The Music Machine, “Dark White” (1968).
(4’36″, 6.3 MB, mp3)
Start composing a piece of music.
Feel irresistible urge to procrastinate.
Dig out old piece which I hadn’t quite finished.
Look at old piece. Decide it needs revision.
Discover that making satisfactory revisions to old piece will require it to be remade from scratch.
Restart old piece from scratch. Discover completely different method of composing it from first time.
Stop. This approach needs to be thought through.
Make new set of calculations to rewrite old piece.
Fix errors in calculations.
Trial and error. Finally get correct effect sought for.
Formalise process for completing one element of revised old composition.
Look for ways of automating this process.
Discover there is no way of usefully automating the process.
Repeat process manually to complete another element. Success!
Realise you’ll have to repeat this process another 548 times.
Surf Failblog for video clips of skateboarding accidents.
This was the front page of the paper last week.
Finally someone’s paying attention to this doctor’s advice.
“Contemporary music is not the music of the future nor the music of the past but simply music present with us: this moment, now, this now moment.”
– John Cage, Composition as Process, 1958.
“The mainstream public didn’t really know about them that much. They were a very minor group in that aspect.”
– Doug Yule, interview, 1995.
It’s a truism that the Velvet Underground were really obscure and unpopular when they were a going concern, isn’t it? Later in that Yule interview, he mentions touring the UK in 1972 as The Velvet Underground and no-one noticing or caring that the band had none of the original members from the first two LPs.
The wonderful Other Minds Archive has posted a recording of the world premiere of John Cage’s composition 33 1/3, at the University of California at Davis on 21 November, 1969. The composition is Cage at his most anarchic: the audience was invited to a room with no performers, no seating, 24 record players, several hundred records, and no instructions. The punters soon get the idea, and a 40-minute collage of simultaneous musics and audience noises ensues.
I’m trying to remember where I read that interview with Cage about the piece, the one where he talks about acquiring the records. He contacted a record distributor and asked for a random selection of different titles. The wholesaler, as you might expect, sent several crateloads of their slowest-selling albums. Cage cheerfully recalls that by the end of the gig a number of records had gone missing, having finally found a happy home with someone in the crowd.
In the Other Minds recording, several minutes into the tentative start of 33 1/3, comes the unmistakeable sound of side 2 of The Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s much louder than anything else. After a couple of minutes it suddenly disappears, only to reappear again soon after, from the top. This time it gets all the way through “Heroin” and “There She Goes Again” before it’s suddenly snatched away again, never to return. I wonder what was happening around that record player for those 15 minutes, and whether that album found a new owner that night.
Mauricio Kagel, “Unguis incarnatus est” (1972). Siegfried Palm, cello; Aloys Kontarsky, piano.
(5’38″, 8.5 MB, mp3)
The late burst of summer is definitely over, and everything’s turning dark and grey. Holed up at home late last night and feeling the cold for the first time I hunkered down over a pot of Russian Caravan and a bottle of Laphroaig and made this little video to go with Lights Out. You know, for the kids. They’re all about the Youtubes these days.
Roger Roger & his Champs Elysées Orchestra, “Dalilia” (1962).
(2’16″, 2.5 MB, mp3)
On Sunday night I sat transfixed through the entirety of Pli selon pli. I’ll let someone else gush over the details for me.
I couldn’t lose focus on the thing for a second. What the music had lost in vehemence was now regained in a controlled, hour-long explosion of energy that could alternately freeze or boil without ever resorting to histrionics or becoming self-absorbed in details. It’s linear, it’s dramatic, it’s big; it fulfils the contradictory wish for a radical gesture that signals a renewal of tradition. This was the future that would look much like the past.
For trying to kill Schoenberg, Boulez’s fate has been to become Schoenberg: an artist trapped by the past, his achievement obscured by his hard-won reputation. In a trait peculiar to French artists, too much of Boulez’s attention seems to have been caught up in pontification and politics. It’s surprisingly hard to hear the music for what it is, and not what it has come to represent. I now suspect that this, in a different way, is a problem that Boulez has had to grapple with too, and that Sunday’s Pli selon pli could be a type of triumph that had eluded him for so many years of revisions and re-recordings.
That second Improvisation is damn lovely. And I’m never taking Stravinsky’s quip seriously again. I wonder which other Boulez works are better than they sound?
So the other night I saw Jeff Harrington had posted this rather wonderful remix of bits of Mahler’s First Symphony. It was for a “Remix Mahler” contest put on by the Berlin Philharmonic. Unfortunately, these days the term ‘remix’ is approximately synonymous with ‘novelty dubstep’ so of course most of the entries are uniformly dull.
I had some work to do, so naturally I put it off by thinking of doing a contest entry myself. There were only a few hours before the contest closed, which was probably a good thing. I wanted to bring out some of the qualities of the material in the original work, so I took one passage redolent of Morton Feldman’s Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, and let it emerge quietly out of an empty stretch of Hardware Lane in Melbourne, late one night in Winter, 1999.
Why do I feel the need to rationalise wanting to go see the Pierre Boulez gigs this weekend? I think it’s partly the fact that, after all these years, he’s still described as an avant-garde figurehead yada yada yada, so help me he even gets billed as a technological pioneer, by people who should know better. People who must have twigged that the composer has spent the past 30-odd years trying to turn into Debussy, yet still peddle the lies that (a) he’s still some kind of firebrand and – perversely peculiar to modern music – (b) his music’s not particularly pleasant to listen to.
