The idea that any sound may be used as part of a piece of music has been in the air during much
of the 20th century. From the use of taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris through Varèse’s
sirens, Antheil’s airplane propeller, Cage’s radio, and rock ’n’ roll’s use of all of the above
and more starting at least in the 1970s, and more recently in rap music, the desire to include
everyday sounds in music has been growing. The sampling keyboard now makes this a practical reality.
In City Life, not only samples of speech but also car horns, door slams, air brakes, subway chimes,
pile drivers, car alarms, heartbeats, boat horns, buoys, and fire and police sirens are part of
the fabric of the piece.
In contrast to my earlier Different Trains (1988) and The Cave (1993), the prerecorded sounds here
are played live in performance on two sampling keyboards. There is no tape used, and this brings
back the usual small flexibility of tempo that is a hallmark of live performance. It also extends
the idea of prepared piano since the sampling keyboards are “loaded” with sounds, many recorded
by myself in New York City. These different nonmusical sounds also suggest certain instrumental
responses. Thus woodwinds for car horns, bass drums for door slams, cymbal for air brakes, clarinets
for boat horns, and several different instrumental doublings for speech melodies.
City Life is an arch form, A-B-C-B-A. The first and last movements use speech samples as part of
the musical fabric, and both feel like “fast” movements, although the actual tempo of the first
is moderate and the fairly rapid tempo of the last movement is harder to perceive because of the
many sustained sounds.
The second and fourth movements do not use any speech whatsoever. Instead, each uses a rhythmic
sample that determines the tempo. In the second, it is a pile driver; in the fourth, heartbeats.
Both start slow and increase in speed. In the second this is only because the pile driver moves
from quarter-notes to eighths and then to triplets. In the fourth movement, the heartbeats gradually
get faster in each of the four sections of the movement. Both movements are harmonically based on
the same cycle of chords. The third and central movement begins with only speech samples played by
the two sampler players. When this duet has been fully built up, the rest of the strings, winds,
and percussion enter to double the pitches and rhythms of the interlocking speech samples. This
central movement may well remind listeners of my early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965)
and Come Out (1966).