what I listened to

This being a longer reply — ca. 1998 — to a query by Anthony Cerasuolo and Sonia Keithan, on what did/do I listen to. With occasional emendations, corrections, elaborations since then.

There would have been the discovery one after-school afternoon, or perhaps during an allergy-induced 80-day absence from first grade, of something like “afternoon serenade” on a Los Angeles classical station. And playing with my trucks under an avocado tree, this side of the fence from the neighbor’s pool, where a radio played nonstop KFWB-AM rock all summer long. This was pre-Beatles. Elvis and surfer music, probably. I would later resist the Beatles, but have always liked the Phil Spector wall-of-sound sound.

From maybe 1968 or 69 on, I listened to underground KPPC-FM. Operating out of a church basement in Pasadena, its DJ’s were bold enough to play the White Album straight through, twice, upon its release. (added 1 November 2009: There’s a wikpedia entry on KPPC here, including links to other articles and to Dave Pierce, Riding on the Ether Express: a memoir of 1960s Los Angeles, the rise of Freeform Underground Radio, and the legendary KPPC-FM (Lafayette, Louisiana, 2008).) I used to listen to a good blues show on Sunday afternoons, and sometimes to the Johnny Otis show on a weekday evening (Frank Zappa came in once). It was Brit and blues based rock; I don’t remember what the ads were. Other things too. I remember listening to William S Burroughs his dessicated voice, low volume whose hum drew the attention of my John Bircher father. Listened also to KUSC-FM, now home to the NPR-distributed Marketplace show, but then a good station for jazz, some blues, classical, and Alan Watts lectures (maybe Baba Ram Dass too).

Remember picking up KPFK-FM’s station guide at the Eagle Rock branch of the Los Angeles Public Library — one of many things not intended for me but that I’ve taken regardless and with consequence.

Pacifica meant radical left news. Music and drama. A bit of proto New-Age philosophy, Esalen, etc. I much enjoyed Cynthia Sears, her “Writers and Writing” show I enjoyed. I recall in particular her series on Henry Miller, who thought Colossus of Maroussi his best book. Radio reportage by Carlos Hagen, whose very wonderful collages and Chilean English voice, I remember today. There was some poetry, and marathon year-end readings of the classics: War and Peace, Anna Karenina. And serious music. It was on KPFK’s Sunday morning “Music not for export” show that I first heard Arvo Pärt’s “Perpetuum Mobile.” Years later, Pärt would catch on and Perpetuum Mobile is now available on CD. So too are his stunning “Fratres” and “Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten,” which I purchased in Tokyo when the Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarret recording came out in 1984. I remember a live broadcast of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14, sung in Russian not in the languages of its poetry (French, Spanish) and better that way.

Eventually, I’d subscribe to KPFK because it meant something. Like all the Pacifica stations, KPFK had an out-and-out politics; not so contemporary “listener-sponsored” FM careful not to offend cell-phone commuters & the white suburbs generally. KPFK was managed during some of those years by Ruth Hirschman, whose anarchist husband Jack’s Trigram Press Black Alephs, with collages by Wallace Berman, is a fine book and includes a favorite poem, “Ray Charles.” Those program guides can be found online at archive.org, and are an amazing time machine.

We lived in Eagle Rock, the northeast corner of Los Angeles next to Pasadena. As a teenager I went to concerts, two at Cal Tech’s Beckman auditorium. Yvonne Loriod played “Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus,” with her husband — and the work’s composer — Oliver Messiaen, in attendance. Unforgettable. And Terry Riley, playing “Rainbow in Curved Air” (April 18, 1971 — I still have the programme). Concert-going also included Pink Floyd (Santa Monica Civic Auditorium), Captain Beefheart (Shrine Auditorium and The Troubador I believe), and Frank Zappa (UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the night composer Mel Powell walked out with his tapes).

I’ve always liked Zappa, whose success at making serious music outside of academe encourages my abhorence of state support of the arts in any form. (That abhorence melts into its incoherence, of course, when I reflect that even design degree-zero, in the form of the quonset hut, has its own aesthetic. Still, I don’t believe that art is “good for you” in any way that could register on an administrative radar screen.)

