I’ve recently been spending some time exploring work of the American composer David Dunn. It’s pretty stunning to discover a body of work with themes that overlap so broadly with my own – although often approached from somewhat different angles – themes such as: landscapes/environments, field recording, FFT synthesis, graphic scores, the structure of language and vocalisation, ‘the sacred’, the art of listening, and so on.
My interest in Dunn’s work was first piqued when I discovered his piece Tabula Bonorum Angelorum 49 (1991). The source material for this piece are a series of human voices, speaking phonemes taken from the table (tabula) of angelic names found in John Dee‘s De Heptarchia Mystica (1582-3). These voices were then arranged and subjected to time expansion using a computer algorithm – the results are pleasingly otherworldly.
This is, to me, a very interesting interpretation of Dee’s enigmatic magical work. The composer Jerry Hunt also explored some similar areas, notably a Dee inspired work called Tabulatura Soyga (1964), and a Hermetically impenetrable paper called Gesture Modulation of Templates, which seems to suggest he used sections of the tables in Dee’s Liber Loagaeth (1583) as source materials for a sort of integral serialist approach to composition.
A large number of Dunn’s work explore the properties of language and the transformation of phonemes in accordance with various algorithmic schemes – another piece that interested me in this respect was Chreiai 1 (1996), “a cybernetic exegesis of a Gnostic text”. This piece takes 33 repetitions of the text and subjects it to various filters based on the spectral analysis of the 33 constituent phonemes:
The acts of listening to and otherwise perceiving the interacting with the environment also play an important part in Dunn’s compositions, anticipating his current work on bioacoustics and the environment, particularly on the sounds of insects and trees. Of particular interest are the Entrainments 1 and 2 (1984/5). In these pieces and also in the earlier Mimus Polyglottos (1976) there are shades of the process technique of Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1969) being developed in new directions. Both Entrainments pieces were performed in Azalea Glen, Cuyamaca State Park California and use 45-minute long spoken observations on the landscape as their source material. In Entrainments 1 the vocal tape is used as an envelope to control delay length applied to a series of oscillator tones that had themselves been recorded in the landscape. A final enfolding sees the whole piece sounded out in the landscape and recorded again. Entrainments 2 uses three performers who record their observations on three peaks, which are then brought together in a performance space (in the centre of the map below) with additional drones based on astrological conditions alongside four orbiting performers equipped with oscillators and samplers.
I include the following photo of David Dunn and friends simply because you don’t see composers sharing a hot tub together very often:
Another composition which investigates the phenomenological aspects of environment is Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (1998/2005). If Entrainments could be interpreted as a development on Lucier, Purposeful Listening is, by Dunn’s own admission, indebted to Cage – although it imagines that “beyond the event horizon of 4’33” is a different universe of musical perception where composition might be based upon, or at least inclusive of the primacy of mind, where an emphasis is placed upon the processes of perception and not materials.”
This touches on what is most fascinating about this score for solo listener: the listening is not solely in the environment of the ‘here and now’, but shifts focus between outer and inner, past, present and future. Whereas actually listening for 4’33” is hard enough for most people, Purposeful Listening demands that the listener-performer develops an articulate aural memory and aural imagination, as well as a more finely tuned spatial appreciation of the sound (exterior and interior). Purposeful Listening is a challenging and rewarding practice. The spatial elements also put me in mind of the archaic ‘ray theory’ of vision, in which it was said the eyes emitted ‘rays’ which allowed us to see [pdf]: the ears are not inert receivers, but can intentionally shift their ‘gaze’ (or whatever the aural equivalent may be) to focus on different parts of the environment. This has the potential for the composition of passages that embody a sort of contrapuntal (or contraspatial?) listening experience, hinted at in the the use of phrasing and multiple arrows (indicating directions of awareness) found in the second line of Dunn’s piece. Readers interested in exploring this field further might like to begin at Warren Burt’s Ways of Listening.
The use of space is also of concern in pieces like Skydrift (1976-8), which was performed in a desert by 10 voices, 16 instrumentalists, 4-channel tape based on five oscillators ‘tuned to the environment’. The instrumentalists radiate from a central point toward the edge of audibility during the performance, which many of the participants identified with the aesthetics of ritual practices – although Dunn points out that the intention of (most) rituals is to maintain definitions, whereas Skydrift’s intention was to alter them. In this respect, perhaps if Skydrift was to be called a ritual it was more a transformative, magical or alchemical one than a normalising, societal and religious one.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of forty years of inspiring work exploring environment, perception, language and technology (- I’ve not even touched on the excellent work with FFT translations… or the substantial body of field recordings… or the intriguing work with ultrasonics…). If you want to explore further, take a look at the archive here. Unfortunately the download links on the archive for the scores don’t work, so I am immensely grateful to David Dunn himself for being kind enough to send me the materials on which this post is largely based, and hope he does not mind the images being reproduced herein.
Inspired by Tabula Angelorum Bonorum 49 and Chereia 1, I’ve recently been doing a few experiments working with the ‘yew invocation’ used in Angelystor. Here’s one for David.
Bonus: Watch David Dunn discussing the rediscovery of sympathetic magic through technology in the context of composing Entrainments 2.