Monday, April 30, 2007

John Cage has a secret

I'll get back to music posts soon, but in the meantime, here's a fascinating clip from the 1960s TV show I've Got a Secret, featuring John Cage playing Water Walk, one of his theatrical compositions. I had never seen this clip before, or any of Cage's theater pieces. Extremely entertaining.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Pousseur's World

For a long time, I've had a soft spot for Belgian composer Henri Pousseur. One of the Darmstadt generation along with Boulez, Berio and Stockhausen, he was introduced to American audiences on the landmark new music album from 1967, New Electronic Music, which also included Variations II by John Cage and Milton Babbitt's Ensembles for Synthesizer. Pousseur's work, Trois Visages de Liège (1961), was very seductive. The opening movement (Air and Water) is a slow movement built up from sweeping electronics (I was attracted to drones even then), but what elevated the piece above its contemporaries was the second movement (Voice of the City), composed primarily of the voices of children at play. The voices continue into the third movement (Forges), sometimes recurring without alteration, but the work's climax is a single spoken word, "Solidarité".

Later on, I acquired a Wergo release containing Pousseur's Jeu de Miroirs de Votre Faust, a work for piano and voices on tape that has only recently been issued on CD for the first time. A couple of factors converged here that drew my attention. Votre Faust was an opera, with the libretto by Michel Butor and music by Pousseur. The opera had aleatoric aspects, required audience involvement to choose how the story progressed, and as far as I know has never been successfully staged. At the time, Butor was one of a loosely associated group of writers of the so-called nouveau roman, or new novel. As a college student majoring in French in the early 1970s, the new novel was definitely the Big Thing, and I avidly read all the new novels I could find. By the 1970s, Butor had long since quit writing novels, moving more into poetry and essays, and the opportunity to hear his work on an opera was interesting. In the meantime, I had also started collecting new music piano scores, including a number of Pousseur's. The piano part of Jeu de Miroirs was a solo piano piece (with an optional soprano part) which had an interesting twist on the aleatory piano pieces that Stockhausen and Boulez had published. The score was printed in three systems, and each system included three groups, separated by double bars.

But instead of music, some systems merely had windows, which you cut out with a razor blade, and the windows permitted a view of the music behind.

The pages were all loose-leaf, which meant they were all interchangeable, and there was no predefined order. This meant that the contents of the window could change, depending on which pages and what page order the pianist used for a performance.

Since the pianist could nest windows within windows, it also meant that the pianist could turn the page and see some of the same musical groups recur, but they might have different dynamics or phrasing (this information was placed above the groups, and therefore could be overridden by the window). It was more like a game than a musical piece.

Aleatoric music on this scale is a fascinating experiment from a turbulent time, not often duplicated by composers today. I later spent nearly a year studying caractères 1a, another of Pousseur's aleatoric piano pieces. It was an unusual exercise in finding musical order from a collection of fragments, similar to Jeu de Miroirs but with a less complex sequencing mechanism. I'm surprised that nobody has recorded his complete piano works, which span his entire career, are composed in many different styles, and would be an interesting collection.

All of this background is to explain my eagerness to hear anything that Pousseur releases, and even more so when Butor's name is attached. Pousseur and Butor have the twin bill on a recent Alga Marghen release, Paysages Planétaires, a boxed set with three CDs and a sixty-four page booklet. The musical work was composed for an installation, and consists of sixteen "ethno-electroacoustic" pieces combining different musical traditions from around the world. The music reminds me a lot of another famous electronic portrait of world music, Stockhausen's Hymnen, both because of the collage effect of the different kinds of music and because both Pousseur and Stockhausen use an electronic white noise as a backdrop to the world music foreground. In Stockhausen's case, the white noise was typically shortwaves, and although I hear some shortwaves in Pousseur, I hear more straightforward field recordings as well. In addition, Pousseur uses more vocal music than Stockhausen did, and of course Pousseur's work is not primarily intended for the concert hall (and thus, not intended to be absorbed in a single sitting). Butor contributed a set of texts, one for each of the pieces, which may be read aloud when the pieces are performed in a concert setting or perused at home. It's worth noting that most of the booklet is bilingual, English and French, but Butor's poems are not translated.

Paysages Planétaires is classic musique concrète created in a contemporary digital studio. Although nothing in the booklet says so, I believe that field recordings, whose origins are easily discernable, comprise the vast majority of the musical materials. One of the chapters in the booklet describes the samples used for each piece. Pousseur wants the sounds to remain recognizable so that the listener can imagine himself and herself taking a sonic tour of the world. He includes three long epigraphs from three generations of French poets: Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Claudel, and Butor, whose themes are the simultaneity of events from all parts of the globe. Pousseur has made an audio portrait of the globe, of "all hours at once,… all seasons together" (Claudel) for our turbulent times that are so interested in pushing everyone apart.

The deluxe package is available from Forced Exposure and other fine retail outlets.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Animated Parmegiani

Blogging has been a bit light recently. We're winding up some house projects, which should take up a few more weeks. But here's an interesting video in the meantime.

A while back I posted an article on Plain-Temps, Bernard Parmegiani's most recent work to be issued on CD. Today, I was looking for a photo of Parmegiani on the web, and stumbled across 'Un mission ephemère', an eight-minute animation from 1993 by Piotr Kamler for which he did the soundtrack. Parmegiani has been involved in video and soundtrack work throughout his career, and it's nice finally to be able to see one of his pieces. The owner of the video doesn't permit embedding, so you'll have to go over to YouTube to check it out.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Drone Classics — :coyot:

Although mnortham's solo album :coyot: was not my first exposure to his work, nor the first album I'd heard that used Aeolian harps or their derivatives (that would have been Alan Lamb, but that's for another post), it resonated with me immediately and has stayed with me over the years. Its base sounds are from an installation on Suomenlinna Island near Helsinki, Finland. Michael Northam installed seven Aeolian harps on the roof of an old gunpowder bunker named "kaponieeri coyet". He also made additional field recordings at various places around the island, including the resonance inside an old and massive cannon barrel. He worked for a year on all of the resulting tapes, finding the patterns in the continuous sounds, and slowly layering them together, before he compiled this album of three tracks, each around twenty minutes in length.

