Tag: interpretation

Vertical Performance

An excerpt from Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh directed by David Herskovits, designed by Lenore Doxsee, and performed during the Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts by the Bang on a Can All-Stars with guest violinist/vocalists Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang on July 25, 2015.
Are there limits to multitasking onstage? That question came to mind while watching Michael Gordon’s chamber opera Van Gogh during the Bang on a Can Festival at MASS MoCA this past summer.

In it, each of the eight instrumentalists is called on to simultaneously play—with razor-sharp precision—a rhythmically complex score, sing text that doesn’t easily sync with it, and do a modicum of acting. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and two guest musicians—violinist/vocalists Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang—met the challenge with stunning dynamism, leaving one both wondering how they did it and wishing for more of this “vertical” artistry. Beyond virtuosity, it packs an emotional wallop. When the instrumentalist is the singer and actor, it’s easier to engage with the story than when the artistic impulse is spread between two or more performers.

It helped that the amplified and hypnotic six-movement work is based on Van Gogh’s brutally direct and celebrated letters, most of them written to his brother Theo. The letters draw us inside the tortured soul of an artist grappling with insecurity, ambition, and—ultimately—mental illness. Gordon says he decided to write Van Gogh because of his “total love and obsession” with the letters, attracted by their pain, rawness, and honesty. In fact, this piece is the fourth iteration and outgrowth of a work first performed in 1988—a vehicle for five musicians and voice—and best known in the eight instrument/three independent singer version recorded in 2007 by Alarm Will Sound. Only this year did Gordon decide to assign the vocal lines to the instrumentalists. And that seemed possible because the performing nucleus this time would be the intrepid and category-defying Bang on a Can All-Stars, which he, along with Julia Wolfe and David Lang, co-founded. In addition, the two main roles, for violinist/vocalists, would be filled by young, classically trained musicians who seem, more than ever, to straddle musical worlds. Gordon sensed that with all the musicians coming out of conservatories with one foot in the “indie scene,” he’d find the people he needed.

Singing while playing an instrument is as old as musical performance itself, and remains the dominant vehicle for pop and folk musicians. But with the advent of “serious” or “concert” music in the 17th century, vocal and instrumental parts grew more complex and these roles separated. In recent times, some composers have attempted to recombine them. Frederick Rzewski’s De Profundis (1992) requires the interpreter to recite Oscar Wilde’s famous letter from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas while navigating a broad range of keyboard techniques. George Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae (1971) requires the flutist to speak into the flute and—like the pianist and cellist—wear a black half-mask. Singing while acting is the basis of opera and musical theater. But ask the singer/actor to add an instrumental line—even where physically possible—and eyebrows will rise.

Extramusical elements add to the mystique of George Crumb’s 1971 flute-cello-piano trio Vox Balaenae, which is one of his most widely performed compositions. The performance above, which took place at Montreal’s Salle Claude Champagne on April 17, 2011, features Camille Lambert-Chan (flute), Stephane Tetreault (cello) and Philippe Prud’homme (piano)
The brain doesn’t like to multitask. Most serious instrumentalists don’t like to sing onstage. They may have sung in chorus or solfege class, and may sing in the shower, but the spotlight is something else. Ensemble singing requires accurate pitch and appropriate tone. Some voices you want to hear; some, not so much. When a musician opens his or her mouth, it’s hard to anticipate what’s going to come out: it could be Maria Callas or Bob Dylan or your tone-deaf plumber.

Adding to the stress, stage direction may take the singer/instrumentalist away from his or her music stand, requiring that the instrumental parts be memorized.

For centuries of “serious” music-making, there’s also been resistance to doing more than what one has been trained to do. Until quite recently, if you asked a professional clarinetist to read a line of spoken text in a performance, he’d probably bristle and show you his contract.

But just as boundaries between musical genres have blurred, so have boundaries between what performers are willing—and able—to do.

Van Gogh was not Gordon’s first work mining vertical performance. In the mid-1990s, he wrote Weather for string orchestra, conceived and staged by Elliot Caplan, sections of which featured the musicians of Ensemble Resonanz in choreographed movement. In 2008, Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang co-composed singing in the dead of night, a 45-minute piece for eighth blackbird in which the instrumentalists move through choreographed steps they took part in creating. (A year later, eighth blackbird, always game to experiment, premiered Steven Mackey’s Slide, an innovative music and theater work in which singer/actor/librettist Rinde Eckert plays a fictional research scientist whose fiancée has abandoned him. Heartbroken, he reminisces about an experiment he conducted using projected images of photographic slides to explore the fallibility of human perception. The instrumentalists—including Mackey, who played electric guitar in the premiere—all additionally do a modicum of singing, acting, and choreographed movement. More recently, eighth blackbird premiered another work that completely blurred the lines between music, dance, and theater—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre by Amy Beth Kirsten.)

Some Historical Precedents for Multitasking Performers

Whereas Gordon had his Van Gogh musicians multitask in an experimental departure—“it was all very let’s-see-if-this-works,” he claims—by the mid-20th century Harry Partch had made a clean break from the role-specific direction of Western music, embracing instead “corporeal” music, whereby all music-making would involve singing, acting, and dancing. It’s built on the vocal and verbal music of the individual, stemming from chant in ancient Greek, Asian, and African cultures. In Partch’s large theatrical works, including his magnum opus Delusion of the Fury (performed in New York City this past summer by the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik as part of the Lincoln Center Festival), the chamber musicians onstage function also as singers, actors, and dancers, creating a fantasy world enhanced by lighting, costumes, and makeup. Although Partch started with stories based on Japanese and Indian folk tales, he wrote in the preface to the two-act work that “words cannot proxy the experience of seeing and hearing.” The work is more of a staged concert in which theater intervenes more and more. The theatrics sometimes obscure the storyline, but the dramatic effect, arising from the music, is powerful. The instrumental setup, comprised of Partch-designed instruments, is the dominant scenery. The musicians play from memory a score suffused with strong motor rhythms. Heiner Goebbels, director of MusikFabrik’s Delusion, says he thinks of Partch’s theatrical works as a door between the two types of music with which the composer grew up: classical and pop—the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys in particular. Like Gordon in Van Gogh, Partch in Delusion is after raw musical qualities conveyed with precision. In both works, the voices and instruments are amplified.

In order to realize Harry Partch’s magnum opus Delusion of the Fury, the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik functioned onstage as singers, actors, dancers, and instrumentalists performing on replicas of Partch’s instruments created specifically for their performance.
Decades after Partch, the composer John Eaton, in what came to be known as “pocket operas,” consolidated the roles of instrumentalist, singer, and actor because he was unsettled by the way contemporary musicians played complex works with “no concept of the human dimensions trying to be expressed.” Eaton wanted to get the performers involved, he said, “with story elements, with acting, with being somebody.” In a NewMusicBox interview with Frank J. Oteri, Eaton pointed out that composers like Bach and Handel, aware of the total continuum of music and theater, broke with conventions of their time and were willing to do “whatever got the job done.” Since they’re less focused on singing than standard operas, Eaton thinks of these works as “romps” or “dramatic works” for instrumentalists.

