Modern Composition

john Cage Etudes Boreales

John Cage Etudes Boreales / Harmonies / 10’40.3″ (Wergo)

John Cage used star charts as a source of randomness most famously in Atlas Eclipcalis, Etudes Australes, the Freeman Etudes and Etudes Boreales. This is in my mind an interesting technique for achieving a goal of integrating nature into ones composition. Cage of course most famously used the I Ching as his source of randomness, which is effect but basically he was using it to pick the numbers 1-64. You generate each line on its own and there are four states: solid, open, solid changing to open or open changing to solid.  After you work out each line you generally end up with two hexagrams, the starting one and the one you end up with after you have calculated the changing lines.  From there if you are practicing the divination, or are simply looking for a randomly selected philosophical message you consult the text and the various commentaries. Now how you apply this to composition is up to the composer and Cage used many different methods to do so.  This really was Cage’s art and genius; he set up systems that could take a known range of randomness and produce highly successful results.

Excerpt from the piano part of Etudes Breales

Overlaying barlines onto star charts and using the stars as notes (with magnitude as duration of the note perhaps) is really far more random and cedes far more control from the composer.  There are a lot of stars and thus these pieces are a lot more dense.  When Cage composed these works (the 1970s) he began to tackle a number of areas of composition he’d previously avoided such as harmony and virtuosistic pieces (for non david Tudor musicians).  Etudes Boreales is an example of a virtuosistic that in this particular recording doesn’t necessarily sound so.  The piece is for ‘cello and/or piano and this disc contains both a solo ‘cello version and a version for solo ‘cello and piano.  The piano part is actually a percussion score and it is the ‘cello part has all all aspects of the sound making meticulously notated including pitch, duration, articulation, color and dynamics.

Etudes Boreales is played twice on this disc, once for a percissionist  using a piano and the second for ‘cello solo and piano solo. The first version is the percussion version and I have to say this is fantastic.  The sounds are mostly short events that come in and out of spaces of varyin lengths (though none of epic length).  The sounds come from all over: hitting of one to many keys, tapping, rubbing, hitting the body of the piano, striking, rubbing, etc the strings, using mallets on the metal frame and so on. There are sounds that are muted and sounds that overlap with other sounds, use of the pedal for sustain and decay, sounds so faint as to barely register and achingly resonant chords. The video above is the first two of the four parts of the piece performed by Mark Knoop who is the pianist on this recording, so that is very representative of the disc under discussion here and nice to see as well as hear it performed. Below is a video of Knoop playing parts three and four to allow for a complete performance to be viewed.

The second version is for two solist playing the piece simultnously: ‘cello and percussionist playing a piano.  All of the charms of the previously discussed version are present, though Knoop seems to be mixing up the gestures. The ‘cello is a perfect counterpoint to this; often played high and with skittering attacks it could be another percussionist. But the longer tones, the rich tonality of the lower register of ‘cello, when these come in, the short bursts from the piano sink into them and the interpenetrations give life to a unique soundworld that is equal parts the two instruments. The two versions of this piece on this disc are worth it alone, but it also contains four more pieces for ‘cello and piano.

He counted the number of notes in a given voice of the piece [four-part choral music by William Billings -ed.], and then used chance to select from these. Supposing there were fourteen notes in a line, chance operations might select notes one, seven, eleven, and fourteen. In such a case, Cage would take the first note from the original and extend it until the seventh note (removing all the intervening notes); all the notes from the seventh to the eleventh would be removed, leaving a silence. Then the eleventh note would be extended to the fourteenth, followed by another silence. Each of the four lines thus became a series of extended single tones and silences. This was the version that Cage settled upon:

“The cadences and everything disappeared; but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way. It is because each sound vibrates from itself, not from a theory. . . . The cadences which were the function of the theory, to make syntax and all, all of that is gone, so that you get the most marvelous overlappings.”

-James Pritchett, from his Introduction to the Music of John Cage

This disc also contains three of the 44 harmonies from Apartment House 1776 (XXVII, XXIV and XIII) which is one of Cage’s musicirucus pieces in which many different types of events can take place simultaneously: 44 Harmonies, 14 Tunes, 4 Marches and 2 Imitations. He also stipluated that you can play any fraction of these and in the case of this disc they play three of the harmonies  for  ‘cello and piano.  The entirety of  Apartment House 1776 utilizes chance operations in the form of the I Ching in contrast to the star charts of Etudes Boreales. The disc opens with XXVII and its is short beautiful piece whose spare lines come in and out, widely spaced with that rich haunting ‘cello tone in almost transparent harmony with soft piano chords. Littlle bits of almost melody come in and out and there are the occaisonal burst of activity and of course short silences. The longest of these is less soft and has these real start stop feel. As if a player begins to play a melody and part way through stops and thinks a bit and then starts up. Which considering how it was composed makes perfect sense. Again the piano is more background and they tone of the two instruments creates a nice interplay. The final of the harmonies played here, XIII (which is also the 13th track on the disc) is almost a middle ground between the two. Shorter again, with more space than either of the previous, it has the stop and start feel of the middle one but with longer space more akin to the initial tracks.  I’m not much of a fan of the full on Apartment House 1776, but I really like these harmonies played in in this gentle, spacious style.

Friedrich Gauwerky

This middle track on the disc is an excerpt of  26’1.1499′” for a String Player of which cellist Friedrich Gauwerky chose to play the first 640.3 seconds of, thus giving the piece the title of 10’40.3′ (this as per Cage’s instructions on ways one can play the piece). The earliest piece on this disc and its construction utilized a third and pre-I Ching method of randomness: imperfections in paper. This method is utilized to generate highly specific locations on the strings of the instrument which allows for the pitch to be sounded. There also seems to be instructions for noises to be made of which I haven’t found much by way of specifics for. But  Gauwerky here chooses, for at least some of them, vocalizations which frankly I find to be one of the most dated of modernist classical cliches. The little yelps and guttural exclamations always sound the same as if the intense concentration of realizing the music just doesn’t allow for enough attention to be placed on this other activity. No matter when I’ve seen or heard it done and it is a string quartet trope in particular I’ve never liked it. Thus this is I’d say the only dud track here but really it’s 10 minutes doesn’t detract from the rest of the disc at all.

