Music for Merce (1952-2009)
I mentioned in the previous post that rarely do these discs hold up as statements in and of themselves but that it is necessary to focus on the individual pieces. Those first couple of discs then go on to be the exception that proves the rule in that their structure and the pieces contained therein almost all work. However this situation does not last and in this second two disc set we definitely find a high degree of discontinuity between the pieces and what for me are some real duds in the set. Now while disappointing to listen to I do think that the inclusion of these pieces is still with value w/r/t the historical nature of the set. That is to say the company danced with these pieces, sometimes for years, and thus they are as much part of the Dance Companies repertoire as the pieces that worked. What disappointed me was the number of pieces from composers that I really liked that I found myself really hating here, especially from Takehisa Kosugi. Now again personally I think that anybody who champions any composers entire body of work is a fan boy not really a music fan, for everybody fails at times or composes for a different aesthetic. So taking that into consideration the disappointment here is that of course one always wants to find that great new piece and when someone who has the potential to deliver it fails to do so, well that always is a bit of a let down. But I mention this simply to state that nearly all the composers here have work I love and any criticism is simply of these pieces and performances and not of them. Of course there also are pieces by composers and performers that I simply do not care for and a couple of those make their appearance in this particular set (the Bo Nilsson from the previous set fits into this category more or less, but the music itself I was just rather indifferent toward). This is simply taste; I’m sure there are those who would enjoy them. I don’t tend to spend much time on these piece except for describing them a bit and perhaps explaining what it is that fails to connect for me.
Disc Three (77’58”)
Walkaround Time (1968)
1) David Behrman (b. 1937) “¦ for nearly an hour”¦ (1968) [excerpt] 3:23
Dance: Walkaround Time (1968)
Valda Setterï¬eld, Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley Lloyd, Beverly Emmons, voices
Recorded in 1968 in Buffalo, New York
Walkaround Time has to be one of the most visually striking of all of Cunninham’s dances with it’s Jasper Johns created inflatable extracts from Marcel Duchamp’s stunning Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. While I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the dance, it has been filmed by Charles Atlas of which I have seen excerpts from (this should be another candidate for DVD release) and the sets and dance are pretty stunning. The music, by David Behrman of whom I’ve previously enjoyed several pieces from, is part and parcel with the piece in that it is made up of overlapping recordings of readings from and about Duchamp, notably extracts from The Green Box, which Duchamp considered an integral part of the Large Glass. Among the various texts read that are included in this excerpt is a detailed physical description of the Large Glass. While this is without a doubt a multimedia masterpiece I don’t find the excerpt from this piece in isolation remarkably interesting, but I have no doubts that it adds to the entire experience in context. Text pieces, especially ones such as this which are solely constructed out of text, can quickly wear on me, so for this set a short excerpt is actually preferred in that it gives one the feel for the piece but doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. However this one is really well made, at least in this short extract and the overlapping is exceedingly well done. I definitely think that in context it would add to the proceedings and not become overly wearing.
2) Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer (1969) [excerpt] 9:44
Dance: Canï¬eld (1969)
John Cage, Gordon Mumma, Jean Rigg, David Tudor, voices, live electronics, acoustical-space sound-activators
Recorded on tour in 1972
Canfield had no musical score. The Composition “In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer” by Pauline Oliveros consisted of three pages of instructions for the musicians. Tesla once –so legend goes–adjusted an oscillator to the resonances of his studio and nearly brought the building down. In Canfield, the musicians’ ultimate task was to discover the resonant frequency of the building in which the dance was performed but not to go so far as to bring the building down. (A most unlikely possibility.) They had a series of steps to follow, including the describing–in an immediate and personal way, via walkie-talkies and the public address system–the actual performance space, comparing it to other spaces; recording the conversation and the environment as they explored the theater, including backstage, the basement, the lobby; and finally playing back the accumulated sound material along with oscillator-genereted resonant-frequency sounds.-Carolyn Brown (4, p. 531)
Another piece that probably was more interesting in context but doesn’t make for a very compelling recording. It is as Brown describes above, a bit of really simple electronics – a low level wash from the oscillator, a bit of the telltale squawk and buzzing of live electronics and the occasional rising feedback tone probably from inadvertent microphone feedback whilst the engineers read setup instructions and report acoustical properties over various forms of lo-fi broadcasts. The background live electronics are not without their charm and some of the more degraded broadcasts are of note, but the continuous nature of the instructions reading may ultimately render it fairly uninteresting as a piece of music, but it clearly was fun to perform as Carolyn Brown relates; citing a particularly memorable performance where the audience seemed to have lost it’s collective mind during the performance:
