CD Review: Mozart: Keyboard Music, Vols 8 & 9—Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano (Harmonia Mundi 907532.33, 2016, 153 minutes)

Kristian Bezuidenhout 2010Photo: Marco Borggreve

Kristian Bezuidenhout 2010 (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Mozart enthusiasts like me will be sad to see that this installment brings to a close Mr. Bezuidenhout’s revelatory and superb traversal of all Mozart’s keyboard music. What an amazing experience it has been. This two-disc set pairs, like most of the others, early and late, obscure and evergreen. The program includes the sets of Variations K. 352 and K. 573 (Duport), a few sonata movements in completions by Robert Levin, and piano sonatas—among others (discussed below) are the ones in C (K. 279) and D (K. 576). In every case, the performances sparkle with clarity, erudition, and a palpable joy in music-making that is altogether rare today.

The set opens with the “simple” sonata in C Major, K. 545. As if throwing down a final gauntlet, Bezuidenhout supplies deft and completely appropriate varied reprises in the first movement and an absolutely heavenly, lyrical approach to the slow one—the latter, in particular, gives the music an unexpected depth and expressive character that I have never heard before.

Mozart’s earlier F-major Sonata (K. 280) is an altogether different beast, with the first movement’s strident, insistent bass octaves and almost acerbic wit. Bezuidenhout executes the transition to this cheekier, more incisive keyboard writing flawlessly, again including along the way an assortment of added passagework and ornamentation that suits it perfectly.

As a harpsichordist and Baroque enthusiast, I’m particular attracted to Mozart’s several essays that imitate that great music, among which the masterly G-major Gigue (K. 574) is one of the finest examples. And again I’m astounded by the way Bezuidenhout adjusts his approach to suit the music; by adding a touch more harpsichordistic articulation and phrasing, he reminds us that the keyboard players of the later eighteenth century were used to many different types of instruments and no doubt keenly attuned to the rich stylistic variety of the era.

In sum, careful listeners will detect in this collection the full range of Mozart’s inventiveness and scope of his piano writing, and as a result should gain from the performances novel insights and renewed inspiration in even the best known of his works included in this release. I hope to see plans for Bezuidenhout to record Mozart concertos and the sonatas of Beethoven and Haydn.

Anarchism and the Everyday: John Cage‘s Number Pieces

Originally published as liner notes for Four4, performed by Glenn Freeman (Ogre/Ogress, 2000).

Buy the recording here.

As he approached his eightieth birthday, John Cage (1912–1992) found himself the grand old man of the avant-garde, a composer, writer, and artist who had attained notoriety and visibility on a worldwide scale. Once only a small circle of brilliant performers had been associated with his work; now ensembles and soloists awarded him commission after commission for new compositions. In order to keep up with the demand for new pieces, Cage turned once more to his long–time assistant Andrew Culver, who developed new software that enabled Cage to write music very quickly.

These new works, which occupied almost all of Cage’s compositional attention between 1987 and 1992, came to be known as the Number Pieces. Each work’s title consists only of a number written out as a word (One, Two, Fourteen, etc.) that indicates the number of performers for which the piece was composed. If Cage wrote several works for the same number of performers, he would make a further distinction in the title by adding a superscript numeral; for instance, Four (1989) is for string quartet, while Four4 (1991) is for a quartet of percussion.

As in many of Cage’s works, there is a rich network of ideas underlying the 48 completed Number Pieces. One of the most important of these is the composer’s concern for the place of the artist within society and his concern for society in general. This idea occupied his mind since his decisive adoption of indeterminacy in the 1950s. We certainly recall Cage’s famous statement about musicians in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958):

I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble. . . . My problems have become social rather than musical. Was that what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said to the disciple who asked him whether he should give up music and follow him? “By no means. Remain a musician. Music is a means of rapid transportation to life everlasting.” And in a lecture I gave at Illinois, I added, “To life, period.” [John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 136.]

In the Number Pieces Cage made his final statement on this social problem: how to create a musical metaphor for an “enlightened” anarchy, a society of individuals who live together in harmony without having to sacrifice their freedom as individuals to a central governing authority. He had attacked the problem earlier from a variety of angles; in his most radical works like 0¢00² (1962) and Variations III (1963), for example, the performer realizes actions that may or may not be “musical” in the traditional sense, and she may do these actions for any length of time. Without traditional musical sounds or the “frame” that a time span provides, Cage challenged the very notions of the musical work.

For most of the Number Pieces, however, Cage decided to specify the length of time that each piece would last, perhaps because he wrote so many of them for musicians that he did not personally know. But in order to introduce an element of unpredictability and flexibility within a stable total duration (thus bringing the music closer to his ideal of an anarchistic environment), Cage turned to elastic “measures” that he called time brackets. He describes the time brackets in his late autobiographical mesostic, Composition in Retrospect (1981/1988):

for some time now i haVe been using / time-brAckets / sometimes they aRe / fIxed / And sometimes not / By fixed / i mean they begin and end at particuLar / points in timE

when there are not pointS / Time / foR both beginnings and end is in space / the sitUation / is muCh more flexible / These time-brackets / are Used / in paRts / parts for which thEre is no score no fixed relationship

it was part I thought of a moVement in composition / Away / fRom structure / Into process / Away / from an oBject having parts / into what you might caLl / wEather

now i_See / That / the time bRackets / took_Us / baCk from / weaTher which had been reached to object / they made an earthqUake / pRoof music / so to spEak

[John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change Books, 1993), 34–35.]

