Tag: Cage

Two Strains

Sometimes it seems like there are two competing strains of experimentalism in new music. One strain is very invested in intellectually justifying itself and placing itself within a historical tradition, while the other strain is more concerned with trying different things and is less invested in anything in particular. To extend the scientific metaphor, one strain conducts experiments to confirm or deny a suspected hypothesis, while the other doesn’t know what to expect. In my mind they should be allied, since they both hang out around the same fringes, but more often than not they studiously ignore each other.

This occurred to me while reading Ian Power’s “Thinking of Sound” essay over at Hearing Modernity. It’s an excellent read, and Power does a fantastic job of tying together composers from disparate aesthetics—Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Gérard Grisey—into a coherent narrative about the relationship between music and sound. But his interpretation of Cage’s 4’33” gave me pause, goading me into making what might be considered a somewhat pedantic distinction.

According to Power, 4’33” has “no measures, no duration, and no proper title: four minutes and thirty-three seconds is simply the duration of David Tudor’s first performance.” Power then quotes fellow composer Martin Iddon, who contends that this allows the piece to transcend representation of silence and actually become silence.

This lends a rarified purpose to Cage’s composition that I’m not sure I can totally endorse. While it’s true that the published version of 4’33” lacks any kind of traditional notation, the version that Tudor premiered did in fact have notated measures filled with rests. To regard this as a mere imperfection, to be excised from history, seems like a mistake to me. As Power points out, even the published version contains three movements, of all things, each marked “tacet.” This is a particularly Cageian koan. Why have movements in the first place when their boundaries are inaudible by design? This points to something more than silence, or something else.

(Hanging over this is the prospect that maybe Cage didn’t have one particular idea of what the piece was. But this doesn’t erase the present need to believe that Cage knew exactly what he was doing. Certainly, as probably the most unfairly maligned composer of all time, we may feel protective of him. And as instrumental as his music has been for so many, there may be a whiff of self-preservation there, too. I wonder, though, if this protectiveness does us any favors, as it leaves little wiggle room for productive failures or happy accidents in our own work.)

As a final disclaimer, I really don’t mean to fundamentally impugn Power’s compellingly constructed interpretation of 4’33”, but to suggest that a multitude of concurrent interpretations might be more fruitful in the long run. (After all, doesn’t this multiplicity account for the piece’s remarkable endurance in the face of near-constant assault from critics, jokers, and haters?)

Signal to Noise

I promised myself I wouldn’t take the bait dangled by Dan Asia’s screed against John Cage, but it’s turning out to be hard to resist. So instead I’ll try to write about it in the most oblique way I can without being too obtuse.
When a work is interpreted, it experiences a death, a closing off of possibilities. I am not saying that this death is a good or bad thing–more like an inevitable, necessary part of observation and interpretation.

When you say that a work of art must simultaneously nourish the mind, body, and emotions, you are imposing a very strict definition that excludes a great deal of value. What if music could express things other than what we already know it to express? If we allow this possibility, we must also accept the value of experimentation, even in the face of failure.

And even if you refuse to question the holy trinity of mind/body/emotion, it is completely nonsensical to consider it a basis for objective evaluation. To do so requires believing that the mind is situated outside the mind and the body is situated outside the body. As if emotions were free-floating abstracts, little clouds of vapor that drift from person to person.

As attractively fanciful as this notion is, it isn’t particularly rigorous.

I think I know what is at the root of these recurring rants, these rashes of irascibility against Cage et al. We have a massive signal-to-noise ratio problem. Cage prefigured this problem to an extent, though I suspect he underestimated the extent of its repercussions.

There are far too many things to listen to, so our listening must be curated. We can choose to take a role in this curation, but our range of action is limited by our attention span, our reserves of vigilance. So many things are constantly demanding, cajoling, pleading for our attention–many of them with questionable ulterior motives. The Western canon and its implied values, for example.

The haters see Cage as exacerbating this problem, as cluttering the already cacophonous landscape. For me, he brings that problem into sharp relief, making it more manageable. When I am listening to a good performance of a Cage piece I feel that I have agency, that I have control over my body, mind, and emotions. Or at least, that the possibility exists.
I am pretty sure that Cage would not have approved of this sentiment, or this phrasing.

Every Sound Is Consequential

Sidney Chen

Sidney Chen

Ed. Note: Over the past few months, NewMusicBox readers have been introduced to a new team of regional editors stationed in cities across the country. These contributors have been our eyes and ears on the ground, surveying the new music landscape in their areas and delivering regular coverage.

It is my pleasure to welcome yet another voice to this dialog, Sidney Chen of San Francisco, California.—MS

I Was Sitting in a Room: SF Tape Music Festival

A friend who’s a record collector has always said that she wishes all concerts could take place in a completely darkened room so that audiences might train their focus entirely on the music. She seems to have some kindred spirits in the folks at the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, who presented three nights of fixed-media audio compositions with all the lights off at the newly renovated ODC Theater in the Mission in San Francisco (which, ironically, is primarily used for dance, where good lighting is a positive character trait).

Lights up

Lights up

Presented by the San Francisco Tape Music Collective and the ever-intrepid sfSound, led by Matt Ingalls, the annual festival has been running since 2002. Works by 25 composers were chosen to be diffused through the 16+ speakers that surrounded the dedicated and attentive audience that comfortably filled the 175-seat hall the two nights I attended (January 20 and 22). I say dedicated because the festival happened to fall on the stormiest night of the season so far, and attentive because I’ve never heard such a quiet, coughless audience in winter.

