Music For Merce Cover

Though theoretically available late December 2010 New World Records epic ten disc overview of music used to accompany the Merce Cunningham Dance Company wasn’t widely available until early January. Since getting my copy I have spent the last two months listening to little else though after two initial sequential complete play-throughs (once open air and once on headphone as is my wont) , I primarily played specific discs and certain tracks (the David Tudor pieces in particular). At over eleven hours of music covering over fifty years and dozens of composers and musicians it really is an impossible task to summarize the entire set. That is to say a “review” of the set would be rather meaningless as the connecting tissue here is Merce Cunningham and the musicians he chose to work with. It is these relationships and his championing of contemporary music that is the thread throughout the years as Cunningham pioneered in dance the notion that John Cage pioneered in composition: that a dance is defined by time.With this concept he was able to disconnect dance and music. Dance is often seen as interpreting music, often in a narrative fashion and while much modern dance seems to have eschewed the narrative aspects the notion of  representing the music physically has remained a common fixture (I should state at this point that I am far from any sort of expert on modern dance and have really only come to it via the composers that Cunningham utilized. I’ve garnered a bit of a feel for its recent history, but am still woefully ignorant).  By disconnecting the dance from the music the composers Cunningham chose to work with were able to address their own concerns and not necessarily (though some did) attempt to compose for a specific dance. Which is to say that a pure examination of the dance involved also are not necessary or sufficient either as a way of summarizing this set. The only valuable approach is to consider the individual pieces as themselves or as parts of the body of work of the individual composers.

Merce Cunningham

Complicating matters as a survey of the music utilized for the Company the set generally does not include pieces that are currently available or were unavailable for various reasons. This I think undercuts the impact of the set as a survey of the music used over the fifty years, though given the amount of music over such a long period of time perhaps any such comprehensive survey is impossible.  The extensive liner notes do include biographicaly material and a selective discography from the primary composers but does not include a comprehensive list of all pieces utilized by the company nor much discussion of major pieces that were excluded for whatever reason. This is somewhat understandable as the liner notes are extensive enough just to talk about the included pieces (and many of these could use whole essays in and of themselves) but this kind of complete survey is something that I do hope is forthcoming in coming years.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour poster

All of this is to say is that it is rather impossible to write a few paragraphs covering this set that would be useful to anyone. At least in anyway beyond generalities. I mean you can say that this set is a must have for David Tudor fans, Merce Cunningham fans, John Cage fans, experimental music fans and so on but that doesn’t really tell you anything. The set is very well put together; five double disc jewel boxes in a nice cardboard box with a flap on the top and a well printed and extensive set of liner notes with many heretofore unseen pictures. The music and dance may be disconnected but a DVD along with the set presenting excerpts from the dances would have been very welcome but otherwise I think this is an amazing set.  But to really present any valuable information about the set I think that a piece by piece examination is the only practicable way to proceed. Thus this is the first in a series of five posts in which I discuss each of the two disc sets. This has been a lot to absorb and there is a lot of supplementary material to take in before any sort of informed discussion can take place. This has taken time and frankly much more could be taken.  I feel that much more time could have been spent with the dance side and while I’ve read several books and articles on Cunningham and the company there is a lot more material out there to absorb.  I’ve watched a few videos of performances and am seeking out more but I still feel woefully ignorant in this area. I am happy to say that the final tour of the company, the Legacy Tour, is coming to Seattle and I’ll finally have a chance to see them dance live (they have not played in Seattle since I’ve been interested). I certainly recommend that interested readers catch the Legacy Tour if they can. Also for those in New York there is going to be concert tied into the release of this set  featuring many of the composers and musicians that should be pretty amazing:

March 20th, 2011
Music for Merce release party
Roulette, 20 Greene Street,NYC, NY
featuring perfomances by  Christian Wolff, David Bindman, Fast Forward, George Lewis, John King, Jon Gibson, Matana Roberts, Shelley Burgon, Takehisa Kosugi, Gordon Mumma.

