About Found Properties

The “Found Properties” category of the EMC Blog refers to a collection of posts that I have written, including reviews, interviews, other writings, and musings. Some posts are merely links to sites that I have found important; others are full articles in what has been called “Public Musicology,” although I am not that happy with much that has been published under that banner.

It is called “found”, in the sense of Duchamp’s found art, objets trouvés, or “readymades” (this last, a term also used by the Promenade Theatre Orchestra for existing music worked through a systems or other process). “Properties” refers to the use of the term in science, in terms of being a property that is measurable.

“Found Properties” is also the equivalent of a lost and found office. The posts, consisting of whole information and snippets, only shares the fact that they have to do with experimental music and the fact that it is wholly my opinion, not the Experimental Music Catalogue’s. Like a found properties office, some properties might be of great value to a reader, like the recovery of heirloom jewellery; other readers may just find broken umbrellas.

Virginia Anderson
November 7, 2016

Practice Diary for EMC2, pt. 1

Just as I posted a practice diary for Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning in two parts when we performed it in London in 2015, I thought I’d write down some musings about a set I am playing for the “Continuing Experiments” concert in the EMC²: Remembering the Experimental Music Catalogue weekend at De Montfort University, on 25 March (the whole festival runs from 24–26 March). My set includes pieces by Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons, and just as my diary for The Great Learning showed that indeterminate music using text notation took care and preparation, I hope to show that the so-called “New Simplicity” is not so very simple. In fact, this music demands what I have called elsewhere “virtuoso in miniature.”

I have been working some weeks on these pieces, which include Call (1983), Melody for a First Christmas (1979), and A Card for Lucy (1984)—all by Howard Skempton— and Two Landscapes (1982; 1988) and Kucinata (1988) by Michael Parsons. All of the Skempton pieces are for solo instrument; Two Landscapes was written in its 1988 version for two clarinets (but is being played as a duo for soprano saxophone and B-flat clarinet), and Kucinata is for clarinet and drum. This Monday I rehearsed Two Landscapes with the saxophonist Bruce Coates and last night Chris Hobbs and I obtained a bata drum for Kucinata (kindly lent by Lee Allatson, who runs the Dye House Drum Works in Leicester). Thus this first diary entry finds us well along the way toward performance.

The issues that arise in playing this music are specific to each piece, and in this entry I shall deal with a description of the first piece and its challenges. Call consists of a number of phrased events ending with fermatas and separated by one-beat rests with fermatas. Many of the events are repeated—eight different events, followed by a repeat of the first seven, with an extended version of the eighth, and concluding with even events of related, though mainly different, material. The dynamic is piano throughout with a musical instruction of “gently flowing”. The events are all primarily disjunct, mainly arpeggiated. There is no tempo marking.

I asked Howard Skempton about the tempo on all three of these pieces. I had thought that, though it was an excellent performance, John Corbett’s tempo on Call (on the album Surface Tension, Mode Records Mode 61, 1998) was slower than I would like. The composer’s answer was simultaneously helpful (in that it was clear) and unhelpful (in that it did not provide a solution): “There is no fixed tempo. If I’m ever asked about tempo, I always say that the right tempo is the tempo that allows for the possibility of rubato. Which doesn’t mean that I’m encouraging the use of rubato. I’m just welcoming it where it seems natural. And it will seem natural if the tempo is right.” Thus I had to find the tempo and durations of the pauses for myself.

The solution essentially is to study, play and think. The title, Call, originally suggested to me a kind of trumpet or bugle call, or perhaps something like the “Scène aux champs” of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, in which shepherds, represented by a cor anglais and offstage oboe trade melodic calls (ranz des vaches) in the evening at some distance. Skempton’s Call certainly has the flavour of the crepuscular: of taps, perhaps. But then I was listening one early morning to birdsong, just after the dawn chorus had died away. In particular, the blackbirds shaped their calls of motives separated by short pauses. Each repetition was exactly, or almost exactly the same; the motives varied before a repetition would begin. This turned the idea of the crepuscular call into a new area for me: instead of the military or lonely shepherds, the call was birdsong; the twilight was dawn, not dusk; and the musical sound world, although remaining clearly in Skempton-land, tilted away from Berlioz and closer to the territory of Olivier Messiaen.

This dramatic “note” on which to approach the piece gives me a way into the restraint that Skempton’s music always needs, and the tenderness that commonly exists in the pieces. Like the blackbird, I could state the repeated motives almost exactly the same way each time (though I am already stepping away from a literal repetition as I understand the piece’s semantics), while I can work the emotional content into the new material, which, beginning a little past the two-thirds mark of the piece, acts as a kind of conclusion to the piece’s “argument”. The first event that really concerned me was the third one, a set of quaver and semiquaver triplets. These cannot be played in any other way than as swung, jazzy quavers. Philip Clarke, in Gramophone, focuses on this event:

Carefully placed around Call’s largely open-ended, downriver rhythmic currents is a motif knitted together from “swung” quavers, which right away evokes Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and reminds you how often English composers of a certain generation and aesthetic persuasion, writing their generic fast-slow-fast wind concertos and sonatas, try to sex up their pallid rhythmic oom-pahs with a jazzy shot in the arm.

