Music for Merce (1952-2009)
John Cage died in 1992 and David Tudor in 1994. Cage was of course the music director of the Cunningham Company for forty years and a prolific composer of which many of his works were created or repurposed for specific dances, 80 of them according to the liner notes(1). This set features 9 pieces by Cage which I think demonstrates pretty clearly how incomplete it really is for covering the music used by the dance company. Of course it also demonstrates how much of Cages music, so derided for so long, is now available on recordings as they tended to avoid available pieces. Appropriately enough the set includes more pieces composed by John Cage than any other composers, though at 9 pieces it is far from the 80 he composed for the company. David Tudor had been the primary performer in the company from its beginnings in 1952 and took over as music director after John Cage. His tenure was short as in 1996 he suffered a series of strokes shortly followed his death, after which Takehisa Kosugi took over as music director until Merce Cunninghams death in 2009. Tudor of course also being a composer/performer of live electronics and created many pieces, the second most for the company. Likewise he is next most represented in this set with 7 pieces, but if you include him as performer he is involved in probably 75% of the music.
This two disc set covers pieces composed between 1989 and 1997 during which time both Cage and Tudor passed away. Cage had primarily been working on his number pieces during the last years of his life, many of which were used as the accompaniment for Cunninghams dances. This set contains two of them as well as Sculpture Musicalis which while not a time bracket piece is a prime example of the instruction based pieces he was also doing during this time. Cunningham would continue to use Cage’s music after his death which considering how much Cage composed and Cunningham having disconnected music and dance is not surprising. Tudor’s compositions were inimically tied with his electronics setup and his own virtuosity as a performer and after his death at least some of the pieces would be played back from recordings as opposed to performed live. While he did some work outside of the company it was usually also in collaboration with other artists so none of his pieces were used for dances after his final pieces he made specifically for the company.
2008 Performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean in a quarry.
Ocean, a piece that Cage was working on when he died that was completed (or at least realized) by Andrew Culver, which also had an electronic part composed by Tudor and is as far as I know not available is strangely absent from the set. A multimedia extravaganza along with the dance, perhaps it is forthcoming in a video format that would better serve it (this short documentary on YouTube about a staging of Ocean is worth checking out). Tudor’s composition required that “Each performer uses different sound materials, derived from peripheral “ocean” sources: sea mammals, Arctic ice, fish, telemetry and sonar, ship noises.”(9) which were then electronically and electro-acoustically altered. He only worked on one other piece after this, which was a multimedia collaboration with Sophia Ogielska presenting his working process utilizing his earlier piece Toneburst. So this would be about the final Cage and Tudor piece which it seems like it’d be a fitting piece for this overview but for whatever reason is absent.
Disc Seven (77′ 22″)
In my initial overview of this set I described the bulk of the discs as mixed, with perhaps three of the discs being pretty solid in and of themselves (1, 2 and 5). Disc seven is a fairly good example of this in that four of its five tracks are quite good (great even) but the initial Kosugi track, at over 20 minutes being one of the more unbearable of the set. However the final two Tudor compositions in the set and two of the last four Cage pieces in the set make for an overall rewarding disc once you skip that initial track.
Merce Cunningham Cargo X (1989)
1) Takehisa Kosugi (b. 1938) Spectra (1989) 20:29
Dance: Cargo X (1989)
Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics, percussion with contact mics, voice; David Tudor, Michael Pugliese, live electronics, percussion with contact mics
Recorded July 26, 1989, Cannes
“One pleasure inherent in the dances of Merce Cunningham is the way they allow the viewer to enter and roam within them. The specifics are clear in “Cargo X,” a 1989 piece set to music by Takehisa Kosugi and performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Thursday night. The set, designed by Dove Bradshaw, consists of a high ladder and sprigs of rather overblown and brightly colored flowers. There are seven performers. They are dressed in unitards whose colors are as intense as those that drench the backdrop behind them. And Mr. Cunningham has given the dancers rooted movement, quick footwork by bodies pushing down in resilient plies, for instance, in relatively circumscribed individual spaces.
