Beyond the Limits of Language with John Supko

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Combining electronics and found sounds with more conventional orchestration, the music of John Supko often carries an otherworldly quality. The composer, who is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music at Duke University, describes his piece Littoral as "music of shifting terrains, each with its distinct sense of time and color and space." 

John Supko writes the following of his Mixtape:

When I’m struggling with a piece, I often go scrounging for things to read or look at or listen to that will help me think differently. The assistance usually comes in the form of something that shows me all the assumptions I made and didn’t question. At these moments I find myself recalling Robert Wilson’s famous advice: “You should think ‘What is the wrong thing to do?’ And then do that.” The music on this mixtape reflects, in part, an application of Wilson’s philosophy both in the track choices I’ve made and in those made by the composers and performers themselves.

French Minister of Culture André Malraux isn’t known for his musical work, but his 1964 speech—on the occasion of the transfer of Resistance hero Jean Moulin’s remains to the Panthéon—is deeply musical. He communicates his emotional message beyond the limits of language. Likewise, Jean Dubuffet and Marcel Duchamp are included here as visual artists intentionally working with sound, an unadvisable prospect in their respective eras that in the end proved prophetic: the genre of “sound art” was half invented by nonmusicians who sought expansion and transformation for their aesthetic projects.

Paul Lansky’s career has also borne out the wisdom of Robert Wilson’s counsel. While other composers were becoming enthralled by the prospect of abandoning human performance to write fantastically complex music for computers to play, Lansky sought out ways to humanize the machine, to give it a voice that seems to long to sing and play like we do. 

Another example of surprising computer mediation of extant material, Devo's Space Junk is music blissfully unaware of its emotional limitations, and it should elicit a pang of nostalgia for anyone who remembers what it was like to play with early electronic keyboards and drum pads.

The Kyrie of Erik Satie’s Messe des pauvres begins a kind of somber closing ceremony for the mixtape. It becomes, retroactively, a prelude to the Malraux eulogy, which is then followed dramatically by Michael Nyman’s Look Out for an Enemy! from his work The Commissar Vanishes. Nyman’s driving pulse is soon sublimated by the impression of distant urban energy in John Cage’s realization ofSculpture Musicale. We hear Cage’s voice recombining fragments of Duchamp’s instructions, literally making of them a musical sculpture. Finally, as Cage and the Manhattan soundscape recede into memory, Bryn Harrison’s hypnotic art song An Oblique drifts in like a low tide. For a mysterious moment we listen, transfixed, as the music seems to approach us before we realize that it, too, is fading away, passing us by. It’s a recessional into silence.


Luc Ferrari - Saliceburry Cocktail Pt. 3
Howard Skempton - Toccata
Devo Space Junk ("E-Z Listening Disc" version)
Christian Wolff - Exercise 28
Howard Skempton - Swedish Caprice
Jean Dubuffet - Temps Radieux
Richard Ayres - No. 36: NONcerto for Horn: Valentine Tregashian dreams… of Ian Snaegl
Howard Skempton - Senza Licenza
Paul Lansky - Delia
Gerald Barry - Agnes von Hohenstaufen
Erik Satie - Messe des pauvres: Kyrie
André Malraux - Speech for the transfer of the ashes of Jean Moulin to the Panthéon (19 December 1964)
Michael Nyman - The Commissar Vanishes: Look Out for an Enemy!
Marcel Duchamp - Sculpture Musicale (realized by John Cage)
Bryn Harrison - An Oblique