Art instead of being an object made by one person is a process set in motion by a group of people. Art’s socialized.
—John Cage, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)
One of John Cage’s last works, Rolywholyover A Circus for Museum was a large-scale, revolving, traveling collection of objects, many of them his own but many the work of others—scores, writings, visual art by dozens upon dozens of artists and philosophers from Henry David Thoreau to Margaret Leng Tan. This dynamic, loony meta-piece makes any number of points but two big ones: first, that the artist makes his influences and interests the stuff of his own art; and second, that the dissemination of that work for the edification of an audience is itself an act of art. This week’s John Cage Centennial Festival is very much in this generous spirit, and tonight’s National Gallery concert is its epitome, featuring works by Cage, his teacher Henry Cowell, and four commissioned composers influenced by Cage’s lifework. Two of these, Roger Reynolds and Steve Antosca, are co-organizers of this festival along with Karen Reynolds.
Cage wrote five different Imaginary Landscape pieces between 1939 and 1952, beginning with Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (performed at the festival’s American University concert this past Friday evening), considered one of the first electro-acoustic works ever written. Although pre-recorded material had been used before this time, Cage’s use of pre-recorded abstract sounds was a foundation for much that followed. Essentially, though, the piece is an extension of the percussion ensembles Cage had been using to accompany dance performances at the Cornish School in Seattle.
Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2), dedicated to Morton Feldman, dates from April 1951 and calls for twenty-four players manipulating twelve radios: one player working the tuning, the other “amplitude and timbre.” The piece is a further stage in the relinquishing of intentionality—creator-dictated events—in his work (4'33" was just around the corner). The Zen-influenced foundation of Cage’s music had become the concept of sounds placed in silence, rather than in relation to one another, reflected in his use of spatial notation in the score. He also employed the I Ching to chart changes in numerous elements of the piece, similarly to Music of Changes; of the sixty-four event types, half are silences; the sonic content of the piece will vary from location to location and from performance to performance.
In 1949, while composing the String Quartet in Four Parts, Cage was approached by the actor Burgess Meredith (a new-music fan who was the object of Varèse’s 1949 Dance for Burgess) to write music for a twenty-minute film he had produced and narrated on the works of the sculptor Alexander Calder. Works of Calder, released in 1950, is in three parts, the first and last of which are accompanied by Cage’s music for prepared piano. The piano preparation is relatively complex and detailed. The music for the first section is about half the length of that of the third, which is much more extended and structurally complex. The middle section, for which there is apparently no score, is a collage of metallic sounds from Calder’s studio accompanying Meredith’s narrative. The composer related the interrelation of rhythmic blocks to the fixed-and-moveable forms of Calder’s mobiles, but there is no direct correspondence between the music and the film’s “action” or structure.
Further along in the evolution of Cage’s relationship to sound resource and action is Cartridge Music, composed in 1960. The sound sources are phonographic cartridges into which various objects are inserted, producing different kinds of amplified sound. In performance there are a number of scores (bearing no relationship to traditional notation) corresponding to the number of cartridges, with star-chart-like transparent overlays determining the relationships of performance events. The micro-motions made by the performers are focused and transformed by their amplification, actions reflecting the study and scrutiny of sound itself that had become the currency of 1950s acoustic and electro-acoustic music. The process-score of Cartridge Music can be applied to any other performance media, as well.
Ryoanji is a later work, or rather series of works, some visual and some musical, based on a celebrated rock garden in the Ryoanji Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. In 1983 Cage began making a series of prints by tracing around fifteen different rocks; which of the fifteen he traced for each print was determined by consulting the I Ching. These contours are the basis for a graphic notation in several works—“gardens of sound”—for solo instrument, following the swooping curves of the drawings, and either percussion or ensemble playing slow, ritualized rhythms on metal and wood. Some of the gestures may be pre-recorded and played back in duet with the soloist, who is also asked to vocalize. The first Ryoanji musical piece was for accompanied oboe solo for James Ostryniec; Cage went on to write versions for double base, voice, flute, and trombone, adjusting the solo parts for range and instrumental capability. There are big differences among these different versions of the piece; any number of the solo parts may be played concurrently. The solo trombone version, created for James Fulkerson, will be performed here by cellist Alexis Descharmes. To accommodate the solo part intended originally for bass trombone, Descharmes tunes his cello’s two lowest strings (C and G) down an octave, giving the instrument a newly dark, rich lower range. In place of optional pre-recorded trombone gestures in Cage’s score, Descharmes accompanies his cello with his own vocalizations. In the final moments, he tunes the C string still lower, freeing the cello further from its accustomed voice.
