Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919 - July 26, 2009)

 

Music for Merce (1952-2009)

 

Merce Cunnigham’s impact on the dance world seems without question, but his legacy extends far beyond that with his championing of contemporary art and new music. The list of artists he collaborated with is staggering especially when you consider how many of them had such an impact themselves on their various fields: Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Frank Stella, Morton Feldman, Maryanne Amacher, Bruce Nauman, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, Jasper Johns, Toshi Ichiyangi and on and on. His continual promotion of new music,the subject of this set, even at critical cost to the company is frankly quite amazing. Doing research on modern dance for these posts, the really pedestrian music that most dance companies utilize, no matter how cutting edge their choreography may be, highlights just how forward thinking Cunningham was and how willing to place himself, his dances and his legacy at risk in support of  this music.

 

Cunningham and Cage

Cunningham and Cage

Being allied with John Cage was clearly a massive boon in keeping abrest of the current trends in modern music and his long tenure as music director ensured that the companies music stayed on the forefront of the cutting edge. The very judicious additions of new regular musicians and use of guest musicians and composers kept continuity and kept things fresh. Cage’s legacy as musical director is in keeping with the rest of his career: also exploring, always experimental always looking for new sounds and new ways to use materials.  Tudor’s tenure as music  director was so short that he really had no time to make much impact. The company seemed to stick with the current regular musicians and composers and in fact there are no pieces on this set from that period.  The final music directory, from 1997 until the end of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour in December 2011 is Takehisa Kosugi.

 

Takehisa Kosugi at Subtropics

Takehisa Kosugi at Subtropics (photo by alesh houdek)

Kosugi has of course been a member of the Company’s pit since the sixties and had composed, or improvised many a piece for the company in the intervening years. I’ve expressed numerous time in these posts my mixed reactions to his work here – enjoying his violin and live electronics at times, his vocal work pretty much not at all. However to consider his work as musical director is a different matter as it is hard to say how much influence was Cunninghams.  Cunningham was certainly well connected in artist circles and I’m sure met people that he’d like to work with and passed on suggestions. Equally so is Kosugi connected in the musical world, especially in NYC and certainly brought in a lot of the new voices.  There has has been a Music Committee (currently Christian Wolff, David Behrman, John King) for quite some time in the company and they certainly have had some influence as well. Regardless of whomever may be ultimately responsible it is undeniable that the 13 year period after Tudor’s passing seems to be musicaly the weakest; the least cutting edge.

 

Robert Chase Heishman, etc, printed backdrop for Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Split-Sides, 2003

Robert Chase Heishman, etc,
printed backdrop for Merce Cunningham's Split-Sides, 2003

The use of musicians associated with  (or sympathetic to) the downtown scene such as Jim O’Rourke, Ikue Mori, Marina Rosenfeld, George Lewis, Christian Marclay seems most likely to come from Kosugi who certainly has intersected with that crowd. The use of more avant pop musicians such Radiohead and Sigur Rós (for Split-Sides, 2003), seems like a move from Merce; perhaps responding to what his younger dancers were listening to. This set dedicates only one disc to the music between 1998 and 2009 and with the exception of Annea Lockwood all are from longtime collaborators with the company. This disc is also by far the least interesting in the set with only a repurposed Cage composition of much interest. The second disc covers Events, which feature improvised music and many of the aforementioned downtown musicians;  more on Events in the disc ten section of this post. It is hard really to assess the final decade of the company based on what is here – the set is always misleadingly incomplete (the aforementioned Radiohead and Sigur Rós being a late example not included music). There was definitely a lot more revivals in the companies final decade, which I think is reasonable – the dances could be “lost” without this oral transmission. Kosugi and the rest of the pit clearly did an admirable job on recreating the old pieces, or at least playing recordings of them for these revivals. Cunningham continued to make new dances and innovate with the use of his DanceForms software but at an understandably diminished rate. Cunningham’s legacy is as I’ve said undeniable and even if its final years weren’t as strong as its earlier years, he was still not spinning his wheels.

Disc Nine (68′ 58″)

The final disc of pieces composed for the Company is a letdown.  It begins well with a very nice, though short, extract from a late Cage number piece but its all downhill from there. Disappointing pieces from King and Behrman, form the core of the disc and the final piece, by Annea Lockwood is nice enough, but spineless.  Lockwood’s piece though is the most forward looking of these concluding pieces in that they commissioned a new (ish) composer who is clearly more hungry for exposure. The Cage piece is from 1991, one of several of his older pieces that was put to use to accompany new dances.  King and Berhman are of course company regulars (and music committee members) and shows Kosugi not straying too far from associates in his choice of whom to commission. As I’ll discuss in the disc ten section below, he does seem to bring in a lot more new musicians for the Events, so frankly this could be a lot worse. But it does seem to be out of touch with more interesting musical work occurring during the last decade of the company.


