The Composer and His Audience

Friday 31 July 2009

I was just listening to an old radio broadcast commemorating the death of Harry Partch in 1974, and learned that he shared a particular trait with another eccentric composer, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. Sorabji lived in a castle in Dorset, with a sign on the gate reading:

Visitors Unwelcome.
Roman Catholic Nuns in Full Habit May Enter Without An Appointment.

Partch kept an equal yet opposite sign on his front door:

Occupant is a Heathen Chinee. Missionaries at this door will face the Dowager Empress and another Boxer Rebellion. Please do not disturb 11.00 am to 2.00 pm. Missionaries – never.

Please Mister Please

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Gloria Coates, String Quartet No.2 (1972). Kreutzer Quartet.
(6’29”, 5.55 MB, mp3)

I Am Cleaning Up Some Scans Of Old Slides

Wednesday 29 July 2009

He’s got a million of them

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Among the memorials and tributes to Merce Cunningham, I’ve seen yet another pithy quote from Morton Feldman which I didn’t know about before. I don’t know where this one comes from, but it’s in a description of the unusual way Cunningham often worked with artists and composers he knew well.

His works may have a score, but it’s made separately from the choreography; the same can go for the set. Elements meant to work together in performance are created independently by a cohort of trusted collaborators. Composer Morton Feldman explained the process like this: “Suppose your daughter is getting married and her wedding dress won’t be ready until the morning of the wedding, but it’s by Dior.”

Merce Cunningham

Monday 27 July 2009

There’s a rumor Merce’ll stop. Ten years ago, London critic said he was too old. He himself says he’s just getting a running start. Annalie Newman says he’s like wine: he improves with age.

— John Cage, “Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating? (Thirty-eight Variations on a Theme by Alison Knowles)”, 1975.

If I’m asked to name the greatest gigs I’ve been to, the first one that comes to mind is the performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean at the Roundhouse in 2006. Now I’m kicking myself for not going out of my way to see more of Cunningham’s choreography – it’s highly unlikely the time it would have taken was better spent.

Merce Cunningham died yesterday at the age of ninety. As a music snob I’ve always thought of him first as John Cage’s partner, but even then neither Cage’s life or work can be considered independently of Cunningham’s. It seems like there are so few artists of their kind these days, who are so truly fearless and adventurous, and less interested in grandstanding over how “provocative” and “radical” they claim themselves to be.

Just last month Cunningham announced his plans to preserve the legacy of his dance company and his work. Hopefully his death did not come too soon for these plans to be carried out.

Stockhausen: The Cosmic Conspiracy

Friday 24 July 2009

What about my symphony No. 3? I forgot to write…simple, like that–therefore recently, I commissioned Ken Friedman to write my Symphony No. 3.
— Nam June Paik, “My Ten Symphonies” in Source: Music of the Avant Garde, Number 11, 1973/74.

My BELOW-LEFT Symphony was here.
Someone must have torn it off.
Now will no one ever hear it?
March 15th 2003

Sigmar Polke, “Higher beings ordered: paint the right upper corner black!”, 1969.

For beings from the planets of the Sirius system, “everything is music, or the art of co-ordination and harmony of vibrations. . . . The art is very highly developed there, and every composition on Sirius is related to the rhythms of nature . . . the seasons, the rhythms of the stars.”

— Karlheinz Stockhausen, Towards a Cosmic Music, 1989.

Other snippets of vitally important information then came to me through a couple of revelatory dreams. Crazy dreams, from which it emerged that not only did I come from Sirius itself, but that, in fact, I completed my musical education there.

— Karlheinz Stockhausen, in Mya Tannenbaum, Conversations with Stockhausen, 1987.


Ken Friedman gladly wrote Nam June Paik’s 3rd Symphony, but reported that the score was lost at the rehearsal in Saugus, during the San Fernando earthquake of 1971. The earthquake itself constituted the finale of the piece.

The Strange Case of Dr. Chicago

Thursday 23 July 2009

One thing I forgot I wanted to talk about when mentioning Alvin Lucier last month was his starring role in George Manupelli’s Dr. Chicago trilogy*. I first heard about these films only last year, over at Renewable Music, where Daniel Wolf suggests that Lucier is the composer with the most prominent film career.

(Possible runner up, Erik Satie in Entr’acte. John Cage makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Maya Deren’s At Land, and almost had a part in La Dolce Vita, but didn’t.)

The thing that reminded me was Kyle Gann has just posted about these films, and mentions that Robert Ashley made the soundtracks for them. That’s something else I didn’t know before but do now.

I’ve only seen short excerpts from each film, on YouTube and Manupelli’s website. They look like a mixture of cinéma vérité, awkward improvisation, and flights of deadpan absurdity. A lot of that last element comes from Lucier’s portrayal of the nefarious Dr. Chicago as he flees with his meagre entourage across the United States into Mexico. His Chicago combines the feckless insouciance of Nick Riviera with the calculating amorality of Burroughs’ Dr. Benway deprived of a budget.

* “There was also a fourth film, Dr. Chicago Goes to Sweden, but Manupelli got pissed off at a film festival in Toronto and drove around town with the only copy of the film unreeling out the window of his car.”

Please Mister Please

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Deltron 3030, “Positive Contact” (2000).
(4’46”, 5.97 MB, mp3)

When Pianos Ruled The World

Thursday 16 July 2009

Now that I’m the proud custodian of a piano, I’m starting to notice more pianophernalia in my neighbourhood. Down the street a way is this fine old advertisement for Boyd Pianos, one of many defunct piano companies, from the days when piano merchants hawked their wares on walls and billboards.