But Mr. Kosugi’s thundering electronic score sounds at times like a formidable old auntie singing in the shower. The ladder defines the stage landscape. And the dancers, darting out across the stage or ranged about that odd, familiar utilitarian object, push down into the floor as strikingly as the ladder rises from it.” – Jennifer Dunning, NY Times March 21st, 1994
Lots of delay and echo, networks of it. White noise percussive sounds probably from Pugliese. Terrible, absolutely abysmal moaning/singing from Kosugi, probably the most unbearable of his vocal pieces on this set. At a point this echo-y percussive electronics goes away for a bit and electronics more akin to Tudor – more burbly, less fixed come in. Then there is a mix of the two, Pugliese and Tudor in their respective modes. Kosugi drops out now and again but always comes back with the horrific vocalizations. Really a disappointment for me, this and nearly all of the other Kosugi pieces where he does this. There is a bit later on where it sounds like the washes of electronics are trying to obliterate the voice. But also some bits of just effected voice which are particularly bad.
2) John Cage (1912-1992) Sculptures Musicales (1989) [excerpt] 12:14
Dance: Inventions (1989)
Takehisa Kosugi, David Tudor, Michael Pugliese, various acoustic and electronic constant sounds
Recorded June 23, 1991, Zurich
“Sounds lasting and leaving from different points and forming a sounding sculpture which lasts….”
(Sculptures Musicales entry at johncage.info)
Sculptures Musicales is a reference to a note that Marcel Duchamp included in the Green Box. where he refers to the Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even as a musical sculpture. Cage took that and create this text based score which calls for large amounts of silence. This realization is another welcome piece on this set and another one that one would appreciate a complete version. Various electronic sounds from drill like, to watery, to low ringing hums and so on interspersed with variable long silences. A great piece alas all too short here. There have been numerous other recordings of the piece of varying quality; I can recommend the version released on OgreOgress.
3) David Tudor (1926-1996) Virtual Focus (1990) [excerpt] 15:15
Dance: Polarity (1990)
David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded October 6, 1990, Paris
Virtual Focus is an interesting piece; one that sounds quite different from the bulk of Tudor’s work and one of the pieces I was most intersted in hearing in this set. The excellent Canadian music magazine Musicworks put out a series of issues on David Tudor after his death and one of these included an article by Matt Rogalsky on this piece as well as audio excerpts of the piece performed by both Tudor and himself. The extremly short Tudor extract (3’3″) is from the same performance as this one which Rogalsky describes thusly:
“I looked through the dubs I had made of Cunningham performances, and found one of Tudor performing the piece in mid-October 1990, in Paris. It is a relatively sedate performance, slow and textural, with percussive material entering only towards the end of if it’s twenty-six minutes.” – Matt Rogalsky(6, p.23)
For anyone interested in the music of David Tudor this article is extremely interesting. Rogalsky was able to work with Tudor a bit toward the end of his life as well as being in charge of preparing many of his devices and such for archiving. He has thus had access to much of the essential material and the essential people. In this article he points out that Tudor and his acolytes were rather secretive about process and documentation and rather enjoyed cultivating an air of mystery. That combined with the fact that Tudor made, modified or subverted much of the electronics he used, not to mention that he was such a virtuoso perform makes recreating his pieces quite difficult.
Virtual Focus it turns out was made as an art installation with Tudor’s frequent collaborator the sculpture Jackie Matisse-Monnier. The full table of electronics along with the corresponding mobile were left in near pristine condition in a pair of art collectors hands. It is “activated” by a dual cassette deck (Tudor often used pre-recorded material in conjunction with the live electronics as there are sounds that can’t be recreated on stage) which was missing the essential tapes. Rogalsky was able to check out this table, figure out how it works and then in the Tudor archives find a likely candidate for the cassette tapes for it. He then performed and recorded with it which makes up the much longer Virtual Focus piece on the Musicworks 73 CD. Do check out the (quite short) video link above of Matt Rogalsky recreating the piece, as you can see part of what makes it so unique (another short video, from what looks like an opening id here).
