The composer Donald Erb died the other day, at age 81. A prof at the Cleveland Institute, he was big on the scene in the ’70s when I was first paying attention to “serious” music. “Serious” is in quotation marks, because Erb was sort of an exemplar of how unserious and fun that music could be — and in particular the avant-garde.
I saw his piece “Souvenir” performed twice. Here’s how it goes. It’s for orchestra and tape with, um, special performers. For those of you not familiar with the term of art “and tape,” the composer precords synthesized sounds (or whatever he chooses) and that is played over a sound system in real-time with the orchestra at performance. The conductor is given cues to listen for so that the orchestra remains synchronized. It did get to the point where “…and tape” made you roll your eyes up, the same way quarternote=60 did at the top of a score. But I digress.
Midway through the performance, the lights are turned out, and the ushers turn on blacklights. They walk up and down the aisle shooting fluorescent-colored Silly String and ping-pong balls at the audience, and at the climactic moment a fluorescent-painted weather balloon is tossed into the auditorium over the heads of the audience.
It’s called “Souvenir” because you get to take home ping-pong balls and Silly String. And that’s why I always kind of liked Donald Erb.