Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sylvano Bussotti and Aleatory

One of, by far, the most interesting artistic developments in the post World War II generation was that of aleatoric music. This procedure of composition crossed the Atlantic with the likes of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earl Brown, who--like so many composers of the time--were drawn to the Darmstadt Summer Music Courses. Each of these composers contributed something new to the mix.

John Cage had started the idea and had explored many different ways of taking elements of musical composition out of the hands of the composer and putting them into the hands of the performer(s). His approach typically involved employing the I-Ching as a compositional "magic 8-ball." His most expansive use of this approach was in his "Music of Changes" (which is a direct reference to the I-Ching, which is called "the book of changes"). When Cage had first developed this method of composition he had called it "chance procedure." The process was later taken and adapted by Pierre Boulez and called "aleatoric."

Morton Feldman contributed "graphic notation," a system so called because Feldman's initial compositions in this style we're made on graph paper. Feldman's most expansive use of graphic notation is in his collection of pieces called "Intersection." There are a series of works, each for different instruments (two of which are for piano). In these pieces Feldman write numbers in any of a set of three rows of boxes; the upper most row indicates the high resister, the middle row indicates the middle register and the low, of course, the low register. The numbers in the boxed indicates the number of notes to be played in the indicated register.

Earl Brown, possibly the most important for this discussion, contributed the elimination of anything resembling usual notation. His first work in an aleatoric style is "Folio and Four Systems" and uses a completely different approach to notation. It's hard to say what it is exactly, but somehow the markings on the pages of this score are the vehicle for some sort of musical event. Brown has various compositions which combine somewhat "normal" notation with a wide variety of graphic notation (sometimes scribbles, some times shapes, so on). In many of Brown's works, the intent is that the shape or gesture of the notation prompt the performer(s) to mimic the shape or gesture.

In Europe, the notion of "chance music" was at the complete opposite end of the creative spectrum. Europe, and particularly the composers of the Darmstadt School, had become obsessed with absolute control over the musical substance. This search for control was a logical out-growth of Schoenberg's 12-tone method. The control exerted over the musical tones of a composition was soon expanded to the rhythm, durations, timbres, registers and dynamics of the musical fabric. This was "total serialism," or, as it is sometimes called, "multi-serialism." Total serialism inevitably led to the development of electronic music--but we will discuss that in another post.

Composers who were seeking something new, something other than total serialism, were drawn to John Cage's chance procedures. Sylvano Bussotti was one such composer (though it should be noted that chance procedures were used by total serialists, Boulez and Stockhausen among them).

Bussotti is a veritable Renaissance man. He is talented as a painter, poet, novelist, photographer, director and composer. Many of his works are as visual (both in a theatrical approach to performance and the appearance of the written page) as they are sonic [see the picture above].

The picture you see is the first piece in a work by Bussotti, "Fogli d'Album (1984)." It is a work for solo piano. It is a set of 13 pieces, each piece is one page and has musical notation in various places of photographs. Some of the notation is fairly traditional (as in the photo above) and some if graphic. The composers own performance of this work lasts just over 50 mins. The picture above is extracted from another work by Bussotti, his "RARA Requiem." Extracting parts of a larger work for presentation as a solo work is quite common for Bussotti, and not too uncommon for other composers of the time.

Of this work (i.e. Fogli d'Album), the composer has said: "The ideal performance[. . .] would be where sound managed to incorporate the actual taking of and impression left by the photograph. This would be rewarding for those who simply wish to look at these works and those who wonder what they actually sound like."

I had listened to the recording of this work before I received the score for it (the score is actually not published for sale--that's an interesting story in itself) and when I had sat down with the score and the recording I was puzzled. (I was astounded by the score when I first opened it--I had never seen music like this before!)

What was puzzling to me was how much the composer departed from what was written on the page. Now it seems that I should have expected as much! I emailed the composer about this work and about his performance of the work and asked him to clarify some things for me. Bussotti, however, does not speak a word of English. He forwarded my email to a friend of his in California, Luciano, and we discussed the work.

