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Amirkhanian,Charles(Benjamin)

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Amirkhanian, Charles (Benjamin), American avant-garde composer, influential radio producer, and arts administrator of Armenian descent; b. Fresno, Calif., Jan. 19, 1945. He studied English literature at Calif. State Univ. at Fresno (B.A., 1967), interdisciplinary creative arts at San Francisco State Coll. (M.A., 1969), and electronic music and sound recording at Mills Coll. (M.F.A., 1980). In his early percussion compositions, he experimented with the potentialities of sound phenomena independent of traditional musical content; his Composition No. 1 is a solo for an amplified orchestral Ratchet (1965), and his Symphony I (1965) is scored for 12 Players and 200-odd nonmusical objects, ranging from pitchpipes to pitchforks. In collaboration with the painter Ted Greer, he developed a radical system of notation in which visual images are transduced by performers into sound events. Representative of this intermedia genre are Micah, the Prophet, cantata for 4 Intoning Males, 2 Accordions, 2 Drummers, and 2 Painters (1965), and, particularly, Mooga Pook, a tetraphallic action for Dancers, realistically notated on graph paper (San Francisco, Dec. 12, 1967). An ongoing series of compositions for a neglected instrument was extended in 1998 when he premiered his Octet for Ratchets, each instrument being amplified. He also evolved the art of “text-sound composition,” in which the voice, percussively intoning and articulating decontextualized words and phrases, is featured, either live or recorded, and sometimes both; to this category belong Words (1969), Oratora konkurso rezulto: Auturo de la Jaro, a quadrophonic tape work in Esperanto featuring the voice of composer Lou Harrison (1970), If In Is (1971), Just (1972), Heavy Aspirations, with the voice of Nicolas Slonimsky (1973), Seatbelt Seatbelt (1973), MUGIC (1973), Muchrooms (1974), Mahogany Ballpark (1976), Dutiful Ducks (1977), Dreams Freud Dreamed (1979), Church Car (1980), Hypothetical Moments [in the Intellectual Life of Southern California] (1981), Andas (1982), Dog of Stravinsky (1982), Dumbek Bookache (1986), Ka Himeni Hehena (The Raving Mad Hymn) for 4 Speaking Voices and Tape (1997), and Marathon (1997). Amirkhanian also spent a number of years touring and performing with the Mugicians Union (with Carol Law, Betsy Davids, and Jim Petrillo) or separately with Carol Law, presenting life text-sound pieces accompanied by painterly light environments produced by mutiple slide projectors.

Most of Amirkhanian’s compositions since the early 1980s, many produced for radio broadcast, make extensive use of sampled ambient sounds sampled and manipulated by a Synclavier or Kurzweil digital synthesizer. These exploit tensions between the abstract (musical sounds) and the representational (recognizable sound effects). Among these are Gold and Spirit (for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics; 1984), The Real Perpetuum Mobile (on the occasion of N. Slonimsky’s 90 th birthday; Los Angeles, April 27, 1984), Metropolis San Francisco (for WDR/Köln Studio 3 Hörspiel; 1985–86), Walking Tune (“Portrait of Percy Grainger”; 1986–87), Pas de voix (“Portrait of Samuel Beckett”; 1987), Politics as Usual (incorporating sounds of gongs in the collections of Lou Harrison and Toni Marcus, mixed with sounds of talking parrots, crunching apples, and revolving ice cubes; 1988), Im Frühling (a reverse tone poem in which sounds from nature imitate late 20 th century orchestral music; 1990), Loudspeakers (comprised of voice recordings of the late Morton Feldman; 1990), Chu Lu Lu (1992), and Son of Metropolitan San Francisco (1997). An August 1994 trip to the Republic of Armenia resulted in the composition of Miatsoom (Reunion, 1994–97), a Hörspiel documenting the sounds of music, voices, and ambiences recorded in that country and in the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh. Amirkhanian served as music director at the radio station KPFA in Berkeley, Calif. (1969–92), for which he was awarded the American Music Center’s annual Letter of Distinction (1984) and ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award (1989). He was also producer and host of the “Speaking of Music” interview series at San Francisco’s Exploratorium Science Museum (1983–92) and co-founding director (with John Lifton) of the “Composer-to-Composer” Festival in Telluride, Colo. (1988–91). From 1993 to 1997 he was executive director of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, Calif. Since 1992 he has been artistic director of the “Other Minds Festival” in San Francisco. In 1999–2000, along with Carol Law, he was awarded the first-ever Ella Holbrook Walker Fellowship for an extended residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bel-lagio Study & Conference Center in Italy.

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