Like most of his “operatic” works, John Eaton’s 2010 Benjamin Button, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story which also inspired the 2008 motion picture, directly involves the instrumentalists in the onstage narrative.
The living musician most associated with multitasking might be Meredith Monk. Coming of age in 1960s New York, she initially attracted attention with her extended vocal techniques but has built a 50-year career dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach to performance. Mixing idiosyncratic movement and three-octave vocalizing (along with stage design, film, and video), Monk creates dreamscapes that cross cultural boundaries. She says she works “in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema.” Though her works require its performers to vocalize and move, Monk might consider this less “multitasking” than, as in the music of Partch, the expression of a single artistic impulse.

In Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams (1983), Monk and the other members of her vocal ensemble–Robert Een, Andrea Goodman, and Paul Langland–create a totally immersive experience through singing, dancing, and acting.
But while many composers have created vital work that requires multitasking performers, those pieces seem less a precedent for Gordon’s new version of Van Gogh than director John Doyle’s productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company (London and New York, early 2000s), where the actor/singers onstage also function as the orchestra. At first you think: who knew there were so many first-rate actor/singers who could play instruments that well? Then: how do they do all these things almost simultaneously? In these productions, the story was dominant—the sets and costumes were what one would expect of musical theater with high production values. And though considered by some blasphemous for its rearrangement (with Sondheim’s permission!) of the composer’s original orchestral score, these “vertical” performances of Sweeney Todd and Company powerfully projected Sondheim’s musical intent. (Sweeney won a Tony for Best Musical Revival.) The instrumental lines, delivered center stage rather than arising magically from a pit or offstage orchestra, drew the ear in a fresh way. The consolidation of singer/instrumentalist in a single individual has sometimes been the consequence of limited budgets. But limitation can be liberating, and lead to revelation.

In John Doyle’s 2005 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, singer/actors double as instrumentalists to create a seamless synchronicity between theater and music.
Adapted by Composer for Multitaskers

Gordon decided to assign the Van Gogh vocal parts to the instrumentalists simply because, he says, nowadays there are musicians who can handle it. Of course, those who can do it well, and in a particular style, are rare. Gordon says he wrote everyone he knew and asked, “Do you know any female violinists who sing, or female singers who play violin?”

“You can’t put your finger on what you’re looking for, but when it appears in front of you, you know,” Gordon mused. What he was looking for appeared in the form of Eliza Bagg, a prospective Bang on a Can festival fellow, a violinist who had transitioned into a vocalist specializing in indie and early music. The other part was performed by Charles Yang, a hotshot violinist who, in his YouTube-posted arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” seems a cross between Paganini and Freddie Mercury. Both were initially concerned that their voices weren’t the right type. Gordon assured them he didn’t want trained voices. He wanted real and raw voices—floaty, breathy, bluesy, and rock voices, where appropriate to the text.

They auditioned for Gordon separately, then were tried together. They won the roles. As the score was still in flux, Yang asked that his part be more violin than voice; Bagg, just the opposite. Gordon happily accommodated. Flexibility was key. Gordon made changes in the score even on the day of the performance. Vocal parts, originally concentrated on the violins, were spread among the other performers.

Gordon’s music is difficult to learn. Though rooted in repetition and groove, it’s rhythmically complex and often without readily discernible patterns. The ensemble writing is layered and polyrhythmic, and doesn’t synchronize easily. Naturally, the Van Gogh vocal parts added another layer of complexity. At times, the musicians are asked to play triplets while singing eighth notes, or to sing triplets over duples. “It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head,” says All-Star cellist Ashley Bathgate. Or translating French to English while typing in Spanish. It can be done, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Practicing slowly isn’t sufficient. “Because your voice is part of your body, you can get very distracted by it,” Bathgate says. “When I think about the line I’m singing, the cello line will go out of tune. If I focus on the cello sound, my voice goes out of tune or cracks.” The solution was to hone one part—typically the one where you’re more at home—until it became virtually automatic. Then add a layer on top.

More traditional singing—intoning, with or without words—establishes a visceral connection between the performer and audience. When you sing, you’re naked—even with a cello in front of you. (Contemporary composers seem particularly drawn to female cellists in this role. Perhaps it’s the lure of the treble voice and baritone instrument, perhaps the comfortable distance between the voice and where the cello sound is produced. In recent memory, I’ve heard Alisa Weilerstein, Maya Beiser, and Sol Gabetta hum or whisper while drawing a bow across the string.) Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields calls on two of the Bang on a Can All-Stars—electric guitarist Mark Stevens and Bathgate—to sing while playing extended solos. Gordon admits that the success of Anthracite Fields may have influenced his decision to write vocal parts for the All-Stars in Van Gogh.

Once composers know you can sing, they write parts for you,” Bathgate says. It becomes part of your arsenal.

Acting: The Biggest Stretch

Professional musicians are trained to create sound. With sufficient dedication to a project, contemporary musicians will deliver any sound the score asks for—even where unusual techniques, like vocalizing, come into play. But acting is often beyond their purview. For them, what might seem a simple stage direction—walking across the stage, for example—can be tougher than navigating a thorny score.

Two weeks of rehearsal were set aside for Van Gogh. In the first, the musicians worked toward impeccable ensemble. In the second, the stage director, David Herskovits, came to add theatrical touches: props, lighting, and movement.

Herskovits began by explaining his vision to the musicians and eliciting feedback. He had a specific game plan, but was diplomatic and flexible. The musicians tried things for him. The universal goal was to make the work sound as good as possible.

The stage direction consisted largely of broad brush strokes to set a scene or stimulate the imagination—scribbling letters, crumpling papers, crossing the stage to peer at the audience—but all had to be precisely coordinated with the music. Any action that would undermine the score was scrapped or modified.

Herskovits would say something like: “You have ten minutes of rest here. Can you pretend you’re writing something, then crumple the paper and throw it?”

At least once, the response was: “Well actually, I’m changing instruments and cuing singers, and it’s not a good time.”

Herskovits backed off, then asked another: “How about you?”

David Cossin, the Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist, said that writing a stage direction in his part made it easier to embrace: “Instead of ‘play cymbal,’ it was ‘throw paper.’”

Judith Kogan leaning against a harp.

Juilliard-trained harpist Judith Kogan, who has won prizes on pedal and folk harp and is proficient on baroque triple harp, has performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The author of Nothing But the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School (Random House, 1987), she has won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her music journalism.