The Ghost Signs blog has a more thorough analysis of this rather unusual sign, and comments:

In addition to their main piano business Boyd also had a sideline in theatre box office ticket sales. Perhaps this relates in some way to them supplying pianos to theatres and this being a natural bolt on service they could offer to the theatres and the public?

When I saw the phrase “Box office for all theatres”, I thought it was mid-century adspeak meaning that theatre owners could pack in the punters if they have a piano; but maybe that turn of phrase was too American to make sense to the English.

There’s another, less elaborate wall advertisement for a piano store in Willesden Green. This became the inspiration for my composition St Paul’s Pianos.

All Kinds of Awesome: Ashley, Maxfield, Riley, and Young

Tuesday 14 July 2009

I’ve probably said it before somewhere, but the Other Minds Archive is an invaluable treasure trove of recordings of the musical avant-garde for the past 50 years or so; and it keeps on getting better. I was stoked when I checked the updates today to find they’ve just uploaded:
  • Terry Riley performing his Two Piano Pieces (1958-59) – this is Riley before he became the hippieish minimalist of In C, A Rainbow in Curved Air etc.
  • Three pieces by Richard Maxfield: Amazing Grace (1960), Structures for 10 wind instruments (1951), and Piano Sonata No.2 (1949). Maxfield was a brilliant composer who has fallen into obscurity since his early death. Best known for his electronic music, his body of work for conventional instruments has gone largely unheard.
  • Early music by Robert Ashley: The Fourth of July (1960) and Heat (1961) for tape, and the piano sonata Christopher Columbus crosses to the New World in the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria using only dead reckoning and a crude astrolabe (1959-61). Ashley’s reputation rests on his extraordinary series of operas begun in the late 1960s, so this is a rare glimpse into his early work.
  • La Monte Young’s B Flat Dorian Blues (1963) – a chunk of Young playing sopranino sax, backed by Tony Conrad, John Cale, Angus MacLise, and Marian Zazeela. This program also includes one half each of the Black Record and Dream House albums. Somewhere in the Archive is a radio broadcast of the rest of the Black Record.
Young’s music is notoriously hard to find, and apart from Amazing Grace I don’t think any of the pieces by the other composers has been made available anywhere before. So yeah, I’m stoked.

More details about these recordings, and access to other materials, can be found at

Please Mister Please

Sunday 12 July 2009

Autechre, “Uviol” (2001).
(8’35”, 10.37 MB, mp3)

Thanks for Asking

Sunday 12 July 2009

For the sake of closure this weekend: England just scraped through with a draw against Australia in the first test, I’ve finished that piece of music (not a masterpiece, but it does what I set out for it to do), and I still have heard back from Mr Scout (his friends call him Stave). I guess he got those DRILLS he so urgently needed from somewhere more handy than randomly emailing blogs.

Upside of Mediocrity

Saturday 11 July 2009

For those of you who asked if I was alright after Wednesday’s post: much better now, thanks. To summarise: the idea for a piece I was working on proved to be impossible. From working on that first idea a second, different but related idea for a piece came to mind. Work on this second idea progressed and expanded until it became thoroughly confused and unworkable.

In the last few days I’ve figured out an alternative way of going about realising the first idea, and have nearly finished it. Then I have the second idea to go back to. I’m trying to remember who said that every good idea is really three ideas – I usually think of it as the other way round, where I need at least three ideas put together to make one good idea. The last few days seem to have demonstrated a perverse corollary, that any half-assed idea can be broken down into multiple half-assed ideas.

Anyway, England are 2 wickets down and 219 runs behind Australia going into the last day at Cardiff, so I’d be feeling pretty good in any case.

Going Back to Riga

Thursday 9 July 2009

I’m excited about making another visit to Riga; only this time it’s not for a holiday. I’ve been chosen to perform in a new production of Hamlet that’s going to tour there. The main reason I got the job is because of this jacket I have which has a papier-mâché puppet of Maxim Gorky sewn onto the left shoulder. He cuts a rather louche, melancholy figure with his Brylcreemed hair and waxed moustache. I’m not quite sure how my part fits into the play but they want me to appear onstage and engage in dialogues with Gorky, who will make sardonic comments on the action and the society depicted at Elsinore. I have to hunch over to the left to play this part because the puppet is sewn on crooked. We’re going to be performing in an abandoned warehouse so at the moment we’re rehearsing in an underground car park and it turns out I’m not going to Riga after all it’s all a dream it’s just another bloody dream.

Composing With The Radio On

Wednesday 8 July 2009

I’m beginning to doubt whether the new way of making music (computers, synthesisers, MIDI sequencers giving instant feedback of what you’ve just done) is such a great idea after all. Hearing every little thing go wrong, time and time again, has the effect of grinding down your confidence and your will to finish the thing you’re working on. There’s too much room for experimentation, tempting you to drift away from your original thoughts, leaving you lost in a maze of dead ends.

Perhaps it is much better to write and finish a piece in blissful ignorance and only then, upon hearing the first rehearsal, realise how badly it stinks. At least then you could identify and fix only what is broken, to justify all your efforts so far.

I try to have an idea of what I want to achieve before I begin, but lately I’m finding that these ideas are neither solid nor clear enough before I start working, and I lose my way.

Also, The Ashes have started so I can’t give anything else my undivided attention.

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