Silence: John Cage


Silence: John Cage

Prepared Wire Strung harp


18 – 21 October 2006

Vancouver New Music Festival 2006

ScotiaBank Dance Centre


Atlas Eclipticalis Workshop
This was the day of the performance so our workshop was technical setup and a full dress rehearsal of the piece. We brought down all of our gear from the seventh floor dance studio where we had been working up to this point and setup around the main floor. Marina had us setup throughout the floor and the tables and chair of the audience were mingled throughout. There was a larger core downstage but the ensemble was genuinely mingled amongst the audience.  I was setup on the right hand side with a small table with my electronics and various tools. We ran through one page of the score before we had been wired up and I have to say that it was much more effective with us all spread around this much larger space compared to being packed in the practice room. It was much quieter, spare more like individual starts twinkling out a little burst of sound. We then move on to setting up of microphones and Marina’s turntable controlled computer setup. There was a lot of setup to get audio feeds from various musicians and to get Marina’s turntable and computer control setup running as she intended. This is an interesting setup as she has a record with MIDI time codes that she has a Max patch setup to allow here to move the audio feed around in the 8-channel surround sound system. After this point the had to setup the other performers and run through their rehearsal so I was off for four hours. The rehearsal was mainly practice for how we would enter the room and then we ran through the nights program. Marina and Giorgio had decided that we would play three segments of two pages of the score with the other pieces overlapping with each other. So it was to be a continuous night of performances with a single intermission. Marina setup a smaller subset of the ensemble to play initially, mostly electronics including myself. We played a couple of segments and then we were off till the performance.

Artist Chat: Marina Rosenfeld
Considering the continuous nature of the nights performance the evening began with the artist chat. Marina first began discussing her previous projects where should would work with groups of untrained people to make music. Her basic approach is to engage with people first and musicians afterwards with an interest in disrupting the socio-economic musician/audience dichotomy. Asked about tonights piece she said that she found Atlas Eclipticalis to be a slippery object, the score itself reigns in musical techniques. It is a translation from one system, a star map, to human music making. Transformation and translation were essential concepts in thinking about the score for her especially as musicians typically think in time and not space. So it is the task of the interpreter to try to subvert their typical behavior, both with the use of their stereotyped techniques and in the form that music traditionally takes.

Set I:
Atlas Eclipticalis pages 3 and 4 (Marina conducting, reduced ensemble, ),
Two4 (
Allen Stiles, Piano and Rebecca Whitling Violin),
Atlas Eclipticalis
, pages 1 and 2 (Giorgio conducting, full ensemble),
Two3
#5 (Randy Raine-Reusch, shō and Giorgio Magnanensi, Conch Shell)

After Giorgio’s introduction we filed in from back stage and took our places amongst the audience. The reduced ensemble began half way into the score on page three. As a participant it is pretty impossible to really describe the entire effect of the performance as I had to be focused on the score, my instruments and the conductor. But overall I think this was pretty good, the small group included several electric guitars, laptop and myself with my prepared wire-strung harp, radio and iPod which was filled with samples of my own playing. Our sounds in general seemed to slip into the space and hover there creating the effect that I think Cage had called for. In the center of the room was a piano and as we came to the last half page Allen and Rebecca began playing Two4. Their playing was so restrained and quiet that they blending really well with us in a nice extended natural cross fade. As we dropped out their beautiful sounds took over. They really displayed how to take Cage at his instructions of playing as quiet as possible and without excessive technique. Almost no vibrato in Rebecca’s bowing and when it was used it was a dramatic effect. Allen’s restrained notes and chords would come out of nowhere and be fully suspended in the space, with long spaces between them. There were times where I’d see him press down on a key and hear nothing. This was absolutely stunning, one of my top three performances from the entire festival. As the end of their piece approached Giorgio stood up and our full ensemble started to play the beginning of the score.

The full ensemble added a number of horns, reeds, percussion and voice to the mix. It was necessarily more dense at times, but how spread out we were in the room helped with that a bit. The audience had been encouraged to move around during the performance and occasionally people would move to the chairs to the right and left of my setup. Several people had moved to see the previous piece better and now they moved to different spots to see our ensemble in a different place.  As we concluded the piece Randy, moved into his position in the audience toward the front of the room and began to place the beautiful haunting shō. Giorgio joined him with a conch shell filled with water that would add the occasional gurgle and glurp. The shō is a Japanese bamboo mouth organ, so it can do multiple notes ala a harmonica but its sound is more akin to the shakuhaci. A beautiful instrument and really well treated with Cage’s music. Like the earlier number piece this works with longer tones suspended in space. Interestingly contrasted when the conch shell would erupt with a burble, which of course was indeterminate. This piece was really nice and a quiet meditation to end the set.