“One of the sonar units provides high-frequency output, the other low. The radar units make low, flatulent noises. Another sound source is a cheap electronic drum-pad with contact microphones plugged into its trigger input. The microphone is mounted on a panel of Monnier’s sculpture in order to be triggered by the panel’s collisions as it turns in the air”
– Matt Rogalsky(6, p.23)
The use of sonar and radar in this piece is what creates its characteristic popping, percussive sound. The music in this recording begins right off with squiggly high tones and a very low nearly subsonic scrunching in the background that occasional rises out. The oscillator towns become more ringing as it develops and the scrunching sound more defined less subsonic and begins to vacillate in the soundfield. Some really nice crackly bits come up occasionally, but the piece is mostly whispery filtered oscillator sound moved around the sounded along with that lower scrunchy sound.
A great piece, one of the most interesting of the “new” Tudor pieces in this set, it is also one of the pieces of Tudors that I think shows how forward thinking he continued to be. His use of the radar, sonar and contact microphones is very similar to work that electronic improvisors would be doing a decade later. The tapes used in this piece apparently were recordings of contact microphones on kite strings – not too far from the contact mics on fences and wires that we’d hear from Alan Lamb and Jeph Jerman in the next two decades. One can easily imagine this already fairly spare piece (especially for Tudor), becoming increasingly more spare – Tudor after all did perform Cage pieces with quite long silences — and with its focus on more limited material we’d have much of the bases covered for the live electronics of the last decade.
Merce Cunningham Beach Birds (1991)
4) John Cage Four3 (1991) [excerpt] 15:24
Dance: Beach Birds (1991)
Takehisa Kosugi, rainsticks, oscillator; David Tudor, piano, rainsticks; Michael Pugliese, piano, rainsticks; John D.S. Adams, rainsticks
Recorded June 26, 1992, McGill Recording Studios, Montreal (studio recording)
Wandering Satie like piano and then very slow rainsticks. Good use of space in this piece, it sometimes becomes completely silent, but much of the time it is simply at very low density with just a few grains of sand rustling through the rainstick. The second piano seems much further away in space and places even sparser. Occasionally as the piece goes on there are denser rainstick sections though never full on new age levels. When the oscillator comes in it is very Sachiko M – not super high volume, not too super high pitched and with very deliberate rainsticks has a sound that wouldn’t be out of place in say a Sachiko/Meehan collaboration. This excerpt concludes with what sounds like a quote of Satie’s Vexations (and is it turns out).
5) David Tudor Neural Network Plus (1992) [excerpt] 13:28
Dance: Enter (1992)
David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics
Recorded June 5, 1994, Lisbon, Portugal
“The concept for the neural-network synthesizer grew out of a collaborative effort that began in 1989 at Berkeley where David was performing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I listened from the front row as David moved among interconnected electronic devices that filled two tables. He created a stream of remarkable sounds, overlaid them, filtered them, and fed them back upon themselves until the stream became a river. His attention moved from device to device, tasting and adjusting the mixture of sound like a chef composing a fine sauce of the most aromatic ingredients. I was spellbound. At the intermission I proposed to him that we create a computer system capable of enveloping and integrating the sounds of his performances.” “” Forrest Warthman, from the Neural Synthesis liner notes
The Neural Network pieces deserve their own post, especially considering my own study of neural networks, and their relationship to my own Network Instrument theory. Perhaps someday I’ll do so, but for now this is another welcome entry in the avalable recordings of this piece, espeically as the Neural Network Plus variant has not had a specific release. These two pieces which both utilized the Neural Network Synthesizer and were both based off the same “score” differed in that Neural Network Plus was a duo piece with Takeshisa Kosugi joining in on Live Electronics. The documentation points toward the complexity and inherent instability of the Neural Network Synthesis which perhaps was unwieldy in live performance and having another pair of hands to work on the surrounding electronics was a necessity.
The sound of the duo is not too far from the available Neural Synthesis recordings though this particular instance is a fairly different animal from those released on Lovely and Ear-Rational beyond just the solo versus duo performance. Similar to Phonemes, Tudor chose to have recordings of the piece be fairly heavily manipulated in order to attempt to capture fundamental aspects of its live performance which utilized 16 channels. This recording however is simply a stereo recording of a specific performance of the piece and thus presents a more unaltered, if necessarily inaccurate picture of the piece. Along with the typical squeaking and feedback oscillators of the Neural Network Synthesizer there are big roars in this piece that could be from the tape. Juddering tones, metallic skronks and chittering feedback along with static crunches and grinding bleats all arise during the course of the piece.
