EWA7 Story for AVANT (2000)

This article, on the creation of EWA7, was originally published as the cover story for Avant in 2000. Avant is a British magazine dedicated to jazz, improvised, and contemporary music.

Early one morning in January, 1999, I was awakened by a telephone call from a man with a German accent who introduced himself as Jens Cording from the Siemens Kulturprogramm. He enthusiastically explained that their panel had unanimously selected me out of 150 applicants for their "Kunstwerk" programm, which would combine music and industry in a residency in Nuremberg, Germany. I was valiantly trying to sort out what he was saying, disoriented by the fact that I was deep in the suburbs, staying in a temporary apartment during a visiting composer's residence in Southern California, further confused by this very charming but unfamiliar voice on the line, and struggling to remember the details of an application that I had submitted months ago.

Five months later I was flying to Germany with my partner, guitarist Roger Kleier. Immediately upon our arrival we met with our contacts for the project: Jens Cording, the head of music for the Siemens Kulturprogramm; Bernhard Lott, a local Siemens promotion man; Katrin Beck, a musician and radio programmer from Munich, and Folker Schweizer, a student assigned to troubleshoot, translate, and drive me around. They had already arranged a busy schedule for me to visit several factories, meet with their representatives, and attend a workers' party. Jet lag and heavy scheduling make an odd mix. It was a bit like being a visiting CEO or investor, albeit a very eccentric CEO who listens to machinery and records the sounds of the factory.

DAT and microphone in hand, I began a long string of factory visits. While recording I discovered a direct correlation between two of the senses: the best sounds always came from the stinkiest factories. The crashes and bangs of heavy industry were much more dramatic than the beeps and blips of the clean rooms where computer components were manufactured. Metal presses created rhythms that had fascinating variations in each repeat, the sounds of welding areas were rich with harmonics, and anything with a really huge motor was worth a listen. I was greatly impressed by the experience of walking through a factory and hearing sounds develop in all frequencies, from the high–pitched buzz of the lights to sub–audio rumbles. The sonic environment of each factory was constantly changing as individual machines turned on and off, workers chatted, radios played, and the natural polyrhythms of the combined machines cycled and shifted. I found that the cliche of relentlessly repeating machine sounds that is often used as a musical allegory for industry simply didn't exist. Some factories were so huge that there were bicycles available to deliver parts from one end of the hall to the other, and the massive space made for huge variations in sound. The workers and factory representatives viewed me with tolerant bemusement, as I stood transfixed, busy recording what they probably considered to be annoying background noise.

Part of what made this residency exciting was the fact that there was no way to predict what the final outcome would be until I was deeply involved in the project. Jens Cording had designed a great program together with a support system that could result in any number of possibilities, and it was up to me to decide exactly what I wanted to present. I chose to create a concert–length piece for an ensemble of myself on sampling keyboards, Roger Kleier on electric guitar, and two percussionists, to be performed in a factory, with the possibility of using additional musicians recruited from the factory workers. Time was slipping away as I started looking for percussionists, contacting everybody from improv virtuoso David Moss in Berlin to an unknown classical percussion teacher in a small outlying village. It was festival season in Europe, and only two weeks before my scheduled performance, so almost every drummer was already booked. Finally I found Hans Günter Brodmann, a local Nuremberg drummer who was equally at home beating on found metal and playing traditionally notated music in his classical percussion quartet. Besides, he was fun to hang out with, held his liquor, and knew the best places to eat in Nuremberg. He was raring to go, and enlisted his former percussion student, Matthias Rosenbauer. They were anxious to start rehearsal, which forced me to stall in order to conceal the fact that I hadn't actually written any music, as I had been so busy keeping up with my proscribed schedule of meeting with corporate representatives and visiting factories.

I was flying by the seat of my pants and feverishly transferring my factory recordings to my sampler. At this point a fully–notated score was out of the question, too much paperwork, not enough time. The performance would be one continuous hour of individually structured pieces, overlapping sounds, and improvised sections. Once I had committed to the personnel and overall concept of the concert, individual details fell into place. The percussionists and I visited EWA7, which was a factory that repaired large motors, and served as my industrial base in Nuremberg as well as the location of the final performance. Armed with drum sticks, mallets, and hammers, we combed through the factory and a storage shed out back in search of good drummer fodder: anything to beat, scratch, rattle, or shake, ranging from small bits of pipe to enormous metal acid baths and actual machines installed in the factory. Hans–Günter and Matthias were unstoppable as they crashed and banged their way through the factory, and had a keen sense of what would sound best. Their input was invaluable. When I attempted to enlist workers into the performance my efforts were met (again) with polite and tolerant bemusement. One young man identified himself as a drummer but refused to speak to me, insisting that he wouldn't be "an extra" in my performance. Others became more friendly in time, but were wary of putting in any extra hours at the factory. Eventually I was very happy to enlist Hans and Harald, two workers who operated cranes in our final performance. An important facet of this project was the potential for interaction between myself and the workers, and my world of sound was as foreign to them as their world of industrial motor repair was to me.