The Pink Floyd spin came around the time of the soundtrack to the film “More,” and lasted through “Ummagumma.” I bought “More” on the same day I purchased a John Mayall record, which somehow redeems me, no? I knew Muddy Waters’s music, and at some point began to collect blues and jazz violin records — Stuff Smith and others. I played my own violin against blues records, badly. The records are long gone.

And I liked Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. “Trout Mask Replica” and “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” are impressed in my marrow. Beefheart is out of music now but paints. There are catalogues, some containing his poetry as well. The only paper of mine that earned an “A” in John Britz’s Critical Writing/Poetry course at San Jose State was an analysis of “Bellerin Plain,” which was the first piece of music Euan heard outside his mother’s womb:

Parapliers the willow dipped
Rolled roots gnarled like rakers
This hollow hole don’t hold no jokers er’ fakers
Don’t fall by no jokers or fakers
Puller down to the stirrin’ hay acres

Its entirety here.

(Chisaku got his first music while still enclosed: a five-hour long gamelan performance at Tufts University a month or two before his birth. Kuniko reports that he was dancing inside.)

I had the Fugs “First album,” which contains one of the only two or three songs I know the words to, their countrified rendition of William Blake’s “Ah, sunflower weary of time.” That, and Allen Ginsberg’s rendition of Blake’s “Oh Rose Thou Art Sick” were the two obligatory songs I was able to deliver at our wedding party in Tokyo, November 1984.

The Fugs co-founder (along with Tuli Kupferberg), Ed Sanders, “appeared” as a co-guest on Chris Lydon’s “Connection” radio show last year. I was powerfully moved when the old rocker & hieroglyphs expert quoted (from memory) very familiar lines from a now-old Allen Ginsberg poem about Jack Kerouac,

and what’s the work?
to ease the pain of living.
everything else
drunken dumbshow

Those lines are part of what’s behind my animus against “pretty pictures.”

I liked Yoko Ono’s far more than her husband’s music. “Paper Shoes,” where railroad clack turns into rain on metal, was a favorite. She screamed well in her wonderful debut album “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” (1970), whose design matched Lennon’s “Imagine.” Unfortunately, the 1992 Onobox presents little as it was pressed into that record or her second, “Fly” (which appeared either in late 1971 or early 1972). This music stuck to the ribs.

With the exception noted below, none of the records referred to here remain, in my hands anyway.

I was proud of my collection of obscure international music, including the five-volume UNESCO series on Japan, and similar recordings from Southeast Asia especially, but also Turkey and Persia. I was listening to these before leaving Los Angeles in 1971. Some of this was available on Nonesuch. A couple of the more memorable records were Australian Aborigine songs (that I now associate with one evening in particular) and Malay immigrant-to-South Africa sufi music (the latter on Folkways, I think), which really rocked. These I didn’t sell but left behind in Berkeley with a bookdealer friend, who may still have them.

I’ve never been a symphony goer, but do like chamber music of the drier variety. I attended the Contempo 71 series put on by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and wrote it up, at considerable length, in my highschool newspaper). Contempo 71 introduced me to Hans Werner Henze (“Five Neapolitan Songs”), Peter Maxwell Davies (Julius Eastman singing “Six Songs for a Mad King”), Thea Musgrave (“Clarinet Concerto”) and others.

I remember purchasing budget recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; a compilation of short chamber works by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Somewhere in there I got Christiane Edinger’s recording of Bach’s violin partitas and sonatas, with Nicholas Slonimsky’s interesting liner notes. I would later hear her play in Ueno (when her Ciaccona left me in uncontrollable tears) and Yokohama.

I recall first listening to the Julliard Quartet recording of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 14 (Op. 131) in C-Sharp Minor, and realizing this would take years. Indeed, it brought on something like the "agony of pretense" that Guy Davenport named somewhere, the same “pretense” that brought on a sense of guilt when I purchased my first London Times Literary Supplement, in San Jose, 1971. Pretense, I now think, is the cost of stretch. (And now, a day later after several trawls, I find the Davenport, in section 7 of “The Dawn in Erewhon” (in Tatlin! Scribners 1974, Johns Hopkins 1982). It really runs:

the stupidity of reticence in an anguish of pretense...)

