Lou Cohen: Opening the Door
AAJ: What year would this have been?
LC: ...it started around 1980, with hobby computers like the Radio Shack TRS80, and by '85 or so I had a Mac and I could afford to buy a synthesizer, and a sampler, and another synthesizer, and I had a rack of these devices, and I was driving them from the computer.
AAJ: So you were retired at this time?
LC: I retired in 1992, so from 1985 to 1992 I was "getting my chops" and writing a few new electronic pieces. I was also going back to my old pieces and trying to create MIDI realizations of the pieces that I had never heard. And I began to write new pieces, although I imagined them for piano or string quartet, so I was using the synthesizers to hear what my string quartet would sound like.
But then I had a breakthrough. This was shortly after I retired: I was having coffee at the 1369 with my wife and she saw that the Out Of The Blue gallery was having poetry open mike nights, maybe once a month. And there was one coming up. This was in December of '92 or '93. And the sign said that musicians were invited. So I went in and asked if I could bring in an electronic piece. I had written two electronic pieces at that point. One of them was called "Vocal Music." They said it would be OK, so I brought it. There were about 20 people in the room, and to my surprise I discovered that everybody liked this piece. So I decided from that moment that I didn't need to write music for acoustic instruments anymore.
I could write electronic pieces. I didn't have to worry about performers who wouldn't rehearse enough, or worry about finding a venue for a concert, or copying out scores and parts-I wouldn't have to worry about any of that. I could burn discs and give them to people, and with electronic music I could get my music heard much more easily. Not only that, I could hear it played perfectly as I was writing it, which was something I could never do before.
So that was a big thing for me, a big change. So I started to exclusively write electronic pieces.
AAJ: Even if they're atonal, your pieces always have a pleasing lyrical quality to them. I'm not sure how you achieve that.
LC: I don't know either. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to.
AAJ: A human quality, I think...
LC: I don't know exactly what that is, but when I write music I always think about the whole piece up front, and I have some idea about what the structure is going to be, so it has a kind of a shape. Usually there's some place in the piece where there's a climax. So maybe that's what you're hearing, I'm not sure. I usually make sure that there are some consonances: unisons, open fifths, things like that. Maybe that's what you're hearing.
Then I had another breakthrough. I told a friend of mine that I was writing electronic music. He was a member of the MIT Gamelan orchestra. He introduced me to another member of the orchestra who wrote electronic music, and that was Ken Ueno.
He's probably in his early 30s right now. He was Ph.D. candidate at Harvard at the time, and since then he's won some major composition prizes-the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize. But at that time he was still just an aspiring young composer. We got together a few times and he told me some of what was going on in the electronic music world. I had no idea who was doing anything, or what was going on. Everything I was doing was completely on my own. He invited me to come to a concert at Berklee [College if Music, in Boston], where, he said he was going to perform a piece of his. So I went to Berklee, where he had a part-time faculty job, and he got up on stage with Tim Feeney and Hillary Zipper. And they played this incredible piece. And there was no score, no music stands.
AAJ: It was improvised?
LC: Yes, but I didn't know that. I was thinking: how did they do that? Then he told me that they were going to play the piece at Harvard. So I went to hear it again, and it was completely different. And that's when I found out it was improvised. Up to then I had never dreamed of improvising "noise." Because when I got introduced to "noise," through Cage, there was no such thing as improvising-Cage was totally against it, and nobody else I knew at that time improvised. What you did with noise was, you organized it, using random methods or other methods, but you did not introduce your own personal taste into the process. The way Cage was using it, he was trying to get the music outside of himself, he was trying to get himself outside of his music, which was one of the reasons he was using chance processes.
But here, at Ken's performance, there were people who were expressing their musical feelings with sound and noise. It was like a breakthrough for me. I had no idea anybody was doing this. And then I discovered there was a whole community of people doing it, and I had never known anything about them. So I began to meet them. I organized a few concerts myself at [Cambridge, MA venue] Zeitgeist, and I brought Tim, Ken and Hillary in. And they brought in Jack Wright and Vic Rawlings. One thing led to another and I got to know more and more people. And I became part of this lively community of people who were working with noise and it was just wonderful. So it's like I was born all over again.