Interscape

Merce Cunningham, Interscape (2000)

1) John Cage (1912-1992)  108 and One8 (1991) [excerpt] 14:18
Dance: Interscape (2000)
Loren Dempster, cello; Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, Arturo Tamayo, conductor
Recorded September 29, 2000, Venice

This is the only truly great piece on this disc; Cunningham utilzing a late Cage number piece for one of his later dances. It’s interesting to contrast how well they are able to get the orchestra to perform, considering the open rebellion Cage recevied from orchestra’s early in his career. But now he’s a household name, the practices of the experimentalists are, while not really embraced, at least understood.   One8 was written for Michael Bach, who invented his own bow and commissioned a number  of rather virtuosic cello pieces from Cage.

Besides the musical notation itself, perhaps the most informative part of the score, the key to its understanding, is the phrase “for Michael Bach.” I am reminded here of the composer Sylvano Bussotti’s 5 piano pieces for David Tudor: that the title was not so much a dedication as an instrumental designation. The same is true of Cage’s score, since Michael Bach is not just a cellist, but an inventor of playing techniques.

That One8 was composed for him tells us much about the way the music is to be played. First, there is the use of his unique curved bow – the BACH.Bogen®. This bow, first developed by Michael Bach in 1989, not only has a curved shape, but also has a mechanism for adjusting the tension on the bow hairs. These two features together allows the cellist to play three or even all four strings of the instrument simultaneously, something which is impossible with a traditional straight bow. – James Pritchett(6)

Many of the number pieces could be performed along with other number pieces, even the large orchestral pieces – 108 indicates the number of musicians. The description of this piece from the John Cage database describes all of the various options:

“108 can be played with or without One8 for violoncello solo and/or with One9 for sho and/or Two3 for sho and conch-shells. “- 108 in the John Cage Database

The piece itself is typical for the late time brackets pieces, with pitches indicated to be played within ranges of time as well as a variety of instructions on technique, tonality, dynamics and the like:

The composition uses flexible time-brackets with single tones, which should be played in a single bow, single breath, or a simulation of that (by circular breathing or imperceptible bow changes). Tones can be short or long, since the beginnings and endings of the brackets overlap. Long sounds should be soft, short ones may be louder. The piece is split up in parts with silence and parts with sounds: 0’00”-1’30”, 14’00”-18’00”, 32’30”-34’30”, 35’00”-39’00” and 42’00”- 43’30” are silent periods, the others are periods of activity. In the case of a cello concerto the violoncello is heard in the silent periods. In this case it is called One8 and 108.”
108 in the John Cage Database

The recording begins with skittery cello, sounding almost electronic.  Then the darker sounds of the orchestra coming in, each instrument in long low lines. Often brooding, some real dense parts, lots of horns.  The cello cutting through now and again.   Dempster here as the featured cellist is really great, this excerpt is probably the best version I’ve heard of 108; wish this whole disc was this performance.

 

Fluid Canvas
Merce Cunningham Fluid Canvas (2002)

2) John King (b. 1953)  longtermparking (2002)  [excerpt] 15:31
Dance: Fluid Canvas (2002)
John King, laptop
Recorded September 10, 2002, London

Early laptop piece, has a sort of “digital live electronics” feel a first but becomes increasingly typical of Max/MSP music of the time – grain based synthesist, sequenced rhythms, moving around the stereo field. Later sampled, looped piano that becomes pretty spectral and then a terrible sequenced digital percussion bit.  Digital ping ponging and ponderous piano at the end. Overall a pretty lame piece and one where the excerpt could have been a lot shorter.

 

3) David Behrman (b. 1937)  Long Throw (2007) [excerpt] 18:25
Dance: eyeSpace (2007)
David Behrman, laptop; Takehisa Kosugi, electric violin; John King, electric guitar, viola;  Christian Wolff, prepared piano
Recorded October 22, 2007, Melbourne

“The music reflects the six-decade time span from 1947 to 2007 by combining a piano part, with preparations similar to those used by Cage in his “Duchamp” piece, with 21st-century music software and sound-sensing technology.

