Name: David Behrman
Occupation: Composer
Nationality: American
Current release: On November 27th and 28th, the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto is celebrating the music of David Behrman will a special event. The programme of OPEN SPACE: FOCUS ON DAVID BEHRMAN will feature concerts, film screenings and talks, involving video artist Terri Hanlon, and leading performers like ars ad hoc and cellist Okkyung Lee.

What makes the Serralves micro-festival so unique is that it celebrates the entire range of Behrman's history and work. The press release obviously mentions his seminal work with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, particularly dances like Walkaround Time (1968) or EyeSpace (2007). And it rightly stresses his influential work as a curator for the "Music of Our Time" series of new music recordings, which would introduce pieces by John Cage, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley to a wider audience.

[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]

But it also looks at his more recent oeuvre, through performances of, among others, "Open Space", a work which keeps evolving. For Behrman, perhaps, the distinction between less recent and current compositions doesn't seem very relevant anyway. After all, as he points out in this interview, when reviving old pieces, the actual challenge "is to realize a new version suited to the present time which takes advantage of newly available resources." Which is exactly what will happen at the Porto event.

David Behman also has a new album out, ViewFinder / Hide & Seek, with Jon Gibson and Werner Durand, available via Oren Ambarchi's Black Truffle.

[Read our Werner Durand interview]
[Read our Oren Ambarchi interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with David Behrman, visit his official website for more information.

About how to finish a work

With installations that are due to be delivered to a commissioning organization, there’s the difficult moment of “letting it go.” That can be like saying goodby to a favorite child. The same is true with writings or recordings that are about to be distributed or published. One always thinks they could be further improved. The well-known phrase “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” comes to my mind a lot in such situations.

I often tinker with pieces that have existed for a while, seeing if I can improve them.

Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way?

When I was young I got good advice in little nutshells from my father, who devoted himself to writing during his entire life. Those nutshells helped me get going with creative work.

One was this: “Inspiration is the act of drawing the chair up to the desk.”

Another was (excuse my French) “ Le travail, même mauvais, vaut mieux que la rêverie.”

A third was this: “Cultivate your own little garden.”

When I look over the many pages of music sofware I’ve made over the past decades, it seems I’ve followed that third bit of advice, maybe too well.

Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way?

With the software-reliant projects of mine, there tend to be two challenges —one is to get the “machinery” to work, so the software does what I want it to do and doesn’t crash.

The other is to come up with a sound situation that is lively and at least in some ways capable of surprising me as well as the performers. To find out if that’s happening, it’s crucial to try the pieces out with live performers, or, even better, in live performances in front of an audience.

Effect of stimulants?

Starting in the 1960s I had this way of double-testing whether what I was doing was worthwhile or not. Test #1: sober, is it good? Test #2: in an altered state, is it good?

There needs to be a Yes to both questions.

Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?

Through a lot of trial and error. I throw a lot of attempts away. Recently I’ve been reviving old pieces — in that situation, the work already exists and the challenge is to realize a new version suited to the present time which takes advantage of newly available resources

(This applies to the pieces on the Serralves programs.)

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you?

I suppose the impulse to create is one that’s basic to human nature. My childhood in New York was steeped in the arts because there were celebrated artists on both sides of my family. Those years were studded with theater and concert experiences.

Then as an adolescent and young man I met friends who had great influence on me — Frederic Rzewski, Christian Wolff, John Cage, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma among them.

Also the Europeans, especially Stockhausen and Pousseur. Those influencers led me away from the “mainstream” and towards the “cutting edge.”

What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

Sometimes in the course of working on a project there are “happy accidents” that open up new ways of doing things. Chance is a feature of the software I design and helps the pieces retain a dynamic character that varies in some respects from one performance to another.

Do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?

A lot of research and learning is required to keep up with audio technology and this is even more true now than it was in the 1960s when I started out.

There has never been a generation of artists till mine that has been faced with enormous and accelerating change in the tools that are available. In the old days an artist would learn a skillset in her youth and then use that knowledge to make artwork for the rest of her life. Not so any more — if you are one of those artists (like me) who finds working with technology to be more often than not rewarding and exciting.

What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

Occasionally over the years, political issues have been the source of pieces I’ve made … but I’ve felt that the politics must be effectively linked with a compelling music idea, otherwise the results won’t be genuine.

“A New Team Takes Over” in 1968 dealt with the lies of politicians at press conferences. “Voice with Melody-driven Electronics” in 1973 had a text by I. F. Stone about environmental degradation. “A Soldier’s Declaration” in 2002, with a text by Siegfried Sassoon, dealt with the evils of militarism in WW1 and by implication in the present time. “Useful Information” in 2004 took as its source a radio broadcast informing people what to do if they were arrested for protesting the Republican Convention in New York that year.

… more on personal relationships …

Collaborations have helped me a lot in the making of various projects over the years. Two (or more) minds are better than one. “Cloud Music,” a collaboration with Bob Watts and Bob Diamond, would have been impossible for one artist alone to make.

Other artists with whom I’ve worked enjoyably include Paul DeMarinis, Terri Hanlon, Fern Friedman and George Lewis. The Sonic Arts Union members collaborated in designing programs though not in making individual pieces.