Knoop and Gauwerky are both well known and respected players of a wide variety of new music, so their top notch performance here is no surprise. The recording quality is pretty amazing as well, super transparent and close miked enough to pick up even the faintest sound. I didn’t hear any sounds of performer movement or breath so it really is just the sounds of the instruments and it really fills a room nicely. I’d been looking for a version of Etudes Borealis for while and this disc coming out this year fits the bill perfectly.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Keith Rowe 3

March 17th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 3
New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA

The final day of the the Christian Wolff festival at NEC was one of the days I was anticipating the most.  The afternoon concert was entirely dedicated to Burdocks (1970-71)  which is a fantastic score that I’ve heard a number of quality realizations of.  The score calls for one or more groupings of players and for this concert they had organized many groups, virtually everyone we had seen perform to date and more.  They tended to be in groups of about four and they had a whole program of how they’d come in and play, how they’d move around various “stations” in the hall and so on.  As you’d imagine the sounds were highly varied with virtually every instrumentation you’d imagine (though only a bit of electronics).  There was some bad actors (a particularly terrible bit from a professor on the piano springs to mind)  but in general there was so much going on that’d they couldn’t act as a spoiler.  I can’t deny that there was a couple of times where I had to resist the temptation to stand up and shout “This isn’t Christian Wolff” ala Morton Feldman at a Scratch Orchestra performance of this piece.  Toward the end of the piece there is a melodic section that is repeated a number of times. Given the amount of performers here and the length of the event this went on and on, coming first from one part of the room and later another part of the room. In the end there was just one group left, with a pianist, guitar and violin (IIRC) and they’d just play this melodic bit in various ways. Very charming.

Listen to the Scratch Orchestra perform Burdocks

After the show I checked out some of the pages of the score that’d had been scattered around and also found the set of directions for which group was supposed to be where at what time. I commented to Keith Rowe that the chaos had clearly been pretty well orchestrated. He quipped that back in the Scratch Orchestra days they never needed to coordinate their chaos.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Stephen Drury playing Sticks
Festival Director Stephen Drury playing Sticks

Continuing in the list of great pieces performed on this day the selection from the Prose Collection performed in the Christian Wolff Performance Space, was one of my all time favorites, Sticks. This is another one which I’ve played with the Seattle Improv Meeting, which you can enjoy a recording of while you read along:

Seattle Improv Meeting play Christian Wolff’s Sticks


Make sounds with sticks of various kinds, one stick alone, several together, on other instruments, sustained as well as short. Don’t mutilate trees or shrubbery; don’t break anything other than the sticks; avoid outright fires unless they serve a practical purpose.

You can begin when you have not heard a sound from a stick for a while; two or three can begin together. You may end when your sticks or one of them are broken small enough that a handful of the pieces in your hands cupped over each other are not, if shaken and unamplified, audible beyond your immediate vicinity. Or hum continuously on a low note; having started proceed with other sounds simultaneously (but not necessarily continuously); when you can hum no longer, continue with other sounds, then stop. With several players either only one should do this or two or two pairs together (on different notes) and any number individually. (6)

You can also do without sticks but play the sounds and feelings you imagine a performance with sticks would have.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Sticks 3There were little stashes of sticks all over the place and the students, as well as festival director Stephen Drury, moved around between the stairwell and the upper area playing these sticks. The sticks were pretty often tapped or rubbed against each other and hitting other things, instruments or objects was quite common as well.  While pretty good theater musically I felt this was the least successful of the Prose Pieces that was played as part of the festival. Too dispersed and not enough focus on the actual sticks in my opinion. I think they would have been better off sitting in a circle like they did for Fits & Starts around a pile of sticks and really tried to work with the materials. This is basically how I’ve done it when I’ve performed it and I really loved the results (check out the above recording for a sample of this.  In this performance it was much more percussive due to the focus on playing other objects and did not bring out the sounds of sticks nearly as well as one can.  Still it was fun to watch and good to see it performed and as with all performances of experimental music, lessons were learned.

Following the dinner break it was back to the concert hall where, as with every night, there was a tape piece playing as I walked into the hall. Tonight’s was For Magnetic Tape (1952) which was the piece that Wolff did while Cage created Williams Mix and Earle Brown his Octet for 8 Speakers as part of the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape.  I wasn’t able to concentrate too much on the piece but it was a fairly typical 50s tape piece with sounds rushing in and out, short little tones and squeaks.  You can however give this a listen yourself as an mp3 is hosted on the Dartmouth site:

Christian Wolff’s For Magnetic Tape

The program began with Duo for Violins (1950). This was the first Christian Wolff composition, at least the first one he lists on his websites list of works.  It features that highly restricted material of his earliest pieces, constructed out of longer lines, overlapping, intersecting and contrasting. A  really nice piece and I enjoyed this performance of it a lot. This was followed by Violinist and Percussionist (1996)  another nice little piece that began with plucked strings on the violin while the percussionist mostly tapped  his drum head, than proceeded into somewhat languorous bowing as the percussion became more active.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Keith Rowe 2I’ve seen Keith Rowe solo on numerous occasions and while this one was of a piece with those others it was also rather unique. First off it was a bit shorter than normal at a bit less then fifteen minutes (he tends toward twenty-five or forty-five minute solos depending on the circumstance) but also there was the uniqueness of the room to consider. The room is a very important concept for Keith and it extends beyond the physical aspects of the room to contain the atmosphere, the audience and the general ambiance. All of these in this case are the conservatory and its most formal and impressive hall.  Keith’s performance began quite spiky with objects on the strings, short little attacks and quick events. Shortly thereafter he brought in the radio and other electronics: the  telephone pickup on his netbook and bluetooth interference from a mouse. The performance was compressed, but it had the contours of a Keith solo and it was a bit more harsh than I anticipated, which I think was a little bit of disruption to the formal atmosphere, bringing a bit of the experimentalist tradition to the concert hall. It was a hit among the (mostly) students in the audience and I can’t help but thinking that some few there would throw of the rigidity of the conservatory after this week.

