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Music, Language and Environment

by David Dunn

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Nexus 1 14:39
Skydrift 31:19
(espial) 29:51



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)


released June 14, 2021


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David Dunn New Mexico

David Dunn was born in 1953 in San Diego, CA. From 1970 to 1974 he was assistant to the American composer Harry Partch & remained active as a performer in the Harry Partch Ensemble for over a decade. He has worked in a wide variety of audio media inclusive of traditional & experimental music, installations for public exhibitions, video & film soundtracks, radio broadcasts, & bioacoustic research. ... more

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