Entries tagged with “Merce Cunningham”.


The Art of David Tudor

 

The Art of David Tudor  is a new 7 CD boxed set released from the ever great New World Records. The most exciting release IMO since their epic Music for Merce. Of course while there was much music of interest to me on Music for Merce it was the David Tudor pieces, especially the unreleased material, that was particularly of interest. In my series of posts covering that box set I time and time again bemoaned that the bulk of the Tudor pieces were only excerpts and more than once mentioned that there should be a boxed set of his pieces. Miraculously New World has provided.  This set can now be ordered, though I’m not sure if it’s in anybodies hands yet.  It will apparently be available for download on at least iTunes though the link is not currently active. However the liner notes for the set are currently available (major props to New World for putting these online – makes quotes and such from them a lot easier) and I’ve given it a looksee.  So before I have this set in hand let us consider what we are going to be getting.

 

The Art of David Tudor

Variations II  (John Cage)
For 1, 2, or 3 People  (Christian Wolff)
Bandoneon ! (A Combine)  (David Tudor)
Anima Pepsi  (David Tudor)
Pepsibird  (David Tudor)
Pepscillator  (David Tudor)
Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled (John Cage, David Tudor)
Weatherings  (David Tudor)
Phonemes  (David Tudor)
Rainforest IV  (David Tudor)
Webwork  (David Tudor)
Rainforest IV  (David Tudor)
Virtual Focus  (David Tudor)
Neural Network Plus  (David Tudor)

Quite a few of these pieces have been previously released either in whole or in excerpt. But these pieces were performed live and often performed with the Merce Cunnigham Dance Company or in concerts and due to the nature of live electronics can be quite variable. So in the cases where there are new performances or different versions it is certainly a cause for celebration.  The full versions of the pieces released only in excerpts are of course especially welcome.  Let us now consider each of these pieces in brief.

Variations II can be heard on the David Tudor Edition RZ set plus a different version on vol. 1 of the John Cage Shock set from EM RecordsEdition Omega Point. This version is from the ONCE Festival and is I believe a third recording of the piece. I’m all for more versions of this piece as they all vary due to the nature of working with feedback.

For 1, 2, or 3 People  is currently available on Edition RZ’s Christian Wolff set as well as an excerpt on the Music for Merce set. These two versions are the same IIRC and this one is listed as also from tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance company. So could be the same one or a different performance.

Bandoneon ! (A Combine)  This has been released in excerpt on the DVD documentary series on the E.A.T. 9 Evenings series. This is not listed here as an excerpt but at just over 14 minutes it almost certainly is. In my review of the DVD I note that the length of the performance is not known, but I do go into the available data. This is a longer excerpt than found on the DVD by about 5 minutes which is welcome, but one still awaits the full piece.

Anima Pepsi was released on the album  Live Electronic Music (Electronic Music Foundation) and this appears to be the same version (both are 23’37” which is a pretty good clue).

Pepsibird  & Pepscillator These two pieces were along with Anima Pepsi were recorded at Recorded in the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan but only Anima Pepsi has been released. So these are two new tracks that presumably will be in a similar vein of Anima Pepsi.

Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled  Untitled, a definitive Tudor composition, has been released in a couple of forms but was originally performed with John Cage’s vocal performance of Mesostics re Merce Cunningham. As far as I know this version has not been released (a version with Takehisa Kosugi on vocals is on the album Three Works For Live Electronics released by Lovely Music).

Weatherings  This was released in excerpt on the Music for Merce set and assuming this is an entire performance, this would be the first complete recording of this piece.

Phonemes  This was released in excerpt on the Music for Merce set and a complete version can be found on  Three Works For Live Electronics released by Lovely Music. However this is a full live performance of the piece, whereas the  Three Works For Live Electronics version is a layered version of many recordings. So this will be a full, live, single version which is a welcome addition to the recordings of this piece.

Rainforest IV  There are two versions of Rainforest IV on this set both credited to Composers Inside Electronics during the period when Tudor was performing with them (they are still a going concern). As Rainforest IV is a sculpture based piece that was constructed anew on numerous occasions and thus was often different this is certainly justified. However the Rainforest pieces are of course Tudor’s most well know and most well documented. Mode has a disc with Rainforest IV (as well as Rainforest I) on it and there was an German instance of the installation in 1980 which has been released on an LP  by Edition Block and on CD by Lovely. One of the versions of on this set is this German installation the other from a Stockholm version. While most likely the German versions are all from the same source it could be a different excerpt or even a different recording. The Stockholm one appears to be a new release.

Webwork – This was presented in excerpt form on Music for Merce so a complete performance is of course highly anticipated. This has only otherwise been released as a 7? excerpt  on the John Cage tribute CD A Chance Operation

Virtual Focus  This very interesting piece excerpted on Music for Merce so a complete performance is definitely a huge plus here. There has otherwise been unreleased barring a 3? of excerpt on Musicworks 73.