Music for Merce (1952-2009)


While for me the specific attractions of this set is the wealth of unreleased David Tudor pieces, it is of course packed with other pieces I was highly looking forward to by John Cage, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, David Beherman, Takehisa Kosugi, Maryanne Amacher and so on.  As I alluded to in the introduction it is somewhat of a grab bag on each two disc set and hard to think of them as complete albums in and of themselves. But that being said this initial set is easily the best in that regard.  After a rarely heard tape piece from Christian Wolff the first disc is all piano pieces, all played by David Tudor (with John Cage on his Music for Piano). This lends to a continuity that makes this disc really work as few others do.The second disc in the set again begins with piano, Tudor and Cage again, playing the piano reduction of Feldman’s Ixion which is a real treat, but the rest of the disc charts of the very beginnings of use of Live Electronics in the pit of the Cunningham Dance Company.

Disc One (60’53”)

Merce Cunningham Suite by Chance (Space Chart Entrance and Exit)

Merce Cunningham Suite by Chance (Space Chart Entrance and Exit)
(image courtesy of MoMA) 

1) Christian Wolff (b. 1934) For Magnetic Tape (1952) [pt. 1 of 4] 5:24
Dance: Suite by Chance (1952)

Classic sounds coming in and out of the sound field tape piece. Tones slide up and down, sounds rushing in and out, short little tones and squeaks at other times sustained tones, whistles, buzzes and silences. This piece as well as the dance it accompanied was quite controversial back in the day among the dancers as well as the audience. Carolyn Brown, a dancer in the company and the wife of Earle Brown who was heavily involved in the cutting and splicing of the magnetic tape for this piece wrote in her book about her years in the company:

“To my ears, its sounds were unrelentingly harsh and ugly. Christian Wolff appeared to be an extremely sensitive, gentle and somewhat shy young man. The music offered no evidence of such qualities, and he admitted that he was both surprised and disquieted upon hearing his own composition for the first time.” (4, p. 39)

This was the piece that Wolff did while Cage created Williams Mix and Earle Brown his Octet for 8 Speakers as part of the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape.  This is I’m pretty sure the first time it’s been released on cd but its been available as an mp3 on Christian’s pages at Dartmouth which I’ve embedded below

2) Christian Wolff For Piano I (1952)  5:19
Dance: Untitled Solo (1953)
David Tudor, piano
Recorded on tour in 1972

Merce Cunningham choreographed three solos (4, p.150) in the 50s for himself that all used Christian Wolff piano pieces beginning with this piece, one of Wolff’s earliest compositions.. This piece seems typical for his composition at this time when he was working with very limited material. It’s made up of  small clusters of sounds fairly isolated with lots of silences in-between and featuring fairly wide dynamics. There is a faint sound of feet on wood in the background at times which adds this nice found sound aspect to it.  The brief use of sustained chording later in the piece, contrasts really interestingly with the more almost staccato attacks of the bulk of the piece. Like so much of Wolff’s pieces it has this unexpected aspect to it; it never becomes predictable and always surprises you.

For Piano I was written for David Tudor with a view to his virtuosity, and first performed by him in February, 1952 in New York. The structure is made of sixteen segments of varying lengths and densities (number of notes in a given length), whose sequence, superposition and recurrence are determined by chance. The choosing of notes (out of a total of nine), durations (total thirteen) and amplitudes (nine), and their disposition within a segment was made by the composer. Only segments of zero density, that is silence, left no choice. These limitations allowed a special freedom to the composing; the restrictions once made, the range of choices, though still immense became particularly clear. The question of what to do next for how long, depending so much on idiosyncratic feeling, was settled in advance. The larger continuity of the piece formed itself, and its expressive content fell with it.”(3, p.486)


Minutiae (1954)
(photo from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Flickr)

3) John Cage (1912-1992) Music for Piano 1-20 (1954) 16:13
Dance: Minutiae (1954)
John Cage, David Tudor, pianos
Recorded in 1954

