Beyond Asia

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Last week I rather took Daniel Asia to task for his Huffington Post article on John Cage. I’m returning to the subject today because I’m interested in moving this debate beyond just Asia, or even Cage.

As Lauren Redhead noted at the time, Asia’s article is merely symptomatic of how much writing on contemporary music is lazy. (Although, admittedly, snarky line-by-line put-downs like mine are hardly the epitome of industrious journalism.)

Much of the feedback to my post so far has been positive, for which I am very grateful. Where there were disagreements, however, I was sad to see that they often quickly distilled into a perception of “this camp” vs “that camp” – that Asia belonged to the Cage-haters, and that those, like me, who disagreed with him, belonged to the equally blinkered Cage lovers.

Well, yes, I do love Cage. (You may have noticed.) But a difference of taste isn’t my argument with Asia, or with the many other examples of lazy writing and thinking that his post represents in this context. Listen to what you like: I don’t care. My problem is with a sloppy, hand-me-down ideology of what 20th-century and contemporary music was/is, and its deployment in discourses such as this. These discourses are not harmless, and they play a role in musicians’ access to a dwindling number of available funding streams (and therefore their livings). That sort of thing needs to be treated responsibly.

If there is enough unchallenged drip-drip-drip of a certain discourse’s values, audiences will begin to accept as fact that some composers – Cage, Stockhausen, Carter – were simply wrong-headed. Foolish. Unmusical. That the effort required to listen to challenging music like theirs simply isn’t worth it. Lots of smart people have told me it’s a waste of time. Why even try?

And that’s when you lose an audience. (It’s just a hunch, but I wonder if the average audience member isn’t actually less inclined towards the postwar musical avant garde than those who were hearing it for the first time 60 years ago. Something like a “Washington consensus” is crystallising around our narrative of postwar art music, and like its neo-liberal cousin in economics, it points to what Joshua Clover, after Fukiyama, calls an “end of historical thought … [an abandonment of] a conception of ongoing historical processes, of alternative arrangements of daily life”.)

And the thing is, there are plenty of intelligent ways to critique Cage’s music and ideas, even if one is sceptical about its basic premises. His exploitation of Zen, and the kind of orientalist mysticism he fostered around his music, is problematic, for example. So is his relationship to authorship and ownership. The same extends to any discussion of the post-war avant garde: the conversation gets much more interesting (and more inviting) if it takes place at the level of the music itself, and not at that of loggerheaded ideologies.

Stuff like this should be the responsibility of those who are placed in the role of expert commentator, like Asia was in this instance. As Richard Kessler remarked in a comment to the original HuffPost article:

one might expect a composer to be a bit more open minded, and to have spent a bit of time explaining why Cage’s music is different and the role boredom plays within the framework Cage had invented.

Indeed, that’s exactly what any reader might reasonably expect from such a byline. (Any student too, one should add.) The absence of such engagement from an article like this doesn’t only reflect a paucity of intelligent debate within contemporary music, it enacts it for others outside to see.

It’s 2013. Let’s try to be a bit better at this.

Photo by winkyintheuk.

In which I take Daniel Asia’s bait

I probably shouldn’t have, but I’ve allowed myself to get a bit cross about Daniel Asia’s frankly embarrassing article on John Cage in the Huffington Post.

Yes, as one commentor points out, Asia, and anyone else, is free to dislike whatever they want, and to do so as stupidly as they like. However, when that person is writing for (and being paid by?) a very prominent news source, they are responsible to the facts. The editors of that news source should also pay a little more attention.

First up: John Cage was born in 1912; the Rite of Spring was premiered on 29 May 1913. So even allowing that this article was written and published around the cusp of the New Year, we can only be celebrating one centenary or the other. Not both.

That’s just the first sentence. So much of the remainder is unsupported assertion, even accounting for differences in taste.

Stravinsky and Schoenberg are certainly the two most important composers of the 20th century

Says who? By what criteria?

Music appeals to the mind, emotions, and body.

Perhaps. But does all of it do all three, all of the time? Is it necessary for it to do so to qualify as music? Define “appealing to the mind/emotions/body”.

The greatest music thus in some way taps into the listener’s life experience, which is of course a journey over time, from birth to death. It is no surprise that music, and the tonal enterprise broadly interpreted, manifests a similar arc.

NB: Listener’s life experiences differ. The “tonal enterprise” is neither historically, geographically or socially universal. Actually, it’s a blip.

Quite simply, harmony, and thus counter-point, has been central to Western music for over a thousand years, and it is one of the glories of Western Civilization, and is a creation of that culture.

Woah, woah, and thrice woah. This is such a mess I can’t even begin …

It has allowed for some of the greatest artistic achievements of mankind.

