Music for Merce (1952-2009)
While the historical record of the pieces performed in accompaniment to Merce Cunningham’s dances is of interest in and of itself the real treasure of this set is its cornucopia of unreleased David Tudor pieces. Tudor’s live electronics was always ahead of its time and interest in it has never been higher than it is now. There is a resurgence of sorts in live electronics right now that takes the form in myriad of directions from ultra-minamalistic to ultra-maximalist and everywhere in between. But the core techniques and ideas are almost always to be found in the live electronics of Tudor and some of the others of the time such as Cage, Mumma, Behrman and so on. Use of contact mics (Cage’s Cartridge Music), electronically modified acoustic instruments (Tudor’s realization of Cage Variations II, Tudors Bandoneon !, Mumma’s Mesa), mixture of text and electronics (Cage’s Indeterminacy, Cage and Tudor’s simultaneous performances such as Mureau/Rainforest), exploration of room resonance (Tudor’s Microphone, various Lucier pieces), event activated electronics (Cage’s Variations V, Mumma’s Telepos) and so on. These notions and others have been minutely explored, iterated upon, taken to new places, combined in myriad of ways and fused with other forms to a degree that they can sometimes completely obscure these sources, but the ideas can be traced to this work.
Tudor performed with the Cunningham Dance company from its inception in the early 50s, until his death in the 90s and during this time composed numerous pieces and was the companies music director after John Cage’s death in 1992. While a decent selection of Tudor’s pieces has been released there remains more pieces unreleased than currently available. Considering that these pieces were performed numerous times for dances and that due to the inherent unpredictability of live electronics each performance had its unique characteristics there is a vast archive of this material available. This set includes welcome new performances of several previously released Tudor compositions (Toneburst, Phonemes) but most valuably it contains four pieces that have heretofore not been released (Weatherings, Sextet for Seven, Neural Network Plus and the collaborative piece with Cage and Mumma 52/3) and longer excerpts from two pieces that have had very short excerpts released (7″ of Webwork appear on A Chance Operation and about 3″ of Virtual Focus on Musicworks 73). These are mostly presented in excerpts, which considering their unreleased nature is a real shame, but as the dances were often fairly long at this point it would be a box set in an of itself to release these pieces complete (which frankly there should be. As I said interest in Tudor’s work is at an all time high and I think such a set would be immensely valuable as well as presenting great music). The bulk of these pieces are presented over the next three discs and while the other pieces interspersed with them are mostly duds this makes for a pretty incredible run of music.
Disc Five (68’52”)
“Electronic music resources appeared in the work of Merce Cunningham as early as 1952. The use of electronic music increased into the 1970s by which time electronic music had become predominant in the Cunningham Dance Company performances. A major impetus for the development of electronic music resources in the Cunningham Dance Company milieu came from music director John Cage.” – Gordon Mumma (2, 202)
The music commissioned by the Cunnignham Dance Company by the end of the sixties until Merce Cunningham’s death in 2009 has primarily been electronic music. As I have stated earlier this was often to the displeasure of the dancers and the audience in the early days. It is interesting, especially considering that John Cage, then musical director, while instrumental in the introduction and development of electronics had, by the late 70s, primarily moved moved away from them. This is, I think, further proof of Cunningham’s commitment to the new and experimental. For again it was the composers he chose to work with that chose this direction; Cunningham would often provide only a time length and some vague description of what the dance is trying to achieve.
“Tudor’s contribution as a composer with electronic resources has developed from the now-legendary Rainforest into a formidable repertory of pioneering works. After Sounddance (1975, Tudor’s Toneburst), a new work employing a complex electronic system appeared a three-year intervals.” – Gordon Mumma (2, 206)
Disc five is nearly all David Tudor pieces with a single piece by Yasunao Tone among three of his pieces. Two of these pieces have never been released and the other, Phonemes, is one of his major pieces presented in a different version then that previously issued. While the Tone piece isn’t very interesting in my opinion this is otherwise nearly a full David Tudor disc and one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the set.
