zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







about zing



the royal art lodge
3d lutwidge finch
luis macias
bob seng

Vladimir Ussachevsky


In ‘50, during the wake of the second World War, something extraordinary began to happen almost simultaneously throughout Europe and in the United States. Perhaps its roots can be traced to the technological developments in warfare, or surveillance, or something equally scientific; or maybe it can be attributed in part to the creation of a new ethos in the wake of human disaster, an unmistakable shift in the direction of a worldview among artists in general. What we are now talking about, however, was to have a longstanding influence not merely on the streams of information available to those in immediate search of meaning in the world, but ultimately on the popular life—music, visual arts, entertainment fields—of the global community as well.
To put it differently: we were listening to early Kraftwerk yesterday. Everyone knows Kraftwerk—the late ‘70s, dark, analog synthesizer-filled pretechnojunglebreakbeatfreakout Germans who performed as many as four concerts simultaneously across Germany. We were thinking, we bet the innovations in electroacoustics, synthesizer technology, early computers, theater-science were not, as Capitol records might have wanted listeners to believe (or may even have believed themselves), without precedent. Indeed, we were right. And a big part of that precedent is contained on a CRI disc entitled, “Music of Vladimir Ussachevsky”.
First, a word on Composers Recordings, Inc: it is remarkable, as any record shopper will attest, when a record company anywhere keeps a large back catalogue of some of its early ventures in print and available to the public. Most of the larger companies are now coming to (after what must be interpreted as some sort of psychotic fugue) and realizing that those “old” records which had a quick run 30 years ago might still be of historical and musical interest to another two generations. CRI, however, has managed to keep not only a large percentage, but the entirety of its catalogue in print throughout the decades of its existence. The American Masters is its reissue series, dedicated to continuing to make available the earliest recordings of composers like Mario Davidovsky and Ussachevsky; it keeps a focus on turn-of-the-millennium composers, too (like James Fei, whose work, “Chinese Music,” is featured on “eXchange: China”, one of CRI’s “music at the intersection of cultures” series).
All of which brings us back to our main focus: Ussachevsky. Music which is challenging and dynamic, historical and immediate. This work functions as a near perfect introduction to one of the first masters of electroacoustic music (then known primarily as “tape music,” as it was constructed through manipulations of electronic signals recorded onto reel-to-reel tape), and encompasses works from as early as ‘57 up to ‘72. Stories of Ussachevsky’s legacy still echo in the halls of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University, the modern incarnation of his brainchild, the Columbia Experimental Music Studio, and the place from which most of these works were born. Equipped with an Ampex 400 tape recorder, a microphone, a set of earphones, a Magnechord recorder, and an unlimited natural acoustic/electric sound palette, Ussachevsky fashioned works like “Of Wood and Brass,” perhaps the most effective and dynamic use of acoustic materials—traditional western instruments like the trombone and xylophone—of the time. Along with tape alterations and microediting, of which it is said that both Ussachevsky and his partner in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Otto Luening, spent hundreds of hours cutting and taping fragments of sound, several of Ussachevsky’s works feature the integration of voice and electronics. Middle period works, like “Three Scenes From the Creation”, capture some of this interest, and provide another side to the development of the composer/scientist.
Another CRI disc, “Pioneers of ELECTRONIC MUSIC”, features Ussachevsky in context—placed alongside his fellow travellers, like Otto Luening and Mario Davidovsky, Arel and Smiley—and provides an interesting portrait of some of the other composers working out of the same studio. It offers a chance to glimpse the other creators in the field, some whose interests parallel Ussechevsky’s and others who provide an alternative conception of tools like tape manipulation and splicing (like Luening’s ‘52 work, “Low Speed”).
In addition to tape manipulation and splicing, Ussachevsky’s later works began to peek into the digital world a little more—techniques which, in many ways, predated and anticipated the more complex world of synthesizers as tools to explore and alter sounds. Today, developments in electronics, computers, psychoacoustics, and theater-sciences are more readily available: Kraftwerk, Bjork, the Rza continue to bring these streams into the public domain, as information and technology. Let it be said only that the foundations of the world of modern computer music were lain with tape works of Ussachevsky and his collaborators, and that work is captured, in depth, we might add, in CRI’s “The Music of Vladimir Ussachevsky”.
A catalogue of this and other works can be obtained through CRI, 73 Spring Street, Suite 506, New York, New York 10012.

Brian Glick
New York, New York