Cage had used time brackets for a long time, for instance in the 1952 Untitled Event at Black Mountain College. In the Number Pieces, however, the time brackets are smaller and more subtle. In Four4, as an example, the music in Player I’s first time bracket can begin any time between 0¢00² and 1¢00²; it must end sometime between 0¢40² and 1¢40². On the other hand, Player IV can begin the music in his first time bracket any time between 0¢00² and 0¢15² and must end it between 0¢10² and 0¢25². None of the time brackets for any of the four players has an exact correspondence with any other, though there is always the possibility that the sounds might overlap. In this way, the performers in Cage’s Number Pieces can participate in a unique kind of ensemble and yet retain their own sense of musical identity and individuality. In conversations with Joan Retallack near the end of his life, Cage described this situation beautifully:

JC [John Cage]: You would go to a concert and you would hear these people playing without a conductor, hmm? And you would see this group of individuals and you would wonder how in hell are they able to stay together? And then you would gradually realize that they were really together, rather than because of music made to be together. In other words, they were not going one two three four, one two three four, hmm? But that all the things that they were sounding were together, and that each one was coming from each one separately, and they were not following a conductor, nor were they following an agreed-upon metrics. Nor were they following an agreed-upon . . . may I say poetry?—meaning feeling in quite a different way at the same time that they were being together.

JR [Joan Retallack]: So that really is a kind of microcosm of an—

JC: Of an anarchist society, yes. That they would have no common idea, they would be following no common law. The one thing that they would be in agreement about would be something that everyone is in agreement about . . . and that is, what time it is.

[John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music; John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 50–51.]

Now the actual sound content of Cage’s time brackets in the Number Pieces is equally subtle: usually each time bracket contains only a single pitch (as in Four4); or perhaps two or three pitches connected by a slur; or more exceptionally, for instance in Thirteen (1992), a longer string of pitches. The percussion parts in most of these works, and in Four4, are for instruments that Cage never specifies but simply refers to by number. By leaving the choice of instruments up to the performers, I believe Cage was expressing not a disinterest in the choice but rather a Zen-like absence from choice, the ultimate certainty that his ego need not influence the sounds that would appear in his percussion music. This absence and the extreme economy of content gives Cage’s Number Pieces a transparency that is always a surprise for those who know the composer’s more extravagant or virtuosic works—27¢10.554² for a Percussionist (1956), the Concert, HPSCHD (1969), Roaratorio (1979), or the Freeman Etudes for violin (1977–80/1989–90). And most of the works are longer than twenty minutes, some much longer than that: Four4 lasts 72 minutes in performance.

Hearing a piece for such a length of time that consists of very few sounds is a very unusual adventure. In my own experiences, I have a sensation of being neither awake nor asleep, present and centered but experiencing the passage of time and listening in a manner totally unfamiliar to me. Another friend of mine described it as being compelled to be with yourself for a very long time. Whatever the impression one has, it is clear that the Number Pieces give a memorable impression of spaciousness and tranquility.

Yet it is a misconception to see these works as the unique and crystalline final monuments of a master composer who expected death at any moment. Many of Cage’s earlier works are just as transparent, from the famous 4¢33² (1952) to Inlets (1977), for four conch shells filled with water. One quality that unites all of these pieces is their amazing emphasis on “ordinary life”—all that performers need to have is devotion both to the act of producing a sound and to hearing the sounds around them. Overly dramatic display has no place in these late works, but curiosity and awareness do. This exuberance for everyday life and for discovery is at the very heart of Cage’s artistic legacy. It is no surprise, then, that one of the artist’s favorite sayings was “Nichi nichi kore ko nichi”—“Every day is a beautiful day.”

CD Review: Tristan Perich: Parallels, for tuned triangles, hi-hats & 4-channel 1-bit electronics (2013)—Meehan/Perkins Duo (Physical Editions 5, 2015, 46 minutes)

Tristan Perich 2016

I first heard of Tristan Perich from NPR, hardly the bastion of cutting-edge arts journalism. But every now and then they report on someone vital and interesting (whether by accident or knowledge, it’s impossible to tell)—that’s how I also became aware of Guillermo Klein. The Perich spot concerned his 1-Bit Symphony (2010), which had just been released by Cantaloupe. Perich, who studied math, music, and computer science, has devoted much of his work to the exploration of 1-bit electronics, which Piero Scaruffi describes as “a form of digital soundscaping in which each sound can be represented with just one bit of information, the lowest possible digital representation of audio.” The sound world thus produced is deceptively simple, since the combination of the humble electronic sounds can create various acoustic phenomena that give unexpected richness to the timbres. Aesthetically the music explores repetition and slow transformation; in a word, minimalism. While it is clearly related to the early work of Glass and Reich, Perich’s music offers a strong continuation of that aesthetic as a result of his compelling choices for harmony and, above all, the dramatic effects that result from the varying rate at which different patterns change.

