David Behrman’s Music With Memory by Clinton Krute

BOMB 143 Spring 2018
Bomb #143
Music With Memory1 Tg Copy

(Alga Marghen, 2018)

We often think of music as flowing from memory or being committed to memory. Music With Memory—the title of a new LP of three ’80s-era performances of works by the composer David Behrman—implies some conversation and interplay between the two. The music here moves forward in time as memory runs backward, circling one another as if on the chiral surface of a Möbius strip. It’s an image of companionship: an anthropomorphized Music forges ahead while Memory makes small talk about the good old days, two old friends exchanging anecdotes and predictions.

“Interspecies Smalltalk,” which takes up an entire side of Music With Memory, is about, in some form, the ways in which music and memory—both computer and human—intertwine. Like many of Behrman’s works, “Interspecies Smalltalk” is designed around a set of instructions or rules, rather than a series of notes laid out on the page. Here, music is generated by a system of homemade computers and synthesizers that react to and interact with the acoustic sounds of Takehisa Kosugi’s violin. As Behrman writes in the liner notes, the “software created situations rather than set pieces. The performers have options rather than instructions, and the exploration of each situation as it unfolds is up to them.” The piece, commissioned by John Cage and Merce Cunningham for the Cunningham Dance Company’s 1984 production of Pictures, is performed by Behrman on electronics and the aforementioned Kosugi, known for his association with Fluxus and as the leader of the Japanese art-drone collective Taj Majal Travelers. The result is both controlled and free, and like most of Behrman’s work, built on sustained tones, around which bursts of computer-generated synths bleep and swoop alongside semi-improvised acoustic sounds.

The recording is from a 1986 performance in Berlin, and it’s interesting to compare this live version with the studio one (released on Leapday Night in 1987 by Lovely Music) and consider how recordings of music, especially live music, become stand-ins for memory. The two versions walk side by side. As the random access-memories of the computer blend with, process, and react to Kosugi’s inventive playing, parallel memories of the two recordings phase in and out of sync with each other. Though the instrumentation, players, and overall mood are similar, the live track is more free, even playful, as Kosugi plucks at his violin and taps his pick-up, mimicking and toying with the synthetic sounds produced by Behrman’s electronics.

The other two tracks on Music With Memory, “Circling Six” and “All Thumbs” (featuring processed mbira, or thumb-piano), are as challenging and beautiful as “Interspecies Smalltalk,” if less epic in form. Maybe because the man and his work are so low-key and, say, not easily marketable,Behrman has never achieved the notoriety of contemporaries and collaborators like Robert Ashley and Terry Riley. Hopefully that will change as recordings of this outwardly modest but visionary music become more readily consumable and therefore more committed, however subtly, to our collective memory.

Clinton Krute is a writer, archivist, and BOMB contributing editor. 

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Originally published in

BOMB 143, Spring 2018

Featuring interviews with LaToya Ruby Frazier and Fred Moten, Sergio De La Pava, Nina Hoss, Barbara Hammer, Joseph Keckler, Lydia Ourahmane, Kaneza Schaal, Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, and Summer Wheat.

Read the issue
Bomb #143