Entries tagged with “Mode”.


ArtOfDavidTudor

 

Having let go of my obsessive following of music I still found myself with more than enough great music to listen to this year.  Being able to judiciously select what discs (or increasingly preferable, digital files) to buy I found that I liked almost all that I bought. Curiosity and what seems to be a decrease in criticism (R.I.P. Paris Transatlantic, Dusted (though semi-revived) &c) and perhaps the move to more gated preserves from the commentariat did lead to my purchasing a few duds, but I’m sure I missed more good stuff than bought bad.  Having lost touch with those dusty corners of the nets where all music finds itself eventually (or even before it hits the virtual shelves) I can only express endless gratitude to Alastair Wilson’s excellent radio programme Admirable Restraint for providing lengthy tastes of music new and old. Alastair has put out a fine collection of new pieces from artists old and new for a good cause for which I can only recommend you dig deep: by gum it’s a compilation. The loss of my record player last year and the refusal to acquire a tape deck (I was buying music during the heyday of cassette and we pretty much despised it then as every playback degraded the tape) has led to a few things missed so let me just add a word of praise for those labels who put their boutique format releases up for digital downloads as well.  I think I’ve listened to more solo piano this year than anything everything from Beethoven to Feldman to Jurg Frey to Cage &c &c. I’m happy to report it was a great year for the kind piano musics I like. You’ll see plenty of it represented in the selections below.  Finally a hearty thanks to all the musicians, producers, labels, writers and listeners out there (also to all those who compiled their year-end lists early: got a lot of great stuff in just the last few weeks).  There is plenty of great vital music being made and if I only listed here what touched me the most deeply out of the small fraction I heard it doesn’t really mean all that much.

artOfDavidTudorDiscs

David Tudor  The Art of David Tudor (New World Records)

When this set was announced there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the release of the year, if not the decade.  New World Records  epic Music for Merce box set contains excerpts of the bulk of the pieces contained in this set and serves in a way as a sampler and impetus for this set. Throughout my lengthy five part review of Music for Merce I was continuously thrilled to hear these pieces but just as constantly lamented their excerpted nature. More than once I urged New World to release a box set of Tudor’s uncut performances. I doubt that I had any influence on this subsequent release but I can’t say how pleased I am it came about.  New World really did yeoman’s work on this set with seven discs spanning the entirety of Tudor’s career from his electro-acoustic interpretation of Cage’s Variations II to Neural Network Plus with it’s complex combination of computer and live electronics.

This set deserves an equally lengthy discussion as  Music for Merce but really delving into Tudor’s music demands an  amount of research and work that basically hasn’t been undertaken. In my Music for Merce reviews I discuss each of the pieces that were excerpted, all of which are included on this set.  Since I don’t do a minute by minute discussion of them they serve quite well regarding these pieces.  Of course there are a few things on this set not included there: Tudor’s first major piece Bandonean !,  two versions of Rainforest IV, another performance of Variations II that is a welcome edition to the other two available, the epic Cage/Tudor overlaid pieces Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham/Untitled and most notably the Anima Pepsi pieces from the 1970 Osaka World Fair. My preview post of this set upon it’s initial announcement discusses the significance of all of these pieces. Regarding the material shared between the two sets you can find my write up on the these pieces in the following links: Virtual FocusNeural Network Plus, Phonemes WeatheringsWebwork and Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People.

In trying to analyze Tudor’s live electronic work James Pritchett found himself constructing his own circuits and began to work out how the music works from the ground up (I think this is from this interview: RWM SON[i]A #166). This is the equivalent of doing score analysis for conventionally notated pieces (though a far greater undertaking) and I think a necessary first step in understanding his process and methodology. From there a theory could be worked out (something like my (incomplete) Network Instrument Theory which starts from my electronic music making and builds up). Pritchett eventually gave up on this task which is a shame as it appears no-one else has undertaken it.  A book covering the entirety of Tudor’s compositions, similar to Pritchett’s Music of John Cage is I think a needed resource.  But for now the music itself will have to serve and this set, while alas still only a portion of Tudor’s work (though the major pieces I think it’s fair to say) does so admirably.

novemberDennis Johnson  November [R. Andrew Lee, piano] (Irritable Hedgehog)

As a reader of Kyle Gann’s always informative and frequently amusing blog, Post Classic, I have been able to follow along with the rediscovery of Dennis Johnson’s November.  Remembering November which Gann posted in later 2007 was the beginning of this odyssey and there are quite a few posts documenting his transcription of the piece from a hissy tape and a few notes, to the locating of Dennis Johnson himself (who had “given up on the 21st century in 2007” and thus disappeared from internet communication), to posting an mp3 of himself and Sarah Cahill performing the piece (currently unavailable AFAIK) to finally the release of R. Andrew Lee’s recording on the increasingly indispensable Irritable Hedgehog label.  All this posts and many more can be found by searching for November on Gann’s blog.

