David Behrman was born in Austria in 1937 and came from a family of artists and performers. He was son of noted playwright and Hollywood screenwriter S.N. Behrman. His mother Elza Heifetz Behrman was the sister of violinist Jascha Heifetz. Performance, music, and the arts were all in his blood. The family piano was something always available to him, and he spent a lot of time sitting with the instrument. His inclination towards music was encouraged and he was able to continue to study it in the world of higher education. There he met some of the people who were working towards the awakening of a distinctive American music in the classical tradition, and others who would go on to have a lasting influence over his own musical trajectory.
From the American Five the American Four
In 1953 he went to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. It was there he met a person one of his lifelong friends and musical companion, Frederic Rzewski. It was around this time period that he also met Wallingford Riegger. He became a student of Riegger’s who initiated him into the alternative current of American classical music.
In an interview Behrman commented, “One person from whom I learned a lot, about music and also about feisty independence, was the composer Wallingford Riegger. One year in New York, when I was 17, I went twice a week to his little apartment to take composition lessons. Riegger had taught Morton Feldman and Bob Ashley and had been a friend of Henry Cowell and Edgard Varese.” Behrman was soaking in the ambience of some rarified musical circles.
His teacher Riegger had been born in Albany, Georgia, at some point moved to Indianapolis and from there went on to school at Julliard in New York. He graduated in 1907, a member of the prestigious music schools first graduating class. Riegger went to Germany for a spell in an attempt to become a conductor. He learned a lot and also improved his cello skills before coming back to the States in 1917. Back in New York in the twenties he devoted himself to composition when he couldn’t find work as a conductor.
Riegger was one of what was called the “American Five.” The other members of the American Five included Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, John J. Becker, and Carl Ruggers. The group aimed to cast off the long shadow of European composition. Just as the Transcendentalists and later Walt Whitman had begun to build up an American identity in literature, these composers were feeling into the wide open spaces of a new and independent American music. In particular Riegger immersed himself in the work of the New Music Society started by Henry Cowell. This society put out publications and recordings to spread the work of American composers. Riegger also played a part in forming the Pan American Association of Composers that represented composers throughout the western hemisphere.
Within the American Five, Riegger was known as an early adopter of a twelve-tone system. Though he learned the technique from Schoenberg’s student Adolph Weiss, he wasn’t a strict adherent to serialism. He also wasn’t strict in the way he used Schoenberg’s method. He didn’t think he needed to always use rows with twelve tones and he didn’t necessarily transpose his rows. If he wanted to use a note, he used it, and if he didn’t, he didn’t. Twelve tone techniques were just another tool in his tool box, not a rigid compositional dogma. In this he was truly part of an American tradition of using whatever tools happened to be at hand and discarding them when they didn’t suit him.
In 1957 Riegger got summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was on their list of suspects during their investigations into communism in the musical world. Behrman recalls his former teachers political views, “He was a courageous dissenter; because of his political views his music was blackballed during the McCarthy era. He used to alternate counterpoint lessons with lessons in radical politics. It was from him that I learned about some of the independent voices in American music - about Ives and Cowell, Varese and Cage. And I'm still a fan of Riegger's; his music had a wonderful sense of sonority and rhythmic vitality.”
Riegger had nurtured this spirit of independence and it found full flowering in many of his students, including Behrman and Ashley. This connection to two members of the Sonic Arts Union to one of the American Five, and the spirit of independence they picked up from him was a key influence on Behrman and Ashley. Perhaps, for their generation, another name for the Sonic Arts Union might have been the American Four.
Two of his other musical friends had a huge influence on him. “Frederic Rzewski and Christian Wolff, had a lot to do with what was on my mind in those days. Christian was a graduate student at Harvard when I met him. He and Frederic knew a great deal about new developments in European and American music. Frederic was always the first person in the area to order the latest scores by Stockhausen and Boulez. He got them way before the Harvard Music Library did.”
In 1959 Behrman was keen to get a taste of what was going on in Europe. He had become a fan of Stockhausen, especially impressed by Gesang der Juenglinge, which was in many ways the gateway drug for a generation of electronic music composers. His imagination fired by Stockhausen, he went to the Darmstadt composition class in the summer of 1959 to study with the composer. La Monte Young and Naim June Paik were fellow students in his class, while David Tudor and Cornelius Cardew were his advisers. “Stockhausen's course was an eye-opening experience for me, in part because of his intense devotion to new music, in part because he encouraged my efforts, in part because it was at that course that a long-lasting friendship with David Tudor began.”
Back in the United States his friends Wolff and Rzewski hatched a plan to bring David Tudor to Harvard for a concert. All three were members of the music club but they only had a small fee to give the musician. To their surprise “not only did Tudor accept, but he brought his friends John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown with him. Tudor played new European and American music brilliantly that night; it was a moment that considerably expanded the mental horizons of many of the students who were present.”