My Sunshine

Sheila Jordan frequently tells the story of how listening to Charlie Parker’s 1945 recording of “Now’s The Time” changed her life; hearing it made her devote her life to jazz. She still remembers putting her nickel in that jukebox in vivid detail.

I have a similar memory, but the life-changing recording for me was George Russell’s “You Are My Sunshine” featuring Sheila Jordan. At the time I did not know that it was her first major recording (and actually only the second time she ever appeared on a record). I also knew almost nothing about jazz. To remedy that, I was taking a jazz appreciation class during my freshman year at Columbia University. I now treasure almost everything I heard in that class, but at the time jazz was still not clicking for me. Then one day, toward the end of the semester, my professor launched into a tirade about “what went wrong with jazz.” He talked about how jazz started losing its connection to popular culture and began to emulate avant-garde contemporary classical music—my ears suddenly perked up; he was finally speaking what I believed was my language. Then he played an example of something he felt was the beginning of this tendency, the point at which jazz took that wrong fork in the road. What he played was George Russell’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine.”

On the original LP cover for George Russell's The Outer View (which is not the image reproduced in subsequent reissues), Russell is standing in front of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

One of the highlights of George Russell’s 1962 Riverside LP The Outer View is his off-kilter arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” featuring the voice of Sheila Jordan.

In the very beginning of the arrangement, this famous tune is not recognizable at all; instead there are angular figurations in the horns that sound like something out of Edgard Varèse. Eventually, Russell bangs out the melody on the piano, accompanying it with a torrent of tone clusters. Then, at about ten minutes in, everyone stops playing and, after a moment of silence, an unaccompanied female voice enters singing a highly embellished version of the melody. It is vulnerable and, paradoxically, also extremely powerful. As amazed as I was by what Russell had done to this song, I was even more amazed by that voice. Eventually, the horns return with their figurations and gradually the whole ensemble enters in and ultimately drowns out the singer and it comes to an end.

To this day, it remains one of the most exrtaordinary things I have ever heard in my life. But at that instant, I finally understood how interpretation becomes a form of composition in jazz. Everything I heard after that, I heard in a new way. That wrong fork in the road is what changed my life. First I tracked down all of Russell’s Riverside recordings, then I moved on to all of the sidemen—Eric Dolphy (who was on many of these sessions but unfortunately not on “You Are My Sunshine”) became an obsession and Don Ellis (who went on to form a polystylistic big band) became the subject of one of my first published articles about music.

And then there was Sheila Jordan. At first I couldn’t find anything else. After years of scouring the bins, I finally tracked down her mesmerizing debut LP on Blue Note which, to this day, is my favorite jazz vocal album. Little by little, I tracked down everything else, and I tried to hear her live whenever she sang in New York City as well. By this time, I had become an avid jazz record collector, devouring every alternative take I could get my hands on. That was the fork in the road I went down, which I owe to “You Are My Sunshine.” To finally hear Sheila Jordan describe how this unique recording came about has been equally transformative.

Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
You can read the entire conversation with Sheila Jordan here.

Miranda Cuckson: String Alchemist

Despite the remarkable breadth and diversity of violinist Miranda Cuckson’s repertoire list, there is a reliable theme that emerges when it comes to reactions to her playing: music critics and fans tend to note how comfortably she embraces even the sharpest, most unapproachable-seeming pieces, conveying the music with such palpable control and insight that it’s as if she’s holding the door into these worlds open for the audience.

Frankly, it’s the impression I carry as well, particularly after I heard her perform an all-Ralph Shapey program in Chicago in 2013. When work is at its most forbidding, she grabs the flashlight that is her skill and artistry and leads the way through.

Cuckson's 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s extensive Juilliard training—from age 9 through her Ph.D—steeped her in a broad array of repertoire, but she discovered a particular affinity for new and often challenging pieces. “One reason that I’ve done well at this kind of thing is that I absorb quickly unfamiliar music, so being handed scores and [being told], ‘Play this,’ I’m able to do,” she acknowledges, laughing. “So I’ve found myself getting work.”

And while she’s more interested in music that has something “really vivid” to say rather than difficulty for difficulty’s sake, she admits that there is something attractive about the puzzle.

“I do enjoy music that presents something for me to really figure out, both in terms of understanding the music itself and how I’m going to play it on my instrument and what I want to convey with it,” she explains. “You feel like there are layers that you go through and certain things that, once you’ve absorbed them, become more ingrained in how you’re doing it. Then you can go further into another aspect of it or another level of it. It’s rewarding to work that way.”

Work, you quickly get the impression, is not something Cuckson has ever been one to shy away from. In addition to keeping up with her busy performance schedule of solo and chamber repertoire, she is an active recording artist and is also the artistic director of the ensemble Nunc. Plus, she writes about music as well, often penning her own program notes.

Cuckson's library of scores, books, and media.

Cuckson’s library of scores, books, and media.

So far, however, for as much as she values her role as an engaged and intellectually curious collaborator, she hasn’t felt the urge to compose new work herself.

But I feel strongly about what I do as an interpreter. It’s both putting all my imagination and hopefully perceptiveness and insight into the music, and skill and all that, but also being a great collaborator with the composers—whether they’re not around anymore so I have to figure that out, or with the people who can actually talk and work with me. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on, and it’s one of the more mysterious things, music and the melding that goes on between artists’ personalities in performance: the composer’s vision and what they were feeling and the performers and their own personalities and how these things come together.

It’s also a reminder of the profoundly fluid and ephemeral nature of performance, no matter how many hours go into perfecting the delivery of even the most complex score or how much time a listener is able to spend in its company. That’s the interesting thing about new music, Cuckson emphasized. “One performance of something is part of a process, hopefully of either getting to know that piece or that composer’s work or in general just listening to more and more things.”

Decisions Made

“Before you take your horn out, there’s something we have to deal with.” This was my hello when Rob Blakeslee opened the door for our first lesson. I had just started college and was navigating a world in which Don Cherry, Dave Douglas, and Wynton Marsalis were given equal status as models for my trumpet playing. Rob was Portland’s legend of the underground, a totally unique free jazz trumpeter who had toiled in relative obscurity outside of a few brilliant records on Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds label in the 1990s.

He led me to his dining room table where we leafed through a huge art history book. He stopped first at an early, almost photo-real painting by Renoir. After pointing out how natural and clean the presentation was, Rob flipped forward a few hundred pages to a later work in which a similar figure—a young girl outside in springtime—was represented in a softer, more dream-like fashion. There was no question what Renoir was trying to do pictorially in each, but the way in which he conveyed the idea had changed considerably from the earlier painting to the latter.

tomato soup, abstracted

“That’s your decision to make,” he said. “You can make something that is clean and accurate or you can find ways to say the same thing by softening the edges, changing the colors, making it less obvious. Either way is fine, but you should be clear with yourself about how you are thinking.” It was a cut and dry statement: A or B. And, with that, we headed down to his studio to begin the lesson.

