New Music

(archived from this ihm thread)

Part I:

What I wanted to add to this thread was how to judge an interpretation of the score.  This is an incredibly complex issue but there are I think several basic rules of thumb that can be applied. First off, to get the most common objection out of the way, if you like a particular recording as a piece of music then that is great, no-one is denying you that.  On this issue I think there is no discussion to be had.  The question is though, is a particular recording an actual realization of the score, or more influenced by the score?

The key to interpreting the score is that you build up a consistent vocabulary for the symbols of the score. This vocabulary needs to be flexible as the symbols rarely stand on their own: they are constant intersected, amended, interrupted or overlaid with other symbols. This is an important issue that I think leads to failures in many interpretations, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.  The consistency issue is equally important, if you do not consistently interpret the symbols then you aren’t really playing this as a score. Let me give an example; if you created a version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that played all the notes, used the exact orchestration, followed all of the rules of the score, except that you played it at a tempo such that it lasted nine hours, this would no longer be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  It would be at best “inspired by” or a gloss on it. Why? Because Beethoven gave explicit directions on the tempo for the score. Now there is a lot of debate on that and realizations of the score can vary in times by 15 or more minutes.  But these I think are all valid, they fall within the parameters of the score.

So am I saying that doing a short version of Treatise is a priori invalid? No, but to do a short version of the score requires a huge amount of work. Cardew’s composition Volo Solo is apparently a transcribed version of the entire scored to be performed by a piano virtuoso which can be done in about 10 minutes. But this is meticulously scored (and it is rather difficult to see exactly how it is transcribed from the score. Tilbury (for whom it was composed) goes into this in Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished) and contains thousands of notes.  So this is one solution to the issue of consistency and flexibility: rigorous transcription. In essence you are compressing the score into a smaller more compact version, a translation of all of this syntactic content into another system.

Beyond that level of transcription what else do we find in interpretations of the score? When you are not converting the symbols directly into traditional notation you tend to utilize varying degree of abstraction. That is you associate techniques, events, or sounds to the symbols. You then need to take into account the various permutations of the symbols, the spaces between them, the center line and the numbers. When sight reading from the score this is pretty challenging and the pages themselves contain varying degrees of density. In these sort of interpretations it takes much longer to work though each page, some pages have a lot of content to work through others have very little. Though the relationship between density and tempo is not precise, so pages with very little syntactic content can feel very slow while others dense with information feel fast.  When sight reading the score, the amount of time it would take is certainly highly variable, but I think that on average you’d be pretty hard pressed to fully interpret a page in less then five minutes.  Maybe a few pages would be less but many many more would require more time.  Even if you did spend one minute per page, which would really be a gloss over most of the symbols, you would end up with a three hour+ performance.  So when you are presented with a short performance there are basically five options:

  1. It is fully transcribed to traditional notation and is played at a very high tempo with a high density of notes
  2. The score is being broken up among the players such that for each page each player is playing only a small subset of the information there.
  3. The score is being played layered: that is you each divide the score up among each player so that each player is only doing about 20 pages)
  4. A subset of the score is being performed
  5. It is a gloss of the score

Now lets specifically consider the Hat[now]ART version of the piece. I think its fair to rule out option (1) – it is too sedate, too ambient to be like a 120 minute Volo Solo. (2) and (3) are possible though of course this is impossible to know.  Ideally any performance of the score should include information on the pages played and some description of the strategy adopted. I would guess that it isn’t a layered version of the score – it again doesn’t feel dense enough. (2) is certainly possible and I think would be the most obvious to someone who reads up on the available resources on the score:

“Performance advice. Divide the musicians into those involved in dot events (percussionists and pianists?) and those involved in line events. Dot events to be exclusively soft.” -Cornelius Cardew,Treatise Handbook(1)

However in this fashion to really treat it as a score, you’d basically have long rests between a lot of the events that you are playing. So it’d still come down to spending less then a minute a page, which even if you were only making a few amount of sounds would still come out to all the symbols in the score being played within this time.  Again this take just isn’t that information rich, or quick in tempo. Thus it seems fair to say that this performance is a gloss, a “take” on the score. And there is nothing wrong with that, except that they say this is the “World premier complete performance” on the set (which rules out (4) of course). You can still like the music here, enjoy it for what it is, but it isn’t Treatise anymore then a nine hour version of the Ninth Symphony isn’t Beethoven

This post has gone on long enough, but I think it establishes a set of criteria for examining realizations of the score and demonstrates how to apply it. If there is further interest, I’ll add examinations of a couple of other versions here over the next couple of days.

