Critical Theory: A Symposium on Kenneth Gaburo

Larry Polansky, David Dunn, Warren Burt, Chris Mann.
Chair: Nate Wolley

The following discussion took place at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room on June 22nd, 2010.  The occasion was the first “critical theory” presentation of the “Darmstadt” series which takes place throughout the year and is curated by Nick Hallett and Zach Layton.  The event itself, and the subsequent recording and transcription are brought to you by Compost and Height and Nate Wooley with tremendous help from Issue Project Room, New World Records, Pogus Recordings, and the four participants.

The composer under discussion for the first of these public presentations was the theorist, composer, multi-disciplinary thinker, progenitor of compositional linguistics, revolutionary publisher, and teacher, Kenneth Gaburo.  An underappreciated artist throughout the world, let alone in his native country, Gaburo was born in 1923 in Somerville, New Jersey.  He studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1954, and after finishing his studies at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, he stayed on to teach and work in one of the first dedicated electronic studios in the country under the direction of Lejaren Hiller.  During this time his peers included James Tenney and Sal Martirano.

Growing from a concern for music-as-language and language-as-music Gaburo started formal studies in linguistics in 1959, formulating the term Compositional Linguistics.

In 1965 he founded the New Music Choral Ensemble (NMCE) one of the first choirs in the U.S. to perform avant-garde music for voice. This group performed over 100 new works in the decade of its existence, from the choral music of Schoenberg, Nono, Oliveros, Kagel, and Messiaen, to the theater works of Becket and Albee. Improvisation was combined with electronics, body and verbal linguistics, computers, dance, mime, film, slides, and tape.

From 1967 to 1975, Gaburo taught at the University of California at San Diego where he founded NMCE IV which included not only a singer and speaker, but a mime and sound-movement instrumentalist.

In 1974 Gaburo founded Lingua Press Publishers, dedicated to putting forth unique artist-produced works in all media having to do with language and music. Many of the publications have been exhibited in book art shows throughout the world. Gaburo lived in the Anzo-Borrego desert writing and teaching from 1980 until 1983. In 1980 he was artistic director for the first “authentic” production of Harry Partch’s The Bewitched for the Berlin Festival (recorded on Enclosure Five: Harry Partch, innova 405). His understanding of Partch’s concept of corporeality has deep connections with his own concern for physicality and how it informs compositions. His 1982 tape work, RE-RUN, for instance, was generated after a 20-hour sensory deprivation exercise.

He became Director of the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Iowa in 1983. The studio put intensive focus on composition, technology, psycho-acoustic perception, performance, and the affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual to create his/her own language reality. At the studio he founded the Seminar for Cognitive Studies, a forum for discussion of the creative process. His concern for the investigation of music as legitimate research, and composition as the creation of intrinsic appropriate language, led to a series of readings in compositional linguistics for solo performer.

Antiphony VIII: Revolution, for percussion (Steve Schick) and tape, Antiphony IX: A Dot for orchestra, children, and tape, and Antiphony X: Winded, for organ (Gary Verkade) and tape, continued his series of works for live instruments and tape as well as the use of graphic notations and random processes to generate small and large scale events. Gaburo’s archive is housed at the University of Illinois Music Library and Lingua Press is represented by Frog Peak Music. [see for more information and thank you to this site for their bio of Gaburo, heavily cribbed above]

The concept of the “critical theory” presentations was not only to explore the work of revolutionary and underexplored theorists and artists, but also to gain insights into the work of artists who have been influenced by them.  In this case, our group of presenters included four revolutionary theorists and composers in their own right, all of whom had been affected directly by their relationship to Gaburo, either as peers, students or fellow faculty members.

Larry Polansky has worked extensively in composition, computer music, software development, theory, performance and American musics. He was on the faculty of Mills College in Oakland, CA, and directed the Center for Contemporary Music there. He is the author of a number of books and articles, has several solo CDs released, is an editor for a number of major theoretical and computer music journals, and is the founder and director of Frog Peak Music (A Composers’ Collective), an organization dedicated to publishing speculative theory and experimental music. He currently teaches in the graduate program in electro-acoustic music, and courses in computer music, theory and composition on the undergraduate level.

David Dunn is best introduced by Gaburo himself:

David Dunn is at once an ecologist, a philosopher, a member of the ‘new science’, a performer, an integrator of human values with technological ones, and an artist. Although I feel I can speak knowingly of him, it is nevertheless impossible to get a “fix” on him; (trying to do so only serves to show the elusive, —sometimes contradictory—, and yet, precise nature of his work, and persona). But simply said: David is a composer; —to be sure a composer of ‘music’, and the ‘musical’. But more significantly, David is a composer as in ‘making’, ‘searching’, `exploring’, ‘finding’, ‘synthesizing’, ‘questioning’. Yes, endless questioning. He strives, (as certain others do), to not box things in; to not assume that so-called “areas”, “disciplines”, (e.g., as between music and linguistics), can be bounded as-if they signify mutually-exclusive domains. Contrarily, his works, thinkings, makings, et alia, exhibit diverse formations of ‘wholeness’, and beauty, thereby penetrating certain current theories of complexity. Above all, (at least in the cognitive domain, —but also quite perceivable elsewhere—) his work, (his life?), has to do with the implicit connectedness of matter.