Mankind has, however, achieved many, many other wonderful things without it. Even in music. Some of those things even happened beyond the paternal reach of Western Civilization. Golly!

His philosophical understanding that guided his first works was that music is to sooth the soul and calm the mind.

Cage was an imperfect disciple of Zen, but that’s a pretty offensive summation of Zen philosophy. (I assume you’re not talking about the serial pieces of the mid-1930s, like Composition for Three Voices, Metamorphosis, and so on, that were his actual “first works”.)

In Cage’s latter and final chance period, by the way, matters only got much, much worse in regards to all of the above.

That’s quite a generalisation of 50 years of hugely varied creative output. (Also: “final chance period”?)

“If you think something is boring, try doing it for two minutes. If you still think it’s boring, try it for four. If you still think it’s boring, try it for eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and so on and so forth. Soon enough you’ll find that it’s really not boring at all.” I think not, as boredom simply wears you down.

You’re right! Why even try?

And alas, life is too short to waste in boring activities.

No, it’s not. We all do boring things every day (brushing our teeth, feeding our kids, cleaning the house), and we’re OK with that. We do them because we judge the end result (good teeth, a happy family, a clean home) worth the time spent on the boring activity itself. We have an idea of sacrifice and reward, of satisfaction, gratification, achievement. We’re not 18 months old any more.

the Western tradition … its supposed patriarchal and masterwork approach

I think that supposition is fair – cf “Western Civilization,” “greatest achievements of mankind,” above.

In a few years time, Cage will be a small footnote to all of this, remembered if at all, for his self-advertising, whimsy and smile, and love of mushrooms. But for his music, not a chance.

Cage’s critics have been saying this for decades now. When does it stop being true? Please tell me.

More of Mode’s Cage Edition reaches Spotify

Mode Records continue to add recordings from their Complete John Cage Edition to Spotify. The always-vigilant Ulyssestone alerted me over the weekend to the latest additions. All are now included in my Complete John Cage Edition playlist. They are:

  • Vol.8 Europera 5 (mode 36)
  • Vol.11 Orchestral Works 1 (mode 41)
  • Vol.13 The Piano Works 1 (mode 47)
  • Vol.15 The Lost Works (mode 55)
  • Vol.17 The Piano Works 3 (mode 63)
  • Vol.38 The Number Pieces 4 (mode 186)
  • Vol.39 The Number Pieces 5 (mode 193) [NB: Mistagged on Spotify as Vol.38]

The total playlist now numbers 33 albums (out of 45), and 426 tracks.

Cage Edition on Spotify – now even more complete

A few more of Mode’s John Cage recordings have recently appeared on Spotify. I’ve added them to the Complete John Cage Edition playlist, in sequence with the rest. They are:

  • Vol.4 Music for Merce Cunningham (mode 24)
  • Vol.7 Freeman Etudes, Books 1 & 2 (mode 32)
  • Vol.9 Freeman Etudes, Books 3 & 4 (mode 37)
  • Vol.45 The Works for Percussion II (mode 243)

The total playlist now numbers 26 albums (out of 45), and 320 tracks.

Hat tip to Ulyssestone for alerting me to these.

Radio Rambler fans: It has been a while, I know, but look out for an update to your playlist in the coming days.

CD review: John Cage: Song Books

Loré Lixenberg, Gregory Rose, Robert Worby | John Cage: Song Books | Sub Rosa SR344

Cage’s centenary year has seen a number of ambitious recording projects. Ranked highly among them must be this first complete recording of the Song Books, released on Sub Rosa. Cage’s two books contain 90 “songs” for solo voice – a total of at least six and a half hours of music, or 317 pages of score. For this 2-CD release the decision has been taken, probably wisely, to accept Cage’s permission to superimpose songs, and a total of seven Song Books Mixes have been made. These are presented alongside 14 individual songs.

It is a gargantuan effort for the three performers involved, Loré Lixenberg and Gregory Rose (voice), and Robert Worby (electronics). Better still, all 90 individual solos are apparently available for download through the Sub Rosa website (although at the time of writing I could not find these).

Presentation-wise, this is an exemplary release. The 24-page booklet includes not one but four essays: two by Cage scholars James Pritchett and Rebecca Y. Kim; two by Rose and Worby providing performers’ perspectives. There are lots of extracts from the scores, in all their variety, and some nice photos of Cage that I hadn’t seen before. The packaging is lovely.

But, ah, Cage. What about the music?