Part II:

The most successful (and common) strategy of interpretation of Treatise is to play a subset of the score.  This allows you to devote the time that each page requires.  When playing as a group without any sort of strategy of synchronization these types of interpretations necessarily become layered versions of the score. I for one am a fan of that type of layering and this was something well embraced by the 60s Experimental Composers (c.f.  all of the simultaneous Cage performances) including Cardew. The entire score could be played through in the fashion, playing a page or series of pages in a number of sessions. We began this process in the Seattle Improv Meeting and played through 44 pages in this fashion (these can be downloaded here). This attempt  to play through the whole score in sequence was stopped at that point as the interpretation was suffering in other ways.  This is a good example of one of the other failures in interpretation: using the score for structured improvisation.

“The score must govern the music. It must have authority, and not merely be an arbitrary jumping-off point for improvisation.” -Cornelius Cardew,Treatise Handbook(1)

Use of the score for structured improvisation again becomes a gloss of the score; one is not interpreting the symbols of the score consistently or rigorously. Again you can make good music this way and it is not an invaluable exercise. In fact I quite like structured improvisation, I think that it often adds depth to improv, just enough structure applied to give form and to curtail certain impulses.  However it is not following a score and as is quite clear with Cardew’s own intentions (“It must have authority”) this is not a rigorous realization.  I should point out that in the case of the SIM this was just how the group developed. In our three years of working with the score, we evolved from a tentative learning process, to a rigorous consistent approach and then it kind of slackened off into this more loose approach. See some of the recordings from the second half of 2005 to the first couple of months of 2006 for some of the more consistent realizations (my personal favorite from this period is Pages 146-148)

Other versions that most likely fall into the gloss of Structured Improvisation would include Formanex Treatise- Cornelius Cardew(Fibrr).  While they don’t explicitly say which pages they are playing on this recording (as opposed to their other recording) overall the music here is too overtly ambient to fit much of the score. However it is possible that this is the last three pages of the score in which this sort of interpretation would be valid. Again this is a case where it is frustrating that they don’t tell you the page(s) that are played. If you contrast this though with the other Formanex recording, Treatise-Live at Extrapool (also on Fibrr) it is markedly different, that one has the spaciousness and spikiness that more strict realizations tend to feature. I would also guess that the performance of pages 21 & 22 On the hat[now]ART release Material also leans this way. At least by some of the members (which is worth noting, there can certainly be degrees of rigor in any group performance of it) especially the vocalist who seems to be free riffing well past any material available from the score. This sort of free improvisation on the score I think is particularly egregious as this is adding semantic content which is not contained within the score.

Part III:

Quax Ensemble plays Treatise

Cornelus Cardew Treatise (Prague version 1967) (Mode)

The most recent Treatise recording out there came out just a couple of weeks ago on Mode.  This release is certainly of much historical interest, the QUaX Ensemble being one of the earlier groups to work with the piece. During the course of the development of the piece a number of musicians worked with it (including the members of AMM, in various combinations and of course AMM itself) and one of these was Petr Kotik. He was pretty young at the time, (early-mid twenties) and had was still in conservatory when he met Cardew and developed a relationship with him. He was able to get a number of pages (alas and annoyingly the liner notes do not specify these) prior to the scores publication in 1967 and put together the QUaX Ensemble to play it among other scores.  They played from these pages frequent but and eventually put together a 2 hour version of the pages they had which they performed once on October 15th 1967. That of course is this recording. He quite clearly states in the liner notes that he received a copy of the complete score in Buffalo NY in 1969, two years after this performance. So this two hour version is clearly a subset of the score, thus eliminating the issues that are rife with short complete versions.

