Ramon Sender

updated 10.10.2013 by rrs


Over the summer of 2013 I had the opportunity to speak over email with Ramon Sender about his 'Tropical Fish Opera,' and his description of the piece's inception follows.

R. Sender: "During my time as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1959-1962) I put together an 'Electronic music' studio in their attic...(I think it's covered in the book [the book Sender is referring to is The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde by David W. Bernstein]). At the same time, I founded the SONICS series of performances, the first one consisting of world premieres of works by Oliveros, Sender, Philip Winsor and Terry Riley, all more or less completed in the new studio.

The first concert included a live improvisation - we were all students of Bob Erickson who seriously promoted improvisation in his composition classes. After that first concert, Mort Subotnick came up and asked to be included, which of course we were happy to do. Somewhere during the continuation of that series, the idea occurred - and it seems it may have occurred to me - to use a tank of tropical fish as a score. For many years I had fantasized some sort of 'cloud chamber' bowl as a three-dimensional score, and a tank of fish seemed the next best thing. So I borrowed a tank and fish from a local pet store (promising to credit them on the program) and on we went.

Depending on the sophistication of the performers, subsequent performances offered looser or 'tighter' scores, i.e. staff lines attached to the sides of the tank, and if a vocalist was included, then words derived from I Ching throws. I remember that composer Loren Rush, playing stand-up bass at the first performance, added a 'col legno' box on his side of the tank. Good idea!

Over the decades, I've always dreamed of an electronic version of the piece that would include light beams passing through the tank that when the fish would interrupt them, would trigger various sonic events, but this version was never put together."

Sender then provided a follow-up email with a description of the initial SONICS performance:

R. Sender: "At the SONICS performance, I think the fish enjoyed the attention. Loren Rush, Mort, Pauline and I each sat in front of one side of the tank, performing on bass fiddle, clarinet, french horn, and piano. Low fish were low notes, nearby fish were louder than farther-away fish, and so on. I recall Loren on the bass fiddle marking a section of his side of the tank with a pizzicato box - i.e. any fish entering the box would trigger pizzicati."

As with Robert Moran's 'Divertissement no. 1,' [1967], Sender wasn't necessarily thinking about the notation as 'animated,' but simply a novel way to accomplish 'some' thing. The performance and setup instructions are quite detailed, including recommended aquarium size, fish selection, the importance of heating, and how to READ the fish. Sender's instructions can be found here, along with a short review from a mid-1970s performance.


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