The C-Sharp Minor quartet means a lot to me now.

Somewhere in my high school years I got and repeatedly listened to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1966-67 “Hymnen.” Consisting of “electronic and concrete music,” the enormous composition is built from snippets of national anthems and shortwave radio passages, punctuated by occasional voiceovers whose surprises bring to mind, at this writing, the soundtracks of late Godard films. The Hymnen jacket design, consisting of several thin strips of national flags stretched straight but not perfectly horizontal across an otherwise white cover, under the centered names of the composer and title framed within the yellow Deutsche Grammophone box, and above (or below?) the powerful Deutsche Grammophone mark, has always been a design touchstone for me. My love of static and nighttime radio ephemera (e.g., receiving AM broadcasts from hundreds of miles away), and of shortwave generally, connect here. Good reading on the piece are notes by Albrecht Moritz and a review by Ingvar Loco Nordin (30 aug 05). Stockhausen’s recordings are all available via his own website at www.stockhausen.org.

My primary reading on music was limited to H.H. Stuckenschmidt, Twentieth Century Music (1969), which I still have and use.

Back to radio.

During my two years in San Jose (1971-73), I listened to KPFA-FM, the Berkeley Pacifica station, and KTAO-FM based in nearby Los Gatos. I would continue to listen to KPFA after moving to Berkeley, where I lived between 1974 and 1982. KPFA offered more Pacifica music, plus Chris Strachwitz’s Sunday afternoon blues show. He also played Norteño music — Flaco Jimenez, Lydia Mendoza et al — that I still love. Charles Amirkhanian, a composer in his own right, was music director then, and I remember broadcasts of the Cabrillo Music Festivals, featuring composers like Carlos Chavez, Alan Hovhaness (spelling?), and Lou Harrison.

KTAO and other KRAB nebula stations (in Seattle I recall, and St Louis) were the creation of one Lorenzo Milam. He loved radio and the ether, and had a cranky mystique about him that suffused all his enterprises. His book on the subject, Sex and Broadcasting, might more correctly be titled Love and Broadcasting, because it’s about love of a medium that doesn’t make sense any more. Lorenzo has moved on from radio. I loosely track his movements, buy and read his books — on Mexico, on the Lourdes of Arizona, on polio and crip gay sex. His first book, The Myrkin Papers (Bellevue, Wash, Duck Press, 1968) is pretty good. Peter Howard, proprietor of Serendipity Books in Berkeley where I worked several years, knew Milam at Haverford College as a “strange” sort.

What I recall of KTAO is poetry, pre “world music” music from around the world, some Franz Bruggen recorder music from the Renaissance. And the KTAO program guide Radio Times. It was a long time ago.

An Alta Vista search for “Lorenzo Milam” yields numerous links in the radio world, testimony to his practical and spiritual impact.

Ralph Magazine and
Mho & Mho Works are two good places to start.

Milam has opined on NPR at Radio Pioneer Milam on CPB, NPR. A moving letter about his then current relationship to radio was once available at www.kgnu.org/grassroots/milam.html but is gone now. Its host KGNU is a member of the Grassroots Radio Coalition.

I’d like this ramble to add up to somewhat more than a selective collage of my sonic history — an elliptical autobiography — but it can’t, now. Later, I might be able to step back and consider what this selection means, or perhaps more, what is signified by the selection of music I don’t include here. Firesign Theatre, or Bonzo Dog or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot telling a story about an address on “Green Street” in New Orleans, with its chilling end-line about standing by the river, or, and or, and or. Was I, and how was I, seeking to define myself by my listening and purchase decisions? (Because we’re talking consumption, here.) Do common threads run through these fabrics? A taste for the sublime? Difficulty? Marginality? Dryness? A desire for catholicity, breadth? Where’s the Rolling Stone cover on Bob Dylan in 1970?, and where’s Dylan? Not now, anyway.