“There is much to admire in this 1967 version of Treatise by the QUaX Ensemble from Prague: the feeling of spontaneity, its uninhibitedness, the rough-hewn sounds, the accidental, the half-intended, the blurred.” -John Tilbury(3)

The liner notes include a page from John Tilbury which tellingly is half devoted to quotes from the Treatise Handbook. The above quote from him, which is rather amusingly used in the Mode PR, I think sums it up perfectly: There is much to admire yes, but there is also much that is not so admirable.

First off they clearly did spend the time developing a consistent take on the pages they had. The liner notes includes reproductions of two of Kotik’s pages which have numerous annotations on them. These include notes on what to play for certain symbols but are actually mostly devoted to timings. Most interestingly the notes mostly resolve around who is to play for a given symbol.  For instance on the back cover there is an except of a page where the same symbol (black filled circles) are notated “Kotik”. Other notes seem to be either instruments or perhaps performance techniques that I can’t decipher (anyone who can, do let me know). These notes are pretty revealing in their take on the score, which to me seems like a fairly typical case of classical musicians trying to improvise.  It in fact reminds me a lot of the workshop and performance I did with Vancouver New Music (that Joda references (in the ihm thread) and which I wrote up at length here: VNM Treatise report) where I’d say most of the ensemble never really managed to work with the score in and of itself, they always were using it as a springboard.

In the case of this version, they seem to have a concern that I’ve encountered among virtually everyone I’ve seen play the score: playing together. It seems for classical and jazz musicians that the concept of everyone working through it at their own pace is a difficult concept.  This was constantly raised in the VNM group and also something that plagued the first half dozen or so sessions with the Seattle Improv Meeting (at least among certain people in both groups). Even a more recent performance that I did with a dedicated graphic score group (EyeMusic) under the aegis of Keith Rowe this issue was also raised. In this case since they seemed also to be working with the score in parts (that is assigning symbols to various performers) this seems a much more traditional approach.  Of course Cardew definitely worked with the score in this way especially before AMM and I wouldn’t be surprised if he recommended this approach to Kotik.

Based on the annotated pages that we have in the liner notes it appears that their working out of the score is more an assignment of who plays what, not much of an indication of what they play. In other words this approach is structured improvisation. Listening to this before I closely examined those score excerpts there were a number of passages I found troubling that are explained somewhat by this approach. These passages involve overtly melodic material from the saxophone (Pavel Kondelik) and kind of piano jazz breakdown complete with vocals (Vaclav Zahradnik). Now one might think that one could assign melodic content to the symbols as long as one is consistent and in theory you could. But as I pointed out in my earlier post, any symbolic association must take into account the various fragments, interjects, incomplete symbols, overlapping symbols and so in. With very few exceptions no consistent melodic line would survive that for long. Thus the multiple long melodic sax passages seem to me outside of a strict reading of the score, but would make sense if you just were using the symbols as sigils for when a particular musician was going to perform.

Apart from this melodic content there are a lot of great sounds in this recording and lots of space. Apart from the center line, there are many pages with long gaps between symbols and thus any performance should have these gaps (unless someone is focusing on the center line, but even in this case the other musicians should respect the spaces). There is even a nice background radio grab for a bit, giving it a bit of a Cage or AMM feel.  Much of the sounds are generated on traditional instruments with extreme extended techniques, using many of the sounds associated with avant-garde composition (ala Lachenmann) or post EFI improvisation. Additionally there are various ambient sounds, passing traffic, shifting chairs and the like that places this within a space and I think add a lot to the overall environment. Long stretches of this performance is fantastic in my opinion, though there often is something coming in that one may not like.  For me it really is the melodic content and even worse the semantic content from the singing that mar the performance.

