I barely listened to any music for a good half of this year and I also, in the interest in not having huge amount of unlistened to plastic objects littering my abode, tried to only buy things I knew I’d listen to a lot. I have to say that I did quite well in that regard thanks to various music blogs and Alastair Wilson’s top drawer Admirable Restraint radio programme. Thanks Alastair! Thus any sort of “best of” music list, even in the micro-domains that hold my interest, is even more useless than normal. But I found there to be quite a bit of captivating music – nearly everything I bought – this year and there is certainly some value in writing a bit about it. There won’t be many (maybe any) shockers here for those that trade in these realms – the usual suspects are all here – but I’ll try to make up for that with a few words on each. Not really reviews – you should buy them already! – and not really critical commentary either; perhaps it’s just rambling. Whatever it is, this is what I’ve got for you this year.
Whenever Keith releases a solo album on Erstwhile Records it tends to supplant the last one as the definitive statement in improvised music. The Room, ErstLive 007 and now September seem like a teleological continuum rendering the previous statement mute. But on revisiting these piece The Room retains it’s power, its place as the definitive declaration (at least until The Room Extended) of Rowe’s philosophy and music, even as it’s language feels increasingly arcane. The two Erstlives are more of piece utilizing the framing device of composed pieces from the classical tradition to which Rowe’s improvisation, radio grabs aids, abets and deconstructs. The previous of these two pieces is well explained by Keith him self in a post on the Erstwords blog as is the nature of this framing device:
The concept for my solo performance was only formed the night previous to the performance itself. Thinking about the forthcoming solo, I felt the need to somehow make clear “who I was”: what my background is, what are my concerns? Something about my interest, the music I love, the sounds that have influenced me, during the performance I came to realise these could be regarded as “Cultural Templates”. – Keith Rowe, EL007
In September of 2011 Jon Abbey (Erstwhile Records) put on the most ambitious to date of his Amplify festivals: AMPLIFY 2011: Stones – two weeks at The Stone in New York City followed up by several days at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. On September 11th, 2011, the ten year anniversary of al-Qaeda attacks on US power structures (more here if you are somehow unaware of this), the nights activities included this solo performance. Keith Rowe certainly had a burden of expectations placed upon him by his audience. A burden that he could choose to ignore as a British expat living in France, but one that he rose to embrace as a citizen of a world that has been transformed by the American lashing out in the aftermath of these attacks.
Of course we don’t have the benefit of a minute examination from Keith of September like we do for EL007 and certainly speculation on this piece likely reveals more of the speculator then of the musicians intentions – just compare the reception of EL007 that came out before Keith’s exegesis (for instance read my thoughts here: Amplify 2008: light – day 2 [though of course I had the benefit of being able to talk extensively with Keith at this concert]). I didn’t have the luxury of discussing this performance with Keith, but Brian Olewnick did and from his excellent review of this piece this note is particularly helpful:
For Rowe, the Dvorak Piano Quintet had come to embody certain ideas about memory, including nostalgia, loss and false memories. Knowing that he was scheduled to perform in New York, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it seemed an appropriate piece to utilize. – Brian Olewnick on September
Unlike EL007, September utilizes just the Dvorak piece as it’s framing device, but he works much more with extended radio grabs. These being from NYC on September 11th, 2011 create a similar aural zeitgeist as you would have found in 2001 but shifted by ten years of a pop and media media landscape that had been irrevocably transformed not just by the passage of time but by the events of that day and the aftermath. The pop music, much of which is even older than the ten year shift, can perhaps evoke in the listener the phrase “the banality of evil”, but is that not too a projection on the part of the listener? In many ways the whole enterprise is — memory, nostalgia, loss and false memories. I noted in my review of the concert eventually released as EL007 that Keith was playing with, complementing, even reinforcing the classical pieces he used as his framing device. With September the Dvorak is likewise not directly abused or deconstructed; the piece isn’t about the Dvorak. Instead it is held up in contrast, wistfully, as an exemplar of a world that never was, that can not be except in our imaginations and channeled into our art. And perhaps even there that world is lost to us. False memories of a world that never was, a world for which we feel such an intense loss and are nearly immobilized by our nostalgia.
My listening has been highly backloaded this year; I spent much of year on a cross country bicycle tour and when I returned to Washington State there was a lot to listen to. This set came out while I was on tour and was one of the first things I acquired upon my return. I never listen to headphones when I’m bicycling because apart from being patently unsafe it puts you at a remove from the environment and denies one a a true pleasure in my mind: listening to the sounds that you are immersed in. One who’s ears are open hears a lot and if there is one thing I’ve learned over my years of listening to experimental music is how to piece together disconnected sounds into an immersive experience. This ability has meant that my relationship with field recordings is somewhat complicated. I’ve worked with them myself for a decade now as detailed in this post on World Listening Day and I of course love many recordings that. I tend to feel that field recordings can make great material and in certain cases can stand on their own, but are often used lazily or as a type of cultural tourism.
Toshiyua Tsunoda has long been a favorite musician, one of the few who is able to release “pure” field recordings that are absolutely captivating. This skill is akin to photography in that a skillful photog can make a piece of art out of the same scene that your average shooter can not merely with camera placement, framing and working with the available light. A field recordist can control mic placement, when to start and when to stop the recording and some bare settings on their recorder. Both a photographer and a field recordist can apply effects, edits, overlays and the like upon a finished piece but it is then no longer “pure”. I for one don’t have much of a problem of this impure results, but it is a different thing, use the recordings as “material” as opposed to as a thing in and of itself. Michael Pisaro in his compositions often uses field recordings as material and also as an ‘environment’ in which his compositions take place (akin to the notion behind my “out of doors” series). The combination of these two musicians was something I was highly anticipating and I have to say I was not let down.
This set has been hard for me to write about, it has a presence and immediacy that just seems to exist. It is hard to talk in the same way that field recordings can be hard to talk about, but this is much more a piece of music. I haven’t seen much written about it, essays or statements from the artists and the reviews I’ve seen have seemed to share the difficulties that I have. Simply describing the sounds used, or guessing at them, talking about Pisaro’s contributions versus Tsunoda’s and all of that just seems of little merit. I was immediately captivated by this set and it immediately became my favorite thing I heard this year. As I began to catch up on other releases and acquired some new ones, nothing ever did displace this though the previous and the following releases joined it as my favorite music from this year. So really all I feel I can say about this, is that you need to hear it. It is absolutely engaging and interesting and challenging and musical. Perhaps my favorite thing from two artists of whom I like many, many things. I’ll have to think about that some – I do like so much from these two. But this is certainly the collaboratively project I’ve like the best from these two.