One of the most unusual features of :coyot: is the inclusion of a ten-page essay by Giancarlo Toniutti on (Sámi-Suomi) Geocultural and Ecosystemic Patterning. Toniutti is a paleo-linguist, a researcher in anthropology and morphology, and a composer of fascinating electroacoustic sound works known mostly by reputation because they are generally released in extremely small quantities. The essay documents some of the ways that the wind forms part of the indigenous Scandinavian cultures. He also attempts to discern the overlays of the early European ethnographers, whose worldviews distorted the perceptions of the underlying cultures, overlaying them with romantic or Christian beliefs. Referring to the shamanic images on Sámi drums, Toniutti projects instead a porous boundary between natural and cultural processes, of an entirely different nature than the terms 'spirit' or 'god' might suggest.

Taken in the context of Toniutti's essay, :coyot: positions itself as an expression of Toniutti's porous boundary, as well as a different kind of overlay interpreting Finland's wind and water. The wind played the harps, but the sound of the harps had to be extracted with technology. The different natural sounds, of the harps and other field recordings, are presented simultaneously, combined into layers in the studio in a way that simulates the elemental forces that Northam captured in his recordings. He makes the elements audible. The sheer duration of the sounds promotes a sense of timelessness. The strong wind noise at the end of "Effects Of Atmospheric Pressure On Air-Born Particles Of Solids And Liquids," for example, has a gentle undulation in the overtones to the single low pitch which makes me think of ocean waves. The combination of the two sounds reminds me of times when I've stood on the shore and felt a big wind blowing off the ocean. The natural rhythms of the piece bring a sense of slow immersion into the environment.

Many (if not all) of Northam's projects use the patterns in natural phenomena for inspiration. As a result, I get a strong sense of nature from :coyot:, but at a deeper level than a straightforward field recording. The patterns that Northam found in the wind and waves on Suomenlinna Island are all around me, but their time scale is different from the one in which I live. Admittedly, my time scale has gotten slower since retirement, but still.... My admiration for Northam's work continues with his other releases, which I'll save for other posts. But he gives articulate and thought-provoking interviews, which are available on his web site and at Kaon records, a French label covering several sound artists who use field recordings extensively.

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.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Scrap Metal Music

One of Kyle Gann's recent posts discussed a mythical lack of respect in academia towards pop music. The HarpFusion concert we attended this week suggested that this perception was not true for the University of Arizona, and a concert last night by the percussion group Phonk confirmed it. The concert culminated several days of workshops with the percussion students at the UA School of Music. Although the modern classical percussion ensemble may have originated with John Cage, the rhythmic energy of Phonk derives more from rock and percussion music from other cultures such as African drumming, gamelan and kodo. In addition, Phonk's artistic director Gregory Kozak designs and builds all of the instruments, largely from scrap metal and other recycled materials. The instruments have an aesthetic appeal on their own merit, with organic forms and squirrely outcroppings, all of which were functional. Some of the workshops were to guide students in building instruments from scraps, and the results were on display outside the concert hall. Movement is as much a part of the concert as the sound. Instruments too large to carry were on wheels, so they could easily move around the stage.

Although the concert opened quietly, with four of the five musicians playing whorlies (hoses cut to various lengths and whirled overhead — the program conveniently described all of the instruments) in a beautiful harmonic piece, the energy level kicked up quickly with a kit solo, comprised largely of spun aluminum toms and scrap metal cymbals. The group then introduced their signature set, three pairs of large two-sided drums that have different pitches on each side. The group moved these in different configurations on stage, often played in tandem with one player on each end, or in a circle where the group would rotate the drums and themselves. These drums had a very big sound, and produced the backbone of the group's music for most of the show.

The high-energy concert lasted for 90 minutes without a break, and we saw all manner of junk instruments. In one segment, they attached balloons to the ends of resonant tubes and used the balloons as a bellows, a bizarre set of bagpipes. In another, they twirled metal bowls and disks in their hands, striking them to get bell sounds and muting them by covering more or less of the bell with their hands. They used similar operations on large, very heavy-looking springs. They carried out pieces of marine exhaust hose in various lengths and shapes, then played them with paddles made from old gym mats. In one of the last segments, they introduced a Nail Cello, comprised of stainless steel rods and bowed with a violin bow; and the Mojo, a sailboat mast strung with piano and bass strings and covered with steel bowls and various wood and aluminum scraps. This piece, entitled 13 strings, also used three Sigh-Chordions, little squeezeboxes made from plumbing fixtures and accordion reeds, and was one of the most beautiful pieces on the program. The finale was another circling tour de force, with lights at the front of the stage projecting the groups' shadows on the backdrop, revealing the musicians from the dawn of time, drummming the primal heartbeat.

Before the show, I overheard commentary in the lobby that compared Phonk to Stomp and Blue Man Group. From a certain perspective, all three groups work the same territory: a highly rhythmic musical experience coupled with dazzling theatrical staging. But Phonk has none of BMG's vaudeville aspects, and concentrates more on the music than does Stomp. It was a great show, and the percussion students at the University were well served by their extended stay.