Skempton – clever him – manages to have it both ways, though. That momentary sense of swing is like a wry slap on the wrist, delivered entirely without rancour or hectoring, towards such transatlantic tendencies. But he also wants listeners to derive pleasure from those peaks of rhythmic exhilaration, and so gives them prominence in the structure like a punctuating semi-quote, a knowing reference to material from outside his orbit. You hear, you enjoy, and then think about how more cavalier composers freeload off the gestural surface of jazz. [http://www.moderecords.com/catalog/061skempton.html]

As much as Clarke likes Skempton, I cannot see how his description tallies with my experience of Call. The swung-quaver event could sound like parody jazz and that approach would knock the piece right out of its soundworld. Yet to try to work against the jazz reference is pointless. Here the even-handed performance of the blackbird provides a guide. When I first moved to my present house, we had a blackbird resident in our garden that Chris Hobbs and I called the “St Louis Blues Bird”. Like all blackbirds, this blackbird had a wide repertoire of short songs, one of which sounded exactly like the opening four notes of “St. Louis Blues” in exactly the right rhythm and nearly the right pitches, although the last note of was more of a croak than a pitch. This bird sang his blues call in the exactly way—within the same dynamic range and the same shape—that he sang his other calls, only with proper swung rhythm.

I am therefore working to play these calls within a consistent character throughout. Not that they will be identical, as there is a progression of argument, a passage of time and thought that moves through the piece as a whole. But the swung quavers, still carrying its “jazz” signifiers in the shape of its notes and durations, are to be played using the same calm, considered rhetoric of the other, non-jazzy, events. And this is what I mean by “virtuosity in miniature”: with Skempton, you are out on the tightrope. Having so few notes, there is no way to fudge or elide or hide errors. If I rise to an altissimo note (which happens in many of the events) and squeak or hit a harmonic, if I don’t slip smoothly from one note to the next without a break, I might as well wear clown pants and drop them at that moment. A scary thought, indeed.

This diary will continue as I have time to write it.

Christian Wolff in Interview

In 2015, Virginia Anderson gave an invited paper for the conference Christian Wolff at Orpheus, 28 and 29 September, a conference celebrating the work of the New York School composer Christian Wolff, with Wolff in attendance. You can read reports of the event here: http://experimentalmusic.co.uk/wp/news-from-ghent/

Today, Virginia Anderson has uploaded that paper, as read, on her Academia.edu page, here: https://www.academia.edu/31737395/Christian_Wolff_in_Interview

In this paper Virginia discusses an interview the American composer Barney Childs took with Wolff in 1972, especially about his then-new piece, Burdocks (1971), and the Scratch Orchestra performance he saw in London at Cecil Sharp House that year.


Life at Wigmore Hall

One of the most gratifying features of being on the Experimental Music Catalogue staff, and of researching British and West Coast American free improvisatory, experimental, minimal, and postminimal music, is that it is often so fun, due to an aesthetic criteria that I have described elsewhere as “humour as a noble emotion.” Instead of thinking that all good music must be weighty, scientific, made for the ages, a lot of these composers and performers, well, like to have a good laugh and use their full talents and experience to write top-quality music that is funny.

And the newest release on EMC Bandcamp from CHA (an acronym standing for Bruce COATES, Chris HOBBS, and me, Virginia ANDERSON)—CHA: Live from Wigmore Hall—began as a bit of banter. A couple of years ago, Chris Hobbs and I were driving along small country roads around Shropshire and Herefordshire, when we spotted a village sign reading “Wigmore”. Chris said, “I wonder if they have a village hall. We could play there and bill it as ‘Live from Wigmore Hall’!” This was quite a giggle: for anyone concerned with music in Britain, London’s Wigmore Hall is perhaps the premiere venue for chamber music in Britain . Built at the turn of the last century, it features stunning acoustics and hosts a weekly concert broadcast live by the BBC. Recordings issued as “Wigmore Hall Live” include works by Mozart, Beethoven, Tippett, Schubert, Britten, Brahms. To think that CHA would perform at such a bastion of classical masterworks was ludicrous. So we kept the idea in mind….

What happened—the recording, the album art, the release—has much to do with the culture of free improvisation and its “personality” and the way that CHA arose and works as a trio.

