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Cut And Splice 2005
The Wolfman
Robert Ashley - The Wolfman (1964)
for voice, tape and vocal feedback
performed by Keir Neuringer (vocals) and Joel Ryan (live electronics)
The Wolfman was composed because Morton Feldman was asked by a singer-friend to compose a work for the friend's debut recital and Feldman didn't want to do it. He thought it would be a good chance for me. I had been thinking about feedback as a sound source for a couple of years, but I had never had the occasion to finish a piece. With Feldman's invitation I jumped into action, knowing full well that the singer would never do the piece I had in mind. But that's the way things came to pass in those grim days. I took what I had to do in the composition as a kind of answer to Feldman's challenge. I succeeded. Feldman liked The Wolfman a lot and wrote a friendly and positive review (also a rarity in those grim days). Of course, the singer never performed the composition and so I did the first performance in Charlotte Moorman's festival of the avant-garde in New York in the fall of 1964.

A few years later the score was published by Composer-Performer Editions and appeared in their magazine Source - after the piece had gained a considerable reputation as a threat to the listener's health.

Even today, for obvious reasons, most performances of music are done in rooms, halls, auditoriums that, because of the volume of the space, respond to feedback levels of amplification in the mid-range and higher frequencies. The smaller the room, the higher the frequency. This is when people put their hands over their ears, although in fact those higher frequencies are far less dangerous to hearing except over long exposures, than low frequencies - which are felt just as "pressure". I am speaking here about full room feedback, which allows even the smallest sound at the microphone to take on the illusion of moving around the room, depending on frequency and other aspects of the microphone sound. This is different from the use of feedback as "color" attached to the guitar sound, which was popularised by rock musicians just a couple of years after The Wolfman was premiered. In rock music the feedback is localised to the guitar amp and deafens only the guitar player.

If The Wolfman were to be performed in a great cathedral or airplane hanger, for instance, the feedback would center on much lower frequencies - in the human voice range or even lower, because of the volume of the space. At least that's the way I understand the idea, though I have never had a chance to experiment with it. But just a few years ago, on more or less the thirteenth anniversary of the premiere performance, I was wandering around Barcelona as a tourist and I went into a great cathedral just as the service of the mass was to begin. The sound technician had set the amplifier levels too high, so that when the priest approached the microphone the sound system in the cathedral made a wonderful feedback. But it was in the same range as the priest's voice and because the pitch range was low the feedback seemed tolerable to the priest. So, when he couldn't get the attention of the sound technician (who was probably having lunch) he just went ahead with the service. It was remarkable and beautiful, as through the priest were being accompanied by a huge ghost choir singing Gregorian chant in exactly the same key and mode that the priest was using in his singing and chanting. I realised that I was listening to a version of The Wolfman in a way that I would never hear again.

Reviewers, listeners and, indeed, some interpreters, I have been told, have understood The Wolfman as a person "screaming into the microphone". This couldn't be farther from the truth. The vocal sounds in the performance have to be probably the softest vocal sounds ever performed in public. Otherwise, the vocal sounds would 'block' the feedback and the two kinds of sound would alternate in the performance - singing, feedback during breathing etc. The technical idea of the variety of vocal sounds, which doesn't include any sound above normal speech level, is that the vocal sounds mix with the feedback (and mix with the sounds of the tape composition) to create the illusion of spatial movement to all parts of the hall for the different ingredients of the mix, depending on frequency and other factors. (Robert Ashley)

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