Etudes Boreales for Piano

Tuesday 8 September 2009

The piano etudes are really more like percussion pieces, the player using beaters and making noises on the piano construction. … Kirstein found the piece unplayable; it was only Michael Pugliese, a virtuoso percussionist, who found the way to play these “impossible” pieces.

— James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (1996), p.199.

Last Tuesday night I left home and walked twenty minutes down the road to a cafe to hear the pianist Mark Knoop perform John Cage’s Etudes Boreales (1978) for piano. I was reminded of that story of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s percussionists or whoever taking thirty rehearsals to muddle their way through Varèse’s Ionisation (1933), whereas now it’s a staple of student percussion ensembles.

It is indeed, like all of Cage’s Etudes, a fiendishly difficult set of pieces. Having never heard this particular set of four pieces I can’t compare how well Knoop performed it compared to other musicians. It sounded fine to me, and he didn’t appear to be struggling with getting the right beater to the right part of the piano in the right time, nor was he playing particularly slowly.

Interestingly, the music in these piano parts is significantly more sparse than in the other etudes. Cage was apparently mindful of the practicalities of performing these pieces, even if they did seem impossible at first. The idea behind all the etudes was not to defeat the musician, but allow them to accomplish something never attempted before. To paraphrase Morton Feldman: now that the Etudes are so simple, there’s so much to do.

Please Mister Please

Sunday 6 September 2009

Jack Ellitt, “Journey #1 (excerpt)” (early 1930s).
(4’52”, 7.85 MB, mp3)

Smash the Social Contract!

Sunday 6 September 2009

The mystery of Julius Eastman’s Creation

Thursday 3 September 2009

UPDATE: Mystery solved.

When a forgotten talent is rediscovered, it’s sobering to realise how little time it takes for the biographical details of an artist to become as elusive and conjectural as those of a Jacobean playwright.

The fate of the composer Julius Eastman, not yet twenty years dead, is an extreme but illustrative example. Mary Jane Leach has been on a quest for ten years to gather up whatever scattered fragments of his work have survived. Devoid of context, the stray odds and ends can be frustratingly hard to fit into place.

Having heard Stay On It on the Internet Archive, I searched around and found a recording of another Eastman composition called Creation. According to the program notes, the recording is from a broadcast on KPFA in 1973, it “appears to be an aleatoric piece for voice, instrumental ensemble, and some prerecorded sounds”, and was written in 1954. If this last point is true, the piece is remarkably advanced for its time, particularly as Eastman would have been 14 when he wrote it*.

The program was repeated in 1974, and again the piece is called Creation by Julius Eastman. In the list of known works by Eastman, no such piece is mentioned. It seems unlikely that a hitherto-unknown piece, regardless of when it was composed, has been hiding in plain sight on the web. Perhaps the piece was mistitled in the broadcast: Thruway and The Moon’s Silent Modulation, both from 1970, are the only two on the list whose descriptions could possibly fit the recording. The former exists in a recording ten minutes longer than this 1973 broadcast, the latter lists no surviving recording or score.

I’ll have to become a researcher myself, just to find out for certain what this piece actually is.

* The 1954 date also seems incorrect when one of the singers quotes “The Girl From Ipanema“, although this particular song may not be specifically cited in Eastman’s score.


Tuesday 1 September 2009

Daniel Wolf, of Renewable Music and Winter Album fame, has compiled a new survey of present-day composers who have written music for the melodica (or multiples thereof). Composers include Jon Brenner, Stephen Chase, Kieran Daly, Paul A. Epstein, Graham Flett, Aaron Hynds, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Kondo Kohei, Nomura Makoto, and Ushijima Akiko. There may be some new additions over the next few days.

My own piece, Redundens 1m, continues the ever-growing series of Redundens pieces. A mirror of the PDF will be added to the page shortly, and maybe an mp3 of a MIDI realisation (although good melodica soundfonts are hard to find). In the meantime enjoy the collection.

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