I downloaded a lossless version of November from Irritable Hedgehog’s Bandcamp page which allows for one to do seamless playback of the nearly five hour piece. It has been played over and over again since that time. It’s meandering  spare piano lines becoming increasingly varied with moments of more density, or intensity or lyricism I find endlessly captivating.  I’ve listened to it straight through but also have just put on one of the “discs” as I’ve gone to bed. Some nights I hear less than others but there have been those nights where I heard the whole thing.  Beautiful music, but more than that as it weathers any degree of scrutiny.

psi847

Eliane Radigue  Ψ 847 (Oral)

Along with November this album has probably had the most spins in my abode this year. Admittedly this again due to it being amenable to being put on as I attempt to sleep but as with all albums that meet that criteria that simply means that I’ve listened to it in the dark primarily focused on it as sleep remained at bay.  This one has been a long time coming as it was recording in 1973 and it initially planned to be released by Halana Magazine years ago in an edited form which of course never materialized. Various reports of concerts featuring the piece mixed live from the original master tapes certainly wetted the appetites of those of us who love her electronic work.  So when this was finally announced in a double CD form with a live and studio mix by Lionel Marchetti it was beyond welcome. The piece is another masterful Arp 2500 introspection utilizing spare tones carefully drifting and a bit of tape echo and some really stunning resonant filter ringing.  Both versions are fascinating with the live one somehow even more stripped down than the studio. The applause at the end always comes as a shock.  Things like this often don’t (or can’t) hold up to the legend and it is doubly rewarding when they do.

fremdezeitaddendum4Jakob Ullmann fremde zeit addendum 4 · solo III für Orgel (Edition RZ)

The release from last year was Edition RZ’s three CD Jakob Ullmann box Fremde Zeiot Addendum which oddly enough contained a piece of cardboard inside it to prevent the contents from rattling about.  It turned out that 2013 brought us a fourth disc that replaces that piece of cardboard and makes this vital set even more tremendous.  A piece for solo organ that is heads and shoulders above any contemporary composition I’ve heard for the instrument since Messian.  There have been a number of attempts to do highly minimal music on the church organ that to my ears have really fallen flat.  This instrument, which I love so much, has really proven an insurmountable challenge to apply to this domain. Until now that is.  Ulmann’s piece and the masterful playing of Hans-Peter Schulz beautifully recorded by Edition RZ finally reveals this unrealized potential of the instrument.

Closed Categories in Cartesian WorldsMichael Pisaro  Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds [Greg Stuart, perc] (Gravity Wave)

This one was one of those I got late in the year but I am sure glad I did.  As a long time fan of pure tone music from the clinical precision of Alvin Lucier to the all encompassing intensity of Sachiko M, to the piercing interiority of Mitsuhiro Yoshimura (not to mention my own explorations) this has long been a domain I’m fascinated with. Hewing closer to the Lucier mode of operation (and indeed the piece is dedicated to him) with a very precise composition utilizing electronic sine tones of specific duration in concert with the inherent variability of bowed metal.  Michael Pisaro put it this way on his blog:

The physics of the crotale are very interesting, since like all metal instruments, its actual motion is relatively chaotic. It is not the absolutely stable and regular sound that it appears to be, but has fluctuating character, perhaps a bit like the reflected glare of any shiny object.

The piece was composed at percussionist, and frequent Pisaro collaborator, Greg Stuart’s request and his performance here is nothing short of inspired.  The combination of the bowed crotals and the uncompromising electronic tones is just a shear physicality. Those of us who already appreciate Sachiko or Lucier already know that sine tones of sufficient cycles beat in your ear and undermine your sense of balance as well as subtly varying and shifting as you move around and this album delivers these effects in spades.  But it isn’t nearly as clinical as Lucier often comes across as though it is as precisely defined as his pieces. The crotales I think are the special sauce here and Stuarts virtuosity.

sixteenStanzasAntoine Beuger Sixteen Stanzas on Stillness And Music Unheard [Greg Stuart, perc] (l’innomable)

At the same time I received Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds I also received this disc. Which like the aforementioned Pisaro composition this one also involved Greg Stuart bowing metal, this time the chimes on a vibraphone. The recording is very quiet and slowly increases in volume across it’s duration. Like the crotales of the previous entry the bowed vibraphone has a very pure almost electronic sound but with a bit of warmth of instability.  The music here is far less physical – the lack of high register, relentless electronics means there is only the acoustic sounds – but it is achingly beautiful.  Less demanding and intense it is an excellent companion piece and probably my favorite composition yet from Antoine Beuger.

makingAKeith Rowe/Graham Lambkin Making A (Erstwhile Records)

2013 has seen the fewest releases from Keith Rowe in years with this collaboration with Graham Lambkin being one of the few. This duo was put together by Jon Abbey of Erstwhile records and interestingly the two musicians independently decided to primarily utilize contact microphones and drawing supplies.  Keith has been placing contact mic’s on his table and drawing with charcoal on it for some time now (I think I first witnessed this in 2008 at the Amplify fest in Kid Ailack Hall) and the whispery scratches have become a feature of his sound world. With Lambkin utilizing similar technique as well as the brittle, mid-range nature of contact mics this is truly an album of layers. Another layer is that the second track, the titular Making A, is a Scratch era composition by Cornelius Cardew erstwhile Rowe comrade.  I can’t say that much of Lambkin’s work has appealed to me and I was a bit skeptical by this collaboration (though always curious). But once again Abbey’s ear for duo’s has born fruit and this really is a remarkable recording, one that I’ve returned to again and again throughout the year.