1) David Tudor (1926-1996) Weatherings (1978) [excerpt] 14:54
Dance: Exchange (1978)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded September 14, 1991, Paris
“The same 15 dancers, without Mr. Cunningham, made “Exchange” a much darker and more sinister dance than one remembered. The exchange of the title occurs between two separate groups of dancers who mesh only toward the end. There are playful highlights such as the duet between Mr. Komar and Miss Bartosik, but David Tudor’s score, bearing down like a freight train, created an oppressive context. Jasper Johns’s seaweed-green and gray leotards and bursts of light seemed all the more life-giving.” – NY Times review by Anna Kisselgoff, March 20th, 1992
The first real new David Tudor piece released in years and while perhaps not quite at the level of his best pieces, this is still a strong work. The piece begins with that trademarked percussive, chopped up feedback that Tudor was working with in the late 70s in pieces such as Toneburst and Untitled. Weatherings is a highly spatial piece, moving around the stereo sound field as if it might have whipped around the performance space. Made up of a jittering metallic sound and an swirling washing it has a strong feel of movement. A bit of an echoing phasing sound comes through as well. There seems to be several streams of sound and bits of it fade in and out with residue left echoing or squiggling in tight loops. It has a pretty wide dynamic range, with low density parts made up of just this aforementioned residue, whereas others are this huge roar whipping around the sound feled. If you have ever been in an intense windstorm that is the feel that the piece evokes: then whistling parts with the sound of trees swaying and a sense of waiting and then this freight train of approaching wind that on its arrival whips all around you. This piece more than most of Tudors belies its electronic nature and some of the sounds have a more clearly electronic nature as opposed to the otherworldly nature of a lot of the sounds he generates. It gets pretty intense at the end of this excerpt with streaming burbles of modified feedback and wallowing squiggles in the background. Another great piece and really nice to finally hear.
Merce Cunningham working on Roadrunners (1979)
2) Yasunao Tone (b. 1935) Geography and Music (1979) [excerpt] 21:18
Dance: Roadrunners (1979)
John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi, voice; David Tudor, piano; Martin Kalve, qin;
Chinese text read aloud by Yoshiharu Suenobu
Recorded October 20, 1983, Leuven, Belgium
“On this recording we hear the Company musicians (Kosugi, Cage, Tudor, and Kalve) reading what is initially a self-referential text (“Introduction: The following texts are mostly taken from the geography section from TÃ iping YÃ¹lan, one thousand volumes of Chinese encyclopedias, published in 983 A.D. and the rest of them are excerpts from Taiping Quanxi, published in 981 A.D., and both volumes were edited by the same editor, Li Phuan . . .”), accompanied by the qin, and followed by the recording in Chinese.” – Music for Merce Liner notes (1)
This is the only piece from Fluxus artist Yasunao Tone included in this set. Personally I’ve always found the work from Tone, who is still actively making music today, to be highly mixed. At the very least his concerns seems to be pretty far from mine. However there are some gems among his pieces, but this one in my opinion is not one of them. Twangy qin played sedately as Cage reads the introductory text slowly ala Indeterminacy. Later Chinese texts are read in a similar manner and there is some piano along with the qin. Lots of laughter from the audience though so must have been a fairly amusing dance. While not a piece that does much for me, this is one of the few pieces that has been previously released. In this case it was released as a 3″ disc as part of a catalog for his first live performances in Japan after 28 years. The 50 page booklet includes an interview, criticism and biography all in japanese, but a list of compositions and discography are in English as well as Japanese. This version, which perhaps due to it having been limited to Japan (though you can get it from Mimaroglu Music Sales) is the exact same performance as that on this set.
3) David Tudor Phonemes (1981) [excerpt] 14:00
Dance: Channels/Inserts (1981)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded November 29, 1992, Tel Aviv
“I use the principle of making the sound outputs different enough that you could not recognize them as being generated by the same signal, in all the later pieces. For instance, one of them was called “Phonemes“, which was also a dance score for Merce Cunningham. There I took two sound modifiers. One of them was a vocoder which could chop sound into small pieces. The second device I took was a percussion generator, somewhat like a percussion synthesizer which permitted me to lengthen the attack to several seconds. So then, I thought, ‘now… if I take short sounds and lengthen them and I use long sounds on the vocoder and shorten them, I have two processes which can overlap’… and so I began experimenting. Listening to the combinations, it reminded me of speech. The sounds were very short, so I called the piece “Phonemes“.” – David Tudor (6)
Another previously released Tudor piece (David Tudor Three Works for Live Electronics. (Lovely Music)) but in a different presentation. On that disc Tudor had multiple performances of the piece (possibly including this one) mixed together utilizing a specialized routing system so that it was almost a new piece composed out of Phonemes – a meta-Phonemes as it were. This demonstrates quite clearly that way that live electronics pieces are a composition in their construction in that the form of the piece remains the same even if the realizations are always unique. This is one of the strongest Tudor pieces and one that while it evokes speech as Tudor notes, it also has an alien aspect to it and is the kind of electronics that Tudor was almost alone in exploring. This performance of the piece begins with a rising rather guttural tone with a good space between it and the next guttural rising tone. The repeats for a while: rising tone, silence. After the third or fourth of these it becomes percussive with gated clipped staticy sounds. These become increasingly wet and burbly and while style percussive arhythmic. Other parts sound like distant garbled speech but the percussive nature is pervasive throughout the piece.
It is interesting that this performance of the piece is from a decade after its composition. Again, not to belabor this point, this demonstrates the configuration is the score – if you can replicate the configuration you will end up with something akin to the original composition. This, as I’ve discussed somewhat in my Network Instrument posts, is something that is highly interesting to myself as a sort of physical realization of a type of graphic score.
