essay by David Dunn
photos by Null Point
It is interesting, to say the least, to have waited 42 years for a composition to be first realized. In the case of PLACE, it may be more a comment upon the cyclic nature of certain artistic and aesthetic ideas as historical mutations of enduring intellectual interests, and not something ignored or rejected at the time of its creation.
The kind of “conceptualism” that the composition reflects is certainly locatable to 1975, when the composition was originally conceived, but it was not merely the product of an historical fashion. These kinds of text based scores were a strategic approach to composition as an alternative to the dominant hyper-rationalism of academic music making of the time. They also have older roots in the Fluxus movement of an earlier decade and even older manifestations in avant-garde theater. Karlheinz Stockhausen referred to his experiments in the genre (Aus den Sieben Tagen) as “intuitive music.” Pauline Oliveros used the format as her primary compositional device for several decades of “sonic meditations.” These examples are selected from dozens of composers and hundreds of compositions that have done similar things. While the approach never went away, in recent years it has gained renewed momentum amongst a new generation of composers and performers.
There were also extra-musical concerns that informed the composition of PLACE. Perhaps of foremost influence was the work of “land” artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, and Walter de Maria. However, my challenge was to create a sound-based equivalent that left a less permanent imprint upon the terrain. Most of my experiments at the time were intended to be site-specific but in PLACE my goal was to create a schema that, while portable, still sought to emphasize the relationship of the performers to a performance site as an exploratory process.
At the time, my embrace of electronic audio resources was less about the pursuit of novel sounds or greater compositional control but instead an interest in the pure physicality of these tools. I was fascinated by the idea of the flow of electrons as “prima materia” and a manipulation of time and space that was self-evident through the simple displacement techniques of portable sound recording and playback, what we now take for granted as sampling.
There was also the growing strength of the environmental movement and the counter-cultural assertion that artists needed to embrace, and help direct, the use and development of technology or our worst fears would be manifested. In retrospect, this conceit mostly appears naive and utopian in that those fears were not only manifested but came to dominate the cultural and environmental landscapes. Then again, there are now signs of a renewal of this polemic in the DIY community of younger artists who seek to deconstruct the corporate control of technology as culture.
Much of the radical art of the 1970s was steeped in the language of Systems Theory. Ecology and Cybernetics have been interwoven from their earliest days through the study of homeostasis. The concept was applied in one direction as a means to understand how living systems self-regulate while others applied it towards the goal of machine control. This particular nexus was a rich terrain for artists to exploit. Throw in some Eastern Philosophy, Native American pantheism, psychedelics, counter-cultural environmentalism, popular paganism, fringe science, and a bit of the occult, and you have the makings for PLACE.
Out of this miasma of influences a few important threads have survived in my subsequent work. Ecology and Cybernetics remain in the foreground but hopefully my understanding has gained a refinement commensurate with the advances that these fields have achieved. Ecology has expanded into an essential cultural force dedicated to understanding our world in the face of dire environmental threats. Cybernetics mutated into the interdisciplinary fields of computer science and complexity science with “systems thinking” now formally grounded upon the armature of new mathematical tools.
While thinking about the temporal distance that we now occupy from 1975, I can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia about those days. While they certainly feel much more intellectually naive, that condition also afforded us a kind of freedom and optimism that now seems all but extinguished. This must always be a complaint germane to all times and “places” as one phase space of human history folds into another.
I am truly grateful to all of the organizers and performers who are responsible for making this event possible. They have brought an enthusiasm and sense of purpose to the task that exceeds anything I could have imagined when I originally wrote the piece.