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.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pie Town

We've been on a short driving trip through western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, so I haven't blogged much lately. However, for those of you who like pie (and isn't that everybody?), I can heartily recommend a tiny whistle stop, Pie Town, New Mexico. The town, which has a population of 55, was named for the pies made by one of the original settlers. When the post office came to town, they wanted to name the place after the settler, but he wisely insisted that it be named Pie Town, or the post office could take their letters and go home. Seriously though, the pies were great. We each had a slice, blackberry and cherry, topped with a big scoop of vanilla and a great cup of coffee, chatting with a trucker from St. Johns, AZ. The cafe's web site has a recipe for their specialty, a Mexican Apple pie. A little slice of heaven.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fallen asleep

Sad news from the blogosphere today. The marvelous resource, the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) has closed up shop after a couple of cease-and-desist letters from Universal Editions. IMSLP (fondly called I'm by Kyle Gann) was a treasured resource for sheet music lovers, with all kinds of public domain scores, and even the occasional enlightened contemporary composer (including Frederic Rzewski) who made some of his or her music available under the Creative Commons license agreements. My piano teacher asked me to look for a waltz by the romantic composer-pianist Mischa Levitsky. It's completely out of print from every source I searched, but it was available at IMSLP. Reading an article about a Beethoven cello sonata and want to look at the score? I could drive to the local university library, pay a couple of bucks to park and spend a couple of hours round trip, or I could just go to IMSLP. It was a tremendous resource, but essentially the work of only one person (although there were a number of editors and admins who helped). There are discussions in the various IMSLP forums about what happens next, and hopefully it will resurrect itself with some kind of institutional support.

Hat tip: Daniel Wolf.

Update: ongoing coverage at the Rambler.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The rhythms of the earth

Some recent sound artists have explored infrasound, or sound waves with a frequency too low to be detected by human hearing. Scientists first became aware of infrasound during major seismic events, but many of them now theorize that it occurs many other places in nature. In order to make infrasound audible, it needs to be sped up or otherwise transformed. With the advent of digital sound technology, it is possible to transform virtually any kind of data into sound. For example, several composers have used fractals, neural networks, cellular automata, and genetic algorithms to generate music, all of which are a natural application of digital synthesis.

Recently I've been listening to John Duncan's 2003 release Infrasound — Tidal, which uses sound sources from Australian sound researcher Densil Cabrera. The album contains a single track, but with a number of divisions for tidal, seismic, and barometric data. It's easy to understand Duncan's fascination with the material. The tidal section is a near constant pitch, but with a rich set of overtones and placements in the stereo field. It compresses nearly 300 years of tidal data into just under twelve minutes. The seismic section sounds mostly like white noise, with some occasional ripples like the runoff area of a vinyl record along with some ghostly little chirps and booms. The longest portion of the recording, the seismic data covers about a month, with some of the sonic events mapped to earthquakes and nuclear tests from the Pacific basin. The final section, based on 48 years of barometric data, again is centered around a constant pitch, but is a much bigger sound, with an undulation like ocean waves moving across the stereo field in the background.

The album fits comfortably in Duncan's discography, which in recent years has moved away from his early noise releases to an investigation of different kinds of drones, as well as finding music in a variety of non-musical sound sources (his album Palace of Mind, for example, uses unspecified "data files" as a sound source). It's unclear to me exactly how the data was transformed into sound, but Cabrera, who created the original sound files which Duncan used as sources, is a sound artist in his own right. His web site includes a hidden page that documents a number of his installations, including tantalizingly brief snippets of the raw sound sources that went into Duncan's release.

Of course, Duncan and Cabrera aren't the first sound artists to use infrasound. One of the other interesting ones is Felix Hess, a Dutch physicist and artist. Hess created a number of small devices sensitive to air pressure fluctuations (another application of infrasound). He developed microphones that could record these fluctuations, then ran a tape recorder outside for five days, with the microphones places 64 meters apart, then sped up the recording to 360 times its original speed, compressing five days into twenty minutes. The results sound vaguely similar to Duncan and Cabrera's seismic data, albeit with a great deal more detail. His recording of Air Pressure Fluctuations was released both as a standalone CD and included in a book about his work.

In the Infrasound — Tidal liner notes, Duncan describes how he met Cabrera on the net and Cabrera provides more technical notes about the pieces. Duncan, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, professes interest in the work simply as sound, rather than for whatever value there might be in the scientific data, and claims to have destroyed the inherent linearity of the data (a claim not entirely commensurate with Cabrera's notes, which include specific events for the seismic portion of the recording). For despite the similarities between this music and other instrumental music, there remains a basic non-intentionality here that would not be present in more composed music. John Cage made a career out of composing without his ego getting in the way, and there is a similar impulse at work here (even if the sonic results are completely different). Listening to this music opens up new levels of perception, an awareness of the timeless patterns of the earth that continuously surround us, to which we ordinarily remain oblivious.