After an intermission was the a large ensemble piece, The Exception and the Rule (2010) performed by the Callithumpian Consort under the direction of Stephen Drury. The piece they played was the musical portions of a a Bertolt Brecht play, that had been composed by Christian Wolff for the ensemble. This was for a fairly large ensemble with male and female vocalists singing the Brecht songs. This piece was performed more completely the next night so I’ll simply say that it was great musically and it really sounded good in this hall.  Rounding out the night was a performance of Edges, which is probably my favorite Wolff score (and one of the most challenging I’ve played) with Keith and Christian along with half a dozen students.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 3: Edges

One of the great treats of the year that I spent in London was to play with AMM. I still play whenever I can with them. That free improvisation just blew me away. I just loved that. It’s not something I can imagine doing exclusively by any means, but the experience is like no other. I made one piece called Edges which was basically for that kind of a situation. That’s the nearest I’ve come to making a really improvisational piece, where you can’t do it unless you know how to improvise. There is a score, there’s visual material, but the score is just these bits of information scattered over a page which might just indicate very loud or play dirty or play in the middle, that kind of rather generic indication. But the instructions are that you don’t necessarily play the notations but you play around them or in relationship to them. In other words”””very loud”””that’s the image. There you have your Platonic idea, but you circle it, and you have a conversation with “very loud” which might include playing it very softly or thinking about dynamics but in relation to that. It’s okay occasionally to play very loud, but that’s not the primary point of realizing that notation. (7)

They ensemble was widely spaced out on the stage with Christian (on piano) and Keith roughly centered.  They played in the darkness with only the lights on their music stands casting any light. The student ensemble included trumpet,  violin, clarinet, double bass and baritone horn. There was a lot of space and the sounds were mostly short events coming from the students. They were for the most part a bit tentative but Keith  brought in a bit more grit, growl and dynamics though his actions were quite spaced out. Christian also worked in a wider dynamic range playing inside and out of the piano with more compact but still fairly spaced out events. A number of times he responded to the score with big crashes on the piano, after which some of the students seemed to loosen up. I thought they all seemed to play to the score except for the baritone player who played a bit too much but thankfully  never grandstanding and or overly dramatic. Pretty good overall especially considering that they didn’t have a lot of time to practice. In my experience with this piece it took several attempts to begin to really find a way into it and I think much more practice to really become proficient at it.

Listen to Gentle Fire perform Christian Wolff’s Edges

March 18th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 4
Gardner Gallery Boston MA

So the final night of the week of Christian Wolff in Boston was quite a different affair. It was the aforementioned Callithumpian Consort and they were performing four pieces from a variety of twentieth century composers. The starkest difference though was that it wasn’t at NEC but was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Gallery a few blocks away from the school.  This museum was the mansion of a Boston socialite and art collector and has a fixed collection hung salon style.  The art, primarily Italian Renaissance art, is uniformly uninteresting to myself and the museum is incredibly uptight. But in order to expand their patronage they do a number of events trying to appeak to a younger crowd. So on the night of this performance there was in the first floor courtyard a Gardner After Hours event which featured a DJ, a bar and younger yuppie types engaged in socializing and an art based scavenger hunt. At the same time as they’d try to appeal to this crowd the uptight museum staff would constantly ostracize them in various ways, constantly subverting the “fun”.  In parallel with the After Hours program was the musical performance  that I’d come to see, which was part of their Avant Gardner series in an upper tapestry room, so occasionally the sounds of the “party” would drift up during the quieter parts of the show.

The Callithumpian Consort was founded by Stephen Drury in the mid-90s and, as they put it on their website,  “is dedicated to the proposition that music is an experience.” They seem to play quite often as part of the Avant Gardner series and bringing more mainstream modern composition into the public sphere seems to be their thing.  For tonight’s program they played four pieces including the “world premier” of Christian Wolff’s The Exception and the Rule (2010).

The first was 26 Simultaneous Mosaics by Henry Cowell.  I’d seen this piece performed in Seattle as part of the Drums Along the Pacific concert series which had also featured Stephen Drury on piano. This is what I wrote about it for that performance:

The next piece, 26 Simultaneous Mosaics, from 1963 is indeterminate in form, making one wonder if the bi-directional influence between Cage and Cowell continued beyond percussion (Cowell also composed for Cage style prepared piano) though an earlier Cowell piece also allowed for a changeable structure at the group level instead of this pieces more variable indeterminacy at the  individual level. This piece for piano, percussion, violin, “˜cello and clarinet made up of  the aforementioned 26 parts which the instrumentalists can play in the order of their choosing thus causing each performance to be unique. In this realization the piece was spacious and meandering with the various mosaics taking on many different characteristics.  A nice piece with hints of romanticism here and there.

This pretty much held for this performance though it opened with a big wild run from the piano which had also occurred in Seattle though I hadn’t noted it. I thought this performance wasn’t quite as strong in the other parts, not as wild. Not bad though, but this would prove to be par for the course with the Callithumpian Consort – almost always a bit staid (except for Drury).  This piece was followed by Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano by Charles Ives. I’ve stated earlier in these reports that I am not much of a fan of Ives and am far from knowledgeable enough to intelligently comment on his music. So in brief I felt that the first movement was pretty great, easily the most appealing Ives I’ve heard and I was really hoping this would finally be a composition of his I liked. But then came the second movement which spoiled it all. It was typical Ives Americana but particularly bombastic even for him.  It was a “scherzo” that was a medley of popular songs of the day and it was like a bad string trio performance of Souza marches. Soul crushing.