4) David Tudor Sextet for Seven (1982) 18:15
Dance: Quartet (1982)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded March 24, 1990, New York City
Another brand new Tudor piece and the most sedate of his live electronics pieces I’ve heard. It has a sound of distant metal flexing in the heat and and a background hum and develops into almost melodic tones. The background sounds become a bit more swirling and the metallic sounds a bit more insistent though less frequent. The faint melodic tones become a kind of tuneless whistling as if the wind occasionally picks up and blows through a hole in a piece of steel. Almost can hear distant sounds that Tudor’s Rainforest at times, with very subtle colorings in the far background. After about eight minutes of this it then suddenly assaults one with a much louder staccato electronics which quickly goes away and returns to the previous events. It comes back though. Again it falls away to the swirling background sound which is again punctured this time by what sounds like an electronic whale, whose plaintive and deranged calls continue on for some time while a seriously low end rumble shakes far below. The piece continues on this way with its low level but complex base into which these big dramatic aural assaults take place. In several places it fades away so completely as to leave almost no trace, but always events of some sort – dramatic and dense, or sedate and swirling, rise up from it. A great piece heard in its entirety here and really a highlight of the set.
“WHEN does a quartet have five people? When it’s Merce Cunningham’s ”Quartet,” which was performed for the first time this season by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company last Wednesday night at the City Center. The unusual work for five proved to be both a working out of formal problems and an implicitly dramatic, though plotless, dance evoking isolation and loneliness.
However, Mr. Cunningham’s movements remained either crooked or floppy. He teetered and tried to reach toward the other dancers. But they always ignored him. The deliberate awkwardness of his steps and the forlorn way he danced them made him seem a modern equivalent of Petrouchka, the woebegone puppet in Stravinsky’s ballet who has come to symbolize the eternal outsider. At last, Mr. Cunningham walked off, yielding the stage to the quartet.” – Jack Anderson, NY Times, March 24th, 1982
The dance for this piece is Quartet which is for five dancers and following that lead Tudor composed his Sextet for Seven. As noted by the Cunningham Dance Company the piece is made up of “six homogeneous voices and one wandering voice.” emulating the dance with its quartet of dancers and Merce’s interventions.
Disc Six (74’12”)
Disc six in contrast to the nearly unified nature of disc five is one of the more mixed and varied of the set. It begins with probably the only Takehisa Kosugi piece that I can really get behind in the whole set. I feel I should pause a moment to clarify my disappointment in the Kosugi material on this set. This disappointment comes from being a long time fan of his work from Group Ongaku (recently reissued on LP!), Taj Mahal Travellers, solo pieces such as Catch Wave and various and sundry collaborations and performances that I have heard. However it turns out that while I have enjoyed his violin and live electronics work I’m not at all a fan of his vocalizations and “singing”. He seems to utilize this rather unfortunate aspect of his performance more often than not and as there are a quite a few pieces and performances from him on this set (his being a member of the Company’s music crew since the late 70s and the musical director since Tudor’s death) it begins to seem like those other works were more the outlier. He also it turns out over-relies on delays, which while in his earliest work (especially with Taj Mahal Travellers) was rather innovative and charming, clearly became a crutch. I’d still consider myself a fan of his work as there are so many pieces of his that I love, but this set has definitely brought on a major reconsideration of his performance practice for me.
The other pieces on disc six range from Tudor’s great Webwork, Cage’s strange Voiceless Essay, King’s rather uninspired electronic violin, to the banal new age-isms of Michael Pugliese’s Peace Talks.
1) Takehisa Kosugi (b. 1938) Spacings (1984) 23:52
Dance: Doubles (1984)
Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics
Recorded March 20, 1988, New York City
Rather 8-bit bleepy soundy, with a repeating pattern that speeds up after a bit. A whoozy also rather 8-bit whine oscillates in the background. Heavy use of delay and ping ponging between left and right channels (which could be indicative of a multichannel system recorded to stereo). While a bit cheesy this part which goes on for some time is not without its charms. As it progresses Kosugi begins to really overuse the delays and adding more and more sounds that are still pretty simple in and of themselves. More synthy type sounds come in though still rather low bit sounding (early 80s synths perhaps). While a bit cheesy it’s definitely the best of the new Kosugi on this set primarily because he keeps his mouth shut!
