Donal Henahan and Electric Ear, hats off to constructive critical writing
New York Times reported this week that their longtime music critic Donal Henahan died this past Sunday, August 19, 2012. Writing in the Times from 1967-1991, Henahan was one of the first in the mainstream press to really comprehend the new musical environment of the late 1960s and appreciate shifts in aesthetics and venues. Soon after the opening of the Electric Circus discotheque in 1967, founding artistic director composer Morton Subotnick collaborated (with Thais Lathem) in the establishment of the venue’s Monday night New Music series, Electric Ear. This was one of the first such series in New York; from it sprung forth successors Intermedia at Automation House, the WBAI Free Music Store (thanks to Eric Salzman), and others. Salzman and Lathem met working on New Images of Sound, a parallel series at Hunter College.
Henahan wrote in the Times: “The composers who presented their experimental works at the Electric Circus on Saint Mark’s Place during this summer’s Electric Ear series – a series one devoutly hopes will not be allowed to die … About half the time, they bored infuriated or depressed us, too, but if experimental art succeeded in giving pleasure all the time, it would not be necessary to call it experimental, would it? Although their efforts to amuse and edify varied widely in intent, quality, exploitation of the hall’s technical resources and sheer ambition, one could feel tremors of sympathetic connection … What the farthest-out composers seem to be working toward these days is an inwardly turned kind of music-drama, a Theater of the Mind, if you will, in which sounds, lights, movement and a few minimal, suggestive props are used to encourage the spectator to play out some essentially unstageable, poetic experience on a stage erected in his head.” (“Too Soon To Demand a ‘War and Peace’,” New York Times, Sunday, September 15, 1968)
In his review, Henahan offered this global statement that could stand as a guiding principle for all times: “Every generation must rediscover its own revolutionary truths, and something oddly different is being heard in certain experimental works … Music, and perhaps any art, the composers seem to be saying, is an allusive, never a specific way of addressing the human mind, a magical way of inventing a kind of reality out of the universe’s chaos …”
In a similar vein, Henahan wrote two months earlier about the founding of the series. He declared that increasing numbers of modern composers, facing a “dead end at which our opera houses and concert halls seem to be arriving”, “are abandoning the relatively recent European tradition of the artist as anti-popular prophet for the more ancient conception of the artist as a man deeply involved in contemporary society.” (New York Times, Sunday, July 7, 1968)
The Electric Ear series actually began in 1967. That winter, Thais Latham teamed up with NYU Psychology professor Ted Coons in the planning of the first of two multimedia events that showcased the kind of production in the spirit of Electric Ear but on a much bigger scale. “An Electric Christmas” took place Tuesday evening, Dec. 26, and Saturday evening, Dec. 30, 1967. It included music by Mort Subotnick, liquid lights by Anthony Martin (Subotnick’s collaborator at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, in the Intermedia Program at NYU, and at the Electric Circus), the rock band Circus Maximus (including Jerry Jeff Walker), and an early music ensemble Music Pro Musica (conducted by John White, a friend of Coons). Coons had dropped in at the Electric Circus unannounced and pitched the idea to Electric Circus manager Denis Wright. Coons remembers: “John White called up Carnegie Hall, because Pro Musica was scheduled to give a Christmas concert there. He said: ‘You know, we are going to have something at the Circus, perhaps this is a conflict of interest as far as you are concerned.’ Shultz, the person in charge at that point, said: “On the contrary, we’ll just change the program. We’ll invite the whole thing up to Carnegie Hall.” The show was credited in the program as follows: “Conceived and Performed by: Morton Subotnick, assisted by Richard Friedman and Michael Czajkoski, with light show conceived by: Anthony Martin, performed by: Anthony Martin, Michael Malone, Bill Sward, and Jane Abelman. Consulting Psychologist: Dr. Edgar E. Coons.”
Of course Donal Henahan was there for the show. And his review was prescient in his understanding, as his writing about Electric Ear would show, the following year. “An Electric Christmas,” as the enterprise was entitled, did prove to be an interesting experiment. It demonstrated to a large commercial audience that the compartmentalization of art and entertainment, sanctified by the 19th century, is in all likelihood a dead issue in 1967… the night summed up most of the esthetic ideas now in the air: incongruity, simultaneity, games theory, the put-on, the parody, the Trip, the styles happily co-existing in art today and the effort to create a “total environment” in which all the senses can come into play. Not at all surprisingly, there was a program credit for a Consulting Psychologist: Dr. Edgar E. Coons.” (New York Times, December 27. 1967).
Henahan’s obituary in The New York Times quoted his first published Times review, of a concert by Ravi Shankar. There, he noted: “The American subculture of buttons and beards, poster art and pot, sandals and oddly shaped spectacles met the rather more ancient culture of India last evening at Philharmonic Hall.” (September 14, 1967) Let’s hear it for writing that takes a broad cultural perspective, is enjoyable to read, and treats criticism as a means of bringing the reader closer to understanding music, rather than as competitive sport.
I write further about the Electric Circus, Electric Ear, Mort Subotnick’s work in late 1960s New York City, and related topics in my recent articles: “Electric Circus, Electric Ear and the Intermedia Center in Late-1960s New York.” Leonardo 45:1, MIT Press. Winter 2012; and “Nurturing Young Composers: Morton Subotnick’s Late-1960s Studio in New York City.” Computer Music Journal, 36:1, Spring 2012. The Circus and Electric Ear form the core of a chapter in my book in progress: “Gestures, textures, open spaces: Chick Corea’s Circle, new creative venues and openings to the musical 1970s.”
You can find the Times obituary for Donal Henahan here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/arts/music/donal-henahan-a-music-critic-for-the-times-dies-at-91.html?_r=1&ref=obituaries