Music is Painful: The personality of free improvisation

The culture of free improvisation (meaning non-notated, usually non-tonal spontaneous performance by one or more musicians) has always seemed to me to resemble a family reunion. People assemble and interact. They may know each other well and for a long time; it may be their first meeting. Each participant brings in his or her own personality and skills to the meeting. Some players may interact with each other at their first meeting as if they had known each other their whole lives. Other players need to work with each other, to sound each other out, before they find their mix. Some players are like the favourite uncle, full of witty banter and jolly games. Some players—the free spirits—may make musical contributions that are spiritual, philosophical, or arcane (the pioneering group AMM, whose name is an acronym that is secret, has always cultivated an aura of mystery). Some players resemble an unpleasant second cousin, loudly and continuously braying out their prejudices, so that no one else can make conversation (such as the player who brought his homemade fretless bass to improvisations to make ceaseless unmusical booms). Then there are the serious souls, depicting the angst of the world both physically through their contorted bodies, and sonically. For them, improvisation is a serious business, and music is painful.

However, deep personal expression of angst is only one emotional affect that can be delivered through musical improvisation. The late Lol Coxhill was a particularly versatile performer of all sorts of free improvisation, jazz, indie popular music, and musical theatre, much of it full of delight rather than pain, and some of it laugh-out-loud funny. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, billing their concerts as “Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future” presented a panoply of styles and moods that changed from concert to concert. As one of the most “experimental” of Afrocentric bands, their use of toys, and Lester Bowie’s “scientific” experiments are perhaps closest to the experimental music in Britain that we enjoy here at the EMC. Bowie wore a white lab coat on Art Ensemble performances—a clear symbol of his role as “experimenter”. And Bowie’s exploration and ennoblement of the mundane, even tacky, corners of popular music reminds me of that great founding experimentalist, Erik Satie. His absolutely delightful album Fast Last! (1974), one of his non-Art Ensemble projects, mixed the track “F Troop Rides Again”, a meditation on the theme of one of the silliest of 1960s American comedy series, with the Broadway standard “Hello Dolly” and “Lonely Woman”, a haunting piece by Ornette Coleman. This equality of the deeply silly, the old standard, and the complex classic is reminiscent of much British experimental music since the late 1960s, especially the music of John White (whose titles and pieces can be simultaneously deep and silly), and it may lie in the deep subconscious of CHA improvisation. That is, if CHA, a spontaneous ensemble, actually stopped to think of it.

CHA: The Road to Wigmore

What CHA did think about was how to set up the joke. I found that, yes, indeed, there was a village hall at Wigmore that could be hired. So we booked a couple hours at the hall for 6 January and, on a day of flooding and pouring rain, Chris, Bruce and I met at the Village Hall. We brought our instruments, sound objects, toys and other materials. We also brought a picnic hamper filled with meat and cheese sandwiches on rye and a large bottle of Belgian beer.

Wigmore Village Hall, Herefordshire

This Wigmore Hall is more versatile than London’s Wigmore Hall, as it hosts keep-fit classes, meetings, and other events of interest to the villagers.

Wigmore Hall, London, interior

The decor is also somewhat different to that of the London Wigmore Hall, which is noted for its interior design and acoustics.

Wigmore Hall, Herefordshire, interior

Wigmore Village Hall was decorated when we visited on 6 January with the last of the Christmas decorations. The hall’s acoustics are not bad, though unlike London, the Village Hall has no piano.

The Wigmore Hall recording

Both Chris and Bruce brought portable digital recording devices, recording in WAV format, so that there was a back-up. In the end, we used Bruce’s recording, because Bruce had better microphones. We set up the instruments, which included, for Chris, an Organetta (small reed organ), percussion, laptop with GarageBand loops, some toy noisemakers, and a radio. Bruce brought his saxophones (including a lurid plastic alto) and other sound sources, including dog toys, a metal thali, and comedy rubber animals. I brought three clarinets and stuck mainly to playing them, with only the occasional duck call.

The actual improvisation, which can be heard on the EMC Bandcamp page, is hard to describe in words. Basically, the nature of the instrumentation and the personalities of the trio gives the music a lighter, airier quality that a lot of free improv. There is more space, more short silences that many groups. And it is perhaps less aggressive than the so-called “sync or swarm” improvisation that is more commonly written about. There is a tendency toward a higher tessitura, as Bruce tends to favour his soprano and sopranino saxes, which I often match with my Eb sopranino clarinet. Chris tended to move around the room, to the dais, with its Christmas tree and his Organetta and radio; to the middle of the room, with the laptop and gong; and then carrying small percussion and his pennywhistle toward the entrance at the back of the hall. In the third set, “Consumption”, the combination of the little sax, little clarinet, and Chris’s pennywhistle set up a magnificent subharmonic drone that supported the high sounds, which, like so many subharmonics, was not picked up by the recording. Sometimes the sound world is jagged, but concords, even modality can show up. And of course, there are the toys: rubber chickens and sheep; a strange, squeaking dog toy in the form of a jack.

Just some of Bruce’s instruments.