Parallels is part of a series called Compositions released on his own imprint, Physical Editions—the others are Telescope, for two bass clarinets, two baritone saxophones, and 4-channel 1-bit electronics; Dual Synthesis, for harpsichord and 4-channel 1-bit electronics; and Active Field, for 10 violins and 10-channel 1-bit electronics (this piece performed with Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.) The packaging includes a poster-sized print of the score, and artist editions of 100 will continue the tradition he established in earlier works: furnishing a custom-made player and an archival-quality print of the score. (Perich’s considerable background and acclaim as a visual artist always informs the approach he takes in the release of his music.)

I’ve not heard the other pieces (except for sizeable excerpts from Dual Synthesis), but I can confidently report that Parallels is a major work in Perich’s growing catalogue. Lasting 46 minutes, the 4 separate 1-bit voices supply the pitch material. Each voice in the opening figuration presents a string of four pitches (A5, C6, D6, E6), but each begins on a different note of the string. (Thus it resembles Steve Reich’s early phase pieces.) As the piece continues, the pitches change as do the number notes in a given string. so that the music takes on some of the characteristics of Ligeti’s micropolyphony: although the constant four-voice texture is less complex than Ligeti, it shimmers like his music but also creates regular, constantly changing, dance-like pulsations. And as I remarked earlier, Perich’s deft choices for the pitches create a compelling, dramatic arc for the work.

The percussion parts (tuned triangles and hi-hat cymbals) double selected pitches of the electronics in close, interlocking patterns that I think would be extremely difficult to play accurately. For the recording, the timbre of the percussion instruments tends to add an additional coloration to the electronic sounds, but I’d suppose the act of seeing the musicians playing in real time would make a great contribution to the extraordinary sense of ecstasy that the music generates. Here’s a video trailer that gives a sense of what the piece feels like in concert.

The Meehan/Perkins Duo handle this music expertly—their precision is almost scary—and the sound is fantastic (no surprise, because Michael Riesman mixed and mastered the recording).

So much for a basic description. What is it like to hear such music? The middle to late twentieth century offered many opportunities to contemplate what happens over the course of a long piece that lacks some of the usual formal markers of, say, symphonies or operas: Reich, Glass, Feldman, and Cage all posed very different, compelling possibilities. It turns out that a listener can, if she chooses, find local- and long-range formal shapes in such music—but they are rather fluid and unpredictable. In the early minimalist works of Reich, they’re a bit less ambiguous (because his process works are very systematic and easy to hear). When the patterns of change are sometimes less systematic (as in many early works of Glass), the mind has more space to explore different alternatives.

Perich carries that marvelous ambiguity further in Patterns: one might perceive an important formal juncture around 22 minutes, when (I think) one of the percussionists switches to closed hi-hats. Around 26 minutes, both percussionists are playing hi-hats, now open and closed, and another similar change happens at 35 minutes. Otherwise there are no changes quite as dramatic, and the intervening music (not to mention the asymmetry of the junctures) tends to soften their force as defining moments in the overall form.

A sensation results, then, of not knowing quite where I am—as in the Number Pieces of Cage, Robert Morris’s electronic piece MA, or to a lesser extent, pieces like Michael Nyman’s Vertov Sounds—but as I listen to these pieces again and again, they come to resemble an environment with many different landmarks; some of them attract my attention, but I can never grasp them all at once. Morris expresses the effect in Buddhist terms: as the contemplation of Indra’s Net, a celestial network of jewels each of which reflects the totality of the network. But it’s also like real life: a constant surprise, and a wonderful one, if you take the time and you’re paying attention.

CD Review: Mathew Fuerst: Works for Violin & Piano—Jasper Wood, violin and David Riley, piano (Albany 1530, 2015, 49 minutes)

Mathew Fuerst

As I’ve said before, I attended the Eastman School of Music at a time when there was an embarrassment of riches for contemporary music. My graduate and undergraduate colleagues read like a Who’s Who of new music: a short, incomplete list would include Alan Pierson, Stefan Freund, Payton MacDonald, David Crowell, Caleb Burhans, Hannah Lash, Kala Pierson, Kevin Puts, Seth Brodsky, Jeremy Grimshaw, Guy Capuzzo. And the list of ESM professors devoted to new music is just as impressive, including Robert Morris, Brad Lubman, Robert Fink (now at UCLA), and Martin Scherzinger (now at NYU).

I say this only to offer full disclosure; since I review new music, I’m bound to run into these people over and over again. This disc includes two other ESM friends, Mathew Fuerst and David Riley. I always had a special place in my heart for Matt, who’s not only a friend but a pianist and a composer—I followed a similar path but took a decisive turn into musicology. And since he’s a friend I will also drop the formality of referring to him as “Fuerst.”

He finished his education at Juilliard, studied composition with Robert Beaser and John Corigliano there (and earlier, at Eastman, with David Liptak, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, Sydney Hodkinson, and Augusta Read Thomas); oh yes, and he studied piano with Alan Feinberg. His music is a model of what Susan McClary argued for in her essay “Terminal Prestige”—it balances novelty with convention and aims to arouse emotions in the listener, to move and excite zir.

