Joel Chadabe* found me poking around the SUNY Albany audiology lab, which in 1969-1970 likely was only the third computer on campus. And Joel said I should sit in on his electronic music composition course. I said I knew nothing about music. He said, don’t worry about it. And the education was the free music store events Joel organized and his invitations to all his composer friends to come and do performances at the University. One of those was David Tudor. And there’s something about what David was doing that just went directly to my brain and I said to myself, whatever this guy is doing, I have to know about it. It was an emotional, non-rational, reaction on a very deep level. I don’t know the exact sequence, but it was probably the Monobirds concert first and then David’s work with the Merce Cunningham Company came through in the same year. So that must have been 1971-72.
When I had finished my independent study semester and got my undergraduate degree, lo and behold, there was a posting for New Music in New Hampshire. David Tudor was doing a three-week workshop. I got a loan of a car and took off to New Hampshire. The workshop drew an A-list of all the composers in the field—Julius Eastman, Gordon Muma, David Behrman, Peter Kotik, Frederic Rzewski.
During those three weeks with Tudor in New Hampshire, I experimented with his technique of finding the resonant sounds of transduced objects. This was key. Use Tudor’s electronic techniques to establish sculptural sound fields. It was this wonderful opportunity at a very impressionable crucial point in my life. We came out of that with the beginnings of Rainforest.
I keep searching for a good description of Rainforest. With Rainforest, instead of trying to fill a concert hall with one uniform sound, you’re composing sound fields that have shape and space. It’s a very physical thing. That sound is not just pitch and volume and the classical elements of instrumental music but sound that has length and breadth and depth and shape. It can exist in a location and space. For example, if you put your finger near to your ear and rub, you’ll hear a sound that’s about a centimeter by a centimeter by a centimeter. I suspect that Rainforest is essentially the formation of a compositional language. If you have instruments that produce sounds of different shapes and space, what’s the kind of compositions that can be created?
Rainforest was a great playground for that. It was a learning by doing experience. How many different things can I hear at once as I walk around and yet still hear it all at once? You’re flipping the responsibility as a composer to the listener, offering something for listeners to explore to experience it. This goes back to Pauline Oliveros* as well. It’s this responsibility of listening that as a composer, you’re giving to your listeners. You’re giving them something to listen to but they have to find it for themselves. In an installation situation, you’re providing an array of sounds that you’re inviting people to go explore and find their own sequence of sounds. To a certain extent, not everybody will hear the same thing at the same time. Yet it is still an experience in common with the other listeners.
When David Tudor said, come, sit and perform, his challenge was what you can bring to the situation. He would recognize ability in people and he would invite them to do what they could to the extent of their abilities. He would do that in very subtle ways. It was usually like, come perform on such and such a time. This is something we got from David, which he always was amazingly generous about.
It wasn’t learning by example, by any means. You needed to understand how to act in a musical way in a performance situation because you had a time and a date and you needed to produce a usable sound in that context. Which is one of the other beautiful parts about Rainforest. There’s a very fundamental pragmatism to ›don’t make sound until you need to and then when you need to make a sound, you have a lot of possibilities to choose from‹. As a performer, you need to have those accessible. You need to know your instrument. There’s an interesting relationship between the role of composition and that of improvisation. Maybe that isn’t quite so important in the context of Rainforest, but clearly there has to be an appreciation of that relationship.
The goal, of course, is not building a Dystopia but creating a community of music makers, listeners and composers. You can’t do a solo Rainforest. It involves a community. In 1973, David indicated how Rainforest worked. He essentially gave the piece away to us. The vehicle for building that community was found in the circuitry—in the electronics. Another aspect is that you’re selecting materials and revealing what those materials can do rather than composing a sequence of things.
That is the part of this that is the most intriguing form for me, and I think probably for a lot of other people.
There’s something very fractal about what I call the Tudor universe. There’s nothing really that can be circumscribed. You think you’ve encircled it and you realize you maybe have half a circle around a piece of it and you’re only glimpsing part of something much larger that keeps unfolding. This whole thing—how do you sustain it? You bring it to other generations. You have to keep passing the torch.
*Joel Chadabe was an American composer, author, and internationally recognized pioneer in the development of interactive music systems.
*Paulline Oliveros was an American composer, accordionist and a central figure in the development of post-war experimental and electronic music.
Phil Edelstein is a founding member of Composers Inside Electronics (sometime CIE). He has collaborated on the Rainforest IV project since its inception in 1973 and the evolution of the automated installation version Rainforest V. His work involves compositions, software, and sound installations for architectural spaces, focused sound fields and electronic imagery. Recent works have used fractals and data mining as compositional tools for construction of sound fields in works such as Fractology, the Chaos patches. For Impulsion, synthetic and encoded reverberant spaces are folded upon themselves and acoustically rendered.
He co-founded Electronic Body Arts (EBA) a collaboration between choreography, music and engineering and was one of the founding partners for Gilbert International, a software consultancy specializing in data communications systems and products.
He is a member of EMF Institute founded by Joel Chadabe and dedicated to the history and future of electronic music.
Edelstein’s work is available on Edition Block/Gramavision “Rainforest IV” and Orange Mountain Music’s “Composers Inside Electronics” – from the Kitchen Archives No. 4.
An automated Rainforest with Matt Rogalsky and John Driscoll was at Governors Island in NY for the NY Electronic Arts Festival and at the Laboratorio Arte Almeda in Mexico City as part of the Radar Festival. His recent solo work has involved the use of fractal time series as found in live seismographic feeds, financial data and iterative feedback functions. He is working on cybernetic servo systems and control for ultrasonic instruments with and for John Driscoll. The ongoing work with CIE includes adaptive installation automation and integration of virtual resonant objects.
A conversation with Philip Edelstein, 17 August and 5 September 2022 by Caroline Meyers, EMF Institute.