Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973)

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Some archival releases are historically important, restoring a significant musical movement to present-day consciousness. Others can throw accepted history into a different light, making the past a deeper, richer source for new inspiration. As a modern musical experience, listening to historic recordings of the avant-garde is often an excercise in intellectual curiosity, or a dark form of amusement: the interpretations and performances are often unpolished or uninformed, at worst incompetent and, even at their best, often drily literal (and sometimes no worse for that). It’s a rare and exciting event when the archaeological trip works equally well as a compelling new release.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973) is a superlative example of all that is best in archival box sets. Paradigm Discs has form for presenting ‘lost’ music at its most potent; this set has been years in the making and all the work has paid off in spades. In late twentieth century avant-garde music, the British group Gentle Fire is often mentioned but seldom heard. Active in the late 60s and early 70s, they remain best remembered for a small vinyl legacy: their recording of Stockhausen’s Sternklang and a German LP of pieces by the New York School. CD reissues are piecemeal and/or capriciously expensive. Explorations is three CDs of Gentle Fire recordings which, as far as I can tell, have never been publically available in complete form. Even if you are familiar with the 70s LPs, everything’s an ear-opener.

Disc one tackles familiar territory: previously unreleased performances of Cage, Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and Toshi Ichiyanagi, all from 1970 or 1971. The typically rough-hewn electroacoustic sounds of the period are all present and correct, yet it all sounds less stark or abrasive than other contemporary avant-gardisms, even compared to their own LP. The only repeat here is Brown’s Four Systems, given an ingeniously austere realisation with Hugh Davies applying band-pass filters to a droning string ensemble (other group members Graham Hearn, Richard Orton, Richard Bernas, Michael Robinson and Stuart Jones filling in on whatever instrument is needed). There’s more detail in the Electrola LP, but the recording here is more focused on a coherent musical statement than on numbering off each of the score’s elements. It’s this emphasis on using open scores to produce a fully realised piece of music instead of “exploring possibilities” that sets Gentle Fire apart from other experimental music groups of the time. The disc starts off with a small surprise, with Christian Wolff’s For Jill instructing the performers to concentrate on combinations of selected notes into chords – an unusually traditional material compared to his better-known group realisations. An ensemble of home-made instruments by Davies et al nudges Wolff’s score back into the uncanny.

Two selections from Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (Aufwärts and Treffpunkt) show the strength of the ensemble’s musical vision. They’re not afraid to “lead the tone wherever your thoughts lead you” as enjoined by the score, even as Stockhausen heavily directs those thoughts towards convergence. Their idea of “always return to the same place” is a lot more conceptually open and makes the piece soar in unexpected ways. Similarly with Aufwärts, where unlike with at least one other ensemble, they would not agree with, let alone solicit, Stockhausen’s guidance on what “the rhythm of the universe” might be. (Incidentally, there’s a great article in The Wire going over Gentle Fire’s history with the surviving members, including the whole “working with Stockhausen” experience.) Ichiyanagi’s Appearance threatens to get aggressively harsh but never lets up the suspense, with judicious use of ring modulators and sinewave generators creating a bleak, ominous landscape out of trumpet, cello and electric organ. Cage’s Cartridge Music does get appropriately rowdy, amping up small sounds into a cavernous roar. It’s a live recording and the audience is plainly amused by the antics required to produce some of these noises, thus fulfilling Cage’s wish that electronic music be at least as theatrically satisfying as live acoustic performance.

The second two discs are the real revelation, featuring compositions by individual group members and two large “group compositions”, each one shocking in how they interect with both their own time and ours. The pieces bring a healthy dose of the Cagean, Fluxusy extremes of the US avant-garde into the distinctly more genteel British millieu. It was a fertile period, sort of post-Cage but pre-Nyman, and Explorations expands this field hugely, beyond the usual assumed constraints of process music and the assumed freedoms of AMM. That skill for mixing acoustic and electronic comes into its own here. Stuart Jones’ Ruthie’s Piece sounds almost contemporary, using isolated piano sounds with heavy ring modulation against soft cello harmonics to create what could pass for 21st-century ambient. Richard Bernas’ Almanac For September is a more restless work but it also sets muted piano against cello harmonics, using purely acoustic means to alter tone and resonance in ways that resemble electronic processing. In Michael Robinson’s 2 Pianos Piece the composer is joined by Richard Bernas in a lop-sided process of repetition and augmentation that would fit alongside works by John White or Christopher Hobbs. Graham Hearn’s Centrepiece takes a rudimentary idea of “soloist with tape loops” and interprets it as a haunting, evocative soundtrack of muffled organ lost amongst the remnants of run-out grooves on old records. It’s a long, long way from the academic exposition of novel compositional structures.

