In Memoriam Armin Köhler

for symphony orchestra, youth orchestra, diskklaviers, and app

When I was 6 or 7, my elementary school showed us a film on all the instruments in the symphonic orchestra to encourage us to take free music lessons. I have forgotten everything about this didactic film except one moment: the trombone section, wearing tuxedos and sitting on banked risers, playing Wagner's intro to Act 2 of Lohengrin…

I shall never forget this powerful D7 arpeggio, nor the near apoplectic faces of the players - the whole spectacle swept me away. I secretly taught myself to play my father’s trombone and soon I was sitting in my elementary school orchestra next to Herbie Yolin, who played the alto sax. At the first rehearsal I had no idea how to look at the music and at the conductor and play at the same time, so I figured I would just play until Herbie turned his page, then I would do the same – call this “chance operation” one of the most important music lessons of my life. Meanwhile, Miss Anderson – our conductor – was agitating her face and body and red wig somewhere between ecstasy and insanity as she led our bunch of out-of-tune-out-of-time-green-bean beginners through a similar sea of spastic tone clusters regardless of the name of the piece we were supposed to be playing.

My orchestral epiphanies culminated in the Brown University orchestra with the solo trombone part in Brahms’ Symphony n.2 and by then this synchronous mass of people in drab-black evening dress, bowing, blowing, sucking reeds, banging, rolling, counting emptying spit valves “a tempo” came to represent some kind of musical Parnassus, in my fantasies it became a magic sound-circus – the one I wanted to go on the road with, maybe write for one day.
In spite of my training with Elliott Carter and Ron Nelson, it didn’t happen. The symphonic orchestra hardly appears in my list of works. After the do-it-yourself revolutionary days of MEV (the Musica Elettronica Viva group), The Scratch Orchestra, and AMM, through the downtown euphoria of my and others’ 1970s solo performances, into the midi and digital ambient worlds of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the orchestra appeared to me and most of my colleages like a prehistoric beast. A magnificent embodiment of glory – the music temples with their dazzling chandeliered lights, plush seats, and transcendent promises were still part of the DNA but no longer an imperative for our kind of music, i.e. music made with whatever is at hand. The managements, the publishers, the heroic conductors and soloists and anonymous musicians who piloted these costly rides on their magic carpets no longer belonged to my times. In fact they felt like the enemy, simply because they occupied so much cultural power and economic space. And in the USA of my youth, symphony orchestras were in fact almost all reactionary institutions that felt no musical need or moral obligation to play the music of living composers, lest they lose money and audience.

In the spring of 2013 I met with Armin Köhler in Rome, my adoptive home, a city he loved and felt a part of. He asked if I would be interested in writing a special piece for orchestra, one that carried a heavy historical weight: the last piece the illustrious SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg would ever play in Donaueschingen. Armin knew well that I did not belong to the inner circle of composers for whom the “new music” traditions of orchestral writing were second nature; he also knew that whatever I might write would not sound like that comforting solid work of the European heavy-hitters. But Armin loved taking chances, betting on wild cards and dark horses. His exceptional productions of my sound installations The Twentieth Century and TotoDonaueschingen, plus Oh Brass on the Grass Alas for a vast amateur brass band, had created a trust and mutual understanding between us, so there was nothing to discuss about my orchestral skills – especially since we were both trombonists in our youth. Armin simply wanted something unusual and I did too, so without hesitation I said, “of course, I am honored and happily terrified.”

When we met again two days later I showed him a drawing (see sketch). It included two orchestras: on one side the SWR, opposite it a youth orchestra. In the middle sat two Disklaviers (digitally programmable pianos), one for each orchestra. Armin was delighted, and in fact immediately went about organizing this unusual if not peculiar project. I too was delighted, but from the start I had a niggling fear that I might be creating a musical Frankenstein, an avant-garde Golem.

I proposed, and Armin enthusiastically agreed, that the music for the pianos should be created by a smartphone app, allowing the public to literally compose the piano music by submitting their own raw musical information online ahead of time. During the concert the digitally permutable streams of notes and durations and dynamics would be recomposed continuously in real time by complex random algorithms and fed to the pianos for playing. The task of creating the app and the algorithms was assigned to Frank Halbig, who had assisted brilliantly on several of my sound-art creations at the SWR Baden-Baden and at the ZKM in Karlsruhe.

Surely two years of time would be more than adequate to find and create the “right” music for this occasion…I began sketching out ideas, sound structures and formal patterns, not really having a clear idea other than hoping that this piece, on the strength of its concept alone, would somehow compose itself. I made lists of all the simple-minded ideas I could muster: should I use unisons, octaves, imitation, natural and unnatural detunings, random long tones, improvised Action Painting, total ausgeflippte Freakouts, and dysfunctional triads? Or should I just invite the two orchestras to sit there mute, until someone made the first sound? Should the mute pianos remain mute until someone in the audience yells “Basta! I can’t stand it any more!” and suddenly as if by Bluetooth-wizardry they start playing by themselves? Where would I find the avant-garde chutzpah and the imagination to mark the end of the greatest new music orchestra in the world?

In the middle of 2014 I had to take the reins in hand and start composing after a year of sketching. At first I figured that once I had created the proper beginning, the rest of the composition would follow naturally – composing for me has always been a special form of improvising and vice versa. But every time I began to structure a longer form with one of the beginnings I would compose, a new beginning would insist on being first. At one point I thought I knew how the piece would end, so I asked myself: should I compose the entire work backwards to arrive at the ideal beginning? This was also an utterly unfruitful strategy. Ultimately what won out was vuvuzelas and stadium air horns – kids really know how to play those things, and it would widen their perspective on what a modern orchestra can be.
There are eight principal sections and many subsections, with the percussion given a special bridging role. In general, both orchestras have identical or very similar materials, playing them with varying kinds of coordination ranging from the strictest possible temporal unison to quasi-unison (out of phase or canonically) to complete non-coordination. My wish in any case was to accentuate the “sound fusion” of the professionals with the students, and lead both groups into a completely unexplored world of sound whether or not they are playing the same notation at the same time. From a broad perspective, one could say that my strategy was simply to compose unison structures of different degrees of probability that they will produce a unison outcome. Hence what occurs will always be an improbable but harmonious state of organic musical unity.

The pianos, on the other hand, play exactly what the audience has told them to play, recomposed in real time by random algorithms that will result in pure chance music. Their roles are limited, even decorative – occasionally they have a solo moment, but the piece is absolutely not a double piano concerto. The only performance control in the hands of humans is to activate and stop the computer and thus the pianos at the correct moments in the score. Whatever this experiment with public participation produces, I accept it as it is.

The Book of Beginnings app

The temptation to make a sentimental “adieu” is great… we cried out long and loud at the SWR orchestra’s absurd administrative death.  How will we live without this orchestra, the one which I first heard play Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso and Xenakis’s Achorripsis and Stockhausen’s Punkte when I was a student of Elliott Carter? How can I avoid saying à bientôt, a domani, bis gleich? Beginnings for this piece had been everywhere, but endings proved impossible to find. A Chorale which I wrote on Armin’s death? The SWR orchestra playing an endless unison B natural from the corridor? The Buena Vista Social Club ensemble to break into Begin the Beguine?…Armin would have loved that! Finally I chose Schumann’s penultimate Kinderszene, “Kind im Einschlummern,” which was fun to orchestrate.

My copyist says he will send me an extra bill for the sessions of psychotherapy he needed to get through this job…I will eventually paste his bill into the Book Of Beginnings.

Alvin Curran , 2015

Listen to entire performance (33') on the web.

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