The centerpiece of the evening was Christian Wolff piece which, while still an edited down version of the whole piece, featured actors and narration between the songs. This filled in the story which was pretty typical Brecht (i.e.  it rather belabored it’s point)  which was about a capitalist trying to cross a desert for a business opportunity during which he abuses and eventually kills his porter. The piece culminates in a trial in which the judge rules for the merchant as he had the right to self defense even if the threat was imaginary. The music of course is the most interesting part, from the program notes:

The music for The Exception and the Rule is cored for a mixed ensemble of low, dark-sounding instruments (clarinet, trombone, viola, bass), and percussion, and includes both specifically notated music as well as aleatoric sections. The singers are asked to prioritize clarity of diction and to sing straight ahead, and to think of folk or early music singing styles. There are no dynamics in the score, suggesting a mezzo, flat sound. (9)

I enjoyed the music for this quite a bit and while I tend to not be too much into Lieder type singing pieces I thought this all worked well. The lack of inflection on the singing helped a lot for me. Ultimately I think I preferred the previous nights version as musically it sounded better in the hall and the play parts seem a bit superfluous.

So ends
The story of a journey
You have heard and you have seen.
You saw what is usual, what happens time and again.
But we ask of you:
What is not strange
Find it disturbing,
Strange making what is customary,
Find it inexplicable,
Find it inexplicable.
What is usual should astonish you
What is the rule recognize it as an abuse
And where you have recognized abuse
Create a remedy
Do something about it!
Create a remedy
Do something about it!(10)

The final piece was Page 45 from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise performed by the Consort along with Keith Rowe.  This was easily the biggest disappointment of the entire week of music; they only played for about 8 minutes which is pretty short even for just one page. They didn’t have Keith run a workshop on performing the piece, the Callithumpian Consort apparently has been working on the piece for some time, supposedly they have even recorded the whole score at length. But their interpretation, at least of this page, was terrible bringing to mind all that Cardew had complained about classical performers attempts at this piece. They played the whole thing at a very quiet dynamic with near continuous playing. This really didn’t fit the material which was a page with several isolated events. Additionally they were far too inclined toward unison playing, too worried about playing together, which really isn’t an option with a group playing the score.  Keith of course kept to the score and provided some dynamic contrast but he played to the room and thus didn’t dramatically jump out.  It seems strange to me to have Keith there and not really use him, he is by far the most expert person playing Treatise today and you’d think they’d want to take advantage of it.

After the concert we all headed down to the gallery bar, which the uptight staff of course shut down before the concert goers could get a drink (including the musicians whom they gave drink tickets to). This didn’t go over too well, but we all went to this restaurant closer to NEC and had a final beer.  While this last night was a bit of an outlier, in the main this was a fantastic week and it was an incredible opportunity to get to see so much of Wolff’s music performed. I had a great time and it was an honor and a pleasure to be able to meet Christian Wolff and Stephen Drury. As always I had many great conversations with Keith whom it was great to see again. My thanks to all involved for the terrific program.

See all of my pictures from this festival in my Christian Wolff at NEC flickr group.

1) Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, Köln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
2) Christian Wolff, Dartmouth page
3) Christian Wolff, Wikipedia article
4) NEC’s Christian Wolff Residency site
5) Stephen Drury’s site
6) Christian Wolff, Prose Collection, Frog Peak Music
7) Christian Wolff Interview with Damon Krukowski, BOMB 59/Spring 1997
8) Callithumpian Consort website
9) Callithumpian Consort at the Gardner museum program notes
10) Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 2: Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff 4

Wolff’s music offers no eay answers. Instead, it poses difficult questions. Such as:

– Why is the music constantly being interrupted? Or, is the music interrupting something else? (8)

March 16th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 2
New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA

The second day of the Christian Wolff festival continued in the same fashion as the first day, with shows at five and eight with a selection from the Prose Collection in between. There was also earlier in the afternoon a short lecture from Christian Wolff and a masterclass from Keith Rowe. I tried to make it to Christian’s lecture which was to be on how looking back at ancient history can be of value to contemporary music making but I couldn’t find the building that it was in. Across the street from the rest of the NEC campus is a building that is mostly storefront on the ground level. Well it turns out that there is a door there, marked only with the building number that if you go in there there is another bit of NEC. Well I didn’t find this until well past the start time of the lecture, at which point I thought it’d be rude to enter. So I went to Symphony Sushi instead and had a very nice lunch. I also didn’t attend Keith’s masterclass since I have been to a similar type of workshop with him and I figured this was more for the Joan Miro Cloud and birds (1927)students. Keith later told me it was packed with around 50 people and it wasn’t really possible for the whole group to all play.  A very thorough report of the masterclass was posted by Joe Morris on his blog and is well worth reading. I instead went to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts this afternoon, which while not having too much to offer the aficionado of modern and contemporary art did have a number of pieces worth seeing and of course plenty of early works of note. The Miró, pictured to the right there was among the most interesting to me, in that the cloud portion is unlike any Miró I’ve seen and very striking I thought. The other thing of real interest to me at the MFA is that they have the only historical cláirseach in the United States, the Bunworth harp.

