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Tenney’s Wikipedia page, albeit a bit out-of-date, is full, with a link to an appreciation page on Kyle Gann’s excellent Postclassic blog, posted just after Tenney’s untimely death.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.

Differently drumming

For some months now I’ve been playing with the South Leicestershire Improvisors Ensemble, a great local British free improvisation group, and the brainchild of the drummer Lee Allatson. Lee Allatson is a true original, as can be said of most ‘frimp’ drummers (for example, AMM’s Eddie Prévost, or Derby-based Walt Shaw). But most other frimp drummers I’ve worked with either separate their activity into ‘experimental’ and more traditional work. In the 1980s, especially, Eddie Prévost used various kinds of percussion, including the AMM barrel drum, for his experimental performances, moving to his kit drum for the Eddie Prévost Quartet. Walt Shaw, a visual artist who also drums, applied visual-arts sensibilities to his work, creating an assemblage of sound sources on and around a table, much like Keith Rowe has made an assemblage of his deconstructed guitar, which created for many, the sight and sound of AMM over the years.

Instead, Lee Allatson works mostly with his leopard-skin drum kit, augmented by a host of almost steam-punk beaters and sound sources. Lee has created a series of video etudes, in which he explores many of these sound sources on his kit. The result is, like the best etudes, a combination of the educational and the artistic. You can see them here: .

Here’s the most recent one, an improvisation moving into a king of “punky” beat.

And if you’re passing the East Midlands next month, come and see the South Leicestershire Improvisors Ensemble, which we lovingly know as S.L.I.E., on 4 February at Quad Studios, Leicester, from 8.30 pm. Those of you on Facebook may wish to follow S.L.I.E’s adventures here: The current lineup includes Lee on drums; Trevor Lines on bass; Chris Hobbs on keyboards and other stuff (resonating sound sources and perhaps bassoon); Bruce Coates on saxes. I’m listed as playing reeds, but will always be found on the clarinet end of things, and we may have a guest sitting in.

Preparing The Great Learning

What are we doing today? Well, in part we’re practicing the gestures for the Dumbshow for Paragraph 5 of Cardew’s The Great Learning, which will be performed Sunday, 12 July, at the Union Chapel, Islington ( The Dumbshow opens Paragraph 5, the longest, most multipart, and busiest Paragraph of The Great Learning. This opening consists of mimed gestures inspired by Native American sign language. The idea is for the slowest performer to start the first sentence, ‘teaching’ it to the next slowest, who then teaches it to the next and so on. One they have demonstrated the first sentence, each performer moves on through all seven sentences themselves.

Is anyone taking part in this paragraph, and if you are, do you have any questions about the score, which describes but does not depict the gestures. If so, in 2003 Christopher Hobbs and Martin Shiel filmed Michael Parsons, one of the founders of the Scratch Orchestra, performing the Dumbshow, and then all alternative gestures that Cardew provided. We’ve put this film up on the EMC site:

Michael Parsons, performing the Dumb Show, Paragraph 5, The Great Learning

You don’t have to do exactly the same gestures that Michael does; reading and following Cardew’s description is enough. But When I was writing about the notation in The Great Learning I found that some of the descriptions are confusing. That is why I asked Michael to film his performance, and for Chris and Martin to film him. Use this as a guide — or just look at the beauty and dignity of Michael’s performance. I hope to see you at the concert!

New York Downtown in the 1980s

It’s amazing how sometimes two things come along that go together — maybe not a match, but one follows along from another, comments on it, contradicts it maybe. In the last 24 hours, we found two such things. We’ll deal with the most recent first, because it may be a scene you know: Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra performing ‘Siberia’ live at CBGBs. For all the balance and intonation problems, this is a great evocation of the New York scene in the early 1980s.

The other New York connection is less well known: John Kuhlman was a fascinating West Coast composer, associated in the early years with what would eventually be Cold Blue Recordings. He studied composition with Barney Childs at the University of Redlands and played in the Redlands Improvisers’ Orchestra with Jim Fox, Rick Cox, Read Miller, Anne Noble, and Marty Walker in the mid-1970s. Kuhlamn’s early composition had a lovely West Coast jazz-based ‘pretty music’ sound. In 1979, Kuhlman moved to New York, where he and his bands played in clubs like CBGBs, Roulette, the Mud Club, and elsewhere. He also became ‘handyman to the stars’, fixing up lofts and apartments for Yoko Ono and other leading lights of the New York arts scene.

John Kuhlman is not well known because he died young (in 1996). The trombonist, and his former flatmate, Fred Parcells, has put up a web page dedicated to John Kuhlman’s memory, including some recordings of his performances in New York.

This is a fascinating ‘what if’ history of a very talented composer, and a great portrait of a good friend of those who knew him at the University of Redlands and those who knew him in New York.

