Monday, September 17, 2007













Somewhere around 1972, in Poughkeepsie, I discovered that the local library (Adriance Public Library) had LPs for loan. In the spring of that year, I'd discovered jazz via Ornette Coleman and, as my budget was reasonably limited around then, I tore through the jazz offerings there. I don't think they had many in stock, maybe 50 or so, but they included a number of relatively modern releases. I recall getting "The Amazing Bud Powell", "Out to Lunch" (I think "Iron Man" as well), "Mwandishi" and many others. I'd take them home for a week, go back and renew them, take 'em back home. Some good exposure to be had there.

They also had a classical section which included a decent amount of 20th century work. Between the cheap Nonesuch releases of the time and these offerings, much of my first experiences of contemporary "classical" music occurred in this period. I remember getting Varese, Stravinsky, Honegger (Pacific 231!), Prokofiev, Bartok.

I also recall borrowing a double LP recording of Cage's "Atlas Eclipticalis". My memory is of a dark blue sleeve, presumably a "night sky" kind of thing with little white dots. There might also have been a performance of "Cartridge Music" on the same album. (If anyone knows what release I'm talking about, please let me know). I didn't care for it at all. Somewhere shortly after this time, I heard Cage's "Three Dances" on the LP (Angel?) shared with Reich's "Four Organs" and loved those pieces but obviously they're much more approachable. But the "Atlas" was way too diffuse and arcane for me at 18. For a long while, I had this mental image of Cage as fluctuating between these two poles of rhythmic vitality and tedious obscurantism. Whether it was on that recording or not, I did hear "Cartridge Music" around then and liked it more but....

So I recently bought this new release of "Atlas" on Mode (the recording is from 1983) and still find it, or at least this performance, dry, academic and, in a word, boring. Whether that was also the case with my earlier encounter or I simply wasn't ready to hear the work, I don't know. Listening to the Mode release, I was trying to figure out why it wasn't working for me and I think it can be summed up as due to the phraseology of the musicians. Every tiny note or sequence just reeks of what we here around NY refer to as "uptown". The tweedy, blue-haired, old money avant garde, a "culture" that bores me to tears. Every sound bore that post-serial tincture, the total avoidance of anything to do with the world outside of academe. It strikes me as very un-Cagean. Truth be told, this tinge infects many Mode discs, though by no means all. It's frustrating, because I can easily imagine this being performed by creative improvisers and working exceedingly well.

I know Robert wrote about performances of the piece out Seattle or Vancouver way in recent months. Curious to know if he or anyone else could steer me toward renditions that contain more life than this dusty offering.

5 comments:

Robert said...

Hmm, well prior to that performance I tracked down all the versions I could find either physically or virtually. There were a couple that I liked quite a bit. I also managed to pick up (at DMG during Erstquake) a four disc set that was Atlas Eclipticalis with David Tudor playing Winter Music simultaneously. That one is pretty chaotic I think, I'd have to revisit it to be sure. (you can read the liner notes to that release here ) I think you would find this one the opposite of dry and academic, it was pretty cheap and also includes 103 in the set so it was a good deal. I also downloaded two other versions, one which quite short and absolutely lifeless and another one that I have no info on but was quite good. I know that doesn't help much :) Its around 40 minutes long though so its not one of these versions mentioned.

A pity about that Mode one, its been on my list to get for a while. I still need to get it though as Cage was involved in those recordings and of course having played the piece am somewhat obsessed with it. Wanna sell me yours cheap? ;)

Brian Olewnick said...

Heh, no I'll keep it around, thanks; you never know how one's ears will change. I forgot to mention that Cage his own self conducted the two performances of AE on the Mode release (both of which incorporate Winter Music as well). I'm forced to assume that he liked the results which, in turn, causes me to re-listen and try to figure out what I'm missing. Plus you have the Arditti Quartet, Wolff and Lucier among the performers. Hey, maybe it's me.

I see that there was a Bernstein recording of AE in 1964. Not sure if that's the one I originally heard.

Herb Levy said...

Brian, I'd be interested in seeing you write more about this work in the context of some of the more recent pieces that use isolated sounds within long silences & any distinctions you might make between/among them.

I'm not sure I hear a functional/actual difference between these kinds of works (as opposed to conceptual and/or sociological differences) & I'd love to read your thoughts on this.

Caleb Deupree said...

The Cage database lists a DGG Avant-Garde offering with Atlas and Cartridge Music, performed by the Ensemble Musica Negativa, Riener Riehn conducting. I haven't heard the Bernstein recording either, but it was recorded the weekend of the scandalous premiere, when the musicians sabotaged the performance.

Brian Olewnick said...

Caleb, might've been that DGG recording that I initially heard, though I don't recall it being on that label--though again, it was 35 years ago so who knows how accurate my memory is.

Herb, it's an interesting question. One of the reasons I thought it might be rewarding to pick up the Mode set was precisely the quasi-similarity it bears to recent things I've liked very much like Sight, Sugimoto's work, etc. I remembered my original dislike for it and wondered if (assumed I would in fact) hear it much more clearly today. I probably do (I hope I do!) but something still nags.

I'm going on vacation for 10 days tomorrow and will bring the Mode recording along, listen and think about it and try to write something that I'll post when I'm back.