First to say: this is a studio recording, prepared as such. So, for example, the electronic processing was carried out in post-production, not live. The recording acoustic (the Edward Boyle auditorium, St Hilda’s College, Oxford) is dry and silent. Facts like this give the set a polished feel that seems at first far removed from Cage’s chaotic carnival of the voice (“it’s like a brothel” was his own description). There are no glitches, no extraneous noises, and a frankly disconcerting sense of equilibrium, even when several songs are running at once. It sounds distinctly un-Cagelike; except that while listening I began to wonder where that notion originated anyway, and who’s to say they have ownership of it today. In his essay, in fact, Pritchett offers the advice (contrarian for a CD note) that “This is not music to sit down and listen to from start to finish … wandering and exploring is more in order.” Perhaps one needs to listen to the CD as though it is a live performance, so that life can still seep in.

The Song Books themselves are among Cage’s most remarkable achievements. Composed in 1970 in answer to a commission for two sets of songs from Cathy Berberian and Simone Rist, they began with an I ching consultation that stipulated that 56 and 34 songs for each book – 90 in total. Cage had just three months to meet his deadline. The measures he took to deal with the pressure of time lead to the songs’ diversity, and helped him unlock a range of new compositional methods. Pritchett calls it “one of the most intensely creative periods in Cage’s life.”

You’d be hard pressed to find two better singers than Rose, and especially Lixenberg, to perform this music with the required dedication. The virtuosity on show in, for example, Solo no.47 or Solo no.90 is impressive; to have sustained this across a total of 90 separate recordings is staggering. For my taste I had trouble with the electronics, which work closely with the grain of the voices – a legacy of modern-day technology; one for the HIP movement? – rather than against it, rather dulling the expressive edge.

Having said all that, when it works it works very well.  Song Books Mix 2 (actually the final track of the CD 2) keeps 17 songs in a state of pleasing mutual sabotage for 23 minutes. It’s not as abrasive or as extrovert as some Cage performances, but neither does it allow gentleness and elegance to fade into mush.

In an interesting comparison of two recent-ish live performances of Song Books Ben Harper writes, “the closer [Cage’s music] comes to life the better it works as art”. Some will find too little “life” in these recordings, certainly. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable achievement, and one that may take some time to be repeated.

Note: the penultimate paragraph of this review was added shortly after its first publication.

Note 2: The artist Sam Belinfante has made a video of clips from the sessions for this album, which hints at the theatrical authenticity of the recording.

For John Cage

Today would have been John Cage’s 100th birthday.

Two days ago was the 25th anniversary of Morton Feldman’s death.

It seemed appropriate to post this:

I’m also taking the opportunity to dig out some other John Cage-related things I’ve done over the years:

CYBERSPC HMG – this one from The Rambler’s earliest weeks, a sort of hyperlinked aleatoric birthday card for Cage. I can’t remember how I put it together now, but there was a rigorous system.

My Musicircus epiphany – written in 2004, about the Barbican’s 1998 Musicircus.

Cage Uncaged, Barbican Centre, January 2004 – one of my very first reviews. Includes a complete run-down of performers for this incarnation of Musicircus.

are as Much / is not ‘ finitE / Trouble ‘ / and Heavy – thoughts on I–VI and Cage’s speaking voice.

Apartment House 1776 representing Cage in the (unfinished) Music Since 1960 series.

The (incomplete) Complete John Cage Edition on Spotify – playlist of as many of Mode’s series of recordings as I could find.

Silence redux

Richard Osborne has been pondering a Top Ten of silent pieces in the New Statesman this week. As someone who has not long ago written about silence in the post-Cage world, of course I had to take a look.

It’s a nice list, skewed towards pop (befitting Osborne’s own work), but I find it rather one-dimensional in its summary of what silence is or might be. Of the ten pieces listed, seven are political in spirit – as acts of remembrance (West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band) or protest (John Denver, John Lennon x 2, Sly and the Family Stone, Orbital, Slum Village) – and the remaining three are homages to Cage.

Which is not to denigrate the expressive power some of these tracks might have in their context (although, speaking personally, I find Ciccone Youth’s silence simply an annoyance on an album that veers dramatically in quality). As has been observed, there are three basic silences in music, all of them different: the silence before a note, the silence after a note, and the silence between two notes. And there are many more besides these three. Context is everything.

But Osborne’s list does reflect a somewhat limited outlook on the ontological possibilities of silence. Indeed, as Kyle Gann describes in No Such Thing as Silence, Cage’s own revisions to 4’33” altered the silence that it frames. The “silence” of 4’33” does depend quite a lot on which edition you are using. Within the quadripartition of composed music (composer–score–performer–listener) there are numerous points at which the responsibility for creative definition might enter, even when any sounding content has been eliminated or remains incidental, and thus numerous ways in which the nature of that silence might be formulated. Nine of Osborne’s examples were made for and exist only as recordings, suggesting that once you eliminate the score from the equation, you greatly reduce the aesthetic and philosophical possibilities.