“John, David, and Gordon always had a field day carrying out Paulie Oliveros’s directions for Canfield, but never had they been the target of such malevolence. In the end, they wreaked their own not-so-subtle revenge. Of course, one can readily understand any audiences’ angry reactions to the pedestrian, inane chatter of the musicians as they discuss the acoustical environment of the theater and ostensibly determine the resonant frequency of the building as they roam about, talking to one another over walkie-talkies. What the audience did not know was that the bad-mouthing and obscenties had all been recorded as they occurred. Then, in the last third of the dance, it was all played back at the audience. Soon realizing it had been caught willy-nilly to become part of the music, the audience –according to Der Zeit–was silenced, embarrassed by its own aggression.”.-Carolyn Brown (4, p. 584)
Christian Wolff For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964) [excerpt]
3) Christian Wolff (b. 1934) For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964) [excerpt] 12:07
Dance: Tread (1970)
David Tudor, baroque organ, live electronics
Recorded on tour in 1972
“The music is drawn from the interaction of the people playing it.. It requires for its performance independent self-discipline (unpoliced by a score defining fixed relationships and timings) and a capacity and special alertness for responding to what one’s fellow performers are doing, the sounds they re making or changing and their silences. The responding can be variously deliberate (there is time and you are free ) or must be quick and sudden (there are precise requirements which appear unpredictably). At the time (1964) I was concerned to make a lively situation for the performers and shift about the difficult and the free areas of their playing (for example, the more unusual difficulty of articulating timbre change in a situation where you are busy coordinating with others’ unpredictably appearing sounds; or, the freedom to choose any pitch at your leisure). The resulting sounds and silences were to be the music, and the fact of its emerging in this way was to be the source of its expressiveness.” -Christian Wolff (3, p. 492)
This is a great piece and a fantastic realization of it, that I’d previously heard on the Tudor LP A Second Wind for Organ. Overlapped recordings of the baroque organ with a really wide range of sounds extracted from it. Ranges from subtle whistling to massive organ blasts with typical Wolff spacing and silences. There are sounds that evoke a rattling, clacking mechanical device while others the longer breathy tones you’d expect from an organ. Really a lot more expressive then one would expect from an organ with Tudor really working the instrument for all available sounds. Previously released on A Second Wind for Organ though this is a slightly longer excerpt (wish the whole thing was released). This is a live recording presumably different from that on A Second Wind for Organ; you can hear the dance and audience. Presumably Tudor is playing with a tape, in the liner notes for A Second Wind for Organ it describes Tudor as playing a superimposed version of him playing the inside of the organ with live recording and this is presumably how they’d do it live.
From the Second Wind for Organ Liner notes:
For 1, 2 or 3 People was written in 1964. was written in 1964. Any instrument(s) may be used. This performance was made on a Schlicker Baroque Organ belonging to the sculptor Richard Lippold. Taking advantage of the special resources of the recording medium, David Tudor has superimposed two versions of the same material, one played on the keyboard and one from the interior of the organ. The selection of material for the superimposition was made in a way which remains faithful to the requirements of the score and admirably realizes the composer’s conceptions.
4) Christian Wolff Burdocks (1971) [excerpt] 16:59
Dance: Borst Park (1972)
David Behrman, viola; John Cage, percussion; Gordon Mumma, horn, cornet; David Tudor, bandoneon; Garrett List, trombone; Frederic Rzewski, piano
Recorded on tour in 1972
“Burdocks is for one or more groupings of players. It’s a collection (from which one can choose what to play) of different, distinctive compositional ideas in ten parts. The ten parts include specific notations on staves; notations indication only durations, often depending on other sounds a player hears; and various verbal directions both explicit and suggestive. Various numbers of performers (no upward limit) can play, using any means of making sounds. Any number of the ten parts can be played simultaneously or overlapped.”-Christian Wolff (3, p. 496)
A more jaunty piece than the previous and one of the Christian Wollf pieces that is more frequently heard. It has little short segments that can be repeated at the performers discretion so you often hear this little bits over and over as if they are scales being practiced. Very spacious performance of this piece, with several long segments made up of isolated small events of a very subdued nature. There are a number of sounds derived from extended techniques on these instruments, making for a varied collection of sounds among the more recognizable. Lots of laughter from the audience, presumably in reaction to the dance. The live nature of these recordings adds to them I think. Applause comes at varying times including the finale whilst the music is still playing.
