Astrosounds
a concert for a building

“In Houston there are big buildings. Why not design music for them?”  – Houston Chronicle, April 10, 1986

1/1

"Astrodome stadium seating chart, Houston, Texas." (1970) Rice University archives

I didn't yet know Joe Celli well enough to just come right out and say, "Joe, you're nuts." That would come later. 

I sat with Joe, in the fall of 1984 in my newly established, almost empty office, listening to him suggest all the possibilities for oddball locations to stage concerts and events for the upcoming New Music America 1986 festival in Houston. As the recently hired coordinator, it was my job to bring the festival to life. Joe, the director of Real Art Ways, had recently staged the successful New Music America 1984 festival in Hartford. Because of this, Joe became, by default, the new President of the New Music Alliance, the national group of advisors charged with overseeing future New Music America festivals. Joe rightfully didn't trust my abilities just yet and surmised, correctly, that I needed some coaching about how to begin to organize such a gigantic and complicated event, so he was in Houston visiting with me. Somehow the idea occurred to him about how amazing it would be to do something in the Astrodome. That's how all this started.

Joe had a convincing way about him. It wasn't exactly a won't-take-no-for-an-answer way, but it was close. His determination was disguised by his mellow, FM radio voice that gave the first impression of him as some sort of a hypnotist. Joe could lull you into believing just about anything. It worked on me.

"Let's go down and see."

"Now?"

"Sure. Why not?"

So we hopped in my Volkswagon van (which must have given Joe some comfort, he being of the hippie era and described in print as looking "wildly bearded") and drove down, unannounced, to the Astrodome.

The Astrodome, a now dead eighth wonder of the world, was very much alive then. It was home of the competitive Astros and Oilers, and had hosted some of the world's most famous events, sports or otherwise. It was still considered an architectural marvel, although its luster had accumulated a dulled patina as it was no longer the one and only. Still...

To this day I don't know how or why, but thanks to an accommodating and welcoming staff, combined with Joe's mysterious ability to part psychological waters, we were able to simply walk in, state our purpose, and be listened to. We pretty quickly found ourselves in the administrative offices of the Dome speaking with someone who mattered. Joe proceeded, in all sincerity, to explain our desire to present an event in conjunction with the world's largest festival of contemporary music. That's how he put it. It must have sounded legitimate enough because we were eventually given a brief tour of the Dome to show us what it was like, as if such a thing were necessary in one of the world's most famous buildings. In muted wonderment, I followed along.

Eventually, sensing that it might be best to cut our wins and leave before anyone had a chance to really look us over and consider the term "contemporary music," we thanked our kind guide and departed. Like a bearded Buddha, Joe just smiled.

On that day I learned a few things that would serve me well in the future: It never hurts to ask, a little hyperbole never hurt anyone, and just show up. Ironically, it took an East-coaster to demonstrate Houston's can-do attitude.

The previous passage is a preposterously simplified version of a much more complicated story, but the gist is accurate. This initial introduction eventually resulted in one of the most memorable art events I've ever been a part of.

1/1

"Mapping" by Russell Frehling, April 9, 1986, photo by Jin Hi Kim, courtesy of University of Houston Library Special Collections

We (myself, Jerry McCathern, and Pauline Oliveros - the core staff of NMA '86) were determined to make the Houston version of New Music America the best of them all. Our shared openness presented no resistance to the wildest ideas of others. They, and we, were nudging the perceived limits of music just that much further outward. Like previous festivals in other cities, it would be an opportunity to garner some bragging rights by staging unusual events at out-of-the-ordinary musical venues throughout all of Houston. And I think we done pretty good, much obliged. Even with all the fantastic work we presented at NMA '86, for me, the concert at the Astrodome topped them all.