In a work like Sergei Zagny’s Metamusica, the score is entirely defined, but the burden of interpretation lies with the listener, who internally performs it as they read. The fact that the score is recognisably based on Webern’s opus 27 Variations for piano – it’s the same piece, but with all the notes taken out, leaving only rests and articulation marks – adds something to that realisation. There is a resemblance here with the first version of 4’33”, which was essentially a series of rests, written on a conventional piano stave. (The length of each of the three movements derived from the accumulation of these chance-determined rests.) As David Tudor has made clear, the act of reading the score in real-time, as it were, contributed greatly to his early interpretations of the piece.

In certain works by Klaus K. Hübler, György Kurtág, Sofia Gubaidulina, Helmut Lachenmann and many others, performance actions are specified that can have no sounding result (by a process either determinate or indeterminate), creating a kind of dumb theatre. Here the silence occurs within a performed (sounding) context, and so might be considered more silent than Cage, since external sounds are pushed beyond the sphere of legitimate audition, and thus ignored.

In other works the boundary between performer and listener is dissolved entirely, with the listener assuming full creative responsibility for its realisation. This might take place in a private sense, as in the case of Metamusica, certain of Annea Lockwood’s River Archive pieces, Amnon Wolman‘s “imaginary pieces,” or David Dunn’s Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (all of which take widely different approaches to the level of specification in their scores). Or it might take place communally, as in certain works by Pauline Oliveros. And then there is the work of Peter Ablinger (whose 3 easy pieces, as presented in Prague in 2007, is shown above), in which every conceivable parameter of the “listening piece” is explored.

Quite a lot of these works are text pieces (several of them discovered in Lely and Saunders’ Word Events), but not all. The fact that silence can be composed in words and graphics in itself suggests at least two axes of difference.

When I was writing my NewMusicBox article, I drafted a typology of silent music as a reference for myself. It proved surprisingly difficult. Such was the complexity of performing/composing/scoring/listening permutations available that it took many attempts before I settled on a way of representing the array of scores that I’d gathered on a two-dimensional diagram. There’s a lesson in there about the richness of Cage’s original concept.

If you find this sort of stuff interesting, keep reading. I’m hopefully curating an event next year in London that explores some of these ideas in a more practical way. More details to follow in the coming months.

The (incomplete) Complete John Cage Edition on Spotify

Apropos of nothing at all, but feel free to attach Jubilympic branding to it if you so wish, I’ve compiled as much as I can find on Spotify of Mode Records’ Complete John Cage Edition into one monster playlist. It adds up to 441 tracks, or more than one full day of music.

It’s not the complete run of what is published: not all of it is available digitally (Vol.1 is only available as a very limited run LP, for example), and some volumes (such as Vol.31),  are only available on DVD. But it’s still pretty good, especially with the more recent releases. With some help from Ulyseestone I’ve managed to wrestle the following from Spotify’s less-than-perfect search engine:

Vol.2 Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music (mode 3/6)
Vol.4 Music for Merce Cunningham (mode 24)
Vol.5 Complete String Quartets 2 (mode 27) [first three tracks missing because of mislabelling]
Vol.6 Roaratorio; Laughtears; Writing for the Second Time Through
Finnegan’s Wake (mode 28/29, 2-CDs)
Vol.7 Freeman Etudes, Books 1 & 2 (mode 32)
Vol.8 Europera 5 (mode 36)
Vol.9 Freeman Etudes, Books 3 & 4 (mode 37)
Vol.11 Orchestral Works 1 (mode 41)
Vol.12 The Number Pieces 1 (mode 44)
Vol.13 The Piano Works 1 (mode 47)
Vol.14 Piano Works 2: Sonatas & Interludes (mode 50)
Vol.15 The Lost Works (mode 55)
Vol.16 The Piano Concertos (mode 57)
Vol.17 The Piano Works 3 (mode 63)
Vol.18 The Choral Works 1 (mode 71)
Vol.19 Number Pieces 2/Complete String Quartets 3: Five3 (mode 75)
Vol.22 Works for Violin 3 (mode 88)
Vol.24 Works for Saxophone 1 (mode 104)
Vol.25 The Piano Works 4 (mode 106)
Vol.26 Orchestral Works 3 (mode 108)
Vol.27 Works for Violin 5 (mode 118)
Vol.28 The Piano Works 5 (mode 123) [NB: Incorrectly labelled Piano Works 6]
Vol.29 The Piano Works 6 (mode 147)
Vol.32 Number Pieces 3: One8 (mode 141)
Vol.33 Works for Violin 5/Complete String Quartets 4: 44 Harmonies;
Cheap Imitation (mode 144/145, 2-CDs)
Vol.34 The Piano Works 7 (mode 158)
Vol.35 A Cage of Saxophones 2 (mode 160)
Vol.37 Complete Short Works for Prepared Piano (mode 180/181)
Vol.38 The Number Pieces 4 (mode 186)
Vol.39 The Number Pieces 5 (mode 193) [NB: Mistagged on Spotify as Vol.38]
Vol.41 Cage Performs Cage (mode 200)
Vol.42 A Cage of Saxophones Vols. 3 & 4 (mode 222/23)
Vol.43 The Works for Percussion 1 (mode 229, CD & DVD)
Vol.44 The Number Pieces 6 (mode 239)
Vol.45 The Works for Percussion 2 (mode 243)

