S.E.M. Ensemble

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Early Reviews

Our artistic director Petr Kotik is fond of telling a story of having dinner with Pierre Boulez, who said to him that the only worthwhile reviews are negative ones. The S.E.M. Ensemble received its fair share of negative reviews, especially when starting out. Below are excerpts from reviews of early SEM concerts from 1970-1972.

... I met a man who said the whole thing reminded him of a bargain basement – not so much as to quality; more in the matter of abundant choices… So what about it all? An overheard conversation – “You want to hear the absolute, definitive explanation of this whole thing?” “Sure, what is it?” “I don’t know.”

(Buffalo Evening News 10/1, 1970)

… The S.E.M. Ensemble from Buffalo (USA) presented a concert entitled “Music of the American Avantgarde.” Regardless how one thinks about more or less serious plays a la Cage, one cannot deny that the “Song Books 1,2” – as the title reads – shows an antitraditionalism full of phantasy. Such manipulation of human voice mixed with electronics have some charm, yet unfortunately it is not music.

Also… Julius Eastman’s “Macle” is not music. Nevertheless it made a peculiar effect…

(Aachener Nachrichten 1/31,1972)

There is no use, asking for the musical logic, of the musical sense of this purposely willfully baked conglomerate of instrumental and vocal melismens, noises, scratch and scraping sounds; the question itself would not be adequate to the circumstances; Cage is here not interested in music in its traditional meaning, but in a structuring of time and in the disturbance of traditional ways of listening…

In “Macle,” Julius Eastman, being narcissistically in love with himself, aleatorically combines pieces of taped speaking with singing voices, electronically changed with all kinds of acoustical garbage.

(Die Welt 2/7, 1972)

What was going on for almost four hours in the Academy of Arts? Was it supposed to be an experiment, clowning, a happening or was it a circus?... What is really “beautiful” is the electronically changed typewriting noise, that brings percussion effects and the fully composed voice part, which Julius Eastman interprets so well. Eastman’s voice does not do any harm, even in the most extreme screams in his own piece.

… One may at first feel that the relaxedness of the musicians would be distracting, when they have nothing better to do; eat, pass out a cake, brush their teeth, or play “Pick up Sticks,” but with Cage this is reversed; just because of the carelessness, one’s attention is drawn to the musical happening.

(Spandauer Volksblatt 2/9, 1972)

That it was worth it to introduce us to young American artists, this I am willing to admit. Their introduction here was designed to condition us to a language and expression very admired in the USA, but I leave to Mr. Guyonnet’s judgement and responsibility for his affirmation that these musicians “have something to say.” … I will grant them their need to break up the dreariness of the universe by the contrast of a totally gratuitous effect… But, tell me, what is the value of the idea of brushing one’s teeth, or shaving and, scanning a magazine only to rip it up, while another partner operates a typewriter and a third tries out vocal effects?

You will excuse me for not having stayed for La Monte Young’s work.

(La Suisse 2/8, 1972)

Although I applaud artistic liberty or even anarchy, whose intensity supposes an abnegation ending in pure wit, I would never go along with these lifeless outpourings of musicians overcome by an abdication of being produced by a state of nerves…

But why give in to the purely emblematic subversion of the “Pope” John Cage, this pseudoleader whose example leads to the confusion of values and who has today lost even his sense of humor?

…An informative evening, informing us of the uselessness of the vocation of art in the contemporary western world. There exist, fortunately, other fighters among contemporary musicians capable of taking over…

(Tribune de Geneve 2/8 1972)

Those who have been criticizing contemporary music for lacking true melodic lines, may be consoled to learn that some composers now are very much concerned with melody. I don’t mean that they are writing romantic melodies, or popular melodies, or any other familiar kind of melodies, but they are certainly writing melodies. I heard two very good new pieces of this sort last week. One was Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together” … the other was Petr Kotik’s “There is Singularly Nothing,” presented at the Space for Innovation Development as part of a concert by the S.E.M. Ensemble from Buffalo…

…Also on that program was something called “Juea Pekoro Lajaw,” which appeared to be a simultaneous performance of solo ideas by each of the four members of the group. Kotik played another long flute solo; Jan Williams played rhythms on slit drums; Roberto Laneri offered fragments of live and recorded clarinet music; and Julius Eastman periodically banged on the door in a very dramatic way.

(The Village Voice 4/13, 1972)

Composers Julius Eastman, Roberto Laneri, Petr Kotik and Jan Williams, have formed a performance group called the S.E.M. Ensemble from Buffalo.

They sat down to dinner with wine Monday evening and discussed their recent European tour.

They did it on Baird Hall stage before a hungry audience, various of whose members were fed snippets of the cuisine from time to time. Eventually they all got a piece of the white-cake dessert and wine punch.

Striped tablecloth, papaya colored napkins, tossed salad, a variety of casseroles, corn bread, two kinds of wine, four microphones at the table and a lot of conversation were features of the staged repast. The chef was dancer Carl Singletary.

“Marvelous cook,” said Mr. Eastman…

(Buffalo Evening News 4/11, 1972)