Sadly, I have lost touch with Rob, but the memory of that short demonstration lingers on. The simplicity of his demand has deconstructed into something else, but I recognize that he provided the germ. His point was that there are different ways to think of the same model: in this case, two paintings of similar scenes. And that I should be clear and honest with myself about which viewpoint I am operating under. While this lesson has served me well, the important offshoot of our trip through the art book was that one person was capable of such different interpretations in their lifetime—and that aesthetic decisions change.

As an 18-year old who had learned everything he knew from jazz records—moments frozen in time made specifically for commercial consumption—I had very little concept of the importance of growth. If anything, I had come up around older musicians who treated change as a disease: “Miles was cool in the 1940s and ’50s, then he changed,” etc. My learning involved periods of a musician’s output with no appreciation of the trajectory of how they thought.

But now, understanding the trajectory has become a major component of my judgment of quality. For better or worse, I have become more interested in the ways in which people think and grow than I am in their ability to reproduce subtle variations on a limited personal language, regardless of how successful that language may be. To that end, my heroes have become makers and thinkers that give weight to research and experimentation over recognizability.

In practice, I’ve made it a priority to follow every musical idea through to its logical end. That may be an hour of thought ending in the realization that the idea is just not feasible (or interesting). Or, it may mean years of performing works based on the fruits of research. To the latter, projects of mine such as Seven Storey Mountain or Syllables, which explore religious ecstatic music and the mechanics of linguistics respectively, resulted in multiple products from single simple ideas—not a reproducible master language.

And that’s the decision I ultimately have made. Not to find a specific “sound” that can be recognized, codified, and repeated, but to have my work be described (and ultimately judged) as a stream of thought and a lifelong picture of research—a snapshot of who I am and what I have accomplished in the little room of my mind before passing on. I’m happy with the decision I’ve made. I think Rob would be proud of it as well.

There Is No Right Experience

String Quartet

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
—David Bowie, album notes, 1995

A few weeks ago I was discussing an idea for an interactive piece with a friend. The idea involved the audience making decisions about what the musicians would play next, a sort of musical “choose your own adventure.” He was intrigued, and enthusiastic, but ultimately the conversation turned to whether that was “it”—whether creative staging and presentation were the things that would come to define music for our generation. I don’t think they are because I believe the thing that defines our current musical era is that no one thing can possibly define it.

Berating the traditional ritual of classical concerts is very much in vogue today. In a recent BBC interview, composer Jonny Greenwood spoke about how the “reverence and silence with which most classical concerts are done now” has squeezed the excitement out of the musical experience. And while their music itself tends to hold up (and even succeed wildly), groups like LA’s wild Up and The Industry have built reputations largely on their breaking of—or willful, useful, and joyous ignorance of—classical boundaries.

I love creative concerts like this, be they Gnarwhallaby playing contemporary repertoire in bathrooms during parties or the elaborately choreographed, intensely personal experience of Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station. The question that such events beg, however, is whether the concerts distract from the music.
While my friend, on the other hand, is happy to encourage creativity, he enjoys the traditional silence of the concert hall where you’re inherently assigned the role of listener. You know when the concert starts because the conductor walks out. You know when it ends because the performers bow. You know who the performers are, because (if you’re me) they’re probably dressed classier than you. Because everything is set, you can just sit back and focus completely on the music. There are no wild costumes or lighting or dancing or clinking drinks and clapping between (or—GASP—during!) movements to consider, just what’s being played.

Let’s call these two modes of presenting music the “traditional” and the “alternative,” and skip the discussion on how the “alternative” is actually the norm in most musical traditions outside of Western classical music. Music, for the most part, doesn’t compete with other music for an audience. Attending an alternative concert one night doesn’t stop you from attending a traditional one the next in the way that, say, buying an iPhone would stop most people from buying a Galaxy. An unplanned tangent: the elite of the tech world often have both anyway, so why don’t we who consider ourselves informed, perhaps even elite, concertgoers seem excited to take advantage of both models? We don’t have to pick a side.

Chris Cerrone’s <em>Invisible Cities</em> at Union Station

Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station

Moving on, it’s clear that the concert experience affects a listener/receiver’s experience of the music, sometimes greatly. To use the Invisible Cities example again (sorry Chris, it’s an easy target for this discussion), did I hear the opera that Chris Cerrone committed to the page, or experience director Yuval Sharon’s interpretation of it? And how does Yuval’s presentation affect the work? In this case, I’m pretty sure I really, really like the music Chris wrote, but I’m not sure how much of it I heard clearly while my attention was on the dancers and the setting. The question that such an issue brings up then, in my mind, is “what is the work?” What, as an artist, am I creating? If I’m making something, shouldn’t I be clear on what that something is?
There are two answers here. One (the one that follows from Cage’s thinking, which I’m a fan of) is that the work is whatever the listener decides it is, whether consciously or unconsciously. In this case, to me, Invisible Cities is the amazing collaboration that happened at Union Station. To Yuval, it might be the score he started from. To someone purchasing the recording (which is out this week), the audio coming through their speakers is likely the work. Although the recording comes in a lovely boxed set with postcards from the opera’s setting…surely that must be considered as well. All of this leads us to being able to say that each receiver’s definition and conception of the work will be unique. And that’s awesome. That’s part of why I love experiencing art almost as much as I love making it—because experiencing it is a form of making it, via what happens in your own head as you receive it. Take that, fourth wall.

The other answer, and one I sometimes lean on for my own internal life-narrative as a composer, is that the work is what the creator intends the work to be. There may be a greater work that comes out of collaboration, presentation, reinterpretation, and so forth, but the work that I made is whole when I take my hands off of it and send it out into the world, and anything that happens to it after that is an often-positive transformation. The logical conclusion of this is that, before the 1890s, the work (from a composer’s point of view) was the score and performance. Since we now have this whole “recorded medium” thing, I believe that my work, if it happens live, is the score along with any performance coaching or performing that I’ve been involved in, and if it happens on record, everything included in the package—the mix, the album art, potentially even the performances. Obviously there are collaborators every step of the way, but when someone asks me what I’ve made, handing them a CD feels like a good answer.
Of course, that person’s speakers and room will have something to contribute, be it additional reverb or some lovely (or not very lovely) distortion. So we’re back to answer one.
It’s possible that this belief—that the listener controls the work—is the reason I enjoy writing “choose your own adventure” pieces, or works with open scoring or that are extremely open to interpretation. I’m making the relationship between art and receiver explicit. Sometimes I have something incredibly clear to say with my art. Then I use traditional, precise notation. Sometimes I have an idea that I could be excited about in many forms, or am working with performers who I know will bring things to the table that I hadn’t even considered. In those cases, I largely prefer to leave things open.