Set II:

Etudes Boreales I-IV (Peggy Lee, cello),
Pools
(Giorgio Magnanensi, Conch Shell),
One9
#8 (Randy Raine-Reusch, shō),
Atlas Eclipticalis
pages 3 and 4 (Marina conducting, full ensemble) ,
Two6
(Allen Stiles, Piano and Rebecca Whitling Violin),
Two6
remix  (Marina Rosenfeld, Turntables/Laptop)

The second set began with a solo cello piece. This piece was interesting in that like Atlas Eclipticalis Cage used the star-charts of the Atlas Borealis for composing this work and for the cello part pitch, duration, articulation, color and dynamics are notated precisely for every sound. Very well executed this piece was, with a lot more intersecting sounds and rapid parts then most of what we were hearing that night. After this was a short solo Conch piece that again relied on water sloshing in the shell. So similar sounds as to its use earlier – the microphone picking up the gentle swells of the water moving around and the the occasional blurp or gurgle as the water enters and exits various chambers. This was follow up by a solo shō that was spare and haunting. This was just a section of the piece that can be two hours long and from its concluding strains we began the final section of Atlas Eclipticalis. This section I think was the poorest performance from our ensemble, too dense and too loud. It even got loud enough at one point that Marina motioned to us to tone down the volume. It wasn’t too bad, but after the other performances where you really had the sense of quiet, sparse sounds in space it was definitely a bit much.

The second piece from Allen and Rebecca was the final piece of music that John Cage wrote. Very much akin to the earlier piece they had played this one was equally wonderful. It seem to have a bit more denser sections a few more chords and parts where the violin and piano could overlap.  The number pieces are made up of time brackets within which the performers can choose when to play so there are subtle timing differences between every performances and periods where these overlaps can only occur if simultaneous choices are made. Of course between the notes is a lot of space, space to contemplate the notes and to hear that music that occurs when no-one is playing. Again they played with incredible restraint, and a wonderful lightness of touch. A few minutes before the conclusion Marina stood up and began to use her turntables and laptops in an interpretation of the same piece.  This really didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the piece that we had just heard, what with rumbles, static and samples being the material that she used. There was some sample piano that I wonder if it was from a recording of this piece or just in acknowledgment of the appropriate instrumentation. Overall this came across to me as more of an structure improvisation of an electro-acoustic nature. It may have owed a lot to this composition by Cage, but came across more as an acknowledgment of his ideas – using the detritus of our culture as sounds, emulation of random radio dial spins, perhaps some indeterminate elements. It did miss out completely on the spaciousness of this piece and the silence that is so essential in Cage’s work and was clearly present in this piece. Still an energetic and lively conclusion to an amazing four days of music.

Silence: John Cage

18 – 21 October 2006
Vancouver New Music Festival 2006

ScotiaBank Dance Centre



Day 3 October 20th 2006

Atlas Eclipicalis Workshop

Marina had had airline troubles and was running a bit late, so Giorgio had us run through a page of the score whilst we waited. Marina came in during this and watched as we completed the page. Giorgio introduced her to us and she regaled us with some of her thoughts on the score. Since she had been asked to run this ensemble she had spent several months examining and thinking about the score. Trying to deal with it in terms of space – both outer space and in a musical sense. The circular aspect as well – with the clock’s and positioning the score in that frame of reference was another issue, on that she decided to work with by moving our sound around in the space. This she was to do with a specially formulated record that had MIDI time codes on it and a Max patch that would take those signals and use them for audio routing. So she would be adding additional circles – that of the turntable and the sound field.

As for our interpretation so far she felt that we could be even slower, that we should avoid “extraordinary sounds” (as per the instructions) and to try to play as inexpressive as possible. Simple quiet sounds with as short a duration as possible unless indicated otherwise. She was very interested in the intersecting sounds and felt that we should do these as much as possible. Melody she said should be on the edge of possibility, never deliberate but create by chance from the simple events that were performed. She then went around the room and worked with every one individually for 10 minutes or so testing their approach and offering advice.