In addition, infrasound music operates at yet another timescale beyond the normal linear perspectives where music typically operates. Rather than simply seeking to evoke a feeling of timelessness like most drone music, these infrasound recordings work on a concrete timescale that is simply larger than humans can comprehend. The intent is the opposite from efforts to take relatively short pieces and expand them to the limits of comprehensibility. The best known example is probably Leif Inge's expansion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to fill a 24-hour period, 9 Beet Stretch, but the topper here is the John Cage Organ Project, which presents a relatively short keyboard composition entitled ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) over a period of 639 years. The music from Duncan, Cabrera and Hess takes a natural process that spans a long period of time and compresses it into a human timeframe, and thereby evokes the mystery and majesty of our planet's geological rhythms.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Drone Classics — Cake

Jonathan Coleclough is one of the names most often dropped when vendors seek comparisons for drone artists. A search for "Coleclough" at the wonderful San Francisco record shop, Aquarius Records, returns 130 hits, but Coleclough himself has released only six full length solo albums and about that many in collaboration. At Aquarius, the remaining hits are all in descriptions for other artists (e.g., "fans of Coleclough should definitely check this out"). While part of this attraction is simply mystique, Coleclough's beautiful and often pastoral soundscapes are a preeminent combination of field recordings with electronics.

One of Coleclough's other characteristics is that his pieces generally exist in multiple versions. It's fairly common in today's digital world for artists to release remixes, but Coleclough takes this further than most. His most recent release, Torch Songs, a collaboration with Andrew Liles, is available in two editions: a double LP, and the same with a CD of additional material. Both were released in editions of 300. A 2006 collaboration with sound artist murmer was released in three different versions: the standard edition CD of 700, the standard plus a bonus CD of 200, and a standard plus bonus plus a unique bonus CDR (i.e., every instance of the edition has a different third item), released in an edition of 47. This isn't a recent phenomenon; Coleclough's first solo album, Cake, released in 1998, had a second version released four years later, with virtually identical packaging, down to the label serial number (the booklet was the same, but turned inside out). He must have planned for the alternate release, as the inside cover of the original release has the album and title perfectly placed for the alternate cover.

The original version of Cake is a very quiet affair. Starting with a series of untreated field recordings, there is an initial buildup that sounds like a processed piano, climaxing in a metallic swoosh that launches a long decaying resonance that takes nearly half of the piece. From the near silence at the mid point, Coleclough slowly builds the piece back to its initial sound level. Underlying most of the piece is a deep bass drone and a slow undulation in the upper registers, while the field recordings mutate into electronic versions of the same. In some ways, it's similar to the centerpiece of Olivier Messiaen's monumental pianistic Catalogue d'Oiseaux, La rousserolle effarvatte, which represents a complete nocturnal/diurnal cycle, including the silence of the birds at midday. Cake presents a similar cycle, from the complex initial events to the central tranquillity and back.

The alternate version bears some similarities in sound materials, but the shape of the piece is nearly reversed. Both versions have an underlying deep drone, a slow undulation, and various segments of field recordings. But instead of having loud points at both ends of the piece, the alternate builds from a near silence to a center which is quite loud. Coleclough uses feedback and complex overtones and nearly buries the deep drone. Instead of wispy little birdsongs, there is a regular refrain of chittering, a continuous insect-like noise that is absent from the initial version. The whole piece has a completely different shape in the alternate version, which leads to questions about the identity of the piece.

Although I played Cake regularly when it first appeared, my fascination grew significantly when the alternate version appeared. I've expressed an interest in this blog in mobile forms, a technique that classical composers such as Henri Pousseur and John Cage used in the 1960s and 1970s to enable a variety of sound pieces from the same score. Generally, electronic musicians don't release "alternate versions," they release "remixes," which extend the life of a piece, typically a pop song, through emphasizing other elements from the original. I've always wondered whether there is some ur-Cake sitting around Coleclough's studio, a master version, or even a score, that precedes both releases.

Sadly, Cake is no longer available through any legitimate channels. The original version was released in an edition of 500, and the alternate version in an edition of 300. One can only hope that Coleclough follows the example of his colleague, the British drone artist Paul Bradley, whose label has a digital store that sells various out-of-print releases. In the meantime, Coleclough's site has a freely available download of a long radio piece, One hour as sixty million years, a gorgeous, slowly evolving drone 'based on data about global sea level changes over the past 248 million years.'

Monday, October 1, 2007

Tom Heasley in concert

Last Friday evening, Tucson had a visit from Tom Heasley, performing on tuba, didjeridu and electronics, without any aid from computers. Heasley plays gorgeous, deep drone music, and at the Solar Culture gallery, Heasley's sounds filled the room. I have been corresponding with Tom for a few months, and serendipitously, have an article about him that was published this past weekend.

The opening act was local artist Kati Astraeir, who played a number of short videos over droney soundtracks from artists such as Matthew Florianz, Igneous Flame, and Raison d'etre. The videos were composed from still pictures cross faded into each other. Some of the images were photographs with various levels of alteration, some were paintings. The juxtaposition of the photographs (which were typically nature) and the paintings (which were more fantasy oriented) showed the degree to which the natural forms showed up in her paintings.

Following a short intermission, Heasley played three extended pieces. The first and last pieces used the tuba as the primary sound source. He opened the concert with a simple breath through the tubing, he added more and more layers until there was finally a big cloud of sound, over which he soloed. The second piece was with a "poor man's didjeridu" (Heasley's words), a handmade instrument constructed from plumbing pipe. Initially he made the deep, rolling didjeridu noises, but often he sang or whistled into the pipe. The gallery is right next to the train tracks, and there were lots of trains, whose whistles and bells added an extra jolt, but which were never picked up into the loops though.

Seeing Heasley perform brought home to me how closely his music is tied to the breath — obvious when I think about the instruments he plays, but not always so obvious when I listen to his music at home. This is the origin of the calming energy that his music imparts. Of course, the other wonderful aspect of hearing him perform is the sound system. It's great to hear drone music played so loud that the room vibrates, bringing out all kinds of partials and overtones that ordinarily get missed.