Friday, 22 July 2016

Gordon Mumma - Electronic Music of Theatre and Public Activity (2005 compi of works 1964-80)

Gordon Mumma (b. 1935) is a fascinating composer whose work has taken in  performances with John Cage and David Tudor, and Sonic Arts Union partnership with Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier and David Behrman.  He's best known for his electronic work, four fine examples of which are compiled here in chronological order.

Megaton For W.S. Burroughs (1964) is one of the two 'theatre' pieces from the CD's title.  A shimmering electronic whine gathers momentum for three minutes or so, then just fades away - when staged, this prologue was played in complete darkness. The track then builds up more subtly, with feedback, electronic pulses and various creaks and clangs not a million miles away from Xenakis' polytopes.  About 14 minutes in, the ominous drone of an approaching bomb squadron enters, followed by echoing snatches of dialogue in clipped, wartime English.  For the finale, Mumma directed that there be "a brief burst of heroic movie music" followed by an eerie epilogue where "in an isolated pool of light, a lone drummer quietly rides his traps".

Conspiracy 8 (1969-70) is an interactive computer piece that Mumma devised at MIT's Artificial Intelligence lab in collaboration with Phd student Stephen Smoliar.  Sounding for the most part like an ancient IBM being unboxed and bolted together from scratch, this piece is interesting but can get a bit dry and spartan over its 18 minutes; much more intersting is Cybersonic Cantilevers (1973).  This condenses down into 19 minutes a day-long installation piece where museum visitors were invited to add sounds of their own choice by bringing tapes of rock music, radio crime drama and suchlike, then control how their contributions were mutated into the overall collage.  All of this is edited suberbly by Mumma to climax in a large piercing drone, before dissolving at the end into a haze of bleeps and hum.

Lastly, Cirqualz (1980) was Mumma's offering to a dance performance where "circus-like music, perhaps a waltz" had been requested at short notice.  Pasted together and then electronically mutated are fragments of Beethoven's Eroica, Richard Strauss' Heldenleben and Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.  It's entertaining enough in a kind of Nurse With Wound-offcut way, but IMO Megaton and Cybersonic Cantilevers are the definite highlights of this disc.

Electronic Music of Theatre and Public Activity


  1. Although I have read about Sonic Arts Union and its members for 30 years and more I don't believe I have ever heard any of Gordon Mumma's music. This rectifies the situation. Many thanks.


    1. Thanks Brian. The other Mumma disc I have is Studio Retrospect - probably post it in due course; felt that Theatre & Public was the more interesting of the two so went for that first.