John Cage in Italy, 1977

An interesting account of John Cage’s Empty Words performance at the Teatro Lirico in Milan in December 1977, sponsored by Cramps Records. The performance was billed as if Cage were a band or a rock star. Members of the audience who didn’t know him protested with loud spoken interruptions and slow hand claps. The documentary on this page (and on YouTube) follows the lead-up (tech rehearsal, vox pop interviews, press conference) to the show, which, if your Italian is very good, is absolutely fascinating. The English-language article, and translations of reviews, on this web page, are very useful. The last four minutes of the film, showing rare footage of Cage’s performance, is stunning.

Also see:

Portsmouth Sinfonia at the Royal Albert Hall

One of our favourite British experimental groups was the Portsmouth Sinfonia, aka ‘the world’s worst orchestra’. This is a short documentary about their performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 28 May 1974, with Sally Binding, pianist on Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and the Portsmouth Sinfonia Choir, singing The ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It’s in three parts on YouTube, to be found by clicking the links below. Thanks to the musicologist and theorist Kevin Holm-Hudson for making us aware of this historic film.

Happy 101st birthday, John Cage!

Here’s a delightful video for the event, if you haven’t seen it. It’s from Mondays with Merce, part of the materials produced for the centenary. This (Episode 15) is a cracker, with contributions from Christian Wolff and Gordon Mumma, Cage performing 4’33”, and some amazing insights into dancing to electronic music from Merce Cunningham (it’s in the nerve, not the muscle, apparently). Beautiful and fun.

The Prepared Mind, with John Cage and David Tudor:

Drinking and Hooting: Theme

We continue the Video Watch comparison of performances of John White’s Drinking and Hooting Machine. Click Variation IVariation IIVariation III, and Variation IV for previous entries. You may also like to check out the EMC Facebook page for June 6 and June 8 for comments on this series from the composer Paul Epstein. Another composer friend of the EMC, Oded Assaf, has commented on a previous entry in this blog, as well. Please feel free to get in touch!

Well, this small series of Video Watch on Drinking and Hooting Machine has brought up a number of issues about performing indeterminate music. One of the most interesting points made about the UCLA performance was Paul Epstein’s comment on our Facebook page: ‘Frankly, I don’t regard the piece as all that experimental; the instructions seem fairly precise and the concept elegant’. I agree that the piece is precise and elegant. The piece is experimental/systemic, or experimental/minimal, though. It comes from a time when minimalism was a type of experimental music (think In CPendulum Music, and so forth). Drinking and Hooting uses compositional indeterminacy or chance, like Cage’s Music of Changes. Unlike Music of Changes, however, Drinking and Hooting also employs performance indeterminacy. We can compare this to Cornelius Cardew’s graphic piece, Treatise, which was very carefully structured and organised syntactically, but played freely. The ‘good’ performances — the ones that I return to and think about — are the ones in which the performers exercise thought and care as to what to do with it. Whether they interpret it syntactically or not is not the issue — Cardew didn’t provide instructions — what matters is that the performers treat it sensitively and creatively.

Paul Epstein obviously takes care about what kinds of bottles he can use in an observant performance of Drinking and Hooting. And given his care and attention, I would like to step back (but not completely back) from my tentative approval —actually an understanding — of any performance using only the two sections of the piece that exist in Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Certainly we can say that such a performance is an arrangement of Drinking and Hooting, or a paraphrase or exercise on it. A partial performance is less artistic, though, and probably more educative, analytical, and pedagogical. One of the first mature performances of a graphic piece in which I took part was also an ‘arrangement’: an ensemble reading of Earle Brown’s Four Systems (1954). Four Systems does not specify its instrumentation, but Brown limits it implicitly, first, by dedicating it to David Tudor on his birthday (which begs the question of whether a ‘good’ version could only be played by Tudor, perhaps only on his birthday); second, by explaining that the boundaries of the graphics indicate the limits of the keyboard. But our group at Barney Childs’ New Music Ensemble at the University of Redlands in 1974 — consisting of first-time members — learned so much about playing suggestive indeterminacy (which has limits of pitch and time) that I have used this piece as an introduction to the interpretation of indeterminate music ever since.

And since the last variation, I received an email from the director of the UCLA Contempo Flux group, the pianist Gloria Cheng, informing me about their performance. First, she took care to find the official version of Drinking and Hooting Machine, which meant getting the Scratch Anthology of Compositions through interlibrary loan from Australia. She knew of the student version in Brian Dennis’s Projects in Sound, which would have been shorter, but is also a viable version, but she took that extra step to ensure a good performance. Water bottles were supplied by the concert committee. The Contempo Flux performers rehearsed, then were placed throughout the hall to provide examples for the rest of the audience. One of the students explained the method to the audience, and the piece provided the end to the concert — a happy one, from the video evidence. Now, you can’t fault that preparation, which resulted in our favourite online version of Drinking and Hooting thus far.

