Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The rhythms of the stars

Brian at Just Outside had a post a few weeks ago on the recent Mode re-release of John Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis. He found the performance a bit dry, and one of his comments was that he could "easily imagine this being performed by creative improvisers and working exceedingly well." His remarks sent me to the Mode release, as well as one from 2000 on the Asphodel label.

Cage composed Atlas Eclipticalis in 1961, a commission from the Montreal Festival Society. At the time, it was the biggest piece that Cage had composed, both in terms of orchestral forces and sheer length, his earlier forays into orchestral writing being more for a chamber ensemble. He generated the notes by tracing them from a map of the heavens (whence the title) in combination with I-Ching operations. The piece consists of solo parts for 86 orchestral instruments, where each part is identical in length and format, and it is most often performed in short excerpts and with smaller groups. Each part has four pages with five systems per page, and each system should be played within a predetermined duration, specified by Cage to be no shorter than two minutes. Like the score for Winter Music, which may be performed simultaneously with Atlas Eclipticalis, each system contains a number of events, which may be single tones or aggregates. Even though the events have a clear musical notation, they are sufficiently unorthodox to require significant interpretation on the part of the performer. The conductor is merely a timekeeper, moving his or her arms around in a circle like the second hand on a clock.

The Mode and Asphodel releases are the only ones currently available that are complete both in respect to the number of players and the number of systems. The Mode set contains three recordings of the piece, of which the two complete ones date from 1983 and are conducted by Cage (the third is from 1988, is conducted by Melvin Strauss, and includes all parts but not all systems). The Asphodel release is conducted by Petr Kotik, and is from 1993, repeating a performance from a Cage memorial concert the previous year in Carnegie Hall. The 1983 and 1993 performances both include Winter Music (the latter performed by David Tudor). Both releases contain nice sets of liner notes. The Mode release has short essays by Cage, Matthew Kocmieroski, Don Gillespie (whom we've met in this blog before — he was the interviewer on Mode's DVD release of George Crumb's Makrokosmos), and pianist Stephen Drury. The Asphodel release has a longer essay by James Pritchett (author of an excellent monograph on Cage's music) and Petr Kotik.

One of the first aspects that a student of Atlas Eclipticalis confronts is its obscurity. Unlike other large symphonic works, there is no master score, only the individual parts and a conductor score. Each individual part is published separately. Edition Peters web site sells each individual part for $8.95, which means an investment of over $750 for the entire work. This precludes all but the most serious users and libraries from acquiring the complete score. The conductor score, which is what most libraries have, is one of the most arcane documents I've ever seen. It documents more of the compositional process than anything directly related to a performance. As Cage wryly notes, "these pages may not be useful."

The instrumental parts which have been widely reproduced raise a number of questions. The Mode release includes a reproduction of page 181, one of the Flute 1 parts, and Pritchett's book includes a reproduction of page 133, one of the pages for Cello 1. I've reproduced one of the cello events here. As with Cage's other notational experiments, his explanatory notes (reproduced in the Mode liner notes) don't quite explain everything. For example, the cello part in Pritchett has no clef -- should the performer use a tenor clef or a bass clef, and does this decision remain for the duration of the piece (the conductor's score helpfully mentioned that the part "may be read an octave higher ad lib")? Where the aggregates are numbered (one number for tones "as short as possible", the other for tones with "appreciable duration"), which notes get which duration? The individual notes from a chord can be performed in any order. Cage's instructions don't explicitly address stems that aren't straight -- is there any significance to curved stems? Cage specifies circumstances under which notes may be repeated -- how does the performer decide when to apply these rules?

So without having recourse to the score(s), we're left with the recordings. The ones from 1983 are very sparse. A lot of the subtleties are lost, buried in tape hiss and audience noise. There are few occasions where more than a couple of instruments are audible without close headphone listening. The 1993 recording, especially by contrast, is lush. It's a better recording, with less audience noise and more audible instruments. Kotik seems to have allowed for longer durations (his version is almost twice as long as Cage's), which create musical gestures that have both foreground and background aspects, where the tones with appreciable duration expand to fill the sonic horizon, leaving the short tones to pepper the sound and provide intimate details. Kotik's version sounds more like an group performance rather than 86 people making occasional sounds with their instruments. Cage commented that when he first composed Winter Music, each sound was widely separated in space, but after several performances, it almost seemed melodic. Perhaps I hear the same transition between the performances of Atlas Eclipticalis.

It is Cage's genius to have created such a rich foundation, allowing for so many different sonic realizations. Is it a coincidence that the longer orchestral realization sounds fuller? As the piece stretches out with longer and longer durations, at some point it nearly approaches the scale of the maps on which it was based. Does a connection between the star maps and the piece take place only in the mind of the listener? In some way, I hear the immensity of the cosmos in Kotik's rendition, points of sound corresponding to points of light, with constellations visible only because of the observer's perspective.

Even though Cage loathed improvisation at the time he composed Atlas Eclipticalis, Brian had an interesting idea about using today's creative improvisers to create a version. The Amplify festival in 2002 had a session where seven improvising guitarists created a realization of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise, a famous graphic score from the early 1960s. The German new music ensemble Zeitkratzer has performed pieces by composers as far afield as John Duncan, Keith Rowe, Lou Reed and Merzbow. Ulrich Kreiger, the ensemble's saxophonist, has recently released a solo (probably multi-tracked) version of Atlas Eclipticalis. Certainly classical musicians have a difficult time with Cage, whose music often demands a new kind of performer in order to bring to the surface the new kinds of sounds.


DaveX said...

What was Cage's reasoning behind "loathing" improvisation? I'm directing my own reading on John Cage, and have yet to run into anything on this matter.

Caleb Deupree said...

The Mode release includes a letter from Cage to Leonard Bernstein on the occasion of the NYPhil's Atlas performance in 1963 (which the orchestra players deliberately sabotaged), which states in part:

Improvisation is not releated to what [we] are doing in our works. It gives free play to the exercise of taste and memory, and it is exactly this that we, in differing ways, are not doing in our music.

(The 'we' includes Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, whose works were presented in the same program.)

Cage moderated this position in later years, and works such as Branches and Child of Tree make significant use of improvisation. The topic is discussed in Revill's biography, where improvisation has an index entry.