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Gordon Mumma - Electronic Music for Theater and Public Activity

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Artist: Gordon Mumma

Album: Electronic Music for Theater and Public Activity

Label: New World

Review date: Jan. 8, 2006

I had the privilege to meet Mr. Mumma two and a half years ago at an American Musicological Society Conference in Houston. We had a rather heated argument about historical precedent, during which he was both formal and wisely charismatic. After the session, I apologized to him, in case I’d seemed insolent in any way. I was astonished at the difference in his demeanor! He was jovial, always ready to laugh, astute and articulate without ever being overbearing, knowledgeable about a wide variety of music and literature – talking with him was just fun.

This duality is what typifies the most recent retrospective of Mumma’s electronic works, and it is the best of those currently available for that reason. Each of the four pieces here, composed between 1963 and 1980, runs the symbiotically bathetic gamut between the absurd and the sublime. “Cybersonic Cantilevers” from 1973 is a perfect case in point. It is a distillation of a day-long museum installation in which Mumma fed back museum-goers’ own sound material and asked them to manipulate the results. The piece’s trajectory is one of linear disassociation and juxtaposition to a multilayered but transparent glassy drone that Mumma attributes to the participants’ sonic fine-tuning as the day progressed. Whatever the determining factors, the result is stunning, the first half alternately humorous and hair-raising as fragments (samples?) of prerecorded music and distorted voices speak in vaguely threatening criminal jargon. The drone section is one of the most exquisite electronic textures I have ever heard, and the stereo effect is mesmerizing, as tiny particles of sound – way off somewhere to right and left – bubble to the surface, ripple and recede into the constantly morphing calm beneath … until everything just stops. While I understand Mumma’s decision to leave the ending abrupt rather than to manufacture one, I couldn’t help thinking that a nice fade would have been more desirable than simply having the carpet ripped from under my feet.

“Cirqualz” (a Joycian title if there ever was one) plays with the notion of mixing some abstract form of “The Waltz” with the circus-band music tradition, some field recordings of fireworks, a bit of Bruckner and Strauss – it sounded preposterous to me until I watched it unfold. Mumma’s long-fostered awareness of sonic spatiality and his canny employment of the fundamentals of music theory make the piece work on an organic level I never would have imagined possible. Particularly fascinating is the way in which a Bruckner quotation is manipulated, through repetition in the manner of Schaeffer or Henry, to lead neatly back to the tonal center of the piece, E-flat. It’s a totally unexpected moment of cumulative ingenuity, given the disjunct serialism and pervasive silences in the piece’s first few minutes.

I haven’t even touched the other two compositions, and they merit more space than I could allow them, but each offers a fresh take on collaboration and/or audience participation, and the music is consistently fine. This disc has whetted my appetite for more Mumma, and I hope now that some of his more recent work will hit the market in the near future. Again, hearty congratulations and thanks to New World for another great-sounding and impeccably documented archival release.

By Marc Medwin

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