We decided that as much of the actual sounds that the microphones did pick up of the Wigmore Village Hall performance should be included, which is why, at the end of the first set, “Interruption”, a man’s voice can be heard. This “person from Porlock” (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unwelcome visitor came to be known) wished to inform us that he and a couple other people would be using the smaller room of the hall to have a conversation. I pointed to the microphones, said, “We’re recording.” He apologized and exited. The second set, “Resumption”, and third set proceeded without further disruption, as our contented conversation at the end of “Consumption” shows. “Consumption” refers to the contents of the CHA picnic basket.

Producing the album

Bruce invented the titles after the recording and cover art had been made; indeed, after the liner notes were already in a completed draft. Titles for free improvisation tracks are perhaps the most arbitrary of all titles in music. There is no structure in free improvisation that would suggest a generic name like “sonata”; the mood or emotional “affect”, should there be one, often emerges only in real time. Many improvisers choose poetic, often obscure titles, such as “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset”, and “Ailantus Glandulosa” on AMM’s AMMmusic (1966). CHA has no such mystical identity: we have been primarily identified by pictures of toys (the small animal heads made by Bruce’s father, the artist Andrew Coates, which graced the promotional material for our 2013 concert at the Engine House, Manchester) or tea cups and mugs (a play on the British slang term for tea, “cha”).

CHA promo material from Manchester, 2013

This time, I wanted something that tied in with the Wigmore Hall association, so Bruce designed the cover using a copyright-free image of a piano trio of women from sometime in the 1920s. We saw, we giggled, we waited for someone to counsel for something more momentous to go with our great work for the ages, and when that objection never arose, we released CHA: Live from Wigmore Hall.


So ends this explanation of the first CHA album. It is always a mistake to explain a joke, but since this was an in-joke between our trio, I thought I would provide some background, not just to the recording, but where it sits as experimental practice among more traditionally-minded modern music. Music does not have to be painful, though of course it can be; music can be pretty—it can be fun.  I can’t wait for the next CHA adventure.

Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016)

Over a decade ago I used to set a practical assignment for students: to write an obituary of a person who was quite happily alive, as if they were writing for a newspaper to hold “just in case.” The composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros was the subject I set one year, and the most successful. No matter what musical tastes the students had, they were fascinated by Oliveros the person, of her ideas about music, and of the implications that her life had for feminism and lesbian rights, of her spouse, Ione, who has been her collaborator, representative, and rock for many years. I had never thought about Pauline Oliveros’ mortality, any more than I considered the mortality of any other subject in that assignment. Therefore, I was very stunned to read on Friday that Oliveros had died. It shouldn’t be unexpected that someone should die at 84, but given that she had been performing only days before, it was a shock. There are pictures of her this year, holding that enormous accordion and playing it with such ease, the only sign of advancing age being a walking stick that she carried with style.

For those who followed her, Pauline Oliveros was amazing. While most women have been shunted into performance rather than composition, or moved their compositional style to match the current thinking of academia, recreating rather than creating, Oliveros took the hardest route. She was a central figure in the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s. Even in the 1970s, electronic studios were male-dominated, hard for any but the most talented and most determined woman to push through. She used the medium of text notation for her Sonic Meditations, became a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and founded her Deep Listening projects. And she came out as lesbian at a time when it was career suicide; in fact, at a time when just being a woman, any woman, brought up brick walls, never mind glass ceilings.

At the moment, I’m editing some interviews with American composers in the early 1970s and am constantly confronted by the masculine pronoun used exclusively for composers (one, in particular, only mentioned one female: his wife, whom he referred to as “mein frau”). Even though I was a university student at that time, I’ve been shocked when looking back at the pictures of all-male composer parties, of the unknown student being “he” and “him”, when the “guys” in class were not a colloquialism like “folk”, but real boys and men. And when I briefly considered studying composition—and needed an experimental composer as a model, not a historical figure like Amy Beach, or concert composer like Ruth Crawford (or Mrs HHA Beach or Ruth Crawford Seeger as was)—Pauline Oliveros was pretty much the only one that anyone mentioned. (Knowledge of Alison Knowles, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Carla Bley, and the others came later…). And yet, and yet… When these composers were asked who else should be interviewed, most of them said “you should ask Pauline”. There was respect. And, according to most of her contemporaries, her students, and, in my limited contact with her, me, she was extraordinarily nice to people, and very, very kind.

There are a lot of great tributes to Oliveros out there, but I was really taken with an article based on Houston Library archives from 1999, which someone shared on Facebook, and which deals with the epistolary exchanges between Oliveros and her mother. It’s yet more evidence of Texas as the birthplace of creative, independent musicians: http://www.houstonpress.com/news/write-soon-and-tell-all-6566937 . And although there are many examples of Pauline’s more austere, meditative, Deep Listening music about, this piece, “A Love Song”, recorded in a drained reservoir in Germany, is more beautiful and poignant than any other piece by her that I’ve heard.