The organizational lead-up to the event was as complicated and fraught with roadblocks as one might expect in a David and Goliath relationship. Miraculously, the people at the Astrodome eventually agreed to allow us to use the facility for a "concert" for New Music America, most likely at the prodding of a powerful board member of The Houston Festival, the sponsoring organization for NMA '86. More miraculously, it was understood that we would have the place more or less to ourselves. It wasn't until after the Astrodome administration agreed to a date that they realized it fell on a day the Astros were in town for their second game of the season. Because the game was at night, the preparations for it took place in the afternoon. This meant that the only time available to us was 9:00 in the morning, and on a Wednesday, no less. It wasn't exactly the ideal time or day for a music concert. No matter. We succeeded in securing the Astrodome for a concert for New Music America 1986. Holy Toledo!

Between the time we distributed the initial call-for-entries and the final selection of the participants, rumor had somehow spread about the potential of presenting a "concert" at the Astrodome. Although this was by far not a done deal, we nevertheless received a few ideas for works for the Dome, and a few that we thought would adapt themselves well to the place. From this set, we settled on three pieces, each very different from each other. They were:

•  Jane Ira Bloom, "Dopper's Revenge - Part 2" for soprano saxophone, digital delay, and circular speaker system

•  Richard Lerman, "A Matter of Scale" for amplified soda straws

 

•  Russell Frehling, "Mapping" for radio controlled blimp and feedback patterns

1/1

program for "Astrosounds" (L) outside, (R) inside signed by composers, collection of the author [click on images]

We loaded in the sound equipment very early that morning as that was the only time we could. In a rush we set everything up under the watchful gaze of Astrodome personnel, who weren't very pleasant. I was constantly warned that no one was to disturb anything on the field, especially the dirt areas around the bases and the pitcher's mound. After the kicking, sliding, cleated, tobacco-spitting players had had their way the previous night, what possible harm could we do? My job that morning was to act as a mediator between the enthusiastic desires of the musicians and the cranky Dome people, and to keep them away from each other as much as possible.

The seating capacity for the Astrodome at that time was officially listed as 52,000. I was very disappointed when fewer than 100 showed up that morning for the Astrosounds concert. Although 100 humans was not a particularly bad turnout for an experimental music concert anywhere, it would have been nice to have had enough people there to at least occupy a section, even if it was at 9:00 on a Wednesday morning. I was instructed to confine our audience to the lower level behind the first base dugout. No one was to wander elsewhere, and as a result, the Dome felt virtually empty.

First up on the program was Jane Ira Bloom. Jane's was perhaps the most conventional of the three works, if it could be said to be that. The source sound for her piece was her trademark improvisational soprano sax. But this time it would be augmented by electronic enhancement – a digital delay. A newish device, and favored by many experimental musicians, the digital delay produced sounds that were different from an echo or reverb. A digital delay could simultaneously capture and separate sounds with some control so as to give the impression of multiple instruments playing identical music in a staggered fashion. Jane combined this effect with multiple microphones that had dedicated speakers for each. The microphones were positioned in close proximity to her, facing inward. The speakers faced outwards away from her and toward the near empty cavern of the Dome. By swishing the bell of her sax past each microphone as she played, she could create a sort of circular spiral of sound that echoed the circular architecture of the Dome.

 

Richard Lerman was up next. Richard, in his typical witty way, turned the tables and went mini, presenting a work for amplified tiny instruments that he invented made from drinking straws. He also built all the transducers (microphones), the three small mixers used by the "outfielders," and the mixer and tape delay system that he used at the pitcher's mound. Richard spread his fellow performers scattershot on the field, separating them from each other and thereby further exaggerating the scale of the space. The minute actions of the performers plucking their amplified straws somehow made them seem to shrink and the Dome seem to expand at the same time.

1/1

score for "A Matter of Scale" by Richard Lerman, performed on April 9, 1986, Astrodome

performed with Mary Cullather, Linda Graetz, Fletcher Mackey, Chris Osgood, Jim Pomeroy  [click on images or download PDF here]

1/1

(L. to R.) Fletcher Mackey, Chris Osgood, Richard Lerman performing "A Matter of Scale" - April 9, 1986, Astrodome

images from the CD "Richard Lerman: A Matter of Scale and other pieces"

A Matter of Scale - Richard Lerman
00:00 / 00:00

"A Matter of Scale" (excerpt from CD) Richard Lerman, recorded April 9, 1986, Astrodome

A Matter of Scale performers:

Mary Cullather - third base

Linda Graetz - first base

Richard Lerman - pitcher's mound

Fletcher Mackey - center field

Chris Osgood - right field

Jim Pomeroy - left field

The highlight of the concert and the grand finale was Russell Frehling's "Mapping," a piece for remote-controlled blimp, feedback patterns, and the acoustics of the Astrodome.  

