Julian Cowley in The Wire, July 2005
"On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them." In 1917 English soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon spoke out against cynical and exploitative prolongation of war and the sacrifice of human lives to political blundering and deceit. His words, intoned with apt gravity by Tom Buckner on My Dear Siegfried, reverberate chillingly into the 21st century and the context of current aggressions. David Behrman has for decades created hybrids of electronic and acoustic instrumental music whose intelligent beauty has few rivals. For evidence just sample the wonderful recordings On The Other Ocean (1977) and Leapday Night (1986), interactive computer music of singular delicacy and gracefulness made with help from sympathetic players such as flautist Maggi Payne, trumpeters Rhys Chatham and Ben Neill and violinist Takehisa Kosugi. But the overt political content of My Dear Siegfried is a departure, one that consolidates the importance of Behrman's work. It was written more than a decade ago, inspired in part by Robert Ashley's narrative works, but this timely version was realised "in the dark days of 2003".
As ever with Behrman's music, the initial choice of resources plays an especially vital role. Buckner's baritone and speaking voice and contributions from two other vocalists, Eric Barsness and Maria Ludovici, are set within arrangements for laptop electronics, Behrman's keyboard, Ralph Samuelson's poignantly breathy shakuhachi and Peter Zummo's plangent trombone. The result is, improbably and remarkably, at once sombre and gorgeous, a haunting blend of critique and resistant affirmation. The carefully chosen textual material, personal and public, ranging across decades to the advent of the Second World War, includes excerpts from Sassoon's confiding correspondence with writer Sam Behrman, the composer's father. The introduction of a personal dimension foregrounds, without sentimentality, the impact of political decisions upon actual lives.
The historical recurrence of betrayal of trust within democratic societies surfaces vividly, along with Sassoon's horrified awareness of a crucial failure of imagination among the majority of those at home with regard to "the continuance of agonies which they do not share". Accompanying this important work is an illuminating second CD with five shorter pieces retrieved from the composer's archive. Along with Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Alvin Lucier, Behrman was a member from 1966 until the early 1970s of the Sonic Arts Union, one of the key groups to promote live electronics and experimental performance structures. Behrman is perhaps currently its least known participant, so the long view glimpsed through this release is especially welcome. Pools Of Phase Locked Loops (1972), from that influential period of creative agitation, is a homemade synthesizer duet performed by the composer with Katharine Morton Austin. The piece was recorded live in Germany by Radio Bremen, which also commissioned it. The music drifts and glides and pulses, radiating pre-digital striving and excitement. Back in 1974 Tom Johnson, writing in Village Voice, suggested that Behrman's use of custom-built electronics could produce a sense that all his pieces were actually "one composition and that the composition changes a little whenever he performs it". Johnson's point was that Behrman's technical know-how matched his musical expertise, and that his performances traced consistent lines of inquiry. There is some justification in that suggestion, but it could be misleadingly reductive without a sense of the integrity of the pieces that emerge in the process.
A New Team Takes Over dates from 1969. It's an oddly revelatory and prophetic distortion, using idiosyncratic synthesizer modules, of press conference recordings made by the incoming Nixon administration, a corrupted tissue of evasive utterances, double-speak and half-truths, with the war in Vietnam a crucial and inflammatory issue. Touch Tones is a pioneering 1979 microcomputer performance at The Kitchen in New York. Frankie Mann and Arthur Stidfole activate a primitive artificial intelligence program with sounds of sandpaper, rattles and an electric drill. A series of upward electronic sweeps alternates with steadily descending pitched drips.
Behrman's creative responsiveness to changing technological possibilities is registered too in QSRL, presented at The Kitchen in 1998 by saxophonist Jon Gibson, a mainstay performer of American minimalism, with a far more refined interactive computer system. It's a beautifully textured, even luxuriant work, with Gibson meticulously weaving threads of sustained tones upwards and downwards within a layered fabric of those highly personalised and alluring MIDI voicings that have become Behrman's hallmark.
The most recent inclusion is Viewfinder, a sound installation recorded at the Parochialkirche, Berlin, in July 2002. Software developed by Ron Kuivila and Eric Singer enabled a video camera to scan the installation space and trigger synthesized tones, generating from detection of physical movements a gradually shifting and undulating sonic environment. To my mind this is one of the most significant releases of 2005 and Behrman is one of the truly indispensable figures in current music.