The 5pm concert began with I am a Dangerous Woman (1983) a solo piano piece that was inspired by Joan Cavanagh’s feminist anti-war poem of the same name. The piece reminded me somewhat of last years Long Piano (Peace March 11) released on New World (which I wrote a bit about earlier) in that it began with a more formally structured section that was not strictly a march but in that vein. As the piece progressed this initial structure changed character several times, overridden by shorter segments that seem disconnected but eventually create a new kind of form. The piece concludes on much less strident note with a much sweeter, melodic nature. A nice piece, well performed. This was followed by Charles Ives String Quartet No.1 “From the Salvation Army” which was  pretty much Ives, beginning with a round and the music sounding (as per its source) like classified Salvation Army Band times. I’m not a huge Ives fan and am far from expert so I’ll say no more. There was no information regarding a connection, real or perceived, between Ives and Wolff.  I think you could place Wolff in an American tradition that includes Ives and certainly the use of existing folk material is a shared aspect. The group that performed this piece, the Borromeo String Quartet, has been the  Quartet-in-Residence at NEC for seventeen years and are clearly a Boston institution.  They played in that very animated style as if they were “rocking out” that I blame the Kronos Quartet for. The final piece of the afternoon was Peace March (Exercise #26) (1988) which was written for solo snare and published in Stuart Smith’s The Noble Snare collection.  Here it was played as a duo with Christian Wolff on melodica and a Trent Leasure on the snare. This was a short, charming piece with the snare mostly in a muted mode and gently played with the hands. Wolff’s melodica was as far as I can recall just tones that came in and out amongst the sounds of the snare. A nice way to end the afternoon.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 2: Play 1

The afternoons piece from the Prose Collection was Play, which I have performed myself in several different groups some of which are archived here (scroll down to the Christian Wolff section) and one of which you can listen to as you read along:

Seattle Improv Meeting performs Christian Wolff’s Play.


Play, make sounds, in short bursts, clear in outline for the most part; quiet; two or three times move towards as loud as possible, but as soon as you cannot hear yourself or another player stop directly. Allow various spaces between playing (2, 5 seconds, indefinite); sometimes overlap events.  One, two, three, four or five times play a long sound or complex or sequence of sounds. Sometimes play independently, sometimes by coordinating; with other players (when they start or stop or while they play or when they move) or a player should play (start or, with long sounds, start and stop or just stop) at a signal (or within 2 or 5 seconds of a signal) over which he has no control (does not know when it will come). At some point or throughout use electricity.  (6, p. 8)

This performance was down in the stairwell below the statue of Beethoven and was a pretty diverse group of players including some electronics, a baritone sax, percussion, guitar, violin, bassoon and so on.  I thought this performance was pretty good, lots of bursts of activity, pretty playful and evocative of the score. Of the three pieces performed from the Prose Collection during this festival I think this one was the most successful: it was engaging music and it really captures the essence of the score. When I looked at my notes that made I had noted several things that directly corresponded to the score (the bursts of activity for instance) and that says a lot to me. This is one of my favorite of the Prose Collection, one of those pieces where the instructions are simple but the ideas are profound. There is also a variant of this piece, the “Color Version” which pushes the complexity and interaction between the players and interestingly for a score includes a number of questions:

Are musical sounds to other sounds as black and white is to color? (6, p. 9)

Christian Wolff at NEC-6As per usual the evening began with an electronic piece, this evenings was Snowdrop (electronic version) (1970).  I’m quite familiar with the solo piano version of this piece, and this electronic realization was made up of intriguingly layered tones;  quite different from the piano version. I’d like to hear this again to directly compare the two and figure out how exactly they relate. The program began with Vanessa Wheeler playing acoustic guitar and singing Dark as a Dungeon (Merle Travis)  which is a miners song. This folk tune was used as a source for a piece of the same name by Christian Wolff for solo clarinet of which, though pretty far removed from the source,  some elements came through. This I think is another good example of social concerns working their way into Wolff’s music but without pushing it in your face. Having a trad performance of the folk tune beforehand was a nice touch and a little more direct than whatever was implied with the earlier (and forthcoming) Ives piece. Three Pieces: Rock About,  Instrument, Starving to Death on the Government Dime (1979-80) for violin and viola followed and I have to say that these really sounded great in the hall. All three were  in that uncertain melodic vein so prevalent in Wolff’s compositions and the reverberation of the hall seemed to both reinforce that aspect and yet sustain them. The three pieces all kind of blend together in my mind but my favorite moment was a solo viola section in one of the pieces that really brought out the best of the room, sounding as if it was enveloping you in its rich yet hesitant sound. Another Possibility (2004), a recent solo electric guitar piece, was which was spare, angular and oddly jazzy at times. Overall it had this effect of almost making the player seem like he was hesitantly picking out the piece, like ones first read of a score, but he clearly was really solid and experienced with the piece. He’d pause at times and turn on distortion and continue playing, giving the piece some nice pauses and placing these sections in time.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 2: Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff 1

More guitar followed this,  a duo improvisation from Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff. There was some setup, a table  was brought out with two guitars, Keith’s electronics and in between the two guitars Keith’s collection of manipulators. In front of  Christian’s guitar was his melodica and on either side of the performers, matching Fender amps. They sat side by side at this table sharing the tools, but as only Keith had his electrics there was a nice divergence in sound. Wolff’s playing reminded me at times of the 60s AMM recordings where Keith used less and more primitive electronics, but even then had his own unique texture. He played Stones at one point, working with a pair of them that Keith had on the table, bringing out the sounds of stones as directed in that Prose Piece. Toward the end of their all too short performance he played a bit of melodica  while Keith worked the fan and various electronics creating digital roar that the thin, sustained lines of the melodica snaked in and out of. Keith’s playing was of course compressed into the shorter time allotted for this piece but remained unhurried and rich all the same. He matched Christian in the beginning using various manipulators and tools on the guitar but began to add more abstract sounds from the electronics as the set progressed. As Christian played Stones, Keith’s sounds became more raw, using contact mics perhaps and bringing up the radio.  By the time of the aforementioned melodica section he had the blurry wash of radio, effects, the roar of the fan all providing this striking contrast to Christian’s playing. Only about 12 minutes all told, but really engaging and a nice contrast to the other pieces we’d seen tonight.

