Monday, September 8, 2008
Totentanz and other electronic works 1958-1973
director's cut, The Wire, September 2008
by Simon Reynolds
Music obsession is a bottomless pit: the deeper you climb in, the more you lose perspective. The genre might be Sixties garage punk or Seventies Afro-pop, peak-era dub & roots or cassette only second-wave industrial, but the syndrome is the same: a mania for completism takes over. Like the prisoner in solitary confinement entranced by the differing grain of bricks in the cell wall, you start to perceive and cherish minute differences between iterations that seem utterly generic to the non-enthusiast's ear. All this is a preamble to an admission: I don't honestly know how crucial Warner Jepson's work is in "the grand scheme of things". All I can say is that it rocks my world, a world bent out of shape by an ever-expanding passion for post-WW2 musique concrete/analog electronic , further slanted towards the maverick, marginal, and minor.
It's tempting to file Jepson under "Outsider Electronics". But he wasn't a lone nutjob cobbling together edition-of-one sound-contraptions in an Iowa basement. For much of the period covered by this double-CD, Jepson was attached to various institutions, namely the San Francisco Tape Center (both before and after its move to Mills College, Oakland) and a short-lived American body called the National Center for Experiments in Television. Through these organizations, Jepson had almost unlimited access to formidable state-of-the-art synthesizers. Yet it's also true that, despite a prodigious work-rate, Jepson only ever got to release one record, Totentanz. And that was a private press run of approximately 300, mostly sold at performances of the ballet it was written to score. So Jepson falls somewhere between more established Mills peers with extensive discographies such as Pauline Oliveros and lone rangers like Tod Dockstader, never part of the academic music culture and only able to release music sporadically.
Like Dockstader, Jepson was as interested in the visual arts (specifically painting and photography, examples of which decorate the CD booklet) as music. Some of the pieces he made using the Tape Center's Buchla 100 series synth were commissioned for openings at the SF Art Institute and the city's Museum of Modern Art. All through the Sixties, Jepson was in demand to provide background sounds for parties and fashion shows, and to score environmental sculptures like David William's Tulium and experimental movies like James Broughton's The Bed. But his biggest "hit" was the score for Carlos Carvajal's dance piece Totentanz ('Dance of Death'), first performed by the San Francisco Ballet Company in 1967, subsequently taken on a national tour, and then revived in the early Seventies by Carvajal's new dance troupe Dance Spectrum, with performances at Frisco's Grace Cathedral. Drawing on musique concrete techniques as well as the Buchla's hair-raisingly alien timbres and capacity for "incredible syncopations," this 35 minute score is brilliant, if surprisingly non-kinesthetic (indeed, in his engaging sleevenotes Jepson notes that some patrons walked out of the premiere during the "not very rhythmic", sine-wave oriented third section). Totentanz starts with tubular sound-smears twining around each other like Pompidou Center pipework, passes through eldritch groves of mangled high-pitch voices and upper-treble tinglings, enters a phase where chirruping meander-melody alternates with low-end frequencies like the earth's crust fissuring, and climaxes with see-sawing hypno-patterns not far off Terry Riley. There's a fair few generic Sixties electronic noises (eruptions of computer-gone-mad gabble) of the kind that us hardcore fans can never get enough of, but plenty more that feel jamais rather than déjà entendu.
Totentanz was rereleased unofficially a few years ago by Creel Pone, a CD-R label that reissues out-of-print electronic music lovingly packaged with miniaturized versions of the original LP cover, inserts, etc. Permission is not exactly sought, but the item is withdrawn if the composer objects or an official reissue is announced, and this is exactly what happened with Totentanz. As Jepson's most well-known work, it remains the centerpiece of this anthology, but 1968's The Awakening, Jepson's second score for Carvajal , is even better. The original piece, as heard at performances, was quadraphonic, a Herculean undertaking on Jepson's part given that Tape Center only had two-tape decks; here it's been adapted for stereo. The initial impression is of a supremely inclement environment--a planet whose atmosphere blends methane and cyanide and 200 m.p.h. sandstorms whittle mountains into grotesquely deformed shapes. This audio-hell gives way to a quirky section that suggests a squaddy regiment who've been ordered to beat down a field of bracken armed only with egg whisks. Another near-comical sequence--the dawn chorus of cyborg tree frogs?--accumulates gradually into a propulsive mesh of harsh, angular riffs that, boosted by 80 beats-per-minute, would be freakily close to the more abstract kinds of gabber techno. Suddenly we've drifted to a different corner of the late Nineties, the dark minimal pulsations of Panasonic. The music then comes to a kind of frigid boil, a dense lattice of high, whinnying arpeggios that ascends to audible-only-by-dogs pitches, before dropping down to gnarly low end frequencies with what sounds like the gnashing and gnawing of close-miked termites. This hitherto unreleased 20 minute piece surpasses in invention and entertainment value quite a few late Sixties works by American composers that did get put out by labels like Nonesuch and, while doubtless more conceptually grounded than The Awakening, are frankly dreary listening experiences in comparison.
The anthology's third substantial piece comes from Jepson's early Seventies tenure as composer-in-residence at the National Center for Experiments In Television (that name alone ought to trigger a massive boner for everyone from hauntologists like Mordant Music and Ghost Box to avant-garde archivists UbuWeb). Jepson's job was to soundtrack strange little programmes like the murkily abstract "See Is Never All the Way Up" by the artist William Roarty. Here the composer spends 25 minutes in pursuit of "a sound that shimmered and barely moved," beginning with hissy crinkles like ice cracking on a frozen lake, then settling into a placid yet ominous thrum, like stoned and slightly paranoid bees whose hives are next door to a field of top-grade marijuana that the DEA has set fire to.
Of course, if you're a true nutter for post-WW2 mavericktronics,you prize the fragmentary as much as the fully-realised: the kind of shards, sketches and stumbles that made up last year's marvellous Oramics anthology, and that often have more of the electric thrill of discovery and the joy of messing about than the would-be Grand Opuses. This collection's goodly portion of jottings and jingles includes early stabs at concrete (1958's "Jail Gate Crazy" sounds like a typist, rolling down an endless flight of stairs while still pounding away at her machine) and short electronic studies like 1967's "Good Humor Man" (a losing-my-wits synth sequence underpinned by a creepy bass pulse that seeps and sag with every lurching forward step) and "Splace" (a threnody from the coldest, remotest region of interstellar space, solar wind whistling through the cosmic string, you know the score). Less impressive are "Rirlwa" and "The Dog", stumpy little items from 1970 made using prepared piano and a Farfisa borrowed from underground film-maker Bruce Conner.
This double-CD constitutes just a tiny fraction of the 100 hours of music Jepson laid down during his time with the Tape Center. Like the larger genre to which he made a small but significant contribution, Jepson's oeuvre is clearly a bottomless pit in its own right. If they keep on digging it up, I'll keep on digging it.