variationsV

John Cage  Variations V (Mode Records)

It’s sort of surprising how much Cage is still unavailable especially from his electronic period. Only in the last couple of years was Variations VII made available and it took until this year for Variations V to be available outside of special order from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.   A truly collaborative piece, it involved sound sources monitored by Cage, Tudor and Mumma trigged by the MCDC. The piece is the dance, is the live electronics is the composition.  It of course inherently indeterminacy due to the live electronics, thee variability in the spaces performed and in the dancers not to mention the fragility of the electronics.  This excellent DVD from Mode presents a German Television shows broadcast of an in studio performance those allow us to experience this truly multimedia piece with the dance and video by Nam June Paik and Stan VanDerBekk as well as (occasionally) see the musicians working their electronics. It  also includes an audio only recording from a live performance earlier in the tour which I think helps to understand this continually variable piece.  Two interviews with dancers Carolyn Brown and Sandra Neel with Gus Baker provide some context, add details and more than a few amusing anecdotes.

tramVibrationHaco/Toshiya Tsunoda  TramVibration (skiti)

I am in agreement with many that Toshiya Tsunoda is one of very (very) few field recordists doing vital work but even he has as many duds as successes. It seems to be his more conceptual pieces that turn out to be more interesting in concept than in execution so I was naturally skeptical about this recording he made along with Haco of a moving tram (I also was confusing Haco with a vocalist and I couldn’t imagine how that would work). However I was willing to watch this video, The Tram Vibration Project, to get a sense of how this turned out. I pretty much immediately ordered this disc after watching it.  Of all the releases I heard from 2013 this one seems the most sound focused. It is about finding the sounds of this tram as it moves along. It’s structured by the trams passage and the choices of where to place one’s microphones (and apparently massive editing by Tsunoda).  And what a rich world of crackles, hums, shakes, rumblings and other indescribable and downright fascinating sounds are revealed here.  Watch the video, it is much better than anything I (or anyone) could write on this one.

justReproachJohn Tilbury/Oren Ambarchi  The Just Reproach (Black Truffle)

John Tilbury’s magnificent touch on the piano and his effortless shifting from the abstractions of the body and insides of the piano, to pure romantic lyricism are fully present and are indeed the core of this album.  Oren Ambarchi though gives this music it’s spine with a deft touch and breathtaking subtlety. One can’t help but think of Tilbury’s collaborations with Keith Rowe but the only similarity here is perhaps those moments before Keith has really begun to play and the buzzing and hums of his setup provide a tapestry upon which the piano rests. Ambarchi barely adds more than that grounding but mines that background radiation for all that it’s worth. The few times he surfaces are in delicate counterpoint to Tilbury’s playing and it almost comes across as the piano resonating into alien space.

This alas was a vinyl only release but happily the kind folks at Beatport have made it available for lossless download which you can find here: The Just Reproach.

and the rest

Graham Stephenson/Aaron Zarzutzki Touching  (Erstwhile Records)
John Cage Solo for Piano [Sabine Liebner, piano] (Wergo)
Eva Maria Houben Piano Music [R. Andrew Lee, piano] (Irritable Hedgehog)
Bryn Harrison Vessels [Philip Thomas., piano] (Another Timbre)
Stephen Cornford & Samuel Rodgers Boring Embroidery (Cathnor Recordings)
John Cage The Ten Thousand Things [I Ching Edition] (Microfest Records)
Toshiya Tsunoda O Kokos Tis Anixis (edition.t)
Meridian Hoquet (Accidie Records)
Eduard Artemiev Solaris Original Soundtrack (Superior Viaduct)

 

Variations VII2009 of course wasn’t only about new releases, I spent plenty of time listening to music released earlier, sometimes much earlier. Of course I also caught up on some releases I missed from the previous year, several of which should have made my list that year.  Most egregiously missing was this amazing DVD of John Cage’s Variations VII from the 9 Evenings: Theatre & Enginnering program. This disc was released mid 2008 and I had been eagerly awaiting it’s release for weeks. I wrote an entry on this as well as the other 9 Evenings release to date Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score in this post. As of this disc coming out, this seminal performance of this Cage piece had never been released and had remained unheard since the performance. The DVD contains a documentary made up of the color and black and white film that they shot (alas not the entire performance) as well as a audio only track of one of the two performances.  The music is raucous, filled with the noises of the city from numerous open phones, plus tables filled with Tudor and Cage’s electronics as well as contact mic’d everyday objects (such as blenders) triggered by movement, optical sensors and the like.  For around eighty minutes layers of sound, cacophonous at times, haunting at others fully occupies the soundworld. It is one of those rare historical moments that is not just significant but is excellent music. The video is fascinating, a chance to see the tables of equipment and Cage and Tudor working them along with other assistants and musicians.  The tangles of wires, the Bell Labs engineers striving to keep the lines open and the experimental electronics working and way behind the lights a packed house to see this radical music. The series will eventually contain all of the pieces that were performed at the seminal 9 Evenings with David Tudor’s Bandoneon ! up next. This one of very few unavailable Tudor compositions (and an early important one), were I to do a list next year, would be sure to feature on it, if not top it.

