Nodal Excitation was a highly experimental piece that grew from composer/visual artist Arnold Dreyblatt‘s workshop in the ’70s. Making the jump from working with “electronic images” to “acoustic sound installations”, Dreyblatt began a long process of building instruments, stretching their wires, and measuring the vibrations that come with each nodal point. Overtones were the key to his quest, and the Orchestra of Excited Strings’s 1982 recording of Nodal Excitation were the fruits of his years of literal workshopping. He bought a miniature pianoforte, a hurdy-gurdy, and a pipe organ. If he broke a string on his upright bass, he would substitute it with piano wire instead of buying an appropriate replacement, leading to new harmonic discoveries. He enlisted the help of composer Peter Phillips to help lead his ensemble while playing in it. He and his little ensemble practiced for weeks before performing the work in public. Despite all the academics and mechanics going on, Nodal Excitation remains the work of minimalist drone. That’s neither a criticism nor a compliment, it’s just a fact. It’s 38 minutes of five musicians hammering away on things so that they may find hidden notes.
Nodal Excitation gained a modest amount of traction in the avant-garde community of the years, enough so that Jim O’Rourke reached out to Dreyblatt himself to reissue the recording on his Dexter’s Cigar label in the late ’90s. Nodal Excitation has now been passed on to Drag City for a 21st century pressing. The liner notes are dense, to say the very least. If one is studying the physical properties of music, Dreyblatt’s original essay accompanying the album’s first pressing is where the rubber truly meets the road. Just within the first paragraph, he’s off and running through his own clinical memory. He types out a few straightforward charts that can (hopefully) give you an inkling as to what’s going on, like how vibrational node numbers relate to distance in centimeters from either end of the wire (node #2 gives you 50 cm!). Then there’s an equation Dreyblatt had to apply when transposing for the miniature pianoforte (fundamental frequency multiplied by the harmonic number divided by powers of two, in case you were wondering). When all was said and done with the final 1982 pressing, Dreyblatt wasn’t too happy with it, citing that the recording and mastering process did not capture the full sound of the Orchestra of Excited Strings. Fourteen years later, Dreyblatt had a change of heart when O’Rourke played it back in his Chicago control room. Perhaps this little experiment of his could have a new lease on life.
Compared to much of the minimalist music that has come and gone over the years, especially the ones that explored overtones as Dreyblatt did, Nodal Excitation sounds crude. This isn’t to suggest that it’s somehow an inferior work or is in dire need of refinement, it was just the dawn of an era where DIY woodshops met minimalism just as stringed instruments were hunting down overtones that went beyond your standard halfway harmonics. A specialized niche to be sure, and one that wasn’t filled with too many practicalities. If you wanted to produce a weird sound, you had to go about it the hard way. And what is that hard way, you ask? Just read Dreyblatt’s essay and you’ll see.
I’m tempted to say that we wouldn’t have the old masters had we not started out with cave paintings, but that wouldn’t be very fair to Arnold Dreyblatt and Nodal Excitation. It may sound slow and clunky when compared to, say, Charlemagne Palestine, but that’s just the case of using two different tools to do the same job. One isn’t necessarily more practical than the other. Dreyblatt just belonged to that New York art school clique that would stumble upon happy accidents when they did something, ostensibly, the wrong way. And when that happens, a guy like Jim O’Rourke just might be listening.