Friday, June 6, 2008

Open performers

Open forms is one of the most significant new developments in composition since World War II, where notable aspects of a score are left unspecified. The transition was subject to a lot of polemics in the early years, as different composers and schools tried to differentiate their work from the (usually less worthy) efforts of their contemporaries. An early example of an open form is Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI, composed in 1956, which had 19 fully composed fragments spread over a single large page, played in whatever order they caught the performer's eye. Purely graphic scores existed even earlier (such as Earle Brown's December 1952). Europeans liked the pattern of fragmentary composition (or maybe it was just piano composers), with works for piano like Henri Pousseur's Caractères, Pierre Boulez' Troisième Sonate pour piano, among others.

There are lots of ways to open up a composition, and figuring out how to group a bunch of fragments was only the beginning. I recently encountered a Thomas DeLio's book on the subject, Circumscribing the Open Universe. Compiled in 1984 and dealing exclusively with American composers, the book collects five essays from the early 1980s with an introduction, covering the following five compositions: Variations II by John Cage; Durations 3, #3 by Morton Feldman; For 1, 2, or 3 People by Christian Wolff; in memoriam... Esteban Gomez by Robert Ashley; and Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drum and Acoustic Pendulums by Alvin Lucier. DeLio's descriptions of the works are uniformly illuminating. He provides illustrations of the scores, including the composers' instructions for interpreting the unusual notations.   

Only the Feldman is printed on staff paper — the others are all graphic or text scores.  Feldman's piece is open because after the initial note, each player is free to go at their own speed.  Wolff dispenses with notes altogether and composed gestures and group interactions in a unique notation.  Ashley's piece, for any quartet, slowly evolves a reference sonority, varying pitch, intensity, timbre and density through careful listening.  Although there is a simple graphic with the piece, most of the information is in the accompanying text.  Lucier's piece exists both as a concert piece or as an installation and is an exploration of the properties of pure sound.  Again, although there are some diagrams with the piece to show how the pendulums interact with the drums, the score is basically text-based.  Cage's piece, which David Tudor recorded using contact microphones and the inside of the piano, is nothing more than some dots and lines on clear lucite, which the performer uses to create a score.  Of all the pieces discussed here, it's more of a recipe for making a score than a score itself.

The essays all illustrate some aesthetic principle from another field (such as literature or plastic arts), then show how it applies to the musical work in question. DeLio's choices of related artworks is highly personal and frankly, leaves me in a state of puzzlement. Confronted with a work in open form, we naturally seek a metaphorical explanation for our response because the work is unlike the standard classical works that often follow a traditional unidirectional flow. Boulez compared his third piano sonata to a walk through a city, where everyone will take a different path. Mobiles are also a common metaphor for works like Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI because of the comparison with Alexander Calder's mobile sculptures.

But DeLio illustrates Christian Wolff's piece with Bruce Nauman's Performance Corridor, emphasizing that both works "externalize the experience of art." I have not seen Nauman's work except on video, but even there I felt claustrophobic and paranoid, and the commentary at the site above places the work in the context of surveillance and Big Brother. Wolff's composition seeks new forms of musical communication that are diametrically opposed to Nauman's unidirectional monitor, which forces the viewer into a straight line with no possibility of seeing anything but blank walls and his or her own wanderings.

I registered similar concerns in his discussion of Feldman. Durations 3 on the page is composed of chords played simultaneously by the three instruments, but the performers are permitted to move at different tempos (this is what makes the work open), so listeners may not hear the chords as such. DeLio's metaphor for this piece is the very creation of the work of art, as if all of the sketches and drafts are on display as part of the piece. As an observation, this doesn't differ much from the gradual perception of form in many static pieces, which appear out of nowhere, often starting from silence or a single sonority. But his analysis shows how well the form is prepared, which seems contradictory to its creation ex nihilo. In addition, the continuities that DeLio describes assume that the performers all play more or less together, which they do on Michael Vogt's recording on ReR, but not on the Turfan Ensemble's recording on Mode. DeLio's analysis illuminates how Feldman may have composed the piece, but in performance the traits that he highlights may become blurred.

Some of my confusion about DeLio's analyses stems from his adoption of the composer's perspective.  Typically, an analysis approaches a piece from the perspective of an ideal listener, bringing about audible details of a piece and showing how they fit into the big picture.  A listener can grasp the form in most nineteenth century classical works relatively easily, and many work conform to a standard form (such as a theme and variations, sonata form, rondo, etc.). But in most cases, the open form work does not present itself to the listener as such — it's only on multiple listenings of different versions that the open nature becomes apparent. Stockhausen actually specifies in the instructions to Klavierstück XI that "this piano piece should if possible be performed twice or more in the course of a programme," and many pianists have obliged by including multiple versions on a single CD. For works on a larger scale, or works whose openness is deeper than simply what catches the eye, multiple performances may be neither possible nor desirable.

The real audience of an open work is the performer, who must make decisions that performers ordinarily don't need to make. Wolff's piece is all about performer coordination and interaction, even allowing for certain actions to be taken in response to unintentional sounds (i.e., mistakes), which the more standard classical technique doesn't acknowledge. Similarly, Ashley's piece requires four performers (instrumentation unspecified) to listen closely to each other and modify their playing according to the rules defined in the piece. The source materials in Cage's Variations II are so rudimentary that a considerable amount of planning and forethought must precede any performance. DeLio's analyses target the process of composition and illuminate the work of the composer, but the nature of an open work is to target the performer. Typically an invisible conduit between the genius of the composer and the willing audience receptacles, the performers in open works must change their ways of preparing, listening, and even playing their instruments.

Stockhausen recognized this essential nature of open form in works like Spiral for a soloist, instrument unspecified. In Spiral, the performer finds events on a short wave radio and responds to them in various prescribed manners, culminating in the direction to "transcend beyond the limits of the playing/singing technique that you have used up to this point and then also beyond the limitations of your instrument/voice.… From this point retain what you have experienced in the extension of your limits, and use it in this and all future performances of Spiral."


Anonymous said...

something to think about - 'closed' scores can not be seen as the basic state of notation, since the earliest European notations specify very little, and (more persuasively) all scores under-determine the work for which they are a token (see Goehr, Cook, etc). At the same time that you are discussing (and in some cases by the same composers you are discussing) there is a parallel (and/or opposite) trend towards increasing specificity of notation. Perhaps whats actually going on in this period is a general awareness of nature of scores and their non-identity with works, and a variety of responses to that nature, either to overcome limitations by 'improvement' of notation, or 'liberation' of the failures of notation.

Caleb Deupree said...

Thanks for the references. I have more affinity (or at least curiosity) for open scores than the hypercomplexities of somebody like Ferneyhough, but your point is well taken.