The new modern generation: the JACK Quartet for Wigmore Hall Live

When the JACK Quartet made their Wigmore Hall début in July last year it felt like both a first date and a moment of arrival. The Hall – more often a venue for classical recitalists than avant-garde explorers with uncompromisingly capitalised names – was buzzing with anticipation, and an entirely different audience from its usual crowd. It was also sold out. If there was any slight disappointment that the JACKs had (quite understandably) opted for a relatively safe programme of Cage, Ligeti, Pintscher and Xenakis (rather than, say, Ablinger, Cassidy, Radulescu and Zorn), it was soon tempered by a blistering recital that shone bright new light on previously familiar works, danced in the crystal clear Wigmore acoustics and pinned its audience to the back of their seats.

Thankfully, the whole thing was recorded and has now been released on the Wigmore Hall’s Live label. Regardless of my hyperventilating first paragraph, this is a CD that I can strongly recommend to all. In particular, I contend, its immediacy and absence of undue reverence make it a great entry-level disc for newcomers to the modernist chamber repertoire.

Three of these works are three or more decades old now:  this is still powerful music, but it has shed its tendency to frighten. In his excellent liner notes (extracted here), John Fallas notes that:

“The Quartet comes to this music as a quartet might more ordinarily come to works from an earlier century. Modernism now has its own classics, and the energy so abundantly on display here is the energy of a young quartet discovering these works anew and making them its own.”

As Fallas notes, the Arditti and LaSalle quartets are the JACKs’ two great forebears (they are also, respectively, the dedicatees of the pieces by Xenakis and Ligeti). So how do they compare? What does a new generation, 21st-century quartet bring?

Well, first, commanding, high contrast, fabulously controlled (yet thrillingly liberated) performances. They are less intellectual, perhaps, or less febrile than the Ardittis (who are the closest comparison) but this is not at the expense of care or precision. And, having grown up with modernism in its mature phases, they are more confident in the language than the pioneering LaSalles. With the JACKs’ performances of Ligeti’s Second Quartet, Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts and Xenakis’s Tetras, the idea of a robotically definitive version is thrown gratefully out of the window. At the best moments it feels like these pieces are breathing freely for the very first time.

Let’s start with Tetras. Compared to the Arditti Quartet’s recording on Gramavision, the dynamics are less terraced (though overall envelope is just as wide), and there is a greater sense of linear continuity and flow; of events cascading into and shaping one another. A more marked difference is that the JACKs’ Wigmore recording is more than a minute longer than the Ardittis’, but the same amount slower than their recording for Mode’s Xenakis Edition. I like the extra time: there’s room to appreciate fine details such as the phasing harmonic beats in the viola’s first salvo (which really sing in the Wigmore version). More pointillistic passages, such as the section of scrapes and crunches at around 2 minutes are highly coloured drifts in the Ardittis’ hands. With more space, and deeper bite, the JACKs tease them out into absurdist drama, and the Wigmore Hall’s generous acoustic really allows every detail to speak.

However, the Arditti Quartet has changed line-up many times in the 30 years that they have been playing Tetras, so a definitive “Arditti version” doesn’t exist. Here, as a point of comparison, is a live video of the current incarnation, with Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissian, Ralf Ehlers and Lukas Fels:

In contrast, String Quartet in Four Parts almost zips by. The recording by the LaSalle Quartet on DG, for example, sounds almost funereal in comparison, a good 25% slower overall. The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music, but it risks obscuring the cubistic, fragmentary structure of the work. Certainly the LaSalles’ version is more overtly weird.  But in the end I think the JACKs pull off a careful balance of segmentation and conjoining tendencies. (Incidentally, they’re considerably stricter about Cage’s instruction to avoid all vibrato.) If you want a more ‘cubist’ version, in which the additive structure is more apparent, then the Ardittis on Mode is what you need.