Music for PianoI’d been aware of the Neos label for awhile, but it wasn’t until the first part of 2009 that I actually picked up a couple of their releases that had been on my “to buy” list for a long time. These were two albums of works by American experimental composers with Munich based Sabine Liebner playing piano. I’d heard a few pieces previously by Liebner and have been long impressed with her touch at the piano. Her recording of John Cage’s Music for Piano 1-84 is easily the album I listened to the most this year. I am of course quite familiar with numerous of these pieces from David Tudor’s excellent recordings (beautifully collected on the essential Edition RZ release David Tudor: Music for Piano) but there doesn’t seem to be a complete recording of the entire set of Music for Piano by Tudor. Additionally Liebner performs these pieces in a dramatically different way then Tudor: many of these pieces allow for the tempo and dynamics to be left to the performer and Liebner choses a soft, spacious, almost Feldman like approach. The notes were worked out with systems utilizing the imperfections in paper and there are various other instructions (especially in the later pieces) that allow for longer silences, overlapping pieces and use of extended techniques and preparations. This makes this album for me one of those perfect ones to listen to in various contexts: intently on my primary stereo, as background while reading or, and this most often, put on as I’d go to sleep. It rewards close attention with its pauses, variety of sounds, controlled randomness and presence, but also can meld with the background allowing one to engage in other tasks or drift off to sleep.  One of the things that makes Cage’s compositions so wonderful is that they provide and endless amount of variety inside an always recognizably Cagean framework. This recording of these pieces complements the Tudor’s versions perfectly and aptly demonstrates the veracity of this statement.

Piano PiecesThe second of the Sabine Liebner Neos albums I acquired was Christian Wolff Piano Pieces which was originally released May of 2008.  I have long loved Wolff’s music, especially his piano pieces, but I’d heard few recordings of these beyond a few early pieces recorded by Tudor (again see the Edition RZ David Tudor: Music for Piano), the fantastic John Tilbury recording, Christian Wolff Early piano music 1951-1961 on Matchless and a Mode recording of the Tilbury Pieces. Wolff’s music does not lend itself to glib assessments and I’ve often resisted writing much about it for this very reason. The pieces on this disc are a series of pieces that Wolff had dedicated to John Tilbury and are appropriately enough titled Tilbury 1-III along with Snowdrop and 15 very short pieces under the heading Keyboard Miscellany. Now I was familiar with Tilbury I-III and Snowdrop from the very fine Mode recording of the Tilbury Pieces (complete) (which contains two additional Tilbury pieces, Tilbury IV and V that aren’t solo piano and thus not on this recording) and again this performance is a beautiful compliment to that recording. The Tilbury Pieces and Snowdrop are composed using chance techniques but there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) indeterminacy of performance beyond that found in performance of all composed music: differences from the instruments, the room, the recording techniques and of course the performer. These are wonderful pieces that seem to capture Tilbury’s unrivaled patience and touch at the piano, distilled into gentle yet powerful music.  The Keyboard Miscellany are quite interesting with greater diversity of dynamics, tempos and sounds then the Tilbury Pieces. They seem to be little sketches, ideas that Wolff was playing with that  he felt were interesting enough to jot down, if not expand into an entire piece.  But buried amongst the miscellany is the sublime Variations on Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 a ten minute piece that takes Feldman’s composition to place that only Wolff would have. A wonderful little congruence of these two composers and friends of the New York School.

There were of course many more albums I caught up on in 2009 but these three, considering how much plays they got and how much I love them I felt deserved to be highlighted. If they slipped beneath your radar as well, consider it well worth rectifying.

(archived from this ihm thread)

Part I:

What I wanted to add to this thread was how to judge an interpretation of the score.  This is an incredibly complex issue but there are I think several basic rules of thumb that can be applied. First off, to get the most common objection out of the way, if you like a particular recording as a piece of music then that is great, no-one is denying you that.  On this issue I think there is no discussion to be had.  The question is though, is a particular recording an actual realization of the score, or more influenced by the score?

The key to interpreting the score is that you build up a consistent vocabulary for the symbols of the score. This vocabulary needs to be flexible as the symbols rarely stand on their own: they are constant intersected, amended, interrupted or overlaid with other symbols. This is an important issue that I think leads to failures in many interpretations, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.  The consistency issue is equally important, if you do not consistently interpret the symbols then you aren’t really playing this as a score. Let me give an example; if you created a version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that played all the notes, used the exact orchestration, followed all of the rules of the score, except that you played it at a tempo such that it lasted nine hours, this would no longer be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  It would be at best “inspired by” or a gloss on it. Why? Because Beethoven gave explicit directions on the tempo for the score. Now there is a lot of debate on that and realizations of the score can vary in times by 15 or more minutes.  But these I think are all valid, they fall within the parameters of the score.

