Re: Octophonic first

Subject: Re: Octophonic first
From: Larry Austin (
Date: Mon Aug 16 1999 - 13:51:01 EDT

Mathew Adkins wrote:

> I'm not sure what the arrangement of the speakers was, but isn't
> Earle Brown's Octet of 1952 for 8 channel playback.
> Mathew Adkins

Bingo!! Yes, "Octet" was composed in 1952-53 for eight mono
tapes to be played back on eight mono tape machines to eight
speakers surrounding the audience. The first performance was
in March, 1953, at the University of Illinois, Urbana. The
VERY first octophonic composition to be completed (October,
1952) was John Cage's "Williams Mix", also performed for the
first time on that March, 1953, concert. Completed a little later
but never performed was Morton Feldman's "Intersections" (1953),
also composed for octophonic playback. All three pieces (plus some
others) were part of the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape (1951-54),
which Cage founded in New York with sponsorship funding from
architect Paul Williams. Other important supporters and collaborators
included Louis and Bebe Barron, who recorded much of the sound
material for "Williams Mix."

Another of our CEC colleagues, Tom Hamilton (NYC), answered
correctly my query below early on, by the way. The reason I asked
"What was the first octophonic piece?" in the first place was to
validate my claim that Cage's "Williams Mix" was, indeed, the
first such. Further, the reason(s) that I am involved in research on
the piece are manifold and are described in a brief abstract I have
attached to this message. Read, if you like.

Best and thanks to all,

Larry Austin

> > ----------
> > From: Larry Austin
> > Reply To:
> > Sent: Friday, August 13, 1999 15.22
> > To:
> > Subject: Octophonic first
> >
> > Dear friends and students of tape music:
> >
> > A leading question--win a prize (er, my thanks)!
> >
> > What was the first octophonic tape piece?
> >
> > I define "octophonic" as 8 channels of pre-recorded
> > sound to be performed with 8 (or a multiple of 8) speakers
> > placed strategically about/around the audience, so that
> > an octophonic, spatial sound texture is intended/perceived.
> >
> > Please give a complete citation with your answer, including
> > the name of the piece, its composer(s), date of composition,
> > date and place of first octophonic performance, and technical
> > data, if known.
> >
> > Octophony forever!
> >
> > Larry Austin
> >

Larry Austin

John Cage's "Williams Mix": A New Realization of the First Octophonic Tape


In summer, 1997, I embarked on a project to create a new realization of and a set of variations on the score of John Cage's "Williams Mix" (1951-52), for octophonic tape performance. The John Cage Trust graciously provided me with a color-Xerographic copy from The Archive of the Trust of Cage's original 192-page score for the creation of the piece, as well as associated sketches and commentary by Cage on the compositional process involved in his (and his
collaborators') original (and only) realization for eight magnetic tapes. My project is conceived as a new realization for octophonic tape of Cage's original score plus the creation of a set of variations based on the Williams Mix compositional concept. The current project is sponsored, in part, by the International Institute for Electroacoustic Music, Bourges, France, which has awarded a commission to the composer for a residency to complete the work in the year 2000.

The process of creating the original realization of "Williams Mix", as Cage
explained, involved the precise cutting/splicing of recorded sounds to create eight separate reel-to-reel monaural 15-ips magnetic tape masters for the 4.25-minute octophonic tape piece. The score is, as Cage referred to it, a kind of "dressmaker's pattern--it literally shows where the tape shall be cut, and you lay the tape on the score itself." Cage explained further in a published transcript of a 1985 recorded conversation with author Richard Kostelanetz that "...someone else could follow that recipe, so to speak, with other sources than I had to make another mix." Later in the conversation, Kostelanetz observed, "But, as you pointed out, even though you made for posterity a score of Williams Mix for others to realize, no one's ever done it," to which Cage replied, "But it's because the manuscript is so big and so little known." (Kostelanetz, Cage Explained, Schirmer, 1996, pp. 72-75)

What I propose for the new realization is: 1) to make digital copies of the eight original 30-ips reel-to-reel production masters, transferring them to an eight-track digital medium (ADAT, CD-R, etc.) for synchronous playback; 2) to analyze the precise relation of the recorded sound events with their I Ching-determined parameters in the score; 3) to make a new, recorded library of 300 to 400 sounds (the actual number of different recorded sounds in the score is 350, their iterations totaling 2,128), according to Cage's six sound categories; 4) to select, distribute and assign the sounds in the eight tracks in accordance with Cage's score; 5) to edit and map the sounds so that the individual sounds correspond precisely with the shaped patterns specified by Cage in the score; 6) to make both an 8-track ADAT realization and stereo mix-down of the eight tracks of sound material; and, inspired by the process and results, to 7) compose a second realization of the score, as well as two additional variations on the piece: a "theme", a new realization, and "variations", altogether about a 17-minute work.

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