David Tudor and John Cage electronics setup from around this time
5) John Cage (1912-1992), Gordon Mumma (b. 1935), David Tudor (1926-1996) 52/3 (1972) [excerpt] 16:39
Dance: Landrover (1972)
John Cage, piano; Gordon Mumma, live electronics; David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded on tour in 1972
This is a really interesting piece in as that it is credited to Mumma, Tudor and Cage and they apparently had a set of agreements and simple rules between the three of them. Carolyn Brown breifly describes the music in Chance and Circumstance thusly:
“The musicians chose an equally simply format: they divided the time of Landrover (whether we did all four parts or only one) into three equal lengths, with each part contributed by one of the three composers — John, David, and Gordon–the oder changing from performance to performance so that we dancer never knew what we might be hearing. All three composers chose soft, nearly inaudible sounds, so that the dance sometimes seemed eerily silent.” – Carolyn Brown (4, p.568/9)
This led to a performance that was always different but stays fairly subdued, at least for live electronics, for most of the length of this excerpt with some greater intensity toward the end. The inclusion of the piano adds a nice contrast from Mumma and Tudor’s electronics which tend to stay in rather staticy and bleepy territory. The piano (Cage) is clusters of varying length with generous silence between them. The electronics are really subtle at first then a dominating shimmering sound as the piano drops out It sort of sounds like Mumma on horn but that could be electronics of some sort or maybe even bowed piano. After a near silence the electronics become controlled feedback and statcy buzzes and there are some mechanical sounds that could be prepared piano or just using the piano as an instrument. It has this gauzy lo-fi feel to a lot of it, which probably is the case with the electronics but creates it’s own sort of atmosphere The piece becomes pretty intense with this chopping aspect to it from the feedback though it isn’t peircing. Some gutteral blasts drive it back into silence. This excerpt ends with almost organ or train whistle like blasts and a low rumble. Great piece, again wish this was the whole piece which apparently would have been around fifty minutes. Of course the character of the entire piece seems like it’d be different if we heard the whole thing as Gordon Mumma describes it in his essay From Where the Circus Went:
“For this contribution Cage chose to read a short fragment from his Mureau, which he would place somewhere in the large, remaining silence of his section. For the entire length of his section Tudor presented seismological signals, which he speeded up to an audible range and modified gently with electronic equalization. I made a set of verbal instructions, in the event that someone else wanted to perform my section thought I invariably performed it myself. These instructions specified “a phenomenon unarticulated insofar as possible and sustained at the threshold of perception.” Though that phenomenon doesn’t necessarily have to be a sound, for my section of Landrover I created a kind of supersonic blanket with special electronic equipment. In accordance with instructions I adjusted this phenomenon at the threshhold of perception — my perception. Of course, since everyone’s perception thresholds are different. It was above some and below others. I could barely hear it, Cage said he never heard it, and Tudor found it obnoxiously audible. Critics described it variously as “absolute silence,” “intolerable roaring,” and “something like crickets.” – Gordon Mumma (2, p.276)
From Mumma’s description it seems pretty clear that we are hearing his or Tudor’s section of the piece. With Cage’s being spoken word amidst silence, the whole piece clearly will have a gentle outline overall but would differ from what this excerpt leads us to believe.
6) Gordon Mumma Telepos (1972) 18:27
Dance: TV Rerun (1972)
Gordon Mumma controlling sounds activated by dancers with telemetry-accelerometer belts
Recorded September 12, 1972, Venice
Sort of like Variations V in that the dancers trigger the action but in this case it is even more tied into their movements. Mumma’s live electronics works in a wider range then Tudor’s but sometimes includes some of the cheesier sounds that seem more dated. It is interesting how prescient Tudor seemed to be in his choice of sounds. Overall though most of Mumma’s electronics are great, second only to Tudor in his use of them. This piece is a bit bleepy, perhaps tied to the dancers movements but also perhaps to what is triggered by what. Some good crackly sounds sort of akin to brillo pads on guitar pickups along with the swoopy and bloopy sounds. It captures the spacious nature of the dance nicely, with these sounds seeming to move around in space and change dynamics based on activity. Sounds of the dance come through as well. The later half becomes even more interesting with a continuous high slightly distorted whistling sound and burbling of perhaps resonant filters. Rather subdued even with continuous sound and the audience and dance more present. Nice piece overall and good to hear an entire piece of this nature.