So am I saying that doing a short version of Treatise is a priori invalid? No, but to do a short version of the score requires a huge amount of work. Cardew’s composition Volo Solo is apparently a transcribed version of the entire scored to be performed by a piano virtuoso which can be done in about 10 minutes. But this is meticulously scored (and it is rather difficult to see exactly how it is transcribed from the score. Tilbury (for whom it was composed) goes into this in Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished) and contains thousands of notes.  So this is one solution to the issue of consistency and flexibility: rigorous transcription. In essence you are compressing the score into a smaller more compact version, a translation of all of this syntactic content into another system.

Beyond that level of transcription what else do we find in interpretations of the score? When you are not converting the symbols directly into traditional notation you tend to utilize varying degree of abstraction. That is you associate techniques, events, or sounds to the symbols. You then need to take into account the various permutations of the symbols, the spaces between them, the center line and the numbers. When sight reading from the score this is pretty challenging and the pages themselves contain varying degrees of density. In these sort of interpretations it takes much longer to work though each page, some pages have a lot of content to work through others have very little. Though the relationship between density and tempo is not precise, so pages with very little syntactic content can feel very slow while others dense with information feel fast.  When sight reading the score, the amount of time it would take is certainly highly variable, but I think that on average you’d be pretty hard pressed to fully interpret a page in less then five minutes.  Maybe a few pages would be less but many many more would require more time.  Even if you did spend one minute per page, which would really be a gloss over most of the symbols, you would end up with a three hour+ performance.  So when you are presented with a short performance there are basically five options:

  1. It is fully transcribed to traditional notation and is played at a very high tempo with a high density of notes
  2. The score is being broken up among the players such that for each page each player is playing only a small subset of the information there.
  3. The score is being played layered: that is you each divide the score up among each player so that each player is only doing about 20 pages)
  4. A subset of the score is being performed
  5. It is a gloss of the score

Now lets specifically consider the Hat[now]ART version of the piece. I think its fair to rule out option (1) – it is too sedate, too ambient to be like a 120 minute Volo Solo. (2) and (3) are possible though of course this is impossible to know.  Ideally any performance of the score should include information on the pages played and some description of the strategy adopted. I would guess that it isn’t a layered version of the score – it again doesn’t feel dense enough. (2) is certainly possible and I think would be the most obvious to someone who reads up on the available resources on the score:

“Performance advice. Divide the musicians into those involved in dot events (percussionists and pianists?) and those involved in line events. Dot events to be exclusively soft.” -Cornelius Cardew,Treatise Handbook(1)

However in this fashion to really treat it as a score, you’d basically have long rests between a lot of the events that you are playing. So it’d still come down to spending less then a minute a page, which even if you were only making a few amount of sounds would still come out to all the symbols in the score being played within this time.  Again this take just isn’t that information rich, or quick in tempo. Thus it seems fair to say that this performance is a gloss, a “take” on the score. And there is nothing wrong with that, except that they say this is the “World premier complete performance” on the set (which rules out (4) of course). You can still like the music here, enjoy it for what it is, but it isn’t Treatise anymore then a nine hour version of the Ninth Symphony isn’t Beethoven

This post has gone on long enough, but I think it establishes a set of criteria for examining realizations of the score and demonstrates how to apply it. If there is further interest, I’ll add examinations of a couple of other versions here over the next couple of days.

Part II:

The most successful (and common) strategy of interpretation of Treatise is to play a subset of the score.  This allows you to devote the time that each page requires.  When playing as a group without any sort of strategy of synchronization these types of interpretations necessarily become layered versions of the score. I for one am a fan of that type of layering and this was something well embraced by the 60s Experimental Composers (c.f.  all of the simultaneous Cage performances) including Cardew. The entire score could be played through in the fashion, playing a page or series of pages in a number of sessions. We began this process in the Seattle Improv Meeting and played through 44 pages in this fashion (these can be downloaded here). This attempt  to play through the whole score in sequence was stopped at that point as the interpretation was suffering in other ways.  This is a good example of one of the other failures in interpretation: using the score for structured improvisation.

“The score must govern the music. It must have authority, and not merely be an arbitrary jumping-off point for improvisation.” -Cornelius Cardew,Treatise Handbook(1)

Use of the score for structured improvisation again becomes a gloss of the score; one is not interpreting the symbols of the score consistently or rigorously. Again you can make good music this way and it is not an invaluable exercise. In fact I quite like structured improvisation, I think that it often adds depth to improv, just enough structure applied to give form and to curtail certain impulses.  However it is not following a score and as is quite clear with Cardew’s own intentions (“It must have authority”) this is not a rigorous realization.  I should point out that in the case of the SIM this was just how the group developed. In our three years of working with the score, we evolved from a tentative learning process, to a rigorous consistent approach and then it kind of slackened off into this more loose approach. See some of the recordings from the second half of 2005 to the first couple of months of 2006 for some of the more consistent realizations (my personal favorite from this period is Pages 146-148)

Other versions that most likely fall into the gloss of Structured Improvisation would include Formanex Treatise- Cornelius Cardew(Fibrr).  While they don’t explicitly say which pages they are playing on this recording (as opposed to their other recording) overall the music here is too overtly ambient to fit much of the score. However it is possible that this is the last three pages of the score in which this sort of interpretation would be valid. Again this is a case where it is frustrating that they don’t tell you the page(s) that are played. If you contrast this though with the other Formanex recording, Treatise-Live at Extrapool (also on Fibrr) it is markedly different, that one has the spaciousness and spikiness that more strict realizations tend to feature. I would also guess that the performance of pages 21 & 22 On the hat[now]ART release Material also leans this way. At least by some of the members (which is worth noting, there can certainly be degrees of rigor in any group performance of it) especially the vocalist who seems to be free riffing well past any material available from the score. This sort of free improvisation on the score I think is particularly egregious as this is adding semantic content which is not contained within the score.