Set I:

Variations VIII / Variations V (Mark Brady, Sara Gold, Lee Hutzulak, Matthew , O’Donnel, Michael Red, Jean Routhier, Igor Santizo, Jesse Scott, Ben Wilson, Phil Thomson)

These Variations were originally done with the Merce Cunningham dance company whose very movements would interfere with various electronic devices. For this performance they followed this and had four dancers moving about the central space. There was a lot of mvideo setup for this one from a TV on the left hand side with a live camera positioned above it to the central projection video of a previously recorded film of these same dancers. The sounds used were a lot of radio, who were interfered by the dancers, and also other electronics that I believe they had various other triggers, including the aforementioned camera/TV setup. These electronics were in the synthesized low tone range a lot of the times in emulation of the Theremin type machines that were used in the original. The dancers however were most definitely not the Merce Cunnigham dancer company and most of their prancing and moving around the space was an embarrassment to watch.. They would run around, and “play” with each other and a giant white ball, grapple with each other and often run in front of the video camera. The projected video was pretty cheesy – two of the dancers rolling around on each other primarily, with cross-faded close-ups and the like. This was the weakest of the Variations in my opinion and I think it was solely because of the dancers, as the sounds were interesting but their shape was dependent on these dancers.

Artist Chat: Margaret Leng Tan

Margaret arrived late to her chat, just as Gordon Mumma was being drafted to fill in. Margeret began by explaining that the program that she was to play had been chosen so as to cover the entire range of Cage’s piano work – traditional piano, to the prepared piano, to the toy piano. Gordon asked her about the Chess pieces, which were to receive their Canadian premier tonight, and she explained that this was a score where there were notes on each square of the chessboard. This chessboard had long been in a private collection and on finding Cage’s notes about it, it was sought out and she reconstructed the piece from it. Asked about the Black Mountain College days of Cage, she pointed out that this was the period just before Cage had moved into the chance operations. While he had thought up the concept for the so called “silent piece” several years prior it was his exposure to Rauschenberg’s “white paintings” at this time that gave him the “courage” to compose it. She also explained that she had plained to end the program with “Water Music” which apparently has a lot of radio work in it, but that she couldn’t tune anything but static in, down in the main room (a bit odd considering how much radio we’ve already heard, though perhaps the score called for shortwave which I personally had no success in tuning in during the Treatise performance). This led her to an amusing anecdote about the microphones on her piano picking up an Emmylou Harrison soundcheck during a performance of the Sonata’s and Interludes.

Set II:

Lecture on the Weather (Bruce Freedman, Mas Funo, Avron Hoffman, Jay Hirabayashi, Mandido, Steve Miller, Marv Newland, Clyde Reed, Henri Robideau, Stefan Smulovitz, Albert St. Albert, Laurence Svirchev, Jerry Wasserman.)

This piece by Cage was commission for the American Bicentennial and was very controversial in its premiere. In homage to this VNM decided to have it performed by Canadian citizens who were formerly Americans. The piece is twelve people simultaneously reading from excerpts from the writings of Henry David Thoreau. The twelve men, some of them clearly of draft dodger vintage, were arrayed at podiums in front of the audience and each read from their texts in wildly different styles. At several points each of them would take out a small instrument and plonk away at it, in various degrees of musicality. The volumes of their mic’s were being adjusted as well, as per the score I assume. Samples of weather sounds; rain, thunder, wind were played a various times during the readings and toward the end there were various simple geometric shapes projected on the big screen..

I personally found this piece wonderful and very charming, the voices overlapping often incomprehensible and at other times one voice dominating and coming through clearly. Plus I am a huge fan of Thoreau and I delighted in hearing his writings brought to life in a way that I think would have made him chuckle for days to come. Not so the other people at my table who walked out after 30 minutes or so, leaving their companion who relied on crutches behind. At the end of the show she asked me how I felt about it, and somewhat surprised about this question I said it had made me happy (though delight would have been a better term). She informed me that it had made her sad and then hobbled away.

Fontana Net (Rogalsky Brothers)

“Fontana Mix consists of a total of 20 pages of graphic materials: ten pages covered with six curved lines each, and ten sheets of transparent film covered with randomly-placed points. In accordance with a specific system, and using the intersecting points of a raster screen, two of the pages produce connecting lines and measurements that can be freely assigned to musical occurrences such as volume, tone color, and pitch. The interpreter no longer finds a score in the customary sense, but rather a treatment manual for the notation of a composition.” – from here.