2) John King (b. 1953) gliss in sighs (1985) 16:19
Dance: Native Green (1985)
John King, pre-recorded and live electric prepared violin
Recorded March 12, 1985, New York City
Immediately begins with scritchy rather mechanical grinding violin and then layers of what sounds like sped up tape of violin. The tape contain a wide variety of sounds from tapping on the body to an almost human moaning sound as well as tape effects that sound like slewing, phasing and ping ponging. Pretty busy overall and while not a bad piece per say it’s one that doesn’t do much for me. It rather reminds me John Gibson’s flute and electronics piece on disc four, in that it works with layers from an electronically treated classical instrument, but it displays no creative use of electronics or of modifying the instruments sound. These two don’t seem really committed to the electronics and are perhaps using them because its the thing to do when composing for the company. When you contrast this to something like Mesa, where the bandoneon is completely transformed yet retains its inherent nature in driving the piece these pieces really fall flat.
3) John Cage (1912-1992) Voiceless Essay (1986) [excerpt]10:58
Dance: Points in Space (1986)
Recorded March 17, 1988, New York City
“The digital computer has become an important resource. LArge, mainframe computers have been used for composition and sound processing, as in the music for Points in Space (1986, John Cage’s Voiceless Essay) in which the sounds of the composer’s speaking voice were removed, leaving only Cage’s unvoiced phonemes as the essential musical vocabulary.” – Gordon Mumma (2, 206)
As is probably clear to the reader of these pages I often have trouble with voclazations. This is an aspect of Cage’s composition and performance, that while I can enjoy at times I can not always get behind. I love readings such as Indeterminacy as much as the next person but the pieces that are just fragments of words, odd vocalizations and isolated sounds I sometimes have a real hard time with. I absolutely can’t deal with such pieces on headphones and do always make sure to give them a try on the stereo. This piece is right on the edge for me, it is really interesting as a process and the sounds at times – whisperings layered together on tape with the starts of words and such – but sometimes its almost nails on chalkboard to me. However I found that when played on the stereo at lower volume so the sibilients fade away a bit it’s pretty haunting. While it will probably never be a favorite, I can say I like the piece and find it intriguing and well worth hearing.
4) David Tudor (1926-1996) Webwork (1987) [excerpt] 10:46
Dance: Shards (1987)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded March 17, 1988, New York City
“Nothing typifies Tudor’s work during this period more than the process of taking unique pre-recorded material, changing and layering it in real time and playing it through a multichannel sound system.” – D’Arcy Philip Gray(10)
Begins interestingly burbly, perhaps resonance from filters alternating with a sort of popping skittering sound. This is followed by a more bleating metallic section. This becomes very spare with an almost liquid kissing sound which evolves into a percussive bit with a wooden affect. For a live electronics piece this one has a much more organic sound then most, perhaps what Tudor was after in the beginning. White, hisses with short delays moving it more into more expected territory. Alas this excerpt really does seem to short to catch what this heretofore unreleased piece is all about. Its an interesting one though, different from much of Tudor’s other live electronics and intriguing.
The world of Merce Cunningham’s ”Shards,” performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Friday at the City Center, seems timeless and immutable until the surprise of its final moments. The eight dancers, clad in simple, dull green and black leotards and tights, might almost be fish hovering in still waters made dim by William Anastasi’s lighting and his earth-colored, scrawled backdrop. David Tudor’s contemplative electronic score brings an extra sense of privacy to this hushed and quiet world. – Jennifer Dunning, NYTimes, March 26th, 1992
Interestingly enough in the 1990s Tudor’s music, while certainly a lot less chaotic than the 70s material but still pretty far out for dance music, doesn’t elicit complaints from reviewers who now spend a lot more time describing the choreography, the dancers, the costumes and sets.
5) Michael Pugliese (1956-1997) Peace Talks (1989) [excerpt] 11:44
Dance: August Pace (1989)
Takehisa Kosugi, sitar, percussion; Michael Pugliese, percussion
Recorded November 13, 1990, Bangalore, India
“Movement material is, of course, what ”August Pace” is really about. More than some other Cunningham pieces, it has the dancers striking up a clearly outlined position and then holding it. The emphasis is on the hold.
Yet the sound of the piece is anything but tranquil. Michael Pugliese’s score ”Peace Talks” is mainly percussion. The vivid drumming, especially when it escalates, permeates the entire theater. Whether the audience will hear the same sound every time in ”August Pace” is debatable in the Cunningham canon, and whether the percussion is electronically produced or live makes no difference as it sounds electronic by the time it comes out of the amplifiers”. – NY Times review by Anna Kisselgoff, March 15th, 1990
Sitar, tabla, rainsticks and performed in India – I gotta say I find it all a bit campy. Even for 1989 it seems a bit new age, world music stereotyped. Really not much to say about this piece – not one I care for much and as I say, totally cheesy.
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) An Interview with David Tudor by Teddy Hultberg in Dusseldorf May 17,18 1988, 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
9) The Art of David Tudor, Getty Research Institute
10) D’Arcy Philip Gray, David Tudor in the Late 1980s: Understanding a Secret Voice, Leonardo Music Journal 14, 2004
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) Takehisa Kosgui (Wikipedia)
8) Yasunao Tone (Wikipedia)