PRINT October 2009


Source Records 1–6

Cover of Source: Music of the Avant Garde 6 (July 1969). Dick Higgins, “The Thousand Symphonies.”

IF WE COME TO A MUSICAL SCORE with rigid ideas of what is required for its interpretation—years of practice, a concert hall, black tie—to whom can we ascribe these notions? The score may specify an instrument to be played, notes to play on it, and (an approximate) tempo. But anything else is—like Oral Law to the written Torah—precisely what is not in the text. The score on its own remains an invitation: to inhabit it, and make of it what you will.

The magazine Source: Music of the Avant Garde worked to place that invitation directly in its readers’ hands. Published under the direction of composer Larry Austin from 1967 to 1973, its eleven spiral-bound issues were packed with projects—a veritable Whole Earth Catalog for radical sound communities. These compendiums of verbal, graphic, and more traditionally notated scores bypassed the usual intermediary of music publishers, allowing for an especially rapid exchange of musical ideas in writing. Three of the journal’s offerings (issue 4, the double issue 7/8, and 9) also came with two ten-inch LPs each, which have now been collected, remastered, and reissued on CD as Source Records 1–6, Music of the Avant Garde, 1968–1971 (Pogus). But the sounds in Source were not necessarily meant to be heard on record. “Play what you like,” begins Giuseppe Chiari’s score to “Quel che volete” (1964) in issue 1, which set the tone for much of what would follow. “Play as if you wished to know a sound, which has been in your mind for a long time.”

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Not that everything in Source was quite so open to personal interpretation. Alongside Chiari’s free-spirited instructional score, for example, the inaugural issue featured a conversation with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who surely ranks among the least playful composers of the era. Indeed, Stockhausen seems hostile to the very idea of Source: “Nowadays, this practice of making scores has come to an extreme: the overestimation of the paper. This is an idiotic situation, naturally. I mean such things as graph pieces. . . . They are just little pictures.” He then warns that such scores lead to “auto-sexual satisfaction,” where “you see the paper. You imagine something.”

Stockhausen’s disgust at the unhealthy practices of Source readers—“You are alone. You are in your room. You don’t speak anymore. You don’t hear anymore”— would seem to have received a direct rejoinder six issues later, with the publication of Alvin Lucier’s landmark piece “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1970). Lucier’s score describes a process by which two tape recorders and a lone voice in a room can be manipulated to transform language into purely resonant frequencies, and in the DIY spirit that characterized so much published by the journal, he calls on the performer to make use of any room and any text. However, this was also one of the few scores in Source accompanied by a recording—in it, the composer makes dramatic use of his own speech impediment, a stutter:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. . . . I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

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As Lucier’s voice is transformed by his economical and poetic performance, the reader’s relationship to the score changes too. The written text is a call for personal experiment, but Lucier’s recording—which reveals the artist’s singular, corporeal connection to its plan—would seem to be the fullest possible performance of the work. Reading the score, we are its potential players; listening to the recording, we are merely an audience. The recording, we might say, functions as Oral Law—an addendum to the score, yet one that begins to impose limitations on interpretations of the text. It sets precedent.

Perhaps this is why the new three-disc set reissuing the LPs that accompanied the publication seems so much more a period piece than the magazine itself. Source, on paper, remains a call to action for anyone interested in the forms it explores: music as social experiment or conceptual exercise, or made with chance operations or by electronic means. But Source Records 1–6 sounds like the past. At their best, these are exemplary historical performances (Lucier’s marvelous piece and a pair of mysterious site-specific works, one by Alvin Curran and the other by Annea Lockwood). But at their worst (the many forgettable examples of early computer and electronic music), the recordings represent a tradition that has since become as stultified as any other: the blips and bloops of what the avant-garde is supposed to sound like.

Surely this is why John Cage was opposed to the recording of his work. The possibilities are so much greater if we are willing to horrify Stockhausen and simply “see the paper . . . imagine something.”

Damon Krukowski is a musician and writer based in Cambridge, MA.