We started rehearsals in a smelly basement room (I hoped that the correlation between sound and smell would continue here: bad smell, good sound). The drummers were enthusiastic and ready to work. Downtown New York has bred an odd tribe with its own indigenous performance rituals and musical customs, and it was necessary to translate our local musical vocabulary into a language that each musician could understand. We discussed timbre, instruments, and combining composed and improvised sound, and found enough common ground to work together. As nights wore on and my Philadelphia accent thickened (vowels multiplied, consonants dropped) the puzzled Germans looked to Roger for translations into unaccented American English. Together we worked out individual parts as the entire piece took shape.

As the concert neared, Siemens arranged a press conference, and journalists from television, radio, and newspaper showed up for an interview in a corporate meeting room and an impromptu tour of the factory. Once more I felt like a sheep in wolf's clothing: the new music composer disguised as CEO. A newspaper reporter asked why I came all the way to Nuremberg, weren't there any factories in New York? Another journalist asked if Nuremberg's Christmas market was world–famous, and after I told him we knew much more about the Nuremberg trials and Nazi rallies, he reported how familiar Americans were with Nuremberg's race car rallies!

Our final weekend of rehearsals took place in the factory itself. Workers were extremely cooperative in helping to organize the space: moving machinery, chairs, and setting up a stage made of wagons and flatbeds. The run–through went great until we all admitted to having splitting headaches, which were caused by the fumes from the chemicals, paint, and repaired machinery that were left to bake in the factory's kiln overnight. At least the beverage vending machine was well–stocked with beer. Hans Günter was a dynamo when it came to getting things done, and he raced through the factory getting technical assistance and help whenever we needed it. Lucky for me, as I couldn't get much further in German than ordering a beer or asking where the toilet was. The younger percussionist, Matthias, was showing up to rehearsals in consecutively tighter T–shirts. I tried to convince him to perform bare chested and oiled, (what could be more appropriate when powerfully striking metal with hammers?) He refused, but I considered it my duty as a bandleader to find the musicians' limits, even those of personal modesty.

With three days to go, the music was finally finished, out of necessity if nothing else. I titled the entire composition EWA7, after the name of the factory. It was one hour of continuous music, comprised of many different sections that featured both full ensemble and solo and duo sections. The intended effect was that of walking through a large factory and experiencing the gradual shifts in timbre, rhythm, and ambient sound that occur as the industrial environment changes. The music was composed with regard to space as well as sound: the musicians performed in many parts of the hall, occasionally appearing in a new location by surprise. Now that we had free run of the factory, I could block out different locations throughout the hall for the percussionists to play in, finalize the metal debris that they would beat on, and commit to our final set order. I was feeling a bit immobile due to the nature of my instrument, and performed sitting in one place behind my keyboard while the percussionists had free run of the entire space. One consolation was the use of a large industrial safety buzzer, attached by thick cables to an enormous overhead crane. The workers would bring it to me during the performance, and with great relish I could buzz the percussionists when their solos got too long. ("Inna Gadda da Vida" would have been a lot shorter if Iron Butterfly had one of these contraptions.) Electric guitarist Roger Kleier was similarly tethered by his guitar cable, so instead of bringing Roger to the machinery, I brought the machinery to Roger by means of an electric cake mixer which was used for a solo section comprised of overlapping loops of drones created by the mixer's motor activating the pickups of his electric guitar.

The day of the concert arrived all to quickly. I was surrounded by very supportive people who were anxious about the final outcome of this project. The audience turned out to be an incredibly diverse mix of workers, industrialists, Siemens CEO's, artists, journalists, cultural officers, arts supporters, and the local anarchist contingent. I definitely was not preaching to the converted. Three consecutive speeches were being delivered in the foyer of the factory while I was interviewed by the local TV station. There had been so much local press that I had become quite comfortable talking about this project, and the TV interview came through without a hitch until I realized that I had been swinging around big glass of whiskey for the entire taping. I guess there's a little Dean Martin in all of us.

