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David Behrman - On the Other Ocean Music Album Reviews

Over 40 years after its initial release, the composer’s pioneering work pairing computers with live players feels not only prescient but also refreshingly optimistic.

ANew York Times article recently explored a spate of violence against robots, from people attacking driverless cars in Arizona and beating robots with bats in Russia to taking down one security bot in Silicon Valley with a tarp and barbecue sauce. Beyond dystopian depictions of HAL-9000 and Skynet, there’s plenty to fear from automation, be it decimating entire industries to hijacking our thought processes. But those menacing portrayals implicate humans and automatons alike: “We see ourselves in the mirror of the machines that we can build,” Frédéric Kaplan wrote in his essay “Who is afraid of the humanoid?”

“As far as machines being the enemy, I’m convinced that technology is amoral,” composer David Behrman told Perfect Sound Forever back in 1997. “Whether it’s a force for good or evil or neither depends on who is doing what with it and for what reason.” In the late 1960s, he began to experiment with how such inanimate objects—from battery-powered devices and synth modules to light sensors and the earliest microcomputers—might thoughtfully engage with human beings, be they classically trained musicians or modern dancers. Starting with 1967-68’s bracing “Runthrough,” Behrman began to tinker with his machines and inch towards equilibrium.

To call Behrman a composer might make him bristle, though. In a Village Voice review, critic Tom Johnson wrote, “Behrman doesn’t make pieces exactly. He assembles electronic equipment [that] is capable of doing certain things. These things change quite a bit… because he keeps tinkering with the machinery and adjusting his musical goals.” When Behrman encountered the Kim-1, an early and relatively inexpensive microcomputer that became available in 1976, he quickly adopted it for his live performances. Behrman could now program the computer to “hear” pitches and respond by sending harmonies to two of Behrman’s handmade synthesizers. It could also give chord changes to the players and alter the rhythm of the piece. In small steps, the computer could accompany and interact with the musicians. Two of these performances comprise On the Other Ocean.

“On the Other Ocean” and “Figure in a Clearing” date to 1977 and feature Kim-1 engaging with woodwinds in the former, cello on the latter. While computers are now integral to modern music-making, from Pro Tools for editing to the alien ribbons of Auto-Tune that festoon pop radio, On the Other Ocean suggests a parallel world, a path not taken. Behrman and his machine don’t seek to attain the impossible or superhuman, much less strive for perfection. There’s something peculiar about how the two sides interact, like Short Circuit’s Johnny 5 auditioning for the Philharmonic.

“On the Other Ocean” puts Arthur Stidfole’s bassoon and composer Maggi Payne’s flute into play with Kim-1. They unhurriedly hover around a set of pitches; the first time Kim-1 attempts to harmonize and swoops up to a new tone, it’s like a kid cannonballing into a pool, clunky yet elegant. Soon a slow-motion game of tag is on, the humans holding tones for a delectably long duration until the computer catches up. The composition’s 24 minutes seem to draw down in an instant. “Ocean” is slippery, yet it lingers for an exceptionally long time. It’s composed but diaphanous. It makes sense that during this era, Behrman also made a piece wherein clouds passing overhead trigger the computer.

The performance that yielded “Figure in a Clearing” predates “Ocean” by about three months, revealing the fiddling Behrman did in the intervening time, which led the Times’ critic John Rockwell to put him in “the great American tradition of the garage tinkerer.” The liner notes say that there are 33 electronic generators and the computer chooses chords made by 16 triangle wave generators. But the music’s dreaminess precludes any attempts at counting. Against David Gibson’s carefully bowed cello, Kim-1 is like a satellite in elliptical orbit, or a leashed dog in the park: now pushing the pace, now slowing it down. It may feel a bit busier than its counterpart, but, ever so slowly, stasis is achieved.

Over 40 years after its initial release on the Lovely Music label, an early, awkward exchange between a primitive computer and human improvisers may scan as quaint: Today, we all walk around with computers in our back pockets, and machine learning replaces more skilled jobs every day. But, while abstract electronics might not be for everyone, the end results remain not just lovely but even, perhaps, liberating.

At a time when giant streaming platforms deploy algorithms to lead millions to listen to playlists of ambient music from fake artists, the entire apparatus of the music industry has come to seem insidious, as though the machines themselves—and not simply their corporate overlords—were out to deceive us. So in hearing Behrman, his players, and a computer work in harmony, we can hear a better future. As he explained to Rockwell, while such work “has a very private feeling for me, and yet I don’t see why 83 million people couldn’t enjoy that private feeling. Solitude could be a universal treasure in a crowded world.”

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