But this is the final entry for this Video Watch piece at present. After looking at the variations in performances, we now reveal the theme: the score itself. John White has graciously allowed the EMC to make Drinking and Hooting, in a facsimile of the official Scratch Anthology version, available for download. You can access this piece on the EMC Freebies page. On this page you will also find pieces that Michael Parsons and Chris Hobbs have equally generously allowed us to offer. Just click here: . We’d like to pass on the information and any good words you might have for these composers if you do download any pieces, so please get in touch.  And whatever you do, keep drinking and hooting!

Drinking and Hooting: Variation IV

We continue the Video Watch comparison of performances of John White’s Drinking and Hooting Machine. Click Variation IVariation II and Variation III for previous entries. You may also like to check out the EMC Facebook page for June 6 and June 8 for comments on this series from the composer Paul Epstein. Another composer friend of the EMC, Oded Assaf, has commented on a previous entry in this blog, as well. Please feel free to get in touch!

Speaking of Facebook, a little while ago, the LA composer Sean McCann sent out a YouTube link for a performance of Drinking and Hooting Machine in the Powell Library Rotunda at UCLA. Marked ‘Hooting and Drinking Machine’  by the poster/filmmaker, it is a successful and rather beautiful performance. You can see it here:

There are several factors in this version that suggest that the performers may not stick strictly to the rules of the piece itself. First, the grouping is unclear: White specifically states that this piece is for four main groups of performers, with up to five sub-groups, making 4-20 distinct parts. White does not limit how many performers may play each part. Moreover, the actions requested in each part are different, but due to the instrumentation (bottles), the timbre is pretty close. And even if everyone played the same part, their choice of breath, ability to hold a note, and what constitutes a SIP, SWIG, or GULP differs. This is another reason that Drinking and Hooting Machine is so like Riley’s In C, which itself has only one part, and which performers move through the material at their own speed. But there’s another factor in this and other performances that is referred to by a person commenting on the YouTube upload. Bruno Ruviaro asks if they used the full score, as he had only been able to access the score excerpt in Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. (Well, Bruno, we have a fix for you there — stay tuned!).

So, can a performance using only half a score be a legitimate performance? This reminds us of Christopher Hobbs’s piece Pretty Tough Cookie, which is built up from one figure in an internal horn part in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. That certainly is more Hobbs than Tchaikovsky in that one, and it’s designed that way. Half a Drinking and Hooting Machine actually destroys White’s random series and the system itself. But there is still an identity there that we can see as being Drinking and Hooting.

The UCLA performance is certainly White, and it’s a good one. Why? First, the acoustics in the Rotunda are gloriously resonant, sustaining the rather short breaths of the assembled masses (this is audience participation). And the simple fact that there are so many players solves the problem that appears early on in the Zeitkratzer video of silence appearing between hoots. The players in the UCLA video settle into longer hoots as the performance goes on, just like the Zeitkratzers do. But even though some performers hoot almost as fast as the Isle of Wight students in our first video (perhaps because of unfamiliarity with their instruments), the sound is always covered by other performers.

Was it universally liked? I think I heard the words, ‘Stop it, now!’ about 2 and a half minutes in. But what was absolutely lovely was the response at the end: joyous laughter, rather than the embarrassed laughter of the first video. They came, they drank, they hooted, and they enjoyed. What could be more fun? It’s almost like hanging out with White himself.

Right, that finishes this series on videos about John White’s Drinking and Hooting Machine, in its four variations. But next, we’re going to supply the theme itself. John White has agreed to allow the Experimental Music Catalogue to make Drinking and Hooting Machine — the official version published in the Scratch Anthology of Compositions — available on the web. This is coming soon, so keep watching, and of course, keep hooting!

Drinking and Hooting: Variation III

We continue the Video Watch comparison of performances of John White’s Drinking and Hooting Machine. Click Variation I and Variation II for previous entries.

For its setting, this might be called the ‘university departmental meeting’ version of Drinking and Hooting. This version, by Zeitkratzer, as part of, or in preparation for the 2007 Donaufestival in Austria, shows a row of performers sitting as if they are in a seminar (or at high table). There are some unusual shots of one performer’s ear, but otherwise, this is a pretty focused and documentary style of Drinking and Hooting filming. At about 1’20” one sees a player taking two short sips, very fast. As to the quality of the performance, the players begin by allowing too many silences, as they do not hold their notes long enough. However, by a few minutes in, the players settle in very well and there are a number of rather pretty sonorities. The lesson here is that it is probably best to warm up on the long tones so that you can settle into the Drinking and Hooting world.

For those who are interested in Zeitkratzer, Julian Cowley’s Wire article from 2005, although pretty old, is a fascinating introduction. We wonder what happened to their proposed British experimental music concert mentioned in this article?