Sonic Arts Union Retrospective Takes a Look Back at Electronic Music

By Elliot Sharp
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 21, 2011

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In the 1960s, a group of electronic music pioneers began playfully, but rigorously, twisting knobs on homemade gadgets and realized they could create unknown, and often bizarre, sounds. The work that was created is now being shown as part of a live music and multimedia retrospective that runs from October to May at International House.

The Sonic Arts Union was founded in 1966 by Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley as a collective of experimental composer-performers working in the then-budding field of electronic music.

“It was a disaster,” a laughing Lucier says about the first SAU event held in 1966 at Brandeis University, where he was teaching. “It was incredibly noisy and messy, but afterward we decided to go on a European tour ... we had a lot of guts.”

Over the next decade, SAU created what remains some of the most groundbreaking electronic music ever made, and the four have ceaselessly targeted traditional modes of performance, composition, and instrumentation. “We wanted to disrupt the reliance on conventional music ideas,” says Behrman, currently a faculty member at Bard College. “Back then you’d go to a music conservatory and only one kind of music was accepted and the rest was worthless. We conveyed that there are a million different ways to make music.”

Unlike many music “collectives,” each member fervently pursued and maintained his own distinct sonic path and they never performed as an ensemble; each wrote and performed his own compositions, oftentimes with project-specific, homemade instruments. “Gordon’s music was complex and abrasive and created with very beautifully conceived electronic systems, Robert’s was theatrical, and David’s was pure and interactive,” Lucier says. “I don’t know what mine was, but I had a wonderful time.”

Though electronic instruments were emerging on the market in the mid-1960s, SAU members weren’t impressed with the mass-produced machines. “They were some engineer’s idea of lowest common denominator electronics,” Lucier says. So they began tinkering with whatever was present-at-hand, transforming lifeless electronic bits into photoresistors, oscillators, processors, generators, synthesizers, and other music-making devices.

“It’s challenging, but their work has a real sense of joy,” exclaims Jesse Kudler, the production manager of International House and curator of the retrospective. “And they brought experimental electronic work directly to audiences, bypassing the stuffy conventions of classical performance.”

International House will host more than 12 events through 2012, including live concerts by each of its founders, film screenings, panel discussions with scholars, a hands-on workshop in which participants construct electronic instruments from everyday household materials, and three concerts in which young Philadelphia-based artists present new, SAU-inspired music.

Chris Madak (Bee Mask), one of three local artists presenting SAU-inspired compositions in early 2012, says the collective has had a significant impact on his work. “They worked with technology in an honest, deeply engaged fashion without putting it on the pedestal of the sublime or acting as though its role can be reduced to the merely instrumental. They were always aware that technology works upon us as we work with it.”

The SAU’s founders were some of the first composers to engage the thorny relationships between humans and technology, specifically how these relations can be musically articulated. Furthermore, they weren’t interested in conducting their investigations behind closed doors, or locked away in highbrow concert halls like many of their contemporaries, but instead shared their unequaled sonic treasures with live audiences.

“A relationship forms between performer and audience that’s unpredictable, sometimes wonderfully positive, and it changes every time,” explains Behrman. “Especially now that everyone’s trapped behind laptops, this exchange is a precious thing ... people need to come together and collectively experience something.”

For a full listing of “Sonic Arts Union Retrospective” events, stay tuned to International House’s website at

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