Warren Burt was born October 10, 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. He grew up in Waterford, New York where he studied accordion and flute. He decided on music as a career because it looked like an easy major in University. He went to the State University of New York at Albany, (his composition teachers were William Thomas McKinley and Joel Chadabe), where he became fascinated by problems of composition/organization and decided to get serious about music as long as he could laugh at himself. He went to the University of California at San Diego for graduate work, (his composition teachers were Robert Erickson and Kenneth Gaburo; Pauline Oliveros was also a source of inspiration). While at UCSD he became a fellow in the Center for Music Experiment being in charge of the Analog Electronic Music and Video Synthesis facilities. He also became associated with Serge Tcherepnin at this time and participated in the design and construction of the first and subsequent generations of Serge Modular Music Systems. Also while in San Diego he was a founder member, (with Ronald Al Robboy and David Dunn), of Fatty Acid, an incompetent performance group. In 1975 he left the USA and moved to Australia, taking a job teaching freshman theory and building a hybrid sound-video studio at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He is one of the founding members, (with Ronald Nagorcka) of the Plastic Platypus, (an experimental music performance group), and one of the founders of the Clifton Hill Community Music Center, (a community-music-resource-centre). He has written probably far too many works for instruments, electronics, voice, video, theater, prose, poetry, et cetera. However, he is still laughing.

  1. note: see also Burt’s Reflections on Kenneth Gaburo for this event (

Chris Mann (1949–2018) was an Australian composer, poet and performer specialising in the emerging field of compositional linguistics. Mann founded the New Music Centre in 1972 and taught at the State College of Victoria in the mid-1970s. He then left teaching to work on research projects involving cultural ideas of information theory and has been recognized by UNESCO for his work in that field. Mann moved to New York in the 1980s and was an associate of American composers John Cage and Kenneth Gaburo. He performed text in collaboration with artists such as Thomas Buckner, David Dunn, Annea Lockwood, Larry Polansky, and Robert Rauschenberg.


As mentioned above, all four of these artists had direct contact with Gaburo at one point or another in their life.  My experience with Gaburo’s work comes only out of second hand knowledge of the few recordings of his music that has seen the light of day in recent reissues by Pogus Recordings and New World Records.  My work as an improvising trumpet player radically changed upon hearing Gaburo’s “Mouthpiece: Sextet for Solo Trumpet” on the New World Records reissue of the original CRI recording.  The physicality and visceral quality of the piece (and performance) made available to me a completely different set of parameters by which I could approach solo trumpet improvising as well as my own composition.  Given my proclivity to obsession, I quickly owned every recording I could of Gaburo’s music and thanks to Larry Polansky’s generosity received much of the Lingua Press writings and scores.  Ultimately, when Zach Layton asked me to put the evening together I was excited at the prospect of putting my research, such as it was, to some sort of use.  The evening included a series of questions about the relationships between our guests and Gaburo and how their time together had affected their work.  The answers to these questions came in the form of personal reminiscences that offered less of a portrait of Gaburo’s theoretical thought as it did a picture of the man and how his thinking shaped what he did and how he did it.  It should be mentioned that this discussion also featured two video performances of Gaburo’s work, one by Warren Burt made specifically for the IPR event and one of Gaburo’s own pieces, which had not been screened in 25 years.  The evening also included a vocal quartet version of Gaburo’s mid-50s Ave Maria, headed by Megan Schubert. The evening ended with the performance of a new piece by Chris Mann.

Special thanks go to Chris, Larry, Warren, and David for being participants, Issue Project Room, New World Records, Pogus Recordings, and Frog Peak Publishing for helping make the evening possible in their own special way, and to Compost and Height for putting in the work to transcribe a very long evening of talk to make available via Wolf Notes.

-Nate Wooley November 2010

Nate Wooley: The whole point of this evening is to use a composer’s body of work as a spring board to have a conversation about how other composers think about their own compositions and so, while these questions come out of perceptions I’ve had of Kenneth Gaburo’s work, we’re going to use them as a starting point for each of the members of the panel to talk about their own overriding aesthetic and technical concerns. That being said, the first question is purely musicological and historical:

I would like just a brief history of how each of you came to know Kenneth Gaburo, what the relationship was with him personally, what your relationship to his music still is, and how he’s affected how you think as an artist.