Morton FeldmanMusic for Piano and Strings volume 2 (Matchless Recordings) performed by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet
The first volume of the this three volume set from Matchless Recordings was a favorite release from last year and I fully expect volume three to make next years list. But volume two is certainly going to be my favorite of the three. I wrote at length in this post, For Morton Feldman, about my love of Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello and this particular recording of it. Simply having a recording of this piece, given at the pace it requires, from John Tilbury, my favorite interpreter of Feldman is enough to put this right at the top of this years favorites. I won’t write more of this particular piece – see the linked post if you want my thoughts and history with the piece.
Patterns in a Chromatic Field is the other piece on this DVD which is also given the best performance of this piece I’ve heard. Now my relationship with this piece is complicated. I’ve listened to it many times in two other versions. The first of these was performed by Charles Curtis (cello) and Aleck Karis (piano) released on Tzadik. Curtis is an excellent cello player and I think his work here is top drawer. This piece launches right into it with a frantic, sickly cello line as the piano plays big bass clusters. Shorter realizations of this piece find this initial cello part too frantic the piano part rushed. Now it is not supposed to be languid but even just a few extra minutes can let this breath and let that opening not dominate the piece.
I soon moved on the version of the piece released much earlier on hat[now]ART as performed by Rohan de Saram (cello) and Marianne Schroeder (piano) which at around 1’45” is the longest version I’ve heard of this piece. No one can accuse this performance of rushing the piece. I dearly love Rohan de Saram’s playing and if I had a dream version of this piece it was with him sawing the cello and John Tilbury tinkling the ivories. While this is a very cello forward piece the piano, as always is the case with Feldman, is vital and the performance demands that ineffable touch. As has been said by myself along with many others, Tilbury has that touch. While I think many are good at performing Feldman, and I’d place the pianists of both of these other performances in that category, few are are great at it. Tilbury is and his magnificent touch is on display here. Even those opening clusters you can hear him pressing down on the keys with a velocity that hovers at some point. There is somehow still a softness to it amidst the big sounds.
Feldman’s string pieces with piano always have an interesting relationship to the piano. From Piano and String Quartet which the piano only place arpeggios to Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello where the strings are like the effects on a prepared piano there is never the attempts at a merged soundworld. The Smith Quartet do an excellent job at all of the string parts and while one may think of Irwin Arditti or Rohan de Saram as string players you’d love to hear in conjunction with John Tilbury I can find no fault in the musicianship here. These three DVD-A sets, which allows these pieces to unfold uninterrupted at around an hour and half each are sure to be considered among the very best realizations of these pieces and absolutely essential for an understanding and appreciation of these great compositions.
I’ve long been a huge fan of Ullmann’s A Catalogue of Sounds (also on Edition RZ) and furthermore enjoyed a string quartet of his recorded by the Arditti’s. But another piece of his, voice, books and FIRE 3 (again on Edition RZ) I consider one of my biggest disappointments of all time. It was because of how much I loved A Catalogue of Sounds – a piece I’d place somewhere on my favorite pieces of all time list – and how much I didn’t care for it. So I really hesitated on picking up this set. This is set of three CDs and Edition RZ stuff is always expensive, so what with the disappointment of the last piece of his they put out it was hard to take the risk. But good notices came in from people whose opinions I respect, people who also love A Catalogue of Sounds, and ErstDist was selling it for a quite reasonable sum so I decided to take the chance.
“Loud music forgoes the subtleties of perceptible sound.” -Bernd Leukert, from the liner notes
Of course it turned out to be fantastic, probably another set tied for the top of the list. But I just haven’t had enough time to come to terms with all of the music herein to honestly make that clam. The music is much closer in to A Catalogue of Sounds, especially on discs 2 and 3 – low dynamics, tentative brittle scrapes and percussive bits even some beautiful voice tones on disc three – the first use of voice I’ve liked from Ullmann. Disc one is pretty different with two shorter pieces instead of the disc length pieces of the other two discs. It is (of course) still pretty low dynamics, but much more varied, with a few louder interjections. The three discs are chronological with disc 1 featuring pieces from 1989 to 1993, disc 2’s single piece written between 1997-99 and disc 3’s piece the most recent composed between 2004-2007.
“We hear better because we make an effort to hear better.” -Bernd Leukert, from the liner notes
I should say that this is a very handsome set. The black on white on black of the box with it’s (seemingly) cryptic lines and dashes is really a stunner. Inside it continues to impress with the best individual disc sleeves I’ve seen. Each disc is housed in a little booklet with a pocket for the disc, the ever inscribed with disc number the same fragmented letterset of the box cover (and the Edition RZ composer series in general) and the interior featuring an image from the score. The back contains the textural information – title, year, performers et al – each disc like an individual Edition RZ release. Really well done and by far the nicest traditional release I purchased these year.
“I can’t imagine any music upon which the shadow of a thousand years does not fall and which does not, in turn, itself cast shadows.” -Jacob Ullmann, from the liner notes
The set comes with very nice liner notes by Bernd Leukert which discuses much of the notions and material of each of these pieces as well as notions on Ullmanns goals and ideas. With the little amount of time I’ve had with the set I’m going to beg off on any further writing on it. Read these liner notes for better information than that I can provide at this moment. I’ll end by simply saying that I love the music on this set; I have listened to it a lot since getting it and it will need a lot more listens. Maybe I’ll try to write more about it at a latter date, but just thinking about trying to write something for A Catalogue of Sounds, which I’ve been listening to for half a decade I suspect I’ll never really know what to say. Perhaps that says enough.
In the spring of 2010 I had the good fortune to be able spend four days in Boston attending the Christian Wolff at NEC events. Keith Rowe was there to perform several pieces and among these was a duo improvisation with Christian Wolff. This was a pretty short (though wonderful, read about it here) performance, 10-15 minutes and thus at the AMPLIFY 2001 their duo was able to be billed as their “first full length” performance. This CD of course is the document of that performance; perhaps the performance I was most unhappy to have missed in 2012. At the 2010 meeting I had truly wished for the performance to go on at length but it seemed that Wolff tends to prefer a shorter statement. In the performance of Edges, along with Rowe and NEC students, which is a graphic piece where you move through the material at your own discretion he was among the first, if not the first, to do so. So it is interesting to hear him improvising, in a situation with very little cover, for around 40 minutes.
Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff at NEC
Christian of course played with AMM during their most innovative and unruly period, concerts that could go on for two or more hours, so I really never doubted that he would rise to the challenge. He operates here similarly to his performance of Edges (which was indeed written with AMM in mind) moving through various gestures and simply allowing more space, more deliberation in them. Keith is operating in his recent, more more pared down mode – which I feel is the the only time in his long career that he has bent toward the prevailing aesthetic as opposed to pioneering it. Of course one could argue that he’d pioneered it with AMM back in the 60s and it is simply a return to the form for him. And yet it is the prevailing aesthetic in the circles in which he is best known and he had not moved to embrace it until pressed to. However once Keith moved in this direction I think he really showed how it should be done. That is he lets the silences be silences whereas I think most ‘silencers’ push the silence around (to paraphrase old Morty). The spaciousness and deliberation of both of the performers here works quite well, as does Christian seemingly moving through his gestures Edges style. Keith very slowly, at a pretty low volume, works with a few textures with again much space between them. The more upfront gestures seem to mostly come from Christian, again evoking Edges (one of the symbols is to make a loud noise). In fact considering Keith’s excellent and very subdued version of Edges on the excellent Christian Wolff double CD on Edition RZ from last year, this really could just be an unannounced duo performance of the piece. Thus you end up with a piece similar to the late Cage Number Pieces in which the events elide due to individual variations of choosing spaces. A wonderfully taught piece, with sounds from the Stone and the City nearly on equal footing with the performers own. Without a doubt the most engaging bit of duo improv (a diminishing genre in these circles) I heard this year.
This year was the John Cage Centenary and there was many great Cage releases and re-issues put out this year. Too many for me to keep track of or acquire all of (I really regret not hearing the four CD set of Etudes Australes performed by Sabine Liebner for instance) but good to see both in recordings and concerts Cage’s legacy seriously tackled. Among the most interesting of all the releases is this historical document of John Cage and David Tudor in Japan. The impact of their tour was described as John Cage Shock which was used as the title for this three CD set.
In this tour Cage championed new music beyond his own with pieces from Christian Wolff and Karlheinz Stockhausen being performed along with pieces from Japanese composers Toru Takemitsu and Toshi Ichiyangai. What is most interesting to me about this set is that it documents further use of David Tudor’s Amplified Piano that was so stunning on his realization of Variations II. Volume 1 of this set includes another version of that piece, shorter and not quite as powerful but more crunchy and even more noisy at times – A nice addition to the version available on Edition RZ.. This colume also includes a great version of Takemitsu’s Corona for Pianists and a Wolff’s Duo for Pianist & Violinst. All three of this pieces are excellent and this is I think easily the most essential disc in the set.
The amplified piano can also be heard on volume 2 in the realization of Cage’s 26’55.988″ for 2 Pianists & a String Player. Alas this performance is marred in my opinion by the interjections of Yoko Ono (whom I can like just fine in other contexts). As the other piece on volume 2 is Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X which is a piece I for one don’t care much for, I find volume 2 to only be of historical interest. The goods return with volume 3 which opens with a great, noisy realization from Cage of his 0’00”. Music for Piano #7 from Ichiyangi, a graphic score that Tudor interpreted with sudden and spaced out interjections on the piano while various electronic and concrete sounds are projected. Interesting to hear with some great sounds but not a piece I’m going to play a lot. The disc also includes the rather indifferent and unmemorable Composition II for 2 Pianos composed by Micheal von Biel.
Musically the whole set is pretty mixed. I would have been satisfied with Variations II,0’00”, the Takemitsu and the Wolff which could have fit on a single disc. But the set is quite nice with folde out liner notes in English and Japanese each with a nice sized picture or two on them. The set I bought also came with three postcard size photographs of Cage and Tudor from the tour. The document of the performances that created Cage Shock in Japan is certainly of a lot of interest for Cage enthusiasts along with those interested in 20th Century composition and the development of Live Electronics. While I may not connect with every piece I certainly value this entire set.
Morton FeldmanCrippled Symmetry: at June in Buffalo (Frozen Reeds) performed by the Feldman Soloists: Eberhard Blum, Nils Vigeland, and Jan Williams
While this may have been John Cage’s centenary year, his fellow NY School composer Morton Feldman received a number of fantastic releases this year as well. Few were better than this historical document of the Feldman Soloists – a group of musicians who performed Feldman’s work during his lifetime – performing Crippled Symmetry in Buffalo NY in June of 1983.
This turned out to be one of the best performances that we had ever given together. The rare and indescribable “magic moment” of occasion and ambience seems to have inspired us.” -Eberhard Blum writing on this performance.
I often turn to Morton Feldman to listen to as I fall asleep. I’ve long been burdened by insomnia and putting on music as I go to bed often leads to me listening to the entire thing before eventually falling into slumber. Some nights though I fall asleep relatively quickly and thus I like music that is both soft and gentle but that is worth one’s attention. Feldman has long been in that category for me and thus he is often on my night stereo. This set has gotten a huge amount of play in that regard and thus I’ve listened to this as much as anything this year. Of course it has also been played numerous times without the hope for sleep being involved and it is just an absolute stunner. I have two other versions of this piece including one by this very same ensemble released on Hat. I’ve played these other versions many times over the years, but the energy and vitality of this live performance is just unmatched.
Compilations are almost always mixed affairs and this is no exception. A USB memory stick with ten uncompressed recordings from people and groups who performed at or otherwise involved with the Dotolim venue in Seoul South Korea. The memory stick itself is quite cute: a little plastic square with plain text of the title and different colored rubber covers on the USB jack. Definitely my favorite bit of packaging from this year. Once you plug it into your computer you can run in your web browser and html page that serves as index and allows you to play the individual audio and the one video file. Of course one can just as easily copy the files over to your computer and play them with the device of your choice which was the method I chose.
The set features five solos from Joe Foster, Kevin Parks, Jason Kahn, Tetuzi Akiyama and Ryu Hankil’s solos. I really dug those from Foster, Parks, Kahn and Hankil but found the Akiyama rather short and slight. There are noisier pieces from Astronoise and Transistorhead that didn’t do much for me at all, but of course your mileage may vary there. But to me the highlight of the set was the quartet of Hong Chulki, Choi Joonyong, Joe Foster & Jin Santa and the duo of Olaf Hochherz & Jamie Drouin of whom I was previously only minimally familiar The quartet with its fluttery metallic sounds, rotated metal, crumpled amplifications and spaciousness feels like a lot of familiar ideas pushed one step beyond flirting with a structureless structure and is just completely riveting. The Drouin and Hochherz almost sounds like a duo of Sachiko M & Sachiko M with the pure tone and the fluttery side of her work playing together along with a sprinkling of the contact mic she sometimes deploys. Yet the context and the structure of this piece is all it’s own and there are sounds that Sachiko doesn’t try for. Thus it is a rare exploration into that soundworld and one I found completely captivating.