That’s not an end; it’s a start. Pauline Oliveros is, quite rightly, the subject of books: biographies, articles, analysis… I wish I had thought to write a proper, professional obituary when I set the assignment for the students. The literature on her, her music writings and recordings, and the politics of her life and work is rich—too rich to clarify just now.

Day music in Lincoln

Jamie Crofts, 5 Diurnes: The Brayford Pool (Lincoln) by Day

Exhibition, Friends’ Meeting House, Lincoln, Sunday, 16 October 2016 (review)

Brayford Pool, Lincoln, looking toward the island (photo credit: Jamie Crofts)

John Luther Adams, whose music has been associated with the landscape and environment of Alaska since the mid-1970s, has used the term “sonic geography” to describe “a region that lies somewhere between place and culture, between human imagination and the world around us. [in Winter Music: Composing the North (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1004, p. 24]”. Adams’ The Place Where You Go to Listen (2008) is an installation in Fairbanks, Alaska, in which the visitor is immersed in the lights and feeling of the Northern environment, which move according to the time of day. Adams has added sound based on harmonic overtones —one, the Day Choir, and the other, the Night Choir —moving from one set of harmonics and added pulses to another with changes in light and appearance of the moon.

I was thinking about manifestations of light, activity and movement whilst viewing one of the best recent examples of sonic geography: Jamie Crofts’ project, 5 Diurnes: The Brayford Pool (Lincoln) by Day, which he launched at St Mary le Wigford, in Lincoln of 6 October 2016. I attended the second presentation of the project, at the Friends’ Meeting House, Lincoln, last Sunday, 16 October. Where composers since Field have focused on the meditative nature of night in the genre of Nocturnes (which Crofts has also done previously), and Adams seems to have balanced between day and night as one follows the other, Crofts has invented his own genre, the “diurne” in 2006. Diurnes are to day as nocturnes are to night: meditations on daytime experience. Diurnes, as Crofts explains in his notes for the piano score, are set for piano and spoken voice.

The Friends’ meeting house is a Grade II-listed building in Lincoln, itself a part of Lincoln life and history. The exhibition occurred in a secondary, Victorian, meeting room to the main 16th C. hall, and was set up with a recording of the piano part and spoken texts. The uncluttered room allowed a clear focus on the Diurnes and, perhaps, the internal pictures that the musical and verbal narrative called to the mind of the listener.

These five Diurnes focus on the Brayford Pool. This lake was used as a port by the Romans, who cut the Fosse Dyke from the River Trent at Torksey to Lincoln at the Brayford Pool, and to the River Witham, and was maintained for shipping, with improvements made in the 12th and 17th centuries. The Pool was used as an inland port as the Industrial Revolution brought manufacturing to Lincoln via the navigation canal, but as industry declined in the 20th century, the waterfront gradually moved to recreation, with one side occupied by the university, and the manufacturing giving way to number of restaurants and other entertainment businesses. The Pool is known for its resident population of swans and for an island, crowned by a weeping willow tree, which has both an obscure origin and attendant myths surrounding it.

The texts for the first, fourth and fifth Diurnes were based on a survey conducted in 2013, in which people in Lincoln were asked to complete the statement, “What I like most about the Brayford Pool is…”. Diurnes 2 and 3 were based on an article in the Lincolnshire Echo newspaper in 2010 about the Brayford Pool and its mysteries (“Is a long-forgotten secret buried beneath the island in the Brayford Pool?“, Lincolnshire Echo, 21 July 2010). Diurne 2 is distinctive in that the words (a kind of fantasy in which the protagonist wades to the island) are by Thomas Darby, while the text for the other Diurnes are written by Jim Simm (Crofts’ pseudonym). Diurne 3 poses questions arising from the newspaper article.

Programme poster for 5 Diurnes

As Crofts told us in his rather illuminating talk after the last iteration of the 5 Diurnes, his musical scheme is based harmonically on “octonic” scales, a subset of the octatonic scales favoured by Messiaen and other composers, including John White. Like White, Crofts is interested in the music of Erik Satie, and opened his talk by showing us facsimiles of Satie’s working notes, in which he would line out bars before filling them (so that each bar was equal), set a rhythm-only system for the vocal melody (Christopher Hobbs wondered whether this was a reason that Satie’s vocal music contains so few melismas), and then filled the systems below within the grid just made. He also showed the score to Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus (1985). Feldman structured his score in a kind of grid of even bars (like Satie), but then filled those bars with events in different meters and lengths (for more on the construction of this piece, see Sebastian Claren’s notes to Lenio Liatso’s recording on God Records, on Chris Villiar’s always-useful cnvill.net Feldman archive).