Music for Piano is of course a well known and beloved early Cage composition that was composed using the imperfections on paper as method of generating material. James Pritchett in his excellent Music for John Cage gives a very thorough explanation of the development of this technique, with the specifics utilized for this piece described thusly:

“This point-drawing system [developed for Music for Carillion ] was adapted for use in a new series of eighty-four pieces called Music for Piano (1952-56). The primary change in the technique of these compositions was that the points were generated by observing and marking minute imperfections in the manuscript paper, rather than relying on the manipulation of templates. After marking a randomly-determined number of imperfections on a blank page, Cage drew musical staves on the sheet, thus turning the points into notes. Coin tosses and I Ching hexagram numbers would determine such matters as clefs, accidentals, and playing techniques (e.g., plucked or muster strings). As in the Music for Carillon, the durations of notes were left open.”(5, p.94)

Even with two pianists the music is quite spare, beginning with soft isolated notes, clearly separated between the two pianos. It varies a lot though with frantic little bursts at times, discordant little sequences, unexpected melancholy chords and short little almost melodies.  This recording from 1954 with Cage and Tudor performing the piece in a slightly scratchy recording evokes the uncompromising nature of this music.  Even as the Cunningham company began to achieve accolades for their dancing the music was routinely dismissed and jeered. That this piece, fraught with beauty and tension, garnered such criticism only goes to shows how different an era it is now. The low fidelity of the recording I think makes for an interesting addition to the piece as the decay of held notes seems to fade out into static and  tape compression artifacts added a degree of mystery. A very welcome addition to the many fine recordings of this piece.


Earle Brown Indicies (excerpt)

4) Earle Brown (1926-2002) Indices (1955) [excerpt] 20:51
piano reduction of Indices (1954) for flute, french horn, trumpet, percussion, piano, amplified guitar, violin, violoncello, double bass (ballet version)
Dance: Springweather and People (1955)
David Tudor, piano

The piece begins with several sharp attacks, spaced out. It has a kind of Webern feel which isn’t too surprising for early Brown, but a bit more spacious with just a hint of swing. You can hear the dancers footwork at times and the audience coughing. The piano keys are often forcefully depressed with a sharp attack, punctuating the more mechanical seeming sequences of notes. The work seems to open up as it develops and silences are introduced though it always retains this rather driving aspect.

Carloyn Brown writing about this piece in Chance and Circumstance recalls that it was commissioned by Merce and given to him as payment for Carolyn Browns dance lessons. She goes on to describe the process of its development:

“Throughought the miserably hot New York summer months of 1954, Earle worked on Indices, the score for Merce’s new dance.  They had together agreed on twenty-nine minutes as the length of the dance. Then Earle — using tables of random sampling numbers — determined the “intricate and terribly complex” program that included the characteristics of each sound event and when it would appear within the twenty-nione minutes. The sounds were dropped into the overall time. “The piece is not written from left to right (Start to finish) but the ‘program’ [of composing] was such that each sound was a completely self-contained ‘event’ … There were 175 pages of ruled score paper which equalled twenty-nine minutes at mm 120. According to the ‘program’ the first sound composed might have entered on page 107; the second on page 22, the third on page 136, etc.” The music used a discontinuous process that John [Cage] likened to dropping pebbles into a lake.”  (4,p.110)

Brown wrote the orchestral version and then immediately a “literal piano reduction” for Tudor which is what we hear in this recording.

5) Bo Nilsson (b. 1937) Quantitäten (1958) 12:31
Dance: Night Wandering (1958)
David Tudor, piano
Recorded on tour in 1968

The only piece on this disc I wasn’t previously familiar with. Again Webern-ish, with clusters of sounds of dramatically varying dynamics. A far denser piece than the earlier piano pieces but it does have its moments of spaciousness perhaps influenced by the New York School.  During this period of time Earle Brown in particular worked and played all around Europe so one could see these ideas percolating through. Some brooding sections but always punctuated by short sharp attacks. It opens up more toward the end though always with varying attacks. Even with perhaps a bit of influence from the New York school it has a far more of the flavor the piano music coming out of Europe in the 50s.

