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.