Cage’s Ryoanji drawings and prints were also the wellspring of a series of images produced in collaboration with artist Ray Kass, who has organized a performance of Cage’s STEPS, an art action, taking place tomorrow at the University of California’s Washington Center.
The great American composer Henry Cowell was one of Cage’s few formal teachers in the 1930s, and it was he that suggested Cage enroll in Schoenberg’s class at UCLA. Cowell’s innovative piano music of the 1910s and ’20s was a clear precedent for Cage’s prepared piano, and his ideas of rhythmic organization were also enormously influential. The Tides of Manaunaun, from about 1917, combines a dramatically articulated folk tune with a dense bed of essentially aharmonic tone clusters, a technique Cowell seems to have invented. The title relates to Irish legend and is part of a trilogy of piano works grouped as Three Irish Legends. Cowell writes, “Manaunaun was the god of motion, and long before the creation, he sent forth tremendous tides, which swept to and fro through the universe, and rhythmically moved the particles and materials of which the gods were later to make the suns and worlds.” One may readily hear these tides in the deep rolling bass of the clusters, while the tune itself, perhaps, is the nascent creation of the gods.
The variety of approach in tonight’s four commissioned John Cage tribute works is in part testament to the influence of Cage’s seemingly boundless breadth of inquiry. Robert Ashley was a founder of the exuberantly exploratory Ann Arbor-based ONCE Festival in the 1960s, along with Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, George Cacioppo, and Donald Scavarda. No other progressive composer has embraced more wholeheartedly that most banally ubiquitous and culturally indispensible of media, television. Ashley’s brilliantly entertaining television operas and other text-based works have dominated his work for over forty years, most being written for and performed by the same core ensemble. Some are based on transcriptions of his own speech; there is a sense of strong kinship with the experimental texts of Gertrude Stein and Jackson Mac Low. Ashley’s current big project is the evening-length opera Quicksand for solo voice, chorus, and pre-recorded orchestra and electronics.
Ashley’s Resonant Combinations is a work for “solo” piano based on sympathetic frequency vibrations set in motion by the notes played. Most of the clearly audible resonance will come from the resonating strings of the piano itself, with a second level of resonance, more or less apprehensible, from sympathetic bodies throughout the performance space. (John Cage used a similar technique of resonating strings in such works as the Etudes Australes.) The composer writes,
Resonant Combinations is a series of sixteen sounds made at the piano. The sounds come from a piano note being struck while five other piano keys are silently depressed. This technique gives the struck note a subtle harmonic aura. Each sound ends when it is no longer heard.
Resonant Combinations is one of a group of “sound-sketches” composed for the opera (in progress), Quicksand. It has been used in two earlier operas when a character is introduced, as in Quicksand, who appears to be working for or under the control of some unknown agency—in other words, willingly or unwillingly, an “agent”, or a spy.
The sixteen sound combinations are four groups of four successive harmonies, each group of harmonies made from one of the four modes (scales) that uses no interval larger than a whole-step. The transition from one harmony to the next can be accomplished using only the rules of voice-leading and without reference to root movement or root position. —Robert Ashley, July 22, 2012
Composer Steve Antosca is director of the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble, having previously directed the acclaimed VERGE ensemble for ten years. His work as a composer explores the possibilities of combinations of acoustic and electronic media, particularly real-time processing and spatialization. A parallel interest is exploring the dichotomy of determinate versus indeterminate scores and the possibilities of performer freedom. His big diptych echo::MEMORY was presented in the Gallery Rotunda of the National Gallery of Art in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the National Gallery’s West Building, and a current project is HABITAT, an evening-long work for solo percussion with computer and video in collaboration with Ross Karre and William Brent.
Antosca’s highly energetic, five-minute solo piano work evocation, although strong in harmonic profile, treats the piano as a percussion instrument much in the way of Cage’s early percussion and prepared-piano works. Its larger rhythmic and dynamic phrases, including suspensions of the insistent energy, suggest a mosaic approach. The composer writes:
evocation is an awakening of the spirits, summoned through patterns of relentless, restless, and unsettling provocation. The driving irregularity of evocation is built on a structural model created by left-hand note patterns of 2 + 3 + 2 against the right-hand playing 2 + 2 + 3 patterns of notes. The final section invokes the spirits through passionate whispers of wailing piano resonances, creating haunting musical imagery. —Steve Antosca
Chicago-born improvising musician, composer, and philosopher George Lewis took a very interesting tack when, taking a year break from Yale University (where he went on to major in philosophy), he worked as a trombonist with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose members included Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton. Currently Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University; in addition to his performing and composing life he is also a highly accomplished music historian and writer. Lewis was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 and received the 2009 American Book Award for his history for the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself. In the late 1970s he spent time at IRCAM, and has since developed strategies and technologies for computer-performer interaction in parallel with his compositional and performing activities.
