The Chatterbox


NDT = Nikolias Dance Theater
HSP = Henry Street Playhouse
MLDC = Murray Louis Dance Company
SM = Stage Manager
TD = Technical Director

Chatterbox 2, “NIk’s Music,”
a summary of an e-mail dance discussion, 11–12, 2002)

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Nik’s Music

Ruth Grauert, Nikolais and Louis companies, ’48–’95 — On Nikolais and His Music (11/06/02):
     I am working entirely from memory on this, so that anyone with a source to FACTS, please edit.
     In 1941, Nik worked with composers (piano) to accompany his works. Or he used already composed pieces. When he started work at Henry Street Playhouse, his first works were Exrados (1948), for which he engaged composers (Alfred Pew/Al Brooks), and the plays for children (1946–1956). For these he used various devices. He engaged Freda Miller to compose some of the works. He and Freda accompanied these works live on a dual piano. He used recorded music (from records and played on a turntable, a difficult process) and live percussion, and dancers made sounds.
     In the work Village of Whispers (1955) he relied on the sounds — voice and percussion — made both by him and the dancers in the wings and on stage.
     With the introduction of the tape recorder Nik’s pallet of sounds was greatly enhanced. He directed his company members as they made all kinds of concrete sounds with cooking pots, pipes, cardboard tubes, glasses of water, and Nik’s favorite—an old gas tank from a Model-T Ford. Nik would improvise on the piano, which he might intersperse with recorded music, and which the sound engineer (David Berlin) might alter electronically.
     I believe that all the works for which the music is credited to Nikolais through 1963 were made in this fashion. This doesn’t mean that it was simple. The sound would be played as the dancers danced and frequently part or parts needed to be re-recorded, sounds altered, tempos revised, tonalities changed. But it was Nik’s musical ear that always said aye or nay.
     He had an opportunity to work with James Seawright (husband of Mimi Garrard, a company member), who had access to the Columbia-Princeton Lab, the “father” of electronic sound. The music for Imago (1963) was produced through this association.
     There must be some record of the exact date that Nik got his synthesizer. That freed him of the dependence on the percussion group and upon the altering devices of the sound engineer. He could now be his own musician.
     But the motion came first. As the company members improvised on themes that he proposed, Nik would accompany with percussion. When a substantial phrase or phrases of motion were set, he would time them with a stopwatch, note rhythms, and aesthetic intent. He would go back to his music room in his apartment and compose. The following rehearsal he would play the tape as the dancers moved. The first attempt was usually not totally satisfactory, so notes on changes were made. Often he would make cuts and resplice and replay during rehearsal.
     Nik was a master musician, having worked in music before he encountered dance. His choices of sounds, his intricacies of rhythms, were usually aesthetically sound. In later years he collaborated quite successfully with David Darling (as you may recall), who was accommodating to Nik’s electronic alterings and intrusions.

Mimi Garrard, HSP 59–70, Space –72, NDT 62–66 (11/06):
     It sounds accurate to me. I will show it to Jimmy when he comes back from Princeton. I do know Nik gave Jimmy joint credit for the music for Imago when it was first done. I think Jimmy made the sounds and Nik editied them to fit the dance. Jimmy would know for sure. The early work is before my time. It is great you are doing this.

Dudley Brooks, NDT 78–80 (11/07):
     He bought the first Moog that was made, and it was made in 1963, so that must have been the date he bought it.
     I’m curious what you know about the music for Triad. I once committed a terrible faux pas by telling him that I liked that the best of all his music, to which he replied, rather frostily, that he didn’t write it. I’m confused, because I remembered it as being listed by him in the program.

