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Lou Cohen: Opening the Door

By Published: November 28, 2012
AAJ: So what are your other influences? What did you start off listening to, and what do you listen to now?

LC: I started off listening to classical music when I was 11, 12. What I listened to was Beethoven, Mozart, Copland, but then one night on the radio I heard a piece by Bartok which had a big impact on me: "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." In that piece there's a striking moment in the slow movement where a percussionist hits a repeated note, probably on a xylophone. The repeated notes begin slowly, then speed up, then slow down again, with nothing else going on, and then there's a drum roll or a tympani roll at the end. It was very dramatic and completely different from anything I had ever heard before. There was no rhythm-it was a gesture. And it was a gesture that involved no rhythm, no melody, no harmony. It opened up this possibility to me that music might not have rhythm, melody or harmony. Of course the Bartók music moved in a different direction after that, but the impact on me remained.

Later on I got exposed to the Schillinger Method. Joseph Schillinger was a Russian musician who came to the U.S. in 1928. I learned about Schillinger from Carmine Coppola, who was the father of a high-school roommate of mine. Besides his musical training, Schillinger had a mathematical background. He taught privately and also by correspondence courses. His most famous pupil was George Gershwin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
1898 - 1937
, but many of his other students were also famous: Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
, Oscar Levant, Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey
1905 - 1956
. Also Henry Cowell, who later was one of Cage's teachers. Schillinger's methods allowed musicians to write music quickly, which was a big advantage for composers of Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies tracks. He provided ways to generate music with mathematical methods. And it was decent music.

One of Schillinger's disciples, by the way, was Lawrence Berk, who taught the system in Boston from 1945 to 1954. He then went on to found the Berklee School of Music.

Anyway, the whole idea that mathematics could be used to generate musical ideas, musical patterns, that was a big influence. Later, through Ken Ueno, I learned about Iannis Xenakis, who also wrote a book describing his mathematical methods. So that was a big deal for me.

Since then, the biggest influences have been the people I play music with, all these young, wonderful people. I listen to the many, many ways that they make music, the many different ideas, I don't know where I'd be without them. They've really changed my world.

AAJ: You're a very responsive player. When you play with Vic Rawlings you play one way, that sort of contrarian, bitter style, the audience-be-damned way, and then with Andrew Eisenberg, his music is very extroverted, an easy-going guy, you're very approachable when you play with him. I notice you really fit into your context very well.

LC: I like to play by listening. Maybe that comes from the days when I accompanied people on the harpsichord. Often there's a soloist, and the harpsichordist's job is to be the rhythm and support section. But I like to play with people, I like the idea of making things happen together. I like to listen and do what they do, or sometimes take the lead, but usually I try to feel my way, and see what they're doing and do more of that.

AAJ: Tell us about the wiimote.

LC: This started from my interest in Csound. Csound is very important to me because it's given me a way to combine computer programming, mathematics and music, all rolled up together. I was very interested in Csound and I tried to start a Boston Csound User's Group, in order to swap information with other Csound users around here. One of the biggest names in the dissemination of information about Csound is Richard Boulanger, who teaches at Berklee. He was the editor of the Csound Book. He offered to provide a place for the Csound Users Group to meet-at Berklee. As it turns out, I didn't find anyone around here who knew more than me about Csound, except for Richard Boulanger.

There were no other users who I could learn anything from. But I gave a number of presentations at Berklee, and he gave me the wiimote as a gift. It's made by Nintendo and it's a game controller. Richard had figured out how to link it up to Csound. At first I wasn't interested in doing that, but one day I looked at a videotape of me performing on the laptop, and it looked like I was doing my email. Also I remember this clearly: I was doing some duos with James Coleman, who plays the Theremin, and at the end of each of these duos, people would come up and look at the Theremin. Nobody was interested in what I was doing. They had no interest in what was on the computer screen, for example. I realized that although it ought not to be this way, what audiences see, matters. Audiences respond to what they see.

So here I had the wiimotes and I wondered if I could do something with them that was similar to what I had been doing with the mouse, and people would be able to see what my gestures were. I worked on that and it turns out that it's way better for me than what I was doing before. It allows me to be much more responsive to what else is going on. The way I was doing it before, I was moving the mouse around on the screen very rapidly, but I couldn't start and stop things fast enough. There are a lot of musical gestures that were very hard for me to do before that are easy to do on the wiimote. The wiimote has buttons on it, so I programmed it so that when you press a button a note starts, and when you release the button the note ends. It's so logical-it took me a while to figure that out, but it makes sense. And there are two wiimotes (one is called "wiimote," the other is called "nunchuck"), so I can control one note's start and end with one, and another note independently with the other.

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