My personal copy of the set
In a period where composition seems to be leading the way, at least capturing the bulk of the attention, improvisation is alive and strong in Korea. There is a lot of risk in the work coming from there and it often doesn’t entirely succeed. But the risk is necessary and the payoff is high. If one’s attention isn’t solely on composed work at this juncture you can do no better than to tune your ears to the small but thriving scene in Korea.
The series of pieces named fields have ears represent my attempts to come to compositional terms with different notions of “fields”: how we hear them, how they might hear themselves, and what there is to hear.
– Michael Pisaro, from the aforementioned blog post.
I happened to be at the August 2011 performance of the the piece for guitar and sine waves in Seattle, (and met Michael in person for the first time as well) which I quite enjoyed and is interesting to contemplate in relation to this later version of the piece, in which the Seattle performance is incorporated. After that performance I picked up the realizations of the related pieces released on Another Timbre, which records several different iterations of the piece from several different ensembles. This I have to say is also a quite enjoyable disc and that I really liked the different realizations herein. These pieces have a lot more in common with the live performance I witnessed in their spare structure and delicacy which makes this disc an ideal companion for this new recording and along with the textual material allows the listener to really engage with this piece and it’s history.
One thing I’ve found is that is a lot of the Wandelweiser and related musics work far better in live performance than recorded. That is the music seems to be activated by their surroundings and since they often use space and silence these surroundings are oft given quite a prominence of place. I think that Pisaro has been the most successful of these related groups of musicians at translating his pieces to the recorded medium primarily because, I suspect, he takes the medium in account. That is the pieces released are often more layered, incorporate field recordings or specially take the limitations and differences of playing back a piece into account. Whereas a live recording of a performance such as the one I experienced in Seattle might seem slight or overly thin this really is a limitation of open air recording versus the listening experience. The way that we shift our focus from all the sounds that surround us and the effects of the space from two ears separated by the skull is quite different from what can be recorded. The listener constructs the piece as much as the muscian and the environment. It is this that I think is the difference between the versions of fields have ears: in the realization of (6) for the Gravity Wave disc Pisaro layered together different performances and recordings of various versions of the piece and added some site specific field recordings. This takes advantage of that effect, that John Cage understood so well with all of his simultaneous performances, happenings and “musicircuses”, of the layered event. The brain automatically fits sounds (and images too – watch any video the sound off and the music of your choice playing and note out it “syncs” up) together and creates it’s own context. For is this not how we experience sound all the time in nature?
So what began as something like a well-regulated garden became a space filled with all kinds of material, now resembling a rather unruly city park.” -Michael Pisaro, from the fields have ears (6) liner notes.
John CageSonatas & Interludes, James Tenney,Piano (hat[now]ART)
The John Cage piece that even those who don’t like John Cage enjoy. This relatively early (1946-48) piece, one of the last before Cage had fully embraced chance operations, is one of the pinnacle of Cage’s prepared piano works. This piece listened to in it’s entirety, develops as it goes along with a gentle tension and release and a wonderful percussive aspect that more fully explores the prepared piano than any other of Cage’s pieces to utilize the instrument. This is the most recorded of Cage’s pieces and is widely available from the original performance by Maro Ajemian to my personal favorite by John Tilbury. With so many versions out there one may wonder why it is this one is essential to add to one’s collection. The answer is that James Tenney, a fellow composer in the experimentalist tradition, adds much to one’s appreciation and understanding of this piece with his realization. Tenney heard Cage himself performing this piece at the age of 16 and that turned his head enough that he pursued music along with science and engineering. These dual interests informed Tenney’s experimentalism – his scores often worked with acoustical properties and explored mathematical functions. Furthermore he performed the Sonatas & Interludes throughout his life and this familiarity, expertise and love of the piece combined with his engineers precision in the preparations lead to a faithful yet unique realization. The preparations, which Cage detailed in his typically precise yet idiosyncratic way (for instance he uses measurements for the placement of the preparations that are based on a specific piano instead of being scale independent), were hand selected by Tenney based on he thought it should sound. So while he followed Cage’s instructions his primary driver was the sound. His performance was informed by his compositional interests in sound and relationships of sound and thus he performed the pieces a bit more brusquely than is typical. Listening to this with an ear toward the interactions of the sounds as opposed to the melodic and rhythmic is truly rewarding. While I may turn to the Tilbury two out of three times this version will be that other play. Beyond the historical interest of the Maro Aiemian recording these two recordings of the piece will suffice.
These six records are all as different as can be and are all ones I enjoyed quite a bit. The Kinoshita/Murayama (which I especially love the cover) I perhaps received too recently to really fully absorb. While I think that Kinoshita’s work is marvelous here I found that Murayama, while in the main adding very interesting and compatible sounds sometimes lets loose with sounds from his drums that pull me out. Too on the nose as it were. Overall solid and worth hearing, but just shy of greatness I feel.
Beuger has often left me cold and while I have enjoyed several of his compositions, it is this one that I feel I have truly connected with. There is a lot more diversity to the sound and dynamics here and a playfulness – perhaps brought by the performers – that I’ve found lacking in his work. This disc is definitely recommended for those that may have shared my skepticism, but also for those who feel like I do that Wandelweiser stuff is best live and in recordings that capture that aspect.
Neumann and Jones put out the only other outstanding duo improv I heard this year. Admittedly I didn’t seek out everything and thus you can take that for what it’s worth, but I heard enough clips and read enough reviews that I only bought things that I felt would appeal. And this one surely did. I’ve enjoyed both of these musicians work for years and I was really excited to hear this recording. I was a little disconcerted by reports of singing and text recitation which is often overly affected and earnest in experimental contexts but this small bit of that here works effectively. Lafkas’ large ensemble piece is a sprawling work that drones and chatters but always seems well considered. Another disc I got too late to absorb fully but one I’ll definitely return to many times.
At the end of my cross country bicycle tour my thoughts increasingly turned to the music of Codiene, the “slow core” band from the early 90s that were a mainstay of my later college years. On arriving in Bar Harbor I found out that they put out a set including their three albums along with three CDs of unreleased material (and also toured briefly). Quelle Coincidence! Owning the originally albums I didn’t feel much need to buy the whole set (plus I no longer have a turntable) but I was delighted to find I could purchase the unreleased material from iTunes. And so I did. These tracks, plus the original albums once I was back home, got many, many plays.