“TV Rerun depended for its impact on the counterpoint and almost fugal correspondences of the choreographic material and Gordon Mumma’s score. A curious addition to the costumes was three “telemetry belts” (closely related to the belt Merce wore for his solo Loops) that we took turns wearing. Attached to the back of each wide white belt, designed by Gordon Mumma for his accompanying score, Telepos, was a small box of technical gadgetry. Signals were generated in the belts by a lattice of sensors that responded to acceleration and were relayed by transmitters to Gordon in the orchestra pit. He arranged the interactions of these signals for the audience, but any attempt to relate what one was hearing with what one was seeing was a futile experience.” .-Carolyn Brown (4, p. 570)
Disc Four (68’44”)
1) David Tudor (1926-1996) Toneburst (1975) 17: 45
Dance: Sounddance (1975)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded March 12, 1976, Perth, Australia
“Eventually you discover certain critical points in a circuit, and its those that you pay attention to when things are misbehaving. The last resort is always to cut it off completely and start over – that’s perfectly acceptable. As a matter of fact, that’s part of the whole operation. I found that very rarely did I feel that there was an unacceptable situation, even though I don’t like it when feedback takes off. But after all, having so many points with which to create variation… I guess what I’m trying to say is that since it’s suppose to be an unpredictable oscillation, that’s the condition in my mind. So when it stays in a so-to-speak static state, then that’s when I have to grapple. If I get it balanced, it’s constantly producing a variety of itself. That’s the image that I have… that it should be producing this variety”. -David Tudor in interview with John Fullemann (10.31.84)
A great piece, perhaps the definitive Tudor live electronics piece. A raucous piece constructed of networks of feedback, it arrives with the intensity and drive of an approaching freight train and while retaining that drive, goes through a range of densities and sounds. Great deep buzzing feedback at the beginning with a continuous steam engine like sound running through it. Fantastic squealing section in the middle, like a slipping belt. Good use of space with several silences coming at various times. Not even slightly dated this music is as revolutionary now as it was in the 70s. Fantastic; a set highlight.
This piece was previously released on David Tudor: Live Electronic Music (Leonardo Music Journal CD Series 14) but thankfully it is a different performance. Considering that this was always performed live and that it utilized an unpredictable feedback network it is great to hear it in another version. It has a recognizable shape but the details are different. This is the aspect that really defines a live-electrionics performance – the electronics configuration is the score but it is always indeterminate in realization.
Toneburst turned out to be a very important piece for Tudor: He described it in 1994 as being a direct translation of his mind into music. Toneburst represents the culmination of a decade of experimentation and is considered to be the definitive Tudor composition. It wraps up in one complex package the mysterious ideas and elusive philosophies behind the conception, realization and performance of his music. Toneburst is David Tudor. – John D.S. Adams (6)
Squaregame (1976) (photo from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Flickr)
2) Takehisa Kosugi (b. 1938) S.E. Wave/E.W. Song (1976) [excerpt] 13:03
Dance: Squaregame (1976)
Takehisa Kosugi, violin, voice, live electronics
Recorded December 15, 1976, Tokyo
The first real dud on the set. Nearly every time that Kosugi opens his mouth it’s an embarrassment but none more-so then on this piece. Basically making mouth noises into a delay it is beyond cheesy. Incredibly hard to listen to and impossible on headphones. When its just violin into the delay this piece is okay but far too much vocalizations. A case where one wishes the excerpt had been a bit more strategic and much shorter. I’ve really liked a lot of Kosugi’s stuff that I’d heard prior to getting this set but really hate virtually everything he’s involved in here. Disappointing as I do think his instrumental stuff is solid and I was really expecting some new and interesting pieces from him..
3) Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) Remainder (1976) [excerpt] 14:55
Dance: Torse (1976)
“Time corresponds here to life of the space, to sense of being there. Approach and disappearance of what is sounding in the environment. Vibration in air heard 3 minutes before the actual sound of a plane is heard. Changes in air vibration as different boats approach. Seagulls sensing these changes in air – their anticipation, announcement of arrivals and disappearances, before the sound of the change is heard at the site. Patterns within air.” – Maryanne Amacher (8)
Maryanne Amacher’s music is woefully underrepresented on disc so the inclusion of this piece, even in an excerpt, is quite welcome. Part of the reason so little of her music is released is that she was primarily interested in the acoustics of spaces and the psychoacoustic effects of sound, neither of which is very amendable to recording. Her music was best experienced live on sound systems that could reproduce what she was trying to do. Often she worked with highly multi-channeled systems where she would place speakers all around a space to activate certain properties of the space directly. This piece, though was made for a touring dance company and was realized onto tape. It’s source material was the sound of Boston Harbor via a microphone transmistting over a telephone line for two and half years:
“A five year live transmission of the Boston harbor was transmitted to Amacher’s studio everyday for 2.5 years from a microphone she installed on a window at the New England Fish Exchange, overlooking the ocean at Pier 6. An open 15kc telephone link to her studio (at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Massachusetts Institute for Technology) provided continuous, live 14 hour a day transmission of the harbor sound environment.”(8)
She used material from this telephone work in a number of pieces including her accompaniment to John Cage’s Lecture on the Weather as well the this piece for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It begins with a whistling, very high pitched tone contrasted with a lower pitched sound that comes in and out. The lower sound almost sounds like a rubbed snare or something but with no attack. Its almost like a Sachiko M, Sean Meehan duet but with stronger psychoacoustics. A great piece that I bet would be all enveloping at full length.
4) Jon Gibson (b. 1940) Equal Distribution (1977) [excerpt] 12:14
Dance: Fractions 1 (1977)
Jon Gibson, ï¬‚ute and live electronics
Recorded October 8, 1978, New York
Flute with delay, which I have to admit doesn’t do much for me. The flutework is phrase driven with pauses between the phrases to allow the delay to play out. Sometimes chording with himself via the delay. While conceptually this is not a priori uninteresting (later in the set Stuart Dempster will utilize a long natural delay to build up hypnotic washes of sound from trombone and conch) in execution here it seems cheesey. Interesting that my least favorite pieces of the set so far just seem to be be people screwing around with delay. As that technology became more pervasive, practicable and portable there seemed to be certain musicians who just became obsessed with it. But so much of it just sounds like a stoner sitting in his bedroom screwing around with a delay ala the earlier Kosugi piece.
5) John Cage (1912-1992) Inlets (1977) [excerpt] 10:17
Dance: Inlets (1977)
John Cage, Paeder Mercier, Mel Mercier, conchshells with water; John David Fullemann, foghorn, tape
Recorded October 27, 1983, Roubaix, France
This piece is made up primarily of conch shells, filled with water that are moved such that the water sloshes around inside them. Due to the nature of the chambers inside a conch shell the water will burble between the chambers with an unpredictable release of air and sound. The above video of a performance of the piece from a fairly recent concert demonstrates this better than any description can. It’s a great piece with its unexpected gurgles and hisses of water in the conch shells. Alone with the burbles, bloops, bubbles and belches there is this faint staticy sound that is hard to source: from the recording process? some aspect of the performers clothes? or the echos of water in small chambers? Who knows but it sounds neat and compliments the water sounds well. Even more effective at its full length still nice to hear this original version.
References and further reading
1) Music for Merce (1952-2009) Liner notes (New World Records)
2) German Celant (editor), Merce Cunningham Milano, Edizioni Charta, 2000 ISBN 88-8158-258-9
3) Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, KÃ¶ln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
4) Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham Northwestern University Press, 2009 ISBN 9780810125131
5) James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Music in the Twentieth Century), 1996 Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521565448
6) John D.S. Adams, Giant Oscillations, The David Tudor pages
7) Maryanne Amacher City-Links, exhibition booklet, Ludlow 38 KÃ¼nstlerhaus Stuttgart Goethe Institut New York
8) Calvin Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde Penguin, 1976 ISBN 9780140043136
1) Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Wikipedia)
2) John Cage (Wikipedia)
3) David Tudor (Wikipedia)
4) Christian Wolff (Wikipedia)
5) Gordon Mumma (Wikipedia)
6) David Behrman (Wikipedia)
7) Pauline Oliveros (Wikipedia)
8) Maryanne Amacher (Wikipedia)
9) Takehisa Kosgui (Wikipedia)