Matt Rogalsky created this piece for a performance of different interpretations of the Cage piece, Fontana Mix. For his version there are a number of computers networked together and a pool of samples that make up the piece. They use chance operations to setup up guidelines for the performance of the samples and there is a bit of control from the performers as to how they are played, including where in the sound space they were placed.
The performers were three brothers with Powerbooks on a single table in front of the stage with some abstract visualization made up of parts of the score behind them on the big screen. The sounds utilized included quiet scraping sounds, to almost bird like twittering sounds, to the sounds of a rubbed cartridge or contact mic to various pops, clicks and hisses. There was some super sparse sections, some genuine silences and some really busy parts that would sometimes whip around you as they moved the samples around the sound field.

Artist Chat: Rogalsky Brothers

The information about the piece that I mentioned above was all gleaned from this chat. They passed around the room the transparencies and the pages of squiggles and dots that were used to generate the scores for each of the performers. The end result of this procedure is a series of events in time. The software utilized was Supercollider and Matt Rogalsky had generated the scores and developed the software setup. He had created this for a festival in Berlin that had eight different musicians each doing a different take on this piece. He said that each of the musicians/composers would take this piece and still end up sounding like themselves, Christian and James Tenney being two of the other composers that he mentioned participating (This seems to be the festival program though it is in German only).

The performers of this networked version had a specific duration of twenty-five minutes, utilized a shared score and a pool of the samples – they could trigger a sample that was already in use for instance. The software gave each of the sounds movement in space using a drunkards walk, but they as performers had control over their speed.

Set III:

Bacchanale, Suite for Toy Piano, Dream, The Seasons, Chess Pieces, 4’33″, Etudes Australes, In the Name of the Holocaust (Margaret Leng Tan)

The final performance of this night was Margaret Leng Tan on piano, prepared piano and toy piano. She played the above pieces sequentially from the date of compositions. She with Bacchanale which used the prepared piano and was real vigorous and fully worked the percussive nature of this instrument. Next was the Suite for Toy Piano which was very plinky and you could really hear the sound of the toy piano’s action. This piece was mostly single notes, little runs and short spaces. DreamSeasons was next, and while I give Cage full credit for evoking each season quite clearly I find the piece pretty boring overall. It is mostly made up of short repeated phrases that were sparser and spikier in fall, more dissonant and quiet in winter, sprightly in spring and sedate in the summer. Well crafted but not something I’d want to hear often. Chess Pieces included the score unfolding on the video display square by square as she played the piece and also Gordon Mumma onstage to turn pages. The music was pretty dense with a fairly rapid tempo. Each row of the chessboard was treated as a musical phrase with a short pause at the end. Margaret chose to perform 4’33″ on the toy piano which was an excellent choice. The audience was treated to the sound of new music fans trying desperately to be quiet and even though Margaret had announced at the beginning that we could turn cell phones back on, alas none went off. She went directly from this piece to Etudes Australes which is a piece in the same series as the Atlas Eclipicalis that I was involved with. This also had the score projected and was a sparse, pointillistic affair. The notes seemed be primarily in the upper ranges of the piano and would be in short clusters punctuated by silences. Not really to dissimilar to a way one could play Atlas Eclipicalis. The final piece In the Name of the Holocaust is a powerful moving piece that closed this evening on a fairly somber note. The insides of the piano were played in a fairly continuous fashion for some time and then she moved to deep chords and then both chords and inside work. An almost koto like feeling was evoked creating a deliberate and clear contrast – Japanese music and bombing chords. The sustain held on, dense layers of sound build up which are then punctuated by sharp plucking, followed with pounding and rattley sounds that become sparser and sparser and then it ends by a huge smashed chord.

While I certainly prefer John Tilbury for my New Music Piano, Margaret Leng Tan is a consummate performer who worked closely with Cage and has performed it extensively. I loved seeing her perform and enjoyed the wide range of pieces she worked through. While a lot of the earlier Cage is not to my liking it was valuable to get a chance to hear it performed.

