Archive for August, 2008

Thanks to Netflix I’ve been watching some music DVDs that I’d been leery of purchasing outright. In general my wariness has been justified as most of these were things I can’t see watching more then the one time.  Not bad per se just of limited value.  I’ve got a bunch more of these on my Netflix queue so expect these reports every so often.

The most recent batch has been John Cage related material.  There are a lot of films with or about John Cage with more coming all the time. I think this is due in part to how out in public and how engaging of an interview he was but also I’d say there is some capitalizing on a popular figure. In general the ones that focus on his work, that he was involved with or that are interviews are always of value.

Cage/CunninghamCage/Cunningham, 1991

There are a number of videos (many forthcoming on DVD) featuring John Cage in the Merce Cunningham archive.  Their long collaboration yielded amazing results for both artists and this video goes over a bit of that history, their methods and some contemporary interviews.  The structure is a bit unorthodox in that it is part biography of the artists (a bit more focused on Cage) and part overview of their work. The interviews with Merce and John are contemporary to the filming of the documentary (1991) and are quite charming.  I really enjoyed this one, especially the bits the showed of Cunningham dances with live Cage/Tudor/Mumma/etc music.  Their methods of devising the music and dance separately, how they each used chance operations and the various ways that they revolutionized their individual areas are pretty common knowledge. The anecdotes from some of their contemporaries and collaborators plus the footage of the dances and the recording of the music (some unreleased) are the real gems here.

In the final analysis though this still isn’t one I’d return to very often if I owned it.  The Merce DVDs are quite expensive and I’d rather own the ones with complete pieces on it, for as I said above it is the art that really shines.

From ZeroJohn Cage: From Zero, 1995

This video is a collection of four short films about John Cage and his music by

Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver. The vary wildly in quality and in terms of content. The connecting thread is that this are all films by Scheffer who was greatly influenced by Cage and attempted to apply his methods to film making.  Culver became Cage’s first (and last) assistant and was instrumental in assisting Cage with a lot of his later works. He did a lot of work generating numbers for the later indeterminate works and create a lot of software for this.

19 Questions with John Cage
For this film 19 questions were randomly selected from a large list via Culver’s software and a duration for each. The film is Cage sitting outside and he’d read the question and state it’s duration, ie “19 Seconds on New York” and then he’d say a few words.  The filmmaking is erratic, most like due to Scheffer using chance operations for aspects of the camerawork.  The material would have been better served with a couple of fixed cameras and some nice editing between them, but it doesn’t detract too much from the content.  Tt is Cage’s warmth, wit and ability to generate a pithy, yet interesting answer to these questions that make this work.  Fairly late in Cage’s life and he does seem old and a bit frail, but his mind was a strong as ever.

Fourteen with the Ives Ensemble
This was simultaneously the highlight and most frustrating of the four short films. Fourteen is a fantastic piece, the Ives Ensemble one of the best in the world and this is a wonderful reading of the piece.  But as a film it is maddening.  Here chance operations was applied to virtually all aspects of the filming from the lighting, to the camera peoples movement, to the focal length, aperture and panning of the cameras and to the final editing of the film.  This results in huge fuzzy shots of unidentifiable elements, zooms into parts of the frame that aren’t interesting, things that you want to actually look at being panned past and so on.  I for one applaud the experimentation of applying Cage’s techniques into other areas, but I think that the same care and thought that he put into is is important.  Look at the elements of the music he’d leave to chance, examine the features that’d he’d still control and see how that would work. Leaving something 100% up to chance might be an interesting experiment but for real experiments you acknowledge failure and add that to your data.

This film though was somewhat redeemed by a bonus feature on the disc that was the making of the piece. For one you got to see more the performers playing which is what I really wanted to see. There was a number of sounds that I was intensely curious about their source that the primary film denied me any view of (piano strings being bowed by running a wire under them, was one it turned out).  Furthermore I found the application of the chance operations interesting, something that you didn’t really get from the film itself. It looked more like a bunch of amateurs with video cameras trying to be arty. As I said above I fully endorse the experimentation, but I think you should acknowledge when it doesn’t work.

Paying Attention with John Cage
The third film was by far the lowlight of the whole disc. Luckily it was fairly short.  The piece was an interview with Cage that Scheffer filmed fairly straight. He then applied video effects to it while Culver independently generated a soundtrack. What Culver did was take a short segment and slow it down to the length of the film. The overall effect was just painful to watch.  Again they tried to mimic some of Cage’s methods, in this case they way that he and Cunningham would create their works separately, but it just came out as artless.