Cardew on a number of occasions expressed his dissatisfaction with classical musicians performance of this piece. Too hard for them to break out of their routines and notions of performance. Impossible for them to capture the right balance between the spontaneous and the structured. This recording I think is somewhat exemplary of that. The fact that the performers were young and still students probably gives this the life and drama that it does have. It still I think would have somewhat dissatisfied Cardew in that it doesn’t go all the way to where he wanted to go w/r/t performer involvement but probably wouldn’t be the total disappoint of some of the performances by highly trained and rigid musicians. As Tilbury says there is much to like here, but this is not I think a wholly successful interpretation of the score. It is definitely recommended though, it is an important piece in the history of the score a history that is quite lacking in the early performances.

Part IV:

Getting back to analysis of performances of the score there is two important notions that I have thus far neglected to mention. This was deliberate as I wanted to approach these recordings in terms of their consistency and rigor. These notions basically subvert that to some degree but in general they can’t be used to excuse those primary notions.  These issues are numbers in the score and the notion of a perverse reading of the score.  The numbers are inescapable in the the score so lets take a look at those first.

As with everything else in the score there isn’t any instructions on how to handle the numbers. However in the Treatise Handbook he says thus:

“The numbers are included at the pauses for the reason that: any act or facet of the conception or composition of the score may have relevance for interpretation.[…] It is the fact that there were 34 blank spaces before the first sign put in an appearance” – Cornelius Cardew, Treatise Handbook (2, p. 251)

This singular note on the numbers from Cardew doesn’t really give much info on how to interpret them.  However it has come to be interpreted as a repetition of an event for the number of times of the numeric value. As there isn’t a specific symbol tied to the event the event is treated as outside of the score, that is it is independent of your consistent interpretation. So theoretically a performer could say play a chord 34 time, or make 34 sounds or what have you.  So does the potential arbitrariness of the numbers make possible the overtly melodic sax in the QUaX version discussed earlier? Probably not. In general the numbers aren’t too large after the initial 34 and there are multiple long sax segments in that version. So I think my previous read of it still stands, but it is worth taking the numbers into account when you listen to a version where something may seem out of place (for those interested Tilbury includes a breakdown of the number distribution in the footnotes to the Treatise chapter in his Cardew bio, on page 278 No. 16).

The notion of Perverse Readings of the score is a lot more problematic and there isn’t a lot of information to go on. From Tilbury’s bio:

“…John White’s precedent for ‘perverse readings’ by reading ascending lines as descending intervals” – John Tilbury (2, p. 251)

The first time I encountered this notion though was for the AMM+Formanex performance of Treatise at the Musique Action Festival, Nancy, France in June 2002. At this performance AMM performed several pages of Treatise with  John White who once again did his trademark Perverse Reading in this case interjecting banal samples into the performance. (Interestingly enough while looking for data on this, I found this tiny bit of video from this event here).

“AMM were extremely spartan (wonderfully so) while White, on some kind of sampling device, intruded with all manner of awful-sounding blurts, cheezy synth tones, sheep baa-ing, etc. It was very annoying and I found myself vainly attempting to mentally tune him out.” -Brian Olewnick

Now considering that Perverse Readings were par for the course, occurring from the very beginning of the scores history, can any out of the ordinary performance be considered “perverse”?  I tend to think not, I think that the perverse readings are still consistent and rigorous, but in such a way that may be contrary, controversial and against expectations.  Brian later asked Keith Rowe about that aspect of the performance and he went on to say:

“He felt that ‘Treatise’ performances had a tendency to get overly somber and reverential and wanted to inject a “low” element that he thought of as the sonic equivalent to US rags like Weekly World News, to introduce “transgressive” sounds that “simply aren’t done” at these types of events.” -Brian Olewnick

And this to me I think is the essence of the perverse read, not falling into a free for all, do as you wish sort of situation but subverting received notions. But I do find it a troublesome notion and this would certainly be an interesting point to have clarified.


1) Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) A Reader (Copula, 2008)
2) Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, John Tilbury (Copula, 2008)
3) Liner notes from Cornelus Cardew Treatise (Prague version 1967) (Mode)

John Cage, Variations III
John Cage: Variations III

I had heard that AMM used to stage performances various new music pieces at various times in their history (2). Of course Treatise was something they always did, finding a group of simpatico musicians to play that with was part of Cardew’s reason for joining up back in the ’60s.  But from what I understood they also played Wolff, Cage, Brown and others of the Experimental school.  The period where Tilbury first joined the group (early 1980s)  was one these periods, perhaps as a way to ease him into the groups dynamics.  So it shouldn’t be too surprising that at the point when de Saram was brought into the group they also performed those work from the 20th Century repertoire that he also might have been familiar with.  I’ve not managed to find any recordings of the early 80s AMM playing any of these pieces but recently a recording turned up from the Westfälisches Musikfest in Germany of the Rowe, Prévost, Tilbury, de Saram iteration of AMM performing pieces by Cardew, Wolff, Cage and Skempton.

Excepting the Skempton, these are all pieces that I love and have heard in a number of interpretations.  It is very exciting to me to get to hear AMM tackle these pieces. The Skempton, which I had not heard before this, is an amazing piece along with the Variations III is the highlight of this performance.


May 15th 1994
AMM play Cardew, Wolff, Cage, Skempton
Ravensberger Spinnerei, Bielefeld/Germany
first concert in the series: “Mobil – Offene Form mit Variations” within the “Westfälisches Musikfest, edition 1994”
recording from the original broadcast on WDR3, June 6th 1995

Set 1
Cornelius CardewSolo with Accompaniment for 2 instruments ad libitum
A real brooding interpretation of this piece with sounds struck and allowed to fade away. Especially quick bowed and struck gong which reverberates and fades away and either bow length strokes on the ‘cello or quick sequences of notes,  Rowe doing a fast brush over his strings or striking.  The piano is the solo here and it is sparse little figures and chords. This is an amazing take on this piece that you can hear in a much more formal version on the Matchless Cardew Chamber music disc. It shows how AMM, using nontraditional percussion and Rowe’s prepared guitar by musicians who aren’t classically trained can do a brilliant interpretation of this composition.

Christian Wolff: for 1, 2 or 3 people, any sound producing means
The piece opens right up with a circular attack on the head of a drum and some metallic percussive sounds. Little spurts and fits of sound from Rowe’s guitar with occasional outburst of swelled sound. This seems to be percussion, ‘cello and guitar with the characteristic sounds of Prévost: quick snare rolls, bowed metal, short metallic attacks, Rowe: filled strings, swelled attacks, spring-work and edgy bowed guitar and de Saram: scritchy bowing, col legno and short, sharp attacks. The nature of this piece leads to a spacious sound field with bursts of sound and density.

John Cage: Variations III for arbitrary number of players and arbitrary sound originators
This piece opens up with a crunching bit of over driven attack on the spring that evokes the initial moments of Tudor’s version of Variations II. After a bit of this de Saram works in almost a pure tone generated by slow deliberate bowing. Very spacious piece with long moments where you only hear incidental sounds. Quiet sounds such as Tilbury rubbing the piano strings and Prévost pressing an object into a drum head barely transcend these moments of stillness. Again and again though Rowe delivers the sharp attacks on his pickups.  Fantastic version of this piece, fill with space, single plucked ‘cello notes, crunching electronics, soft percussion and extended piano: the best version of this piece that I have heard.

Howard Skemptonfor strings (waves, shingle, seagulls)

“Shingles are little stones like very large grains of sand, that make a sucking sound as the tide comes in and out.” – Keith Rowe(1)

Thin wails from de Sarams upper register, and low gentle rumbles from mallets on Prévost’s floor tom open this piece. Tilbury joins in with what sounds like a two handed chord on the piano with the sustain pedal, but oh soft softly pressed so that the piano mallets just caress the strings. Rowe generates a very high pitched, very seagullish I’d say squeal from his guitar. The piece grinds on in this fashion evoking the waves shingle and seagulls for strings that the composition calls for. It ends as it begins, with gentle tapping evoking walking on a shingle beach, the high thin wails from the ‘cello and restless piercing feedback from the guitar. Calm yet sharp. A piece I’d not heard before, but came to immediately love from this performance of it. Slow paced, as of the sea on a calm day and filled with those sounds that can evoke natural processes but are miles away from the instruments from whence they came.

