Dann Senn

Composers, Interviews

Asymmetry: I was intrigued the last time I saw you, at a Cascadia concert, that you described yourself as a Fluxus composer. That was interesting to me because I feel like those are my real musical heroes.

Senn: Well you know, I had never really given it much thought, and it wasn’t until I started to have trouble with performances in Portland by Cascadia musicians that I had to dig out what’s the reason for this. Why am I getting such poor performances?

Asymmetry: So, it wasn’t the audience, it was the performers?

Senn: Yes. And it’s always embarrassing to have a piece performed and have it performed badly.

One of those performed badly was a piece called Prague Songs (later renamed Micro-Dramatic Songs from Prague, One) for a small ensemble and voice. I knew it was a really strong work, but the performers were childish and unprofessional. I thought, “What is the deal here?” After I had written Micro-Dramatic Songs from Prague, Two, for piano and voice, the two Cherry Blossom people in Eugene, Nancy Wood and Paul Safar, offered to do it. And the experience was like night and day. I’m talking about professionalism and skill. When I heard those songs, it was so uplifting to see these people embracing what they themselves found an odd piece.

Now, why were these works odd? Well, eventually I realized that it’s because they were Fluxus pieces. And one characteristic of Fluxus artists is not recognizing traditional disciplines. It’s not that there’s religion about it. It’s just that doesn’t make any sense to us, and you do what you do. The Fluxus movement came from Cage. He didn’t originate the movement; he just taught at the New School, and a bunch of artists came and studied with him, including George Maciunas, who spearheaded this movement and gave it the name Fluxus, meaning between, moving around, not discipline specific.

Working with Cascadia musicians meant that I had to acknowledge the traditional disciplines, but I brought to the situation my Fluxus tendencies. Now those tendencies are not all that prominent in the Czech songs; I wrote my own texts and invented my own ways of developing them is about it.

These texts are not poetic; but they have rhythms, speech rhythms that are mine. This is the way I talk, and so I usually use compound time, primarily because I can get closest to human speech rhythms with compound time. But this in itself makes them difficult to perform because there’s a lot of dotted notes. Also a lot of back and forth between different meters: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, four. Again, nothing too extravagant.

The performers in Eugene had a problem with that right at first, but completely re-plugged into it and were game for the rest. Whereas the performers in Portland, a really professional ensemble, didn’t like it and gave me attitude even though they, too, had picked their piece to perform. So what I figured out was that what makes the music strange and difficult to perform is a Fluxus consciousness when I write this stuff because I’m not following existing models.

Asymmetry: You were also associated with Fluxus artists, though, weren’t you?

Senn: Well, yes. In 2001, for instance, I was included in a Fluxus retrospective at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus. It’s a really great one to check out online.



I remember thinking, “Why are they including me in this?” Because I just work. I didn’t think about being connected with these people or connecting with those people.

They had all the original Fluxus artists there, including Joe Jones and Gerhard Trimpin, an incredible sound sculptor from Seattle who won a McArthur, and Phill Niblock, and Paul Panhuysen from Europe, another extremely important Fluxus artist. He has had this ensemble called the Maciunas Ensemble which plays things like a quartet for four cellos and not one of the people plays cello. It’s an incredibly powerful work. Paul is a big influence in my life along with Niblock. And of course, Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s wife, who was one of the original Fluxus artists and a good one, too.

But even then, I didn’t really come to terms with what made me a Fluxus artist, not until I got involved with Cascadia. The years before that probably illustrate my Fluxus inclinations better. If you are a composer, you tend to build your own instruments from scratch. My sculptural instruments, for instance; this is actually one of the first ones I built in Muncie, Indiana, years and years ago. All it is is just a found resonator on the bottom and then these are turned. If you turn these clockwise, they turn around the edges, rhythmically.

But if you turn them counterclockwise, they skip. From here to here, is a musical phrase and not unlike a human performance, it is different every time. And each instrument is unique.

Now this next one is a bit more complex. Underneath the base of this are four inch woofers filled with soft epoxy with a hook in the middle to transfer the movement of the woofer to items on top here.

I compose with sine waves that are below the hearing range. So, this is a composition right now. It’s algorithmically reassembling itself all the time. It’s actually a through-composed piece from beginning to the end. And I chop it up and then I just reconfigure continuously for installation. This is exactly the way I composed it. I composed it with a computer with these frequencies. I want it to hit exactly that. It looks random, it’s not. It’s just complex.

