Dispatch: David First

Roulette TV catches up with composer David First. First discusses his work Choir Practice, his ensemble The Western Enisphere, and distance learning and teaching in the time of COVID-19.


DAVID FIRST has always been fascinated by opposites and extremes. At 20 he played guitar with renowned avant-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor in a legendary Carnegie Hall concert. Two years after that he was creating electronic music at Princeton University (recently released on Dais records) and leading a Mummerʼs String Band in Philadelphia parades. He has played in raucous drunken bar bands, semi-legal DIY basements and in pin-drop quiet concert halls with classical ensembles. As a composer First has created everything from finely crafted pop songs to long, severely minimalist droneworks. His opera, The Manhattan Book of the Dead, was staged at LaMama’s Annex Theater (NYC) in 1995 and in Potsdam, Germany in 1996. His 2011 song and video, We Are (with vocals by TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone), was released to much acclaim in the Occupy Movement and was officially released on the compilation Occupy This Album which also featured tracks by Patti Smith, Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Yo La Tengo, Yoko Ono a.o. First’s performances often find him sitting trance-like without seeming to move a muscle, unless he is playing with his psychedelic punk band, Notekillers, at which time he is a whirling blur of hyperactive energy. He has been called “a fascinating artist with a singular technique” in the NYTimes, and “a bizarre cross between Hendrix and La Monte Young” in the Village Voice. A 45 single released in 1980, The Zipper, by Notekillers, was cited by Sonic Youthʼs Thurston Moore as one of the songs he played for the rest of the band when they were starting out. Moore called it a “mind-blowing instrumental single” in the British rock magazine Mojo and “a big influence” in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has had music released on Ecstatic Peace, Prophase, Phill Niblock’s XI, Dais, Razor and Tie, Ants, Jajaguar, CRI, Homestead, and OODiscs. Recent projects include SWATi (Spherical Waveform Audio Trance Induction) – a collaboration with acupuncturist Isobeau Trybula at Worksong Chinese Medicine in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. SWATi is an outgrowth of his Operation:Kracpot which was an internet collaboration with geophysicist Dr. Davis Sentman of the University of Alaska (Fairbanks). Both involve the sonification of the atmospheric phenomena known as the Schumann Resonances and human brainwaves. Other projects include The Western Enisphere an audio/visual exploration of just intonation psycho-phenomena, and the AM Radio Band, which incorporates the repurposing of vintage signal generators, audio oscillators and transistor radios (a recording of which will have a spring release on Robert & Leopold). He is also the proprietor of Dave’s Waves – A Sonic Restaurant installation that has been presented in Lier, Belgium (2002), Berlin (as part of Sonambiente in 2006), Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (2013), Moscow (2018), and Brooklyn (2018-19). First was the recent recipient of the Herb Alpert/Ragdale Award for Music Composition for 2019 and a 2019 NYFA/NYSCA Fellowship. He has also received a Grant to Artists from the Foundation of Contemporary Arts, as well as grants and commissions from the NEA, the Copland Foundation, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Meet the Composer Commissioning USA program. He has written articles for New Music Box and Leonardo Music Journal, receiving the Leonardo Award for Excellence Honorable Mention for his article, The Music of the Sphere: An Investigation into Asymptotic Harmonics, Brainwave Entrainment, and the Earth as a Giant Bell.


As part of our Roulette at Home digital initiative, Dispatches is a set of brief communications or small collections of new work from artists, sent directly to our community—a way to remain connected and engaged in a time marked by distance and isolation caused by COVID-19.