Silence: John Cage


18 – 21 October 2006
Vancouver New Music Festival 2006

ScotiaBank
Dance Centre


John Tilbury's Prepared Piano


Day 2: October 19th 2006


Atlas Eclipicalis Workshop

Festival organizer and participant Giorgio Magnanensi led the first day of the Atlas Eclipicalis Workshop up in one of the dance studios on the seventh floor of the former bank. This score is a number of individual parts of four pages each. Each page has five “systems”, made up of zero or more “constellations”, that correspond to forty-five degrees in a circle. Each constellation could contain anywhere from zero to dozens of stars, laid out on an arbitrary stave. The stars are of different sizes based on their magnitude, which corresponded to the volume they should be played. About some of these constellations were numbers that indicated how many sound events should be short as possible or of a natural duration. He began by going over the instructions that come with the score with some question and discussion of what they meant. Marina Rosenfeld who was to lead the community ensemble was not to arrive till the next day, so Giorgio always included the caveat that she may look at it somewhat differently. Giorgio certainly knows his Cage and I found his clarifications of Cage’s score incredibly helpful (and there was very little difference between his and Marina’s take on the score). After spending some time discussing these instructions we tried playing a few sections after which Giorgio suggested that we play quieter and be careful to leave the space between sound events that the score calls for. Then we ran through the whole score, which sounded pretty good if still a bit loud. He gave us advice to go through the score and work out a strategy or idea for each constellation in the score.

“You don’t want to exercise the verb “I want” too often”

Film:


*TIMESPACE*/Time’sPace (Gordon Mumma, documentary film)

The festival began an hour early this night with a film by Gordon Mumma which he introduced it with a brief description and some anecdotes. One point that he really wanted to emphasize was the impact of Cage’s visual arts. He pointed out that people tend to be into his music or his visual arts but can be almost totally unaware of the other. He illustrates this with an amusing anecdote of talking to an elderly patron at a Cage visual arts show in California who informed him that Cage also did some music. Mumma also noted some similarities between M.C. Escher’s notebooks (which only become widely known recently) and the style of Cage’s art. He then continued on with the third aspect of Cage, his writing which even in his lifetime had achieved wider acceptance then his music. Mumma illustrated this with an anecdote of visiting a major university in 1975 and finding Cage was included among a list of ten most influential writers of the 20th Century.


The film contains some of the earliest recordings of Cage some of which are commercially unavailable. When asked about these Mumma informed us that these were recorded on the blank sides of huge radio discs that were used in the 30s to send “simultaneous” radio and commercials across the country. The film contained both clips of Cage rehearsal and performance but also a number of his art pieces with these early and rare
recordings. Some of this art was pretty striking, they included one that was layers of glass, some almost Rothko-esque prints, and sketch like things. There was a number of the early percussion pieces with Cages actual ensemble. These tended toward wild an chaotic. More interesting to me was a couple electronic pieces one of which was absolutely amazing considering how early it was. Robert Ashely, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, Merce Cunningham appeared in the film alongside many different clips of Cage.


Really an amazing and unique film that exists in a pretty odd and incomplete form right now. Mumma has been self assembling it from his own archives and things that his many colleagues have recorded. However due to legal issues it would be a man’s job to get it released so he just tinkers with it and shows it at these sort of events.


Set I:


Variations VI, i – Michael Red
Variations VI, ii – Lee Hutzulak, Michael Red, Jean Routhier and Igor Santizo

The first set of music opened with two takes on Variations VI, the first solo and then with more people joining Michael for a second take. He used sounds of feedback, lo res cassettes, various simple sample sounds (tones and the like), room mics, short delays all fed into the surround sound set up.  He worked with some really low frequencies and would layer in hand manipulated sounds from the cassette decks, the sound of tape running over the tape-heads. He would pickup and move the mics and a set of speakers as per the score. At the end he brought things down to a low rumble and then the rest of the performers joined him.

They began by working out the score as they will be playing it. This involved shaking out little scraps of paper onto another scrape of paper and writing stuff down. After getting the score in order they reset the stage with the speakers and the microphones and then proceed to a larger more involved version of the solo take on this. They all had a series of actions they needed to complete, a number of which they did outside of the performance room. So there was an endless procession of them going in and out of the room and sounds filtering in from the out side. Along with the cassette, samples, tones and feedback that Michael had worked with they added a number of percussion sounds, samples of people, ping-pong balls, bells, a contact mic collection of objects and other random detritus. There was much repositioning of the room mics and a bit of use of a megaphone. It was pretty entertaining to watch and there were some great musical elements. The samples in the surround (which were sometimes of people talking) and the doing stuff outside the room really confused some people. These people should have been able to accept outside sounds anyway, it being a Cage performance after all, but it also was fairly obvious what was going on. To me that just added to the amusement.