Chris Mann: My introduction was via Maledetto. I listened to Maledetto on a plane from Melborne to San Diego, and I just wanted to go and have an argument with Gaburo, because I thought that he was wrong. I thought it was very interesting but he was wrong, so that’s how it started.

David Dunn: I guess my history with Kenneth goes back to when I was aged 17 in San Diego where I heard a live performance of Maledetto at the University of California. I was interested in very different things musically, it was at a point when I had started to work with Harry Partch and my interests were along those lines, but I was also at the same time interested in electro-acoustic music. Maledetto really tweaked me in a negative way that I didn’t understand at the time and it took me a very long time to come to it, to understand what was going on. As a young student…I was at that point enrolling in college… I didn’t really have any interest in doing any traditional music training at an academic level but one thing led to another, and through a sequence of events I ended up meeting Kenneth, who tried to arrange for me to enroll very late in the semester at the University of California in San Diego as a music student, an undergraduate student, and I think I lasted three days. He went way out of his way to do this and pulled all sorts of strings and he was really pissed, and that’s how our relationship started.

A few years later we actually became friends and I would come and visit him in La Jolla up in the hills and we would just hang out and talk.  Eventually that led to my wanting to actually study with him but it was not within an academic context, it was as a private student. It was at a time when he had started Lingua Press and he was directing the production of The Bewitched. I was in the Partch ensemble at that time, so during the first year that I studied with him…. between rehearsals, assisting him with Lingua Press and studying with him, we were together probably 30 to 40 hours per week.

To give you an idea of the intensity of that, when I studied with him privately he had an apartment in downtown San Diego that he was renting that was also an industrial space with all the materials for Lingua Press. He had a small space, slightly larger than a closet. That was the teaching room, and all the walls were painted black. There was a card table and an unshaded light bulb, so it was very much like Gestapo interrogation technique, and that’s where the lessons would occur. I don’t think we had a lesson within two years that was less than two and a half hours, and usually they were somewhere between five and six hours long, with him chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls so that, by the end of the lesson, I often wouldn’t be able to see his face. I could just hear his voice talking at me incessantly during that time.

Warren Burt: Actually it’s funny how Chris and David had their first contact with Maledetto. The first time I saw his work was at SUNY Albany where I was an undergraduate in 1971. He brought the New Music Choral Ensemble III through and did a programme which was Lingua I: Poems and Other Theatres and then Maledetto. At the time, I was struggling with an electro-acoustic piece where I would record 18 of my friends reading pornography and I would chop that up with various electronic processes. When I saw Maledetto I realized that here was a kindred spirit. Here is the guy I had to study with, and I went to University of California in San Diego (UCSD), and UCSD had an office which Kenneth had painted totally black. I had lessons with him for about three and a half years which consisted of, as David says, him continually chain-smoking.

After I left UCSD in 1975 [for Australia], I would come back to the US and visit him wherever he was, so I kept contact with him and worked on various projects with him, including a correspondence postcard piece that we kept up until just before he died.

Larry Polansky:  I was Kenneth’s colleague at Mills College in Oakland, California. He taught at Mills for about six months or a year while I was there in the mid-1980’s. In fact, I think I met both Chris and David through Kenneth. I think the interesting thing here is that there is a generation of composers who in some way are influenced differently by composers of Kenneth’s generation. The interconnections are very interesting in as much as all four of us have collaborated in every conceivable way you can imagine both in terms of life, music, and publishing, and yet there is not one of us whose work resembles the others’ work in the slightest way.

I think the same can be said for my relationship to Kenneth. At a very young age I was very much influenced by beautiful pieces like [Gaburo’s tape pieces] Lemon Drops and For Harry, and when I first heard Maledetto I was blown away. I won’t be as eloquent as Chris is about my reaction to it, but it was ambivalent. My relationship to Kenneth’s music continued to be very powerfully ambivalent. Ambivalent in a way that bespeaks a tremendous respect for the for the amount of thought and sincerity, the integrity and personal commitment that goes into a work that I don’t always, or even often, agree with or would do myself. I continue to think Maledetto is maybe the best piece of music I’ve ever heard that I don’t really like, but I have an enormous fascination and respect for it.

The most important thing I want to point out in relation to everything I said, is that Kenneth was a very close friend and a brilliant colleague and I did lots of things over the course of my life with him. It’s not well known, but he was one of the principle editors for the book I wrote on James Tenney, and he did that just to be nice to me when I was a young writer. I think it’s fair to say that without Lingua there would be no Frog Peak [Press], because I had the model of a composer with the cajones to do something like that, to screw up his life badly enough, in as much as someone had the vision to continue that tradition of composers seeing publishing not as clearly delineated from their work but rather as an extension of their art, of their ethics, or their aesthetics, whatever. The publishing and availability are a part of that and also a way of being in the world and I think that was the thing I saw most in Kenneth was that he believed very sincerely in being in the world.