Long Throw was made with performance roles for the core musicians of the Cunningham Company in mind: Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, John King and Stephan Moore. In addition to the prepared piano part, the piece also calls for performances by several musicians playing violin, viola, and electric guitar. Its software was designed by the composer.”(1)

Piano, with swirling laptop initially. The piano from Wolff is really nice. The guitar comes in and is slide and harmonics; a bit silly. The piece has a sort of loping feel to it; like a Bill Frisell piece.  Percussion from the prepared piano, gentle americana from the electric guitar and violin and a sort of brooding wash from the laptop. Solo piano part in the middle is nice, rather Wolff-ish in nature (beyond being played by him) but again with a touch of jazz – ragtime almost.  I wanted to like this piece a lot more; while it has its moments it’s rather thin on the ground. Becomes kind of ping-pongy digitally toward the end.

EyeSpace

Merce Cunningham eyeSpace (2007)

4) Annea Lockwood (b. 1939)  Jitterbug (2007) [excerpt] 20:19
Dance: eyeSpace (2007)
John King, electric guitar, viola, live electronics; David Behrman, laptop, zither; Stephan Moore,  live electronics
Recorded January 26, 2008, Stanford, California

Kind of a popping electrical sound, repeated guitar string taps, the sound of rushing water, metal on strings and so on. It goes through many different “movements” each with a different feel, but gives the piece a lack of unity (perhaps evoking the title). Best bit has this almost flatulent electronics that fades in and out along with a sound like a far away bull roarer and dripping water.  All of this evokes frogs, insects and other flora and fauna pond. Like a sylvan version of Rainforest made for one of those “meditation” tapes.  Lots of good moments like this but  I can’t help but feel that every time I hear a Lockwood piece that while she may have innovated the style there are those that, even in imitation, do it some much more interestingly.  This is an enjoyable enough piece but, frankly it’s background music.

A 2008 Event at Dia:Beacon
A 2008 Event at Dia:Beacon

Disc Ten (77’30”)

“Presented without intermission, Events consist of excerpts of dances from the reportory and new sequences arranged for the particular performance and place…”  -Merce Cunningham

Dancers need space in which to dance, to run on and off stage, to be able to generate the needed velocity for leaps and bounds; but space was not always a given in the early days of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  On their first World Tour in 1964 they took whatever space was offered to them and in one such space realized they couldn’t perform any of their current repertoire. Looking back to the “happening” at Black Mountain College where simultaneous music, theater, dance etc was performed in a cafeteria the Events were born. In these events the dancers would perform parts of dances, or improvise within a limited area, or perform simultaneous solos and the like.  In the first Events, John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis was the music performed, but in later Events the pit musicians would primarily improvise. Disc Ten of this is presents thirteen short extracts (and really short as these would usually be an hour and a half)  from these improvisations.

“In Vienna, we were scheduled to perform in the Museum of the Twentieth Century, but it had no theater. In order to present our work in this unconventional space, Merce and John created a special format, reminiscent of Cage’s 1952 Black Mountain Happening. This format would serve Merce well over the next forty-plus years, allowing the company to perform in almost any situation, from New York’s Grand Central Terminal to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco to the Piazza San Marco in Venice to North Cotteloe Beach in Perth, Australia. For want of a better title, he called the performance in Vienna Museum Event #1. In November 2004, forty years later, Event #725 took place in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. ” – Carolyn Brown(4, p.387)

This disc is sadly ahistorical as it begins in 1993 when hundreds of Events had taken place (they’ve done more than 800 of these so far) and it would be interesting to have heard parts from across the entire history. But apart from that, this was a disc I was quite interested in, as the Company musicians were primarily composer/performers and they primarily played their’s  and others compositions.  The Events also seemed to be a proving ground of sort for musicians -new and younger musicians would play in these pieces in the pit and some might later become regulars or be commissioned to compose for the Company. Perhaps it is to display the wide variety of musicians who were asked to play for these Events that they cover the era past John Cage’s tenure as music director.  The first of these is the only one with Tudor and is easily the best of them; I for one would have enjoyed hearing some events from the heyday of the live electronics pit.

 

Event 2002 (m)

A 2002 Event

The disc of Events turns out to be the absolute worst disc of the set and its biggest disappointment.  The downtown (and others) musicians they bring in are uniformly terrible here, performing horrific laptoppery, banal turntablism, uninspired and dated electronics, wanky guitar, overly muscular sax and so on and is just in general a complete and utter mess. Kosugi, who performs in the bulk of these, often displays his worst tendencies: terrible vocalisms, overuse of delay and so 0n but is often the best aspect of these performances. There are some exceptions, the first short one that is simply a Tudor/Kosugi duo and some of the latter pieces which are primarily old hands: Christian Wolff, David Berhman et al. But primarily they are unfocused, misdirected excess that really disappoint. It is a cliché that composers and musicians who primarily play composed works are poor improvisers but cliché’s often arise from the repetition of a truth (and it should be noted that improvisers that play composed works are also often equally lacking; a situation which we get to hear a lot of these days). But really it is the “professional” improvisors here that are really terrible; those members of the downtown and related scenes: Mori, Marclay, Lewis, Scanner and so on.  The absolutely terrible nature of much of this music lends credence to the notion that Kosugi’s tenure as music director was the end of the long run of creative music that the company promoted and supported.

