Max Eastley Installation Recordings (1973-2008) (Paradigm)
Max Eastley Aeolian Flutes
For those inclined to come to terms with the music of John Cage, it almost always comes in stages. The prepared piano is often the gateway, or perhaps the early percussion work. For some it might be the more wild electronics of the sixties, or perhaps they came to it via dance and Merce Cunningham. As one develops ones appreciation one accepts his various ideas: rhythmic structure, silence, the validity of all sounds and finally chance and the reduction of the will of the composer. The notions of chance composition, indeterminacy and attempting to remove from music the composer or performers taste’s and predilections are the most difficult hurdle for most to get past and many people, even those highly interested in contemporary composition, experimental music and the like never do. It is not at all uncommon to meet those who only really enjoy Cage’s early music, losing the thread when chance operations became his primary working method (also you meet those who only appreciate the number pieces, which while chance composed utilize a very carefully chosen set of constraints that reduce certain features that turn many people off of chance composed music. But that is another topic). But chance is the key to Cage’s work, one must accept it, get past that to really appreciate his music. It often is misunderstood as an expediency of composition (and perhaps it was in the European Avant-Garde’s aleatoric music) but for Cage it was the tool he found to help reduce forcing his personal tastes and predilections upon the music. Following this idea to at least one sort of endpoint, what could remove the composer more effectively than creating sculptures that generate sound on their own, often in response to natural events?
I lay my harp on the curved table,
Sitting there idly, filled only with emotions.
Why should I trouble to play?
A breeze will come and sweep the strings.
-Attributed to Po ChÃ¼-i (772-846)(2)
Max Eastley has been making sound producing sculptures since the early 1970s and this cd documents 36 years of them beginning in the year that I was born. His scupltures often relay on wind (aeolian harps and flutes) or collections of electric and mechanical parts assembled to maximize unpredictability, the use of field recordings and combinations of these with electronics, performers and other instruments. These sculptures naturally exhibit indeterminacy through use of wind or wave action or chaotic electrical parts but furthermore also in their very construction:
I chose not to use any system of tuning: the metals for example were chose visually and I put random pitches of Aeolian Flutes together, but I tuned strings to specific tone rows. (3)
This two cd set contains short little recordings from these scupltures, as well as performances from some of the more instrument like sculptures. As this set is a document of these installations it doesn’t contain any of the improvised music that Eastley has done with various other musicians. The discs are very well put together, the short excerpts are crafted into extended pieces that all crossfade into each other. The liner notes mark these into sections containing from one to seven tracks and these work quite well as pieces of music. The level of consideration in this assemblage is quite high, sometimes a particular sculpture is returned to several times in one of these “pieces”, which really gives it a flow and makes what could be mere documentation into an captivating piece of music. Of course not everything works, but nothing lasts so long as to dominate, to force the album into one particular shape. It is the sounds of the sculpture that dominate, often metal on metal, odd rotating sounds, clunking wood and the like. It reminds me of the best field recordings in a way, those that aren’t mere documentation but a piece of music. In many ways I think capturing the essence of the natural world, the way that sounds come in and overlap of their own according, those moments of near stasis and the wide range of dynamics, has been a goal of those working with chance based music.
While of course it is hard to tell, I’d wager that the least successful tracks here had the most intervention from humans. Whether as scupltures being played, or by transformation from electronics, there are several tracks that are smoothed out into rather new age soundscapes that are tolerable simply due to their brevity and transformation into another piece. The best pieces are all a-flutter with with the breeze, starting and stopping unpredictably, with big crashes sometimes, or a softly guttering unpitched tone. Rhythms driven by natural processes that fail capture by our senses but fully capture our imagination. There are sounds, rhythms, harmonies on this set that have captivated me more then anything else this year and even the bits that aren’t as interesting to me work in the flow of the album. The carefully constructed structure keeps it from feeling like a catalog of work; there are musical pieces here. I’ve never had a chance to experience one of Eastley’s sculptures in person but I dearly hope to get the chance. Seattle’s outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park would greatly benefit from one of these in my opinion.
1) Installation Recordings (1973-2008) page at Paradigm
2) A Treasury of Asian Literature, ed. by John D. Yohannan (Meridan, Penguin Books, 1994)
3) Max Eastley from the Installation Recordings (1973-2008) liner notes
4) Gallery of Images from The Wire May 2008