Notes and Editorial Reviews
MUSIC FOR MERCE, 1952–2009
NEW WORLD 80712-2 (10 CDs: 719:44).
For Magnetic Tape. For Piano I. For 1, 2, or 3 People. Burdocks. Or 4 People.
Music for Piano 1–20. Variations V. Inlets. Voiceless Essay. Sculptures Musicales. Four.
108 and One
Activities for Orchestra.
_…for nearly an hour... Long Throw.
In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer.
Toneburst. Weatherings. Phonemics. Sextet for Seven. Webwork. Virtual Focus. Neural Network Plus.
S.E. Wave/E.W. Song. Spacings. Spectra. Wave Code A-Z.
Geography and Music.
Gliss in Sighs. Blues ’99. Longtermparking.
There’s no best way to approach this mammoth collection; for example, my headnote is sketchier than the
norm (with special dispensation of our editor) because if I listed all the performers and circumstances of live performances, it would take up several pages by itself. And as you’ll see in a moment, my approach to presenting this astonishing collection takes something from the ruling aesthetic of its music.
To pull back for a second—choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) was one of the great pioneering American artists of the second half of the 20th century. His contributions to dance include an extraordinary new vocabulary of motions and actions that derive from everyday motion, and yet completely transcend it. His musical legacy comes from his partnership (artistic and personal) with John Cage, which led him to create a sort of parallel musical company of composer-performers. As a result, he’s one of the great avant-garde music patrons of the century.
The presence of the Cage of course pointed the aesthetic of the music in a particular direction. By the time the Cunningham company was fully operational, Cage had embraced chance operations as a fundamental generator of material in his practice, and while Cunningham only used them limitedly in his own choreography, he and Cage did create a truly unique form of collaboration; each made his own work separately, having agreed in advance only on duration. The final mix of dance and music was only revealed at the premiere.
This 10-disc set is an exploration of the archives of the Cunningham Dance Foundation (now at the New York Public Library). All the recordings are of live performances from the 1950s on, and of course sonic quality varies: There is periodic audience noise, laughter, applause, etc. I’ll say from the outset though, that the sonics are overall extremely (indeed surprisingly) good (much of the music is electronic, and so I assume there was a direct feed from the performance technology to the recording devices). Many are excerpts, but the selections have been made with care and taste; one always has a sense of the whole represented.
In Cage’s spirit, then, I’ve decided to approach this mammoth in a manner that would do it some justice, yet not get into a tiresome “completist” exegesis. So warning: Not every piece or composer is commented upon. (Don’t worry, it will be long enough.) Using a random number generator set between 10 and 20, I turned up 13, which will be the number of critical observations I now give.
1. I just mentioned electronic music. In fact, many of these scores made for Cunningham were in fact mostly live electronic music, stressing open, networked systems that were ridden by the performing composers, almost like a bucking bronco. What emerges is a treasure-trove of early works in this discipline, which is becoming more important to contemporary music practice every day. The Cage-Cunningham musical troupe now looks quite prophetic to anyone who works with more open forms and structures, programs such as MaxMSP, etc.
2. Likewise, much of this music uses noise (in the scientific sense of sounds without specific pitch) as its fundamental material. And as such it’s prophetic of this development, which we now see in all forms of music, from classical spectralism to laptop improvisation to industrial rock.
3. Also, the manner of production is fascinating. Because composers had to produce works to fill a given time-space, and often quickly, one could almost feel that there was a process not too far off from what rules commercial music—in film, video, and other media. But of course, this was countered by the fact that this is some of the most uncompromisingly experimental and often confrontational music imaginable. There’s a stimulating contradiction here.
4. One also has to recognize that a host of practices associated as much (or more) with the art world would find early fruition in the Cunningham legacy: conceptualism, installation and performance art above all. Gordon Mumma’s experiments with live electronic systems whose input came from wired dancers seems to combine the latter two. Similarly, Pauline Oliveros’s
In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer
is a sort of scientific exploration of an acoustic space, playing out in performative time and public view. Maryanne Amacher’s
is almost nothing sonically; it seems to be the faint reverberation of some other sounds, whose presence has been stripped away, and whose nature we can only vaguely imagine. What remains are the edges of a husk of sound. In short, there is as much sound art here,as there is what we might call “music.” And frankly I think that’s all to the good.
