasn't neutral; it had a characteristic sound. To that sound I added a frequency shifter so that as callers' sounds circulated they became layered and mixed with the sound of the loop. But each time the loop was set up, even though it went to and from the same places, it went via different routes depending on what the telephone traffic was. So each time the loop was set up, it meant tuning that loop - adjusting gain, adjusting mix, adjusting shift. My function was maintaining the tuning of those loops throughout the work.

There was no hand-mixing of callers' sounds. I had built an element in the system, an automatic mixer that listened to calls coming in and selected the highest pitched sound at any particular instant - a time division mixer. This tended to pull out the pitched material from whatever anybody was doing. That, coupled with the simple request for people to whistle, provided a body of pitched material for the piece to work with. By that time it was out of my hands.

The people at NPR kept waiting for me to do something, to perform. I don't think they've ever realized it was being done.

D. Do you see a future in broadcast works of that type? I mean, even beyond your own work.

N. I don't know. I always have problems thinking about what other people should do. I know what I should do, and I do it. As a compositional mode, I don't think so. The composers of these works are really the people who are making the sounds; so in the traditional western sense I'm not acting like a composer at all. I'm the catalyst for the situation; I set up something which makes it possible for that to happen. Maybe that's a new concept or role for a composer.

 

IV

D. Do you have students now?

N. No, I've never taught. I think that being an artist is more than a full-time job. Also, part of it is that for a long time I wasn't very articulate. I don't think in a verbal way; I don't think with words. As the projects have gotten larger and out of my own two hands, my effectiveness rests on how well I speak and how well I can get ideas across. So I've become more articulate.

I don't think one can teach people to be artists. People have to teach themselves to be artists. It takes a tremendous amount of energy. The lectures I've done were a way of introducing ideas to a community where I might do a work. But now I'm thinking about doing residencies because I'm beginning to feel that I want contact with the generation that's in its twenties. For the first time in my life, I'm beginning to feel a disconnection.

D. You get a lot of media attention. I remember seeing you in People magazine. Do you generate that publicity, or does it just happen?

N. It happens. One thing that the percussion career did for me was to get rid of the need for ego reinforcement that all artists seem to have. It got that out of my system. But sometimes publicity is part of the work itself; it determines how people approach a particular idea or work. To that extent I get very directly involved in it. I think of it as a translation from me to another group of people, rather than as good writing or bad writing. If it's in a newspaper it's talking to one spectrum; if it's in an art magazine it's talking to a very different spectrum. I see them all as branches out of what the work is.

D. Do you enjoy the publicity?

N. I don't like to be recognized. I hate the loss of privacy of being well known. You lose an awful lot if you can't walk down the street normally and buy a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of whisky, or you can't go to a bar without immediately getting embroiled in a conversation about what you do and have to act the role that people expect. The hardest part about it is that publicity generates an image of yourself that in many cases has very little to do with what you really are. You find that people you meet who know about you through this publicity have a conception, and if you don't adhere to that conception they get angry. They feel you have betrayed them in some way. And there you are, stuck with so and so's conception of you from this magazine. It's a real damper on being a human being.

D. How have you normally tried to handle it?

N. I've tried to play it both ways. I don't want to be too famous - making works which are anonymous is not exactly the road to fame - but fame is also a tool for realizing the work. One of the reasons I was able to do Drive-in Music was not because of the concept, which nobody understood; it was because I was a famous percussionist and I wanted to do this. That was the force which allowed that first thing to happen. In a way each work builds on the last one. It's a new idea; they don't understand it; but: 'Look, he's done all this'. It can be a very powerful force to get a new idea across. I think of it as a tool. There's nothing personally reinforcing about reading another article about myself.

 

Interview edited from transcript, New York 1982, first published in Max Neuhaus, Sound Works, Volume I, Inscription (Ostfildern-Stuttgart: Cantz, 1994)