EARLE BROWN—A LIFE IN MUSIC—VOL. I • Paul Price, cond;1–3,5 John Cage, cond;4,7 Manhattan Percussion Ens;1–8 Christoph Caskel (perc);9–11 Aloys Kontarsky (pn, wood blocks);10 Bernhard Kontarsky (cel, cymbals);10 David Tudor (pn);Read more class="SUPER12">11 AMM;12 Musica Elettronica Viva13 • WERGO 6928 (3 CDs: 116:15)
Though born in Massachusetts, Earle Brown was a young composer living in Denver in 1950 when Merce Cunningham and John Cage came to perform and lecture at the McLean School. His wife at that time, Carolyn Rice Brown, was a dancer who attended Cunningham’s master class. Almost immediately, the four realized they had much in common, and Cage persuaded the Browns to move to New York in 1951—Carolyn was one of the founding members of Merce Cunningham’s dance company (where she was to remain for 20 years as a featured performer) and Earle eventually collaborated with Cage at the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape. This experience with electronic equipment allowed Brown to work as a recording engineer—recording and editing pop, jazz, and classical music—for Capitol Records from 1955–1960. In 1960 he began producing records for Bob Shad’s Time label, having convinced the well-established jazz and pop maven to allow him to record a series of avant-garde compositions. The first of these remarkable documents was issued on Time, but after that label folded in 1966, Brown continued to produce the series for Shad’s larger Mainstream imprint. All 18 of these recordings were reissued on LP in the 1970s, but have not appeared on CD until now.
Brown’s broad knowledge of new music, along with his professional connections, resulted in a groundbreaking collection of music that had been largely unheard—indeed, in some cases, all but unknown—at the time. Represented, of course, were Brown himself and his friends in the “New York School”—Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and their foremost interpreter, pianist David Tudor. But Brown also included what was for the most part the first American documentation of composers from Europe like Nono, Berio, Maderna, Scelsi, and Boulez; Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle from London; an album devoted to South American composers; and one featuring the next, post-Cage generation of American radicals, Ashley, Mumma, Lucier, and Behrman. Equally important, however, was Brown’s understanding that this unfamiliar, often shocking new music needed the best possible performances in order to convince listeners of its merits, as well as the best possible sound quality to capture its tonal subtleties and extravagances. By recording performers like Tudor and pianist Yuji Takahashi, flutist Severino Gazzelloni, violinist Paul Zukofsky, vocalist Cathy Berberian, and experienced ensembles often under the direction of the composers themselves, Brown helped to establish a tradition of new-music performance styles and techniques that would stand as a model for subsequent generations of interpreters.
This long-awaited release (collectors have been paying big bucks for the precious Time and Mainstream LPs) initiates Wergo’s two-year schedule of the reissue of all 18 albums, in six three-CD sets. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that the total playing time listed above averages out to less than 40 minutes per CD. Wergo has decided to maintain the integrity of the original releases’ production by reproducing the cover art, reprinting the original liner notes, and yes, limiting each CD to a single LP’s worth of music. Their digitalization of the original sound quality, which was excellent to begin with, has been handled with care (although some lingering tape hiss is inevitable)—the proof is the first CD, where the percussion timbres are clean, crisp, and vivid. I did notice one new production error in this CD release—on disc 3, the two pieces have been mislabeled; AMM is the first piece on the disc, and Spacecraft the second, not the other way around, as listed on the CD cover and in the booklet.
What about the music, then? The first disc, “Concert Percussion for Orchestra,” reminds us that adventurous composers, looking for new sounds and timbres in the days before electronics, turned to percussion in order to expand the available palette of colors, and with them began to explore the rhythmic intricacies of other, non-classical, ethnic musics. Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán’s works for percussion ensemble date from 1930, William Russell’s Three Dance Movements and Three Cuban Pieces from later that same decade. Henry Cowell’s Ostinato pianissimo (1934) has become one of the repertoire’s classics. John Cage plays the prepared piano solos in his Amores (1943). Though for the most part concise exercises in unusual rhythms and timbres, many of which sound commonplace and simplified today, these pieces nevertheless were highly influential for their time, and display a charming sense of exploration, atmosphere, and, yes, even swing.
The Stockhausen and Kagel works on the second disc were hot off the press in 1960, and they receive gripping readings. The solo percussion score Zyklus, once so jolting, now has an almost meditative feel to it, and this version of Refrain emphasizes its delicacy and spontaneity, offering a constellation of Webernesque detail. Mauricio Kagel’s Transición II surveys a wider range of attacks and rhythms, with previously recorded and live taped components increasing the complexity of tonal relationships. Tudor and percussionist Caskel (who works directly inside the piano) pay sharp attention to the task at hand, briskly aligning the aleatoric elements of the score. (Alternate versions may be heard from the ensemble L’Art pour L’Art on the cpo label and Aldo Orvieto, Dmitri Fiorin, and Alvise Vidolin on Mode.)
Finally, we have what is probably the most unusual album released in the series, recordings of group improvisations by the British band AMM (which at this time included composer Cornelius Cardew) and the Rome-based group of American expatriates including Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, and Richard Teitelbaum (and one Hungarian, Ivan Vandor), Musica Elettronica Viva. Both ensembles featured live electronics as a major part of their instrumental arsenal, and both gleefully embraced noise as a confrontational device and a link to the ritualistic musical activities that, without benefit of a predetermined compositional design, produced their truly spontaneous structures. Drones—frictional, layered, and ambient—are the source for much of their aural environment, and acoustic instruments—pianos, saxophones, even cello—are played with pseudo-electronic timbres or mixed into the fray so as to be all but unrecognizable.
AMM’s contribution is an edited excerpt from a longer, live performance (which may be heard in its entirety on “The Crypt—12 June 1968: The Complete Session” on the Matchless label). In addition, silences of various lengths were edited into the performance after the fact, interrupting the music according to some unexplained, Cagean provocation. Interestingly, these silences still contain several small tics and pops, suggesting that rather than edit in fresh, totally silent digital silence, Wergo decided to use the analog silence taken from an LP (the master tapes may have been unavailable), thus once again maintaining the integrity (albeit flawed) of the original release. MEV’s live activity, Spacecraft, was an open improvisation that they performed a number of times in their early years—other versions may be found on the Alga Marghen label, and in the valuable four-CD set “MEV 40” on New World. The AMM and MEV improvisations have less-than-optimal sound, and are difficult to listen to without flinching, but as examples of controlled chaos they project a raw, immediate catharsis unmatched by any other music of their time. Earle Brown’s decision to include them as representation of the cutting-edge of new music’s new repertoire, giving improvisation a platform equal with composition, was gutsy and prophetic. The remaining releases in this most welcome series will afford further examples of the breadth of Brown’s vision.