The release spans a ten-year period, from the early student work Sonata-Fantasie No. 1 (2001, the year he earned his Master’s) to a third violin sonata completed in 2011. The former piece is exuberant and youthful, beginning with a dramatic and extremely dissonant gesture intermittently leavened by a less stringent idiom whose passagework reminds me, from time to time, of the first movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto. In the exciting finale from the third sonata (“Moto Perpetuo”)—probably my favorite track from the disc—he presents a dizzying array of triadic harmonies that constantly and surprisingly shift as the result of parsimonious voice-leading. (He probably doesn’t know this, but it reminds me of some of my own music from the late ’80s, with the exception that Matt has a better grasp of form, variety in figuration, and composition than I ever did.) I sense in this work, as I do in the 2009 piano solo The Drift of Things (which Matt plays himself, and brilliantly so) the kind of excitement that sometimes comes from a composer who’s also an active performer.

The other compositions show a marvelous expressive range to his work. The brief “Aphorism” from Sonata-Fantasie No. 2 (2003) is a kind of updated Webern miniature, though not at all as dissonant and ascetic. A series of single, plaintive pitches in the violin are punctuated by left-hand sonorities in the lowest register of the piano; finally, out of nowhere, the piece ends as the right hand of the piano outlines an ascending whole-tone scale on B-flat. It doesn’t sound anything like what’s come before but it makes for a wonderful ending.

Wood and Riley have been playing Matt’s music for a long time and it shows. Their performances make the music sound like Brahms or Beethoven, it seems that familiar and also that nuanced. Albany’s sound is fine. Here’s a link to the recording at their website.

CD Review: Dan Trueman: Nostalgic Synchronic, Etudes for Prepared Digital Piano—Adam Sliwinski (New Amsterdam 70, 2015, 44 minutes)

Dan Trueman, who works as a professor of composition at Princeton University, lightly wears the trappings of his prestigious appointment. He describes himself—almost everywhere I can find—as a “composer, fiddler, and electronic musician.” Digging a little deeper, I found his Ph.D. dissertation (“Reinventing the Violin,” 1999, also from Princeton): a refreshing, erudite but unpretentious document and exactly the kind of thing I’d expect a composer to write. His promotional biography includes, almost as an afterthought, the notice that he’s been awarded prizes from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. In short, my kind of guy. (You can read a nice interview with him, written by my friend Tom Moore, here.)

In Nostalgic Synchronic, Trueman offers an ingratiating set of eight etudes for the bitKlavier, software that creates what he calls “a prepared digital piano” when harnessed by MIDI devices. Some explanation is in order. Both Henry Cowell and John Cage famously experimented with the traditional grand, altering its sound with various objects—Cage’s extensive work formalized the idea as the prepared piano, and his own joy in discovering new kinds of sounds helped him to create with it an unexpectedly vast array of different timbres for his music from the late 1930s through the mid ’50s. The bitKlavier, by contrast, alters a digital piano sample through algorithms that modify the piano sound in several ingenious ways: (1) the Nostalgic virtual preparation creates for certain notes a backward piano sound (one that begins in near silence and becomes louder)—a keyboardist’s touch can influence both the timbre and the tuning; (2) Synchronic preparations create an unpredictable repetition of the note or chord that may or may not match the rhythms of the notated music; (3) Tuning preparations allow for any imaginable temperament and include the familiar equal temperament as well as just intonation and an invented partial temperament inspired by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle that Trueman plays. Certain notes can themselves act as controllers. (As Adam Sliwinski explained to me today, a low A in the fourth etude “toggles between two different rhythmic treatments.”) The preparations can be mobile (for instance, does the Nostalgic preparation can modify any notes desired). Touch can vary certain aspects ofthe preparations, like the reverse effect, but not others. Nevertheless, the software strikes me as very adaptable, and I’ll take some time later to explore it fully.

As a keyboard player myself, and as a writer engaged in writing a short cultural history of the piano, I’m thrilled to discover these compositions and eager to write more about them, in particular for what it tells us about the idea of the piano today. Stylistically, they traverse a wide cross-section but are often driven by a kind of post-minimalist preoccupation with pattern as well as straightforward melody with somewhat familiar-sounding harmonies. Naturally, these two fundamental aspects are often much obscured by the virtual preparations, but never so much that the whole evokes a complex terrain with few if any traditional markers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) The expressive spectrum is wide, too, ranging from the playful No. 6, “Points among Lines (with Occasional Tantrum)” to the almost naively simple No. 3, “Song.”

I’m drawn to the pieces between these two extremes because I personally find they repay repeated hearings. No. 1, “Prelude,” unfurls from a single note through a series of harmonies and patterns made more engaging by the tuning, which seems to be just intonation. No. 2, “Undertow,” is one of the slowest, most meditative works in the set, and the various reverse sounds combine with the tuning to evoke a slowly undulating environment. I find No. 4, “Marbles,” the most attractive of all. A kind of updated version of the many Elliott Carter passages marked scorrevole, its repetitive patterns are delightfully mucked up by the Synchronic preparations and the tuning gives to the whole a sparkling, crystalline quality further heightened by frequent passages in the upper registers.

As for some others, Trueman explains that No. 5, “Wallumrød,” owes something to two sonorities from a record by the Norwegian “jazz” (his scare quotes) composer and pianist Christian Wallumrød. This one is interesting because the form is more elusive, meandering back and forth among various sonorities and textures. The eighth and final etude (“It is Enough!”) treats the evergreen Bach chorale harmonization—famously used in Berg’s Violin Concerto. The spare textures and focus on just a few recurring and relatively consonant intervals bring the set to a powerful and poignant close.