Overpopulation and Art with Ryoanji
(with John Cage, Isabelle Ganz and Michael Pugliese)

The final piece on this disc is an audio recording of Cages last lecture, Overpopulation and Art, mixed with a performance of Ryonanji. The video aspect is two locations that were both important to Cage – the woods in upstate NY near where he lived for years and a street corner in NYC near where he lived toward the end of his life.  Again chance operations are used to set up some of the camera work but in this case it works much better.  The long pans and shifts of focus work much better in these natural scenes. It’s not like a documentary not showing you what you want to see as in Fourteen, but an artful view of various scenes. The cutting between the two parts (which may also have been chance based, but I’m not sure) works well in this context and considering the difference between the two (nature and city) is a nice contrast.  Cage of course is always an engaging reader der an this is one of his more powerful essays. It being his last, it has the feel of a summing up, of a last communique a final attempt to get some of his ideas out there. The performance of Ryonanji is a nice compliment to all of this and very well done.

So overall this is an interesting if frustrating set of films. Paying Attention shouldhave just been left on the cutting room floor, but otherwise they are all worth seeing. However the artlessness of most of the films detracts from the content which is always interesting.

Cage/Cunningham can bought direct from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
From Zero can be bought direct from Mode Records.

“What improvisation means in AMM: elsewhere there is music that argues for improvisation; AMM, more lethal, assumes the world of composition.”  – Stuart Broomer(2)

The is the second of three recordings I have featuring the ‘cellist Rohan de Saram. The first, along with the saxophone of Lou Gare, was our last entry and I felt rather dominated by Lou.  But when AMM was the quartet of Prévost/Rowe/Tilbury/de Saram, as it is here, it was de Saram who would be the driving factor. Rohan de Saram was a ‘cellist from the classical world specializing in contemporary music, though he was familiar and proficient with the classics of the repertoire. By the time he was asked to join AMM he’d already been a member of the renowned Arditti String Quartet for a number of years. Rare among performers of composed music de Saram has explored improvisation though how much prior to joining AMM it is hard to say.

“This is also a unique thing about AMM, in that we didn’t invite improvisers to join us.”  – Keith Rowe(5)

Cardew was of course the first composer invited to join AMM and interestingly he also often played ‘cello with the ensemble. The sound of bowed strings along with the extended techniques of modern composition gels well with the stew of percussion and electronics that forms the core of the AMM sound. Cardew though I think really informed the what became AMMMusic, though I have not had a chance to hear the one known pre-Cardew recording the reports have been that it is a bit more free jazzy, though still quite experimental.  Rohan de Saram on the other hand, while fitting in well with the group, drives them in a different way. He is generally playing, only laying out occasionally, he also tends more towards loud-soft-loud-soft dynamics as opposed to the more organic nature of AMM textural playing. It is almost as if he is a soloist playing with an ensemble as if this was a “Cello and Trio”.

“De Saram here assumes a special status: it may merely be that it is his sole appearance with AMM on a full-length CD, though, too, it may be his specific linearity. The Inexhaustible Document is as arresting a cello work as composed music has given us in the 200 years that they’ve been written – Shostakovitch, Kodaly.” – Stuart Broomer(2)

AMM, January 1988,  BBC Maida Vale, England, UK

Tentative piano chords, in a deep hiss. A rattle of percussion, a faint electronic sigh, soft dry sawing on the cello. Single notes, followed by piano chords burst out from the mid-range background. Very tentative start, very textural. Bow metals come in, still quiet and adding to the textures. Only the piano really contrasts, like drops of rain on a still gray pond. An oscillating rumble come in a bit more dense but still tentative, de Saram intensifies his bow, adding a grinding texture to the dry rustling sounds. The texture has evolved into being made up of squeaks, higher pitched bowed metal,   electronic buzzes but still the piano, now more in the upper register punches through. Prévost begins a tattoo on a bass drum or floor tom that comes and goes. Now determined attacks on the cello, things are brought up a couple of notches.  Prévost picks up the pace on the drums, arpeggios from Tilbury as Rowe, still fairly low volume, adds long slides up the guitar strings. Without any sort of crescendo the density was fades away. The components remain the same it is just no longer as loud or as dense. A swirling mass of sounds, Rowe picks it up a bit with electronic mutterings and groanings.  Again it is de Seram who brings things back up with high pitches attacks on the cello to which Rowe immediately responds with an aggressive mix of muted radio, fan on the guitar and thumps and thuds of the pickups. Tilbury laying out at this point, Prévost drops in background strums of bowed metal. Now plucked notes from de Seram the radio, though unintelligible, the most dominate sound.  As this is backed off you hear the low drum rolls that were in the background, delicately plucked strings, low tone bowing and clipped muted piano attacks.