Ligeti’s Second String Quartet was written for the LaSalle, and along with other works commissioned by the Quartet (including quartets from Lutosławski and Penderecki) it helped define the possibilities of postwar, post-Bartók string quartet composition. Some would have it that it is one of the finest quartets of the 20th century, and one of the high points of Ligeti’s output. I have to confess that I’m not one of those people. While I frequently fall for large-scale Ligeti (of the Lontano sort), chamber Ligeti sounds to me fiddly and fussy. (Oddly, I have the opposite reaction to Xenakis.)

My reaction at the July 2011 concert was one of the strongest of the recital, and I remember it distinctly: that was an outstanding performance, but in its fidelity it has only strengthened my feelings against the piece. So the fault remains mine, possibly shared with Ligeti, but certainly not the JACKs’.

The LaSalles’ recording (again on DG) is hard to beat, and is one of the landmark recordings of its time. But again, the difference is that between an ensemble crackling with the energy required to continually reinvent itself, and one for whom this language is its mother tongue. What you lose in precarious tension you gain in confidence and swagger. (Although there are still moments when the JACKs take their technique right to the edge.)

The only non/not yet-classic on the disc is Matthias Pintscher’s Study IV for Treatise on the Veil. This takes its inspiration from Cy Twombly’s monumental 1970 painting Treatise on the Veil.

Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil (Second Version). House paint and crayon on canvas.

Pintscher’s piece is the fourth in a series for related small string groups; he talks more about Study for Treatise on the Veil I (for violin and cello) and its origins in Twombly’s painting in this interview with Mark Mandarano. In particular he refers to his attempts to create a musical analogue for the kinds of visual perspectives that artists like Twombly produce in their paintings.

(An interesting aside: Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil is one of a series of ‘Veil’ pieces, one of which, The Veil of Orpheus, he explicitly linked to a musical work itself, Pierre Henry’s Le voile d’Orphée of 1953.)

The JACK Quartet have a close working relationship with Pintscher, and in many ways he’s a perfect introduction for a recital like this to their work with living composers. But for me he’s just not as interesting as some. Study has a lot going on, technically, in a post-Lachenmann kind of way, but overall it feels too episodic, the sounds too purposeless. Still, bits of it are very pretty, and it may be that with many more listenings its overall shape will start to reveal itself.

All in all, then, a highly recommended disc, for lovers of contemporary music, newcomers, and fans of string quartet history. You can buy a copy here.

This is Wigmore Hall Live’s first exclusively contemporary release since, appropriately, the Arditti’s recital disc recorded in 2005, which itself featured a (more poised, less energetic) performance of the Ligeti Second. In recent years the hall has increased its commitment to live new music (the hall’s Twitter account informs me there have been 400 premieres since 2005), and the Fondation Hoffmann Commissioning Scheme means that new works are being created every season. Let’s hope that means more all-contemporary recitals like this one making it to disc.

[Final paragraph adjusted 31 May to incorporate mention of current new music at WH.]

Update: the whole album is now available on Spotify:

Rambler Roundtables: Music We’d Like to Hear 1

I rave about it enough on these pages for Music We’d Like to Hear not to need much of an introduction. But this year, following up on my online symposia with ELISION in spring, I thought I’d gather a few of the composers involved in MWLTH 2010 to chat a little about what they do and how they think.

In this, the first of two posts (the second is here), Tim Parkinson, Markus Trunk and Michael Winter discuss Cage, tradition and the nature of ‘experimental’ music.

Tim Parkinson is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Markus Trunk, of Music We’d Like to Hear, a series of curated concerts of experimental music in London. He is also a pianist and performer, both independently and also by invitation, and has played with Apartment House and Plus-Minus.

Markus Trunk is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Tim Parkinson, of Music We’d Like to Hear .

Michael Winter is a composer, curator, music theorist and software designer. He co-founded and co-directs (with fellow composer Eric km Clark) the wulf., a non-profit arts organization that presents music free to the public in Los Angeles.

The next Music We’d Like to Hear concert is this Wednesday at the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, and features music from the wulf.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Do we still need Cage? More than 50 years after his seminal works and writings on experimental music, his aesthetic still seems the touchstone for many composers. Why is this? And when do we move on? Should we? Is there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become ‘classical’ (as opposed to innovative or modern)?

Tim Parkinson: I can’t really talk for a we. I can only talk about me.

I don’t tend to believe in thinking of music historically. Any music is new music if I haven’t heard it before. Historical context is a kind of concept. When I hear any new music the question is whether it means anything to me.