As for the performance, I previously knew Adam Sliwinski only as a percussionist with the marvelous Sō Percussion. I’m very happy to report that his keyboard chops are equally nuanced and expressive. Electronic keyboards are notoriously difficult to play with the kind of touch sensitivity one can have with an acoustic piano (a major exception is the Yamaha hybrid pianos, but these use a traditional action married with the digital samples in any case), but Sliwinski succeeds brilliantly: in my experience, only Michael Riesman (of Philip Glass’s ensemble) has been on recordings as precise but also as musical with electronic instruments.

You can learn more about the work and even obtain the software here.

CD Review: Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings—Sō Percussion (Brassland 45, 2015, 71 minutes)

This is my first review of Bryce Dessner’s music here, though I wrote about his Murder Ballades, performed by Eighth Blackbird on Cedille, in the American Record Guide. (Sadly, haste resulted in my number one sin-to-be-avoided as a writer, misspelling the poor man’s name. I acknowledge my ignominy and beg forgiveness.) Born in 1976, Mr. Dessner now makes his home in Paris. His career is a model of that happy union among a plurality of musical styles that we have witnessed in our time. No doubt his performance work with the guitar—an instrument that has traditionally bridged many musical landscapes—contributes to his sensibility. His list of compositions is impressive, and his work as a producer of new music concerts extensive.

In Music for Wood and Strings (2013), Dessner creates a 31-minute work in a series devoted to exploring the sound world, and perhaps the gestures and sensibilities, of what he calls “traditional American string music.” (My musical childhood was dominated by banjos and bluegrass music, so I hear the piece through that tradition.) It is scored for percussion and an ensemble of new instruments called chordsticks (developed in collaboration with the instrument builder Aron Sanchez). As Dessner writes, “a cross between a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar, the four chordsticks are strung with 8 strings and tuned to two open chords so that Sō Percussion can use pencils, bows and mallets to sound either harmony, or play individual strings – creating melodies, tremolos and drones.” In addition, the bass instrument includes one fretted string that facilitates the playing of melodic lines. You can see photographs here.

The alert reader will readily intuit that two open chords does not make for varied harmonies—in that sense, at least, Wood and Strings evokes early minimalism, works like Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic (1969–1972) and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), and, contemporaneously, the processed violin music in the Cyclic Symphony (2009) by Joshua Carro. The work seems to vacillate among various drone chords—F major, C major, F Lydian, D minor strike me as particularly prominent—that are animated by all kinds of mallet and bowing techniques and, not frequently, incisive and propulsive rhythmic patterns. The resonant open strings and amplification create, within this deceptively simple framework, a great variety of timbres, the overtones often strongly present.

But the work succeeds, additionally, as an extended composition. Its nine sections are played attacca but clearly work toward an ecstatic climax in the eighth section (by far the strongest) and a quiet coda—marked by slow glissandos ascending toward the highest register of the instruments: as the only portion of the work that includes pitches outside of the open-string tunings, this moment is especially poignant. (I should mention that the CD includes the nine sections as separate tracks—presumably for “song shuffle” play—and as one long, continuous one.)

As for the performance, Sō Percussion is at their usual, extraordinary best. They are precise, highly musical and enthusiastic, and have just enough give-and-take in their realization of the rhythms to imbue Dessner’s music with the vitality that it deserves.

CD Review: John Cage: Variations IV—Avant Media (Avant-Media [Bandcamp], 2014, 54 minutes)

I’ve often referred to a number of John Cage’s works from the 1960s as examples of radical indeterminacy, a term that not everyone has agreed with. But I think the term applies to works like 0’00” and the individual items in the Variations from the third onward (1963–1978). All these works have in common an extreme rethinking of the content for a musical composition, the venue in which it is performed and heard, its total duration, and an ongoing concern with widening the possibilities for performers’ contribution to the work itself.

For example, Cage’s 0′00 (1962) called for the amplification of any activity, usually one that fulfilled a social obligation to others. Variations III (1963) included an apparatus by which one could construct a blueprint of sorts indicating how many sounds appeared during a performance along with aspects of the sounds or their interactions with each other. I continue to be astonished that the instructions also contain what, for me, is the line drawn in the sand marking Cage’s acknowledgment of radical indeterminacy’s implications: “Any other activities are going on at the same time.”

Variations IV (1963) places increased emphasis on the location of sounds inside and outside of the venue in which it is performed. Cage offers a number of possibilities (one of them, a cave, strikes me as an eerie presentiment of the Deep Listening work of Pauline Oliveros and others). Performers use several transparencies, overlaid on a map of a space, which allows them to identify where sounds exist with respect to the space. The process can be repeated any number of times to determine a temporal length for the performance. And in keeping with other similar remarks Cage made over the course of this series, he remarks that “A performer need not confine himself to a performance of this piece. At any time he may do something else. And others, performing something else at the same time and place, may, when free to do so, enter into the performance of this.”

The recording offers an aural snapshot (again assembled by chance operations) of an eight-hour performance on February 22, 2014 by Avant Media at Wild Project during the fifth annual Avant Music Festival. I corresponded with Avant’s artistic director, Randy Gibson, who explained that he created for the actual performance iterations of two simultaneous readings, using chance operations to determine the durations for these readings from noon until around 8 p.m. Performers who signed up would arrive, go to their designated spot in the space, and perform for the chance-determined time—some performed multiple times over the course of the event.