Now, the other thing that’s so amazing about this whole idea of sub-audio frequencies, you can put them on the same track as the audible sounds, which have no effect over the motion.

Asymmetry: Oh, of course, right.

Senn: It’s too high; it has no effect. And the string appears to be still.

Asymmetry: That reminds me of what Barry Truax said about how animals in nature have the sounds arranged so all of them can be heard. Because they occupy different areas in the spectrum.

Senn: That’s right.

Asymmetry: And the birds will even change their pitch when a train is coming towards them.

Senn: Yes, they go onto another channel.

Asymmetry: It’s just amazing.

Senn: So there’s just a cheap CD in here, and if you put it in a player to listen to it, you wouldn’t hear anything but some chicken sounds or my voice or whatever I’m working with in the album. I just use the random search to reassemble the pieces continuously. Or sometimes I do installations where it repeats on the hour.

Asymmetry: Oh right. The one at the art gallery at PSU that was a variant of the Czech piece.

Senn: Airlift. It’s like a clock, yeah.


It’s just the way I feel about the environment if I want that. So, I have all sorts of instruments based on this concept. Some of them are large, some of them, like at the University of Washington in Tacoma in the main campus, as you’re coming into the main foyer, there’s one that is eight feet wide, eight feet tall, two feet deep, and it plays large bells.

There’s a really nice installation coming at the Volunteer Park Conservatory that uses this sub audio technology. Using sub audio frequencies is so fascinating to me. You know I’ll die still working in it because it’s so fascinating. And it just came about one day when I was sitting talking with Matt Marble and Seth Neill when they had come over for dinner one time, and just like that I got an idea of how I could use sub audio frequencies to pump up bags, like in the Airlift piece.

Your video of that on youtube was seen by a lot of people. You did me good.

Asymmetry: Oh good, I’m glad. I got a lot of comments on that one, too. I think that’s the most commented on video that I ever posted.

Senn: Because it’s really strange, isn’t it? Not to me, but, you know.

Asymmetry: No, not to me either.

Senn: Yeah, it’s from another world.

Asymmetry: It’s very fascinating.

Senn: I saw the tape and I laughed at it, it makes me laugh. People come in and they’re so serious about the whole thing. I was like, “Don’t you think this is funny for Christ’s sake?” I think they were kind of being respectful.

Asymmetry: You know that story about a person laughing at a Cage concert? Some guy was at a Cage concert and the person in front of him was laughing and laughing and just wouldn’t stop. The guy was just about to lean up and tap him on the shoulder when the person turned his head. It was John Cage.

Senn: He was laughing at his own music.

Asymmetry: In 2009, right after Kagel had died, I heard a bunch of his music all over Europe. There was such an incredible difference from performance to performance. Some people would play these pieces, and they were very respectful. And those performances were crap. Other people just got into it and played with vigor and humor, and those were magnificent performances.

Senn: They understood the work. I think that there’s a lot of protecting of your kind of intellect going on with that kind of seriousness. The fear is that if people should see us relax a little bit, that it would open it up too much to too many people. It’s like being bare.

Asymmetry: I also get the sense that one of the things you’re opening yourself up to is criticism that it’s not really serious, that it’s not really good art.

Senn: By your social grouping. And in fact, you’re damaging your work. You’re playing in a social grouping, and you really don’t want criticism. You don’t want your work trivialized. That might be another thing. It’s really interesting to me.

Asymmetry: I get into a lot of discussions with people about this since I have always loved contemporary music, unreservedly, from the first time I heard Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Senn: We’ve talked about this before I remember, that starting point.

Asymmetry: Yeah, I just plunged into it and with no sense that anything was wrong with any of this. This was just a fascinating new world. I quickly got the sense that other people hated it.

Senn: It’s shocking, isn’t it?

Asymmetry: It is shocking, yeah it is.

Senn: It’s a bad thing, you know, in our culture now.

Asymmetry: And it’s been marginalized out of the existence, practically. Now, for the people that are in that world, who are actively in that world, doing the music, and doing the performing and doing the listening like I do, it’s a very thriving, vibrant world. But it’s so far off of most people’s radar, even musicians. They don’t even know what it is.

Senn: A really good way I think to illustrate this is that, part of the reason why I left academia was because it was increasingly not a place for me. Where, when I had to go up for tenure and all of that stuff, I could only offer the front half of my left foot. I was willing to do that, but generally speaking, by the late 80’s, it had become, again, so narrow as it was before the Second World War within academia where I felt out of place. I needed to, in order to survive spiritually and artistically, I had to get out.