Christian Wolff at NEC-19

After an intermission the largest group we’d seen yet, including a conductor, came out and performed the US premier of  Quodlibet (2007).  This piece was for a chamber group of rather diverse instrumentation including a percussionist placed a little ways away from the group.  It began with just a few people playing and it tended to shift around the ensemble with lots of moving events mostly in little subsets. At times though quite a few members would be playing but while active it was never overly dense.  I don’t really recall too much more beyond this about this piece, but there was something about it I found a bit unsatisfying, perhaps the larger group lost some of that fragility that I find so endearing in Wolff’s music.  The following piece, Tuba Song (1992), though, was among my favorites of the entire festival.  The piece was for two tubas, one slightly larger than the other (though I don’t know whether these are distinct instruments or not), widely spaced on the stage. A massive duet of rumbles, rattles and overlapping low tones. It brought to mind a ritual mating song of two alien whale-like creatures. The piece was in three movements, of which I found the first the most interesting in it’s use of the really low and abstract sounds. The other movements were also great, with a bit of that elusive Wolff melody working their way in. A truly great piece, it made me think of  those Alvin Lucier pieces made up of duo sine waves but at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum.  A beautiful way to end another really great day of music.

More pictures in my Christian Wolff at NEC flickr group.

1) Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, Köln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
2) Christian Wolff, Dartmouth page
3) Christian Wolff, Wikipedia article
4) NEC’s Christian Wolff Residency site
5) Stephen Drury’s site
6) Christian Wolff, Prose Collection, Frog Peak Music
7) Christian Wolff Interview with Damon Krukowski, BOMB 59/Spring 1997
8) Stephen Drury, festival director’s notes

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 2: Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff 2

“And a more general thought, the movement of the music (and, I think, just about all the music I have worked on) is towards melody in its largest sense (as well as, sometimes, its familiar sense of the singable line). This may not be always obvious, but then the times are not conducive to easy optimism.” (1, p. 492)

Christian Wolff spent March 2010 as the composer in residence at the New England Conservatory in Boston and they concluded this with a week of concerts.  I personally love all of the New York School of composers and while they have certainly received more recognition in recent times, it is still a rarity to see a lot of their pieces performed.  I got wind of the residency performances as they were bringing Keith Rowe over to participate in the concert series and he was setting up a few other performance opportunities.  Wolff’s music has appeared on an increasing number of recordings in recent years but so much of his compositions are basically unavailable, I thought back to how revelatory seeing so many Cage piece performed at the Vancouver New Music Silence: John Cage festival a few years back and decided I’d make the trip to Boston to experience these pieces performed.

“Your first encounter with the music of Christian Wolff leaves you with the impression [that] you’ve just heard (or played, or read) something totally strange, unlike anything else you know. [“¦] Weird little tunes, sounding as if they had been beamed at some remote point in the universe and then bounced back again as a kind of intergalactic mutant music; recognizable melodic and rhythmic patterns, somehow sewn together in monstrous pairings, sometimes reminiscent of the demons of Hieronymus Bosch, composites of animals, fish, flowers, and common household objects: there is order, but also constant interruption, intrusions of disorderly reality upon regularity and lawfulness, combing to create an effect of both familiarity and strangeness: Shklovsky’s ostranenie. […] You can’t really say what it’s like (although John Cage came close when he said, after a performance of the Exercises in New York, that it was like the classical music of an unknown civilization).” -Frederic Rzewski (1, p. 10)

I’ve written before that I’ve found Christian Wolff’s music difficult to write about, that there is a level of expertise required to really do the pieces justice. Even with my level of understanding of modern composition, the large amount I’ve read on the New York School and Wolff’s own writings, I still don’t feel adequate to the challenge. Additionally  in the case of this festival, these were students at a variety of levels playing these pieces and in my mind it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to “review” the performances as the primary purpose behind these were educational. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, all of these students are, of course, already highly trained musicians and  many of them will be playing professionally in a few months or years.  Overall I found the performances nearly always top notch and even the rockier performances were still interesting in considering the challenges of these piece. There are a few cases though where the performance lends some insight into pieces that I do know well and it is inescapable to ignore that aspect.  But I want to emphasize the difference there is in a poor performance at a professional concert versus in  a student context:  it is in the later case part of the education process. It is also worth noting that it’s not just my relative lack of expertise that renders these pieces difficult to write about; time and time again over the week I’d hear students, faculty and professional performers discussing how difficult this music is. It is not difficult in terms of high complexity, but in their fragility, the way they are constructed can make it easy for them to sound bad even if decently performed.  It is this aspect, where a certain touch, or willingness to commit oneself completely to the ideas in the piece makes all the difference in the piece working or not.

March 15th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 1
New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA

I arrived in Boston on March 14th after a red eye flight from Seattle and saw that night an  improv set featuring Keith Rowe and Jason Lescalleet outside of the Christian Wolff festival (Brian Olewnick wrote a good review of this show). Weather in Boston these first few days was crazy with 50-70mph winds, driving rain and a chill, that while above freezing, was not deterred by the heavy winter clothing I had brought with me. This weather continued into the next day and for the beginning of the festival I’d be damp at all the concerts.  There were concerts at 5 and 8 pm Monday through Wednesday at NEC with a final night at the Gardner Museum near the conservatory. Additionally each day at NEC also included a performance from the Prose Collection at the halls entrance  in between the concert halls. This of course was a large amount of music much of it unfamiliar, or even unperformed. Thus any sort of writeup beyond a piece by piece analysis is going to be a bit of a gloss I’m afraid.  This post will be in that later category but as I have performed several of his pieces myself  (I wrote about my experience of performing a number of his pieces in this post), and I’d have a chance to see several of those very pieces performed here, I’ll also try to examine those pieces in that context.