I also want to say that my generation is now the older generation. There needs to be a next generation of people saying, “What’s wrong with Frog Peak?” There’s plenty wrong with it, just as I said what’s wrong with Lingua and what needs to be done now. I think that’s a very important generational continuity that everybody on this panel shares, David and Chris have also been very important in the erasing of distinction between publishing and creation and trying to make a fool of that distinction and that’s an important connection for me.

NW: Along the lines of pushing something or erasing distinctions, one of the things that has been most interesting for me as I’ve gone through the four recordings of Gaburo’s work I could get my hands on before this evening and through looking at some of the scores and some of the writings was this idea of pushing a singular idea to the absolute limits, to its boundaries… or erasing the boundaries but always in a way that the idea seems to keep its identity. The thing that I get it most from is the formal elements. The way Gaburo structures a piece always feels as if he’s pushing a specific structure out, but you always have a premonition that you know what’s at the end of the piece, and some of the pieces I’ve heard of each of yours has a similar attention to structure and form, without those elements being static.  I wondered if you could talk about how you deal with structuring your musical materials, and if Gaburo’s work had an effect on you in that way or if it’s something that was coming out of a different part of your musical learning.

DD: One of the things that Kenneth was deeply interested in was to reject the notion of style, the idea that composers will often strive to a kind of identifiable quality that is audible in terms of this notion of style. Kenneth’s idea was that this was superfluous in the sense that each of us is so deeply organized as individuals, and as organisms that, to some extent, none of that need to be overt or intentional; anything that we touch as individuals will carry a quality of the uniqueness of who we are.

Kenneth was very interested in the notion of self expression but in a corporeal sense; in the sense of something that is conveyed through the presence of the body and the individual. For me these notions of structure and the idea that each composition should itself address some subject, some aspect of exploration in a process is one of the most essential aspects of Kenneth’s work, along with the idea of intrinsicness and that compositional decisions have a logic based upon the observation of each step that’s made were very influential to me.

One of the things he used as a major technique in teaching composition was what he called a Scatter, and the idea of a Scatter actually comes out of both his embrace and rejection of 1950’s serialism. He was interested in the idea of a set of pitches almost having the possibility of an arbitrary quality, so instead of using a tone row he would actually write out as fast as he could a set of pitches almost with the intent of subverting a sense of relationship  and simply doing this almost like automatic writing. Then he would observe the properties of what the pitches were and from that all the compositional decisions would ensue, and so you get the various stages of transformation out of that. There’s a large body of his work from the late 1950s through into the 1960s that is concerned with this notion that precedes his obsession with language. He wrote a lot of instrumental music, a string quartet, a series of duets called Ideas and Transformation for Bowed String Duets, Line Studies a number of these pieces that are based upon this technique of looking at these intrinsic qualities and every observation is made as a consecutive intrinsic logic from that. Even as he went into the language work he still maintained this idea that we address a subject in the world always as if it were in some sense a sort of found object and then we observe the intrinsic relationship that we have with that and let compositional decisions manifest out of that logic. So this idea for me has had a very strong influence, regarding trying to make a piece that  somehow doesn’t repeat itself, that addresses something in a unique way and isn’t repetitive or trying to create a coherency out of this aspect of style, but rather out of the properties of the composition itself. The agenda for him was always to proceed towards definition rather than from definition.

WB: I would like to second a lot of what David said.  For example, I remember a composition lesson where I showed Kenneth a piece of mine and said, “Well it’s based on the Fibonacci series, but you can’t really hear that”, and he immediately replied, “What do you mean? Does it sound like Mozart?” and, well of course not, and he said, “Well then it sounds like the material you put into it”, and that was a very profound lesson for me. The intrinsic character of materials you’re using would, no matter what you did, flow right out into the surface of the piece and inform what it sounded like.

Also, I remember in his compositional linguistics seminars he did a exercise where he had us write a poem consciously with lots and lots of structure in it and then also bring in a poem we wrote intuitively and then he would, in a very smart ass way, show us that there was more structure in the intuitive poem than in the poem we had carefully structured. He said that structure is everywhere and you don’t need to be afraid of it.

I also remember one time mentioning the word common practice in terms of nineteenth century music with him. He didn’t actually acknowledge the idea of common practice. He said in the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas there were thirty-two different approaches to tonality. I’ve never analysed Beethoven sonatas to look for that but it makes a lot of sense to me that his notion of uniqueness would extend even to contradicting musicological commonplaces.

One thing he did with processes for himself, the sensory deprivation processes and so on, was his wanting to subvert his own “lick” As someone who came out of a jazz piano tradition, that whole idea of developing “licks” was a very powerful one for him and so he actually wanted to develop ways to get beyond that. So all those sorts of things really went into my own music and influenced the way I do it.