Today, the chance of, well I’ll say it again, a Fluxus-like artist being hired in a music department is extremely low, because they just don’t understand it. They think you’re ridiculous. They don’t think you’re legit.

Asymmetry: I know a guy who went to Davis to study music and I asked him if he had taken any classes with Bob Ostertag. What I didn’t realize was that Bob is not in the music department.

Senn: No.

Asymmetry: No, he is in Technocultural Studies. It’s good place for him, naturally, but it means that Davis has music students who never hear of Ostertag, who is an incredibly important person in new music.

Senn: That’s right. And I feel that at this moment we are probably 50 years before the pendulum will swing back to like it was after the Second World War.

Asymmetry: Even in Europe, you think?

Senn: In Europe, it’s much much stronger and much much healthier in this respect. America’s really very conservative. Of course, fortunately, the big cities, like even this city, there’s an element of it, this thing that you and I used to…, you probably still go to the PDX Contemporary.

Asymmetry: I would, but that has not been going on for awhile. When it was going on, that was a lot of fun. I think I went to all their events but the first one, maybe. As soon as I heard about them, I attended every concert.

Senn: In any case that’s kind of the reason I went there. I was looking for some connections, more expansive connections in the music area. Of course, in places like New York, there are still galleries which are venues which cater to it. I was thinking that a really, really good way to demonstrate what we started with here is these lids.

I have an orchestra of these in Prague, each registered by hertz and pitch and all those kinds of things, but I do nothing to change them. These are just found objects from thrift stores mostly. When I first started, I picked up some of these lids because I was building something called scrap percussion. Scrap percussion is actually now in the sound art lexicon. Scrap percussion came from me. My first things were called Scrapercussions, one p.

I also made big trees of things, everything connected along a continuum of metal. You strike one thing, you strike the whole thing, you get that. I made them into Theremins, put wheels on them and they were dance partners. I worked with dancers along with this, really very effective, and performing them.
Then I was asked in Tacoma to be an artist-in-residence at a middle school. Well, this was an inner-city school, the kids were known for being rough and not obedient in classes and I thought, “Well, what am I going to do?” I had a couple of these lids, and within like an hour after getting the idea, they reached this form and have never changed.

They are portable, they are incredibly loud, and they are indestructible.

Asymmetry: Even middle schoolers couldn’t break these.

Senn: And the kids wrote beautiful compositions based on, “I want my composition to sound like this.” I have a full blown, graphic, systematized notation for this, called lyde notation, L-Y-D-E, which came about originally when I was working with these kids. So, I would say, “How fast do you want to hit it?” “Well, I want to hit it slow.” “Let’s say one line is slow, two is fast and three is faster. Do you want it irregular or regular?” Just general parameters. “Oh, I want it to go like that.” So, they’re going like this and, “Can I have a flower coming out of this?” You know, I was, “Alright, a flower.” They’re putting this thing together, and within 20 minutes they are making complex compositions.

Asymmetry: That’s incredible.

Senn: It’s all texture based, and they can be performed, and the kids own these things now. And they are fussy. In fact, they get a little bitchy about things! So, we have a composition now that’s interesting and complex. If you were to write this music as a score, as a linear score, you could only use the most professional players. So, this was really interesting to me. The idea that I could get children playing stuff that only grown-ups like the Cincinnati Percussion Trio could play. Because to notate it is so complex when you’re using linear notation. But with nonlinear notation, you just cross this incredible gulf. These kids can play something of incredible complexity within an hour, because the notation’s efficient and because they are participating. They understand what they are doing.

It just was life changing for me working with these black kids in the inner city because they’re really smart too. They have high intellect.

To oversimplify, I think that we have in schools we have basically two types of people, those that are very adaptable to linear learning, who have difficulty actually with this really complex textual based stuff and those who naturally can work on these multiple levels, but they are not quite as successful at the linear approach. It’s different brain types fundamentally.

And kids with a nonlinear brain type are often considered stupid when in fact they are just different.

Asymmetry: And superior at doing the multiple and nonlinear things.