Artist Chat: John Tilbury

Before the chat officially began I managed to have a few words with John about his forthcoming Cardew biography. He revealed to me that it is in the final stages of editing (indexing, contents and the like) and would most likely appear early 2007. This is great news as there are few books (and definitely no other biographies) that I am anticipating to the degree that I am for this one.

The rest of the crowd filed in and as always Giorgio introduced John and opened the floor to questions. The first questions were regarding his history of playing Cage’s Sonata’s and Interludes, which while John couldn’t give a specific date he said it had to be around 1969 to 1970 most likely in Venice.  The recording that he made of it was done in 1973 in an old church with magnificent acoustics.  He said that his attitude toward the piece has change, that in the early days he was very precise about all aspects of it and now he is more relaxed. Except with the preparations, he has always been very anal about them – until tonight!  He informed us that he was unable to get one preparation on a note that has several others on it to sound right so he left it off. It’s the music that counts he said to us, but then on reflection adding, but that in a way betrays Cage’s ideals doesn’t it? In the past he had prepared pianos strictly following the instruction and not listened to the sound it made, just adapted to it in the performance. For every prepared piano is different and the preparations can never be exactly the same nor behave over time in the same way.

Asked about playing something like Cage compared to improve provoked some thought and interesting comments from Mr. Tilbury.  There is a sense, he said, of alienation from Cage’s material and even with something like Treatise, with improv there is a different commitment to the sound. With improv you are the sound. This lead to his being asked about Cage’s resistance to improvisation an John answered that, well Cage had a composers mentality that he was used to telling performers what to do. He compared this to Christian Wolff who he said tells the players how to play but not what to play. But playing Cage is great practice for the improvising musician, as there are always elements out of you control. As it is with the best moments in improvising the performance takes on a certain autonomy and you are “tracking the sounds”. This leads to the most compelling and sublime moments. Though, he reflected, even with improvisation there is a score – the room.


Set II:


Variations II (Gordon Mumma )
Mumma was at the upright piano with several other gadgets including a cd player and various objects. He played along with the cd most of the time and would occasionally use some of the objects to press onto the piano keyboard. His playing was pretty energetic and lively but it wasn’t overly dense – there was still space and silence amidst the sounds.

Rainforest (David Tudor) (Gordon Mumma & Matt Rogalsky)
For this classic Tudor electro-acoustic piece Mumma and Rogalsky were sat on opposite sides of a fairly large table loaded with gear. Mumma had a mixing board and a sheet of metal that was angled on the table. The metal had several contact mics on it and several objects. He primarily moved things around on the table and adjusted levels on the mixer. Rogalsky had a laptop and turntable and additional contact mic’d items running into his mixer. This piece was written by Tudor for the Merce Cunnignham dance company and his goal was to create the atmosphere of Rainforest with electronic sounds. I was aware of this but as of this performance had not yet heard the piece. These simple materials gerated creaks, scapes, twitters, filter sweeps and other sounds that one associates with primitive electronics and contacted mic’d objects.  But the effect really works, it really does sound like odd insects in the distance, the cry of unfamiliar birds, dripping water, thunder and the general activity that one associates with the rain forest. Absolutely amazing, with a few amusing moments as an item would feedback or loudly spike. Mumma would always grimace and then smile at these events. This piece was really fantastic with a lot of sounds familiar to me from the improve music that I have been listening to of late. The new Gordon Mumma & David Tudor cd that New World has just released became the only CD I would buy at this festival.

Cartridge Music (Kaffe Matthews & Matt Rogalsky)
For this piece Rogalsky moved to the left hand side of the stage, joining Kaffe Matthews at a table filled with objects, mixing boards and seemingly random detritus. A chair was set near center stage and a ladder to the left of the table. On the screen was a very simple analog style clock that ticked away continuously. This piece uses phonograph cartridges to reveal small sounds and cartridges were wired to the ladder, the char and were all over the table usually mounted on small wooden blocks with attachments to the needles. The range of noises that they got out of these was wonderful: hisses, buzzes, creaks and crackles. Sometimes the sounds were small and delicate as when they revealed the sounds of melting ice, a feather brushing over the needle, candles burning nearby. Or huge and towering as when they’d sit on the creaky chair, assault the ladder, smack a wire attached to a cartridge needle or amplify the sound of sparklers. There was a lot of space between the sounds at time and many moments just of the edge of audibility. The set ended with increasing space and silence and as the video was turned off there was only the sound of amplifier hiss in the darkness.