Crofts laid out his Diurnes in a similar manner. Rhythmic and harmonic decisions for the piano part of the 5 Diurnes were made using gaming dice. This resulted in certain core rhythms and a texture consisting of dyads to six-note chords. While Diurnes 1, 3, and 5 remain solidly in a single meter, Diurnes 2 and 4 change meter (all using the lower number 16). Diurne 1 uses, or example short phrases of this material alternated with the spoken text. Diurnes 2 and 3 bring in some processing for the voices.

The installation of recorded music and voice was broadcast from one source at the Friends House, so it was directional and demanded focus on that part of the room, but it was not a traditional concert. There was, to the side, an exhibit of the materials associated with the project: programmes, scores, and a guest book, as people were encouraged to come and go as they pleased. The score and text books are exquisitely laid out and printed. The piano part is a complete work, set in common-practice notation for performance. But the text book contains not only the text for each Diurne, but also appendices containing information, instructions, and encouragement for making unique performance versions of Diurnes 1, 4, and 5. The five Diurnes thus lie as much within the spirit of experimental indeterminacy as their fixed content lies with chance and with postminimalism. The Brayford Pool (Lincoln) by Day is an excellent, and very English, work of sonic geography. Its future performances should add richness to the piece and its perception.


Note: A free ebook version of the text book is available here, with more promised on his SOUNDkiosk page. And the Bandcamp page is here.

EMC squared!

On Thursday, 8 September, we attended the first rehearsal of the East Midlands branch of CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) in preparation for what is going to be an exciting event, called “EMC²”, a special celebration of the Experimental Music Catalogue and its history. This event will happen March 2017 at De Montfort University, Leicester. Details will be announced soon, but the idea is so wonderful, I thought I’d give you a sneak peak.

CoMA is a nationwide organisation devoted to promoting contemporary music performance by musicians of all abilities. The East Midlands branch is conducted by the energetic and effervescent conductor Kieran O’Riordan. Here is a quick and short taster video of the group’s first rehearsal of Christopher Hobbs’ Friesian Cow (1969), a Word Piece that appears in the EMC Verbal Anthology. Like a lot of Hobbs’ pieces at the time, the Friesian Cow uses a found text (a guide to ideal Friesian cattle — as one member of CoMA called it, “Crufts for Cows”) to generate musical events. This first play is wonderful, and we’re looking forward to future rehearsals. There will be still pictures of this rehearsal on our Facebook page. And of course we’ll let you know here as things develop.

UPDATE: EMC² will be 24th- 26th March 2017 at De Montfort University. Set your diaries now!

Meandering along a stream of Tenney thought

Besides revamping the EMC website, I have been researching a few projects — one short and nearly complete, the other very long. And it was in the research for the latter that I found myself carried away on a stream of linked subjects in a very pleasant manner.

Today I needed to look up basic data on the composer James Tenney (1934–2006). Although I had spoken to Tenney several times, it was only to answer the telephone at the composer Barney Childs’ house, hear, “Is Barney there? This is Jim Tenney”, and, being too shy to bother him, would hand the phone over to Barney immediately. I have a collection of Tenney’s Postal Pieces sent in his early years at CalArts (the early 1970s) to Childs. More about these pieces — classics in both mail art and music — can be found in a reproduction from Larry Polansky, “The Early Works of James Tenney”: VII Postal Pieces, in Peter Garland (ed.), Soundings Vol. 13: The Music of James Tenney (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Soundings Press, 1984). This reproduction of the first edition, in Soundings‘ typical typewritten style, was edited and expanded by Polansky for liner notes for a recording on New World Records, but the style of the original, and its reproduction of the pieces, is especially gratifying.

Tenney’s Wikipedia page, albeit a bit out-of-date, is full, with a link to an appreciation page on Kyle Gann’s excellent Postclassic blog, posted just after Tenney’s untimely death. There is also a link to recordings on UbuWeb (though the rights issues on this site are a bit unclear, as usual), beginning with the marvellous and influential tape piece Blue Suede. But here the Wikipedia article led me to another facet of Tenney’s work. He was not just a major electronic pioneer, nor a major composer in post-1960s indeterminate text and graphic notation, who stepped across the Uptown and Downtown New York City scenes with ease. He was also a pianist of note and a scholar of experimental music history. Here is Tenney performing the first two of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes at the Schindler House in 2002, on the tenth anniversary of Cage’s death.

It is a ravishing setting, and a beautiful performance. It recalls James Pritchett’s Six Views of Sonatas and Interludes, which appears among the holdings of his site and blog, The Piano in My Life. Pritchett’s blog on Cage, Feldman, and others is well worth meandering down,* and it is definitely worth reading the “Six Views” article in connection with Tenney’s performance, meditating on the ways in which this particular performance exemplifies those views.

And now, having meandered from my original research, I must meander back to it.