NW: Can you explain a little bit of the sensory deprivation techniques. I’ve read a little bit of it in reference to the idea that David brought up of Gaburo’s Scatters, but perhaps you can go into a little more detail about what some of those techniques were and what the musical outcome was.

WB: Yes, I’ll give you two, one was Antiphony IX, his big orchestra piece. I don’t know how the electronic part was made but the instrumental part was made by him sitting at his drawing table with very large sheets of paper. The lights were out and it was total blackness and after hours and hours of sitting there he’d take a pen and just begin with “prick” prick” “prick” “prick” … and he just kept doing this maniacally until he felt he’d actually covered the paper totally with dots. He then turned on the lights and looked at the twelve pages and put them up on his wall. Gradually, over a year’s time, he looked at them and saw that certain of the dots were sort of coagulating like the constellations were in the sky and he would surround those with a particular colour pencil.  At the end of the year he took them down and did a little more work with the idea, drawing graphs with pitch down one side with the rhythm along the bottom, but the basic idea was that the circled sets of dots became actual gestures for the orchestra to play.

Another one was how he did RE-RUN, his electronic piece, which is an accompaniment for Mary Lou Blankenburg’s choreography, where he sat in the studio with a Buchla Music Easel that was actually damaged and he sat in the studio with this machine and gazed at it for hours and hours and hours.  Only after he was right on the point of exhaustion did he begin in making a pass and just doing a particular gesture which was moving his finger in-out-in-out with the keyboard and he apparently recorded it without listening to the output and rewound and made four tracks working without listening to the output and then he went home and went to sleep and a day or two later he came back to the studio and listened to it and was amazed at how well the four tracks related to each other. The relationship between the tracks and that tape, pretty much unaltered became the piece RE-RUN.

CM: I’d been in London a couple of years earlier working with Roy Hart which is how I got into extended vocal stuff, and after I’d been with Kenneth for a couple of days he sent me off to go and see [Herbert] Brün. Kenneth for me was always this half way house between Roy Hart and Herbert Brün.

My problem with Kenneth was the heroism of the physical gesture and the domestication of the physical gesture and the individual point of view. Where I think about Cage as being loyal not to the sound but particularly, pedantically, loyal to the score, I think Kenneth is particularly, pedantically loyal to his body and to where he is, which I find incredibly useful as a place to begin to make an intervention but then my question then comes with Brün, which, to complete what my definition of compositional linguistics is:

language is the mechanisms whereby you understand what I’m thinking better than i do….

…(where “I” is defined by those changes for which “I” is required)

That’s my disagreement with Kenneth. This is what I get from Brün, for me that was a useful leverage. Kenneth and Herbert are both really interested in the advent of the composer and I’m more interested in a community of listeners and what the politics of listening might be.

Kenneth was so quick to argue, it’s incredibly useful and precise in a whole series of very messy ways and that is what I miss, there’s this beautiful loyalty in conversation and there’s loyalty to the conversation. He didn’t need to be loyal to his point of view. He could be loyal to the conversation which I find incredibly effective, but the consistency, which is the one I have the problem with is, as I understand it, a slightly heroic position to take. Romantic. He’s too romantic, too catholic. The Catholics make really good enemies.

LP: Chris always says things better than I think I can say them myself but I like that notion of loyalty to the conversation, and all through tonight’s conversation I’m remembering that  five years ago Chris and I were on a  similar kind of event  for Herbert Brün, not far from here somewhere in Brooklyn.  We were sitting on a panel and I found myself thinking very heavily about the word hagiography and how the attempt to remember someone and tell anecdotes about them and explaining how and why they were so wonderful can so quickly turn into a kind of calcification and be completely antithetical to what that person was doing.

I like to think that there is something about some of the composers who we’ve mentioned here tonight, people like Sal Martirano and James Tenney, people who were committed, perhaps because they were out of the mainstream of New York music politics. Their version of success was very different than other people’s, and so they were loyal to the conversation.  They were completely open to almost every idea you could think of without sacrificing the consistency of their own ideas. They were dogmatic in their pursuit of the interest of their own music without being dogmatic that others pursue it, and in a way it’s a funny thing to be speaking here about what Kenneth did. For example, I’ll add an element to the sensory deprivation thing that Warren mentioned; getting a huge bottle of cheap red wine getting poundingly drunk and then doing that same pen process in the dark. Whilst that’s fun, and interesting, and in the context of the life that Kenneth had it’s a very interesting thing to do but it’s not something that you all want to go and do as a school of music or as a continuing of a tradition. It comes out of a much larger openness, and maybe an openness that is bespoken by being in places like Illinois and San Diego rather than having to kind of fight for a historical or stylistic longevity which he never did or could have done in any way.  In fact he did the opposite, he founded a press whose express purpose was to argue with the members of that press. He would hassle Lingua composers mercilessly about things he had no business hassling composers with and, of course, they loved it because what do we all want?  We all want someone to listen to us and take us seriously, to argue with us, to care enough to say that shouldn’t be a C sharp that should be a C natural, for no reason other than to engage the conversation. I think that’s maybe the best thing I can say about the relation with Kenneth to my work and as a colleague. That’s what he did with his students; he argued with them purely for the sake of arguing, it didn’t matter what he was arguing about, it didn’t matter whether he liked or in fact didn’t like what they did. I don’t think that was even a consideration. He wanted to get them talking about it.

