Environmental Sound Works by David Dunn, 1973 – 85




On right sidebar:


“one of the first to visit that terrain of re-enchantment”


“the radical, rigorous investigation of Deep Ecology”





Inside booklet:


The six works represented on these two compact discs might be heard as historical artifacts in the sense that they exist as documentation of performed events that are not repeatable in the same way that notated musical works generally are. However, while they involved improvisational elements, they are not to be regarded as improvisations since they were rigorously composed for the environmental circumstances in which they took place. They represent an attempt to articulate an aesthetic of environmental interactivity through sound-making, which occupied me over a fifteen year period. During that time I generated a diverse body of work from which these six examples have been chosen in order to illustrate the range of those activities. All of these works share the characteristic of having been outdoor performances. They also demonstrate a purposeful transition that my investigations pursued over those fifteen years: a progressive expansion of context, moving from interactions with a single member of another species toward interactions with complex environments. Foremost in these experiments was a concern for sound as a means to explore the emergent intelligence of non-human living systems. My interest was in regarding the complex web of environmental sound-making as evidence of complex-minded systems — a way of experiencing what Gregory Bateson has called "the integrated fabric of mind that envelops us."


These recordings were often made under less-than-ideal technical circumstances. The listener must tolerate a wide range of unusual acoustic spaces and an even greater range of technical quality. I recommend that listeners adjust their audio expectations to accommodate these eccentric demands through understanding that the non-studio production values were intentional and inseparable from the reality of the art. — David Dunn




(1)  NEXUS 1


Nexus 1 was performed and recorded in the interior of the Grand Canyon National Park over a three-day period from the 17th to the 20th of June, 1973. All performance and recording took place in the area known as Hermit's Gorge, approximately two miles down into the canyon interior along Hermit's Trail. The score specified sound gestures which the trumpets could articulate interactively with the canyon environment. This interaction primarily focused upon 1) the extended reverberation and extraordinary spatial acoustics of the rock formations, and 2) the non-human life forms such as the crows heard throughout the performance recording.


Trumpets – Ralph Dudgeon, Ed Harkins, Jack Logan



Entrainments 1 began with an initial interaction where square-wave oscillations were projected into the performance site in order to both stimulate response in some fashion and to explore the inherent resonance characteristics of the space. This interaction was recorded for subsequent manipulation. I then recorded a performer's stream-of-consciousness speech describing real-time events and observations of that environment. Both recordings were eventually merged with a pitch-to-voltage converter such that the speech sounds became tracings of the environmental sounds while modulating the overall timbral spectra of the environment. Four layerings from this procedure were played back into the original location and rerecorded. Realization of the work took place at Azalea Glen, Cuyamaca State Park, California, from May to September, 1984.


Electronically altered speaking voice – Lizbeth Rymland




Entrainments 2 was composed for and performed in a specific wilderness site. Three performers prerecorded stream-of-consciousness descriptions and observations of the surrounding environment from three mountain peaks in the Cuyamaca Mountains of California. These recordings were subsequently mixed with static drones derived from an astrological charting for the time and location of the performance. Playback of these sounds occurred from portable cassette recorders with self-amplified loudspeakers and sufficient amplitude to be audible from the center of the performance configuration. In the center of the space was placed a computer programmed to sample and immediately output periodic sound blocks through a central loudspeaker. The input signal to the computer was from a parabolic microphone. A performer carried this microphone while walking slowly around the perimeter of a large central circle. This performer also recorded the overall performance with binaural microphones. Three other performers carried portable self-amplified oscillators while walking slowly around the perimeter of three outer circles. The performance took place at Azalea Glen, Cuyamaca State Park, California, on May 19, 1985.


Speaking voices – Ronald Robboy, Lizbeth Rymland, Stephen Storer

Oscillators – Lizbeth Rymland, Dan Schwartz, Stephen Storer

Computer and engineering – David Dunn, Peter Seibel







Skydrift was realized on December 11, 1977 at Little Blair Valley within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California. The work required ten voices, sixteen instrumentalists, and four channels of electronic sounds derived from materials generated at the performance site. Over a thirty-minute period the instrumentalists slowly moved outward from the central circle of voices and electronic sound sources, while performing in response to information from the environment, until reaching the perimeter of audibility from the center of the space. This configuration resulted in an expanding sonic formation which ultimately occupied a space a half-mile in diameter, remaining audible for approximately two miles from the sound source. The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Voices – Ellen Band, Ric Cupples, Dennis Dunn, Peter Hamlin, Gene Johnson, Phil Keeney, Chris Robbins, Ron Robboy, Peter Seibel, Paul William Simons

Flutes – Norbert Bach, Donna Caruso, David Savage, Jeri Webb

Clarinets – Duane Lakin-Thomas, David Marlowe, Robert Paredes, Larry Rhodes

Trumpets – Alan Brewer, David Dickey, Larry Fant, Jack Logan

Trombones – Bob Burns, Russell Estes, Mark Mayer, Jeff Peterson

Sound engineer – Eugene Wahl


(2)  MIMUS POLYGLOTTOS (in collaboration with Ric Cupples)


Mimus Polyglottos is a realtime interactive composition for electronically generated sounds and mockingbird. The final recording represents an initial encounter between the bird and the stimulus. It was recorded outdoors in Balboa Park, San Diego, during July, 1976. The composition was initially stimulated by a fascination with the mockingbird's extraordinary ability to mimic not only the calls of other birds, but also a variety of environmental and machine- generated sounds. Our interest was not only in seeing how we could push that ability in terms of the actual sounds which the bird could mimic, but more significantly to generate a linguistic interaction.