Bussotti, I was told, is not concerned with whether or not the perform plays the musical notation. His interest, instead, is on the performer spontaneously composing his impression of the page--the photo, the music, the interaction of the two.

What this work represents is a reversal of the usual imagination/musical conception. In other words: We are used to the notion of hearing a piece of music and, in our minds, creating an imagine, a scene, a story. This is almost second nature when hearing a piece of music--we almost can hear music WITHOUT seeing a picture. How odd is it then to be given the picture and also the music which accompanies it!

It is this factor, the picture preceding the music, which makes this set of pieces intimate as a piece of art. Bussotti put it nicely: "[T]he way the score is written out is a direct expression of the way the composer thinks."

I would add, that given the nature of the role of the performer--that of spontaneous improvisateur--the way these pictures are rendered is a direct expression of the thoughts of him as well.

Bussotti suggests that a performance of "Fogli d'Album" be an audio/visual performance, with the score projected on screen for the audience to see. As I record and upload these pieces to my youtube channel, each recording will be accompanied with the picture of the score and (where available) the original photograph.

Here are some of the more interesting works by Bussotti available for viewing on youtube:

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Feldman In My Life*

In an effort to keep my youtube channel regularly updated, I've decided to start a project I've been planning for some time. When I bought my laptop, I also bought recording equipment for it. When I finally bought my piano, I began making plans to produce my own recordings.

Recording the piano works of Morton Feldman has long been a part of my plans.

Feldman's compositional output for the piano falls into two basic groups; ubiquitously, the early works and the late works. The early works (those published, at least) span the decades from 1950 to 1964. The works, while not serial, owe much to Feldman's style; soft, short, terse. They range in length from a few lines to several pages and the temporal lengths are highly variable (Feldman provided metronome markings as ranges rather than explicit BPM's). The late works begin in the late 70s, with the publication of "Piano." This work begins to move towards many of things found in Feldman's late style; repetition and length. "Piano" does not exhibit the obsessive repetitions to be found in "Triadic Memories," published four years later.

"Piano" very clearly bridges the gap. Some of the early works begin to look forward to Feldman's obsession with repetition (the end of "Intermission 5" is a good example). "Piano" builds on this and adds modestly to the duration (by comparison, "Intermission 5" is roughly 5-6 minuets and "Piano" is roughly 20-30, depending on the tempo).

Length was increased exponentially in Feldman's next two works for the piano. "Triadic Memories" is a 90 minuet epic and "For Bunita Marcus" follows closely behind at 80 minuets (again, depending on tempo). These two works are highly repetitive, often with subtle permutations of rhythm to ensure that the listener have something to listen to. The length of these two works, and their repetitive nature, might seem off-putting to most listeners. Once the listener settles into the aesthetic Feldman is employing, the works become rich and dramatic in their own way.

A handy literary comparison would be that of "On Love and Barley" by Basho. While the Haiku's are not repetitive and the length of the individual poems might not be comparable, if one reads the entire collection of poems, the rhythmic composition of the Haiku becomes entrancing.

"Palais de Mari" closes the late works with palindromic satisfaction. "Palais de Mari" is a return to the sensibilities of "Piano" both in length and the use of repetition.

I will begin my project with the early works, though not in chronological order. There are also a handful of pieces for piano that are earlier than the published works or which have not be published. I've contacted the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basil. They are the owners of the manuscripts of these works. I hope to be able to obtain copies and also record them.

The project will be two-sided. I will record video performances which will be posted on my youtube channel. I will also record audio performances which I will produced and edited. The audio recordings will eventually be put on CD and made commercially available. I also hope to record the late works--eventually. I want to set my goals where I know I can reach them for the time being!

This will all begin as soon as I have my piano tuned!