CM: He wasn’t interested in being right

LP:  He didn’t know what he was talking about half the time, he didn’t care.

CM: and what’s really important, he didn’t need to be right,

LP: What I think he sensed was that there was a real critical lacuna in the seriousness about which people talk about work, art and music.  Much of it had a kind of agenda that he didn’t care about, and this is where I think he is dealing with ethics.  He didn’t care about the things that you are supposed to care about as a composer, he didn’t care about success, well he did…he bitched about this stuff all the time… but really what he wanted to do was take music as seriously as a human can take it in whatever way you could do that. And a piece like C is…  is an inexplicable exercise in trying to figure out what kind of probing you could do to the compositional process that would have no verifiable or recognisable results. He was very interested in things like that, and interested that we all take this seriously.

I think that while we have to be careful of a certain kind of a hagiography with Kenneth, the kind of hagiography we should indulge in is the one that propagates the next generation by keeping the argument open.  He was a fraught guy, like we’re all fraught, with a crazy background that seeps into all his pieces like all of our crazy backgrounds, but he was the real deal, he wasn’t playing any games other than the game of continuing the world of ideas.

Audience: There was a lot of mention of the work Maledetto. Could someone tell us a little more about this work and why it made such an impression on all of you?

WB: One of the things for me about Maledetto is its combination of structuring and energy. There was a review of it where the critic said sophomoric sexual innuendo ruined the piece and I think there is no sophomoric sexual innuendo in the piece…I think it’s just plain dirty! I think Kenneth was actually celebrating the joy of being just plain dirty and sniggering at it.  It was like, “Right…I’m going to do a snigger piece that’s going to be the ultimate structurally solid snigger”, and so the overarching form of the piece is about screws and screwing. That’s the whole pun of the sophomoric sexual innuendo, if you will. The whole piece is structured so that the main forming of the first part of the piece is sssssssss and then he did a section based on the hard c sound (ka). Then there’s a section with rrrrrrrrr and then there is finally a section of eeewwwww so over the 35 minutes of the piece you have a gigantic articulation of sssscrrrreeeeewwwww where each of the individual little sections comes out of some other bit of material. It is incredibly rich and when performed by people with energy it’s just stunning the way that comes across.

About two thirds of the way through Maledetto is the first time everyone is singing in the piece and the choir busts into some “ewwww”. Seven voices suddenly hitting that, microtonally detuning with each other, gradually spiraling down in a screw like fashion until they’re very low at the end. For me that was just electrifying, the hair went up on the back of my neck.  To give you some context, this piece was made during a time when composers were trying everything they could to subvert that golden mean structural peak idea with serialism, chance operations, etc., so this was his sort of take on the whole non-directional thing, saying “OK, how directional can we make it?”.

The amount of material that went into the texts used in Maledetto, and one should mention his wife at the time Virginia Gaburo, who also did a lot of research for the piece, is staggering. They just mined everything they could from the historical record about the history of the screw…like screws at one time were used for pressing perfume so that led to a whole aside on the history of perfume and it just went on and on like that with many little details.

He was also, at this point, interested in Schenkerian analysis, which is something he abandoned later. I was lucky enough to study with him just before he abandoned the idea and Maledetto is, if nothing else a PhD dissertation in how you can use Schenkerian analytical techniques to structure a piece of verbal theatre. That sort of structuring is absolutely used in the making of Maledetto.

CM: Could I just remind the non-engineers in the audience that the angle of the thread on a screw is called, of course, the pitch.

DD: I’ll just add that the title page of the score actually says Maledetto: For Seven Virtuoso Speaking Voices, and that’s an important feature.

Audience: Can any of you speak at all about the importance of the west coast at that time period as a setting for this work or as an inspiration that is integral to what we’re talking about tonight? What community was Gaburo a part of, and where were his ideas coming from? I’m trying to get a sense of a social history.