Part III:

Quax Ensemble plays Treatise

Cornelus Cardew Treatise (Prague version 1967) (Mode)

The most recent Treatise recording out there came out just a couple of weeks ago on Mode.  This release is certainly of much historical interest, the QUaX Ensemble being one of the earlier groups to work with the piece. During the course of the development of the piece a number of musicians worked with it (including the members of AMM, in various combinations and of course AMM itself) and one of these was Petr Kotik. He was pretty young at the time, (early-mid twenties) and had was still in conservatory when he met Cardew and developed a relationship with him. He was able to get a number of pages (alas and annoyingly the liner notes do not specify these) prior to the scores publication in 1967 and put together the QUaX Ensemble to play it among other scores.  They played from these pages frequent but and eventually put together a 2 hour version of the pages they had which they performed once on October 15th 1967. That of course is this recording. He quite clearly states in the liner notes that he received a copy of the complete score in Buffalo NY in 1969, two years after this performance. So this two hour version is clearly a subset of the score, thus eliminating the issues that are rife with short complete versions.

“There is much to admire in this 1967 version of Treatise by the QUaX Ensemble from Prague: the feeling of spontaneity, its uninhibitedness, the rough-hewn sounds, the accidental, the half-intended, the blurred.” -John Tilbury(3)

The liner notes include a page from John Tilbury which tellingly is half devoted to quotes from the Treatise Handbook. The above quote from him, which is rather amusingly used in the Mode PR, I think sums it up perfectly: There is much to admire yes, but there is also much that is not so admirable.

First off they clearly did spend the time developing a consistent take on the pages they had. The liner notes includes reproductions of two of Kotik’s pages which have numerous annotations on them. These include notes on what to play for certain symbols but are actually mostly devoted to timings. Most interestingly the notes mostly resolve around who is to play for a given symbol.  For instance on the back cover there is an except of a page where the same symbol (black filled circles) are notated “Kotik”. Other notes seem to be either instruments or perhaps performance techniques that I can’t decipher (anyone who can, do let me know). These notes are pretty revealing in their take on the score, which to me seems like a fairly typical case of classical musicians trying to improvise.  It in fact reminds me a lot of the workshop and performance I did with Vancouver New Music (that Joda references (in the ihm thread) and which I wrote up at length here: VNM Treatise report) where I’d say most of the ensemble never really managed to work with the score in and of itself, they always were using it as a springboard.

In the case of this version, they seem to have a concern that I’ve encountered among virtually everyone I’ve seen play the score: playing together. It seems for classical and jazz musicians that the concept of everyone working through it at their own pace is a difficult concept.  This was constantly raised in the VNM group and also something that plagued the first half dozen or so sessions with the Seattle Improv Meeting (at least among certain people in both groups). Even a more recent performance that I did with a dedicated graphic score group (EyeMusic) under the aegis of Keith Rowe this issue was also raised. In this case since they seemed also to be working with the score in parts (that is assigning symbols to various performers) this seems a much more traditional approach.  Of course Cardew definitely worked with the score in this way especially before AMM and I wouldn’t be surprised if he recommended this approach to Kotik.

Based on the annotated pages that we have in the liner notes it appears that their working out of the score is more an assignment of who plays what, not much of an indication of what they play. In other words this approach is structured improvisation. Listening to this before I closely examined those score excerpts there were a number of passages I found troubling that are explained somewhat by this approach. These passages involve overtly melodic material from the saxophone (Pavel Kondelik) and kind of piano jazz breakdown complete with vocals (Vaclav Zahradnik). Now one might think that one could assign melodic content to the symbols as long as one is consistent and in theory you could. But as I pointed out in my earlier post, any symbolic association must take into account the various fragments, interjects, incomplete symbols, overlapping symbols and so in. With very few exceptions no consistent melodic line would survive that for long. Thus the multiple long melodic sax passages seem to me outside of a strict reading of the score, but would make sense if you just were using the symbols as sigils for when a particular musician was going to perform.

Apart from this melodic content there are a lot of great sounds in this recording and lots of space. Apart from the center line, there are many pages with long gaps between symbols and thus any performance should have these gaps (unless someone is focusing on the center line, but even in this case the other musicians should respect the spaces). There is even a nice background radio grab for a bit, giving it a bit of a Cage or AMM feel.  Much of the sounds are generated on traditional instruments with extreme extended techniques, using many of the sounds associated with avant-garde composition (ala Lachenmann) or post EFI improvisation. Additionally there are various ambient sounds, passing traffic, shifting chairs and the like that places this within a space and I think add a lot to the overall environment. Long stretches of this performance is fantastic in my opinion, though there often is something coming in that one may not like.  For me it really is the melodic content and even worse the semantic content from the singing that mar the performance.