* On a Facebook thread just today, the theorist Kevin Holm-Hudson cited Gann’s Postclassic and Pritchett’s The Piano in My Life as two of the best “public musicology” (meaning jargon-free and useful) websites.

Waiting for Anything

This is a special treat for the EMC Bandcamp page. Rick Cox, guitarist, saxophonist, and composer, who you may know from his work with Thomas Newman on many films, for his performances with John Hassell and others, and for his recordings on Cold Blue Music, has allowed us to present Waiting for Anything, a piece written by Cox, with text by Read Miller, in an archival recording of its premiere at the Memorial Chapel, University of Redlands, in 1981, with Cox, guitar; Miller, speaker; Marty Walker, clarinet; and David Hatt, pipe organ. You can find Waiting for Anything on our Bandcamp page, here: http://bandcamp.experimentalmusic.co.uk/music . You can listen to it a number of times, and it can be downloaded for a suggested £3 (or what you will).

Here are the liner notes:
waiting edit final

Waiting for Anything

Recorded live at the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel, 1981

Rick Cox, music, guitar; Read Miller, text, reader; Marty Walker, clarinet; David Hatt, pipe organ

Waiting for Anything was written by Rick Cox, with text by Read Miller. This, its premiere performance, was recorded live in the chapel of the University of Redlands, in memory of Francis Oliver, a former postgraduate composition student who had died that year. Waiting for Anything typifies the postminimalist style of Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly that of the artists who were based in and around the University of Redlands in the 1970s. This recording was made just before the launch of the first series of the Cold Blue label, founded by another alumnus of the University of Redlands, Jim Fox, which includes EPs by Cox and Miller.

The background to this particular performance stems from when these musicians met at Redlands, and the way that those friendships extended into the 1980s and, to an extent, today. Francis Oliver, the dedicatee, studied for a Master of Arts in music composition with Barney Childs from 1973–75, just overlapping with the arrival of Rick Cox in 1975. Oliver then moved to San Francisco. Cox had studied music with Childs at the Wisconsin College Conservatory, Milwaukee, from 1969, and had come to Redlands for further independent study with Childs, who was professor of composition and poetry at the University and its experimental institution, Johnston College. Cox was soon joined by Jim Fox, another postgraduate composition student, and Read Miller, an undergraduate poet and drummer. Fox founded the Redlands Improvisers Orchestra with Cox, Miller, and Marty Walker, a clarinetist who was part of the new music scene at the university. Another member of the new music “crowd” at Redlands was David Hatt, who had formed a duo with Walker. By the late 1970s Miller and Cox had moved to Los Angeles, where they became part of the Los Angeles hard punk, post punk, and new wave scene. In 1981 Miller and Cox were preparing to travel to New York City, where their band would have a residency, when they learned that Oliver had died of leukemia. Cox says that Waiting for Anything, and its performance in Redlands, was hurriedly arranged as a stop on their way across the country.

The recording of this performance is striking for its acoustics, instrumentation, and its construction. The University of Redlands Memorial Chapel, built in 1927, features a pipe organ by Casavant Frères, the Opus 1230, a 4266-pipe organ installed in 1928, and one of the best organs of its time in the Western United States. The Chapel was built with the organ in mind. Its acoustics especially favor the organ, as it has an extremely long delay. Although this delay muddies some group performances, it enhances the sustain and echo of Waiting for Anything, rounding out the sound of the instruments and reading. Miller’s text is evocative, referring in an allusive manner to travel and searching through a landscape. Typical of his work at this time, Miller used indeterminate procedures to arrange existing (found) texts, which give his final text a disjointed narrative. Typically, Cox used various objects to sustain and alter the sound of his electric guitar. Here it is a sponge, as can be heard in the bright, shimmering tremolo in this performance. Cox’s backing is a progression of complex chords in a cycle-of-fifths relationship. He played from memory, but he wrote Walker’s part out. Walker tended to play bass clarinet in pieces by the former Redlands composer, but here he is playing B-flat soprano. His part features slow descending notes adding to the surging and ebbing group dynamics. Hatt appeared just as Cox, Miller, and Walker began their rehearsal, so Cox quickly wrote an organ part. Hatt had studied organ at the University of Redlands before he moved to the University of Riverside for graduate study, so he knew the Casavant organ well. The organ is particularly noticeable, and effective, in the pedal notes toward the end of the track.