It’s been a great year for the New York School with absolutely vital discs featuring John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff released. Happily Earle Brown wasn’t neglected either with Wergo putting out this top notch set performed by my second favorite pianist Sabine Liebner. This set has piano versions of all of the expected “hits” plus many more, much more obscure pieces. All of these absolutely beautifully and creatively rendered by Lieber. Brown’s graphic and open works demand this creativity and likewise require many versions to get any sort of handle upon. Thus this is a most welcome addition to my collection of Brown realizations.
November 2010 the final release of Eleven Clouds, …and yet, was made available. As previously noted each of these releases was dedicated to various artists, musicians, composers &c. Each of these was a complex web suspended between several overarching themes and ideas, trying to be true to them all while staying true to itself. Let me once again quote from the unpublished essay that was written to accompany Eleven Clouds:
The Eleven Clouds project is a number of disparate ideas wrapped around the idea of creating a physical object, that contains data in the form of music, every month for year. There are ideas being explored that encompasses the entire project but also ideas that drive each individual release. The overarching ideas may be the primary idea in a given release or may not be instrumental to it at all. Additionally there are references, homages and nods toward a number of artists in plastic as well as musical arts. Finally considering that one of the overarching ideas has to do with interpretation there are some aspects that inherently must be left up to observers.
By November there had been ten releases encompassing over 8 hours of music and there was a certain level of exhaustion. Making a complete CD with often quite elaborate packaging month in and month out had taken its toll. For me the music of Morton Feldman is the music of exhaustion. It is the music I put on when I’m too tired to sleep and let its slowly iterating stasis fully envelope me. The principle members of the New York School have all been a major influence on me and they were all paid tribute, in greater or lesser form, throughout the series. By November there had yet to be one for Morton Feldman, though of course I’d always intended there to be and now at this point of weariness seemed like the time to do it.
John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet
Music for Piano and Strings by Morton Feldman vol. 2 (Matchless)
This year has seen a number of excellent recordings of Morton Feldman’s music. The incredible recording of Crippled Symmetry by the Feldman Soloists (Eberhard Blum, Nils Vigeland, and Jan Williams) on the Finnish Frozen Reeds label. A compendium of the the early, mostly indeterminate pieces, Early Works for Piano performed by the always stunning Sabine Liebner on the Wergo Label. The second volume of Music for Piano and Strings from my favorite pianist John Tilbury accompanied by the excellent Smith Quartet on the Matchless label. Re-Releases of some of the classic recordings by the Ives Ensemble on hatHut. And of course plenty of releases that I have yet to hear.
In 2010 I was living in a small house in Kirkland WA that was right in front of an abandoned railway. On Sunday afternoons I would often walk for an hour or two one way or another along these tracks. Generally I’d listen to some recordings as I walked along usually softer stuff that I could play low enough so that ambient sounds would mix in. I found myself playing the Ives Ensemble recording of Morton Feldman’s Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello over and over again in these walks. For me, while I love Feldman’s music across pretty much all times and all instrumentation, it is his pieces for piano that particularly move me. Especially the longer more etherial later pieces both solo and in the various chamber ensembles. Of these chamber pieces I’ve come to love Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello the most. Unlike say Piano and String Quartet, the piano here leads and the the string section, deemphasized without the second violin, seems to comment on the piano pieces. The piano begins more discordant sound, especially with the inputs of the strings, almost prepared. After some time it settles down into this pattern, in typical late Feldman style, that is fully explored, mutated, iterated upon. This pattern, melody, tinged with melancholy, even a sense of weariness eventually becomes broken by time before hesitantly completing itself as the strings prickle and poke at it. On these long introspective walks and many times as I was wearily trying to sleep this piece has been my companion. The new recording by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet which is a little more leisurely at around 90 minutes is particularly effective in my mind. Tilbury’s unparalleled touch for Feldman’s music and the Smith Quartets meticulous attention to Feldman’s require (slow and low) has created the best recording of the three that I’ve heard of this piece.
Another of the overarching themes of the Eleven Clouds project was what I refer to as Post-Tudor Live Electronics. Much of what I talk about w/r/t The Network Instrument is a way to codify these thoughts. A full discussion of the topic is beyond the scope of this post but there is one aspect that is apropos. David Tudor’s live electronics was typically wild, flirting on the edge of chaos. The early indeterminate, graph pieces of Morton Feldman would seem to be the closest his pieces hued to what Tudor was doing with his electronics (no surprise then that Tudor remains the most impressive interpreter of those early Feldman pieces). But could one’s live elections, in the Post-Tudor era, be more like Late Feldman – soft, slow, floating and enveloping. For the final piece in the Eleven Clouds sequence, I wanted to explore that, to express the weariness, the melancholy of the end of this near year long project.
...and yet booklet interior scan
Of course there was always more then one (or two, or many) thing going on with an Eleven Clouds release and this one was no exception. The physical release itself was a roughly DVD size cardstock booklet inside a vinyl pocket. The front of this can be seen two pictures up and the interior directly above this ‘graph (I should note the above scan doesn’t capture the color well at all which is more of a light, blue-grey). The “disc” that came with this was a clear plastic CD sized disc that comes with a stack of blank CD-Rs. Along with this was a postcard that had the Hollow Earth Recordings logo on one side and a QR Code on the other (see image to the left). These “cds”, of which eleven were made, were sent out to anyone who asked. The promotional posts on i hate music and on this blog showed pictures of the recording session as an additional hint.
QR Codes hadn’t quite hit the level of ubiquitousness (saturation even) that they have now in which probably everyone would know to scan it and see what it encoded. What it encoded (if you haven’t already reflexively scanned it) was an URL to this page: …and yet. This page contains lossless downloads of the music recorded for this project. Watching my web statistics I only saw one person download it during the time of the project. I posted the QR code to this blog and I’ve sent that link to a couple of other people but this is the first public release of these recordings.
...and yet recording session
This piece is an ~95 minute piece on a Network Instrument where I attempt to create something like PPiano, Violin, Viola and Cello. This was the single longest piece in the Eleven Clouds project (though Aeolian Electrics wasn’t far off at nearly 80 minutes). The length of course was essential to capturing that Feldman feel; allowing it to slowly evolving over time. It is meant to be played softly as Feldman would insist for his pieces and it was indeed performed at a low volume. The setup and the patch are the “score” for this piece and it was performed and recorded in one continuous session. Overall I think it works and captures what I was trying to go for. Like a lot of the longer Feldman pieces there are moments that seem jarring and discordant but they are resolved (as it were) long minutes later. Give it a listen for yourself and see how you think it works out. Whatever the verdict, this one’s for you Morty.
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
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 2009 Event at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina SofÃa, 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.
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.
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.
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.
John Cage died in 1992 and David Tudor in 1994. Cage was of course the music director of the Cunningham Company for forty years and a prolific composer of which many of his works were created or repurposed for specific dances, 80 of them according to the liner notes(1). This set features 9 pieces by Cage which I think demonstrates pretty clearly how incomplete it really is for covering the music used by the dance company. Of course it also demonstrates how much of Cages music, so derided for so long, is now available on recordings as they tended to avoid available pieces. Appropriately enough the set includes more pieces composed by John Cage than any other composers, though at 9 pieces it is far from the 80 he composed for the company. David Tudor had been the primary performer in the company from its beginnings in 1952 and took over as music director after John Cage. His tenure was short as in 1996 he suffered a series of strokes shortly followed his death, after which Takehisa Kosugi took over as music director until Merce Cunninghams death in 2009. Tudor of course also being a composer/performer of live electronics and created many pieces, the second most for the company. Likewise he is next most represented in this set with 7 pieces, but if you include him as performer he is involved in probably 75% of the music.
This two disc set covers pieces composed between 1989 and 1997 during which time both Cage and Tudor passed away. Cage had primarily been working on his number pieces during the last years of his life, many of which were used as the accompaniment for Cunninghams dances. This set contains two of them as well as Sculpture Musicalis which while not a time bracket piece is a prime example of the instruction based pieces he was also doing during this time. Cunningham would continue to use Cage’s music after his death which considering how much Cage composed and Cunningham having disconnected music and dance is not surprising. Tudor’s compositions were inimically tied with his electronics setup and his own virtuosity as a performer and after his death at least some of the pieces would be played back from recordings as opposed to performed live. While he did some work outside of the company it was usually also in collaboration with other artists so none of his pieces were used for dances after his final pieces he made specifically for the company.
2008 Performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean in a quarry.
Ocean, a piece that Cage was working on when he died that was completed (or at least realized) by Andrew Culver, which also had an electronic part composed by Tudor and is as far as I know not available is strangely absent from the set. A multimedia extravaganza along with the dance, perhaps it is forthcoming in a video format that would better serve it (this short documentary on YouTube about a staging of Ocean is worth checking out). Tudor’s composition required that “Each performer uses different sound materials, derived from peripheral “ocean” sources: sea mammals, Arctic ice, fish, telemetry and sonar, ship noises.”(9) which were then electronically and electro-acoustically altered. He only worked on one other piece after this, which was a multimedia collaboration with Sophia Ogielska presenting his working process utilizing his earlier piece Toneburst. So this would be about the final Cage and Tudor piece which it seems like it’d be a fitting piece for this overview but for whatever reason is absent.
Disc Seven (77′ 22″)
In my initial overview of this set I described the bulk of the discs as mixed, with perhaps three of the discs being pretty solid in and of themselves (1, 2 and 5). Disc seven is a fairly good example of this in that four of its five tracks are quite good (great even) but the initial Kosugi track, at over 20 minutes being one of the more unbearable of the set. However the final two Tudor compositions in the set and two of the last four Cage pieces in the set make for an overall rewarding disc once you skip that initial track.
Merce Cunningham Cargo X (1989)
1) Takehisa Kosugi (b. 1938) Spectra (1989) 20:29
Dance: Cargo X (1989)
Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics, percussion with contact mics, voice; David Tudor, Michael Pugliese, live electronics, percussion with contact mics
Recorded July 26, 1989, Cannes
“One pleasure inherent in the dances of Merce Cunningham is the way they allow the viewer to enter and roam within them. The specifics are clear in “Cargo X,” a 1989 piece set to music by Takehisa Kosugi and performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Thursday night. The set, designed by Dove Bradshaw, consists of a high ladder and sprigs of rather overblown and brightly colored flowers. There are seven performers. They are dressed in unitards whose colors are as intense as those that drench the backdrop behind them. And Mr. Cunningham has given the dancers rooted movement, quick footwork by bodies pushing down in resilient plies, for instance, in relatively circumscribed individual spaces.
But Mr. Kosugi’s thundering electronic score sounds at times like a formidable old auntie singing in the shower. The ladder defines the stage landscape. And the dancers, darting out across the stage or ranged about that odd, familiar utilitarian object, push down into the floor as strikingly as the ladder rises from it.” – Jennifer Dunning, NY Times March 21st, 1994
Lots of delay and echo, networks of it. White noise percussive sounds probably from Pugliese. Terrible, absolutely abysmal moaning/singing from Kosugi, probably the most unbearable of his vocal pieces on this set. At a point this echo-y percussive electronics goes away for a bit and electronics more akin to Tudor – more burbly, less fixed come in. Then there is a mix of the two, Pugliese and Tudor in their respective modes. Kosugi drops out now and again but always comes back with the horrific vocalizations. Really a disappointment for me, this and nearly all of the other Kosugi pieces where he does this. There is a bit later on where it sounds like the washes of electronics are trying to obliterate the voice. But also some bits of just effected voice which are particularly bad.
2) John Cage (1912-1992) Sculptures Musicales (1989) [excerpt] 12:14
Dance: Inventions (1989)
Takehisa Kosugi, David Tudor, Michael Pugliese, various acoustic and electronic constant sounds
Recorded June 23, 1991, Zurich
“Sounds lasting and leaving from different points and forming a sounding sculpture which lasts….”
(Sculptures Musicales entry at johncage.info)
Sculptures Musicales is a reference to a note that Marcel Duchamp included in the Green Box. where he refers to the Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even as a musical sculpture. Cage took that and create this text based score which calls for large amounts of silence. This realization is another welcome piece on this set and another one that one would appreciate a complete version. Various electronic sounds from drill like, to watery, to low ringing hums and so on interspersed with variable long silences. A great piece alas all too short here. There have been numerous other recordings of the piece of varying quality; I can recommend the version released on OgreOgress.
3) David Tudor (1926-1996) Virtual Focus (1990) [excerpt] 15:15
Dance: Polarity (1990)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded October 6, 1990, Paris
Virtual Focus is an interesting piece; one that sounds quite different from the bulk of Tudor’s work and one of the pieces I was most intersted in hearing in this set. The excellent Canadian music magazine Musicworks put out a series of issues on David Tudor after his death and one of these included an article by Matt Rogalsky on this piece as well as audio excerpts of the piece performed by both Tudor and himself. The extremly short Tudor extract (3’3″) is from the same performance as this one which Rogalsky describes thusly:
“I looked through the dubs I had made of Cunningham performances, and found one of Tudor performing the piece in mid-October 1990, in Paris. It is a relatively sedate performance, slow and textural, with percussive material entering only towards the end of if it’s twenty-six minutes.” – Matt Rogalsky(6, p.23)
For anyone interested in the music of David Tudor this article is extremely interesting. Rogalsky was able to work with Tudor a bit toward the end of his life as well as being in charge of preparing many of his devices and such for archiving. He has thus had access to much of the essential material and the essential people. In this article he points out that Tudor and his acolytes were rather secretive about process and documentation and rather enjoyed cultivating an air of mystery. That combined with the fact that Tudor made, modified or subverted much of the electronics he used, not to mention that he was such a virtuoso perform makes recreating his pieces quite difficult.
Virtual Focus it turns out was made as an art installation with Tudor’s frequent collaborator the sculpture Jackie Matisse-Monnier. The full table of electronics along with the corresponding mobile were left in near pristine condition in a pair of art collectors hands. It is “activated” by a dual cassette deck (Tudor often used pre-recorded material in conjunction with the live electronics as there are sounds that can’t be recreated on stage) which was missing the essential tapes. Rogalsky was able to check out this table, figure out how it works and then in the Tudor archives find a likely candidate for the cassette tapes for it. He then performed and recorded with it which makes up the much longer Virtual Focus piece on the Musicworks 73 CD. Do check out the (quite short) video link above of Matt Rogalsky recreating the piece, as you can see part of what makes it so unique (another short video, from what looks like an opening id here).
“One of the sonar units provides high-frequency output, the other low. The radar units make low, flatulent noises. Another sound source is a cheap electronic drum-pad with contact microphones plugged into its trigger input. The microphone is mounted on a panel of Monnier’s sculpture in order to be triggered by the panel’s collisions as it turns in the air”
– Matt Rogalsky(6, p.23)
The use of sonar and radar in this piece is what creates its characteristic popping, percussive sound. The music in this recording begins right off with squiggly high tones and a very low nearly subsonic scrunching in the background that occasional rises out. The oscillator towns become more ringing as it develops and the scrunching sound more defined less subsonic and begins to vacillate in the soundfield. Some really nice crackly bits come up occasionally, but the piece is mostly whispery filtered oscillator sound moved around the sounded along with that lower scrunchy sound.
A great piece, one of the most interesting of the “new” Tudor pieces in this set, it is also one of the pieces of Tudors that I think shows how forward thinking he continued to be. His use of the radar, sonar and contact microphones is very similar to work that electronic improvisors would be doing a decade later. The tapes used in this piece apparently were recordings of contact microphones on kite strings – not too far from the contact mics on fences and wires that we’d hear from Alan Lamb and Jeph Jerman in the next two decades. One can easily imagine this already fairly spare piece (especially for Tudor), becoming increasingly more spare – Tudor after all did perform Cage pieces with quite long silences — and with its focus on more limited material we’d have much of the bases covered for the live electronics of the last decade.
Merce Cunningham Beach Birds (1991)
4) John CageFour3 (1991) [excerpt] 15:24
Dance: Beach Birds (1991)
Takehisa Kosugi, rainsticks, oscillator; David Tudor, piano, rainsticks; Michael Pugliese, piano, rainsticks; John D.S. Adams, rainsticks
Recorded June 26, 1992, McGill Recording Studios, Montreal (studio recording)
Wandering Satie like piano and then very slow rainsticks. Good use of space in this piece, it sometimes becomes completely silent, but much of the time it is simply at very low density with just a few grains of sand rustling through the rainstick. The second piano seems much further away in space and places even sparser. Occasionally as the piece goes on there are denser rainstick sections though never full on new age levels. When the oscillator comes in it is very Sachiko M – not super high volume, not too super high pitched and with very deliberate rainsticks has a sound that wouldn’t be out of place in say a Sachiko/Meehan collaboration. This excerpt concludes with what sounds like a quote of Satie’s Vexations (and is it turns out).
5) David TudorNeural Network Plus (1992) [excerpt] 13:28
Dance: Enter (1992)
David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics
Recorded June 5, 1994, Lisbon, Portugal
“The concept for the neural-network synthesizer grew out of a collaborative effort that began in 1989 at Berkeley where David was performing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I listened from the front row as David moved among interconnected electronic devices that filled two tables. He created a stream of remarkable sounds, overlaid them, filtered them, and fed them back upon themselves until the stream became a river. His attention moved from device to device, tasting and adjusting the mixture of sound like a chef composing a fine sauce of the most aromatic ingredients. I was spellbound. At the intermission I proposed to him that we create a computer system capable of enveloping and integrating the sounds of his performances.” “” Forrest Warthman, from the Neural Synthesis liner notes
The Neural Network pieces deserve their own post, especially considering my own study of neural networks, and their relationship to my own Network Instrumenttheory. Perhaps someday I’ll do so, but for now this is another welcome entry in the avalable recordings of this piece, espeically as the Neural Network Plus variant has not had a specific release. These two pieces which both utilized the Neural Network Synthesizer and were both based off the same “score” differed in that Neural Network Plus was a duo piece with Takeshisa Kosugi joining in on Live Electronics. The documentation points toward the complexity and inherent instability of the Neural Network Synthesis which perhaps was unwieldy in live performance and having another pair of hands to work on the surrounding electronics was a necessity.
The sound of the duo is not too far from the available Neural Synthesis recordings though this particular instance is a fairly different animal from those released on Lovely and Ear-Rational beyond just the solo versus duo performance. Similar to Phonemes, Tudor chose to have recordings of the piece be fairly heavily manipulated in order to attempt to capture fundamental aspects of its live performance which utilized 16 channels. This recording however is simply a stereo recording of a specific performance of the piece and thus presents a more unaltered, if necessarily inaccurate picture of the piece. Along with the typical squeaking and feedback oscillators of the Neural Network Synthesizer there are big roars in this piece that could be from the tape. Juddering tones, metallic skronks and chittering feedback along with static crunches and grinding bleats all arise during the course of the piece.
It is really nice to have this, a good compliment to the other Neural Network Synthesizer recordings and a really welcome part of this set.. This recording from 1994 has to be among the final Tudor performances and is a strong one.
Disc Eight ( 67’20”)
Disc Eight is decidedly mixed, with its rather banal John King piece (though it has some good playing from Tudor in it), classic drone pieces from Stuart Dempster and Takehisa Kosugi, a pretty terrible realization of an otherwise great Cage number piece and finishing off with the final Wolff piece of the set. Nothing holds this disc together at all barring the continuity of the performers and of course Cunningham continuing to work with them. This disc concludes the nearly constant presence of David Tudor as performer of music for the company as well as his short tenure as music director. Appropriately enough the solo Kosugi piece from 1997 would mark the beginning of his taking on of this role.
