Energy Levels: A 25th Anniversary (yikes!)

Yes, folks, it’s the 25th anniversary of my first piece for live ensemble and Walkman, Energy Levels (1983) for flute quartet. (Thanks to for hosting multiple formats for download and a Flash player!).

Energy Levels first presented a notion I developed and revisited in dozens of other pieces, from my first little chamber opera sound chaser/soul chaser (1986), to my latest little digital media opera Anatomy of Melancholy (2005). Throughout the years, the artfully touchy Sony Walkman* was replaced by portable CD players and iPods, and the ensembles asked to participate in this madness varied from instrumentalists and vocalists, to actors, actresses, dancers, and unsuspecting students.

Where did I get this idea? My oprah-aha-moment occurred in Sheeps’ Head Cafe, in Iowa City, IA, in early spring ’83. The upstairs of the cafe was mostly deserted when I sat down to my cup of their signature tomato soup. In either corner were two students, both into their studies, both listening to their Walkmen. Then, they started humming – two different songs, two different tempos! I was transfixed!

This whole idea of hijacking pop consumer technology as a cheap way of distributing audio ‘parts’ (i.e., click or tempo tracks, pitch tracks, texts, and performance instructions) was probably the only original idea I’ve ever had * *. And for you sober scholars out there, I would argue that this was my small way of engineering a delicate, slow-motion car crash between Minimalism and Modernism. I was into completely un-doing or dissolving a carefully crafted musical vocabulary right before your ears, right in the middle of a piece.


* Tape speed accurate to within 6% — plus or minus 14 seconds over the course of a six-minute piece, like Energy Levels).

* * Well, ok, this, and the dancing butt figures of Advanced Circus from the late ’90s.


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