LP: He wasn’t on the west coast for that long. He was mostly in Illinois and later in Iowa. I do think that the period in Illinois in the 1960’s is where pretty much everything has its germination. Certainly the work with Norman Marter and people like that in Illinois, which spawned the New Extended Vocal Technique Ensemble, was the progenitor of the groups in San Diego, and I think that the interaction between [Lejaren] Hiller and Herbert [Brün] and Kenneth and Sal Martirano, and people like Jim Beauchamp, who made the harmonic tone generator, made Illinois an extremely fertile place for Kenneth.

DD: I think one of the really interesting things about Kenneth is that you can see three really major periods of his creative work and all three of those periods of course belong to major shifts in his political views. As his compositions embraced different materials so did ideas, often from outside of music, influence him and had a major affect upon his politics.

When I first knew him, it was a few years after he came to San Diego, he was not quite an arch conservative but he was very mid-western in his political views. It wasn’t a simplistic conservative Republican kind of view… it was more of a Thoreau-style Libertarianism that he was embracing.  The Sixties definitely changed him and the political climate of the west coast very much changed him.  I think that did have some influence upon Maledetto. Some of it was a direct response to the free speech movement at Berkeley, the presence of Angela Davis, [Herbert] Marcuse and the radical politics and the anti-war movement. There were things he had antagonistic relationships to. It wasn’t so much that he embraced those things.  He argued with them in a way that it transformed his own political views.  Toward the end of his life, before he left San Diego and moved to Iowa, he went through some really serious changes, which was a shift from a definite obsession with the structuralism of the Twentieth Century philosophically to a really interesting embrace of archaic philosophical ideas and post-modern philosophical ideas and things that he was also arguing with and trying to make sense of.

When he moved to Iowa and started to become sick…he had lung cancer, not surprisingly…he kept it secret for a long time. At the end of his life we had regular phone conversations and he never let on that any of this was happening until I began to sense that something was really wrong, at which point I hopped on the train to go to Iowa to really see what was going on. He  had alienated himself from the local community, and had retired from the university. Part of this was very antagonistic. Kenneth always said he had a very antagonistic relationship with the world. But the shift that became really interesting in his life were his views, his relationships towards women, his own view of self, his self identity. He always had a kind of physical antagonism with this intent to argue. It was not so much about being right as it was a kind of violence, a turbulence that he had in his personality and in his being. He began to really question that and think about himself as a source of violence in the world, and that caused a shift in his thinking.  The texts he began to write became extremely political and concerned with ecological issues and nuclear concerns.

It really shifted a lot, even in terms of his personality. I visited him in the last few years several times and, instead of being the kind of machismo Kenneth that I knew, around the house he started wearing scarves wrapped around his head. It was like he was experimenting with some kind of more neutral gender sense of things which was very bizarre for someone who had known him for so many years and identified him as this kind of New Jersey Sicilian, kid of Sicilian parents, first generation Italian American. It was a major shift and the work shifted along with that. So he did reflect these things, he did reflect aspects of the environment. That’s the long answer to the notion of the west coast but I think it was to some extent germane. Larry is, to some extent, right that the intellectual seeds to most of his work really was focused particularly around his interest in linguistics which was very much part of his being in Illinois. San Diego was really important too, for the same reasons that have been said. It was this extraordinary strong set of personalities, everybody there was a tremendous creative force in their own right and it was a hot bed, but Illinois was critical.

LP: Also, in San Diego at the time Kenneth was there, there was this kind of critical mass of super virtuosic performers like Ed Harkins and Phil Larson and that enabled Kenneth to do some things that he may not have been able to do in Illinois.

CM: Whereas Illinois was anti virtuosic,

LP: Yes. In the eighties I saw a few pieces that surprised me in the way that you talked of that were intensely personal, almost like memoirs that interrogated the basic fabric of his sexuality and his gender; very disturbing but very interesting pieces.

I am ruminating on the fact that there are four middle aged men sitting up here, and also I remember at Mills that most of the graduate students that clustered around Kenneth were men, that there was a kind of predilection for the mode of argument, an intensity and a vitality that encouraged men. I know that there were also some women composers of our generation who were close to Kenneth but I do wonder about that extreme and maybe David knows more about it than I do, about that tendency…

DD: I don’t know if I want to go into it. He had a problematic relationship with women.  That was very much a part of his generation, and you could see it also in his colleagues in Illinois and in San Diego. The first marriage he had, which I don’t really want to go into because I don’t know that much of the details, was very difficult and ended in a divorce not only from his first wife but also from the Catholic Church. An important feature of his work was his deep concern with Catholicism that actually lasted his entire life, which was again a kind of antagonistic relationship.

CM: But this is the issue of politics. When he did Testimony, which I always consider to be incredibly Catholic, my argument with him was that he was obviously an unreconstituted Catholic because it was Catholic through and through.