Who is to say that my interpretation is best, or that a best interpretation even exists? And why should we limit ourselves, as composers, performers, or listeners, to just one option? We’re the creative ones, right?

This is one of the rare cases where I’m excited that there’s no good answer. It means that you and I are both free to make our own.


Nick Norton
Nick Norton is a composer and guitarist from Los Angeles. He grew up playing in rock bands and formally studied composition in college at UC San Diego, then at L’ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, then in graduate school at King’s College, London, and UC Santa Barbara—and in a whole bunch of garages, studios, apartments, backyards, beaches, mountains, bars, libraries, clubs, restaurants, and deserts. The LA Times describes his music as crazy, and NewMusicBox referred to his pieces as “visceral sonic haiku” after a show in New York. Nick really liked that description. Recent projects include a commission for guitar and electronics from Worldwide Guitar Connections, new works for Gnarwhallaby and Synchromy, an orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s complete Piano Quintet in F Minor, and an album and singles with his band, Better Looking People With Superior Ideas.

Trauma, Meaning, and The Quietest of Whispers

Evan Ware in front of a train

Evan Ware. Photo by Megan Hill.

“Trauma is being pushed passed the boundary of where you are able to go,” composer Evan Ware told me when we discussed his latest piece, The Quietest of Whispers. The work is a 40 minute-long symphony for small orchestra, sculpted from Ware’s experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The Quietest of Whispers addresses this part of his life obliquely: he wrote the work not to confront his abuse, but rather to share his story of survival. “As much as [the piece] is about my own experience,” Ware insists, “it’s also an invitation for other people…to be able to experience issues of trauma and the path through the trauma.”
This message is embedded in almost every detail of The Quietest of Whispers, from its title to its use of symphonic form. “It couldn’t be anything but a symphony,” he explains, “to talk about the recovery from childhood sexual abuse is extremely emotional, and it needs a huge vessel to contain that emotion.” However, Ware’s symphonic model carries with it a seemingly significant drawback: it is an instrumental genre, which, as he recognizes, makes the meaning of The Quietest of Whispers slippery.

Along these lines, two similarly themed works I know have texts which help to anchor the meaning of their symbolism. Aaron Alon’s quadrophonic, electroacoustic piece Breaking The Silence uses audio testimony from four male and female abuse survivors to document many sides of this issue (WARNING: this piece contains explicit content). Dennis Tobenski’s Only Air, for soprano and orchestra (a chamber version of which received its New York premiere on May 4), is a more traditional vocal work dedicated to the memory of five boys who committed suicide after being repeatedly targeted by homophobic bullies.

The texts Alon and Tobenski set help to solidify their music’s meaning such that it seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Breaking the Silence, that someone would interpret these works as relating to something other than their given subjects. However, the magic of this music comes from its non-textual symbolism, such as the solo soprano part in Breaking the Silence meant to “imitate a simple children’s song, one that a young child might actually invent herself.” In this regard, Only Air, Breaking the Silence, and The Quietest of Whispers all use prominent solos as a potent symbolic trope.

These passages are rich with vivid musical imagery that serves each work’s overall message. For example, the trumpet solo in The Quietest of Whispers embodies Ware, a former trumpeter, through a melodic anagram of his first name. I feel the solos not only reflect the composer’s intent, they also help their audience connect more intensely with their music. Solo instruments can act as a musical avatar for individual listeners and give them a point at which to enter into and communicate with the musical work at large. Such a connection, if it takes place, can result in an extremely meaningful listening experience; this outcome is hard to predict or depend on, however, particularly in instrumental works like The Quietest of Whispers.

Excerpt of musical score for Evan Ware's The Quietest of Whispers

Score excerpt from The Quietest of Whispers showing the musical anagram imbedded in the trumpet melody in m. 561. © 2013 by Evan Ware and reprinted with his permission.

Ware is fully aware of the challenges he faces in communicating the subject of his piece through the medium of a wordless orchestral work but is not daunted. The piece is deeply imbedded with musical symbolism designed to reflect his experience. Perhaps the most salient of these elements is the anagrammatic trumpet solo noted above, but the music’s deeper structure also works to embody its subject matter. The piece starts with anxious, unsettled ideas that move towards stability before a dramatic interruption—the representation of Ware’s abuse and its effect on his development. From here, the piece swirls, seeking confidence, the appearance of which is signaled by the entry of the solo trumpet’s theme and the arrival of A major, the piece’s “home key.”

The highly detailed and multi-layered manner in which Ware realizes his compositional intent reminds me of Bunita Marcus’s string quartet The Rugmaker, which Jenny Olivia Johnson profiled in a 2010 NewMusicBox article. Johnson writes, “The order in which Marcus accessed her memories of her father molesting her can be mapped upon the specific order of musical events in The Rugmaker.” The work’s string of highly symbolic gestures and passages evoke the constellation of memories through which Marcus navigated as she faced new recollections of her childhood trauma.

While the representative depth of these pieces’ materials and forms is certainly impressive and illuminating, many questions remain regarding instrumental works’ ambiguous meanings. For example, Ware suggests that his piece is an invitation for an interpretative dialog between his listeners’ experiences and his music’s ingrained symbols. Yet, even if we accept this premise, how do we evaluate the way pieces of music, and their composers, foster the formation of listeners’ interpretations? Can listeners draw meanings that are “more” or “less” appropriate?

Obviously, understanding a work’s background before one hears it can limit some of this chaos—at least this was my experience with The Quietest of Whispers. Ware and I spoke regularly about the piece in the months leading up to its premiere. The piece blew me away, but I knew what it was about before I heard a note. This knowledge galvanized my listening experience, but I wonder if being informed this way is necessarily the best circumstance when hearing a piece for the first time. To this end, Jenny Olivia Johnson suggests that, in some cases, an awareness of the events or experiences crystallized in a given composition does not always improve a listener’s understanding.

I sympathize with this argument, particularly as it applies to tragic or extremely personal works such as The Quietest of Whispers. With this kind of piece, the propriety of a listener’s response becomes charged. It is one thing to misread the depiction of lust in Strauss’ Don Juan, but failing to grasp—or, worse, to be moved by—the tragedy of Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3, the reverence of Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, or the trauma of The Rugmaker and The Quietest of Whispers can seem embarrassing, if not disrespectful to the composer. It would seem if a work’s subject is left unexplained, at least for the first listen, these expectations are removed. In such a case, audience members could base their responses on how the music makes them feel, not how they think they should feel, or how they think the composer wants them to feel.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest Tobenski, Alon, Ware, Marcus or any other composer feels their work deserves a certain response based on its extra-musical associations alone. The scene I have just painted is simply an impracticable, rhetorical idyll designed to explore an interesting question: do certain pieces place more interpretative pressure on listeners than others and why? While we certainly need more space to fully contemplate this issue, I think it is fair to suggest that it is the responsibility of the composer, not the listener, to make a piece of music live up to the profundity of its subject matter. Then again, I’m not sure that kind of imperative matters much if musical meaning is so hard to control in the first place.