*This is a reference to the title of one of Feldman's ensemble works.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4'33": A Closer Listen

Those who don’t know exactly who John Milton Cage, Jr. is, usually know about a piece of music that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence.” I say “silence” because John Cage did not believe that silence exists, as such, and as the readers of my previous post will know, pointed to the lack of silence even when one is placed in an anechoic chamber. In any case, 4’33” is an almost ubiquitous piece of music, and can be found in all manner of “arrangements” for various instrument groups (it should be noted, though, that John Cage had himself composed “sequels” to the work involving different durations of time and different ensembles, though, clearly, none as successful—or perhaps, groundbreaking is the word).

When I was an undergraduate the work was a lark and students often joked about using it to fill recital time requirements, or performing it as an encore, or composing a theme and variations on it, or some other absurd pastiche. . .

The work, I admit, was absurd to me at the time and I took part in the caricatures of its substance.

It was absurd until I read the lectures and essays of John Cage; henceforth, the work has borne a peculiar sapience.

The most common interpretation of 4’33” (and that which implied in the clip above) is that what constitutes the piece is the ambient noise of the hall; the coughs in the audience, the hum of the ventilation system, passing traffic, so forth. This is true, but only in the most shoal consideration. This is, and is the only candidate, for the substance of the piece—non-musical noises. Considered in this light the piece can be little more than quaint. Separate from its philosophical genesis, it is not profound in the least—which is precisely while the piece is so
ripe for satire.

Cage was taking the next step in a journey which had been initiated by Arnold Schoenberg. In his book “Silence,” Cage says that Schoenberg had sought to make available all vertical combinations of notes (where previously, rules of tonal harmony reigned) and that he (Cage) believed that in the future composers would have at their disposal all musical tones and all “noises.”

(As a side note, I think that the gradual expansion of “battery” percussion through the 19th century helped prepare the way for Cage’s hope.)

When Cage really wanted to compose using “noise” he was very specific in going about it. As was seen in the clip in the previous post, Cage meticulously wrote out the instructions for reproducing his event pieces. So, why is 4’33” different?

In his film “The Alchemist,” Bruno Monsaingeon has a conversation with Glenn Gould about the reception of 20th century music in modern audiences (in the 1970s) and Gould makes an interesting point about Cage’s music:

“I think what John Cage would want us to know is not his music, it is his belief; that there is one perceiver which also has a reflexive angle and that is the doer as well, and the listener and the maker are intermingled.”

So what does that mean?

There is an almost religious hierarchy in classical music. There is the composer that is analogous to god, a performer that is analogous to a high priest, and an audience (that needs to analogy). This dynamic can be pernicious—it removes the composer from the audience and their only interaction is through the medium (almost in both senses of the word) of the performer.

Music only exists as an action, not as an object, and so its essence is dependent upon its reception—if a tree falls and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? So what Cage accomplishes in 4’33” is the unification of both sides of the musical experience—that of composer and audience—and brings them together, eliminating the need of a performer.

But he does more than this.

The content of the piece of music is entirely wrapped up in the perception of it—not only does the work not exist as an object, but the audience is composing the work as they perceive it! Thus, as Glenn Gould noted: listener and maker and intermingled (and quite nearly unified).

Cage, then, is making two statements. One artistic and one philosophical.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Discussing the Definitions of Music

If this is to be a blog about the various aspects of music, it might be beneficial to discuss just what music is. Defining music, it should be understood (and perhaps, even, go without saying), is wrought with not only philosophical difficulties (those of defining its aesthetics and hermeneutics) but also practical problems (those of actual practices)—this is, of course, bypassing the question of taste (or, opinion) entirely. Thus, be forewarned, what ensues can only be considered intellectual meanderings on a few of the more interesting definitions of music.

There are three definitions of music which will be considered. The first is the work of my musicology professor, the late Irving Godt; the second a general definition of whose attribution I am unaware; the last is a definition by Carl Rakhonen, an ethnomusicologist.