David Tudor’s influence got the younger students further interested in the possibilities of using both traditional and electronic instruments, alone and in combinations. When Behrman met Gordon Mumma at the 1963 Feldman/Brown concert the two became fast friends, and took up a lively pen pal correspondence which also included the exchange of circuit diagrams. Mumma started tutoring him in basic electronics through the mail and gave him instructions on how to build things. Electronic music offered a workaround for young composers in the early sixties. It was often hard to get musicians to play an unknown composers work, but in the DIY milieu that was coming up around electronic music, a composer could build their own equipment and play their own compositions; in part because the building of a circuit was essential to the structure of the piece, a crucial component of the score.
“From David Tudor and Gordon Mumma I learned how to build little battery-powered devices that could radically alter or hugely amplify acoustic sounds. Gordon Mumma's enthusiasm was catching; he wrote me a series of letters in 1964 that were like a basic course in electronic music before there were any books on the subject. The first letter had a circuit for a ring modulator, which I eagerly built. Before that I'd had the experience of composing scores and copying out parts and asking other musicians to play them; one was always in the situation of asking favors and that didn't usually feel very good. Better was the self-reliant feeling of performing oneself, and of using homemade instruments to create sounds that no human ears had ever before experienced!”
In 1965 Behrman had one of his electronic pieces played at the ONCE Festival. The next year the Sonic Arts Union would blossom.
Wave Train and Runthrough
Behrman has written much fine music, well worth spending time with. Two pieces from the Sonic Arts Union era are noteworthy.
In Wave Train he uses guitar pickups placed around the body of a grand piano to explore properties of feedback and resonance. The gain on the guitar pickup is set high enough to excite the strings through its feedback. In performance Behrman would often have Mumma play the piano, while he moved the microphones around during various points in the piece, to showcase the different effects this would have on the piano.
Alvin Lucier said of the piece, “The performer’s job is to ride the feedback, raising and lowering the volume levels, creating arcs of sound waves. David likens this activity to surfing where one is constantly monitoring one’s position along a surging wave front.”
In one sense Wave Train is a prepared piano piece in the tradition developed by Cage and Tudor; in another it explores the properties of microphones being placed around an instrument, as Stockhausen had investigated in his Mikrophonie pieces from 1964 and 1965.
Runthrough was a piece where all four of the Sonic Arts Union members played a variety of Behrman’s homemade instruments. It is built from “cheap circuitry put together at home” and is used to make improvised music. There isn’t a score, but two of the players use the sound generators, modulators, and dials and switch to play the electronic sounds. One or two other people use flashlights to control a photocell distribution circuit that acts as a kind of mixer for the other sound sources. The audio is fed into four or eight loudspeakers set in a circle around the listeners. Behrman suggests that no skill is necessary to play the music, so it is a fun piece for non-musicians to explore. The piece emerges as players run through the various combinations and settings of the equipment, each time the sound potentially different. “Because there is neither a score nor directions, any sound which results from any combination of switch and light positioning remains part of the 'piece.' (Whatever you do with a surfboard in the surf remains a part of surfboarding).”
This piece is an exercise in improvisation and intuition, a playful way for three or four people to listen to each other, a communion made in music and shared electricity.
Choreographing the Music of Our Time
It was in the late 1960s that Behrman would get a job that helped bring a lot of the new music to a wider audience. He landed a gig at Columbia Records and worked on producing the “Music of Our Time” series of albums. Two of the most well-known records he helped produce for this series were by Terry Riley, his In C and A Rainbow in Curve Air. Other works that Behrman produced for the series included recordings by Robert Ashley, John Cage, Mauricio Kagel, Alvin Lucier, Richard Maxfield, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Henri Pousseur (under whom he had also studied), Steve Reich, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff.
Along with Mumma, Behrman had the privilege and opportunity to work with the Merce Cunningham dance troupe, writing music for their performances, a gig that came from their connections to Cage and Tudor. Of his time with the troupe Behrman said, “Merce Cunningham, besides being a great choreographer whose career has spanned more than a half century, has been a long-term champion of live music. He always has live music-makers in his performances and must be the only choreographer on earth who never tells the musicians he works with what to do. In 'Events' in particular -- Cunningham Company works in such a way that nothing at all about the music is prepared in advance -- musicians can explore the idea that 'a movement, a sound, a change of light' can all independently share the space and time of performance. Often coincidences occur among the media in a way that seems magical and that could never be planned.
The Cunningham Company tours have provided much experience over the years of performing repeatedly for large live audiences. Lately I've learned a lot about the use of interactive software on tours with fine musicians such as Kosugi, Stuart Dempster, Steve Lacy, Jon Gibson and others. Looking back on the earlier years, the memories of touring and performing with John Cage and David Tudor, Gordon Mumma and Maryanne Amacher are very precious.”
In 1969 fellow Sonic Arts Union member Robert Ashley was asked to come and direct the CCM at Mills College. In 1975 Behrman came and joined him as the co-director. Those years formed another chapter in his creative life.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.