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Lou Cohen: Opening the Door

Gordon Marshall By

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In his cushy, classy, elegant two-story home just outside of Central Square in Cambridge, MA, Lou Cohen introduces his Symphony 5: from a laptop, jammed together fragments of elegant new music unfold, spaced out so that breath can enter in the interstices... Then the sound of roiling, rolling violins getting impacted: all is mellow and peaceful again, the silence between gets stifling, but segues into eerie jubilation. Pathos enters darkness, and wind-almost the tornado ripping up Dorothy into Oz. Back to basics. Electronic plucking leads to random signals in outer space, sending Apollo back to earth. A splash in the sea, and the astronauts come home to a tense society trying to re-situate themselves in a world of new crises, uprisings-it is Kent Sate all over again. A new revolution.

It is a warm, comfortable environment in Cohen's cozy living room, filled with friends and admirers. Cohen is the dean of the local Boston experimental scene, instructing and inspiring younger artists. With a hard, firm grasp of the great classical tradition, he is also a master technologist, and he can transform electrical impulses into beautiful lyrical flights. What's more, his own efforts stitch together those of his entire music community, as at his Open Sound series, in Somerville, MA, where he brings together his colleagues and associates near and far for stimulating performance interspace.

Cohen is, indeed, a composer with a stern, magisterial demeanor beneath his gentle eyes. And his compositions are strictly determined. The question he is always exploring, however-ever since he studied with composer John Cage in the 1950s, is: What determines choice? Tradition lies heavy, with its heavy demands-and even iconoclasm is ideologically laden. Cohen explores the line between these poles, walking it like a tightrope. As a teacher, he will soon have his students doing the same, with no net; and he will draw his listeners into the atmosphere of tense exertion as if they were up in the air themselves. Again, in his elegant living room, Cohen discusses how his philosophy has kept evolving and reinventing itself, even now, into his seventh decade, as he leads his scene with fire.

All About Jazz: I know you took many years off from music, and I'd like to know were you entirely separated from music during those years?

Lou Cohen: No. I composed in solitude. We should probably go back to the Cage years and start there. I was in college here, and I couldn't decide whether it was going to be music or math.

AAJ: At MIT?

LC: At MIT. So I took a leave of absence from MIT and I went back to New York City, which is where I came from.

At that time my family was living in Queens. A section called Hollis Hills. I lived pretty far out on Long Island, in Queens, near Union Turnpike and 208th Street. Further out than Flushing. So there was a bus I would take to the nearest subway stop. The bus was about a 30- minute ride. To get to Manhattan from home by bus and subway took an hour.

So, anyway, I left MIT and went home. I knew that John Cage was teaching a composition course at the New School, and I signed up for it and I managed to get MIT to give me credit for taking that course. So I took the course for about a half-year, and I got to know him a bit, and he got to know me, and at the end of it I asked him for advice. He said: "You can compose well, but you need to know that I [Cage] cannot make a red cent as a composer." Recently I read a memoir by Carolyn Brown of that period. She was a dancer in Merce Cunningham's dance company. I learned that at that moment when he was giving me that advice, he was selling his books to make rent. Just a few months later he actually made some money, but I didn't know that. And he couldn't have predicted it either.

Anyway, I took his advice seriously. He suggested I go back to MIT. He put me in touch with Christian Wolff. Chris was at Harvard at the time, teaching Classical Languages. We got to be good friends and we put on several concerts around here for a few years. Then I got married, and moved to the suburbs. I just didn't have the time to do concerts any more. And Chris was getting ready to move on too. It wasn't long after that that he left Harvard, but he hadn't quite left at the time that I disengaged. I was working very hard, raising a family, and all that.

But I didn't stop writing music. I continued to compose. The only difference was that without the concerts, I didn't get the performances. So I now have manuscripts stacked this high, that I've never heard. I did that for a long time, but at the same time, I got interested in early music, also because of Christian Wolff. He had gone to Europe for a year and he loaned me his harpsichord. I baby-sat his harpsichord, and I played it. After he came back from Europe and took it back, I bought my own harpsichord. I ended up taking lessons from John Gibbons and I got pretty good at playing the harpsichord for a while. So I played early music, I organized classical music concerts in people's homes, and I composed, but I wasn't in any way in touch with the new music scene. I didn't know anyone who was doing new music for a long time. That's the disengaged part.