The dances during the Events on the other hand, seem to be of considerable interest. Especially as they are performed in galleries, sculpture parks and other unique locations. I’ve sprinkled the short descriptions of the Events recordings (I can’t really bear to listen to these enough to do more) with photos I’ve found on the web of various Events from the last decade. They don’t correspond to the music but they demonstrate some of the great settings and costumes used for these events.  While this disc is a rather depressing way to go out, it doesn’t diminish at all to me the amazing legacy of music that Merce Cunnigham help facilitate nor the greatness of this set. Do I wish that some of the excerpts were longer and this disc to have simply not been part of the set? Yes. But then of course one would lose the historical record (no matter how incomplete) of what this music was like. Excerpts, or even better complete performances of all of the Events as digital downloads would be in my mind the best way to preserve this historical record without creating the vast amount of plastic that I suspect will be rarely played. In fact I hope that the MCDC moves in that direction to preserve the legacy – there is so much material and no amount of physical releases will ever represent it all. The MCDC has been very forward thinking with its use of online video, pictures and other materials, I hope that only increases in the future.

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August 2009 Event

After his death the Company members did a performance of Events in Central Park of which the above photo is one of many on Flickr. It was a believe without music and just the dancers, performing his choreography. A beautiful tribute.

Rest in Peace Merce Cunningham, thanks for all the amazing work. And a big thanks to New World Records for putting out this amazing set.

EVENTS (1993-2009)

 

Takehisa Kosugi's rig

Takehisa Kosugi's rig

1) Event””February 16, 1993, Red Wing, Minnesota 5:58
David Tudor, live electronics; Takehisa Kosugi, electric violin

The only one of the Events in this set to include David Tudor –  a super rare opportunity to hear him improvise. Thankfully Kosugi keeps his mouth shut and this is overall a great, if short, piece.  Electronic drops, scrapes, stutters and echoed string plucks. Nicely spare, perhaps a pointer to how Tudor would have improvised into the modern era. Nice sputters and splatters of live electronics as Kosugi does short, soft attacks on the strings. Several good spaces at the end.

2) Event””September 14, 1996, Annemasse, France 5:53
David Behrman, laptop, percussion; Takehisa Kosugi, electric violin, live electronics; Fast Forward, steel pan, objects

Bubbly laptop, metallic rattly percussion (sort of Beins like) then washes and rushes from Kosugi. Big synth pads and weepy violin lines at the close. Rather cheesy overall.

3) Event””June 5, 1997, Frankfurt 7:30
David Behrman, laptop, voice; Takehisa Kosugi, electric violin; Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone

Steve Lacy. Soprano Saxophone. Need I say anymore? Begins with Lacy, melodic at first and then honking. Berhman comes in with cheesy pads, Kosugi with high lines.  Moaning singing from Berhman, even worse then the Lacy. Overall terrible, so of course nearlry the longest of the Events excerpted here.

 

Event 2002 (1)

A 2002 Event in NYC

4) Event””September 12, 1998, Minneapolis 5:22
Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics; Jim O’Rourke, laptop; Christian Marclay, turntables

Rather refreshingly noisy after the previous cheese.  While rarely a fan of Marclay and O’Rourke this piece harkens to the energy, if not quite the quality of sounds, of the early Live Electronics.  Bits of samples from the turntables, rushes of analog wash, digital bleeps and bloops; not stunning music but again good energy and above average for the disc.

5) Event””September 29, 2002, Oslo 4:12
Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics, percussion, voice; James Woodrow, electric guitar, live electronics

Sort of loping guitar, buzzing electronics and then Kosugi’s usual echo-laden live electronics and popping percussion. And particularly bad Kosugi voice performance – guttural syllabic and cut off. Horrid. Sort of hard to believe this is what they were doing in 2002, at this point the music for the MCDC, always so ahead of its time, sounds positively archaic.