The two group compositions push into new territories, with performance verging on installation. Group Composition VI (unfixed parities) from 1973 has the ensemble electronically transmitting and modifying speaking voices, filtering and disrupting speech with modified telephone equipment to create a dense, barely intelligible verbal soundscape. Its sonic novelty is ripe with the implications of technology, reproduction and intervention, information overload, alienation and spatial dislocation. As a dispassionately prophetic work, it’s a thrilling and disturbing space for meditation. In fleeting moments it recalls various Alvin Lucier compositions. Group Composition IV originated on the Pyramid Stage at the first Glastonbury festial in 1971 and is here recorded at the Roundhouse in London the following year. It features the gHong, a large assembly of suspended metal rods which can be played collective and coaxed into a wide array of complex sounds, augmented by various additional instruments, including Davies’ own homebrew springboards and a VCS3 synthesizer. This recording takes up the entire third disc, sounding and resounding for over an hour of deeply textured sounds that are simultaneously monumental and delicate. It’s a glorious thing.

Sound quality ranges from good (the concert recordings) to great; the cleanup work is seamless and transparent. The CD version comes in a slick box and a hefty, well-edited booklet with plenty of pictures, full documentation of who did what where and when, and a complete reprint of Hugh Davies’ essential essay Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music. Exemplary. I think a second pressing is on the way.

Aisha Orazbayeva: Music for Violin Alone

Thursday 14 May 2020

The idea of violin, or of any musician, alone has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of months. It has further associations for Aisha Orazbayeva, a fine violinist who has spent “two years of creative silence” while starting a family. Her new release, Music for Violin Alone, was recorded in an empty house in early April as all work for the forseeable future was cancelled. The collection of seven brief pieces forms a closely woven suite that draws together themes of isolation and self discovery; the experience of a musician reorientating themselves, learning new ways of hearing and playing.

Orazbayeva opens with her interpretation of Angharad Davies’ Circular Bowing Study, an immersive exploration of a single technique that leaves performer and audience in a different place from where they started. After this act of orientation into a deeper understanding of timbre, the following 18-century pieces by Bach and Nicola Matteis Jr. have a clean, clear sound while still revealing their reliance on the violinist providing tonal colouration to give them life. Bach’s suites and sonatas for solo strings have long stood as exemplars of writing without accompaniment, and Orazbayeva’s interpretation of the Largo from the C Major Sonata frames the absences of sound, where the listener fills in the outline. It’s an introspective performance, accomplished without pulling the phrasing or pacing out of shape. Oliver Leith’s very recent Blurry Wake Song allows for greater pauses and more reticent phrasing, giving a greater melancholy weight to its repeated cadences on double-stops.

The extended span of James Tenney’s Koan is played fast, like Matteis’ arpeggios. The challenge of how to present Tenney’s process/exercise as a composition is addressed by Orazbayeva with a concentrated flourish. Ingeniously, the constantly rising intervals are transformed into becoming a vehicle for the real material of this recording, as tiny variations in timing and intonation are exposed and transformed into a kind of inadvertent cadenza. The following piece, John Cage’s violin arrangement of Eight Whiskus, was, like Koan, dedicated to Malcolm Goldstein. The Goldstein recordings I’ve heard of each are much more… well, demonstrative of the freedoms allowed in bowing and intonation. Orazbayeva’s version of Cage takes us back to her Bach, where the directness of the melody fuses with the subtlety of construction, each interpreted with a deeply nuanced but deceptively understated performance. The collection ends with Orazbayeva’s own Ring, a haunted study of close-miked bow on string.

The past two weeks has been spent making my own music and listening to recordings others have been putting out during lockdown. I hope to write up more of these over the next few days.

Memory, Forgetting

Tuesday 26 June 2018

When I wrote about that new recording of John Cage’s Two², I tried to link to my recent review of some of Cage’s other piano music on Another Timbre. And then remembered that it wasn’t here on the blog. It got published in the previous issue of Tempo, with reviews of Lost Daylight, the collection of Terry Jennings’ piano music, and a large work for solo piano by Jürg Frey. You can read a large chunk of the review on the preview page, which pretty much gets to what I was saying about Cage’s new approaches to piano writing in the 1950s and how it reset understanding of later piano music, both by him and by others.