Neural Network Plus  Again excerpted on Music for Merce but in this set a whole disc is dedicated to a 55″ version.  While Lovely Music has put out a double CD of the related Neural Sythesis pieces and Atonal Records put out a disc split between Neural Synthesis No.2 and a Cage piece this is the only recording of Neural Network Plus which includes Kosugi on violin. Even the extract was intense and wild so really can’t wait for this complete performance

Basically the pieces from Expo ’70 are the most novel of the set but the complete performances of the later live electronics pieces are of course the big draw. There is still quite a bit from David Tudor’s oeuvre that is still unavailable. His first piece, Fluorescent Sound is of course the first one that springs to mind (though perhaps no recording exists) but just scan through his list of compositions on DavidTudor.org and you can see that many are not represented here or anywhere. One hopes that of those that recordings exist that some day these will come out in some form.  With all the variation and iteration in his live performances one hopes that in the future these will all be available for download. This is I think the direction that any music that is so varied in performance needs to. It is a shame that these recordings just languish in vaults.  Still I can’t wait to get this set and and it is a vital edition to the David Tudor legacy. I commend New World for putting it out and will write more here once I’ve had a chance to absorb it.

Merce Cunningham Antic Meet


The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) is coming to Seattle for two dates as part of the Legacy Tour later this week (Oct. 27th and 29th) and several local institutions have programmed some corresponding events, beginning with a lecture today at the Henry Art Gallery. This lecture, Shared Sensibilities: Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns, by Roger Copeland (Professor of Theater and Dance at Oberlin College) examines the relationship between Merce Cunningham and the artists that he worked with in his dance company. The thrust of the lecture seams to be an examination of how Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns all broke away from the dominate forces on their respective fields and that this rejection of the current paradigm is their “shared sensibility”:

Between 1953 and 1980, the visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns frequently designed décor, costumes, and even lighting for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This lecture will examine the sensibility shared by all three artists. Merce Cunningham began his professional career in dance as a member of Martha Graham’s legendary company. But by l953, when he first formed his own company, Cunningham had eliminated virtually every vestige of Graham’s influence from his own dancing and choreography. Significantly, 1953 was also the year in which Robert Rauschenberg created his Erased DeKooning Drawing, a work which -both literally and figuratively – declared his independence from the ethos of abstract expressionism. This lecture will argue that Cunningham’s repudiation of Martha Graham’s approach to choreography is paralleled in precise ways by Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s repudiation of painters like DeKooning, Pollock and the other great abstract expressionists. Collectively, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns (along with John Cage), spearheaded one of the great paradigm shifts in 20th century art: a transition away from the “hot,” anguished, personal energies of abstract expressionism toward the cooler, brainer, more impersonal aesthetic that would eventually manifest itself in minimalism and conceptualism.


2005 dress rehearsal for Ocean, in New York's Rose Theater

On Wednesday the Northwest Film Forum will present the Seattle premier of the Charles Atlas film of the most epic performance of Ocean.

In September 2008 Merce Cunningham staged Ocean, one of the most ambitious works of his legendary 60-year career, within a massive Minnesota granite quarry. Renowned filmmaker and longtime Cunningham collaborator Charles Atlas was there, using five cameras to document this uniquely epic production.

The film was completed last year and has only been shown by dance companies, festivals and in special screenings like this one. While the performance in the Minnesota quarry was seen to be somewhat of a failure by the critics in attendance it was notable (at least to readers of this blog) for several reasons. The first being that it contains the last piece composed by David Tudor (Soundings: Ocean Diary) and John Cage (Ocean 1-96 completed by Andrew Culver). In 1994 it would have still be performed by David Tudor and presumably for the 2008 performance it used recordings or Kosugi’s realization of the piece.  Furthermore it is possible that the issues the critics had with an outdoor staging of a piece in the round may not be an issue with a filmed version.  The five cameras would allow 360 degree coverage and editing and such could make for a more coherent piece than one could experience live. Atlas was a long time Cunningham collaborator and would I think create a film that Cunningham would approve of.

Daniel Squire in RainForest (photo by Tony Dougherty)

Daniel Squire in RainForest (1968) from the Legacy Tour

The week concludes with the two performances of from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour (which almost didn’t make it to Seattle; see this Seattle Times article) , which I wrote up extensively in this blog post: Legacy Tour comes to Seattle. Lots to see and hear for those interested in Merce Cunningham, his dance company and the composers and artists he worked with.  I’m off to the lecture at the Henry and of course have tickets to both the MCDC performances. I hope to make the Ocean screening as well, any chance to hear some unheard Tudor is not to be missed and of course more Merce is welcome. Look for a post on all of these activities after Merce Week concludes.