(3)  (espial)


(espial) was commissioned by the Radio Performance Project, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque in 1979. It was recorded in the Anza-Borrego Desert of California. Two categories of sound events are called for by the notated score: 1) specific pitch and timbral material in 21-tone just intonation performed by a solo violinist; and 2) environmental sensing that required response to events occurring in both the external environment and the performer's body. Realization of this score required 3 1/2 hours of continuous playing in a physically harsh environment. A recording of this performance is subsequently divided into seven separate 1/2-hour segments that were then played back simultaneously by seven small, inexpensive cassette recorders. The resulting degeneration of the violin sound is to be regarded as an essential compositional factor.


Violin – David Dunn





                  I first met David in the early 1970s in San Diego. I was a graduate student at one university, he was an undergrad and technician at another. He first introduced me to work by people such as earth artists Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, and to video artists like Bruce Nauman. He also introduced me to his own work, which involved making music in a variety of outdoor environments. But more than the simple intrusive gestures that Heizer's and Smithson's work entailed, David was interested in something more – in interaction. He wanted to see what the effect was of doing something that might otherwise be considered crazy in a place that might otherwise be considered inappropriate. His earliest works came closest to being a sonic analogy for the work of Heizer or Smithson. Nexus I (1973) involved three trumpeters and Dunn backpacking into a remote part of the Grand Canyon and performing there, searching for echoes. But what they got was more than that, as they observed all sorts of events occuring that, on one level, could be interpreted as the environment, somehow, metaphorically responding to the events placed into it. Dunn's first response to this was almost scientific, almost empirical, but with a healthy Dada streak as well. Mimus Polyglottos (1976) had Dunn and Ric Cupples researching what sort of sounds would goad the San Diego mockingbirds into responding. That was the scientific part. The Dada part was sneaking into urban Balboa Park in the middle of the night to play the tapes to the birds using portable tape recorders, and observing the results.


                  After the scientific approach of the mockingbird piece, however, a more holistic approach began. David realized that what he was doing wasn't science, but was more metaphorical, more artistic.  His work was, in fact, a quest to make contact with what might be called "the spirit of a place."  Many people were talking in such terms back then, but few really made an attempt to see what dialoging with such a metaphorical concept might actually mean. (espial), Skydrift, and Entrainments 1 and 2 were pieces where he used a variety of rigorous processes to somehow set up a dialog with whatever forces might be, in fact, resident and inherent in particular places. This is probably most hearable in Entrainments 2, where three poets talk about their responses to a particular environment, observing the events there. The comments they are making on one visit to the performance site are then reflected in events happening on the group performance day, months later. It is as though in their first visit, they describe things that will happen in the future, and then those things do happen while the tape of their monologue is being played.


Now all of this may sound extremely mystical, or reminiscent of the worst elements of flaky new- age hucksterism. It's important to realize that David was (and continues to be) absolutely rigorous in setting up these processes and following them through. It is the results of his activities that were so strange. He himself was as amazed an observer of the interactions as were any of us who participated in his early works/events.


                  Recently I read Suzi Gablik's The Re-enchantment of Art, where she calls for a more socially concerned, environmentally aware art. David was one of the first to visit that terrain of re-enchantment, more than 20 years ago. He was among the first sound artists to consider what became James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, not just as a pious and trite metaphor (or as an openly offensive marketing gimmick!), but as a serious principle that would have the potential to change the way he made music.


                  Post-modern theory tells us that no credit can be allowed for anyone being among the first to do things, and that may indeed be true – consider David's (and all of our) disillusionment as the music industry watered down his radical ecological thinking into a CD of Mozart with loon calls mixed in. (I'm not making this up! The disc in question absolutely exists!)  Instead of the radical, rigorous investigation of Deep Ecology that David proposed in his early works, what the music industry has given us is nature Muzak and in the process it ignored David's work.


                  But that work continues to be important and, more than ever, needs to be heard, discussed, and debated in these days of neo-conservative anti-environmental backlash. Rather than the tediously charming conservationist ethos of much new-age nature music, David's pieces come howling at us from the 70s and 80s as the sonic equivalents of serious Deep Ecology.


                  This is music which (mostly) doesn't sound like anybody else’s. And which (mostly) doesn't correspond to polite or pop notions of musical propriety. As sound, this work is remarkable enough. But it is the combination of sound and idea and context that makes David's work so potent, and an inspiration to a whole generation of radical composers, artists, and ecologists. This is music which is not absolute, which almost can't exist without its stories, contexts,  politics, and responses. When, in the early 1980s, Lingua Press published the score to Skydrift, more than half of the book was devoted to the responses of the performers who participated in the event. Environmental and social interaction are at the very core of this music.


                  Consequently, it's music which needs a multilayered listening — a listening which  reveals its radical message and radical sound, and which still, years later, constitutes a clarion call for a serious, thoughtful, radical dealing with our relationship to all-that-is-around-us. — Warren Burt (1995)




(Tray Card)


Music, Language and Environment

Environmental Sound Works by David Dunn, 1973 – 85


CD #1  [70:26]


1  Nexus 1  (14:40)

2  Entrainments 1  (8:14)

3  Entrainments 2  (45:53)


CD #2  [66:31]


1  Skydrift  (31:12)

2  Mimus Polyglottos  (5:17)

3  (espial)  (29:49)


Recorded, edited, and produced by David Dunn

Art direction and design: Adam Kapel

Executive Producer: Homer G. Lambrecht




© 1996 innova Recordings

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