I ended up describing Frey’s La présence, les silences as Hammerklavier, or, more appropriately, his Concord Sonata. His use of silence, long considered by listeners to be the signature foreground material of Frey and other Wandelweiser composers, has receded but still remains a vital force behind the sounds. Here, it takes musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforms them into something familiar but not yet known. It’s part of his album Collection Gustave Roud, dedicated to the poet who “wandered through the landscape as a flâneur, observer…. For me his work constitutes a kind of “field recording”, not with a microphone and sounds, but with his soul and body, recording his environment in the broadest sense”.

I didn’t have space to discuss the other large work in this collection, Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind for soprano, trumpet, cello, percussion and tape. The unusual combination of instruments at first evokes a kind of procession, with a slowly building drone made of high, bowed sounds. Towards the end, a slow drum-beat underpins the voice. The sense of wandering, of landscape, pervades the music; but this is not idle wandering, although there is no destination. It is travel for the sake of travel, a dérive to render the participant susceptible to enlightenment – in the sense of Cage’s “purposeful purposelessness” more than the Situationists’ political awareness. Once again, the listener finds music predicated on the transcendental in art. Voice and trumpet harmonise in unison, or each wanders alone but connected. It’s still one of the most satisfying recordings I’ve heard in the past year.

John Cage: Two²

Friday 15 June 2018

Great art takes time and, as Cage observed in his Lecture on Something, art should not be something that comes from within, but that goes within. Being fond of the piece, I’ve been looking forward to hearing this new recording of Cage’s late piano duet Two² for several reasons and yet it still managed to take me by surprise. First reason: I really like Philip Thomas’ and Mark Knoop’s interpretations of Cage, both jointly as part of projects like Another Timbre’s recording of Winter Music, and their solo interpretations on works ranging from the solo from Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Etudes Boreales, respectively.

Second reason: I’d always had a soft spot for Two²; partly as a rare anomaly amongst Cage’s “number pieces”, moreso for its use of subjective time, placing shared responsibility for the movement of one passage to the next entirely on the performers. (It’s an idea I’ve adapted for some of my own music.) The scope for variation in the density of events from moment to moment added a pleasing amount of upheaval to the usual, even continuum. Third reason: Philip Thomas hated it.

The inner sleeve of the CD, unusually for Another Timbre releases, quotes a substantial chunk of the interview with Thomas posted on their website, explaining his antipathy (“too many notes”) and his conversion. Other recordings I’ve heard of this piece range from about 45 to 75 minutes. Until I opened the package I hadn’t realised this new version took up two discs and extended a little past two hours. Was this a cop-out, grinding the pace down to something tastefully undisturbed; slow, soft and inoffensive?

These days, it’s almost too easy to reduce your sound palette to quiescence, for that superficial impression of beauty and profundity. When things become easy, it gets much harder to do those things with distinction. In Two², each pianist plays in their own time but cannot move to the next measure until the other player has also completed the current measure. Thomas compares Cage’s score to those of Antoine Beuger, for its elegant simplicity, but the technique of interdependent interpretation recalls Christian Wolff’s music. There’s a similar balance here that gently sways between disjointedness and continuity, in a way I haven’t heard in other recordings of this piece. It also feels like perhaps the only Cage composition predicated on the idea of the musician’s “inner clock” that really works as intended, without requiring almost impossibly ideal conditions.

Thomas and Knoop agreed on their instincts that Cage’s score for Two² needed a more generous pacing, and with this extra time comes the greater revelation of details, both in Cage’s composition and the musicians’ playing. As Thomas says, with their slower pacing “the sounds seem to have a poise and stillness about them.” The dramatic contrasts in register can often come with perceptible changes in dynamics, although here the pianists honour Cage’s instruction for an evenness of tone, “quietly but equally”. Thomas and Knoop bring out a beautiful quality where each sound has a distinct character, with its own brilliance or softness, a subtle difference in attack that sets each note or chord in low relief. It’s something I haven’t heard in other recordings.