Merce Week in Seattle Lineup

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011, 2:00 – 3:00 pm
Shared Sensibilities: Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns
Henry Auditorium, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington

Wednesday, Octerober 26th, 2011, 8:00 pm
Ocean a documentary by Charles Atlas
Northwest Film Forum, Seattle  WA

Thursday, October 27th 2011, 7:30 pm
Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour
The Paramount Theatre, Seattle WA

Sunday, October 29th 2011, 8:00 pm
Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour

The Paramount Theatre, Seattle WA

 

 

 

Merce Cunningham RainForest

Merce Cunningham on the RainForest set

When Merce Cunningham died in 2009 the Legacy Plan that he had instituted a few years prior was set in motion. This plan called for a two year world wide tour of the company performing repertoire pieces, concluding with a final stand in NYC after which the company would disband.  For months I constantly checked the Legacy Tour listings to see if they’d come to Seattle and it began to seem if they’d not include the town where Cunningham went to school in the tour. I began to check regularly for dates in Portland or Vancouver and when those didn’t show either, San Francisco,  LA or anywhere on the West Coast. Some LA dates did appear but I held out for something closer and finally, finally Seattle was added to the list for late October 2011.  The program was listed as TBA until the end of the August so I had now idea until just this week what they’d be performing.

I have to say I was immensely happy when I finally saw the list. First off they were playing two dates, the 27th and the 29th, thus allowing for a really nice selection of dances from across the repertory. Three pieces each night, allow for a couple of the shorter dances and a full length, full company dance each night. The music spans the core Cunningham Collaborators: Cage and Tudor but also Bryars, Radiohead, Sigur Rós. The dances in order of creations are:

RainForest (1968)
Duets (1980)
Quartet (1982)
BIPED (1999)
Split Sides (2003)
XOVER (2007)

RainForest would be the piece in the repertory I’d like to see most as it features an excellent David Tudor piece, Andy Warhol’s silver pillow sets and is from the classic 60s period of Cunningham’s choreography.  Quartet from 1982 also features a David Tudor piece, Sextet for Seven, which I had not heard until the fantastic Music for Merce set from last year. This was a favorite from the set and it will be great to hear it in context. Duets from 1980 features improvised Irish drumming arranged by John Cage while XOVER from 2007 utilizes Cage’s Aria and Fontana Mix. XOVER is also a very late Cunningham piece so it will be of interest in contrast to some of the earlier pieces. It, as well as Split Sides, was choreographed with the DanceForms software that Cunningham helped develop and from what I understand gave a pretty distinct flavor to the choreography. Split Sides used contemporary avant-rock in the form of Radiohead and Sigur Rós, a rare departure for the companies music. BIPED from 1999 is a full length work and with a piece from Gavin Bryars that I’m not familiar with (I’ve never seen a recording and it wasn’t part of Music for Merce), so something completely unexpected will certainly be of interest.

Tickets going on sale in a few weeks, but the Seattle Theatre Group, who runs the Paramount among other venues, allows you to put together your own subscription series with as few as three programs in the series. So I did this with the two MCDC performances as well as an upcoming Kronos Quartet performance (whom frankly I don’t really need to see again, but I do always enjoy their shows and it allowed me to get in on the early action). I definitely recommend anyone in the PNW check out these shows and for everyone else to check out where the last few months of the Legacy Tour is playing. The final performances in NYC look to be amazing, with many of the surviving original composers and musicians involved and what is sure to be a fantastic and emotional conclusion to this incredible institution.

Full info on the Seattle programs below, with details from the MCDC pages on these dances.

October 27th

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Legacy Tour
Paramount Theatre, Seattle WA

XOVER (2007)
Music: John Cage, Aria (1958) and Fontana Mix (1958)
Décor & Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg, Plank
Lighting: Josh Johnson

XOVER (“crossover”) reunites the original collaborators, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg. The piece is danced with two works by John Cage: Aria, for solo vocalist (1958) and Fontana Mix, for any number of players (1958). Robert Rauschenberg’s décor is based on a 2003 painting, Plank; the costumes are white unitards. Lighting is by Josh Johnson. As the title suggests, the dancers cross back and forth across the stage, interrupted by quartets and duets, including one that lasts seven and a half minutes. XOVER is about 20 minutes long.

Quartet (1982)
Music: David Tudor, Sextet for Seven
Costumes: Mark Lancaster

Despite its title, Quartet is a dance for five, performed alongside Tudor’s score Sextet for Seven. Often described as a somber work, Quartet shows emotional and tangible dependencies and restrictions, with a single male dancer, originally portrayed by Cunningham, in the role of the outsider. The other dancers move for the most part independently of him, though occasionally they mirror his movements, or he is caught between two of them. Toward the end, after a small paroxysm, he passes unnoticed from the scene, but in the few remaining moments the other dancers’ movements revert to the restricted, almost robotic shifts of weight with which they began, as though their existence still depended on his presence. The chilling music is a live electronic composition for “six homogenous voices and one wandering voice,” and Lancaster designed the cosumes in hues of crimson, blue, and green. Quartet premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.