While the crowd was listening to the speeches in the foyer, I sneaked the band onstage to start "Rotation", a piece based on the simple sounds of an engine starting. The piece faded in slowly, and as a quiet hum swelled in volume, it began the transformation from machine sounds to music. The audience was unaware that the concert was starting, until their perception slowly shifted to hear the sound as music. For the band, it represented the gradual starting of our engine. As sustained guitar and bowed percussion were added to sampled engine sounds, textures thickened and became more dense. Motor sounds crossfaded to train sounds, (in the form of a sample of one of the oldest existing recordings of a locomotive) and "Rotation" gave way to "The Rails to Fürth," inspired by the first railway built in Continental Europe, which traveled eight kilometers from Nuremberg to Fürth. This journey had personal significance for me, as the family of my great uncle Moishe Starobin was relocated to Fürth after World War II, after years of being refugees in Eastern Europe. Being Jewish and hearing old railway sounds in Germany reminded me of the forced train journeys of the families that didn't survive World War II, and this piece was an unspoken requiem for them as well. This piece tapered off to a solo piece titled "From Lever to Wheel", in which samples of prepared piano were altered to evoke the rotary sound of a music box, representing a primitive but effective machine for making music. In the meantime, the drummers moved off stage, and then furiously beat on a series of ten–foot long mounted steel cylinders, for a duet that used existing objects in the factory, and took advantage of their odd microtonal tunings. "The Unaflow Principle" started with a solo guitar introduction, then I added the rhythmic patterns of heavy machinery and bells, which created a sonic backdrop to the concert's visual climax: an enormous rusted metal acid–bath pool that was transported from behind the audience across the length of the factory by a worker via an overhead crane. As the crane was lowered to its final destination in front of the stage, the two percussionists attacked the huge suspended metal object, in a duet of bowed, beaten, and scraped sounds. I integrated some of my previous work into the performance as well, including the following piece, "Nickolaievski Soldat", which used an early industrial sound, a rhythmic sample of a blacksmith's workshop. "The Product of Force and Motion" was a ten minute piece comprised of rapidly changing sections that used a range of machine sounds, from the industrial to everyday household appliances. Percussion on found factory objects, a robotic guitar, and detuned piano collided with a rhythmic sample of a massive metal press. A shortwave duet faded in, which used an actual shortwave radio and samples of shortwave, tape feedback, and and other technologies of the past. A powerful rhythm sampled from a metal–crushing machine entered, accompanied by shortwave sounds, percussion, guitar, and a test–tone oscillator, and climaxed with the sound of the safety buzzer, a cut–off signal to the musicians. A quiet interpretation of industrial sound followed, in Roger's solo interlude for guitar and cake mixer. The small motor in the hand mixer excited the guitar's pickups, which created layers of a droning, hypnotic machine sound. The powerful metal–crushing rhythm reappeared, and gradually factory metal, drums and guitar replaced and imitated the machine rhythm, (man replaced machine), oscillators and shortwaves kicked in, and the cacophonous din ended abruptly with a mighty blast from the safety buzzer.

Thunder sheets were made for us from large sheets of plastic that were used in the factory, and I played samples of these thunder sheets on my keyboard, while the percussionists played their sheets acoustically, shaking them as they walked to their next position in the factory. "Transmission of a Yellow Pipe" eased in with a spaghetti western guitar line, introducing a keyboard solo that used samples of a pipe that stretched the length of EWA7. I had previously recorded the pipe being struck with a hammer at various points along its length to get many different pitches, and performed the piece while the percussionists sneaked upstairs to perform the acoustic counterpart. Suddenly the sound source came from above, as the percussionists struck the long pipe from their new vantage points in the factory's overhanging second–story gallery, and used dynamics and the natural pitch differences to create a duet played with metal hammers. To end the performance, we performed "The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory". This earlier piece of mine was inspired by factory sounds, and started my fascination with machines and music.

We performed for a full hour with no pause, and this was the first moment in which we would get a reaction from our very mixed audience. Their response was very enthusiastic, so we returned to perform an encore, "Combustion Chamber". Roger and I started the piece with a rhythm derived from an enormous drill press, combined with analog synth sounds and altered guitar, while the percussionists wheeled out two industrial carts laden with rusty brake drums and pipes, and proceeded beat on their factory detritus and large sheets of metal with hammers. "Combustion Chamber" ends with the percussionists beating out the rhythm acoustically.The electronic instruments faded out, the machines stopped, and all that was left was a duo of man and metal. The duo of man and metal continued, and continued, and while I was safely positioned behind the drummers, out of their line of sight, the safety buzzer beckoned. And so, with one loud buzz, our work day was over, and man was stopped by machine. The audience's positive response was incredibly gratifying, especially considering their diverse range of backgrounds. Our friend Tino brought all of the musicians beautiful bouquets of flowers, enormous and incongruous among the grime and girly calendars of EWA7.

I started my trip home to New York the next day. The experience in Nuremberg had been very intense and rewarding, but it would take time to see what its final effect would be on my music. I spent days editing down a recording made of the performance, and I was struck by the amazing range of timbres that occurred naturally in the factory. I visited my doctor, who told me to lay off the beer and fried foods (apparently the effects were physical as well as mental). I went to work immediately on my next commission, "Shoot the Player Piano" in which I explored the visual and aural connections between machines and music in a different way, in a video that featured an orchestra of aged mechanical instruments, and emphasized the mechanical workings of player pianos and nickelodeons. I am currently writing a piece for eight musicians (string quartet and percussion quartet) inspired by the environments and sounds that I experienced in the factories. It has been fascinating and mind–bending to translate these ideas and sounds into a traditionally notated work for what are essentially 18th and 19th century instruments. My days in Nuremberg have had a profound influence on my perception of sound and music. The incredible sense of overlapping and shifting sounds has influenced my compositions, as has the combination of powerful rhythms contrasted with quiet, ambient found sounds. The boundaries between noise and music have been permanently blurred in my mind, if not completely erased. Almost every day I hear some beautiful music in the distance, but when I try to track down its source, I am led back to a droning industrial hum or a massive rhythmic machine.

Annie Gosfield
New York, January 5, 2000


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