The next day was the first day of the Christian Wolff concerts, the 5pm show being the only show in Williams Hall. The pieces that were played were: Duo for 2 FlutesTilbury, Tilbury 2, and Tilbury 4, Exercise #7, For One, Two or Three People and Berlin Exercises. I arrived a bit before 5pm and spent some time reading the very nice prepared materials they had made for the series. This was a book outlining the performances for each night (minus of course the inevitable last minute changes ) a printed handout that included descriptions of a number of pieces (mostly from Christian’s collected writings Cues: Writings & Conversations) and a document that included the text of some songs that were performed.  The first piece, Duo for 2 Flutes is one of Wolff’s earliest pieces, which I had not heard before. Wolff in his earliest pieces restricted himself to using just a few tones and this piece was in that vein. The two flutes would play these few tones in short or longer durations, with overlappings between the two instrument adding layers of interaction beyond the limits of the material. A short, charming, engaging work and a nice way to begin the festival. The next few pieces are these beautiful piano works that Wolff wrote with John Tilbury in mind (though not specifically for John Tilbury) of which I have several recordings (Sabine Liebner’s on Neos being my favorite). The early Tilbury Pieces are quite spare with notes  coming in and lingering and well seperated in time. The later pieces include several other instruments along with the piano. These are pieces that I’m quite familiar with and I didn’t recognize them at all when performed here, not quite spacious enough and the notes seemed to lack that floating feel. The following piece, Exercise #7 was somewhat stiff, but I felt the afternoon’s concert really snapped into focus with a performance of For One, Two or Three People.

“This music is drawn from the interaction of the people playing it. It requires for its performance independent self-discipline (unpoliced by a score defining fixed relationships and timings) and a capacity and special alertness for responding to what one’s fellow performers are doing, the sounds they are making or changing and their silences.” (1, p. 492)

In the sixties Wolff became quite interested in the social aspects of music making and the relationship of the composer to the performer. While he had since the fifties ceded control over of a number of aspects of the music to the performer (indeterminacy of performance) quite a bit of his music from this period places trust in the performers over the very structure of the piece.  While I haven’t had a chance to examine this score I have heard several versions of this piece including this incredible solo version by David Tudor on a baroque pipe organ.

Christian Wolff For 1, 2 or 3 Players, performed by David Tudor

In this performance three players set up on the floor in front of the stage with percussion, double bass and bass clarinet. This performance was lively, sounds coming in and out with clear interaction between the players. This trio seemed comfortable with performing and with tackling this piece. The sounds were engaging the percussionist expelling bursts of explosive percussion along with rattly, clattering sounds, the scrapes, plucks and dry sounds of extended techniques on the bass and whistles, breaths and low rumbles from the clarinet. The percussionist had a string in a drum that when bowed made this alien roar that was in stark contrast to the much more uptight sounds we’d been hearing earlier.  The piece that followed this performance seemed to relax into it as well, with Berlin Exercises , which featured spoken and sung texts in German (Vergnuegungen by Bertold Brecht). This was enjoyable I thought with the various sounds of the ensemble (which included recorders, vibraphone, piano, cello, etc) coming in and out as per the other exercises, contrasted against the spoken and sung text.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 1: Fits & Starts 1

In between the afternoon and evening concerts there was to be a performance from the Prose Collection in what they were calling the “Christian Wolff Performance Space” which was the hallway in between concert halls featuring a statue of Beethoven. The Prose pieces are as the name implies scores that are written as a text instructions and that were created for musicians and non-musicians alike. Fits and Starts score is more of a list of instructions than some:

Fits and Starts

Four or five of the following sequences represented to start with.

Any number of players; any one player playing one or more of the sequences; any number of players playing the same sequence.

Each player follows her own pulse, generally within the limits of one beat per 5/6 of a second to one beat per 1 1/3. Generally, though without straining to, avoid another’s pulse.

The duration of a sound, unless some further articulation of it (which may include its stopping) is used to mark a rhythm, should not exceed about 2 1/2 seconds (and may be any shorter length).

1. 1 sound or articulation of a sound underway: every 21 beats, omitted every 6th time the 21st beat comes round.
2. 1 sound or articulation: at the 11th beat, then at the 12th, then 13th,, etc., always adding one.
3. 1 sound or articulation: at the 10th beat, the 29th, 60th, then 10th, 29th, 60th, etc., always repeating.
4. 1 sound or articulation: at the 120th beat; 2 sounds or articulations at the next 100th; 1 at next 90th; 2 at next 80th; 1 at next 70th; 2 at next 60th; 1 at next 50th; 1 at next 40th; 2 at next 30th; 1 at next 20th; 2 at next 10th; then 1 at next 20th; 2 at next 10th; then 1 at next 20th; 2 at next 30th; 1 at next 40th; 1 at next 50th; 2 at next 60th, etc., back to 1 at next 120th, then forward again, and back, etc.
5. 1 sound or articulation: 15 beats after 4 sounds or articulations heard; then 4 beats after 4 sounds or articulations heard; then 15 beats after 4 sounds, etc., heard, then 4 beats after 4, etc., always alternating; or (freely changing back and forth): 2 sounds or articulations: 21 beats, then 3 beats, then 50, then 21, 3, 50 always repeating, after 3 sounds or articulations.
6. 1 sound or articulation every 42 beats; or (alternating freely) 2 sounds or articulations every 29th or 58th beat.

Players may shift from one sequence to another at any point within a sequence.

When a player has a sense of the music of his rhythm(s) he may proceed simply on the basis of that sense, and hence to her own rhythms. (6, p. 12)

The Prose Pieces which included performers that I’d not see in the other pieces (perhaps some improvisation students?) were  uniformly enjoyable. A wide variety of sounds, as there is no restriction on instrumentation, that come and go as per the above instructions with lots of silences and interesting interactions.  Being in the middle of the hall there was a wide variety of ambient sounds, from the driving rain out the nearby door, to repeated fragments of music from students in practice rooms, to the suddenly hushed conversations as students rounded the corner to find a performance in progress.   This piece is timed by ones pulse which one tended to figure out as you’d watch the students make a sound and then test their pulse at their neck or wrist for a time before making another. Really an enjoyable event and in accordance with my performances from the prose pieces (though I haven’t played this particular one). These pieces I find highly musical and really love how that people who want to make music can take this simple instructions and produce highly engaging music.