And agenbyt of inwit (second thought) questions surface just two days later. Pre world-music music would, indeed, become world music, which is where I bailed. Friday afternoon, stuck in traffic in and out of the tunnel from the Tobin onto 93 and Storrow, I listened to Emerson College radio’s “Gyroscope” show, Greek music followed by Spanish. Today’s pop, each song on the playlist dedicated to guys at a pizza joint or a friend somewhere. It wasn’t less good than what I recalled from KTAO.

International music is still out there, in some ways better than ever, given larger and more varied immigrant populations in America. Once it was White boys and girls playing ethnographic music; now it’s live live live.

We’ve advanced far beyond KTAO.

What I listened to — or remember listening to, or wanting to hear — was often a function of something I’d read. I knew of Mario Davidovsky’s music some time back, but these lines from a 27 Feb 94 New York Times article certainly would be woven into my appreciation of him:

Mr. Davidovsky recalls that in combining electronic and instrumental media, he was looking for “an absolute rather than a comfortable marriage.”
“Sometimes I would listen to a single sound for hours,” he continues, “and this increased my understanding of sound a thousandfold. I began to think of melody not only as a succession of pitches, rhythms, dynamics and articulations but as a sequence of ’spaces’ as well. One note could sound as though it came from Yankee Stadium, the next as though from your closet.”
(Can't find this in NY Times archive today, 1 Nov 09.)

Your question “what did you listen to?” obviously triggered something, if only a desire to write something more considered than a scarcely decipherable note on an index card. Researching, assembling and crafting these lines proved a rare pleasure.

It’s fortunate that I didn’t hear your actual question “what do you listen to?.” I listen to much less, and don’t know much of it by name. ZBC and WERS, mostly.

I listen to music when I listen to music. When I write, or read, or design, I do so sans background noise beyond what the street brings and the sky, the building’s aches and my keyboard racket. Our writing would be better if we listened for its own music. It’s not there at first draft, often, and must be coaxed or beaten out. In any event, I need to hear myself think. It does me no good to cover any of my mental and verbal stammering in a wash of good music. I don’t want to miss my own clues. (I doubt this today, 18 august 01, but let it stand for now.)

I’ve never been good at lyrics, unless they appeared in the liner notes or text booklet. It’s all Arabic to me, like the Arabic pop cassettes I sometimes listen to on the commute to school. I used to be a frequent standee at the San Francisco Opera, where I’d read the libretto while in line in or outside the lobby, but rarely referred to it during a performance. (Mozart’s Idomeneo was my first opera.) At Serendipity, Saturday afternoons were always given over to the Met or Chicago Lyric Opera broadcasts.

The point being, drama mattered more than lexis.

A lot of what I say in teaching design floats above concepts like pacing, counterpoint, canon, fugue, foreshadowing, leitmotifs etc etc.

We’ve given up the ritual of putting record on turntable, listening, and rising to turn record to side two when side one is done. We knew once that the third movement occupied only the first band of side two, and would lift the arm before another piece began. The particular materiality of this ritual is gone. And there’s less to come: soon there’ll be no crafted material package at all, but music to be downloaded at a click and a wait when needed. Pure unadulterated information.

Gone too is the sound of a needle floating erratically round the spindle surround. And gone is the experience of intentionally letting it spin so, or observing after some intensity of thought that a second, bouncy cadence accompanies our journ.

then this, from Sonia, 11 june 01:

by the way about your essay on what you listen too. i was on the subway reading it and as the N train rounded a corner, as usual, the screech from tracks are overbearing and i watched as people covered their ears as if they were flossing their teeth. it made me think about what we have to listen to by situation.

there’s what we hear (or don’t), in addition to what we listen to.

and the thought, prompted a couple years back when we assembled and listened through a crystal radio set, that we already reside in a universe-scale radio, and want only devices to tune in to the waves that already propagate us.

18 aug 01

1998, 2001, 2009