Another unsual aspect of Two² is the way Cage allowed sounds to reappear. Cage skillfully used chance in a way that enabled chords to be repeated from time to time, creating a hazy sense of memory, variation and even harmony, as the listener hears remembered chords in new contexts. This mysterious sense of patterns is most evident in Thomas and Knoop’s interpretation. In his interview, Thomas attributes this to the slowness allowing each chord more time to resonate in the memory. It also allows each chord to be heard in isolation, so that it may be better recognised should it be played again.

Despite liking other versions of Two², this new interpretation reveals so much more about what makes this piece beautiful. By removing the complexity from the surface, Thomas and Knoop have found a more accomplished complexity within the music.

Opera as Entropy: Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

Monday 22 January 2018

Many years ago I experienced a production of John Cage’s last three Europeras in Cologne. Soon after, I blew the chance to see the first two of the set – the “big” ones with greater complexity and more elaborate staging. Don’t know how but somehow noticed that a new production of Europeras 1 & 2 was happening just before Christmas, at Staatstheater Braunschweig. It seemed a little odd that Cage was being presented in what appeared to be a fairly small, regional theatre. “It’s where theatre people in Germany get their first real job” someone explained to me.

The company raided the theatre’s sets and props to an appropriately disorienting effect. The singers and actors seemed enthusiastic enough as they threw themselves into the melange – literally so, in the case of the soprano with the dumpster. Beside the singing, the orchestra parts are particularly strange: a type of collage both fragmentary and unaltered, which is unusual for Cage. The peculiarity came from its success as music in its own right instead of a mere concept, as so often happens in these situations. Like a paticularly unfocused piece by Berio, it persisted without differentiation or structure, distinctively undistinguished Euro-mood music that faltered, wobbled, but never ceased.

There were rough edges – the handling of the Truckera tape collage’s appearances was clumsy – but no obvious horseplay, cutting up or general piss-taking by the musicians. Hopefully those dark days of self-sabotage are behind us. There was occasional mugging or playing up to the audience, which is forgivable to some degree; it’s a comedy, after all. The biggest revelation was in the lighting. In the Cologne productions I saw, Cage’s detailed lighting cues were ignored. In Braunschweig, lighting made all the difference. Onstage antics between singers, dancers and actors were cast in a dim, reflected glow, or with long shadows, while a bright spot was cast on the side of a pillar downstage, or focusing on a discarded watering can. Scenes played out half-hidden in the background, comedy in chiaroscuro. The audience’s attention was effectively decentred, wandering over scenery and actors without overt direction: Cage’s conception of the circus contained within a proscenium arch.

As for the audience, it was small for Europera 1 and, after the interval, noticeably smaller still for Europera 2. It looks like there are more performances scheduled in June, so perhaps summer might be more of an occasion than a cold, wet night in December.

I’ve commented before on how Cage’s music, like other great art, continues to speak to the world in surprising, often disturbing ways. In the thirty years since the Europeras first appeared, the apparent shift in attitudes towards ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has only accelerated. At the time of its conception, the work would have been viewed by many, whether pro or anti, as an iconoclastic exercise in irreverent anarachy, in the footsteps Chuck Jones and the Marx brothers. It’s hard to get that same feeling, these days (although the defecting audience members in Braunschweig might disagree). Opera, once a signifier of the rich, the powerful and the cultured, is now a signifier of the old and out of touch. The stereotype of the top-hatted toff persists, but as much as an anachronism as of a symbol of privilege. These days, real power prefers the corporate hospitality at the football and backstage access at the U2 gig.

In this time, the opera is an institution more to be pitied than mocked and here Cage’s celebration of the genre was more wake than circus. The persistent image was one of entropy: the disassociated costumes and props seemed like salvaged detritus, fragments which could no longer make a whole. As opera, even as an idea, recedes from popular culture and consciousness, iconoclasm becomes a moot point. Pure indifference has already done Cage’s work for him. At various times, stagehands brought out portraits of opera composers, propped them up and later knocked them down, unless they fell of their own accord, sometimes immediately. As the evening progressed, the empty stage accumulated clutter of cast-off inventory from the theatre’s storage, presented and abandoned. Rather than removing meaning, perfoming Cage’s Europeras now seems like an act of finding new meaning, whatever it may be and wherever it may lay.

I remember how in the programme for Einstein on the Beach, audience members were encouraged to talk quietly amongst themselves, if they so wished. Never noticed it happening, though. In Braunschweig, the group in the row in front of me kept up a quiet conversation throughout, pointing, commenting, debating. I didn’t get the impression they even liked Cage particularly much, but they were engaged with the opera and weren’t noticeably dismissive or disruptive. Nothing they said or did was a distraction; in fact they slightly enhanced the musical and theatrical experience.

