Friday, March 07, 2008


Went to Issue Project Room last night to hear an evening of the music of John Cage organized by Kurt Gottschalk and John McDonough. I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually attended an all-Cage performance—technically, this wasn’t either, as we’ll see—and in fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard a Cage piece live at all. Aside from my own continuous renditions of 4’33”, of course.

The current site of IPR is a long, narrow, high-ceilinged room. When Keith and Julien played there in October, they made the wise decision to set up against a wall in its center, somewhat negating the unnecessary audience/performer dynamic (and, indeed, asking people to walk around at will and even question them about the score during the performance). This time, it was a more traditional format with the musicians at one end, for me not the most conducive structure. Too, they chose not to use (or maybe were unable to do so) the sixteen speaker in-house system, something that would have benefited the music greatly, imho.

Four works were presented: “Indeterminacy/Variations I”, “Cartridge Music”, “Radio Music” and a piece by McDonough, “Landscape Under Construction”. The first was for two guitars (Gottschalk and Russell Scholl) and voice (Kristen Persinos), the guitarists performing “Variations I”, the vocalist “Indeterminacy”. She began by asking an audience member to shuffle the several dozen pages of her text and then to “cut” it, as in a deck of cards, the text turning out to be from Gertrude Stein. It was something of a disjunctive performance. When Cage read text, his voice tended to flow at a fairly rapid clip and, while intimating both humor and intelligence, was undramatic enough so as not to stand out from whatever the other sounds were present; you can hear it both as an equal sonic element and as an imparter of verbal information. Persinos’ approach was somewhat more arch, with rather elaborate expressions ranging from wry to exasperated to mocking as well as including numerous physical gestures, all very well done (and with a very nice tonal quality to her voice) but serving to distance herself from the guitars, enough so that it was impossible not to hear the instrumental work as accompaniment rather than on an equal footing, especially as the guitars were almost always quite spare. Maybe the simple expedient of placing her behind the guitarists would have helped even things out but as was, things didn’t quite gel.

"Cartridge Music" involved five players on stereo cartridges and other electronic items. They performed under the steady and commanding gaze of a digital clock which, though I understand it's part of the deal, cast an uncomfortable, managerial aura. The score (I'm presuming, not having seen it, but Kurt could correct me) calls for certain actions to be undertaken at specific times, so the audience is presented with the picture of five guys moving around the stage, constantly looking back and forth at the clock and the small cards they carried containing the score, almost as if for permission to act. A certain sense of constriction comes into play though I suppose in 1960, when the piece was written, that would have been far less the case and would have served to open up previously unheard sound worlds. Today, there's something about it that struck me as oddly dated, the same way a Zorn game piece might. It would be interesting to compare the choices made by various possible musicians given the same constraints (how would Tudor have handled it? How would Rowe?), but those very constraints, in a post-AMM world, seem more binding than liberating.

The second half of the concert proved much more successful. Barry Chabala, one of eight radio operators, showed me his portion of the score beforehand. It runs for six minutes, divided into four 1 1/2 minute segments. Within each of those portions is a listing of AM radio frequencies, ranging (as best I can recall) from about three to maybe a dozen, each of which to be visited during the 90 seconds, I assume in the order listed). The effect was quite wonderful though, again, I would have loved to have heard the speaker system taken advantage of or to have had the radios dispersed among the audience. Even so, the chatter, the snatches of music, the sports play by play and the static or in between-ness (I think the frequencies are set, so that when performed in a given locale, they may or may not coincide with existing on-air stations) created a very enjoyable, absorbing cloud of sound. I've no idea whether or not it was one of Cage's ideas with the piece, but the sensation of understanding that one always dwells in this enormous web of generally unheard sounds was quite strong. Very different (and, for me, perhaps ultimately less rewarding) than what groups like [N:Q] are attempting, but on it own merits, quite fascinating and stimulating.

The highlight of the evening, a very pleasant surprise, was McDonough's own "Landscape Under Construction", for 1 to 42 CD players, here ten. As I understand it (again, Barry or Kurt can correct me), each musician selects a disc of Cage's music from 42 supplied by McDonough. (S)he then follows a time-based score (total time = 34'55") consisting of two columns which contained instructions on starting or pausing the disc (which is played from its beginning) as well as volume increases or decreases. At several points, the player can choose to cross over from one column to another and continue on from there. I'm wondering how much of the "success" of a given performance depends on what combination of discs is chosen, ie, how much variation and/or balance there happens to be. In this case, there were (I think) two that consisted of voice (one Cage's, one in German), a piece for solo cello, one for harp, one that utilized Western operas, one for strings, and other assorted noise, including percussion. Whatever, the result was a beautifully shifting landscape where the listener constantly makes pattern connections between ostensibly unrelated musics, almost all of them seeming to make "sense". It flowed along wonderfully, rarely losing traction, almost always maintaining interest. If I had a quibble, it was that McDonough's own player was a bit loud and that combined with the pieces emanating from it (a clattering percussion work and, I think, one for radios and/or record players--thought I heard snatches of Arthur Blythe and Zorn in there--) it occasionally dominated the proceedings to an untoward degree. As before, I'd love to hear it in a more expansive setting, maybe with more players. Though even as is, it could make a very fine CD on its own and it sounded like Mode is going to do just that in the near future. I suppose one would call this a process piece, and a damned good one.

