In 1987 I was a resident-composer on the D.A.A.D. program in Berlin. It was a period of early-middle convulsion in my work. I was writing string quartets for the KRONOS Quartet, doing MIDI electronics and making massive concerts for computer-controlled ships' horns. But during that privileged year of being a guest artist in Berlin, one troubling theme kept returning to disturb my peaceful life – the history of the city itself, that is, its recent history. Melissa was seriously busy researching the past and slowly I was drawn into her concerns – in part to try to understand the incomprehensible events, in part to understand my own diaspora identity; (I was born in 1938 in the USA, just one month after Kristallnacht). Melissa's research quickly evolved into a conceptual art work, FLOOR PLAN. Though intent on other music projects at the time, I turned my full attention to her work, for in it I envisioned a musical counterpart: a wall of sound made from 6,000,000 voices that would run parallel but rise up, unseen, from her architectural design installation – a wall of sound that would come out of the earth itself. A sonic mirror of FLOOR PLAN, NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND was born.
There is always a touch of the "impossible" in my environmental works, whether it be in the placement of 22 ships' horns along one kilometer of the Danube (Ars Electronica '87) or in uniting hundreds of musicians in six different countries in a simultaneous radio performance (CRYSTAL PSALMS '88). But even with these and other experiences in creating large-scale projects, the challenges presented to me by FLOOR PLAN/ NOTES were yet of a different order. Making music in caves, in large ports, or on rivers was one thing; making music with the sounds of millions of imaginary voices coming from beneath the ground was quite another.
For me, the themes at hand, from the systematic destruction of European Jewry to that of today's Kurds – the plausible predictions of the end of all life on this planet, however inconceivable, monstrous and repulsive – are confronted here more directly than ever in the music. They serve in fact as strong motivational medicine for me to unite some of the principal sound sources and compositional structures present in much of my work: massive mixed choruses singing melodies from everywhere and nowhere; the unintelligible yet moving voices of the animal kingdom (elephants, lions, buffalo, elk, whales, dolphin, nightingales, loons, etc.); the sounds of ur-instruments those of the human collective memory – the shofar (ram's horn), conch shell, drum, jew's harp, reed organ, fog horns, etc.; the obedient virtual sounds and spaces of modern digital technology are present here in all "6,000,000" tracks of sound mixed at once.
The music heard will be a combination of slowly changing automated mixes of 3–4 quite complex tapes of varying musical densities. Amplified to a good audible level, this steady flow of sonic plasma will move unpredictably but interminably through the underground chamber of loudspeakers.
THE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE
However simple the concept, the actual task of creating an evenly distributed wall of sound emanating from under the earth was not an easy one. After all, who would ever want to bury loudspeakers in the ground?! After a long list of ideas and materials was considered, including the use of cement water/ sewage conduits, a final design was arrived at during my residency at Mills College in the winter of 1991. With the help of two assistants, Sue Ruscigno and Martin Hammer, a small experimental model was constructed under the supervision of Chris Brown, director of Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, and myself.
In this (Ars Electronica), the very first full version of NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, the buried sound system – a continuous wooden sound chamber 100 meters long will be installed under a 4–6 centimeter layer of grassy earth, at a distance of 1.5 meters from and parallel to FLOOR PLAN's fluorescent lights – like a sonorous outer shell of the Synagogue itself.
In a square trench one meter wide by 80 centimeters deep a layer of drainage gravel will be placed. Plywood boards 6 centimeters thick will line the trench in a "V" shape. On connecting horizontal struts 12-inch co-axial loudspeakers of water-resistent plastic will be placed faced down every 1.5 meters in order to reflect and diffuse the sound evenly. A similar plywood covering with many 8 centimeter holes in it and its underside lined with fine screen will be placed on top of the trench and then covered with a light layer of wooden chips, followed by sod and earth.
The circa 75 25-watt, all-weather loudspeakers, connected in series and parallel, will be powered by a number of stereo amplifiers.