Fontana Mix - Feed                                         Page 1 of 2                                       pdf

Editor's note

This CD includes recordings of six realizations of Max Neuhaus' Fontana Mix - Feed which he performed in venues in the US and Europe from 1964 through 1968. With these performances, Neuhaus introduced the idea that acoustic feedback, previously always abhorred, could be a useful technique for generating sound. This later spawned its use by others in both modern music and rock'n'roll.

If you wish to come close to replicating these performances, move your loudspeakers to opposite sides of the listening room and turn the volume of your system up as high as you can stand it...but watch out for your ears.


Notes on the technique

Feed is my title of the score I made with the chance operations specified in John Cage's Fontana Mix, thus the complete title: Fontana Mix - Feed.

In 1963, while exploring ways of changing the timbre of percussion instruments through amplification, I had discovered a means of generating sound which I found fascinating – the creation of an acoustic feedback loop with a percussion instrument inserted inside it. Instead of the usual single screeching tones of acoustic feedback, this created a complex multi-timbred system of oscillation.

At this time 'electronic music' had not quite been invented. True, there were endeavors. In the speech research department of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Max Mathews had gotten their computer to sing Bicycle Built for Two in a nasal 'voice'. Luening and Ussachevsky at Columbia University commissioned RCA build a folly called the Mark II which generated combinations of wave forms designed for scientific experiments. It was also the beginning the never-ending quest to avoid the rigors of creation by trying to freeze-dry Schoenberg's muse (his twelve tone method) into a computer algorithm.

Electronic music-making was, in fact, confined to a studio where tape recordings were made and manipulated. These were then supposed to be played back to an audience sitting in a concert hall watching two loudspeakers. Except for Cage's performances with phonograph cartridges, live electronic music did not

yet exist. What I had found was something of quite a different order than the endeavors with recording tape in the studio.

Here, beginning with the pickup of room sound by a contact microphone touching a percussion instrument, a loop is quickly created when the loudspeaker projects the amplified result back on the percussion instrument causing it to vibrate anew. I decided to create a realization with the mixture and interaction of four channels of these loops. The loops were created by resting contact microphones on various percussion instruments standing in front of loudspeakers. Using four loops multiplied the level of complexity enormously as each loop would, of course, interact with each of the others. It created an oscillating system which encompassed the whole room and everything in it including the audience.

The score I made from the Fontana Mix materials controls gradual changes in the amount of amplification of each of the channels. Although the execution of the score is identical in each of these performances, the actual sounds that make up each realization are completely different as they are determined by which percussion instruments are used, the acoustics of the room and the position of the mikes in relation to the loudspeakers and the instruments at each specific moment (the vibrations sometimes cause the mikes to move around).

In spite of this, one might still expect the overall structure of these realizations to be similar as the score determines the amplification contour of each feedback channel over time. This is also not the case. The loudness of the work at any specific moment is determined by which channels are oscillating and how. As the amplification controls are gradually changed, the feedback channels suddenly break into different modes of oscillation; sound seems to swing through the room.

The factors here are so complex that even if the piece were to be performed twice in the same room with the same audience, the same instruments, and the same loudspeakers, it would have completely different sound and structures each time. It seems something alive.

These realizations end not with gradual fadeouts, but by switching off the power amplifier directly, causing the feedback loops to collapse, disintegrate and die out.