It is really nice to have this, a good compliment to the other Neural Network Synthesizer recordings and a really welcome part of this set.. This recording from 1994 has to be among the final Tudor performances and is a strong one.
Disc Eight ( 67’20”)
Disc Eight is decidedly mixed, with its rather banal John King piece (though it has some good playing from Tudor in it), classic drone pieces from Stuart Dempster and Takehisa Kosugi, a pretty terrible realization of an otherwise great Cage number piece and finishing off with the final Wolff piece of the set. Nothing holds this disc together at all barring the continuity of the performers and of course Cunningham continuing to work with them. This disc concludes the nearly constant presence of David Tudor as performer of music for the company as well as his short tenure as music director. Appropriately enough the solo Kosugi piece from 1997 would mark the beginning of his taking on of this role.
Merce Cunningham CRWDSPCR (1993) 2007 revival
1) John King (b. 1953) blues ’99 (1993) [excerpt] 19:10
Dance: CRWDSPCR (1993)
John King, pre-recorded dobro guitar, live electronics; David Tudor, live electronics
Recorded February 26, 1994, Madison, Wisconsin
Metallic and delayed sounds from the dobro run through the electronics and Tudors sounds coming in and out. A little over reliance on delay but some good popping percussive sounds from Tudor. Becomes really fast, with high velocity smeared out sounds whipping across the stereo space. Overall this piece doesn’t do much for me and I can’t find much else to say about it.
The Cistern Chapel at Fort Warden in Port Townsend WA
2) Stuart Dempster (b. 1936) Underground Overlays (1995) [excerpt] 15:22
Dance: Ground Level Overlay (1995)
Stuart Dempster, garden hose, conch; Chad Kirby, conch; Takehisa Kosugi, conch
Recorded May 2, 1996, Seattle, Washington
“Ground Level Overlay (1995) featured music by Stuart Dempster, in which “10 trombone players descended 14 feet into the 186-foot-diameter cistern and spread out around the circumference”. A huge textile sculpture by Leonardo Drew looked like hanging entrails upstage, and a cast of fourteen dancers began the barrage of walking patterns, quick arm gestures, lunges, and tilts. This was a “DanceForms” dance, and it looked it. The stage seemed at times like an aquarium at meal-time, with all the fish darting, circling, stirring up the water. Cunningham’s movement has often been jerky and mechanical-looking, but what made this piece look computer-generated was the seemingly impossible order of events on the dancers’ bodies, and their resulting struggle to accomplish the task. Here, human bodies never exchange weight in any gradual way, everything stops and goes; it’s all a sequence of 0’s and 1’s.” – CultureVulture.net review
Overapping overtones from hose, and multiple conchs. Great great piece, one of the all time drone classics. Well worth hearing the full version on Stuart Dempster’s Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel (New Albion). Drone music is deceptively easy to make, that is to say one can make passable drone music with very little effort. But it never has an depth and one tires of it quickly. To really make lasting drone music you have to connect with some essential slow movement at the heart of things, to capture something about the very essence of being alive: long slow rhythms such as waves rolling in, pulses whose timings may be the changing of the seasons – deep connections that we inherently connect to. This piece is one of those that makes those connections and endures. The Cistern Chapel itself is an interesting footnote: “The reverberation length is so long (approximately 45 seconds) inside the 186-foot diameter cistern at Fort Worden, about 70 miles northwest of Seattle, that the composer describes the feeling as “this is where you have been forever and will always be forever”.” (from “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s allmusic review). A challenging space to work in and one that demands you work within it’s limits, this piece demonstrates the rewards of doing so.