Jim Van Abbema, sound eng. NDT 68–70, SM MLDC 70–74 (11/07):
     I think it was probably September of ’64 when Nik placed his order with Bob Moog for the first synthesizer. According to, Moog really didn’t start assembling his synthesizers until after the end of ’63, and he had his first prototype in August 1964. A quote from Moog:

“What I knew about electronic music at the end of ’63 was some vague knowledge that yes, at Columbia University there were some people who had something called the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and yes, they gave concerts once in a while, and yes, I should probably find out more. . . .”
And according to the Web page:
“. . . In 1964, they spent weeks trying electronic circuitry. Moog had his very first prototype built in August 1964.”
     Then further down the page is a quote about the events leading up to meeting Jimmy Seawright and Nik at a convention in New York. The September reference here is in ’64; Nik placed his order in September of ’64. And as the last paragraph says, Moog took two or three orders at that show, which kept them busy for 6 months, so delivery of Nik’s Moog was probably not until winter or spring of ’65:
“We went across the border to the University of Toronto electronic music studio, which was, at that time, headed by Myron Schaeffer. He flipped. He was the first person from the electronic music establishment to give us encouragement. Word got around, and in September I got a call from Jacqueline Harvey of the Audio Engineering Society (which was much smaller then than it is today). She called me up and said, ‘We hear that you people are doing something ... interesting... up there.’ To which I replied, ‘Well, maybe.’ She explained that she had an exhibit area to give away at the forthcoming AES show, because CBS had taken a booth but decided not to use it. Now, I knew nothing about the AES. I knew nothing about conventions in New York. I knew nothing about the audio industry. I knew nothing about buying and selling and taking orders. It was still just a hobby. So I went down and set up these few handmade modules on a little card table, and on one side of me was Ampex, with their huge tape recorders, and on the other side was 3M, and across the way was Sculley.... I was really a David among the Goliaths, and feeling very much out of place. But Jimmy Seawright, who was a technician at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, came by and took a look and said [choreographer/composer] ‘Alwin Nikolais should see these.’ Later that day, Nikolais came by and a most unexpected event happened: he placed an order.
     We actually took two or three orders at the show which kept us busy for about six months. And that’s how it began.”
     Hope this helps to clarify. The text on the Web site gives a more complete background.

Dudley Brooks (11/07):
     Aha! I see that I relied on a Website, which (as is so often the case on the Internet) was inaccurate. Thanks for the correction. BTW, *my* question was whether or not Nik wrote the music for Triad, which he told me he *didn’t* (!!) Anybody know?

Judith Connick, archivist for the Nik & Murray Collection at Ohio University (11/07):
     Hi Dudley, Jim and other list members! I did some research about the composer for the music for Triad. The documentation that came from Murray with the original reel to reel for the sound score attributed Nik as the composer. I did some further checking because of the info in your email and found a 1977 program from a performance at the Beacon Theater. The description for Triad included:

“The work premiered in NY at the Beacon on August 4, 1976 . . . Some sections for the sound score were improvised by Robert Benford and members of the Paul Winter Consort. Other sections incorporate sounds created and edited by Andrew Rudin.”
For Guignol (1977) the music was documented and attributed to Nik and Paul Winter. A description in another program said,
“Music improvised by the Paul Winter Consort with the exception of the electronic sounds.”
Perhaps some of the electronic sounds were created by Nik in both these pieces.

     I have no info about your Moog question. Murray told me that Nik donated the instrument to the Instrument Museum at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Perhaps they can help you find the answer.
     Also concerning music — one of my favorite facts from Gladys Bailin-Stern concerned “Nick Loper.” We were going over some posters and I asked her who Nick Loper was — he was credited on the poster with being the accompanist. Gladys said that Nik was tired of seeing his name under so many roles in the performance — choreographer, lights, music, etc., etc., so he created Nik Loper so Alwin Nikolais wouldn’t be listed so many times! You probably know this already, but I really enjoyed it when Gladys told me.
     I’m glad to be on the list and have a chance to share some info from the collection!
     Best to all of you!

Jim Van Abbema (11/07):
     Hi Judith, Dudley, and list members — I recall that Nik Loper sometimes even took a back seat for another pseudonym, “Arnold Heinrich.”

Carlo Pellegrini, NDT member 75–78 (11/07):
     Great discussion string on Nik’s music.
     I was with the company when Paul Winter came in and improvised with us as we performed the choreography to Guignol. I think it was over the course of three days. It was in the big studio on 19th Street. The walls were covered with black velvet drapes to deaden the sound. I did not remember any of the music being used for Triad, which I was also there for.
     As always, thank you for continuing the dialogue. Who would have thought a simple letter between us about Nik’s warm-up would have engendered so much community online for Nik and his work process?