This recording occurred at an interesting point in the work of Cox and Miller and reflects their style at the time. Their music reflects the “pretty music” tradition of Southern California music, best known in the music of Harold Budd and Daniel Lentz. However, Cox and Miller’s work is not sweet; this recording contains a distinct and typical film noir feeling of ambiguity. The first series of extended-play 10-inch vinyl albums released in 1983 by Cold Blue Music Recordings, includes Miller’s Mile Zero Hotel and Cox’s These Things Stop Breathing. Both of these albums are nearly contemporaneous with Waiting for Anything: Cox’s album was recorded in Redlands in March 1981 and Miller’s that April. They share certain stylistic traits, including the nature of their spoken texts, with Waiting for Anything. The title track of Mile Zero Hotel also has a found, cut-up text by Miller (postcards written by a woman traveling across the country), performed by without accompaniment by Miller, Cox, and Janyce Collins. The title of These Things Stop Breathing is taken from a public safety poster about resuscitation. Its text, by Cox, is not spoken on this recording but is presented in fragments on the album art. It consists of found and cut-up fragments of breathless prose from romantic fiction. These Things Stop Breathing and Waiting for Anything also include long held notes, often with shimmering aspect (Cox’s distinctive guitar style) and ebbing and flowing dynamic surges; of simple melodies (Walker’s clarinet) and chords with muted jazz or popular connotations; and a kind of intense, though non-specific emotional content. Like other Cold Blue Music recordings of this time, Mile Zero Hotel and These Things Stop Breathing are close-miked and intimate, with a warm reverb. Waiting for Anything gains the same feeling from the natural acoustic properties of the Memorial Chapel.

Waiting for Anything is effective as a memorial piece due to its strong, though non-specific, emotional content. It had two other later performances, but Rick Cox chose this, the premiere, as his favorite, due to the acoustics of the Chapel and the raw memorial occasion of its performance. It is both typical of the music of its time and a unique piece in its own right. This is a fascinating glimpse into the state of musical life of these composers and into the history of Southern Californian postminimalism.

Virginia Anderson
Leicester, UK
August 3, 2016

Teaching 4’33”

This post is an expanded version of a Facebook post I wrote yesterday, and is informed by replies I received from Elliott Schwartz, Chas Smith, and James Pease. Thanks all.

Reading Andy Costello’s recent article on NewMusicBox (the website for New Music USA), “What 4’33” Teaches Us,” http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/what-433-teaches-us/ , is a mixture of the appealing and the depressing. Appealing, because Costello launches his discussion (after some personal background) with the statement that “all performative acts are pedagogical in nature.” In order to introduce what 4’33” “teaches”, he introduces the idea of silence as a potent and educative statement.

The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher.

The first three examples, of silent protest as a strong (and “loud”) statement, are one thing. The fourth point, Costello’s teaching experience, is entirely another thing. Here Costello describes his “lesson” on 4’33”.

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

Costello let his students run riot over the piece. He didn’t teach them what the piece means and how it works in performance. And this is where the quality and care of presentation comes into pedagogy. In teaching 4’33” (and I’ve done this lots of times over the years) I’ve often started with the 33″ opening movement without comment. The students will have some idea of why I’m doing it, though, as I will introduce it in a unit about time and performance, or some other related topic. Context and setting is all important in education, if the students are to be receptive to the information they are given. Anyway, my first go has, quite often been accompanied by laughter, texting, and the other joys of large classroom life, particularly in groups of mixed arts students, or younger students, such as Costello’s. Then — and this is where Andy Costello failed miserably — I begin to talk about what a performer can do, and must do, to perform 4’33”. Do we choose and instrument? Do we follow David Tudor’s use of closure in some way? If so, how? Which version of 4’33” do we use? How do we as performers bring across 4’33” as a piece (because performance is, like the culinary arts, about presentation and service)? What will the audience get from our performance if we just fidget around, or make funny faces? (I often tell students that the most effective way of performing even the most silly Scratch Orchestra or Fluxus pieces is with an air of serenity, letting the audience interpret the silliness for themselves). I tell them about the presenter at the Royal Musical Association conference whose paper, entitled (as I remember it) “Is 4’33” Music?”, was based on his fidgeted performance. We talk about whether there can be good or bad performances, and what the students might do to perform 4’33” in an effective manner. We talk about indeterminate instrumentation: how would a band perform this (I directed a really great band performance). What will the performance space give us (the 2005 Barbican performance, in an acoustically dry room, was dull)? How about an al fresco performance? What about changing the timings? How to we act between movements? And so on. We then try a group performance, first of the 33″, and then, should we have the time, we’ll definitely move on to a whole performance, though after squeezing all that goodness out of the performance aspect alone, we rarely have that time. That’s how I’d show that performative acts are pedagogical. And in the past, some of these students have taken the questions and moved into demonstrating what they’ve learned by performing 4’33” themselves. There will always be a few students who are resistant to the combination of opportunity and responsibility that 4’33” gives the performer — they just don’t get it — but then again, we all receive information differently, and that in itself is part of the pedagogical process.

And that’s where Costello’s other claim about 4’33” falls absolutely flat: “all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.” Like the minority of students in my classes, Costello just doesn’t get it. Looking at all of the considerations surrounding the performance of 4’33”, plus a whole host of political, social, and philosophical implications, and what 4’33” says is patently not “nothing”. It pretty much says almost everything.