Cardew on a number of occasions expressed his dissatisfaction with classical musicians performance of this piece. Too hard for them to break out of their routines and notions of performance. Impossible for them to capture the right balance between the spontaneous and the structured. This recording I think is somewhat exemplary of that. The fact that the performers were young and still students probably gives this the life and drama that it does have. It still I think would have somewhat dissatisfied Cardew in that it doesn’t go all the way to where he wanted to go w/r/t performer involvement but probably wouldn’t be the total disappoint of some of the performances by highly trained and rigid musicians. As Tilbury says there is much to like here, but this is not I think a wholly successful interpretation of the score. It is definitely recommended though, it is an important piece in the history of the score a history that is quite lacking in the early performances.

Part IV:

Getting back to analysis of performances of the score there is two important notions that I have thus far neglected to mention. This was deliberate as I wanted to approach these recordings in terms of their consistency and rigor. These notions basically subvert that to some degree but in general they can’t be used to excuse those primary notions.  These issues are numbers in the score and the notion of a perverse reading of the score.  The numbers are inescapable in the the score so lets take a look at those first.

As with everything else in the score there isn’t any instructions on how to handle the numbers. However in the Treatise Handbook he says thus:

“The numbers are included at the pauses for the reason that: any act or facet of the conception or composition of the score may have relevance for interpretation.[…] It is the fact that there were 34 blank spaces before the first sign put in an appearance” – Cornelius Cardew, Treatise Handbook (2, p. 251)

This singular note on the numbers from Cardew doesn’t really give much info on how to interpret them.  However it has come to be interpreted as a repetition of an event for the number of times of the numeric value. As there isn’t a specific symbol tied to the event the event is treated as outside of the score, that is it is independent of your consistent interpretation. So theoretically a performer could say play a chord 34 time, or make 34 sounds or what have you.  So does the potential arbitrariness of the numbers make possible the overtly melodic sax in the QUaX version discussed earlier? Probably not. In general the numbers aren’t too large after the initial 34 and there are multiple long sax segments in that version. So I think my previous read of it still stands, but it is worth taking the numbers into account when you listen to a version where something may seem out of place (for those interested Tilbury includes a breakdown of the number distribution in the footnotes to the Treatise chapter in his Cardew bio, on page 278 No. 16).

The notion of Perverse Readings of the score is a lot more problematic and there isn’t a lot of information to go on. From Tilbury’s bio:

“…John White’s precedent for ‘perverse readings’ by reading ascending lines as descending intervals” – John Tilbury (2, p. 251)

The first time I encountered this notion though was for the AMM+Formanex performance of Treatise at the Musique Action Festival, Nancy, France in June 2002. At this performance AMM performed several pages of Treatise with  John White who once again did his trademark Perverse Reading in this case interjecting banal samples into the performance. (Interestingly enough while looking for data on this, I found this tiny bit of video from this event here).

“AMM were extremely spartan (wonderfully so) while White, on some kind of sampling device, intruded with all manner of awful-sounding blurts, cheezy synth tones, sheep baa-ing, etc. It was very annoying and I found myself vainly attempting to mentally tune him out.” -Brian Olewnick

Now considering that Perverse Readings were par for the course, occurring from the very beginning of the scores history, can any out of the ordinary performance be considered “perverse”?  I tend to think not, I think that the perverse readings are still consistent and rigorous, but in such a way that may be contrary, controversial and against expectations.  Brian later asked Keith Rowe about that aspect of the performance and he went on to say:

“He felt that ‘Treatise’ performances had a tendency to get overly somber and reverential and wanted to inject a “low” element that he thought of as the sonic equivalent to US rags like Weekly World News, to introduce “transgressive” sounds that “simply aren’t done” at these types of events.” -Brian Olewnick

And this to me I think is the essence of the perverse read, not falling into a free for all, do as you wish sort of situation but subverting received notions. But I do find it a troublesome notion and this would certainly be an interesting point to have clarified.

References

1) Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) A Reader (Copula, 2008)
2) Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, John Tilbury (Copula, 2008)
3) Liner notes from Cornelus Cardew Treatise (Prague version 1967) (Mode)


John Cage Two2 (Mode)
(Rob Haskins, piano I, Laurel Karlik Sheehan, piano II)

This album may be the album released this year that I listened to the most.  I’m somewhat of an insomniac and takes me a long time to get to sleep every night. So I listen to music when I go to bed and tend toward music that is not aggressive but also is interesting, deep and complex.  Sort of how Brian Eno initially defined ambient music, as music that can fade into the background without demanding your attention, but if you do grant it your attention it is fully engaging. Feldman for me is a favorite night time music, it fits this definition perfectly.  This disc of John Cage’s Two2 has served this function for me many times this, as well as being given a number of full attention listens on my main stereo.