Ware, at least, holds a firm position on this topic: while he aspires to what The Quietest of Whispers could mean, he has no interest in designating what it should mean. The autonomy of interpretation on which he insists reminds me of a point in our conversations when he described his abuse as “a framework you can’t get out of.” After working for years to overcome these constraints, it makes sense that he emphasizes freedom in this way. Perhaps more than anything else, the tale of survival represented by The Quietest of Whispers testifies to the way Ware has reconciled the trauma he experienced as a child.

Evan Ware listening to rehearsal of his music

Composer Evan Ware in rehearsals before the premiere of The Quietest of Whispers last March in Ann Arbor, MI. Photo by Megan Hill.

Music and The Heart

Heart w staff paper

My Heart on staff paper

I drafted this from the ground, on a bus between Chicago and New York.
The Body is what I meditated on last week.  This time, I will hone in on an even more centered topic: The Heart.
In Sports et divertissements, Erik Satie writes:

C’est mon cœur qui se balance ainsi.
Il n’a pas le vertige.
Comme il a des petits pieds.
Voudra-t-il revenir dans ma poitrine?

The last line poses the question, “Will it [The Heart] want to return to my chest?”  What a bizarre image—a heart with little feet that plays on a swing, and you wonder if it will return home.

This is one of my favorite poems and pieces of music.  I don’t really know why. I sure wish my heart would explain itself.

The heart is often characterized through disembodiment.  It’s as if your heart is a separate creature you interact with in the exterior world. Follow your heart. Listen to your heart.  Wear your heart on your sleeve.
Imagine a thing that has little feet, talks to you, plays on a swing, clings to your arm, and leads you forward. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Your Heart.

Why do we think it gross when The Heart is ripped from us?  The images from Mortal Kombat and Indiana Jones movies have saturated my childhood, but I do not remember them as particularly grotesque. Disheartening perhaps, but nothing more.  Ha ha.
I apologize for writing too friskily.  My Heart hops about, outside of my body’s jurisdiction.  Writing comes from The Heart—my pen is merely its translator.

My Heart has a Mind of its own.  My Heart has a Heart of its own.  My Heart has a Heart, a Mind, Little Feet, and a Swing.  Once My Heart is on The Swing, His Feet are useless.  Progression means nothing to My Heart when he plays on The Swing—each step forward is a swing back, and each step back, a swing forward.  The Swing perpetually effaces clarity of advancement, and undoes its own direction with opposing force.  My Heart is only along for the ride.

Playing on a swing and abandoning the feet of logical progression is not so bad after all.  There is something blissful and liberating about following the Heart, wholeheartedly.
Ha ha.

To play on a swing, you must sacrifice your feet, the tools for Progress and Order.  So here’s a big question: How does one generate Progress and Order on a playground swing?

Unfortunately for readers who may be interested in form or progression, I believe this is an occasion where my Heart is playing on the Swing.  He has run away with the show.

Although The Heart has seemed to run away with this particular article, this is still about Music and The Heart.  So here goes it: The Heart does not care about the Music you have prepared for him to grasp.  Music is already difficult to grasp through the Mind and Body; why would it be any different for The Heart?  The Heart does not care about music with a capital M.  The Heart prefers to swing to his own beat.

Heart w/o staff paper

My Heart, not on staff paper

The short piece from Satie’s Sports et divertissements is entitled “La Balançoire” (“The Swing”). The focus is not the Heart, nor the Body, but The Swing.  The Swing itself is what sways us.  The relationship of the Heart to The Swing is the same as the Body to the Heart.

Does my Heart have a plan for this article?  Absolutely not.  Does The Swing have a master plan?  No.  If I am a musician, does that make my Heart a musician too?  Not even.  As stated in the first article, I am a musician, therefore what I say is musical.  My Heart, however, does not follow these same rules.  He is disembodied from me and from Music, giving orders from afar.  And we are along for the ride.
My bodily plans as a musician try to take into account the playground antics of my Heart.  But still, no matter how hard I try to create Progress and Order, my Heart will occasionally swing unexpectedly fast, unexpectedly slow, or not at all.
So back to the big question: How does one generate Progress and Order on a playground swing?

In its original French, Satie uses the verb “se balancer” which literally means “to balance oneself.” His heart does not “play” on the swing, nor does it merely “swing” on the swing, rather, it balances itself.
Playground Swings are a balancing act.

As a musician in the U.S., I am blessed with a wonderful freedom to create and express.   In music, I often feel like the embodiment of my Heart—in a playground of delightful activity.  But if I’m not careful, I can easily suffer from vertigo.  The swing is the carrier of this said vertigo, and it happens to be where my Heart loves to play. Like a proud and patient parent, I stand at the edge of the playground, planted on my other two feet, supervising as best I can a mysterious, disembodied Self.

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?)

Try To Remember

Music is not just something created by musicians; someone must perceive it in order for it to be. While this fact is obvious to most (… will someone say, “Well, DUH!”), an entire culture of music making is dedicated to rendering this into a shortcoming to be overcome by attempting to reify music as notation. While this practice is not limited to (and actually predates) Western civilization, the forms of notation most widely used to direct musicians about what to sing or play are modeled on its five-line stave and assortment of iconic shapes, esoteric terms, and abstruse abbreviations. That most improvising musicians can read standard Western music notation isn’t any great news, yet many music fans perceive a dichotomy between reading music and improvising it.

Of course, this is a fallacy. Playing music interpreted from even the most detail-oriented notation includes elements of improvisation (especially when sight reading). So improvisation is ubiquitous; it always comes down to a matter of degree. But we live in a world where things are most easily explained or taught in relation to binaries, such as: good/bad, high/low, left/right, or right/wrong. This either/or paradigm of acceptance and intellectual digestion profoundly shapes how the performers’ actual reification of music is perceived by their audience (which represents a binary). The comparison of pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Glenn Gould is one of the most classic examples of this. Richter’s stoic performance style is the near antithesis of Gould’s flamboyant mannerisms at the instrument. Gould retired from the stage for the last half of his career, performing almost exclusively in recording studios, while Richter recorded mostly in live performance. Richter championed the music of Schubert while Gould felt that its non-contrapuntal aspects weren’t part of serious music making. Gould played mostly from memory while Richter, who supposedly had a photographic memory, often read from the score in performance. Though both are among the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, there are those who insist that one was better than the other. While some of both camps’ detractors (and supporters) cite issues gleaned from the purely audible aspects of their performances as the sole criterion for these judgments, others point to what they perceived when watching them perform: Richter’s stoic style seems “uninvolved,” Gould’s mannerisms “detract” from the music.

