[preface to the liner notes for David Mahler’s CD of

tape music on Artifact]



David Mahler’s place

The second baseman covers an undefined, diagonal slice of land through which balls travel freely on either side of the position. Unlike the shortstop and third baseman, she moves laterally and equally in both directions. The infield’s least glamorous job. She is often chosen not for her hitting (like the first baseman) or for her fielding (shortstop) but for a little of both. She often bats second (to advance the leadoff hitter), or near the bottom of the order.

Like some of us american composers, second basemen develop a sense of place – a way of life as much as a way of playing ball. Defined by rivers, towns, mountains and communities of friends, we have location, not time. Baseball instead of history. We work on the field or on the court, but between games we don’t exist. Like Ives’ Putnam’s camp, our power spots are our aesthetic and community. Men, women and mountains. I don’t live in New England, but in a sacred harp tunebook. Our lives, towns and songs are indistinguishable.

We’re Arkansas travelers who’ve gotta go west, we have the Milwaukee, Davenport, Statesboro and St. Louis blues. It’s good-bye girls we’re going to Boston, sweet home Chicago, and from Baltimore to Washington. We go down the road (feeling bad) to Chimacum, San Antone, Kansas City and the streets of Baltimore and Laredo. In Oleanna, the land is free, the Columbia rolls on, there are big taters in Sandyland, and most important, fifty miles of elbow room in those Oklahoma hills where we were born. We ask why oh why Ohio. Backing into Birmingham with 8 more miles to Louisville, we need long distance information for Memphis, Tennessee. With our hands on the throttle and our eyes upon the rail, we ride the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe. Back home in Indiana and waist deep in the big muddy, we can hear Jerusalem and K.C. moan. Our afflictions include the St. Louis tickle. When all is said and done, we’re just here to get our baby out of jail.

David Mahler’s music describes, as much as any composer I know, not only who but where he is. For him, Port Townsend and Volunteer Park are ideas as well as locations. For over twenty years he has created a home in Seattle, and has been a center of gravity for its important experimental music scene (for which he is seldom acknowledged – David’s lamentation over Seattle!).

Some aspect of his work relates to something in each of us, whether it’s an Illinois childhood, the Mickey Mouse club, Elvis, the love of rivers, or moving across the country by train. His music sprays, pulls, and hits to the opposite field. Without swinging for the fences, it shows us where he lives – expressing our love of games to which we show up and cheer.

David’s music is transparent, communicative, sophisticated, profound, friendly. In all of its manifestations – with northwest fiddle musicians, kids, the Volunteer Park Conservatory Orchestra, his "art song" duo, or the tape recorder pieces – the love of musical materials and activities erupts into making pieces. Like a good ballgame, a David Mahler piece is always tangible, funny, and sad. His music "ensonifies" that (still) wondrous moment when, emerging through the bleachers, the field appears for the first time.

To David the tape recorder is like the piano: a parlor instrument, inviting rather than exclusive. His music suggests that we should each have one at home, to gather around playing music together. In Speech with Interpreter by learning to speak the Mickey Mouse club theme song backwards, the long, tendentious history of "tape techniques" becomes a game – hey, maybe we could try it at home! Funny, revealing, and virtuosic (in a way only David might attempt), it pierces the medium, and shows how David’s work teaching tape techniques to kids has had a bi-directional set of influences. Like Negativeland, the Tape Beatles and other collage bands who have made simple, guerrilla uses of recording technology a kind of 70s-80s continuation of the guitar-based garage band, David’s tape work is about community and playing music together. It owes little to the european tradition (Stockhausen, Berio, Henry, etc.), but much to the early collages of Cage and to the vernacular traditions of american music.

In King of Angels, for example, David pays homage to two very disparate influences: the king himself and an early concrète piece by James Tenney. But David does things that most of us, taking ourselves too seriously, would not. Elvis speaks his own name, and is resurrected in the sonic equivalent of a black velvet painting. The piece suggests, in the words of a David Mahler song (and my favorite waltz), that "Elvis is Watching You." In Cup of Coffee and Rising Ground the sonic ordinary (a casual comment, some toys) becomes, without artifice, a thing of great beauty.

The Mahler tape masterpiece is unquestionably (Singing in the Style of) The Voice of the Poet, an astonishing demonstration of David’s terrific and terrifying sense of humor, and his duplicitous virtuosity in the medium. Listening to this classic of American tape music, I realize that all these pieces are made with a maniacal patience and care, the kind that emanates from a pervasive calm and deep pleasure in one’s work. David is a master tape splicer with extraordinary ears. No one who listens to this piece ever again hears the words "Swedish composers" without smiling .

David Mahler, like many american composers, is a preposition, not a verb. He is off the bag, on the mound, at the line, on the warning track, in the pocket, on deck, above the rim, down east and down in the post. He is at the plate, on the gig, in the paint, taking it to the hole, behind the beat, ahead of the count, filling the gap. He’s in the zone. Born to boogie and to lose, David comes early to watch batting practice, roots for the home team, and you can hear him in the cheap seats.


Larry Polansky

Buenos Aires/Hanover; April—May, 1997.