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.