A lovely evening. Would that this sort of affair was staged more often.

9 comments:

Caleb Deupree said...

Excellent review, and it looks like it was a great concert, thanks.

Many of Cage's pieces have time-based events, and it can be a challenge in performance not to show the dependency on a clock. I play piano in one of the number pieces, where events fall within a certain time bracket. The whole piece projects an aura of stillness and quiet, and it's somewhat distracting to the audience to be looking back and forth at a clock the whole time. But at least I'm seated at the piano for the entire performance, so it is possible to position the clock so that I don't need to move my head when I look back and forth at the music — sounds like that wasn't possible here.

Barry Chabala said...

hi brian..great seeing you there last night! yes the radio music scores are pretty much as you described. the Landscape scores vary from ones like i showed you to variations on the columns to having actual clock faces and directional arrows showing volume & start/stop instructions at various clock values :02, :35, etc, to cards containing similar instructions to occur over a specified time period. so there are lots of variations on the score but all have similar outcome. it was a fun night, thanks for coming and the nice review!...

barry

Robert said...

Hey Brian,

Thanks for the review I was hoping one of you NY-ers would go and report on this one. I've seen all of those Cage pieces performed live and enjoy all of those pieces immensely. I do have to say that performance of Indeterminacy sounds bad, just like the Variations II/Indeterminacy that was released on Mode, the performer makes it way too much about themselves. Cage's constraint was that each story was supposed to last for one minute so he'd slow them down or speed them up based on length. Too many people reading feel the need for that dramatic reading. Disappointing.

When I saw Cartridge Music performed they projected an analog clock onto the screen in the hall. Never really felt like much of a constraint as it was just this continually sweeping second hand. But I have to admit I find your characterization of time based events as "dated" rather odd. In general almost all scores are time based, just because you have the musicians count beats doesn't mean that you couldn't just say "play an A at 1:21" it really comes down to the same thing. I guess you can feel that scores are dated, but that doesn't leave you much beyond improv and loosely structured improv.

Brian Olewnick said...

Robert, I guess when a piece wanders close enough to improvised territory, at least sounding that way, I get a little itchy when the performers are unable to fully explore what they happen to find. This may well fit in with Cage's aversion to personality in musical expression and to the ruts an improvising musician may easily fall into, but it seems stuck between that and obeisance to the "composer", even if that latter direction is intended to take the performer into an area of non-judgmentalism with regard to sound. Not sure if that makes sense.

If the members of AMM circa 1968 were performing the piece, are the chances good that it would be substantially different? "Better"? I suppose I should line up multiple versions of "Cartridge Music" and listen to them, blindfold test style...

(btw, "cartridge" is a great word, great little collection of sounds in and of itself.)

Robert said...

Well I can't speak of the performers that you saw but when I saw it performed it was Matt Rogalsky and Kaffe Matthews and I thought it was really great.

Not to dismiss your itchiness but it seems to me that the concerns of the audience are (should?) never really going to be those of the musicians whether they are playing a score or not. How often have you felt that something should be developed further or cut off sooner then what actually occurs? Not to mention the criteria of something "sounding like it is improvised" seems like a pretty limiting thing to place on composers. You are saying that a composed piece can't sound improvised? Call the jazz police ;)

Brian Olewnick said...

I should have visibly scratched myself, maybe. I suppose Cage may have objected to, say, a musician performing "Cartridge Music" drawing a rasp across a needle and hearing something especially wonderful--choosing to dally there for several minutes, examining the nature of the sound with care, from slightly differing aspects, etc.--that he should be willing to discard it as easily as it was found, non-hierarchicizing it in his head. An appropriately Buddhist attitude but then, that's why I'll likely never attain true Buddha nature. Too damn fascinated by things.

Kurt said...

hey brian -

thanks so much for coming to the show, and for writing so insightfully about it. i'll deign to respond, since you invoked my name...

yes, cartridge music is very time-based, like all of the pieces were. it's a fun piece to do, although to be honest it's not one of my favorite cage pieces to listen to. it's actually fairly limited how much tonality you can get out of the cartridges, especially given the constraints of the score. in addition, the cartridges don't always have styluses in them. the score calls for changing the object in the cartridge (we used nails and small screwdrivers, for example). and i agree, it does feel more dated than many of cage's pieces.

and for what it's worth, we weren't going for a "cageian" interpretation of indeterminacy and, for better or worse, didn't end up with one.

thanks again for your words!

kurt

Kurt said...

oh, also, the blythe and zorn you heard in 'landscape under construction' was actually anthony braxton, from a recording of a cage piece made using braxton records.

Brian Olewnick said...

Coulda sworn I heard a little "Lenox Avenue Breakdown" in there. Ah well....