Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Orchestra: Organize yourself!

Mr. Cage had difficulties with orchestras, because orchestras tended to have members who found it difficult to be responsible when asked to distinguish between freedom and license. Performances of Atlas Eclipticalis and Cheap Imitation by very well-known orchestras turned out very badly because of this. Nevertheless, in spite of these experiences, Cage, the optimist, persisted in trying to get orchestras to do more rather than less, and to mature as social organizations while doing it.  Etcetera, a piece in which players not only volunteer to be conducted*, get to chose which conductor they are conducted by, and many of the late works return to the conductorless ideal, most of the time substituting the use of the neutral — and egoless — stopwatch for a conductor.  As an indication, perhaps, that this optimism is still an active force in the radical music, I'd like to point out a pair of recent works for orchestra without conductor.

The first is Samuel Vriezen's Local Orchestra (score available here) which is notated in a text format not unlike that found in prose scores by Christian Wolff.  However, I think that the spirit of Vriezen's music is here is as close to late Cage as it is to Wolff, particularly in the implied economy of tones, which is related to dynamics.  There are, however, distinctive elements here, and the primary distinction comes in the division of the work into two movements in which the orchestra is successively characterized as "consonant" and "dissonant".  Consonant or dissonant relative to what? Vriezen's "consonant" is pythgorean in character, favoring intervals of octaves, fifths and fourths; his "dissonant" movement, effectively makes an M5/7 transform on the consonant movement and favors semitones.   The major compositional decision here was formal, in Vriezen's decision to place the "consonant" before the "dissonant", the retrograde of traditional tonal resolution.  There is also one articulation trick here: the "consonant" movement is punctuated by silences, while the "dissonant" movement is continous.  The score is only a page of text, but in that page Mr. Vriezen has practically managed to write the compact edition of an early 20th century Harmonielehre.    

(Many other prose scores by a variety of composers, myself included, along these lines, are also available at Upload .. Download .. Perform ).

The second score I'd like to mention is a work of Douglas Leedy, Shining Path - Sendero Luminoso (1992-93, a score excerpt is reproduced above), the first of Three Symphonies for Unison Orchestra.  Not only did Leedy intend a conductorless ensemble, but the initial version of the score was produced on a single page (with instructions on the back side) with the expectation that the piece would probably be played without rehearsal.  the score has a Cagian pedigree,  not only in Leedy's acknowledgement of Cheap Imitation as a model, but also in the use here, of the temporal structure of Cage's Music for Marcel Duchamp.  Shining Path is many things, but most strikingly, it is a form of reckoning with the western symphonic and harmonic/polyphonic tradition.  Most members of the orchestra play a very slow, long, and winding — locally tonal/centric and directed, mid-level unpredictable, almost aimless, and globally, bound to a tonic G — melody in unison whole notes (the melody is 358 whole notes long at a tempo of half note less than 40 mm), but all have the option to articulate the melody in a variety of ways, a form of simultaneous variation more familar in non-occidental ensemble music traditions.   Furthermore, the mostly sustained whole notes are aperiodically punctuated  by sharply articulated quarter-note G's by a group of tympani and  bass instruments, following the logic of their own internal pattern but also suggesting formal markers more akin to the gong schedule of a classical gamelan work or East Asian court music than the cadences of western functional tonality.

Neither Local Orchestra nor Shining Path have been performed to date [addendum: in the comments thread, composer Lloyd Rodgers was kind to mention that he has played Shining Path with his Diverse Instrument Ensemble in Fullerton, California: Great News, but I still want to hear it live, myself, and live alongside Samuel's piece!], but both of them should be played, at the very least as a sign of some confidence in the human spirit.  Let's stay in the spirit of Cage's optimism and try to make that happen.  


* One of the greatest joys in my musical life was rehearsing for Etcetera with Cage, Richard Winslow, and Alvin Lucier:  volunteering to be conducted by any of them was both servitude and cooperation of a special kind.   


Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel, thanks for mentioning Local Orchestra! I like your compact Harmonielehre-analysis. I never really thought of it that way!

There's one refinement worth making: First, the "dissonances" consist of at most semitones, i.e. they may open up a complete realm of microtonal cluster formation (and what interval is still a "minor second"? 13:14? 12:13? 11:12?) which would strictly speaking take it outside the realm of a 5/7 transform. So it might veer into Scelsi or even Niblock territory.

Also, the piece gambles on the harmony being spatialized; I imagined that in the first movement you might get a kind of pandiatonic sound where the tonality is related to spatial position, and there might be (or might not be) all kinds of unforeseeable tonal drifting, as players decide to enter with either a new note or not...

A concert with these two pieces, and similar works for self-organizing orchestra (indeed Cage and Wolff but undoubtedly others too. For example "An Unrhymed Chord" by Michael Pisaro would be great with full orchestra, but that's almost a program by itself) would be a wonderful thing indeed. Now who would go for such a program?

Daniel Wolf said...

Samuel, I like your ideas for programs.

My notion of a m5/7 transform was in the relationship between the two movements. In effect, what happens on a a fifths lattice in the first movement happens in semitone space in the second.

Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel: I see what you mean; it was just that that transform suggests something like a 12-tone pitch class set theory environment to me, since the fifth and the minor second are the two intervals that generate the chromatic total.

Whereas in, say, 31-tone every interval generates the total gamut, which is what I find most fascinating about it. BTW are you familiar with the Fokker 31-tone Organ? It's back in operation now in Amsterdam and regular concerts are planned on it. I'd love to write for it one day.

Daniel Wolf said...


in high school I was actually a member of the US Huygens-Fokker Society. I'm now more interested in either just doing just intonation or, if an equal temperament, something stranger but with not too many tones, like 9, 13 or 22, but 31 has real charm, and is a great connection to meantone repertoire.

Any temperament with a prime number of tones will have the property that any interval generates the gamut, but for some reason that doesn't attract me to 17 or 19. But now you've suggested an interesting path back into them, in that one could look for analogs to the m-transforms. It would be useful, for example, to have, in a temperament of n-tones, a whole ranges of anternatives to the "tritone substitution", for example, which is the most obvious application of the m-transform in 12tet.

kraig grady said...

Doug Leedy had also sent me those scores and often thought for transposing them for my own ensemble. It seems others ensembles could also consider themselves 'Orchestras' and realize them.
Glad to hear that the 31-tone Organ is back in working order. .

Samuel Vriezen said...

Kraig: indeed; these pieces have no specified instrumentation (I just write there needs to be many and they need to sustain pitch). I was imagining it should be done by at least 30 or so, which is a small orchestra. But I'd love a huge hall and 100 instruments, everybody spread out. (And then play Terretektorh!)

The H-F foundation is doing very well these days. I was running it for a short period, but it's my successor, Sander Germanus, who has done a fantastic job of getting the operation on full steam again. The organ is also MIDIfied now.

Anonymous said...

I performed the "Shining Path" with about 16 players in the mid 90's at California State University, Fullerton in the Diverse Instrument Ensemble - it is very beautiful.
Lloyd Rodgers

Daniel Wolf said...


That's great to hear -- a welcome correction to my post. But I'd still like to hear a performance myself, alongside Samuel's piece, played by a very large orchestra.

Anonymous said...

yes, that would be better, I was selfish and wanted to hear at least a sense of this majestic work.