Disc Two ( 78’15”)

Summerspace 1958 (d)

Summerspace (photo from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Flickr)

1) Morton Feldman (1926-1987) Ixion (1958) 20:21
Dance: Summerspace (1958)
John Cage, David Tudor, pianos
Recorded in Stockholm for rehearsal late 1950s

This is a great piece, one of the highlights of the set.  It begins with one piano, high up in the register in this rather wandering, clockwork pattern of driving single notes.  The second piano comes in and adds density and almost a contradictory line, feeling rather like modern improvisation where two musicians are playing separately but to the space. Then it becomes oddly disjointed and spare with either just one piano or the two trading parts. In contrast to late Feldman the notes are almost all pointillistic and not at all lush, there is a dry ascetic aspect to them which, as the piece becomes increasingly spare and soft, lends an alien feel to it.

Morton Feldman Ixion (excerpt)

excerpt from the score for Ixion

“Morton Feldman had been commissioned to write music for orchestra. Titled Ixion, it was one of Feldman’s graph pieces that indicated only how many (not which) sounds were to be played within a certain time frame, with the added direction that they were to be played in the high registers of the instruments except for on brief section in which the lower registers were indicated.  The dynamics could be freely chosen by the performer.  The music was pointillistic as well. When asked how he could write a score for a dance he would not see until the performance, with no idea what the choreographer and the designer were doing — Morty’s response was “Well, it’s like this. Say you’re getting married and I tell you the dress won’t be made until the morning of the wedding. But I also tell you it’s by Dior.” The problem was, Morty either didn’t know how to or didn’t want to transcribe his score for orchestra, so it was John [Cage] who had to do it at the last moment, while Morty sauntered off to tour the Connecticut College gardens.  After Morty left, John muttered, “The Dior of Fourteenth Street!” and set to work on Morty’s score.” – Carolyn Brown  (4,p.220)


2) John Cage (1912-1992) Variations V (1965) [excerpt] 13:41
Dance: Variations V (1965)
John Cage, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, live electronics
Recorded November 11, 1966, Paris

This is another highlight of the set, an important Cage piece only available on a VHS of the dance.  This is a piece of live electronics where the dancers triggered the sounds via breaking light beams, radio interference and the light. It takes on overlapping rhythmic aspects perhaps reflecting the dance and also perhaps from the patterns that feedback can fall into. There is sound of radio interference, simple electronics, doppler effects and the like.  A pity this one is in an excerpt though the whole piece is I believe about 50′.

One of the many bits of insight I gained from reading Carolyn Brown’s Chance and Circumstance(4) was on how little the dancers enjoyed the music that Cunningham commissioned for the company. The use of live electronics was especially disliked and Brown frequently complained in the book about extreme volumes at times. Even the earlier all acoustic pieces didn’t seem to have much favor from the dancers and Brown would often talk about how thrilled they’d be to dance to “normal” music and such. Of course in many cases the use of technology added additional burdens and stresses upon the dancers and that seems to be part of the problem that she and other of the dancers had with this piece:

“The final concept with which Merce had to deal involved twelve four-foot-tall antennae placed around the stage. In orde to trigger the sound, the dancers had wave in, out, and around them, the interaction operating much like a theremin. Klüver’s contribution consisted of “seeing eye” light beam devices that responded to the shadows made when dancers crossed in front of them, thus activating sounds from radio, tape machines, etc. The big question, of course, was, would their devices work? The simple answer to that questioned turned out to be NO!”  (4,p.458)

Brown’s description of the activities of the dance and how it triggered the sound though is extremely informative in getting a feel for how the sounds in this recording were made:

“Non-dance activities by the dancers contributed another layer of sound: Merce disassembled a potted plastic plant that had a cartridge microphone attached to it; later on I reassembled the plant. As if tying on a bonnet, Barabara donned a small pillow with cartridge microphone inside, then stood on her head; Gus lifted her off the floor and swung her gently back and forth. Merce and Peter sat on metal chairs and shuffled about in them; they, too, were wired for sound, as was the bicycle that Merce rode at the end. All these sounds could be manipulated electronically by four musicians seated behind a low platform at the back of the stage under a twenty-foot high white canvas that stretched across the entire back wall of Philharmonic Hall. The canvas served as a screen for films provided by Stan VanDerBeek, which incorporated distorted TV images by Nam June Paik. When the musicians stood, they became part of the film from the waist up.”  (4,p.458)