The roots of so much electro-acoustic music can be heard hear, from the artists who play “turntables without records” to the noisy outbursts of those who overload contact mics or manipulate feedback. This was one of the absolute highlights of the fest, topped only by the performance that was to follow.

Set III:

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (John Tilbury)
A single grand piano in the center of the stage lit by a white flood light. John comes out in his trademark black leather jacket and sits at the piano. He looks at the first page of the score and then begins those familiar opening notes of the Sonatas and Interludes. After he plays each section he would stop and turn the page. Then we would again examine the page, putting a gap and some silence between each of the sonatas and interludes. A prepared piano never sounds exactly the same and the preparations can shift and subtly evolve during the course of a performance. Of course some parts will be a bit slower or faster and the sound of the room is always different as well. So this piece, which John has played so many times, was familiar yet different. But it was absolutely sublime and fascinating to watch John play it. He would cross hands often to play treble notes with his left hand and bass with the right, most dramatically in Sonata IVX with the simple melodic phrase being played with the left hand whilst underneath it the right continuously massages a couple of keys. Then the left hand would cross back over and pick up a note or two.

Gordon Mumma was overheard saying about seeing Tilbury; “I came for the Sonatas and Interludes, I just put up with all the rest.” This was the musical event of the year for me, my favorite pianists playing an amazing piece of Twentieth Century composition in an excellent setting.

Silence: John Cage

18 – 21 October 2006

Vancouver New Music Festival 2006
ScotiaBank Dance Centre


Day 1: October 18th 2006

Set I:

Variations I (Ben Wilson)
Variations III (Phil Thomson)
Variations IV (Lee Hutzulak and Jean Routhier)

Alas I missed these, but I assume that like all of the Variations they were pretty interesting. This score involves randomly mixing up sheets of transparencies and paper with dots and lines on them. This is an example of Cage’s “compositions indeterminate of performance” which vary wildly in performance and through the use of contemporary instrumentation sound as fresh and as modern as anything. In the other performances the musicians would do this onstage as part of the performance.

Artist Chat: Kaffe Matthews
So the first thing that I witnessed was an artist chat with Kaffe Matthews in one of the upstairs dance studios. Giorgio introduced Kaffe with a few words and then turned it over to her, and she began by informing us that she isn’t really performing right now and that this Cage festival was an exception. “People say that I am a Cage influenced artist but I’m not” she explained, I was more interested in his writings and recordings where he reads from textual material. She has been interested in working with chance elements but in the past she realized this by using elements such as microphones placed in locations outside the performance space and the like. With the piece she was doing tonight she was more directly utilizing chance in a way she hadn’t really before. Asked about the piece she was going to be performing that night she went into some detail. Basically she has a Max/MSP based program that lets her intuitively manipulate samples and positioning them in a six-channel surround sound space. She had folders of the samples that she can select from or allow the program to randomly select from. She had divided this lecture from Cage into four sets of samples each in their own folder that the program could select from. She compared her work to a Calder mobile – there is intention in the creation but the results are out of our control. “Surprise is always good, the opposite is boredom which is non-surprise”. When asked about her current projects she said that she is currently interested in ultra low frequencies and creating “sonic beds” that you can lie upon large speakers emanating these frequencies. The point is to try to make this “weird music” more accessible to normal people.

Set II:

Imaginary Landscape IV for 12 radios (SFU Contemporary Performance Ensemble)
The ensemble entered from off stage and sat in the twenty-four chairs arranged at the front of the performance space. A conductor arrived and half of them picked up their radios. This piece is for twelve radios each of them played by two people. The score contains timed changes to the tuning and volume in terms of amounts to turn the knobs. The conductor marked time and seemed a bit superfluous, clearly they could have just used a time piece. But it worked out and there was a wide variety of radio material from football announcing, pop music and lots of static, of a wide variety of textures and densities. There were some great serendipitous captures, including a radio drama or advert with a dramatic “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” (my favorite) and an old crooner singing “I’ve got a pocket full of miracles”.

This piece was great in my opinion, something that I really enjoyed. It made think about the current usage of radio’s in modern improve and especially the role of indeterminacy. Sometimes radio captures seem too convenient too easy to fit into patterns and seem miraculous. There are those who preview the radio and “setup” the radio grabs and then there are the chance, “found” selections. Cage always worked with the later (and extensively as this report will reveal) and I have to say that removal of the specter of intentionality seemed overall to be successful. I can’t directly compare this to some of the current radio usage that I haven’t felt was successful as I do not know which method they were using, but it made me think about this issue.