John Cage’s ‘Concert For Piano and Orchestra’

Monday 10 July 2017

The programme notes for the St John At Hackney gig last Thursday admitted that Cage’s Concert For Piano and Orchestra is a work more often seen than heard. Its spectre haunts all music that aspires to the condition of art as surely and as silently as his more notorious 4’33”. The score for the piano part acts as a signal, here be dragons. It’s a visual manifesto for Cage’s aesthetics of chance and indeterminacy, as forbidding as it is liberating. Critics worry, often without having heard it, that the music is random, meaningless. The meaning of, say, Haydn is a question that has never troubled them.

Live, the first performances I heard of the Concert were sparse and bracing, with that quality of openness that so often distinguished Cage’s music from other atonal composers of the Fifties. Years later, I heard a much more raucous, impetuous performance, with a larger orchestra. The comic qualities of the Concert have come under greater focus in recent years. The score itself conveys its own mischievous humour for the performer, the notation allows scope for an uncommon exuberance, the conductor has their own, independent part which may be safely ignored. For a “random, meaningless” work, it carries a lot of signs that it is a Concert of Misrule.

There’s too much precise working out of details to consider the work as a Dadaist stunt. Critics could, of course, complain that Cage’s anarchism isn’t anarchic enough. Despite all attempts to dismiss it – as a joke, as conceptual art, as a philosophical statement – the Concert persists as a discomfiting presence in music. Describing the music as ‘abstract’ or non-referential is not enough to diminish its power – this should be obvious to anyone who can hear. How, as a piece of music, does the Concert continue to exert such force on the imagination, nearly sixty years after its premiere?

At St John At Hackney last Thursday night, pianist Philip Thomas joined conductor Jack Sheen and ten musicians from Apartment House for a performance of the Concert. The piece has always sounded protean, a mass of competing forces that never find equilibrium, always on the verge of becoming identifiable but never resolving into a fixed state at any time. Cage often talked about observing and imitating nature’s methods of operation and, in this piece, nature seems always on the verge of exceeding its bounds.

Thomas had scrupulously devised a new realisation of the piano part. In this incarnation the solo, often pointillistic in other interpretations, frequently assumed a studied fury, with extended loud phrases in restricted registers, elaborate figures and, every now and then, sudden interruptions of added colouration through extended techniques and objects. The orchestra members, scattered to various points around the church, called out to no-one, expecting no reply. As the sun set and the church darkened, quieter moments felt more like fatigue than rest; silences, always unnervingly unpredictable, opened up in the music like chasms.

Cage expressed the belief that any meaning to found in music comes from within the listener. This is not a renunciation of meaning in art, but a more complex understanding of how meaning may be found. After Cage’s death, a clear trend emerged in performing his work in a heightened state of quiescence, embracing the accidental harmonies found in his late work. This attitude carried over into new realisations of pieces from the Fifties and Sixties, which typically received more abrupt, abrasive performances at the time. The Apartment House performance of Concert opened up a new way of hearing this music. As the discordant voices rose, coalesced, fell apart and were silenced, the piece became an ominous, unreadable symbol for the times, refusing to explain itself but portending dark times ahead. I’ve never heard a more powerful performance of the piece, live or on record.

It’s fitting that the companion work on the night was a new piece by Christian Wolff, titled Resistance. Written for the same forces, it was premiered by Apartment House in Leeds the weekend before. Wolff’s resistance is not obstructionist; the piece synthesises several different approaches he has used to composition over the years. At times fully notated, at others partially or completely open, the conductor gives direction as needed, marks time when required, or stands aside. In contrast to much of Wolff’s recent music, the sense of a shaping force was present, allowing greater contrast and affective shading to emerge while still not compromising the ‘consensual’ working of the musicians. It worked backwards through allusions to Cage’s Music For ______ series, Cardew’s ensemble music of the early Sixties, and Wolff’s own, earliest rule-based works, drawing upon them as principles to be maintained into the next century.

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 2)

Thursday 24 May 2012

Really sloppy notes here, sorry. Part 1 is here.

