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Charles Amirkhanian recording sounds of elephant seals at Año Nuevo Beach, CA on December 19, 1985. Sounds were featured in Metropolis San Francisco, an audio collage work commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (WDR). Photo by Carol Law.

The Nature of Music: Charles Amirkhanian
75th Birthday Concert
Kyle Gann, Guest Interviewer

Composer Charles Amirkhanian began incorporating ambient sounds in his music in the 1970s and long has championed others who share his interest. On the 75th anniversary of his birthday (January 19, 1945, 4:37pm, Fresno, California) his music was featured on the 13th installment of our series “The Nature of Music,” in a special benefit concert that doubles as a record release party for his new 2-CD set Loudspeakers on the New World Records label.
At this concert, Amirkhanian discussed his music with composer and author Kyle Gann (a member of the faculty at Bard College), the program annotator for Loudspeakers, and presented surround sound performances of two of the works on the compilation: Im Frühling and Son of Metropolis San Francisco. Water sounds, bird calls and a cuckoo clock predominate in the former work, an ironic sendup of the cheerfulness of 19th Century salon music for piano solo of the same title. Here, the sunny mood darkens as the simple calls of one or two birds gradually is overwhelmed. More and more species join until there are fully a dozen clamoring in free counterpoint. A drum cadence of thunderclaps draws the music to a close. In Son of Metropolis San Francisco Amirkhanian takes his microphone to the outskirts of the Bay Area, beginning in the forest outside Aptos and gradually moving toward the city and then away. Cable car bells and foghorns are eschewed in favor of quiet forests, elephant seals mating, lapping water and an outburst from a Chinese television soap opera for good measure.

Both Im Frühling and Son of Metropolis San Francisco are featured on Amirkhanian’s latest CD Loudspeakers, a 2-CD set just released in December 2019, by New World Records. The CD also features some of Amirkhanian’s Ivesian 40-minute-long suite Pianola, based on historical player piano rolls, and the title piece, a vocal portrait of the late composer Morton Feldman. The recording can be purchased on our web store.

Event Program

Program Notes

Nite Traps (1981) The entrance music for the concert was composed in 1981 using a lakeside recording of frogs and crickets overlaid by an ostinato produced by an electronic drum machine at its slowest setting (quarter note = 40 beats to the minute). The mix was created at ZBS Media in upstate New York with engineer Bobby Bielecki.

Im Frühling (1990) In the 19th Century, composers such as Smetana, Dvorak and Liszt conjured the sound of nature and the narrative drama of the novella in the form of music composed for symphonic forces. Im Frühling reverses this process so that, by means of late 20th Century technology, the sounds of nature are made to imitate orchestral music as we have come to know it. Sound sources include original recordings made by the composer and various prominent recordists from sites in many parts of the globe. Some of these will be recognizable and others will be thoroughly transformed, giving a spectrum from representational to abstract imagery. The sounds were altered digitally in the Synclavier studio of composer Henry Kaiser in Oakland, California, and mixed in the 24-track studios of Sprocket Systems (LucasFilm Co.) in San Raphael, CA. The work was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and Westdeutscher Rundfunk for premiere at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York in April 1990.


Click here to download a PDF copy of the program.

Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1986; 1997) In Metropolis San Francisco, the sounds of the environment recorded in real time are juxtaposed with those same sounds, sampled and looped or repeated at irregular intervals to create an ambiguous but seductive narrative. The work originally was composed as one of a series of city portraits commissioned from various composers worldwide by producer Klaus Schöning and broadcast over West German Radio Köln.
Metropolis San Francisco (1986) was conceived as a musical Hörspiel—an experimental “earplay” composition on tape for radio broadcast or concert performance—inspired by the ambience of the city itself as well as its surroundings. The present subsequent edition of the piece, condensed from 55 minutes to 26:30, is titled Son of Metropolis San Francisco and was completed in 1997. This is a non-literal work composed of sounds recorded over a year-long period ending in April 1986.

The music begins with an explosion of sound that reappears in the piece, representing obliquely the ever-present threat of an earthquake. A quiet forest, the sounds of mating elephant seals, speech by Bay Area immigrants from Tonga, a violent passage from a Chinese television soap opera, a wooden bucket shower and the overflow valve from a swimming pool at Harbin Hot Springs, plus whimsical musical interludes, reveal the composer’s preference for imagining greater San Francisco not as a “metropolis” but as a place surrounded by great natural beauty.

Loudspeakers 2-CD set

In December 2019, New World Records, in association with West German Radio, released a two CD set of music by Charles Amirkhanian.

This Nature of Music Concert introduced two works from the four half-hour-long compositions that comprise “Loudspeakers.” In addition, there is Pianola (Pas de mains), a ten-movement suite based on the sounds of historical player piano rolls, and Loudspeakers, based entirely on the sounds of recorded speech by the late composer Morton Feldman. Some of his comments appear in shards of paper depicted in the cover art by Carol Law. “Loudspeakers” is available at the Other Minds web-store.

A large and distinguished catalog of American music (1776-2019) on New World Records may be accessed at newworldrecords.org.

Event Video

An Interview with Charles Amirkhanian

Event Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Event Press

Charles Amirkhanian signing CDs
Blaine Todd and the audience
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