 Set 2
Cornelius Cardew February pieces for piano (#2)
Solo piano played by Tilbury. The February Pieces are transcriptions from Cardew’s supremely indeterminate Autumn ’60 and Tilbury has been playing it pretty much from the beginning.  Little clusters of chords and drops of single notes sprinkled amongst the background of these chords.  Short little pauses and a Feldman like attention to sounds duration and placement. A certain points it plays with traditional musical notions: fragments of scales, sections that evoke serialism, subverted near romanticism. It ends with listless wanderings up and down the keyboard leading into some quick muscular chording. It’s a whole musical world in a six short minutes. A beautiful little piece, perfectly rendered by Mr. Tilbury.

Right into full volume piano for this as if Tilbury just continued on from the February Pieces. Rohan de Saram jumps right in with short sharp strikes with his bow on the ‘cello strings and Prévost shortly adds in that circular sound of a bowed tam tam.  Only Rowe lays out initially though not too far into it he fades in and out with a mechanical whirr.  This improv, one of the shorter AMM pieces I’ve heard, seems highly informed by the music that preceded it.  It doesn’t quite have the laminal feel so typical of this period of AMM, it is built of short segments, cobbled together from fragments of the pieces that preceded it.

Almost as if compressing a typical AMM hour into it’s thirty minutes length, they do bring it together from the beginning described above. It becomes denser with more pronounced bowing, heavier mallet work on the floor tom and clear chords on the piano.  The alternations between densities that was so pronounced in the quartet AMM is shortly established though through the piece retains some of the flavor of the experimental compositions earlier performed. The piano is more dominate then normal and more Cardew like, Rowe, when he becomes more prominent is in the more fragmented attack and decays of Variations III and de Saram sounds the most Arditti-esque of all the AMM I’ve heard him on.  Only Prévost I’d say switched right to improv mode almost into the excesses of free improv at times with a quite muscular near drum solo-ish style; perhaps trying to create a clear break or perhaps due to being the furthest removed from the experimental tradition and the most heavily invested in improvisation.  The highlight for this piece for me is about half way through there is a low density section where Rowe lays in a quiet, slightly staticy
radio grab of a classical piece, a string quartet it sounds like, probably 19th Century.  An interesting bit of commentary on this classical festival and the tradition that they have been dabbling in. 

The very end of this piece is much more reminiscent of the previous recording reviewed from this quartet and is simply fantastic. It begins with this series of two note figures from Tilbury, to which de Saram adds some soft bowing and for a time it’s just these sounds.  Then Prévost drops begins this rattly metallic percussion sound and Rowe emits short growls and guttural scrapes from running a serrated edge over his strings. Tilbury moves to low rumbling sustained chords and the density builds into this glacial weight, slow and powerful and then it all just flakes away into it’s constituent parts and from these parts an urgency begins almost a frantic level of short, yet not dense activity. Then the announcer comes in and the piece is faded out, leaving us to question how they ended this from this rather active point and how much longer they played to arrive at that point.


Not the best of AMM performances I’ve heard, a bit too free improv, a bit too compressed and possibly due to wanting to break from the earlier music it seems to not be as in the moment as normal. Had it continued from how it began into an improvisatory exploration of the experimental tradition that would have been a pretty interesting piece of music. I’ve argued in previous installments that that is where AMM music lies anyway – their concerns didn’t entirely overlap but were in the same realm. So a natural progression from the experimental compositions into their unguided explorations would have made for a natural counterpoint and commentary instead of trying to force the issue.

While the short little section of AMMMusic in this performance certainly doesn’t reach the heights of that they have previously attained it is these performances of New Music compositions that puts this as one of my favorite AMM recordings. This marks the half way point of my transversal of my collection of AMM bootlegs and is the last of the quartet AMM recordings that I have acquired, from this point on it will be the trio AMM.

