Dangerous Liaisons (1983) for fixed media (two-channel tape)


Dangerous Liaisons is a piece of electroacoustic music dating from the early 1980s. Historically, technically, and aesthetically it is very much a product of its time, and it may be fruitful to look at it from that viewpoint. Choreographer Richard Alston attended an early performance of the tape work at the ICA in London, and his subsequent choreography led to its becoming one of the most frequently performed pieces of the electroacoustic music genre.


Historically, electroacoustic music grew out the fusion of of musique concrète and electronische musik – which is to say that when composers in Europe first started to explore the possibilities of electronic technology in the late 1940s there were two somewhat distinct tendencies: working with recorded sounds (initially from disc, then from tape) and collaging them - musique concrète - and working with elementary electronic sound generating equipment – oscillators and filters – and building sounds up from scratch - synthesising them - electronische musik. From the terms used to describe these types of music it is easy to deduce that the former (perhaps more sensual – sound shaping and collaging) tendency was primarily a French phenomenon, taking place particularly around the studios of the Groupe de Recheches Musicales (GRM) at Radio France in Paris, and the latter (more technical and ‘scientific’ approach) was essentially German, taking place especially around the studios of WestDeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Köln. The composers associated with the earliest activities at these respective studios were Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in Paris and Herbert Eimert and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen in Köln. Very rapidly the distinctions in approach evaporated, notably in works such as Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. Some time later the umbrella term electroacoustic music emerged to cover all of this, and the beginnings of Computer Music, which was initially a predominantly American phenomenon. Thirty years later, with the various approaches much more integrated, Dangerous Liaisons emerged out of a period of six months in the studios of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, where the director at the time was Denis Smalley, a New Zealander who had studied in Paris and worked at GRM. His influence was very strong within the UK, and I was one of his first postgraduate students, going on to become the director of the UEA studios myself.


Technically, the work was very dependent on its roots in musique concrète – if you like it leans to the French rather than German origins of the genre. It was constructed from thousands of fragments of recorded tape, carefully aligned and replayed on up to five stereo tape recorders at a time and mixed down to a single stereo tape machine. The initial sound material was recorded by the composer – some of the source sounds being: metal tape spool dropped into dustbin, bass guitar harmonics, coins dropped into water, resonant metal bars, the studio's EMS Synthi 100 synthesiser, bowed psaltery, etc – and collaged and transformed using very elementary techniques – tape reversal, superimposition, filtering, speed change, tape loops – all of these achieved manually. As a result it took over six months of studio time to complete. (In contrast, in a current studio equipped with fast digital editing and mixing on computer, and powerful sound transformation and sampling programmes, something similar might be achieved technically in a week or less, although of course the musical result would be very different).


Aesthetically the work is ‘modernist’ in the sense that Merce Cunningham’s choreography is modernist – that is to say that it is ‘sound about sound’ in the same way that Cunningham’s work is ‘movement about movement’, There is no explicit narrative, no ‘programme’- the work is ‘about’ the flow and sense of the sounds as purely acoustic phenomena. The composer doesn’t ‘intend’ the listener to hear pictures/stories etc – merely to listen to the sounds – although of course it’s perfectly OK for the listener to decide for themselves what the piece might be ‘about’ or how to listen to it – as ‘sound landscape’, perhaps, or ‘cinema for the ear’.  Interestingly, choreographers seem to have had a strong affinity with experimental music involving electronics. Cunningham’s work with John Cage and David Tudor was preceded by Maurice Béjart’s collaborations with Pierre Henry in the early 1950s – although the dance (and arguably the music) in the Béjart/Henry is more narrative (more Martha Graham, or in dance history terms ‘modern’). Confusingly, dance historians often label the work of Cunningham and related choreographers (like Richard Alston’s work at the time) ‘post-modern dance’, whereas aesthetically it is later developments which rehabilitate more explicit narrative (Yolande Snaith, Cholmondeleys, Featherstonehaughs, Twyla Tharp, some Michael Clark, etc.) in the mid-late 1980s which are more truly postmodern.


Electroacoustic music and choreography share an interest in space, pacing, direction and gesture which may be the reason they are so frequently paired. Dangerous Liaisons is particularly concerned with taking sounds which imply regular pulse and irregularising them slightly. This leads to an ‘uneasy’ relationship with the movement which keeps it interesting, hence the title – a performance can never become too ‘comfortable’ for the dancers. This unease might be represented as the difference between a regular musical ‘pulse’ and dancers’ ‘counts’ – the latter being influenced primarily by the physical logic of an action, rather than by absolute time regularity. The time logic within Dangerous Liaisons can be said to be informed both by the physical logic of movement (sonic or bodily) and by regular musical pulse.


Dangerous Liaisons was designed to be replayed through a large sound diffusion system in which multiple speakers reproducing different frequency ranges from the work are placed around the performance space. This tradition of sound diffusion is also associated with the GRM-school of composition, and was imported into the UK and refined as an idea by Denis Smalley, and later by Jonty Harrison, the latter associated with BEAST (Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre).