There were two especially bad performances in my memory. One was in The Hague, actually. We were doing a concert and one guitar player had come to the rehearsal; and the other guy couldn’t come for a rehearsal at all – he’d never heard the piece nor had the CD or anything. So he came and got up on the stage and immediately started improvising over the drone. And the other guy was playing perfectly. I almost got up and said to him: please lay out. But I didn’t. And a similar thing happened very recently in the States. I had even sent the CDs to this woman who I knew, and who knew the music, and the same thing happened; I came very late, there was no chance to make a rehearsal or a soundcheck, and she just used it as an opportunity to make a really long improvisation for herself with a drone background. I was sort of shocked. I didn’t say anything to her because we were actually staying with her, so that made it difficult.
He can’t stand Shostakovitch (“de la merde!”), dismisses Schnittke (“tuttifrutti!”), cordially dislikes Boulez (but admits that “he opened up a new sound world for all of us and his management skills come out well in front of the orchestra”), listens to Algerian rai, and Nashville blues while he accelerates in the BMW, and unwinds to Monteverdi and Josquin des Prez when he de-accellerates at home.His own music is unclassifiable. Though frequently called spectral, it has diverged totally from the French academic spectralism which is so hot in institutional circles in Paris these days. Colleagues of his who have become well-known such as Dusapin (the tritones of whose cello concerto “set my teeth on edge”) annoy him through their business skills, and he refers to the music spectrale crowd in Paris with scorn (“they’re the mafiosi”). He reserves his respect mostly for the dead: Wagner, Bruckner (“not Mahler, his music is empty!”), Josquin des Pres, and Xenakis, whom he venerates, adores.
I performed Kagel’s General Bass (for “unspecified bass instrument”—I used an accordion), a little piece of typical, mysterious wit consisting of sparse, disconnected phrases that hint at some absent, traditionally tonal grandeur. Kagel a) was mildly disappointed at the fact that my piano accordion was not a bandoneon, but took it in stride, and b) was very particular about staging—seated, not standing; very still, as if one player within a giant ensemble; and making sure to underemphasize any espressivo possibility in the fragments. It was a bit of master-class in how to play off of performance expectations, and in how magically you can up the stakes of humor the less you give away the joke.Kagel could be intellectually unforgiving, but even his criticism was cloaked in the graceful good manners of an old-school radical; if he thought I was young and stupid (which he probably did) he never let on, instead giving the generous illusion that the time he spent with me was time well spent.
The Fall, “English Scheme” (1980).
(2’00”, 3.61 MB, mp3)
Repeat (one week only): Kenneth Gaburo, “Fat Millie’s Lament (Exit Music No.2)” (1965).
(4’45”, 4.65 MB, mp3)
He provided a new and visionary basis for musical exploration based in the unalterable facts of acoustics, a basis so broad that it opened up room in the Western tradition not only for musics of the rest of the world, but for compositional systems that have not even been conceived yet. If Cowell failed to fulfill his own potentials, it was because those potentials were too ambitious to be realized except by a succession of future generations. As a prophet he pointed the way to a new world he was not destined to live in….
For nearly 70 years Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources has inspired composers to explore new territory in the worlds of harmony and rhythm, and to discover connections between the two. Barely a week after uploading a PDF of Notations, UbuWeb has made a scan of Cowell’s complete book available as a 56 MB PDF download.