Lights down, EXIT sign excepted

Lights down, EXIT sign excepted

Each night’s performance began with short mid-19th century phonautograms—primitive sound recordings by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville that had no playback method when they were created and which predate Edison’s phonograph recordings by two decades. The phonautograms, explained in detail in the Studio 360 story below, were realized at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley by First Sounds, a collaborative group of audio historians and recording engineers.

These brief glimpses of another time via some of the world’s earliest sound recording technologies were a curiously and charmingly crude introduction to the densely layered, complex, and diverse selection of compositions that followed. In addition to the tape assemblages and new realizations of John Cage’s work that the festival presenters programmed to celebrate the centenary of Cage’s birth, they took care to present a wide variety of compositional approaches and source material among the other artists represented. Some used voices speaking; others, voices singing; many others, no voices at all. Some referenced acoustic instruments while others eschewed them altogether in favor of electronics. Works that employed entirely abstract sounds were juxtaposed with ones constructed from clearly identifiable ones.

Two works of particular interest in the latter category were by Matthew Barnard and Adam Basanta. Barnard’s The Piano Makers was constructed from recordings made at a piano factory; inspired by a book by David Wainwright of the same title that points out that “the frame and strings of a fully strung grand piano must withstand the pressure of about 20 tonnes,” Barnard’s piece is an unusual and dramatic portrait of a piano, filled with a palpable sense of tension using the sound of taut metal strings being tightened, among other things. In a glass is not a glass, Basanta narrows his focus to the sounds created from a wine glass—through striking, rubbing, bowing, clinking, and smashing. Some sounds are manipulated and abstracted, and Basanta explores (as did other composers) the effect of small sounds writ unnaturally large.

One thing that makes a festival of fixed-media music different from most other new music performances is that you can hear much of the music again immediately on the web—Barnard’s work is embedded above, and Basanta’s can be downloaded in its entirety from his website—but it can’t be denied that the works are transformed by the immersive environment provided by the Tape Music Festival. I am no audiophile, but I was nonetheless astonished by the impact that the fidelity and the enormous dynamic range of the sound had on my experience of these pieces. Of course everyone loves the high-volume viscera-shaking bass frequencies that make us feel all funny in those special places—Rubber (0) Cement’s “The Hydrogen Affair” Tritum fast talks the Szilard simpletons elicited a particularly male YEEEAAAAAAAAAHHHH! from a gentleman seated nearby—but more often I was struck by the effect of a crystal clear audio image of a small event, an unexpected high frequency, that unsettling silence that is only possible in a studio-like environment. The soft splash of footsteps in the water that concluded Orestis Karamanlis’s Στέρφος (Sterfos) were particularly memorable, especially when mixed with the sound of the pouring rain that had started outside.


I missed out on the second night of the festival and went instead to Southern Exposure, another Mission venue a few blocks away that’s used more for visual arts than music. We got a respite that night from the storm but not the cold, and in an unheated, high-ceilinged concrete gallery space with large uncovered windows, a hardy crowd blew into their cupped hands for RE:COMPOSITION, a program curated by Julie Lazar. Using John Cage again as a touchstone, the evening’s program featured four works. A performance installation aptly titled Still Movement by Croatian visual artist Sandro Đukić opened the evening, with the audience standing while Đukić walked methodically and glacially among black pillars in a red-lighted space. The program closed with JD Beltran’s electronic, beat-driven music synchronized with Marc Barritte’s digital film of shifting shapes and colors.

The two more memorable works of the evening were sandwiched in between. It was the first public outing for Bar Hopping, a music and video project collaboratively created by cellists Joan Jeanrenaud and Paul de Jong (one half of The Books). Jeanrenaud performed the work solo with pre-recorded music and video—as of this performance, the two creators hadn’t yet met in person. The seven movements moved from lyrical melodies to melancholic viol consorts to martial ricochets, paired with video that reflected historic and contemporary visions of California. Several of the movements have been posted on de Jong’s Vimeo page; here’s the Intro:

The other work that has stayed with me was not “music” per se, but of course it was: poet Joan Retallack’s INTERRUPTUS: a Procedural Lecture for Two Voices, in homage to John Cage. Retallack, who teaches poetry at Bard and has published on Cage, constructed the piece using chance operations to determine the time structure of the performance, which consisted of her and writer Michael Ives simply sitting at a table with little clocks in front of them, reading prepared texts for specific periods of time—sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes not at all.

Joan Retallack and Michael Ives perform INTERRUPTUS: a Procedural Lecture for Two Voices

Joan Retallack and Michael Ives perform INTERRUPTUS: a Procedural Lecture for Two Voices

Retallack was professorial, discussing Anarchic Harmony and poethics as they apply to Cage’s work; by contrast, Ives was, well, absurdly unhinged in a way that was at times reminiscent of Artaud. Together they were thought-provoking and hilarious, occasionally both at the same time. At one point in Retallack’s lecture, she offered the thought that “every word is equally consequential”—an idea that put me back into the crystalline clarity of the ODC Theater where every sound, whether they were coming from the speakers, the audience, or the world outside, was indeed consequential.