Marc Lawton, Angers Company ’78–’80 (11/08):
     In Angers, Nik used sound he had brought along, i.e., his own and a lot from the David Darling Ensemble in 1979 for the first company show titled Passerelle. He later used more music by that group for Schema at the Paris Opera in 1980. But no sign of Paul Winter as far as I know. In 1978, for our first lec-dem, Nik had some French jazz musicians improvise with us for two weeks at the coupole (top floor) of Théâtre de la Ville and then edited the stuff to fit our one-hour performance. We were all very impressed watching him cut and splice meters of tape on the Revox recorder right next to the stage where we were rehearsing (and quite close to the premiere!).

Susan Buirge, NDT 63–67, MLDC 64–67, HSP –70 (11/11):
     I remember Nik getting his first Moog synthesizer in the fall of 1964, or winter 1965. I was working as his secretary at that time, as well as taking classes and dancing in the company.

Peter Koletzke, SM MLDC 74–84, TD/lighting instructor Choreospace & School –90 (11/11):
     Interesting method for a Nik/Lou reunion. Pardon me if any of this repeats earlier information. I am late signing in to the discussion of The First Moog.
     The story always was that Nik’s Moog synthesizer was the first one produced by the Moog company, so Murray asked me to ask Moog to write a letter stating that fact. However, what they sent was a letter stating that the machine was "one of the first" and that it used wood from a cherry tree in Robert Moog’s back yard. I’m pretty sure Robert signed the letter. I called Moog to find out why they didn’t write that it was The First Moog, and they said that it wasn’t, so maybe the order was placed or filled after those others who attended the show mentioned in Jim’s message.
     The letter did not corroborate the general myth, so this is not well known. However, I would guess the letter has been preserved and that it accompanied the machine to Ann Arbor.
    Another thread for the fabric of Carlo’s note on the Paul Winter improv sessions: I spoke with Paul Winter in person this past June after a concert and he said that he remembered those sessions in the studio.

Carlo Pellegrini (11/11):
     Just got a note from Tom Caravaglia, re: Paul Winter session:

“To my recollection, the music session with Paul Winter lasted two days and included dancers. From there Nik further added his genius touches. I was hired to document the event. They (the photos) are still on file. —Tom”
      Question: might the Moog synth in question have some kind of a serial number or distinguishing identification on it like a fine musical instument has (a date of origin, a city, a studio stamp, etc.) to be able to say this is the first, second, third created?

Claudia Gitelman, HSP 50s, staff 70s on, emerita Mason Gross (12/22):
     This is a follow to Dudley Brooks’s research on Nik and the Moog (pronounced to rhyme with rogue, not with fugue). My information comes from a book just published by Harvard University Press, written by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, titled Analog Days. Bob Moog was invited to deliver a paper and was given a free display booth when someone decided not to come to the annual convention of engineers in NYC in October 1964. The book quotes Moog on page 29:

“Alwin Nikolais, the choreographer who does his own scores . . . shows up and then I heard the words, that I later realized were the magic words: ‘I’ll take one of this, two of this, and that one . . . ’ ”
The authors go on:
“Nikolais with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship purchased what would become the first ever commercially made Moog synthesizer.”
An endnote tells us that Nikolais’s Moog synthesizer is today at the Museum of Musical Instruments at the U of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Jim Van Abbema (12/29):
     This fairly well corroborates what I had gleaned from The Web site quotes Moog as saying he got a call in September ’64 about free display space at the Audio Engineering Society convention. The convention, at which Nik and Moog met, apparently took place the following month (see Claudia’s note above). But there is still no delivery date mentioned. The Web site quotes Moog: “We actually took two or three orders at the show which kept us busy for about six months.” If the author quote Claudia cites is accurate, perhaps Nik’s Moog was the first commercial one built.
     Recent update, 02/15/2013: I found this image of Nik’s Moog synthesizer on Wikipedia from the Sterns Collection at the University of Michigan. There it is listed as the first commercial Moog synthesizer, commissioned by the Nikolais Dance Theater in 1964. For those of us who were familiar with Nik’s home sound studio, this photo makes the instrument look a bit bare, since it's devoid of its usual tangle of patch cords.

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