1) Keith Rowe interviewed by Gino Robair 1991, Transbay Calendar (11.07, 12.07 and 01.08)
2) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
3) The Inexhaustible Document Liner notes. Paige Mitchell 1987
4) Rohan de Saram homepage

This week I found on an mp3 blog the original recording of Morton Feldman’s Durations I-IV.  Originally released on a, now long out of print, Time Records split LP with Earle Brown.  Durations I-IV was written in 1960/61 and the record was put out shortly thereafter in 1962. Each of the Durations is its own piece but they flow incredibly well together and make for a beautiful 28 minute piece listened to in their entirety.  They are each scored for different instruments but there is always continuity between them:

Durations I: Violin-Cello-Alto-Flute-Piano
Durations II: Cello-Piano
Durations III: Violin-Tuba-Piano
Durations IV: Violin-Cello-Vibraphone

So from the quintet of Durations I, the ‘cello and piano carry on into Durations II, the thread maintained by the piano into Durations III and the violin carries us into Durations IV where the ‘cello makes a return. So there is a continuity between them and it sounds like a single piece with different movements.

What really struck me on listening to this recording is that it demonstrates that what many think of the late Feldman sound – that is the very slow, meditative pace with sounds created and allowed to fade away before the next. This recording has all of that and yet compositionally it falls more in line with his earlier indeterminate pieces.  It really only lacks the length to distinguish it from the canonical late pieces and of course plenty of those are about the length of this when all four pieces are played together like this (there also is a Durations V, composed after this recording that would obviously increase the overall duration of this suite). To focus on length to the degree of excluding the other fundamental aspects of Feldman’s compositional style would of course miss the essence of the work.

“It has often been noted now, that listeners are more willing to be generous to a long piece than to a short one, and to more easily assume that the long piece is more profound.” (4)

The point being that while Feldman’s work is hardly monolithic (there are massive stylistic changes from decade to decade after all) the essence of this so called late style was in place by 1960. In fact it was with the Durations that you find a lot of the key elements that gave those pieces such a timeless feel.  Namely it was the indeterminacy in the tempo and the duration of the notes. Feldman left this up to the performers: The duration of each sound is chosen by the performer.” (2) and while in the later pieces he wasn’t always quite so free, he often would indicate that the next sound not be generated ’til the previous one had died away, which of course is at the discretion of the performer.  It is this aspect that I conjecture really gives us the etherial, sounds placed in time

An additional feature of this particular version of these pieces is that there is an additional and ever present layer of record player noise. Not overly loud, never foregrounded it is just an additional set of sounds, more indeterminate but very pleasing to the ear. It is as if there was the most subtlest electronist performing the most sedate and and discrete version of Cartridge Music along with the pieces. The combination of these shifting and floating sounds of flute, tuba, piano, violin and cello with this additional layer is one that has kept me coming back to this recording over and over again this week.  Download it yourself and give it a listen.

The performers on this, as well as the Earle Brown on the flip-side (which is also well worth hearing) are: Don Hammond (alto flute)
, Don Butterfield (tuba), David Tudor (piano), Philip Kraus (vibraphone), Matthew Raimondi (violin) and
David Soyer (‘cello).  This is probably the closest we are going to get to hearing what David Tudor would have sounded like performing the great late Feldman piano works and it does make the fact that he didn’t record those a shame indeed.

1) Morton Feldman / Earle Brown – split LP (1962) [Time Records]
2) Feldman’s “Durations I”: a discussion, Frank Sani
3) Morton Feldman at Wikipedia
4) In Dispraise of Efficiency: Feldman, Kyle Gann

Revenge of the dead IndiansJohn Cage: The Revenge of the Dead Indians, 1993

“If the questions aren’t good the chance operations aren’t good either.” – John Cage

What a mess this film was. Which isn’t to say that there are wonderful bits in it but as a whole it is a total disaster.  It’d be fruitless to try to describe the whole thing but the gist of it is four separate components. First off there is a late interview with John Cage, which is as you’d expect filled with interesting material.  Then there are arty bits that initially are static camera placements with some of Cage’s music playing.  Later the arty bits are continuous movement as if shot out of a moving vehicle,  layered bits that rather look like 80s music videos and quick cut shots usually made up of previous material. Then there are interviews with various people, at first contemporaries of Cage and then people influenced by him, then = people seemingly completely unrelated to him and finally man on the street type interviews of people talking about their perception of the surrounding sound.  All of this is of course cut between at various lengths, apparently from a frame up to 4’33” (v. clever) in length. Finally there is some bits of actual performance of Cages work, but the least amount of time in the film is devoted to pure music performance.