A lot of Cage’s music and ideas are obviously still challenging to some people. I’m playing this piece [one5] because I’ve always wanted to, because it was important to me at one point. I suppose I could say that when I heard it for the first time, I discovered that I had a need for it. Now I have a memory of that experience and I’d like to have it again. Also within the context of the programme, it’s exactly the piece I wanted to display one particular aspect of the piano, which the programme is focused around. The piece by Craig Shepard is from another angle. The dismissal that arises out of having some background knowledge of the composer or the music is the lazy habit of believing in primacy of concept over experience – Cage on the programme, oh we know what that is. But the sound of a specific piano playing it at a specific time and place is not the recording on the CD. That’s where I heard it first of course, coming out of my speakers. But that’s a fixed and dead photograph of the music, not a living thing. So I would like to hear it alive. I don’t know that this piece is even played that much. One of the nice things about Cage is that I think I know what it’s gonna sound like, but then it’s always different and unique.

People don’t know what they might need, unless they’re given an opportunity to experience new things, to find out whether they need it or not.

Regarding your question ‘isn’t there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become classical’ – I think this is certainly true. To me, I think some of those pieces from the 50s by Cage, Brown, and Feldman have come to sound very classical now. In other words, evidence of a past exploration, but now, to an extent, known. And there are people who play this music very well, specialise in it, but don’t seem to move on to either later or lesser known works by these people, or music with a similar stance from today. Perhaps for them there is still endless potential in these works. But I would still love to hear later Cage pieces that rarely get performed these days, like Etcetera or Renga or something. I don’t know quite what they are yet. They haven’t been allowed to mature by multiple performances in the same way that, say, Vertical Thoughts has.

Tim R-J: Does ‘experimental music’ mean something different today from earlier definitions provided by Cage, Nyman, etc? Is it a valid description at all? What isn’t experimental music?

Tim Parkinson: This is a tricky one for me since my attention is more drawn towards the activities of individuals, rather than the establishment of a category. In two recent video portraits I did, John White talks about experimental music as being a historical label now, whereas Michael Parsons talks about it as being an attitude, a starting from scratch. Both are true I think. Perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not well represented in education (and concert programmes and public broadcasting) is that the assortment of people and work involved in that which has been called experimental is in actuality too broad and diverse to be able to present it neatly. It’s not a Style. The English experimentalism of the 70s is very different to that of New York in the 50s; I know someone, an advocate of one, who finds the other very difficult to understand for example.

Disregarding history again, I feel closer to Michael’s description. Music that starts from nothing, from the basics. As opposed to that which starts from a style, or which already starts from a notion of what music is. There’s already a huge amount of historical baggage to have to deal with if you want to make a new piece for the piano. Michael talks about starting from a Tabula Rasa, Chris Newman talks about clearing all the crap out of the way, before starting to make a new piece. Kerouac made an analogy about turning on the cold tap and letting it run until it runs cold.

I also often think of Jasper Johns’ words ‘Sometimes I see it and then paint it; sometimes I paint it then see it’. I think this is very important also, the importance of the phenomenon, in our case, the resultant sound. Not the importance of Composition over Sound.

I’m very fascinated by the distinction between sound and music. When starting I know I’ll be dealing in sounds, but when finished it sounds like music. I don’t start out to make music, I know that music will take care of itself. The question then is whether it means anything to me or not. And in what way.

I very often really don’t know what music is, and I’m always fascinated to hear it when it happens. To marvel at what is it telling me, or what is it doing to me? What is not experimental music then is I suppose that which already thinks it knows what music is, which starts of by writing ‘music’. Of course that’s also why experimental music doesn’t rest comfortably within education, because once people have got to university they are supposed to know what music is and end up by mastering it. Noone wants to be told they can legitimately use pots and pans again like a child if they feel like it. What is definitely not experimental music is the mannerism produced by various academics which perpetrates a lazy unquestioning rhetorical style which simply ‘sounds like contemporary music’. It really bores me to death if I ever have to listen to something like that which goes through the motions, making references to historical models in order to justify its own pointlessness. There’s really nothing new about it at all for me.

So I often think of simply ‘new music’, rather than ‘experimental music’. For all of the above reasons. I’m really excited by something I haven’t heard before. I more often think that I explore, rather than experiment. I’m intrigued by something I never would have thought of as music before. The question then is not simply whether it’s any good or not, but rather throws the question back onto ourselves of what is the relation of one’s own self to the world of organised sound. Because music is a living thing, not a fixed historical art form tradition, it’s a living medium, a natural product of humanity, changing all the time with us in the present and in the world. If we allow it to.

Michael Winter: I agree with Tim P on many fronts and also claim that I am interested in new experiences and the exploration thereof. Also, I am not interested in ‘brands’ and how they are often defined and delineated. Still, as artists, we discuss these matters and the discourse is important. Writings by Cage and Nyman are wonderful and influential. Even now, the discourse is evolving. Joe Kudirka is currently working on a thesis where he, in a very deep way, discusses his approach to a definition of experimental music. Still, I hope that Joe’s writings (as seminal as I think the thesis will be), puts a nail in that coffin.