When I was an undergraduate music history major, all of the students of Music History I were required to know this definition. Irving Godt, it might be worth noting, was part of the “old school” of musicologists, who—while not confined to “traditional music” entirely—tend to be conservative in their estimation of contemporary art. His definition and discussion can be found here.

The second: Music is the organization of sound and silence.

Carl Rakhonen is the Music Librarian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is one of the most interesting ethnomusicologists and music librarians I have had the pleasure to meet; though, granted he is the only one I have met—I imagine that his personality traits are prerequisites to his job description. His definition of music is simple and to the point:

Music is an accoustical phenomenon that is whatever a particular people say that it is.

To discuss:

Both the second and third fit readily into contemporary thought, while the first can seem highly exclusive. While the second and third best reflect contemporary thought, it is the first that is most readily accepted by the majority of both learned musicians and the lay public. That this first, seemingly exclusive, definition of music is the most widely accepted can be seen in the resistance of the majority of audience members to musical aesthetics which lie outside of the first definition.

How many times have you been to a concert and heard something like this?

The first definition is problematic due to the amount of grey area created by an evolving aesthetic—it excludes to a degree not clearly defined; thus, since we cannot define, in an objective way, the parameters set out by this definition, we cannot successfully decide that which is and that which is not "music" (at least not in any universally agreeable way). Discussion of music in the terms laid out by this definition would be preoccupied with the degree to which a particular piece of music adheres to the aesthetic principles therein. In short, it would lead to “hair splitting” and would offer little objectivity, though it appears at first glance to be highly elucidated.

The second definition is less problematic except, perhaps, on a purely philosophical level. To explain: If sound is the opposite of silence and it can be demonstrated that the opposite of sound (i.e. silence) does not exist, what is there to differentiate between music and any other noise?

Followed to its logical conclusion, this approach to musical thought resulted in Cage's "event" pieces (the execution of instructs to produce noise in a controlled way, as in the clip above) and his application of chance procedure, wherein he applied parameters to systematically remove the composer from the equation of musical creation (as counter intuitive as that might sound; chance procedure will have to be discussed in another post).

Cage gives example that even in an anechoic chamber, where no artificial sound is produced, the subject within those conditions would still hear (1) the sound of their own nervous system functioning and (2) the sound of their own circulatory system. Thus the question is raised, if sound is always a part of existence can it then be regarded as an artistic medium or simply as a condition of life?

The composer is simply superimposing sounds which are selected and executed in duration, timbre and morphology against sounds of similar characteristics which are not selected. Where, then, does the actual music lie? Since sound always fills a controlled musical objective (i.e. a piece of music), does that which is not controlled bear any less "musical" ends?

So, is it music? This question need not be asked on the grounds of personal hermeneutics. In this context, though, it becomes a potentially devastating question. If this question is asked of music of the 20th and 21st century, then it can equally be asked of the music of the 18th and 19th century. The only differences that might be notable are the intent of the composers and the process of selecting sounds. But this, too, becomes subjective and illusive. As the only differences between composers of the past and composers of the 20th and 21st centuries are the precess and the materials (this, too, will be saved for a later discussion).

Perhaps the only definition that is not philosophically dangerous and allows for all of the grey areas of an evolving aesthetic is that of Carl Rakhonen. John cage would have agreed with Carl Rakhonen, Irving Godt did not (they often debated their definitions of music). The trick is getting more people to understand music in terms of the Rakhonen definition.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The New Blog

Since I've finished my master's degree, relocated to a new city and am planning to record and publish I thought I would start a blog to keep people up to date--if, of course, people are interested in being kept up to date!

I'll also write entries geared towards the nuts and bolts of piano, music, practicing and so forth. Essentially an informal forum to publish articles on the various aspects of music that interest me at a given time--as the muse moves me, if you will.

So, this blog will be maintained in conjunction with my website ( and my twitter account (

Hope you all enjoy! Feedback, comments and questions are always welcomed.