To accomplish the “sound from outside” aspect of the piece, Gibson created sound feeds from the lobby and from radio stations around the world. Other sounds included recordings of Cage reading from I–VI, readings of “Lecture on Nothing,” and much else. (I kept hearing snippets from some of the “Indeterminacy” stories, one including Cage’s recollection of his grandmother saying “John, are you ready for the second coming of the Lord?”)

Needless to say, it’s not very easy to give a conventional review of this performance, since the material can contain so much variety. Comparing this recording to the one by John Cage and David Tudor on Everest, however, I’m inclined to say that its palette of sound is much more diverse. The earlier recording used a great many recordings of classical music, inspiring Eric Salzman to remark that “One of the parlor games of the future will be ‘Catch that Quote’ in the John Cage Variations IV.” Some of the Avant Media performance reminds me of the original: I caught the minuet from a Haydn Sonata in A Major (the one where the second half is the mirror image of the first) and the first movement from Schumann’s Kinderszenen—both toward the end. And their appearance makes for an unepxected bit of poetry not unlike the appearance of Wagner’s “O, du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhaüser at the end of Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4. The pianist (or pianists) plays beautifully, and overall I like the sound quality and the separation of the various components. I’d say this performance of Variations IV is superior to the Everest release, and I hope it stimulates more interest in these works.

The recording is available from Bandcamp. Read more—and buy!—at

One-Hit Wonders and Kleinmeister

I’m finally beginning to think about the preparation for a long-desired course on rock and popular music from 1970 to 2000. Although I listened to some rock music from earlier (The Who, The Beatles, The Monkees [!], Chubby Checker, Steppenwolf, and a few others), I only began to pay much attention to it in the 1970s, and even then I didn’t really get very excited by much of it until the later ’70s and ’80s—the synthpop invasion of the ’80s was my watershed moment, and I think that I knew something new was on the horizon (and also that what I had loved was over) when I first saw the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991.

My tastes are quirky—I experienced (in particular) the ’80s as it happened, before television and radio stations were dumbed down (in Clear Channel fashion) to play only the biggest-selling hits and rarely if ever play anything that was less known. (For instance, I’m shocked at the relatively narrow rotation schedules on the three Sirius channels devoted to these three decades.) And so I liked what I liked without knowing or caring how popular it was in the mainstream; I can remember many times staying up very late for some video show or another on TBS of MTV hoping that one of the obscure songs I liked would come on—and being disappointed more often than not.

I think if I were going to teach a course about this music I would want to have a good chunk of it (over half? more?) devoted to the so-called one-hit wonders of the era—for these delightful songs were often more surprising than the usual chart-topping fare. Likewise, some very established bands occasionally released songs that didn’t have a huge success, and these too were often, somehow, more compelling to me. Perhaps this is my temperament.

If I like one-hit-wonders and little-known songs by mainstream bands, however, I’m almost diametrically opposed to the classical equivalent, the Kleinmeister—composers who, if known at all, are known for only a handful of pieces, and who are regularly treated to mini-revivals by musicologists with too much time on their hands and university performers who want to carve out a niche for themselves in the agony of pre-tenure or the limbo before associate professors are finally promoted to full professor. There’s a small number of such works that I really think deserve to be better known: Sonata 5 in G Major from the Armonico Tributo of Georg Muffat (c.1645–1704), for instance, or (more recently) Change, by Judd Greenstein (b. 1979). Most of it, though (pieces by a dizzying array of Baroque and Classical composers and not a few nineteenth-century ones, too), is mercifully unknown today. The music they wrote was competent but eminently forgettable, unless and until performers of the first rank lavish their attention on it—I’m thinking, for instance, of Mahan Esfahani’s current interest in Jiří Antonín Benda (1722–1795) and possibly Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959); great performers make a difference.

I guess I’ve put my finger on the distinction in my mind between the one-hit wonder and the Kleinmester opus: the performers of one-hit wonders are themselves great performers, at least for that one song, and the songwriter, producer, and everyone else involved in making the record seem inspired—at least for that one song. And there’s a built-in freshness about the humble one-hit band, too; one doesn’t need to consider its entire catalog comparatively because there is no catalog. (Try evaluating Elvis Costello’s enormous output to single out the really great songs and you quickly find out how difficult it is.) I’m inclined to think that the most discerning listeners of pop and rock don’t simply follow the chart-toppers, but also sample more widely and have some of these more obscure works as favorites. Too often we’re made to feel ashamed of such ephemera; we call them “guilty pleasures.” But I don’t feel guilty, and I have a feeling that populating my course-to-be with such offerings will actually result in a more vivid experience for the students, not least because it gives them the chance to search for things outside of their comfort zones.

In addition to the Muffat and Greenstein pieces I mentioned above, I include two other obscurities: the one-hit-wonder Tee-Set, and their “Ma belle amie” (1970) and “The Lebanon,” by The Human League (1984). And for good measure, a nice cover of “The Lebanon¨ by a French indie artist, unTIL BEN.

