Maze of wires is music to his ears

A review by Charles Ward, printed in the September 15, 1976 issue of the Houston Chronicle.

It's hard to imagine music that's esthetically satisfying coming from a maze of wires and electronic equipment.

From the outside, Salvatore Martirano's Sal-Mar Construction looks like an unfinished heavy-duty kitchen cabinet with its uncovered angle-iron construction, dizzying clumps of wire front and aft, and oscillatores, amplifiers and other electronic gear marshalled neatly in rows like boxes of cereals on upper shelves.

"It's a low-budget machine with high-talent people," Martirano said, while noting that his "keyboard" is made from washable countertop material and parts of his contacts switches are shower-curtain eyelets.

The Sal-Mar is an electronic synthesizer which Martirano, a professor of music at the University of Illinois, will play during the four-day festival of Contemporary American Music and Dance which SuM concerts will present free in Miller Theater Thursday through Sunday at 8:30 p.m.

Two different programs will be presented: On Thursday and Sunday, Martirano will improvise on his Sal-Mar and also conduct his "Underworld" with Arnett Cobb as saxophone soloist, For Friday and Saturday, Martirano will perform on the Sal-Mar and supervise his multimedia work "L's G. A. for Gassed-Masked Politico and Helium Bomb" which includes three films, a two-channel tape composition and two actors. During "L's G. A." the Politico (portrayed by Michael Holloway) will use the helium to raise the pitch of his voice for dramatic emphasis.

Also on the festival, James Clouser's Space/Dance/Theater will dance along with premieres of works by Houston composers Lanny Steele and James Cisneros.

Within the Sal-Mar's structure, 39 separate sound-sources are divided into four separate "music programs" or ensembles. These are amplified through 24 speakers, which are divided into groups. These speakers can be placed in various parts of an auditorioum, so that Martirano can create the effect of four different sets of sounds moving, interacting and colliding around the room.

This weekend represents the first out-door performance on the Sal-Mar.

The particular 'program' or collection of sounds available for an individual performance is found in the patching of wires that looms so intimidatingly over Martirano's keyboard. This patching remains basically the same from performance to performance to provide continuity.

Then, Martirano simply improvises on his instrument. "The machine and I are talking. I am reacting to what the machine says and the machine has to react to what I do," he says. His task is to mold all the sounds possible in his machine into an esthetically pleasing whole. This entails knowing not merely which buttons to push bat all the characteristics of the sounds, such as their rate of decay (or how fast they will disappear).

The composer-inventer has been playing on his Sal-Mar since 1972. Construction took approximatley two and one half years at a cost of $18,000. To reproduce his instrument commercially could cost around $100,000, he estimates.

Electronic work is not Martirano's sole preoccupation. He is currently working on a commission for Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, a 20-minute work using a Beethoven-sized orchestra.

His composing started after World War II with "media," i.e. string quartets, trios, etc., and then shifted into tailoring works for friends. His interest in electronic music came only after joining the Illionois faculty in 1963, althogh he had a lot of contact with Morton Subotnick's tape center, in San Francisco during 1962-63 ("while I was writing music for Berkely high schools on a Ford Foundation Grant").

"Illinois (the university) is famous for a number of things - Agronomy, the man who invented LSD was kicked out of there - and at that time the computer department was strong," he said with a wry smile. Martirano and his colleagues were able to solve some basic technical problems, thus making possible his 'supersynthesizer.'