Senn: You know, what we’re talking about now, I believe, is connected to what we were talking about earlier about how difficult it is for a Fluxus-based artist to find a place in academia because it’s become more conservative. The people who don’t want to perform my music, that’s coming from this other brain type; I don’t believe that they consciously know why this stuff freaks them out. It’s coming from an alien place, and it frightens them. That alien place is nothing more than people who have a nonlinear approach to life and thinking.

Asymmetry: Right. What you were saying about this and how those kids within an hour were making compositions of high complexity and performing them; this, I think was the fundamental thing that pissed Boulez off about Cage. Because Cage was getting the same results he was getting, but without going into all this linear writing out and sculpturing.

Senn: Bingo. They were both working with a nonlinear result, but Boulez preserved the political structure, and then it was only the cream of the cream of the cream of this structure who could do his stuff, and he had the clout to get it done. But if Dan Senn writes music of that complexity, the chance of getting it done is next to impossible unless I have Charles Ives’ money, or if I have through some fluke got a kissable behind where people suddenly want it, it’s in, it’s popular, “I’m going to do a Senn.” Anything short of that, forget it. You’ve got to find another way.

So, I have these lids, and I realized that I could take like 30 of them in my bag to Europe. When you get groups of these, even just two of them playing at one time, you get this incredible acoustic phenomenon where you have these sub frequencies and overtones and mixing, all controlled by the space that you’re in.

Asymmetry: That sounds pretty cool.

Senn: It’s extraordinary, let me tell you. And that’s just with turning it. I’m not talking about all the other different ways of hitting them. When the kids were playing them, they were hitting on the button on the top, rolling things around, hitting on the sides and wherever.

So I took the lids to Europe, where I did workshops and community people would come, and I would teach them to play these instruments, the turning thing, hitting and all that stuff, just using imitation. There would be someone who would be the leader, copy that person. Let’s have two leaders, you copy that one, you copy the other one, and stuff like that. All ways of doing this without notation, which is really effective too.

Then eventually, we go into the city and everyone is turning and playing, and playing different spaces and of course the most conservative, the person who hates contemporary music more than anybody else, everyone’s an advocate after it.

Asymmetry: What a great experience.

Senn: My feeling is that art of this sort can be used as a real social lever. When you change people in that way, they can’t go back. It’s a fundamental change. So, next time, you go and listen to Boulez, you’re different. You are coming from a different base.

Then, just last year, because of Cascadia again, I thought, “How can I port these over, port these over into a linear context that can be performed by trained percussionists?” There’s all this infrastructure there. How can I somehow change this Fluxus stuff into something that they will understand?” So, that’s what I started to do. But from this totally non-linear context, which is closer to my heart, it’s very difficult. It means I have to enter into a really complex process of recording things. I have to play all my instruments, record all the basic sounds. It just takes an enormous amount of effort and of money, and it’s a very complex project. You’re talking weeks of every day recording this stuff. The problem with being a Fluxus artist is that this is a lot of work because you’re making all your stuff from scratch all the time.

But it’s our own damn fault.

The problem that I have is that when I write something that pleases me it’s hard, and I never set out to be hard, to write hard music but this is really shit-hard music to play.

I’m quite realistic that I might be coming up against a brick wall, I just won’t be able to get the Portland area people receptive enough to open up. That’s why when Florian Conzetti came by to get some of these to play, I thought, “Wow. This is really great,” but now a week or a week and a half ago, he calls up and he says, “I can’t. I’m way into it, I really love the piece, but I can’t do it on this Cascadia concert.” But then, they are going to be doing a video and a piece of mine with a sound not so different from the sound you heard at the last concert.

Asymmetry: Well, it was interesting to have your piece and the Miksch/Penrose duo in the same concert. They weren’t anything alike, but because of the context those two seemed much closer to each other than any of the others.

Senn: There are other elements that make them alike. He made this stuff from scratch and they were improvising.

Asymmetry: Oh, so that is a real connection.

Senn: That’s a strong connection.

So those sounds that you heard at the concert, they were done with this violin, which had belonged to my mother.

I tuned all of it to the gamelydes; I broke a string at the very end, but I tuned all of the strings to first the lowest gamelyde, and then the next and the next, and then I improvised for a solid day on it.

Then also, I’ll be able to get a sound like this. It works very well with a violin or a string instrument playing some kind of sound. You just can get this amazing palette of sounds.

When I’m actually improvising, of course, I never think of this stuff. I’m just kind of doing the best I can to make something interesting within the strict limitations imposed by the instrument. Trying to create something aesthetically beautiful.