John Cage Four6 (1992)
3) John Cage (1912-1992) Four6 (1992) [excerpt] 11:17
Dance: Rondo (1996)
Paul DeMarinis, laptop; Takehisa Kosugi, percussion, contact mic, tape, live electronics, voice; Jim O’Rourke, laptop; Stuart Dempster, trombone
Recorded April 4, 1998, Berkeley, California
Four6 is rather frequently recorded (especially by improvisers) as it doesn’t specifiy pitches in it’s time brackets, simply when sounds of the performers choice are meant to be sounded. As is often the case when this choice is presented to the performers you get results dependent on the sensitivities and seriousness of the performers. Cunningham continued to push ahead on the forefront of music utilizing such musicians as Jim O’Rourke, who has to be one of the earliest laptop performers. While O’Rourke may have been ahead of his time, no one has particularly accused him of being a particularly sensitive musician – very little of his music holds up in the long run, though he undeniably broke new ground for years. This particular instance of this piece begins with kosugi knocking rocks together in a rather metrical fashion, joined by long lines from Dempsters trombone and at times rather cheesy laptoperry from O’Rourke and DeMarinis. While this is rather early for laptop performance which you definitely have to give DeMarinis and O’Rourke credit for, the sounds just don’t hold up as well as the live electronics. Something about the digitally generated sounds, low bit depth samples or whatever but Kosugi’s live electronics stands in distinct contrast and are pretty great here. As usual though vocalizations are another story once he begins rather terrible cawing sounds Overlall I can’t say I particularly dig this version of Four6 though there are some nice parts here and there.
4) Takehisa Kosugi (b. 1938) Wave Code A-Z (1997) [excerpt] 14:42
Dance: Scenario (1997)
Takehisa Kosugi, electric violin, live electronics
Recorded November 27, 1999, Lyon
Much more in Catch-Wave territory with the violin looped rather Frippertronics style. This is the kind of Kosugi piece I appreciate and am glad to hear here. This particular piece has some real low end tone generated from the layers of loop violin as well as some rather swoopy accelerated rising tones as well as some rather lyrical violin improvisations over the loops. These pieces from Kosugi, like the earlier Dempster piece, seem to tap into a slow pattern, such as blood flowing through our veins that I think connects to us in a fundamental way.
One of Merce Cunngingham's Rune Charts
5) Christian Wolff (b. 1934) Or 4 People (1994) [excerpt] 6:16
Dance: Rune (1959)
Christian Wolff, piano, melodica; Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics, violin, harmonica; Jim O’Rourke, laptop; Stuart Dempster, trombone
Recorded July 23, 1999, New York City
“In Groningen David [Tudor], Takehisa Kosugi, Nicolas Collins and I put together a piece (Or Four People) I’d made for us and the occasion — we had just half a day to prepare it. For rehearsal we each worked on our parts independently and simultaneously, making quite a lot of sound. At the concert the performance was spaced and long, almost an hour, with lots of silence. At one point there was a wonderful repeated thudding sound. DAvid hadn’t seemed to be playing much, but I thought he was the only one who could have produced it. Afterwards I found out that the sound was some kids kicking a soccer ball against the outside back wall of the Auditorium.” – Christian Wolff (3, p.382)
Or Four People is a direct reference to Wolff’s earlier For 1,2 or 3 People : “This new work used some of the same graphic notation of the original piece, and was meant to be played by one to four performers using a variety of sound sources, possibly including, according to the composer, violin (or other stringed instrument), trombone, electronics, and keyboards.” (1) Tiny sound events, quiet and very spare. short sounds from the Violin, cello in the beginning then longer tones from the laptop and cello. Piano, quiet and in the background with that percussive aspect of preparations. While there are a moments of more intensify actives and the occasional louder bit it most has a rather introspective feel to it. Very typical of a Wolff piece in that it feels greater then the sum of its parts and seems to defy easy analysis. A new piece for me and one I’m happy to have heard. Even the more dated sounded digital squeals from O’Rourke’s laptop meld into the whole well enough.
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) Matt Rogalsky, David Tudor’s Virtual Focus, Musicworks 73, Spring 1999
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) David Tudor, Sounds: Ocean Diary score from DavidTudor.org
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) Stuart Dempster (Wikipedia)
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“Afterwards I found out that the sound was some kids kicking a soccer ball against the outside back wall of the Auditorium.”
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