Muffat, Passacaglia from Armonico Tributo

Greenstein, Change

Tee-Set, “Ma belle amie”

The Human League, “The Lebanon”

unTIL BEN, cover of “The Lebanon”

A New and Consistent World Entirely His Own

Alen Profile

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed an extraordinary and almost indefinable cross-fertilization among artistic disciplines and styles. New technologies have facilitated new ways of creation and new ways to present works to audiences. Much of this activity has occurred in the theater, and some of the most impressive achievements have included a significant role for music, for instance Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle (1977–2003), John Cage’s Roaratorio (1979/1983), and the so-called video opera of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot, Three Tales (2002). The creative activity of the Serbian composer and artist Alen Ilijić—and in particular his most recent project Ongevarfen (“Disordered”), which takes as its departure point homage to Arnold Schoenberg—belongs to this tradition but extends it into altogether new terrain with respect to both theater and technology.

Indeed, Schoenberg’s life and work present a congenial, albeit preliminary, introduction to Ilijić. Schoenberg engaged deeply in the artistic movements of his time—he was for a time equally committed to both painting and music—but he never turned his back on the world he lived in. He was a Jew living in the twentieth century, and he lived through the horror of the rise of fascism and World War II. He was also wholly committed to the establishment and safety of the Jewish state, and his return to Judaism was borne out of a genuine revulsion for the evils of the world around him and a feeling of certainty that he needed to make a profound connection with his heritage.

Ilijić, too, engages deeply with the artistic movements of his time, but in ways that Schoenberg could scarcely have imagined. After studies in as well as composition (including film music), orchestration, electronic music, and sound engineering, he worked in London as a singer–songwriter and guitarist. His band Zealot greatly affected artists involved in experimental rock and noise of the 1990s. In the music that followed, he has continued to make use of the techniques and gestures of his work with Zealot, but integrated these with more varied post-tonal materials. Like Schoenberg, Ilijić also works in visual art; whereas Schoenberg felt he had to make a decision between art and music, however, Ilijić’s work includes extensive and ongoing activity in visual art, which in turn informs and is informed by his music and his performance. And Ilijić’s profound Jewish faith, as expressed in his work, speaks out against new and almost unthinkable acts of destruction and bloodshed as new forces of extremism stand poised to threaten world peace again.

Indeed, it is in performance that the various strands of Ilijić’s work coalesce, and through which a most important connection with the artistic present can be made. The forcefulness and extraordinary range of his work emerges most clearly when one sees him perform, as in the recent work Red Faces, most recently staged in January 2016 in Tel Aviv. He makes use of his entire body during the course of the twenty-minute work. At first, he stands silently, sometimes moving his arms in wide, elegant gestures; his hands execute complex rhythms on the piano case; the music alternates sweeping glissandi, slower and lyric melody—often doubled by his voice in the extreme upper register—and violent, often disturbing stabs of sound and tortured passagework. In involving so much the visual element of performance with his body and stage lighting, Ilijić suggests parallels with classic and recent work in performance art, but his expertise in music and visual art creates a more holistic union of the various components.

Audiences may find some of the work troubling, but can respond to this music because the force and ineffable authority of his artistic personality demands complete attention; like Schoenberg’s free atonal compositions, Ilijić’s music is guided by an unerring intuition, revealing unexpected connections among the wide variety of utterances that mark the extraordinary richness of the total musical world available today. But, like Schoenberg, Ilijić has forged from the materials around him a new and consistent world entirely his own—what’s more, his engagement in visual art, performance, and theater promises a renewal worthy of the great multidisciplinary works I mentioned above, but one that exceeds the sum of its parts because they all originate the single source of his inspiration.


On Variations V—Mode 258, 2013

John Cage’s work took a profound turn in the 1960s. Having discovered, in the previous decade, the promise of composing with the assistance of chance, and even creating strategies that rendered music indeterminate and thus incapable of replication from one performance to another, he began to pursue the implications of his discovery to their logical conclusion. Throughout the decade, he made a number of works that, with only a few exceptions, violated the notion of what music was in every detail. The extreme works 0′00″ (1962) and Variations III (1963) are emblematic. In the earlier work, the score requires the performer simply to execute a disciplined action with extreme amplification that verges upon creating feedback. (Only later did Cage add a series of codicils that clarified the action to be performed—for instance, that it should not instantiate a musical performance and that it should fulfill a social obligation to others.) And while Variations III requires the use of circles inscribed on transparent plastic to create a particular design that represents the barest outlines of a performance score, nothing explains how to interpret definitively the resulting design, what sounds will populate it, or even how long the work should last—indeed, he includes a remark that a performer can fulfill her obligation simply by paying attention to events as they occur—as he remarked to Richard Kostelanetz, “We could be performing Variations III right now, if we decided to do so” (quoted in Kostelanetz 1991, 195–96).

Cage did not make these extraordinary compositions out of a need to enact a game of avant-garde one-upmanship, but rather from the sense that then-current technological and social conditions demanded a radically new approach to art and artworks. Following Marshall McLuhan, he believed that fundamental changes in electronic media had created a heightened awareness of the world and of its impermanency; art now needed to reflect this so that it better served the flexible and volatile nature of reality that technology had brokered. It also served to change the minds of people in the way Cage believed accorded with Zen Buddhism.