The primary problem with “tributes” that rely on interviews (as opposed to say a musical tribute) is that in essence they aren’t really about the subject but are about the person being interviewed.  This is particularly the case in this film as along with relevant people such as Cunningham, Xenakis and so on they chose to interview people like Dennis Hopper, Matt Groening and Rutger Hauer. While I’ve enjoyed these people’s own work in varying degrees they really had nothing to offer on Cage and as readers from his work didn’t really do it much justice.  At one point, completely apropos of nothing they have Hauer read his final monologue from Blade Runner.  The cutting of the film (which apparently followed the fibonacci sequence for the lengths, though of course 4’33” being the max) renders many of the actual valuable interviews a fragmented mess.  Personally I’d like to have just had the Cage interview as a whole, then selectable interviews with the other people.

A nice dating element was the obsession with chaos. Now Cage obviously used chance throughout his career and of course in the 80s and 90s Chaos Theory became very popular and Cage of course recognized the connections.  So as this was pretty late in his life and right during the vogue of chaos he often was speaking in those terms. They took this as a liberty to go pretty far afield, with bits by Mandelbrot and Murray Gell-Mann.  At this point it really began to feel like a certain type of PBS documentary. It crammed in a wide variety of stuff that the casual yuppie PBS viewer was aware of and interested in in a superficial level and they present it. The further they’d go with this the less Cage was interviewed and the subjects made no connect to him whatsoever. This went so far as to be talking about artificial intelligence which Cage had absolutely no connection with and no (afaik) interest in. The only (very thin) connection was that Marvin Minsky knew Cage and he of course is a pioneer in AI.  But they other AI people they talked to never even mentioned Cage. Nor did they tie AI into Chaos which certain connections can be made, but not at this level of depth this film was operating at. Not to mention that the film was about an American composer!

The music in general was decent with performers such as Stephen Drury, Margaret Leng Tan and Irwin Arditti.  But there was so little of it.  The live segments were almost always overlaid pieces, which is perfectly acceptable, but in this film it  came across as a way to have more music listed then time devoted to it. During the arty bits, they’d more often then not play natural sounds, some of the layered and cut up by the documentarians, rather then Cages music.  Again this fits into the PBS vibe where instead of “forcing” the viewers into hearing, say, oscillating feedback with Cage intoning mesostics over the top, you give them vacuous statements from such baby boomer friendly wags as Frank Zappa. It should noted that in the accompanying interview the filmmakers make it pretty clear they were a lot more excited to be talking to Zappa then to or about Cage. His connection to Cage was about the most tangential making this particularly annoying.

Finally the length must be mentioned the film is two and a half hours long and as I think the above comments point out, there was huge amounts of masturbatory material.  The film came to natural endings (usual on a nice quote) about four times and then they’d pull something else, usually totally out of their ass, and go off on this tangent.  The next to final theme was interviewing shop owners in Paris where they would talk about how the surrounding noise effects them.  Sure you can make a connection to accepting outside sounds and listening to noises and so on, but it was so belabored at this point and absolutely superfluous. The final shot was a static 4’33” of rubble in a street with cars coming by and the natural sounds. A nice enough way to go out, but the film at this point had completely worn out it’s welcome.

The final analysis is of opportunity squandered. They had a great Cage interview, plenty of great musicians on hand not to mention the Mode library and excellent interviews with people who knew Cage, were contemporaries or connected in various ways, but they couldn’t display the restraint required to put together a solid piece.  If they had forgone the arty bits, using more live performance for the interstitial bits, focused more on the music and only used the relevant interviews, plus kept it to about an hour and a half, this could have been great.

The Revenge of the Dead Indians can be bought direct from Mode Records.

(initially published on ihatemusic)

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