Wednesday, April 4, 2007


One of the seminal new music albums back in the 1960s was Max Neuhaus' Columbia LP Electronics and Percussion — Five Realizations. The cover had a wild-looking bare-chested and hirsute Neuhaus surrounded by a huge percussion kit, promising a primitive and highly charged performance. The album contained five solo percussion pieces that had a substantial degree of aleatory composition, such that a performer did "realizations" rather than simply performances: Four Systems by Earle Brown; The King of Denmark by Morton Feldman; Coeur pour Batteur by Sylvano Bussotti; Zyklus by Karlheinz Stockhausen; and Fontana Mix by John Cage. The original album is available in 192kbps at Ubuweb, or as an expensive import from Sony Japan.

The Italian label Alga Marghen has recently released three Neuhaus albums that document other performances of the same repertoire. I picked up one that contains three performances each of Brown's Four Systems, Feldman's The King of Denmark, and Cage's 27'10.554", a percussion piece from his Ten Thousand Things series. The other two CDs in the series include one with four versions of Zyklus, and one with six realizations of Fontana Mix. All performances are different from the ones on the original Columbia LP. The first shocker is the straight-laced photos of Neuhaus matrixed on the cover, taken at his Carnegie Hall concert in December, 1966. A dark suit and tie? Fifties-style black plastic spectacles? Clean shaven!? Not exactly as I remembered, but perhaps it's another reminder that what was wild when I was a teenager is very old hat by now. The sixteen-page booklet has more pictures and a page for each piece, including details from the scores, plus a general statement by Neuhaus and two Neuhaus concert reviews from New York media from 1964.

The three works presented here all belong to a certain period in American music where a composition abstracted away so many details from the musical score that a performance became a "realization". One of the details left unspecified is pitch, and one of the consequences is that they sound to a high degree like random sounds, or at least it can be very difficult to say why they aren't random. They aren't the kinds of pieces where a listener can follow along with a performance with score in hand. And even with the score in hand, there are no melodic, harmonic or rhythmic patterns to give the listener any mileposts to use to organize the movement of the piece through time. There is, however, a definite relationship between the score and the sound, which is fairly easy to see for the work as a whole (conveniently, the booklet includes score samples). The key is that the changes in the music are timbral, a little-used parameter in pre-20th century music. Both Cage and Feldman deliberately specify different types of percussion (wood, gongs, skins), and Brown's piece only specifies overlapping durations. The creativity of the performer is entirely different from the creativity involved in a more completely notated piece (i.e., most "classical" music).

Given the album's track layout (grouped by composer), you could interpret the album as one long version of each piece as easily as three different versions. There is essentially no way to validate one performance against another. The ingenuity and identity of each work (and other works in this genre) is that a work has a clearly recognizable timbre and texture. Since each work has its own sound world, when I play the album in shuffle mode, I clearly recognize when the piece changes. The album works just as well either way.

I obtained the score of The King of Denmark from the university music library. It's one of Feldman's graph pieces, although it's not on any of the recent albums dedicated to these. There must be some oral tradition surrounding these scores, because although the score has a glossary of symbols, it uses symbols that aren't in the glossary. With the score in hand and headphones, I imagine that I can follow what Neuhaus does. But each of the realizations has different instrumentation, so even after close listening with the score, the specific sounds of the piece remain unpredictable. Some doctoral candidate should make an annotated edition of one of these pieces while performers who worked with the composers are still around, because I think it would be pretty easy to make incorrect choices.

At some level, the listener in me finds this kind of random-sounding music appealing. The performer finds more difficulty. For a long time, I appreciated Cage's philosophy without finding much to like in his music. The late number pieces finally turned me around, but I still haven't listened to much of his mid-period work (post-prepared piano) work. Although I've played some Feldman, I haven't been able to tackle much of Cage's music between the prepared piano period and the number pieces. A lot of the music from Cage's middle periods is extremely difficult technically, but the prerequisite perspective change is almost equally challenging.

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