Merce Cunningham CRWDSPCR (1993) 2007 revival
1) John King (b. 1953) blues ’99 (1993) [excerpt] 19:10
Dance: CRWDSPCR (1993)
John King, pre-recorded dobro guitar, live electronics; David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded February 26, 1994, Madison, Wisconsin
Metallic and delayed sounds from the dobro run through the electronics and Tudors sounds coming in and out. A little over reliance on delay but some good popping percussive sounds from Tudor. Becomes really fast, with high velocity smeared out sounds whipping across the stereo space. Overall this piece doesn’t do much for me and I can’t find much else to say about it.
The Cistern Chapel at Fort Warden in Port Townsend WA
2) Stuart Dempster (b. 1936) Underground Overlays (1995) [excerpt] 15:22
Dance: Ground Level Overlay (1995)
Stuart Dempster, garden hose, conch; Chad Kirby, conch; Takehisa Kosugi, conch
Recorded May 2, 1996, Seattle, Washington
“Ground Level Overlay (1995) featured music by Stuart Dempster, in which “10 trombone players descended 14 feet into the 186-foot-diameter cistern and spread out around the circumference”. A huge textile sculpture by Leonardo Drew looked like hanging entrails upstage, and a cast of fourteen dancers began the barrage of walking patterns, quick arm gestures, lunges, and tilts. This was a “DanceForms” dance, and it looked it. The stage seemed at times like an aquarium at meal-time, with all the fish darting, circling, stirring up the water. Cunningham’s movement has often been jerky and mechanical-looking, but what made this piece look computer-generated was the seemingly impossible order of events on the dancers’ bodies, and their resulting struggle to accomplish the task. Here, human bodies never exchange weight in any gradual way, everything stops and goes; it’s all a sequence of 0’s and 1’s.” – CultureVulture.net review
Overapping overtones from hose, and multiple conchs. Great great piece, one of the all time drone classics. Well worth hearing the full version on Stuart Dempster’s Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel (New Albion). Drone music is deceptively easy to make, that is to say one can make passable drone music with very little effort. But it never has an depth and one tires of it quickly. To really make lasting drone music you have to connect with some essential slow movement at the heart of things, to capture something about the very essence of being alive: long slow rhythms such as waves rolling in, pulses whose timings may be the changing of the seasons – deep connections that we inherently connect to. This piece is one of those that makes those connections and endures. The Cistern Chapel itself is an interesting footnote: “The reverberation length is so long (approximately 45 seconds) inside the 186-foot diameter cistern at Fort Worden, about 70 miles northwest of Seattle, that the composer describes the feeling as “this is where you have been forever and will always be forever”.” (from “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s allmusic review). A challenging space to work in and one that demands you work within it’s limits, this piece demonstrates the rewards of doing so.
John Cage Four6 (1992)
3) John Cage (1912-1992) Four6 (1992) [excerpt] 11:17
Dance: Rondo (1996)
Paul DeMarinis, laptop; Takehisa Kosugi, percussion, contact mic, tape, live electronics, voice; Jim O’Rourke, laptop; Stuart Dempster, trombone
Recorded April 4, 1998, Berkeley, California
Four6 is rather frequently recorded (especially by improvisers) as it doesn’t specifiy pitches in it’s time brackets, simply when sounds of the performers choice are meant to be sounded. As is often the case when this choice is presented to the performers you get results dependent on the sensitivities and seriousness of the performers. Cunningham continued to push ahead on the forefront of music utilizing such musicians as Jim O’Rourke, who has to be one of the earliest laptop performers. While O’Rourke may have been ahead of his time, no one has particularly accused him of being a particularly sensitive musician – very little of his music holds up in the long run, though he undeniably broke new ground for years. This particular instance of this piece begins with kosugi knocking rocks together in a rather metrical fashion, joined by long lines from Dempsters trombone and at times rather cheesy laptoperry from O’Rourke and DeMarinis. While this is rather early for laptop performance which you definitely have to give DeMarinis and O’Rourke credit for, the sounds just don’t hold up as well as the live electronics. Something about the digitally generated sounds, low bit depth samples or whatever but Kosugi’s live electronics stands in distinct contrast and are pretty great here. As usual though vocalizations are another story once he begins rather terrible cawing sounds Overlall I can’t say I particularly dig this version of Four6 though there are some nice parts here and there.
Dance: Scenario (1997)
Takehisa Kosugi, electric violin, live electronics
Recorded November 27, 1999, Lyon
Much more in Catch-Wave territory with the violin looped rather Frippertronics style. This is the kind of Kosugi piece I appreciate and am glad to hear here. This particular piece has some real low end tone generated from the layers of loop violin as well as some rather swoopy accelerated rising tones as well as some rather lyrical violin improvisations over the loops. These pieces from Kosugi, like the earlier Dempster piece, seem to tap into a slow pattern, such as blood flowing through our veins that I think connects to us in a fundamental way.
One of Merce Cunngingham's Rune Charts
5) Christian Wolff (b. 1934) Or 4 People (1994) [excerpt] 6:16
Dance: Rune (1959)
Christian Wolff, piano, melodica; Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics, violin, harmonica; Jim O’Rourke, laptop; Stuart Dempster, trombone
Recorded July 23, 1999, New York City
“In Groningen David [Tudor], Takehisa Kosugi, Nicolas Collins and I put together a piece (Or Four People) I’d made for us and the occasion — we had just half a day to prepare it. For rehearsal we each worked on our parts independently and simultaneously, making quite a lot of sound. At the concert the performance was spaced and long, almost an hour, with lots of silence. At one point there was a wonderful repeated thudding sound. DAvid hadn’t seemed to be playing much, but I thought he was the only one who could have produced it. Afterwards I found out that the sound was some kids kicking a soccer ball against the outside back wall of the Auditorium.” – Christian Wolff (3, p.382)
Or Four People is a direct reference to Wolff’s earlier For 1,2 or 3 People : “This new work used some of the same graphic notation of the original piece, and was meant to be played by one to four performers using a variety of sound sources, possibly including, according to the composer, violin (or other stringed instrument), trombone, electronics, and keyboards.” (1) Tiny sound events, quiet and very spare. short sounds from the Violin, cello in the beginning then longer tones from the laptop and cello. Piano, quiet and in the background with that percussive aspect of preparations. While there are a moments of more intensify actives and the occasional louder bit it most has a rather introspective feel to it. Very typical of a Wolff piece in that it feels greater then the sum of its parts and seems to defy easy analysis. A new piece for me and one I’m happy to have heard. Even the more dated sounded digital squeals from O’Rourke’s laptop meld into the whole well enough.