The aim of musical art had moved away from finished objects—symphonies and concertos and so on—to more open environments where audiences could observe ongoing processes whose individual components interacted with each other in countless ways, whose resulting impressions could never satisfactorily be explained by a single observer. For that matter, Cage seemed to doubt that such a goal could even be accomplished by a musical composition alone, as when he observed of serial composers that “The question of the relation of this music to themselves and to society never enters their minds” (Kostelanetz 1991, 10). That’s why, among all his works from the 1960s, Variations V most closely realized his hope for art that used technology to respond creatively to the society around him.

For the premiere on July 23, 1965—which took place during the ninth concert that was part of the French-American Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center—the dancers (Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Peter Saul, and Gus Solomons) performed on stage, their movements interacting with twelve antennas built by Robert Moog and a set of photocells designed by Bell Labs research scientist Billy Klüver in such a way as to trigger the transmission of sounds to a 50-channel mixer whose output was heard from six speakers around the hall. The actual sound sources—a battery of tape recorders and radios—were supervised by Cage and the composers James Tenney, Malcolm Goldstein, and Fredric Lieberman; Cage and David Tudor operated the mixer. The mise-en-scène was supplemented by a film collage by Stan VanDerBeek that included processed television images by Nam June Paik and footage of the dancers shot by VanDerBeek during rehearsals. Brown recalls that the equipment never functioned as intended, singling out Cage and Tudor for their lack of preparation:

I wrote at the time: “[Lewis Lloyd, then manager of the Cunningham Company] is absolutely FURIOUS with John and David’s ineptness. He said they should have figured out all the wiring on paper before coming into the hall . . . but no, they were doing it there—like high-school physics kids.” (Brown 2007, 459)

Leta E. Miller, who has documented the collaboration in great detail (2001), assigns the blame more widely, agreeing that all the technology needed careful testing well before the final rehearsals in the hall.

The score for Variations V also gives the impression of a series of possibilities colliding with each other to suggest an ongoing experience rather than a fixed series of instructions, for it consists of a series of 37 remarks that not only document the work’s premiere and offer guidance on how others might realize it, but cannily allude to Cage’s immediate milieu of the 1960s and his perception of his place within it. Examples of the former include his description of the sound system, its components and designers, and the important remark that dancers influence the audibility of the sound system as they move through the space and activate the technology around them. Other remarks suggest the attitude of performers to their work, for instance “Perform at control panels in the role of research worker,” “Variations III,” “Lighting . . . as the solution of a problem,” and “Conversation, consultations (not as sound-sources).” Still others seem more personal and range from the ridiculous to the sublime: “E.g., kitchen sink (‘bad plumbing’)” and “‘Breakthrough’ by means of collaboration into the ‘unorganized areas in the rear’ of the unknown.” Taken together, the remarks constituting the Variations V score suggest a creative act itself, one that actually exemplifies Cage’s approach to his new conception of composition and music as a continuing process (just as his famous “Lecture on Nothing” demonstrates a micro-macrocosmic piece of music where words function as the sole sonic content).

A year after the first performances, the company brought Variations V along for its European tour and filmed it in Hamburg; with the assistance of Gordon Mumma, much (but not all) of the original technology was packed up, and he joined Tudor and Cage at the controls for the film (Miller 2001, 558–59). On that occasion—as Mumma recalls in his reminiscence printed elsewhere in this booklet—the company’s lighting designer, Beverly Emmons, supervised the stage direction, all the décor, and the balance of the film collage with the onstage activity. Thus, her role in the visual component of Variations V should not be underestimated, just as her later work with the American director Robert Wilson was instrumental in establishing the full realization of Wilson’s painterly approach to the theater.

Variations V reveals its potential only when—as here—one sees and hears at least a portion of what an audience would have. Indeed, Elizabeth Hoover has persuasively invoked Derrida’s concept of différance to interpret the fluid play of meanings conjured by the overlapping sounds and images in the work; she offers a close reading of Cunningham’s choreography for the final two minutes in order to destabilize a sense that Cage’s authority was primary and to exemplify the Derridean reading of signification within the piece (Hoover 2010). But this interplay of meaning is further fragmented by the filmed production, which frequently superimposes images from the film collage over the dancers and inserts many close-ups of the dancers’ bodies and faces as well as the décor; it includes several cutaways to Cage, Tudor, and Mumma manning the tape recorders and other technology. The effect of seeing Brown or Solomons in extreme close-up as they concentrate on the difficult movements both humanizes the inscrutable character of Cunningham’s choreography and reminds the viewer of the enduring impact of Zen on the work’s aesthetic. (Brown herself attended Suzuki’s lectures and read, on Cage’s recommendation, The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind.) In particular, the performers of Variations V exist within an environment of competing, contradictory content; people are not the only actors of import here, but take their place as equals beside light, film images, bicycles, and flower pots: the infinitude of the Dharmadhatu.


Reference List

Brown, Carolyn. 2007. Chance and circumstance: Twenty years with Cage and Cunningham. New York: Knopf.

Hoover, Elizabeth. 2010. Variations V: “Escaping stagnation” through movement of signification. Current Musicology 90 (Fall): 57–75.

Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. 1991. John Cage: An anthology. New York: Da Capo.

Miller, Leta E. 2001. Cage, Cunningham, and collaborators: The odyssey of Variations V. Musical Quarterly 85, no. 3 (Fall): 545–67.