Sometimes I wonder why we are concerned with what is and what isn’t, who is and who isn’t. I have recently been looking at the Fluxus archive at the Getty. I have so much interest in the people, the ideas, and the work, but when you read their letters to each other about who and what is Fluxus, it is actually saddening. Fortunately, they did not let their grievances stop them from making art and they were so, so prolific.

At this point in music, anything goes: any material, any process, etc.. That is not the question anymore. As artists, we should not burden ourselves with how we sit historically. We should acknowledge our influences and just explore. I think Tim brings up a good point about people and their ideas. My favorite people, the ones I believe explore some of the most compelling ideas, are and were so knowledgeable about the past and about the people that influenced them. This enabled them to explore ideas that are truly new and set into motion unforeseen situations.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. I happen to be blessed with a bad memory, so situations often seem new to me. Regardless, learning as much about the past and keeping an open mind are both crucial in the pursuit of new experiences. Only then, can we ‘start from scratch’. In my opinion, making music is not necessarily about clearing one’s mind, but rather about filling it up to the extent possible. That creates the equilibrium of ideas and possibilities necessary to move forward and even provide a focus or limited scope that helps elucidate exactly what it is that we are exploring/experimenting with. We pursue the void, the cracks and crevasses that lie hidden in a wealth of currently known information. We only realize that we have arrived at a new experience when we are presented with it. Then, we continue on, tuning our actions and reactions every step of the way in hopes for even more new experiences. This is the attitude of exploration. Call it experimental music if you like.

Markus Trunk: I think both of you have done a beautiful job at answering/subverting the question.  So I may be mostly just echoing you …  I also feel like I’m the wrong person to ask – I don’t think I have described myself as experimental very often, and if I did only because it seemed better to have some description than no description at all.  But that term has come to encompass very different things, in some cases purely invoking a historical connection.

For example, I’m not sure how a John White piano sonata is experimental except by affiliation.  Similarly, the fact that I may not know at the beginning of the writing process what its outcome will be, or to find a different solution to what “makes a piece”, is maybe not enough for it to be classed as an experiment – many of those academic “rhetorical” composers so aptly described by Tim would lay claim to doing exactly that.

I think a focus on sound and process instead of historically grown syntax may be a more useful characteristic of much of the music we are thinking of than the model of the experiment.  On the other hand I’m sometimes wondering whether some of the Wandelweiser type composers aren’t themselves resorting to an already established syntax.

What I do like is the notion of the clean slate even though that is just another metaphor.  The main task always seems to be to free myself from preconceptions of what a piece of music, say for a particular combination of instruments, should be like (Tim P’s ‘notion of what music is’), not to pre-judge the ‘material’ at hand, or a particular performance situation.

Still, out of the MWLTH lot I’m probably the least experimental one.  I don’t normally perform, never developed a real interest in collaboration – I am very much old school at heart!  I basically produce definitive scores, and rely on specialised experts to realise them.

Tim R-J: As Tim P suggests, education (and broadcasting and other institutions) enforce ways of collecting and organizing disparate groups of people under certain banners – what we might call ‘experimental music’ is just one such banner. So resistance to such labels is obviously highly desirable.

But then, as Markus points out with his example of the Wandelweiser composers, those labels may grow internally (inevitably?), from the evolution and concretisation of common rhetorics, syntaxes etc. Setting out in a spirit of exploration is one thing, but is it also necessary to have a historical sense so that one can be aware of (and thus subvert/critique/avoid) any such inherited rhetoric? We’re back to the ‘classical’ again …

Tim P: Development of a syntax is probably organic. I mean we all end up acting like each other to a certain extent, people adopting phrases and ways of speaking from TV or films, the feedback loop of communication anyway.

I suppose because Wandelweiser is a name, it becomes synonymous with a brand, which is where the dangers lie. I am always very wary of generalisations because to a certain degree they are a lie. (And there I am; Generalising.) My comment when people talk about ‘Wandelweiser music’ is that it’s a very diverse group of composers. Some of them I feel closer to than others. Also it is just the name of a publishing organisation, so one might as well talk about Edition Peters composers for example.

I often think of de Kooning’s words: ‘You are with a group or movement because you cannot help it’.

It’s not anything I turn my attention to, I think being self-conscious about it leads one to a hall of mirrors. My concern is more focussed on authenticity than worrying about adopting syntax. I’m always interested afterwards when music has resonance with other music. I mean Beethoven is as much in my house as everyone else. I also often think of what Matteo Fargion said to me once: ‘Everything sounds like everything else’.