This binary-based approach to music critiquing (which is part of what we do when we listen) influences how artists approach and present their music. One of the persistent myths about early jazz is that it was mostly group improvisation. This was reinforced by the fact that many, if not most, early jazz artists memorized their programs and didn’t need to read onstage. This allowed for another myth: that jazz musicians were unschooled and had a “genius” for music that could only be explained by a cultural heritage based on racial identity. The image of musicians playing from memory is powerful to a Eurocentric audience’s infatuation with literacy and the pre-jazz concertgoer was used to seeing musicians reading “serious” music. Musicians who didn’t read at these concerts were the soloists, “geniuses” who were playing concertos of the masters while the orchestra read the accompaniment. Closer to the truth might be that jazz musicians were trained differently than non-jazz musicians—whatever that means for musicians who were playing this music that wasn’t yet called “jazz.” For example, the difference between the enharmonic intervals of a dominant seventh and an augmented sixth didn’t get drummed into the jazz caste, so the traditional rules of their voice leading were effectively combined. This approach is now a part of American music. While this seems subtle on its face, the effect on melodic and harmonic development is clear even to the untrained ear.

Of course, almost anybody can memorize things, especially music. It’s like the ABCs and, for most, fun to do. I’ve taught music in middle school programs and have been surprised at the hefty repertoires of popular music that 12- to 16- year olds commit to memory. To boot, they knew when I made a mistake in my part and could, with very little prompting, sing the harmonies and/or antiphonal back-ups of their material. (We are definitely hard-wired for music and should take better advantage of it in our educational institutions.) But it’s still considered a sign of extra-special talent when jazz musicians play from memory. Maybe this is because the craft of reading music forces one to engage memory to different purposes when performing. When I read music, I concentrate on remembering fingerings, clef assignments, default key signatures and the like and, because I don’t have to remember the melody that I’m playing, I’m flexible; I’m guided by whatever notes and indications are on the paper in front of me. When I play from memory, I’m more rigid and tend to play the same things that I believe belong in an idealized performance.

This is something that I didn’t realize by myself. I first heard it described by guitarist-composer-philosopher Omar Tamez when I was playing at the festival he curates in Monterrey, Mexico. I had been researching jam-session culture at the time and we were talking about our experiences playing at them. He brought up an experience he had where he went to sit in at one (in New York, I think) and wanted to have the sheet music for a blues that was going to be played. He said that the person calling the tune thought it was ridiculous that Omar should need the sheet music for a blues, but Omar insisted on having it. When I asked him why (I usually don’t bother with sheet music at jam sessions, unless I’ve never heard the tune and don’t think I can learn its chord progression in one or two passes), he explained that when he reads from the page, he’s constantly seeing new ways to approach the tune, rather than relying on what he’s already taught himself about it. I imagine Richter, playing a Schubert sonata for the hundredth time, letting the page show his eye a fresh or deeper understanding of the music that he memorized long before the third time he performed it. I wonder, is that insight something that a member of the audience who was familiar with the 99th performance might have been able to perceive?

Omar’s music is designed to send its players into a very open improvising space. Even when he writes music over a repeating formal template (like the 32-measure AABA song structure), he prefers that everyone is willing to abandon it if the performance is better served. When the structure is abandoned, which happens often, the challenge becomes how to craft a group improvisation that “remembers” the tune. It’s very different from the standard approach where the form reigns supreme and the challenge is for the composer to write something distinctive that transcends the improvisations. I’ll be performing with Sarah Jane Cion’s trio tomorrow at the PAC House Theater in New Rochelle. Sarah is a pianist whose formidable technique has led her to write music that does just that. In this case, the challenge is to make one’s voice compatible with the vision that the composer (who is also the performer) has been able to transmit to paper.

I’ll be playing with Omar tonight in pianist Angelica Sanchez’s quartet at IBeam in Brooklyn with Satoshi Takeishi on drums. Omar’s performance style is much like Gould’s; highly animated with nearly every musical gesture articulated by an obvious physical one. Sanchez offers the antithesis: a performance that uses little motion other than what is needed to play the piano, no matter how virtuosic she gets, and her compositions are similar to Tamez’s in terms of open-endedness. Satoshi’s performance style is somewhere in between Tamez and Sanchez’s, but I’m absolutely unqualified to discuss my approach. We all played together at Konceptions at Korzo on Tuesday and we’ll be playing a lot of the same music that we did then. Although nearly everything that we’ll play in tonight’s performance will be improvised, I’m still going to try to see if I notice how the printed page influences it.

Cage = 100: As Influential as Wagner, as Interpretable as Mozart

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

[Ed. Note: This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer John Cage (Los Angeles, CA, September 5, 1912 – New York, NY, August 12, 1992).

To celebrate John Cage and his enormous impact on music and culture in the United States as well as abroad, we are featuring Cage related content all week. Visit NewMusicBox each day to read, watch, and/or listen to a different aspect of his legacy which, although Cage himself is no longer with us, is still central to new music. – FJO]

Since as far back as I can remember, John Cage’s music has been placed on the outside, and always, the issues of performance practice were tied to “special considerations”. I’ve never felt comfortable about that. Let’s try a different approach.

Cage is one of the composers whose works have had a defining influence on music history. I would compare him to Jean-Philippe Rameau and Richard Wagner, two composers who had a similar impact on the way people thought about music. It was not just their music that was significant; their writings were equally important. The combination of the music and the writings of Rameau, Wagner, and Cage shaped the music of their respective time periods. When Rameau published his Treatise on Harmony in the early 18th century, it influenced several generations of composers. The writings of Wagner not only redefined opera, they also helped establish the concept of a modern orchestra and the role of the conductor. Cage’s writing made a definitive break with the musical thinking of the past, specifically with the aesthetics of late Romanticism. (Cage’s rejection of the persistent residue of the 19th century might be the source of the often virulent hostility towards him.)

The Wagner-Cage comparison is quite fascinating. Both Wagner (b. 1813) and Cage (b. 1912) created their milestone compositions at the midpoint of the centuries in which they lived—Tristan and Isolde in 1856, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra in 1957—and both works still remained controversial half a century after their creation. Tristan was performed for the first time without cuts by Gustav Mahler in the early 20th century. Wagner didn’t live to see it. Performances of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with a musically engaged and knowledgeable orchestra started only in the mid-1980s. The one truly great performance at Lincoln Center by David Tudor and Joseph Kubera was in 1993, and the first complete Atlas Eclipticalis was performed at Carnegie Hall in late 1992—performances that the composer didn’t live to attend.