Testimony is a video piece where someone off camera asks someone, “In the event of a nuclear war we know for a fact that 68% of the population have been declared expendable and so on and how do you feel about having been declared expendable or excess to the requirements of the society to which you thought that you belonged?”, and it has this really strong issue of confession, and its superficially political. It’s political by subject matter but the form is a form of politics which I have real trouble with.  So when we talk about the political, and that he changes or develops politically,  I don’t know that I observe that.

LP: or in Antiphony IV, which is the percussion piece, I have the same problem. It is an overtly political piece whose form seems to be counter to the idea of cooperation, argument and discussion and also with these kinds of personal pieces that he did which were confessional essentially. Crazy, wonderful, interesting confessionals but still it was a guy up there on stage worrying. I have the same relationship to these pieces that I first had when I heard Maledetto: I like the content and I like the technique performed, but I question it quite a bit.

NW: I’d like to get Warren back involved, I’m not exactly sure what the question has transformed into now, but the original question was how did the people and the places and the time, the experiences around Gaburo, how do you feel it affected his musical output?

WB: In terms of people that he met I think, looking back at the work, the period of the sixties in Illinois was absolutely crucial and although he changed when he went to California, the period in Illinois was the basis that he changed from. I think he was a person who, despite his being intensely professional and individualistic, continually absorbed abilities and aspects of personalities of the people that were around him.

The two times I visited Iowa when he was in Kenneth’s last years, I noticed that he was getting a lot more confrontational. He was also in a lot of physical pain, and I wonder how much of his nastiness in that period actually resulted from the fact that he was always in pain. Certainly one of his last tape pieces Mouthpiece #2 where he’s describing a dysfunctional family in a restaurant that he went to frequently is informed so much by that idea of emotional and physical. In Kenneth’s very last days he said to Philip Blackburn he always wanted to do a piece that involved pain and he never really had the guts to do it, but now that he knew that he was dying all he had to do was stop the morphine and he could experience the most incredibly awful pain and could Philip please record him when he had that pain and then do something with the piece. So, this was the ultimate sort of example of a body as a generator of material, material he knew he would never be able to use. I don’t know if that answers the question but those are just things that I think are involved with his work in relation to a sense of his place and time.

Audience: I’m trying to historically locate Gaburo’s work a little more closely in terms of some conceptual art that was going on throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies and thinking about the materiality of the body. I wonder if there is any direct correspondence between Gaburo and other artists or if it was just the spirit of the times?

CM: Regarding influences, I think one of [Gaburo’s] design flaws was that he was born and played opposite Luciano Berio. I think Berio was really important for him and Berio was successful in a way in that Kenneth was not and they mapped quite similar territories. I think Kenneth felt bad, and the other reference which I would have said which is also not American, is Beckett.

DD: Yes, Beckett was a direct influence on him. In fact, Kenneth did produce and direct a version of one of Beckett’s plays.  I would say that Kenneth was actually much more influenced by experimental theatre of his period than he was by conceptual work or what came to be performance art related work. The first assignment I had studying with him was to read three books, one of which was Benjamin Whorf’s Language Thought Reality, Levi Strauss’ The Savage Mind and [Jerzy] Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre. Those kind of ideas that were going on, which have largely been eclipsed and have as a tradition been more taken on by the conceptual performance related community, were a big influence on Kenneth.

The other thing that he was influenced by was the text sound tradition that emanates from [Kurt] Schwitters. He even collaborated with Henri Chopin on a piece so those kinds of influences were very much part of what he paid attention to, not so much the visual art related world as this aspect of theatre.

LP: Another composer that keeps coming to my mind is Sal Martirano, who exists in a similar kind of world right now but I bet nobody in this room knows his music very well. A piece like L’s. G.A. is such an important piece for whatever you think of it, it had to have an impact on Kenneth. They were good friends, they were both Italian jazz pianists who came from very traditional music backgrounds, they had very similar personalities and they went in very different but equally important directions. I think that’s just another part of being in Illinois where a certain kind of musical theatre was going on and it was very interesting stuff with Kenneth’s work.

WB: I remember when I encountered Kenneth’s work I also encountered David [Dunn]’s for the first time. David showed me books of environmental sculptures like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer and that really took my mind to a whole other area of interest. It was at this period that I also noticed that Kenneth’s work was, if you wish, getting much more refined. For example, compare any of the instrumental pieces with their incredible counterpoint with the mono-maniacal monophony of Minim-Tellig. I noticed those connections between the conceptual artist and performance artist and what Kenneth was doing, but I think those ideas were in the air and we all were aware of them. However, I do think what people are saying is essentially correct. Kenneth came to those ideas more out of an experimental theatre tradition. Don’t forget that, at that point, the performance art world was still being formed and what we call performance art really didn’t get what we might call theorised and criticalised until the mid-Seventies by which time Kenneth had done so much of that work. So, in fact, I would put it down more to zeitgeist.  He was one of many people who were developing ideas in that direction.


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