Sunday, April 06, 2008

Alwin Nikolais: Electronic Nostalgia Finally Made Flesh by Anthony McCarthy

Having worked in a primitive electronic music lab in the early 70s, the period of patch cords, reel tape that sometimes stretched unexpectedly and other ancient technology, electronic music of that time can make me feel strangely nostalgic.

That’s probably why I originally bought the album, Alwin Nikolais, Electronic Dance Music. Maybe it was the photo of his extravagantly costumed dancers on the cover. The pieces cover a period from 1966 (Chimera: Dance 1) to 1989. The electronic media used seem to be everything from tape samples, the Moog ( Nikolais not only owned the first one but he is said to have startled Robert Moog with potentials he hadn’t imagined.) and finally the Synclavier. The range of expression includes mysterious, dramatic, serene, slap-happy (the delightful Blank on Blank). There is even impressive satirical use of the most obnoxious musical invention of all time, the back beat. Nikolais was a real composer.

Until the other day still photos of his dances were all I’d seen, then, by chance, this You Tube of Tensile Involvement came up in an unrelated search. The video is kind of jumpy but it gives you the whole piece.

Here are two other excerpts from a different production.

I wish there was more to see and hear but I haven’t found much online except still photos.

Other than Milton Babbitt, the great master of the early synthesizer, Nikolais might have produced some of the most compelling music using electronics in the medium’s short history. Maybe it’s because it was created for the necessities of dancing in mind. Some people say that Nikolais was the founder of multi-media. I don’t know, not being more than a musician. But if he wasn’t the founder, he was a master of the actual practice of it.

There is more information at the Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance, Inc.

* You’d think with the number of patch cords hooked up that year, I’d be better at untangling my computer and stereo cables. Proving the limits of education.