Tudor & SEM at Carnegie Hall

The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble performing Atlas Eclipticalis, at Carnegie Hall / Stern Auditorium in October 1992; David Tudor, piano; Petr Kotik, conducting. Photo by Wolfgang Träger, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

The idea of comparing Cage to Rameau and Wagner, should lead us to think about Cage the same way as we look at any other composer from the past or present. What should the path then be for a would-be interpreter of Cage’s music? Should he or she follow a tradition, or use an entirely new experience? What can I say?

Music is specific, not universal, and the ability to “understand” or “interpret” a score requires education—learning, and often breaking old habits. To do justice to the music of Cage, one needs to know as much about him as one knows, say, about Mozart. To be educated on how to play the music of Brahms and other 19th century composers does not make one automatically capable of playing Cage, since Cage’s music often requires a different way of reading the score and following the instructions. The most important information about how to perform music, be it by Cage or any other composer, does not come from the score; it comes from a thorough understanding of the style the music has been written in! Style is impossible to write into the score, yet, the knowledge of a style is the most important aspect for successful performance (taking the technical ability for granted, of course). Namely, every style is traced back to the composer, either through the composer’s own performances or through the performances of close collaborators and interpreters. The way we perform Chopin goes directly back to Chopin’s performances and was established by observing, listening, performing, and passing this knowledge from one generation to the next. When this chain is interrupted, as happened with early music, it is almost impossible to figure out how to perform it again, although the scores are available as they left the composer’s writing desk. Chopin’s scores do not look different from Bach’s of Mozart’s, but they surely are played differently. Ninety-nine percent of those differences are not written anywhere. How then should a would-be interpreter learn to perform Cage? He or she should associate with someone who worked with Cage and/or who has worked with musicians associated with Cage, listen to recordings, and read his writings. Playing the notes and reading the instructions is not enough. (Some of the instructions even need an interpretation.) A direct experience, performing the music in a knowledgeable environment—this is the only way to play it properly.

Do we need to “honor Cage’s legacy”? I don’t think so. The legacy of Cage exists on its own, regardless of us honoring it or not. One simply performs the music as best as one can. The legacy of anyone’s work happens through performances (exhibits, publications, etc.). Presenting the work in the best possible way creates its legacy, not arranged “celebrations.”

Cage & Kotik

John Cage and Petr Kotik, August 1992. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

I first encountered Cage’s ideas in 1960, when I read the Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik 1959 which contained some texts by him. Encounters with his music followed, and when we met in 1964 and performed together (first in Vienna and then a few months later in Prague, also traveling to Warsaw), I was ready to perform his music with a degree of understanding that helped forge a close musical relationship. These early experiences were very important for me and influenced the way I have been looking at his music to this day. I became convinced already then that, generally, Cage’s music is not all that different from Mozart’s. Both composers’ scores offer elements of freedom as well as elements that are precisely determined. The difference between a score by Cage and Mozart is in the nature of these elements. While the concept is similar—we are making sounds within a set of time-constrains—the details diametrically differ. This was my conclusion after performing Atlas Eclipticalis with Cage and Tudor in 1964. In fact, I believe that Atlas is a masterpiece that perfectly balances the relationship between what is given and what is open to interpretation. I have been performing this piece ever since.

When Cage started to use a stopwatch instead of counting beats, he referred to the rhythm of getting from one place to another. (Isn’t this what happens during a performance?) In the past, you traveled by horse—clap, clap, clap, clap; today, you take an airplane. It is not so simple, of course, but I like this remark very much. Since the early 20th century, we can universally observe in the music of this epoch the need to weaken—or remove entirely—the sense of the beat, especially the sense of the downbeat. You can find such ideas already in the music of Richard Strauss. In their compositions from the ’50s, Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman completely abandoned any sense, or even any indication of the beat. Feldman later returned to using bar lines, but his complex and changing time signatures completely confuse any sense of ongoing periodicities. Atlas Eclipticalis uses proportional time-organization that depends on the conductor’s signs. In this sense, it is no different from a piece by Mozart, except for the mechanics of the execution. As in a Mozart score, you will find pitches exactly notated, to be exactly performed. The difference is that Cage is giving the choice of the pitch sequence (or sounds in percussion parts), but the notes are written as exactly as Mozart’s. In Atlas Eclipticalis, the notes have to be played without the slightest deviation regarding phrasing, crescendos, etc. Mozart, on the other hand, gives you many choices to interpret the notes, create phrases and make small deviations here and there (within the confines of the style, of course).

The last issue I would like to briefly mention is the business of chance operations in music. If you go to a grocery store and pick up the box of cereal you happen to be standing nearest to, it’s up to chance what you end up buying. This is one kind of chance operation. When Cage (and other composers) decide to use chance in the compositional process (and perhaps in the performance as well), this is an entirely different kind of chance. Here, it is not about chance per se! These chance operations serve only as means to arrive at an unpredictable situation. One step does not predict the next step, and still the result fulfills the vision of the composer (or musician). And in order for these musical processes to remain unpredictable, the results (the actual music composed and performed) have to be executed with precision. The musician must be focused and execute the score with exactness. (You must not “let go” the way you would when performing Chopin—if you learned the style.) Playing Cage requires focus on the music and a state of utter devotion to the performance, the same as with any other composer. The horrors we so often encounter with performances of Cage’s music occur when the musicians believe that, because of chance operations, it makes no difference what they do. It can be this or that—like picking up a box of cereal.

Let us leave the conventional, entrenched conservatism behind. This attitude presupposes that the knowledge of performing Brahms (or beyond Brahms–composers coming out of the tradition of Brahms) is a norm that can universally be applied to every other music. This attitude lacks intelligence, musicality, and liveliness and often turns music into a dead corpse. Lately, I feel optimistic as I see rapid changes around, not just among musicians, but audiences as well. What a difference rehearsing Atlas Eclipticalis now compared to 1992! The John Cage centennial couldn’t have come at a better moment.


Petr Kotik

Petr Kotik, photo courtesy of the Ostrava Center for New Music

Composer, conductor and flutist Petr Kotík divides his time between his native Prague, Ostrava, and New York City. In New York, he continues to serve as the artistic director of the S.E.M. Ensemble which he founded in 1970. In 1992, he expanded the S.E.M. Ensemble to the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble; their debut concert at Carnegie Hall was a tribute to John Cage featuring David Tudor. In 2001, Kotík founded the Ostrava Days Institute and Festival, of which he is also the Artistic Director.