While the dancers may not have appreciated what was going on in these pieces and may not have always enjoyed the sounds their willingness to work within these circumstance and to rigorously perform their art is commendable. The music is highly interesting in my opinion and as it is directly related the choreography and movement of the dancers as well as the indeterminacy and inadequacies of the electronics setup the commitment of all involved was essential. This piece more than almost any other demands a DVD release.


Gordon Mumma and David Tudor

David Tudor and Gordon Mumma recording Mesa

3) Gordon Mumma (b. 1935) Mesa (1966) 19:38
Dance: Place (1966)
David Tudor, bandoneon; Gordon Mumma, live-electronic cybersonic processing
Recorded November 9, 1966, Paris

Gordon Mumma's Mesa SetupA swelling grinding sound that is the processed bandoneon. There are hints here and there of the soundworld of Tudor’s piece Bandoneon ! which this piece was among the inspirations. Much more dense than any of the preceding pieces, Mumma varies this density to give parts of it a more spacious feeling. Some really great sounds in this piece: bits on the edge of feedback, swelling sounds ranging from mechanical grinding sound, to wind through a narrow space to howls of electronic noise to this amazing bit that sounds like rattling ball bearings in an amplified sieve. In some of the soft sections you can hear the dancers movements.  Some good loud noise about 2/3rds the way through and while there is a bit of characteristic primitive electronics it still sounds remarkable fresh and innovative. Ends with waves of tearing staticy feedback that is quite stunning.

This has also been released on A Second Wind for Organ in a slightly longer 23 minute studio version.

4) Toshi Ichiyanagi (b. 1933) Activities for Orchestra (1962) 24:09
Dance: Scramble (1967)
David Behrman, viola; John Cage, piano, voice, percussion; Gordon Mumma, horns, live electronics; David Tudor, piano, live electronics; Malcolm Goldstein, violin; Max Neuhaus, percussion
Recorded on tour in May 1968

A fairly ponderous piece with its combination of electronics and traditional elements. It has a bit of the “sounds rushing in and out” of more stereotyped new music pieces of the day but interesting sounds from Tudor and Mumma.  Cage, Goldstein, Neuhaus and Berhman on the traditional instruments is a pretty good pit. Electronics are a bit spacey and swoopy giving it a more cheesy flavor than the two previous more hard edged pieces. It seems to settle down though, become a bit more brooding and interesting, with often a thick sonic base in which piercing elements come in and out. There are sections of silence (only a few and not too long) and segments of just traditional instruments. As the piece goes on the ponderous feeling increases as a drum beats seem to slow the process down and the whole piece becomes somewhat unfocused. I like the last five minutes of the piece best, it becomes very spare, with an almost ritualistic feel, the electronics adding occasional  and more interesting sounds, a melencholly tattoo from a single bass drum and then this oddly abrupt ending, A piece that was indeterminate in its instrumentation one supposes that it could be more or less successful depending on who or what is being played, this version at least seems somewhat mixed in its success but definitely well worth hearing.

You can watch a short video segment of the dance as filmed for TV on YouTube.

References and further reading

1) Music for Merce (1952-2009) Liner notes (New World Records)
2) Calvin Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde Penguin, 1976 ISBN 9780140043136
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 Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Music in the Twentieth Century), 1996 Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521565448
6) Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Wikipedia)
7) John Cage (Wikipedia)
8) David Tudor (Wikipedia)
9) Christian Wolff (Wikipedia)
10) Morton Feldman (Wikipedia)
11) Earle Brown (Wikipedia)
12)  Gordon Mumma (Wikipedia)
13) Toshi Ichiyanagi (Wikipedia)