Archive for November, 2008

John Cage, Variations III
John Cage: Variations III

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

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


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

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

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

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

Howard Skemptonfor strings (waves, shingle, seagulls)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BuddhaThis was my third day in Kyoto and my last full day here and in Japan.  I had been in the northern region the day before, on this day I was heading over to the Southern Higashiyama area which has the most famous (and popular) temple walking tour.  This was to see the temple that friends who had been here in February told me was their favorite (Kōdai-ji) and also as the Lonely Planet had said this walk was pretty much must see. It was again a bus ride over but looking at the map I realized that I had walked further then the distance there the evening before when I went to the nightlife area.  So I decided to walk.


For the third day I walked past this walled structure about eight blocks from my hotel and this time I decided to figure out what it was. This was fortuitous as it turned out to be this stunning garden practically right down town. I ended up spending several hours there and as it was about lunch time now, I ended up walking back to my hotel afterward and getting lunch at a conveyor belt sushi place (Kaiten-zushi) that was near Kyoto Station.

Covered bridge in Shosei-en

Southern Higashiyama Walk
After lunch I headed back out and onto my original plan.  I did have less time now, but I knew I could only really do a couple of temple anyway before I wore down.  Once again I took a pretty long trek, but once again this proved so rewarding.  Even in Kyoto which is packed with sightseeing areas, everybody takes public transit so in between you see no tourists and you are in places where the residents live and shop.  I was mostly walking along a fairly busy road but I got to see plenty of the “real” Kyoto.  As I approached the temple filled edge of the valley the shops all became pottery, lacquer-ware and masonry.  I had arrived at Teapot Lane.

Teapot lane
Walking up teapot lane to Kiyomizu-dera

The above gallery contains pictures taken while walking in between various temples in Higashiyama. The first couple are leading up to Teapot Lane and then the lane itself.  Teapot Lane was up hlll and the final climb up to Kiyomizu-dera was up stairs with an orange pagoda visible above the trees.  Kiyomizu-dera was packed with tourists and Japanese students. Once again I was used for English practice this time it was kids from Hiroshima who asked me to write them a message of peace. The temple had a big gate and an open area with the pagoda and a shrine and this interesting shrine where you walked through a passage underground in total (and I mean total) darkness till you got to a room with a Buddha in it. There a tiny hole let a shaft of light fall on top of the Buddha. This was super cool I have to say. From this area you paid and went through a second gate to the primary temple area at Kiyomizu-dera.

One of the little halls at Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera was crowded but I had a great experience here. It was just outside the secondary gate that an elder showed me how to perform the purification ritual (which I knew by now but was sweet I thought). Inside I encountered Maiko (Geisha in training) who were doing some tourism of their own (and featuring in plenty of photos from the other tourists) and I witnessed another elder demonstrating to interested kids another ritual. This is clearly a big and wealthy temple but it was as usual packed with neat grottoes, beautiful wooded areas and so on.

Maiko walking down the scenic streets
Southern Higashiyama Walk (from the Orange pagoda on)

The day was winding down and I wanted to get to Kōdai-ji with enough time to do it justice so I headed out. Following my walking tour I went down a much more crowded and even more scenic street which was fully lined with shops and packed with students in their yellow rain hats. Following the route I went down stairs and around corners in ever increasingly traditional and kick ass narrow streets. Eventually ending up at the “most scenic street in Japan”.  From there it was up a stairway to a parking lot for several temples. You could see a gigantic (as in probably 6 stories) Buddha peeking above the wall of one of these temples. Perpendicular from this was Kōdai-ji which I headed to forthwith.

The grounds and a little building at Kōdai-ji

Kōdai-ji was another Zen temple (Rinzai) which were definitely the most appealing to me.  This one was tucked into a corner of the valley and was a beautifully integrated into it’s surrounding bamboo forest.  It had a dry rock garden  which had mounds of raked gravel instead of rocks as at Ryōan-ji.  It also had curved edges on two sides instead of the rectangular area at Ryōan-ji. This gave it a very natural, organic feel as if it was the edges of a pond (which is sort of the metaphor of these rock gardens).
I stayed at Kōdai-ji pretty much until closing time which was signaled by the booming rings of the temple bell.