I remember when I first heard Frank Zappa’s songs. The singing felt forced and goofy, with straining falsettos and dopey bass vocals. Then I heard the original doo-wop records which inspired him and realised that his comedy mugging is absolutely faithful to the earnest material it imitates. “No no, we do it straight,” he enjoins his singers shortly into a cover version on one of his live albums. In the next breath, he admits, “It’s hard, I know.”

This was the same feeling I got watching Europera 3 performed. At first it all feels like a colossal joke, and the punter is left wondering at whose expense the supposed fun is made: at us for our pretensions, the singers for their dedication to the ridiculous enterprise, or Cage himself for his impertinence for devising such an absurd collage and expecting it to be taken seriously as an operatic experience. True, each opera is a comedy, although in each a different kind of comedy is in play.

The singers in Europera 3 seemed at first too eager to please, and too pleased with themselves for being in on the wheeze; but then, as with Zappa’s doo-wop homages, I began to realise that this playing to the audience is an essential part of traditional opera. Despite whatever pretensions opera may have to the highest of high culture, it sure ain’t subtle. If anything, Cage’s score seemed to constrain the singers too much.

I’m assuming it’s Cage’s score for Europera 3 that assigns a fixed location for each singer’s aria, as I assume that it was the director’s decision to assign these locations to the front of the stage, which tended to give the production the feel of a procession of entrances, presentations and exits. How ever it is produced, I can’t help feel that Cage fundamentally misread a crucial aspect of opera in Europera 3, in that there is no allowance for interaction between the performers. Europera 3 is one of those occasions when Cage’s idealism gets in the way of his aspirations. In seeking to distil opera to its basic elements of music and theatre, he forgot that opera is an impure, messy, pandering, superficial, gossipy, star-struck and fashion-obsessed artform, and what Cage perceived as flaws are essential to its survival.

Having said all that, what has Cage given us other than music, singing, costumes, theatre – is that not opera? The silliness of the incongruous costumes seen plain, the gesticulations stripped of dramatic context, are subsumed in the richness of talented singers presenting great arias against a backdrop of opera on LP and piano reduction (cultural legacy in portable, domestic form). It sort of resembled an opera, but more an opera rehearsal, or an opera school, with multiple distinct and disciplined activities each directed to an immediate aim, taken as a glorious whole.

What amazes me is that such a simple collage of available elements from the repertory can provoke so many contradictory reactions to Cage’s art and to opera itself. Whatever weaknesses it may have, Europera 3 certainly succeeds in demonstrating Cage’s strength for showing, not telling, when raising questions about music, aesthetics and the nature of art.

After the interval, Europera 4 raised different issues again. Europera 4 was conceived as a pair with Europera 3, and I was surprised by how much it differed. I had thought the resources for both operas were largely the same, but that in Europera 4 Cage had skewed the odds in his chance operations to favour less rather than more. It was actually closer to Europera 5 in scale. Two singers, soprano and baritone, instead of six; one pianist instead of two (sometimes shadow-playing); and the one Victrola instead of the six turntables and crates of LPs.

Some, but not all, of the productions differences were down to direction. No costume changes, and the lighting changed only in intensity. (No sudden dusk eclipsing the Queen of the Night this time around.) Unlike Europera 3, Europera 4 began in quite an affective and haunting way, with the soprano singing a vocalise while the baritone, as yet unseen, sang far away backstage. As with Europera 5, a dramatic interpretation was imposed upon Cage’s score, and maintained a coherent conceit throughout from this initial, accidental duet.

The singers appeared as perpetually doomed lovers, fated never to meet and yet to die in wonderfully operatic fashion after each and every aria, only to rise, sing, and die again. I suppose it could be called a perverse re-imagining of Cage’s opera as it played out like a consciously constructed absurdist drama. I do enjoy it when someone turns Cage against himself and makes it work in is own right, and it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. I don’t know what all those balloons were about, though.

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 1)

Monday 21 May 2012

One other effect Einstein on the Beach had on my life was that it made me a sucker for wacky opera. After Einstein, John Cage’s Europeras may be the most notorious wacky operas around, so I had to go to Cologne to see the final three (of five) performed in one night.

First obvious question answered: is it a real opera? Of course it is. Someone in the foyer smelled faintly of wee. QED.

What I found most immediately interesting about the performances on the night was the liberties that had been taken by the director, sometimes to the point of disregarding Cage’s score. From Berg to Glass, any opera composer specifying more than the words and the notes is asking for trouble sooner or later, and Cage’s use of chance-determined collage in the Europeras extends to stage movements, scenery, costumes and lighting.

