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),
#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),
(Giorgio Magnanensi, Conch Shell),
#8 (Randy Raine-Reusch, shō),
Atlas Eclipticalis
pages 3 and 4 (Marina conducting, full ensemble) ,
(Allen Stiles, Piano and Rebecca Whitling Violin),
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.