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Alwin Nikolais: Noumenon (1953)

From The World of Alwin Nikolais

A truly universal artist, the American Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993) devoted his life to a radical form of staged art he called “dance theater.”  Inspired (perhaps unconsciously) by the experiments of Bauhaus members such as Oskar Schlemmer and László Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s, Nikolais devised a style of abstract dance that encompassed costumes, stage sets, choreography, lighting, and music, all under his control.

Sound was always an important aspect of Nikolais’ artistic conception.  For his earliest pieces, he used live percussion performed on various ready-to-hand objects, such as children’s toys and automobile parts.  From here he advanced to the use of tape loops, collecting a large sound library and splicing pieces together in the manner of musique concrete.  For his 1963 dance Imago, he used a sound bank sampled from the RCA Mark II synthesizer, housed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  This was his first use of purely synthetic sound.

Also in 1963, Nikolais met analog synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, who was at the time just starting his business in New York.  He was fascinated by the sounds of Moog’s machines, and with the money provided by a a Guggenheim Fellowship, Nikolais bought the first ever commercially produced Moog synthesizer.  It was the primary sound-source for all of Nikolais’ scores from 1963 to 1975.  The instrument is now housed at the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A collection of Nikolais’ music was released by CRI in 1993.  It provides a nice sampling of his work, though it emphasizes the less experimental music created for his late dance pieces from the 1980s.

September 17, 2010, 4:14pm

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