John McGuire has an impressive background in the study and evolution of electronic music: not least his time with Stockhausen at Darmstadt summer schools and subsequent commissions for German radio. Pulse Music is a unique and lively collection (1975-79) that skates across similar post-minimalist terrain as Reich and Riley and kills any lingering debate about the merits of serialism. McGuire created pulse layers in the studios of WDR and the University of Cologne, which to this day possess astounding clarity and separation, allied to marvelous tempo changes.
One visual image to explain McGuire’s motivation is the creation of waves coming from left to right and interweaving, waves emerging as if from a fountain and dispersing as if into a bottomless hole. Only the composer himself can know for sure if he achieved his musical goals but God knows he cannot be faulted for the extensive efforts he undertook in pursuit of his vision. I could devote a thousand words to his compositional technique and musical methodology without grasping it fully. On paper, at least, it’s insanely more complex than such successful examples as “record a tramp, loop his singing with minimal orchestral backing”, "Mick Stubbs had read a book called The Dawn of Magic,” or even “hum bits, nap, and write surreal poetry while cowed musicians spend months honing the sounds.”
The outlier here is “Pulse II,” a necessarily slower piece in order to allow for a one-off performance (included) by orchestra with four pianos and organ. The time structures of the other three pieces sound as if they were devised by someone in the throes of a fever dream, whereas for “Pulse II” the fever has broken. The piece provides interesting variety yet illustrates the exciting benefits of the studio for realizing the incredibly precise glory of McGuire’s vision.
His essay explaining how “Pulse III'' was made—in the age before studios were computerized—is a dizzying account of the effort and calculation required. Since he was concerned with creating motion rather than a particular sound, John McGuire decided this could not be achieved by acoustical instruments or the human voice. What was needed—and here clarity is swiftly engulfed as simple terms and their explanations pile up and intertwine—was the creation of overlapping symmetrical waves, an uninterrupted stream, a spatial motion with no apparent beginning or end, two series of pulses each with a different pitch and alternating on each pulse. The pulse series were interlocked within their regulating envelopes and overlapped to form a continuous looping motion in space. [This is the basic account before the explanation broadens and deepens with reference to envelope frequency, coincidence markers, pitch and interval, harmonic tuning, sine tones, sounding models, simultaneity, succession, “product” and “coincidence” frequencies”, the 3:5 ratio, drone package, melodic elaboration, hexachords, subharmonic fundamentals, attack and decay transients, cross fading, volume curves, and (possibly my favorite) velocity constellation. ] A key component which I can at least pretend to understand is the creation—using 8 channel mixing—of a trigger pulse circuit to enable precision synchronization of various looped, er, things.
None of this would mean much if the music itself had not turned out to be so accessible and inspired. Pulse Music is a labyrinth of kaleidoscopic detail, mathematical patterns, and organic flow. It is an early contender for reissue of the year.