All this nonsense would be easier to ignore if Boulez himself didn’t appear to be so complacent. John Cage’s portrayal of the Frenchman puttering around his plush hotel room in a tailored smoking jacket waving his cigarette holder dismissively as he pronounces Charles Ives an amateur lurks behind all his later career. Well, that and his George Lucas-like obsession with tinkering with his legacy, smothering the vital core of his earlier music with revision after revision in the name of technical finesse and an insulated sense of “good taste”.
I’m going to see him conduct Pli selon pli partly out of morbid curiosity to hear what changes he’s wreaked on it over the past quarter-century, having heard no version more recent than the Phyllis Bryn-Julson recording from the mid-80s. I’ve also got a ticket for the evening with Domaines and Rituel, two pieces I think he’s left well alone and won’t be conducting. I’m wary of committing to anything further than that.
Bo Diddley, “Power House” (1970).
(2’50″, 3.9 MB, mp3)
I’d never heard Feldman’s Clarinet and String Quartet before, let alone Voices and Cello, so I had to go to Southbank last night to hear Endymion and Exaudi play these two pieces, along with two premieres by British composers. Damn, this stuff’s got to be hard to play. Besides the singing in the first half of the gig, the string players did a particularly remarkable job, particularly in achieving a sustained evenness of tone over the 45 minutes or so of Clarinet and String Quartet. Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet playing would occasionally break free of the undisturbed surface of Feldman’s music, which the composer strove so hard to maintain, but this was when playing his instrument in its higher regions. To keep a clarinet playing high at Feldman’s prescribed volume over more than a few notes would take a superhuman effort. He didn’t write much for the solo clarinet, partly because of this reason and the instrument’s variety of rich tones (“wallowing in timbre”), so it was educational to hear how he limited himself to an alternating sequence of near-octave leaps and slow, microtonal trills.
What really fascinated is the readiness with which dedicated musicians today can make this music sound almost effortless, approaching a platonic ideal of sound suggested, and thwarted, by Feldman’s beguiling notation. Equally fascinating was how the evening became a validation of Feldman’s sidewalk lesson in orchestration from Edgard Varèse. “Don’t forget the time it takes for the sound to reach the audience” sounds like an arty koan, but the two new works in the concert, both for vocal and string quartet, found it hard to speak clearly. It often felt like the voices and instruments were talking over each other, getting in each other’s way, getting lost in awkward rhythms and timbral transitions. The deceptively simple sounds in Feldman’s music would at one moment combine clarinet and cello into a single mysterious instrument, then at the next set each one apart.
Working on a sequel to String Quartet No. 2 (Canon In Beta) – this is made from offcuts of the source material I’m preparing.
Sadly, I had to miss the John Cage concert on Southbank last Tuesday (I had a perfect excuse) but I did remember to see the exhibition it accompanied. This was the first opportunity I’d had, after all these years, to see some of Cage’s visual art directly.
I have to admit I felt a twinge of disappointment when I read the promo blurb which promised an exhibition “inspired by Cage’s use of chance-determined scores”, i.e. the artworks were arranged scattered high and low over the walls, their positions determined by chance. In other words, an imitation of Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition in 1992. There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and imitating them.
Rolywholyover A Circus presented a changing mix of artworks and objects from a variety of sources. Every Day is a Good Day was supposed to be an exhibition of Cage’s art. The two shows had different aims and purposes. As a survey of Cage’s prints and drawings, the presentation did him a disservice, treating his work as so many props as part of a greater installation. Just because Cage did it once doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing to show that you “get it”. If you think his art is worth exhibiting, display it at least as well as you would any other artist and give the punters a chance to assess it on its merits by giving them a good look at it.
Speaking of which, the lighting: was that chance-determined too? If so, it appeared a bit too uniform to meet the Cageian aesthetic. If not, it was crap. I know Cage admired the idea of a painting that would not be disturbed by the action of shadows on its surface but that didn’t mean that shadows were mandatory, any more than he hoped there’d be one punter in the audience struggling with a bag of crisps at every performance of 4’33″. While I’m complaining, why was just the first part of his String Quartet in Four Parts playing on a loop the whole time I was there? If you’re playing just one piece, could you make it a complete one? Wouldn’t Ryoanji be a much more appropriate choice?
OK, enough whingeing. It was great that someone in the UK brought together a large collection of Cage’s art for display. The catalogue was worth it alone, as it can be tricky to find even reproductions of many of these pieces in one location. To stand in one room surrounded by works made over nearly 20 years was a wonderful immersion into his aesthetic sensibility, and even gave a partial sense of how the sometimes disparate tendencies of his music related to each other. Cage largely made these pieces as objects for contemplation, and no matter how beautiful they may look in reproduction, their lack of any conventional “content” draws attention to the subtleties otherwise barely perceptible when viewed at first hand: the texture of the paper, the impressions of the printing plate left on the surface, a stray trace of smoke.
Given that it’s so overshadowed by his music, the show was a useful start for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cage’s art. A few pieces seemed facile, little more than school art-class exercises that present ordinary found objects as “beautiful” or “artistic”. More often, they used the same methods – traced rocks, smoked and scorched paper, washes of colour, lines and accidents – as a means to explore the materials and techniques of printing in unusual but sympathetic ways (Cage was never a confrontational “anti-artist”.) The methods I mentioned above are one and the same as the subject matter, for want of a better term. This unified approach succeeds in meeting Cage’s long-stated aesthetic of imitating nature in its manner of operation, creating beauty which is unintentional, but not accidental.