5. While overall I’m wildly enthusiastic about this collection, I have to be honest. To my taste not everything is a masterpiece (surprise!). There’s a lot of “music by the yard,” which is an obvious byproduct of the circumstances of creation dictated by the commissioning process. No doubt, some pieces probably would have made a better impression if we could experience them in conjunction with their respective dances. Even Cage, despite his prominence within the field and now near-mythic status, doesn’t get off the hook. I find his pieces from the 50s and 60s (such as
and his collaboration with Mumma and Tudor, 52
) not at the same level as other works from the period. They just sound more “occasional,” which may mean that attitude toward a piece trumps technique, no matter how radical.
6. On the flip side, Cage also provides repeated transcendent moments.
is composed entirely of water sounds lapping within amplified conch shells;
has the composer’s voice chopped up into phonemic fragments that are haunting for their contradictory combination of humanity and incommunicability;
takes the idea of silence into a new realm of expressive interaction with sound; and several of the late “number” pieces have the flow and interplay of great chamber music, even when using the strangest combinations of instruments and sounds.
7. Among other composers, one who comes off particularly well is Christian Wolff. The very first piece on the collection is a squeaky early electronic piece, something of a “fingernails on blackboard” essay, which is strangely compelling, despite or perhaps because of its ugliness.
is a piece with a lot of humor, a seeming grab bag of old and worn-out ideas playing happily out against one another. And all the other pieces of his have an authenticity. I find myself paying very close attention because somehow I feel the composer also had done so. Considering how much of this work involves open/graphic notation, it’s a great mystery I should feel this way, but I do, and I think it is some sort of subtle proof of the way real artistic talent and integrity can shine through any filter.
8. But the greatest revelation of the entire collection is David Tudor. Most renowned as the virtuoso who collaborated with Cage on a series of groundbreaking works (above all,
Music of Changes
), his abandonment of performance to make live electronic scores to some seemed a tragic waste of talent. But hearing the seven pieces in this collection affirms that in fact he is a far more important (and prophetic) composer than I at least realized.
, the first of his pieces to appear here, is stunning, a kind of construction site of abstract sounds that’s overwhelming in its sonic force and rhythmic drive. It’s representative of the output displayed there, though the range of timbres and textures explored is vast. Tudor had a genius to create a network of potential sonic events and then enter into it with a great openness and freedom, while at the same time being guided by an acute ear. Again, this is a motherlode of early repertoire for live elecrtronic music. One sees why Cage admired him so.
9. Tudor followed Cage as the company’s music director, and upon his death in 1996, Takehisa Kosugi took the reins, which he has held until the company’s disbandment (which occurs this year). Kosugi’s pieces are varied, but tend to be a little more Minimalist in sound, and use the gradual transformation of cyclic materials to gain their flow and momentum. It’s a pleasure to get to know the work of a composer whose name I’ve known for years, without the accompanying soundtrack.
10. There are some other happy encounters. For me, David Berhman’s large work
has a surprisingly bluesy lyricism, despite its impeccable avant-garde veneer; Stuart Dempster’s
has a great natural openness of sound that shows his ties to Oliveros and her practice of “deep listening,” and happily, it never gets too New Agey for my taste; instead it projects a serene nobility. Annea Lockwood’s
is an artful mix of concrete sounds from nature itself (most of all, insects) that generates real musical discourse.
11. The set concludes with excerpts from the “Events” the company produced, which feature portions from the dance works blended together. For music, composers were invited to collaborate (usually in real time, I have to assume) on the accompanying score. The overall impression is a sort of experimentalist free jazz, or maybe even more apt, a mashup. What could be self-indulgent babble produces for me quite elevated music-making; one senses that the composer-performers are relishing this chance to bring their personal viewpoint into a fresh dialogue with peers they love and respect.
12. Who is this package designed for? Who will buy it? That’s of course a real question, as this is a substantial investment for any listener, and could be viewed as an extreme niche product. Let me suggest the following audiences: institutions, educational and cultural whose archives chronicle American arts history; dance aficionados who aren’t afraid of the experimental tradition within their field; composers who work with electronic music, and in particular live/real time/interactive systems; and finally anyone seriously interested in American art, and unafraid of confronting stubbornly uncompromising product. All these constituencies will find this box a critical reference point for years to come. I think it’s worth the price for the Tudor alone.
13. Did I mention the set has a marvelously rich and thick booklet, with comprehensive essays and notes by Amy C. Beal, David Vaughn, and Christian Wolff, as well as stunning photographs of Cunningham and dancers from throughout the company’s history?
Probably on the Want List, it almost seems a foregone conclusion.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
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