John Cage’s music has become increasingly important to me ever since Vancouver New Music’s John Cage Retrospective, Begin Anywhere (my reports here). I’d of course checked out Cage before that, his music, ideas and thought are the philosophical and conceptual basis for the modern improvised (and composed) music I’m so interested in, but wasn’t really aware of the breadth of his compositions until this festival. The final night of the festival featured several of his late compositions that have collectively come to be known as the Number Pieces. The numbers refers to the fact that they are titled by the number of performers followed by a superscript of the number of the composition with that many performers. So Two2 refers to this being the second composition for two instruments, in this case two pianos.  The number pieces were all composed in between 1987 and his death in1992 and were his primary compositional interests in these last years.  The compositional technique that was the basis for the majority of these pieces was his Time Bracket notation(2.6) , in which the performers are giving time ranges in which to perform the notation pitches.  Two2 however was one of the exceptions to this in that instead of time brackets the performers are instructed to perform each measure of music at their own speed. However they are additionally instructed to not proceed to the next measure until both performers have completed the measure in question(2.10).

“As Cage explains in his performance notes for the work, his decision not to incorporate time brackets owed itself to a remark made by the soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whom he had met in 1988 at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad: “There is an inner clock.”  This gives the pianists the luxury of playing the piece at the speed that suits them best; in the finest performances, the freedom also allows them to discover surprising new relationships between the sounds — relationships unexpected even to them, no matter how much rehearsal time they spend preparing. ” Rob Haskins(2.10)
 

Another important feature of the number pieces was that they represented a rather late re-examination of harmony by John Cage.  Cage famously decried harmony: “I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.”. Instead he devoted his compositional efforts to focusing on sounds in and of themselves: “To Cage, listeners so conditioned would never hear sounds as sufficient in themselves–would not, in other words, be able to hear with the kind of open mind that he felt was essential(2.1). ” Though as Haskins points out his relationship with harmony was a bit more complex then is usually thought, it wasn’t until this final phase of his life that he really explored it. The time bracket notation allowed for a different approach to harmony one that was not a “device to make music impressive, loud and big” but instead  “means that there are several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.” The flexibility of the time brackets, which themselves were create via chance operations meant that the piece varied in performance and these sounds “being noticed at the same time” were always subtly varied. The coincidence of sounds was indeterminate and thus the harmony wouldn’t fall into any recognizable patterns of development.

Two2 with its performer directed time scales also subverts traditional notions of harmony in the same ways: the coincidence of sounds are indeterminate and spaces  between sounds are disruptive. Structurally the piece was based on Renga, which was poetic style developed in China and refined in Japan(3). It is a collaborative form of poetry where each poet contributes a few lines following a proscribed structure. The initial three lines (hokku) became haiku, and follow that structure. The next poet then wrote two connecting lines (waki), following a 7-7 syllaibic structure. The third poet repeats the structure of the hokku and this continues unitl the desired length is written, often 36 stanzas (kasen renga).  In Japan there were many other rules surrounding content (as there is with haiku, which is almost always ignored in western attempts) which were obviously not a part of this piece. See the excellent Renga Wikipedia article for more on this poetic form.

“The essence of renga is in the idea of “change” (変化). Bashō described this as “newness (新み), and as “refraining from stepping back”. The fun is in the change, the new, the different, and the interesting verses of others.”(3)
 

Two2 follows the structure of Kaisen Renga, in that it has 36 five-measure sections (the three hokku lines plus the waki) each of which follows the syllabic constraints in number of musical events(2.9).  One of the primary aspects of Renga that the poets particularly enjoyed was the use of disparate elements in the poetic content, distinct sometimes dramatic change in subject between each of the hokku.  Cage captures some of this with interjections of dissonant seeming sounds an of course the disparities provided by the individual performers following their own time. 

The sounds are almost all soft, of a sedate and constant tempo but with these sudden, but never overly jarring, discontinuities. Maybe the occasional joining of chords will give a bit more volume or a couple of notes just out of step as if in a doubling.  This is perfect music to drift to sleep to – it won’t shock you into wakefulness but for those nights when sleep is far away it is constantly rewarding of your attention. The performance, beautifully captured on this recording, by Rob Haskins (who wrote the liner notes, which are essential reading) and Laurel Karlik Sheehan is impeccable. While no performance will ever be definitive due to the indeterminate nature of the piece, this performance is marvelous and an essential recording from this somewhat under-appreciated period of Cage’s compositions.

Cage’s number pieces, like the late work of Feldman, have an all enveloping almost dreamlike feel to them, yet they are filled with silence, dissonance, indeterminacy, unexpected harmonies and a diverse variety of sounds. It undermines all of the stereotypes of so called avant-garde music bringing all of Cages disruptive ideas to music of incredible richness and beauty. Those that dismiss Cage’s music as mere illustrations of his ideas have clearly not spent sufficient time with his later music, nor really understood his ideas.

Reference:

1) John Cage database
2) Rob Haskins,
The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2 Two2 liner notes
3) Renga at Wikipedia
4) Mode’s Two2 page
5)
  John Cage at Wikipedia
6) Number Pieces at Wikipedia