 

"Events". Merce Cunningham Company

A 2009 Event at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid Spain

6) Event””October 30, 2002, Munich 6:51
Takehisa Kosugi, voice, live electronics; Christian Wolff, piano, melodica, percussion

Almost ragtimish piano with more dominant (At first) electronic skittery sounds. It builds in intensity, both piano and electronics and then the piano drops out while the electronics continue apace. Real percussive oscillations from the electronics becoming a blurring wash.  Moaning from Kosugi mixed in I think, but low threshold. This eventually fades away and its just short piano lines.  Kosugi comes in with distorted vocal moaning/singing ruining an okay if not very special performance.

7) Event””December 14, 2004, New York City 3:54
David Behrman, laptop, violin, psalter; John King, electric guitar, live electronics; George Lewis, trombone, laptop

George Lewis electronics. meh. One of those pieces with bits and bloops coming everywhere – short percussive belts, long trombone moans and trumpet like wails. Shimmery laptoppery and so on. Pretty lame.

 

July08 Beacon Event (9)

A 2008 Event at Dia:Beacon

8) Event””December 15, 2004, New York City  6:56
Christian Wolff, piano, melodica, percussion; Marina Rosenfeld, turntables, live electronics; Ikue Mori, laptop

Shimmery laptoppery from Ikue Mori which is typically meh but the excerpt includes some nice percussive, wandering piano lines from Wolff. Electronics become increasingly sequenced percussion which is pretty terrible. Wolff then jazzes it up a bit and frankly the whole thing falls into self parody. Alas.

9) Event””December 18, 2004, New York City 6:35
John King, electric guitar, live electronics; George Lewis, trombone, laptop

King and Lewis – not my favorite combo, but this is particularly terrible with distant rocking out guitar and electronic percussion and looped voices.  Atrocious.

10) Event””June 14, 2005, London 5:21
John King, electric guitar, live electronics; Philip Selway, drum machine, live electronics; Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), laptop

Drum machines are horrific here- bouncy and popping sort of like an academic attempt at techno that totally fails. This along with a sort of bludgeoning drone and higher tone digital cheese. Lame. I think Scanner is pretty much of his time and place but I’ve definitely heard a lot better from him.

 

Beacon Event (2008)

A 2008 Event at Dia:Beacon

11) Event””June 17, 2005, London 8:44
John King, electric guitar, live electronics; John Paul Jones, electric triple-neck mandolin, live electronics; Stephen Montague, prepared piano, percussion

More bad rhythmic laptoppery and rather crap disjointed playing from Jones and aimless piano work. Also some truly banal percussive bits – just shaking things for a bit and then a bunch of rather recognizable near quotations on the piano. Jones becomes a bit more showy with his staccato playing oscillating back and forth. For the longest of the Events, pretty uninteresting and rather rubbish.

12) Event””June 23, 2007, New Caanan, Connecticut 3:09
David Behrman, laptop, recorder, guitar; John King, electric guitar, live electronics; Christian Wolff, electric guitar, melodica

Oscillating tone to begin, then a space, then sort of tuning up back ground sound and dot matrix printery sounds. Nothing super special but pretty listenable and for the Events – not bad.

 

Beacon Event (2009)

A 2009 Event at Dia:Beacon

13) Event””February 22, 2009, Beacon, New York 5:17
Brenda Hutchinson, longtube, voice, live electronics; Ikue Mori, laptop; Robyn Schulkowsky, percussion; Christian Wolff, electric guitar, melodica

Lots of sound of movement. Melodica sort of distant then various squealing sounds. Got kind of percussive and drum circle-esque. A bit spineless, but not terrible.

 

References and further reading

1) Music for Merce (1952-2009) Liner notes (New World Records)
2) German Celant (editor), Merce Cunningham Milano, Edizioni Charta, 2000 ISBN 88-8158-258-9
3) Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, Köln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
4) Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham Northwestern University Press, 2009 ISBN 9780810125131
5)  James PritchettThe Music of John Cage (Music in the Twentieth Century), 1996 Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521565448
6) James PritchettJohn Cage: One8
7) Maryanne Amacher City-Links, exhibition booklet, Ludlow 38 Künstlerhaus Stuttgart Goethe Institut New York
8) Calvin Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde Penguin, 1976 ISBN 9780140043136

Websites

1) Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Wikipedia)
2) John Cage (Wikipedia)
3) David Tudor (Wikipedia)
4) Christian Wolff (Wikipedia)
5)  Gordon Mumma (Wikipedia)
6) David Behrman (Wikipedia)
7) Takehisa Kosgui (Wikipedia)
8) Annea Lockwood (Wikipedia)
9) Stuart  Dempster (Wikipedia)

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