The “free” interpretation by Oper Köln was most blatantly different in Europera 5. One of Cage’s last compositions, it pares the constituent elements of its predecessors to the barest minimum. In the space of an hour, two singers sing five arias each, unaccompanied. Half a dozen operatic 78s are played on a wind-up gramophone. A pianist occasionally mimics playing transcriptions of scenes from romantic operas, hitting keys only by accident. From time to time, a radio plays, a television (silent) is switched on. A rumbling passes by in the far distance.

In Cage’s score much of the action, such as it is, consists of changes in lighting, with specific instructions for multiple (unspecified) lighting sources to be turned on or off at chance-determined intervals. In Cologne, the lighting was an even mid-grey throughout. The scenario may very well have been drawn from Samuel Beckett; but I’m not convinced that Cage and Beckett are the most agreeable of stage companions.

The production drew a definite interpretation from Cage’s indeterminate collage, depicting a scene of great age, infirmity and decay. This conceit was evidently used to account for the extremely slow movements Cage’s score prescribes for his singers, from one part of the stage to another. The Victrola only added to the air of age and obsolescence. The feeling of openness and quiescence that Cage so often aspired to in his music was here supplanted by a bitter, ironic humour.

Soprano and mezzo-soprano, both entirely grey, walked with stiff, pained movements, finishing each aria with bows and blown kisses to imaginary fans like opera diva Norma Desmonds. The old gent in the bathrobe also stands and bows after each phonograph has finished. Cage instructs each singer to wear an animal mask at a given point, but the mezzo insists on donning her bear’s head each time she acknowledges the invisible audience.

Beckett admitted that he had no real fondness for opera, so he may have enjoyed the bleak comedy in the presentation of these denuded fragments. I’m not sure that Cage had anything so confrontational in mind when he talked of giving opera back to the Europeans, but then Verdi and Rossini couldn’t have anticipated the reconceptualisation of their works in Regieoper, either.

Cage’s music deserves to be played at least as well as Verdi’s – as it was here, although none of the notes were actually written by Cage. I suppose if people are going to accept him as the great composer that he was, it’s only fair that he be interpreted as wilfully as Verdi, too.

Europeras 3 and 4 raised different concerns, about whether or not Cage had succeeded in making a good opera, but that can wait until next time as it’s late and time for my Ovaltine.

Song Books Song Books

Monday 12 March 2012

It must be about dead-on a year ago that I first saw a performance of John Cage’s vast, protean Song Books. That time it was Exaudi at King’s Place. Last night I got to experience it again, enacted by a hodge-podge of players including a bunch of old Scratch Orchestra alumni, at Cafe Oto. On the surface the approaches taken by the two groups were broadly similar, but it was through the details that the work can truly live or die.

I almost didn’t get to see it this time. I hadn’t booked a ticket and when I got there a queue was already stretching down the street and round the corner. The place was rammed: the crowded atmosphere emphasised by having punters sitting in amongst the performers in the ‘stage’ area, and other performers scattered in amongst the standing crowd. Exaudi had a similar setup of their singers stationed around the audience, moving from one spot to the next from time to time. The crowd at King’s Place, however, remained seated in the middle throughout. Besides the milling crowd at Oto, there was also the bar and pavement outside luring punters in and out for refreshment.

On both nights, the programme was set up to last an hour, in the space of which each player independently performed a chance-determined programme of solos from the Books. Exaudi played their pieces expertly – I want to say impeccably. It was a faithful, thoughtful interpretation of Cage’s music, but it felt remote and clinical. It was ‘art’, mounted and framed. With the Scratch Orchestra et al things were more chaotic, a little rougher round the edges but no less faithful in interpretation. Some players were a little too enthusiastic, swatting at tables with paper plates or menacing punters with alligator masks. Others were a little too reticent, like the couple who spent most of the time in the centre of the room, singing in unison, apparently more to themselves than to the audience.

It was precisely this diversity that made last night at Oto the more rewarding experience, as we all saw and participated in an enactment of Cage’s aesthetic and social values of the time: of diversity, abundance, coexistence, anarchy, the merging of art and life. For an hour or so everyone in the bar experienced Cage’s vision for the world in microcosm. The crowded room inevitably cramped some of the theatrical elements called for in the score, but compromises were made, punters made room as necessary. In other words, there was true, unselfconscious audience interaction and participation, without coercion.