BIPED (1999)
Music: Gavin Bryars, Biped
Décor: Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar
Costumes: Suzanne GalloLighting: Aaron Copp

BIPED is a full company work whose duration is forty-five minutes. Cunningham worked on the choreography during 1997 and 1998. Parts of it were performed in Events at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts during the summer of 1998 as a Work in Progress. The first performance took place at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus in April 1999.

Cunningham has written: “The dance gives me the feeling of switching channels on the TV…. The action varies from slow formal sections to rapid broken-up sequences where it is difficult to see all the complexity.” Many people have commented on what appears to be the profoundly elegiac nature of the piece, particularly its closing moments.


The costumes, using a metallic fabric that reflects light, were designed by the late Suzanne Gallo. At one point in the dance the men, clothed in pajama-like outfits in a transparent fabric, bring on tops in the same fabric for the women. Cunningham had asked Gallo for “something different,” and this was her solution. Aaron Copp, the dance company’s lighting designer, devised the lighting, dividing the stage floor into squares that were lit in what looked like a random sequence, as well as the curtained booths at the back of the stage that permit the dancers seemingly to appear and disappear. BIPED was filmed in performance in France under the direction of Charles Atlas in 1999.

 

October 29th
Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Legacy Tour
Paramount Theatre, Seattle WA

RainForest (1968)
Music: David Tudor, Rainforest
Décor: Andy Warhol, Silver Clouds (1966)

Sparked by Cunningham’s strong childhood memories of the Northwest, RainForest’s soundscape, choreography, and stage “habitat” evoke flora and fauna while artfully evading literal representation. David Tudor’s score is rich and elaborately layered, reminiscent of birdcalls and animal chattering. Cunningham’s choreography incorporates the creature-esque with keen and subtle insight – moments before his exit, Cunningham’s head pulls back into his neck, like a turtle retracting into its shell. Warhol’s installation Silver Clouds (1966) – a number of floating Mylar pillows – serves as décor. Floating freely in the air, the balloons drift above the roaming dancers. When asked about costumes, Warhol said he would like the dancers to go naked. Cunningham felt this wouldn’t work, so Jasper Johns put them in flesh-colored leotards and tights cut by Johns with a razor blade to give them a roughened look. RainForest differs from Cunningham’s other pieces in that, with the exception of Cunningham’s role, each of the six dancers performs, then leaves the stage and never returns.

Duets (1980)
Music: by Paedar and Mel Mercier, arranged by John Cage, Improvisation III
Costumes: Mark Lancaster

Duets, described by Anna Kisselgoff as a “beautiful and refined” example of Cunningham’s interest in the formal possibilities of movement, comprises of six short pieces, originally choreographed to be included in site-specific Events. To create the stand-alone piece, Cunningham added a brief appearance by one of the other couples in each of the duets, and ended with all of the couples sharing the stage. As if a still photograph were being taken, the ending consists of three short phrases, each followed by a brief stop, closing with a blackout. The Cage score consists of electronic manipulations of Irish traditional drumming by the Merciers, father and son, originally recorded for Cage’s Roaratorio the year before.

Split Sides (2003)
Music: Radiohead, Sigur Rós
Décor: Robert Heishman, Catherine Yass
Costumes: James HallLighting: James F. Ingalls

Split Sides is a work for the full company of fourteen dancers. Each design element was made in two parts, by one or two artists, or, in the case of the music, by two bands. The order in which each element is presented is determined by chance procedure at the time of the performance. Mathematically, there are thirty-two different possible versions of Split Sides. (The coordination of concept and collaborators was by Trevor Carlson, at the time general manager of the Company.) The piece was first given during the company’s 50th Anniversary Season at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), 14 October 2003.

The choreography, also in two parts, each twenty minutes in length, was made, as with all of Cunningham’s dances since 1991, with the use of the computer program DanceForms. There are a number of ensemble (often unison) passages, and also solos, duets that feature much inventive partnering, and trios.

Split Sides was a departure for MCDC in that, for the first time, the music was by two bands: Radiohead, the British alternative rock group, and Sigur Rós, the experimental group from Iceland. Radiohead played live for the first performance only, Sigur Rós for many subsequent performances. At later performances, elements of Radiohead’s contribution were played back in a recording, with some manipulation by MCDC musicians. Neither band had seen the dance company before; the musicians of Sigur Rós constructed a kind of xylophone made of pointe shoes, connected to contact microphones.

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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