A whistling bowing comes through above static, drum rolls and a background grumbling.  Space out pounds on the piano, aggressive but not that loud really and what sounds like Rowe pulling the guitar strings up and letting them snap back. Very spacious but increasing in volume and then a struck gong! It drops to near silence moments later. Only soft bowing and the occasional rip of an object run up a wound guitar string.  A keening tone of bowed metal. Super high pitched whiny bowing. Grinding guitar and then the bowing becomes rough and scrabbly. Short piano runs. The intensity picks up again – a bow bouncing across strings, violently bowed metal, rubbed guitar strings, bleats from the radio, rolled piano chords – a chaotic miasma of sounds increasing in volume and complexity. Almost a minor freak-out now, rapid bowing, drumming from Prévost, big piano chords.  Rowe seemingly laying out. Almost as soon as it approached this level it drops into super spacious territory.  Rowe providing a low level buzz, Tilbury big pounding chords but with many seconds between them, and almost gentle bowing from de Seram. Very quietly Prévost begins to bow some metal adding a high pitched whine to these sounds.

Things have mellowed right out. Very gentle piano chords, a delicate bowing, an oscillating low volume hum and jagged quiet bowed metals.  Things swell with a little more pressure on de Serams bowing, but settle right back down.  A swirling effect from the cello, piano and electronics and Tilbury far in the distance works through an odd set of figures. After a bit Rowe begins to bring the noise, with aggressive attacks on the guitar, a couple of radio snippets and the sound of amplified metal on metal.  Some cymbal crashes from Prévost and a big chord from Tilbury. Things don’t really take off but stay at this level of stuttering sound and volume for a bit then as de Seram begins these loud bursts of whisking sounds it dies off into an uneasy scattering of disparate sounds. Prévost begins to work the cymbals as Rowe coaxes thundering echos from the guitar. Out of these ashes things pick up the pace with de Seram heroically bowing out a what could be an alien melodic line. Some drum fills from Prévost as Tilbury adds texture with chordal fills.  Rowe stays pretty background during this layering in clacks from the pickups and scrabbled sounds of objects rubbed on the strings. As this dies down you hear that Tilbury was actually playing a continually repeated set of small figures almost like a bit of minimalism.

Things pick up to a low range very dense but not super loud section.  Pounded out rolls on a bass drum, low range aggressive bowing, big chords in the lower end of the piano and a grumbling rumble from Rowe.  To this Prévost adds in the occasional cymbal crash and de Seram a high pitched attack on the strings.  Slowly Rowe brings up an aggressive buzz – a fan over the pickups as he rocks the volume on his radio.  Things become pretty intense for a bit. But it backs down by everyone just spacing out their sounds and Rowe turning down the volume till all we hear is piano and a background buzz. Almost a bit of a piano solo now, nicely spaced but with some louder chords. Very quiet squeaks from de Serams bow and Rowe’s buzzing comes and goes and then builds up a bit to this jagged, echoed hum and wobble.  Rowe backs this down in fairly short order and then arises this great segment of very percussion-y prepared piano and gentle spaced out mallet work on the drums as a static-y whistling sound creates a canvas upon which this sounds rests.  This goes on for a while in various permutations, some bowing foregrounding now and again, Rowe added in some string scrapes and electronic outbursts, Prévost eventually switching to bowing a cymbal.

Things take an uneasy turn in the last few minutes, a looped queasy cello line, the low crackles of abused guitar pickups, bowed metal and a wobbly low volume figure on the piano.  Individuals increase the intensity briefly but drop it back down immediately. A heavily garbled radio announcement comes in and just as soon departs. An evil buzz comes up as a knocking on the percussion demands our attention.  A rather flatulent electronic tears in and out as cymbals crash and a low cello string is plucked. Notes on the piano are crashed as a sawing begins on the cello.  Chaotic and staccato the ending of this piece. Very atypical AMM ending, not of that minutes long fading out, just blasts of sounds and short repeated figures. They bring it down in the last few seconds almost as if someone is just turning down the volume.  Then there is applause and a radio announcer telling us who it was.  Apparently it is “bring the improvisational ideas of 1968 up to date”.

– – –

The period of AMM with Rohan de Saram is a unique and short lived phase. He eventually became too busy with the Arditti String Quartet and his participation became sporadic for a couple of years before ceasing.  From that point on it was just the trio of  Rowe/Prévost/Tilbury with the occasional guest. These guests though again would often come from the classical world, Christian Wolff, the Stadler String Quartet and so on.

“One of the important things in AMM was the inviting of classical performers. This was important for us. I think it true of our whole scene. We badly need people who have another kind of perspective.” – Keith Rowe(7)


1) Rohan de Saram homepage
2Notes on AMM: Entering and Leaving History Stuart Broomer, CODA Magazine no. 290. 2000
3) The Inexhaustible Document Liner notes. Paige Mitchell 1987
4) Meta Machine Music, Rob Young, The Wire #132 (February 1995)
5) Keith Rowe interview by Dan Warburton at Paris Transatlantic
6) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
7) Keith Rowe interview in Monk Mink Pink Punk no 12 (July 2007)