So, after many years, I retired. My goal all along had been to be able to retire young enough so that I could write music full-time. I had some false starts: I got involved with astronomy for awhile, and some volunteer work in the public schools, all enriching but not music. But a big thing happened at that time. It was becoming possible to hook synthesizers up to computers. And that got me interested in electronic music, something that I could never have done before because the only electronic music labs were in academic settings and I wasn't in an academic setting.

So all of a sudden there were computers and there were synthesizers. That got me very interested...

AAJ: What year would this have been?

LC: ...it started around 1980, with hobby computers like the Radio Shack TRS80, and by '85 or so I had a Mac and I could afford to buy a synthesizer, and a sampler, and another synthesizer, and I had a rack of these devices, and I was driving them from the computer.



AAJ: So you were retired at this time?

LC: I retired in 1992, so from 1985 to 1992 I was "getting my chops" and writing a few new electronic pieces. I was also going back to my old pieces and trying to create MIDI realizations of the pieces that I had never heard. And I began to write new pieces, although I imagined them for piano or string quartet, so I was using the synthesizers to hear what my string quartet would sound like.

But then I had a breakthrough. This was shortly after I retired: I was having coffee at the 1369 with my wife and she saw that the Out Of The Blue gallery was having poetry open mike nights, maybe once a month. And there was one coming up. This was in December of '92 or '93. And the sign said that musicians were invited. So I went in and asked if I could bring in an electronic piece. I had written two electronic pieces at that point. One of them was called "Vocal Music." They said it would be OK, so I brought it. There were about 20 people in the room, and to my surprise I discovered that everybody liked this piece. So I decided from that moment that I didn't need to write music for acoustic instruments anymore.

I could write electronic pieces. I didn't have to worry about performers who wouldn't rehearse enough, or worry about finding a venue for a concert, or copying out scores and parts-I wouldn't have to worry about any of that. I could burn discs and give them to people, and with electronic music I could get my music heard much more easily. Not only that, I could hear it played perfectly as I was writing it, which was something I could never do before.

So that was a big thing for me, a big change. So I started to exclusively write electronic pieces.

AAJ: Even if they're atonal, your pieces always have a pleasing lyrical quality to them. I'm not sure how you achieve that.

LC: I don't know either. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to.

AAJ: A human quality, I think...

LC: I don't know exactly what that is, but when I write music I always think about the whole piece up front, and I have some idea about what the structure is going to be, so it has a kind of a shape. Usually there's some place in the piece where there's a climax. So maybe that's what you're hearing, I'm not sure. I usually make sure that there are some consonances: unisons, open fifths, things like that. Maybe that's what you're hearing.

Then I had another breakthrough. I told a friend of mine that I was writing electronic music. He was a member of the MIT Gamelan orchestra. He introduced me to another member of the orchestra who wrote electronic music, and that was Ken Ueno.

He's probably in his early 30s right now. He was Ph.D. candidate at Harvard at the time, and since then he's won some major composition prizes-the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize. But at that time he was still just an aspiring young composer. We got together a few times and he told me some of what was going on in the electronic music world. I had no idea who was doing anything, or what was going on. Everything I was doing was completely on my own. He invited me to come to a concert at Berklee [College if Music, in Boston], where, he said he was going to perform a piece of his. So I went to Berklee, where he had a part-time faculty job, and he got up on stage with Tim Feeney and Hillary Zipper. And they played this incredible piece. And there was no score, no music stands.

AAJ: It was improvised?

LC: Yes, but I didn't know that. I was thinking: how did they do that? Then he told me that they were going to play the piece at Harvard. So I went to hear it again, and it was completely different. And that's when I found out it was improvised. Up to then I had never dreamed of improvising "noise." Because when I got introduced to "noise," through Cage, there was no such thing as improvising-Cage was totally against it, and nobody else I knew at that time improvised. What you did with noise was, you organized it, using random methods or other methods, but you did not introduce your own personal taste into the process. The way Cage was using it, he was trying to get the music outside of himself, he was trying to get himself outside of his music, which was one of the reasons he was using chance processes.

But here, at Ken's performance, there were people who were expressing their musical feelings with sound and noise. It was like a breakthrough for me. I had no idea anybody was doing this. And then I discovered there was a whole community of people doing it, and I had never known anything about them. So I began to meet them. I organized a few concerts myself at [Cambridge, MA venue] Zeitgeist, and I brought Tim, Ken and Hillary in. And they brought in Jack Wright and Vic Rawlings. One thing led to another and I got to know more and more people. And I became part of this lively community of people who were working with noise and it was just wonderful. So it's like I was born all over again.
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