Imaginary Landscape I (Giorgio Magnanensi, Chris Rolfe and Daniel Tones)
SFU made their way off stage and over on the right hand side Giorgio Magnanensi
sat at an upright piano, Chris Rolfe a little further back with a computer and electronics to play sine waves with and a bit to his left was Daniel Tones with a single cymbal. Right at the beginning a cell phone went off, which made me smile. This is Cage after all and all sounds are music. This piece was pretty amazing, it could have been performed at a contemporary electro-acoustic improvisation festival with few complaints from any participants. Stripped to a stark set of sounds, pure tones came in and went and mesh at times with washes from the cymbal. Giorgio played on the piano a repeated cluster of notes, an almost melody, or would run a mallet along the inside of the piano.

I really liked this piece, to me it really highlighted some of the basics, or roots even, of modern improv but clearly demonstrated the differences. There were times when I thought that the sine waves could have continued on for more time, the gaps in the piano figures longer, the changing of tones done differently. This is the difference between this sounds and textures rigidly following a score versus improvising. Of course the choices made during improvising can fall flat and this score (assuming its one where the chance operations were done in composition as opposed to performance) will work as well as ever.

Imaginary Landscape II (Fringes Group, Giorgio Magnanensi)
The Fringes group played a variety of percussion based pieces throughout this night, utilizing coffee cans, shells, conventional drums, cymbals and other random detritus. This piece also had Giorgio playing some electronics and additional percussion works. It was pretty aggressive at times with them really laying into the coffee cans. Lots of rattley and clangy sounds, with some nice sparse sections that interspersed near silence with conch shell calls.

First Construction (UBC Percussion Ensemble)
The UBC Percussion Ensemble are seven percussionists plus a conductor and they very professionally performed this very rhythmic, almost tribal, piece. It opened with a number of them all playing larges sheets of metal with a low rumbling, thunderous sound. It got sparser from this beginning and more varied in the percussion material with little prayer bowls, larger conventional drums and various small percussion items. Overall a nice rendition of an early piece by Cage from the period where he was primarily working with percussion but before the chance operations and silence. A demanding and interesting piece, if not to the degree of his later work

Living Room Music. (Fringes Group)
Over on the far right of the stage, into the audience even, was setup a living room complete with chairs, TV, lamp, end tables and the like. They sit down, two in the chairs and two on the floor and begin rustling magazines, slapping the table and other such noises in a very rhythmic way. One of them turned on the lamp and they began to chant/sing short phrases in a singsong sort of way. Kind of reminded me of jump-rope rhymes. “Once upon a time”, “The world was round”, “and you could go on it” and “around and around” were the phrases which in general were repeated by one member and the others would do a different one, round style. They moved back to more percussion-y playing including a beer bottle and hookah (complete with rhythmic lighter flicks) before turning the light back out and ending.

This piece was tons of fun to watch – silly and probably wouldn’t make for a great CD, but it was great theatre.

Third Construction (Fringes Group)
The final piece from the Fringes group was another percussion piece utilizing the same setup they had used for Imaginary Landscape II.
A similarly structured piece but without the interplay of the electronics. So lots of clanging, rattling and metallic sounds along with some natural objects such as the Conch shell and wood objects. The piece had several near silent segments but never quite reaching it. Toward the end it became pretty dense with several members playing drums, then on a solo conch shell blast it ended.

Set III:

“Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing? (Kaffe Matthews)
Kaffe was setup in the middle of the room amongst all the tables with a laptop and some interface gear. Her software had this series of dots on the screen that represented a sample that could be played. As she moved the cursor over the dots a circle would grow over it which seemed to represent the volume. The dots were I think spatially based in the surround sound field and their was various logic (as mentioned in her chat) for what sample would be played. The Cage samples were random and sometimes you’d see her smile as an unexpected one came up. The other sounds that she used were fairly typical sounds for those familiar with her work. Tones generated by her Theremin, static washes, glitchy crackly bits and ultra low rumbles. Her pointer darted all around the screen and samples came in and faded out and moved around the sound field. There were some really nice quotes from Cage and it was overall pretty interesting as they played against the sound scraping. At a fairly apropos time the software crashed and Kaffe closed the lid and left the room as an end to the piece. She came back and bantered a bit then restarted her computer and started the piece up again. This time it was much more ambient and she played with the washes and low tones for some minutes before bringing the Cage samples. After several of these played a particularly long Cage clipped came up after which she ended it.

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