George Lewis’s Merce and Baby for flute, drums, violin, and cello burbles up from several sources, triggered by the composer’s contemplation of a meeting with Merce Cunningham in 2008, during which the dancer told of a 1946 collaboration with the jazz drummer Baby Dodds. The following is excerpted from a longer essay about his new piece.
Most of the flute, violin, and cello material for Merce and Baby was created with particular reference to Paul Zukofsky’s performance of Cheap Imitation as a violin solo. Since Cage called Cheap Imitation a “chromatic modal” piece, I started there, performing the heresy of rounding off the frequencies in a 7-tone Harry Partch scale to equal temperament as material for the three instruments, then crossfading the ET melodic material into the actual microtonal frequencies, making my cheap imitation of Cage’s imitation “modal microtonal.”
The computer was central to my cheap imitation of Baby Dodds. Since the 1946 performance of Fast Blues featured Dodds as the only musical performer, I used the computer to help transcribe Dodds-created drum solos, taken from a 1951 Folkways recording, into musical notation. Where the transcription seemed poor, I recorded myself scat-singing an imitation of what I was hearing as I listened to a Dodds solo, then had the computer transcribe that recording. Finally, I revised the transcriptions in ways that referenced but did not emulate Cage’s process in Cheap Imitation. Rather than relying on externally imposed chance operations, I relied upon embedded sources of indeterminacy. In the computer transcription process itself, subsequent transcriptions of the same solo would differ in small details depending on the settings used. Finally, both Dodds’s improvisations and my improvisations on Dodds draw upon that dangerous hybrid of agency and indeterminacy that mark any improvisation, whether in art or in life. —George Lewis
Roger Reynolds studied both engineering physics and piano at a high level in his teens, ultimately deciding on music. Like Robert Ashley he was a founder of the Ann Arbor ONCE Festival in 1960, giving him the experience of presenting an enormous amount of kaleidoscopically varied experimental musical content in non-traditional contexts. Reynolds’s music combines a high sense of craft and control with the poetic and the intuitive: “any material for any musical purpose.” Sound itself, the physical and cognitive capabilities of performers, limits and quirks of audience perception, and the actual and illusory spaces of listening have exerted steady influence on his work. In particular the exploration of space and directionality in music—a dimension largely ignored by composers since the Renaissance—has been a preoccupation for more than thirty years. A longtime member of the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, Reynolds has recently split his time between California and Washington, D.C., where the Library of Congress has established a Special Collection of his work. An ambitious new multimedia project involving the life of George Washington is in the works.
Reynolds’s OPPOrTuniTy for speaking pianist was completed in July 2012. The speaking part is a series of ten evolving, partial articulations working toward the name “JOHN.” The piece combines elements of formalist techniques that Cage himself had used such as the eleven different tempos of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and 2:3:1 structural proportions of 4'33". (The figures of eleven and three are playfully reflected in the title.) The piece is meant to be precisely 4'33" long; the composer writes, “John provided a frame not filled with intention. I took the opportunity to provide intention.” Reynolds uses three types of material: fixed, trending, and malleable, each type appearing at a structural boundary. “I thought long and hard about how these premises could be put into operation so that something interesting, entirely principled, AND playable would result.” Viewed at the widest angle the piece is a reflection of life’s clear gradual accumulation and complexity of event. At least for a time.
By applying the integral figure of eleven to the microrhythmic level Reynolds pushed some details beyond the reasonably playable, as Cage had done in his ultra-performance works Etudes Australes and Freeman Etudes. This creates points of crisis for the performer: how does one perform a practically unplayable passage? Is there a way to attain the spirit of this music without its exact detail? Cage related these moments to the solution of the world’s unsolvable social problems. The ideal result is the sincere attempt and an un-aimed-for transcendence with no discrete correlation to the problem (the hope for all performance). The characteristic specificity and intricacy of Reynolds’s compositional processes, then, has its unknowable results.