Dry garden at Kōdai-ji
Dry Garden at Kōdai-ji

I headed out from the temple area and walked around the narrow streets a bit more. I knew my temple touring was over (which was okay as I’d spent many hours in these two) but I intended to do the rest of the Higasiyamai walk, which would go past a couple more temples. This would take me north and then I’d head across the river and I’d end up at Pontochō where I had decided to get dinner. It was evening now and as I followed the walk I ended up at Maruyama-koen park. On the edge of that is Yasaka Shrine which was now all lit up. This was incredibly stunning and something I had not seen before.

Yasaka Shrine in the Southern Higashiyama Walk

From here I walked along and through the park, past a massive Pure Land temple and then through normal Kyoto streets ‘tll I hit the crossroads and headed over to Pontochō, I’d seen a Thai place there the night before and that sounded really good tonight. Alas they were closed but I ended up going to a traditional Japanese place which for my final dinner in Japan was probably for the best. I got my last taste of the amazing fresh tofu there on a balcony that overlooked the Kamo River. I walked through Pontochō and then the covered shopping area and finally the downtown shopping district before completely worn out I caught a cab to my hotel.

The last gallery above was pictures taken from all over Kyoto. Beginning at the fantastic train station and including pictures from all of the walks I did. It ends with a couple of (poor) pictures of the Shinkansen (bullet train) as I caught it back to Tokyo station the next day.  And that pretty much wraps up my trip to Japan.

Kyoto TowerI was only in Kyoto for about three days with two days completely without any travel. Each of those two days I spent on long walking tours of regions that’d be just packed with temples. Evenings I spent in the shopping and nightlife districts.  This entry is from my first day where I did a walking tour up in the Northwest of Kyoto. The main temple I really wanted to visit in Kyoto was Ryōan-ji which has the most famous of the karesansui (Zen rock gardens) which I’ve long been a fan of. It was also one of the more difficult regions to get to, but I figured out the bus and took it up to Kinkaku-ji temple which was the start of a three temple walking tour with Ryōan-ji in the middle concluding with Ninna-ji. It was fairly early in the morning which was good as these are some of the most popular tourist sites.

The Golden temple at Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji‘s main feature is a beautiful golden temple on the edge of a pond. The grounds are stunning as well. From Kinkaku-ji I walked along the temple grounds down to Ryōan-ji. I got off the route a bit at first and walked through a more suburban route. I ended up encountering another shrine, Waratenjin, on the route that was a more pragmatic but still beautiful

Temple Walk Gallery
Waratenjin can be seen in the first 20 pictures in my Temple Walk Gallery.


I got back on the path and shortly made my way to Ryōan-ji.

Dry Garden at Ryōan-ji
The dry garden at Ryōan-ji


Ryōan-ji‘s grounds were stunning, it’s a very old Zen temple and the grounds are just filled with neat areas all over. The lake was the most stunning one I saw and of course the dry garden was amazing. It was probably my favorite of all the temples I visited and I’d love to visit it again at a time when there is even less people there.

Cemetery I encountered in my Temple Walk


From Ryōan-ji I continued on the route and as I walked along the road I noticed a path/stairway into the woods at my right. Well I couldn’t resist that and took those up into what turned out to be a large and crowded cemetery. This can be seen in the Temple Walk Gallery below the shrine pictures.

Temple at Ninna-ji
Pagoda like temple at Ninna-ji


From the cometary I visited the last temple on the walk, Ninna-ji. This was a large complex with many diverse buildings in it. Looking it up on the web it turns out it had huge sections that I totally missed (or were closed). But I was pretty templed out at that point so that’s okay. One amusing thing is that I encountered a group of junior high school students who wanted to talk English with me. It was clearly an assignment but cute.

View from the highest point in the part
View from the highest hill in the park.

From Ninna-ji I headed off on my own to intersect with the JR rail line. The route I worked out took me to this great wooded area that was a park but mostly wooded.  It had paths up to a fairly high point with great views over the valley. Pictures from the park make up the third part of my Temple Walk Gallery.