 

Instead of using the sound system we brought in that was used for Jane's and Richard's pieces, Russell had concocted a concept that employed the sound system of the Astrodome. Inside the Dome, several large speakers hung from the ceiling, suspended around the the circular-shaped perimeter of the seating arrangement, pointing out and downward toward the fans at a game. It was these speakers which broadcast the games' proceedings, announcements, and occasional organ music rah-rah's.  

 

Russell's idea was rather simple, yet elaborately conceived and staged. He wanted to create a sonic feedback piece using these speakers, and then control and manipulate the feedback using various pieces of electronics. Feedback is, of course, the often undesired result when a microphone gets too close to its own speaker resulting in a loud howl. Jimmy Hendrix, as we all know, used the effect brilliantly. The logistical problem in the Astrodome was this: How does one get a microphone up high and close enough to the suspended speakers in order to generate feedback? Russell's ingenious solution was a remote controlled blimp to which he connected microphones. This kind of blimp is a miniature unleaded Zepplin version used by model airplane enthusiasts and often employed for scientific studies of weather or for mapping. Except for the gas used to achieve the lift (helium instead of hydrogen), blimps like these are like mini-Hindenbergs without the potential catastrophe. By flying the blimp around the Dome, as it came close to the speakers, Russell was able to stimulate feedback. This signal was then transmitted down to his array of electronics on the ground, which then circled back to the amplified stadium sound system creating the desired feedback loop phenomenon. Simple, smart, and visually spectacular.

The flying was remote but there didn't seem to be too much control. Blobby and slow, it looked like a big, fat, lazy whale ambling around aimlessly underwater. It was absolutely mesmerizing. 

excerpt from "New Music America," a documentary video by Laurie McDonald, courtesy of University of Houston Library Special Collections

"It’s sound. Music is made up of sounds. They’re [often] put together in a different way [than this]. [Musicians] use tones and manipulate them in sets that are mostly repeatable and have a certain form. In this case I’m using sound in a very different way. I use sound on its own terms, to listen to the nature of individual sounds, and let those sounds be what they are. In this case, you take a large enclosure, and you start with no sound at all, and you build a structure. And it derives its materials from the acoustical properties of the space itself."

 

– Russell Frehling, from the documentary video "New Music America" by Laurie McDonald 

It turns out that the sonic resonance of the Dome is not nearly as interesting as one might think. An acoustician could explain why, but regardless of the reasons, which are still unbeknownst to me, the fact remains. I expected a far more echoey situation that would further enhance all the works. But it wasn't. It was really kind of dead. Something, whatever it was – the size, the interior surfaces – seemed to soak up the sound and kill any expected extraordinary sonic bounce-back. 

None of this diminished these works one iota. All of them explored the volume and potential sonic characteristics of the Astrodome, each in very different ways. And each of these three pieces were truly experimental. No one, including the composers, knew what would happen. Without the benefit of testing or rehearsals, we all – musicians and audience alike – experienced these pieces for the first time together. The extraordinary environment, combined with the virtuosity of spirit and execution of the artists, exemplified the true experimental nature and value of New Music America. It was remarkable.

1/1

1/1

newspaper reviews for "Astrosounds" - Russell Frehling is on the left in the photo [click on images]

1/1

For the record, the Astros lost that evening, 4-1 to the San Francisco Giants making them 0-2 to start the year. They would eventually win their division in one of the Astros' most successful seasons.

the author assisting with "Astrosounds, " Astrodome, April 9, 1986, photographer unknown

September 15, 2018

Note:

 

Many of the images and materials used in this essay may be found in the New Music America Archives in the Special Collections of the University of Houston MD Anderson Library. 

As a preface to this story, please see the very brief introductory background about New Music America HERE.