Richard Teitelbaum ’60: Electronic Music Pioneer
The Haverford music major's 50-plus-year career includes being a part of Musica Elettronica Viva, among the earliest groups to combine synthesizers with more traditional acoustic instruments.
No matter where you enter the vast body of work Richard Teitelbaum ’60 has created in his 50-plus years as a composer and performer, you’ll find one consistent element: other people. Collaboration is foundational for Teitelbaum—it keeps his ears open and his music fresh. “Everybody I collaborate with is very interesting and is both related to my own work but somehow different,” he says.
Teitelbaum was a music major at Haverford, and those initial lessons in composition and counterpoint still inform his work. He also began one of his first long-running collaborations at Haverford, playing with cellist Robert Martin ’61. Still musical colleagues, the two are fellow professors at Bard College.
Though he began his career as a pianist, Teitelbaum, 79—who lives in Bearsville, N.Y., with his wife, pianist Hiroko Sakurazawa—is best known as a pioneer in electronic music. Soon after earning a master’s degree in theory and composition from Yale in 1964, he went to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. There he began a collaboration with Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski under the name Musica Elettronica Viva. MEV was among the earliest groups to combine synthesizers with more traditional acoustic instruments, creating a heady mix of melody, abstraction, composition, and free improvisation. The group continues to play and record; Teitelbaum is making plans to join Curran in Italy this fall to record.
It was also in the 1960s that Teitelbaum met synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, who helped him with a signature project: using Moog synths to amplify human brainwaves and turn biological signals into music.
“I had an experience one night where I felt like I was communicating with a friend through telepathy,” says Teitelbaum. “I wrote to Bob Moog and asked if I could use his equipment to perform with brainwaves, use them as control voltages. He said yes and made me a brainwave amplifier that I still have.”
Performances of so-called “brainwave music” involve bringing audience members onstage and hooking them up to Teitelbaum’s synthesizers. The variations in the subject’s mental and physical states affect the music generated from performance to performance. “The rhythms of the brainwaves and the meditative aspect of them all influence the experience of the piece,” he says.
Simultaneously, Teitelbaum opened another avenue of collaboration that he continues to travel along. In 1967, he worked with free-jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy, whose experimental style paired well with Teitelbaum’s. “Free jazz is not restricted by rules,” he says. “[There are] no designs, we just start playing. It’s music created on the spot, and it develops in unpredictable ways.”
Teitelbaum, who has played with other prominent members of jazz’s avant-garde, including multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton and drummer Andrew Cyrille, explains the attraction of free jazz: “It’s fun!” he says. And, indeed, a sense of play and adventure is audible in everything he’s done, from his early MEV recordings to more recent work like Cyrille’s 2016 jazz quartet record The Declaration of Musical Independence. Just as adventurous were his solo and MEV sets last year at the hip Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., where the lineup included Carla Bley, Henry Threadgill, and Matmos. But Teitelbaum says one of his principle pleasures is the educational collaboration he has with his students at Bard. “They often surprise me,” he says of the students’ music, and there’s no doubt that as much as he teaches them, the work he does with these young musicians will also express itself in the music Teitelbaum has yet to make.