There was a bit of a break for dinner after this, which I took with Keith and ended up also being with Christian and festival director Stephen Drury. This was unexpected and really nice, a chance to meet Christian as well as Stephen whom I’ve seen perform on a number of occasions. Of course those involved in the festival had a limited amount of time so soon enough it was back to the concert hall for the evenings program.  Before each nights performance there would be some pre-recorded music: tape pieces, electronic realizations and the like.  On this night it was Mayday Materials (1989) which Wolff had written for a dance and was his first tape piece since 1952.  He sampled various instruments and produced a number of pieces out of the samples and these would be selected from based on the needs at hand.  It had that sound of digitally constructed college of these instruments, with sounds fading in and out and rushing about. Additionally there seemed to be samples of  street sounds, groups of people and so on.

The main feature of this evenings concert was that it was all pieces for, or realized on, multiple pianos (the order of these pieces changed from the program, and I’m no longer certain if I have this entirely correct. Please leave a comment if you know that I’m wrong here).  Five pianos surrounded the audience with one at each of rooms four corners and the fifth in the center of the stage.  They played pieces by all four members of the New York School beginning with Christian Wolff’s, Sonata (1957). This was a piano trio and was played on the three front facing pianos. It is a piece for four pianists at three pianos and also involves some preparation. I didn’t go look at the preparations but Wolff’s always seem to be fairly lightly prepared, so closer to earlier Cage pieces.  This piece wasn’t too long and I don’t recall too much about it beyond the what seemed to be interlocking phrases across the multiple pianos and the occasional sound of the preparations.  Said preparations were then removed and were followed by  Earle Brown’s Twenty-Five Pages (1953) of which they played a subset (each pianist with five pages perhaps?). This was an active piece with the five piano’s material overlapping and forming connections by chance. Alas the next couple of pieces really drove the first two from my memory and I don’t recall too much about this piece beyond that it was fairly active and I enjoyed it at the time. The five piano version of John Cage’s Winter Music that followed was quite memorable and I thought really worked well in this configuration.

The work consists of twenty pages of music that can be used by anywhere from one to twenty pianists. Varying numbers of events are scattered on the twenty pages, but all the events have an identical profile: single chords. The number of notes per chord and their specific locations on the staff were determined by chance procedures. The notation can be ambiguous with regards to pitch, and Cage provides precise rules on how to interpret these situations. But he is absolutely clear that each event should be played as a single attack. There is to be no breaking up of the chord in any way. If the notes are too widely-spaced for the pianist’s hands to reach, then a technique involving sympathetic vibrations is used to compensate.

The method of Winter music explains its severe quality. Other pieces of this same period in Cage’s work may incorporate a wide range of possibilities, but Winter music limits itself to one. The same simple event — the single attack — occurs over and over again with no contrast, no development, no change. And because every event in the piece is an ictus — a downbeat — there is no sense of motion here at all. Events do not lead to one another. Events do not have the inner motion of a phrase or even an arpeggiation. […]

Considered in this way, the title of Winter music begins to make sense. This is a music in which time no longer exists, or in which it is frozen. The sparse and isolated chords of Winter music have more in common with points in space than with events in time. They stand out in the silence, totally separated from one another, the way that twigs, stones, and trees appear against the blank whiteness of the snow. – James Pritchett (8)

I’ve mostly heard Winter Music played along with Atlas Eclipticalis until the release of David Tudor Music for Piano on Edition RZ includes a solo performance of the piece by Tudor.  As Pritchett describes above the piece is these isolated chords, coming out of silence at varying dynamics. With the pianos in the round as at this performance the sense of stasis is even greater. It is as if you are on a frozen in a lake, surrounded completely by the chill of winter. Really great to hear this piece performed and with five pianos – something you could only hear in a music school.  In contrast to the sudden attacks and occasional loud chords was the final five piano piece, Morton Feldman’s Five Pianos (1972)

Pianos and Voices began by finding myself humming tones while improvising on the piano. The vocal or humming sounds were quite short, and as the piano sounds lingered, I began to hear other pianos, other humming. Two, three, four pianos were too transparent – the fifth piano became like the pedal blur needed to complete the overall sound I was after. – Morton Feldman (9)

This piece was just fantastic, definitely my favorite of the evening (though so much was so good on this night). The piece is made up of arpeggios, which in this setup just surround you, almost seeming like thye began in one part of the room, and continued in another part of the room. The front center piano played sustained single chords which the surrounding arpeggios seemed to just ripple off of. Lovely.

A break followed after this piece and then the final performance of the night, Christian Wolff’s Changing the System (1973/4).This piece was performed by four groups of four students in the round, mostly brass players but a variety of instruments. They played short melodic fragments, with hand signals and such to pass them along interspersed with chordal playing. Half way though the piece the system is changed (so to speak): two groups switch to percussion, the others to a fragmented text reading. The text they read from was from a speech by Tom Hayden five during the 1968-69 student upheavals in the US about the need for systemic social change(1, p.500). The text reading was like the melodic playing in that the performers would pass a sentence along, sometimes one performer starting a word and another finishing it. At other times they’d all say a word together, akin to the earlier chords.  This piece was really great, easily my favorite one that contained textual material. The way the text was broken up and repeated reminded me of Cage’s Living Room Music in a way and the performance in the round really worked well to the pieces advantage.

Thus ended the first night of the Christian Wolff festival at NEC. As this has gotten pretty long I think I’ll break this up into several posts. Stay tuned for the rest of the report. In the meantime you can check out all of my pictures from this festival in my Christian Wolff at NEC flickr group.

1) Christian Wolff,  Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, Köln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
2) Christian Wolff, Dartmouth page
3) Christian Wolff, Wikipedia article
4) NEC’s Christian Wolff Residency site
5) Stephen Drury’s site
6) Christian Wolff, Prose Collection, Frog Peak Music
7) Christian Wolff Interview with Damon Krukowski, BOMB 59/Spring 1997
8) James Pritchett, Notes on John Cage’s Winter music/Atlas Eclipticalis and 103
9) Morton Feldman, A note on “Five Pianos

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