In this atmosphere, the chance coincidences and juxtapositions took on more than just an aesthetic appeal. At one point a pretty lady in a red dress stood and repeatedly intoned Thoreau’s anarchist maxim “The best form of government is no government.” Behind her, a pianist began playing Cage’s lovely 1949 composition Dream. Soon after this was almost drowned out by insistent hammering. All three carried on unperturbed. When the hour was up, this same woman in red had just been tasked with typing out a phrase of Erik Satie’s, 38 times, on a recalcitrant manual typewriter. The audience stood around intently, and waited patiently in silence until she was finally done.

The Oto performance succeeded as art because so much more of life was able to infiltrate it. Whenever I think I understand Cage a little better, a new complication appears. I keep thinking of Morton Feldman’s challenge, “Is music an artform? Or is it just showbiz?” (For this argument, the Exaudi gig was showbiz.) Cage’s music is definitely art and yet, in this case at least, the closer it comes to life the better it works as art. Put that way, Cage sounds like an old-fashioned mimetic artist, but what he achieves is not mimicry of life, rather he recreates certain principles on which life conducts itself. What bugs me about this is: if interpretation of Cage’s work were to continue to approach ‘real life’ closer and closer, at some point it would cease to be art. If we accept Cage’s conceit that there is no distinction between life and art, life may be permitted to intrude upon a performance of Cage to the extent that it misrepresents Cage’s work. There is some undefined tipping point within Cage’s work whereupon it refutes itself.

Therefore, to be like life, Cage’s music must always remain as art, to some extent. Of course there is a distinction between art, as witnessed at Cafe Oto, and artifice.

The One Prom of the Year: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldman

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Finally the British are starting to play Cornelius Cardew. First Autumn ’60 in May, and now Bun No. 1 has received its first performance in London, a mere 45 years after it was written. This was part of an excellent programme, tucked away at the Proms as part of a late-night Friday session.

The impression of Autumn ’60 sounding like Earle Brown’s music played in slow motion was repeated in Bun No. 1, although this later piece was more conventional, both in its fully-determined form and its harmonic material. The language of Darmstatdt, carefully picking its way from one unresolved dissonance to the next, was all too familiar to anyone who has heard a lot of the Fifties’ avant-garde. It’s something of a consolation that the programme notes discuss Cardew’s own reservations about the compromises he made in this piece to meet the expectations of an orchestra and his academic supervisors. Despite these shortcomings, Cardew’s proffered Bun to the institutions uses its ostensible material as a vehicle for contrasting instrumental groupings and timbres, which become particularly effective toward the end of the piece, with the use of long-held chords and silences.

The opening performance of John Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) was played as neatly as you could expect, by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear this piece once in a while and realise what a talented young composer Cage was and how he might have ended up like other American avant-gardists of his generation, regurgitating washed-out folk tunes for movies and orchestras. The First Construction has an ingratiatingly flamboyant character and regular muddles of percussion sounds getting in each other’s way. It wasn’t until the mid-Forties that Cage worked out how to focus his music by jettisoning sensation.

Before the Feldman piece the orchestra played Howard Skempton’s Lento, a piece in danger of becoming a modern chestnut, like a bite-sized morsel of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. This would be a shame, as Skempton is playing a much more subtle and complex emotional game on the listener than the “holy minimalists”. People frequently liken Feldman’s music to a Rothko; Lento is like a Morandi.

Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, with John Tilbury as the soloist, was the highlight. Whenever I hear this piece I come away thinking it must be his finest work, because it leaves such a vivid impression in my mind without being able to recall any specific part of it. So much of Feldman’s approach to composing seems to have been a process of negotiation between paradoxes, and in this piece he most successfully reconciles the opposing forces he sets in play. The instruments are everything, and yet they are always held in check. The soloist’s part seems negligible: a single, repeated note, two gently alternating chords. The writing seems so fragmentary, like a voice struggling to finish a sentence for an unformed thought; the piano and orchestral groups are so often separated, yet form a coherent whole. The overall effect is both sombre and luminous. I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve heard his orchestral music live.

John Cage’s difficulty, according to Frederic Rzewski

Thursday 29 April 2010

When asked tonight why his description of Cage’s ideas seemed to contradict Cage’s own essays, Rzewski replied: “Cage was not a master of language. He obfuscates. If people have been playing his music badly for decades then it’s his own fault for being so unclear.”