Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Martian Chess

A friend mentioned that she had been teaching her daughter to play test, but that the daughter, six, was unhappy that the game had not princess.  I immediately thought of Martian Chess or Jetan (in Barsoomian), which Edgar Rice Burroughs invented for his 1922 novel The Chessmen of Mars (the complete text of which is at Project Gutenberg here).   I last read the novel in grade school, but I can still recall the symbiont Kaldanes and Rykors and Jetan, which is played by live players in the game, to the bloody end.  I also remember constructing my own ten-by-ten-square Jeton board and making a set of pieces from acorn shells.  I cannot recall the rules, save for one which happens to be musically relevant. That move belongs to the Princess, who is allowed once, and only once in a game to "escape", to any unoccupied space on the board.  What's musical about that?  I think that every composer, no matter how strictly he or she likes to work, should allow themselves the possibility of one escape in any piece of music, a sudden move or leap to anywhere, a break in continuity, an opportunity to start over from scratch.  The first example in which I encountered an explicit escape of this sort was in Cornelius Cardew's Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, the score of which includes a single arrow pointing to one-thirty with the instruction "out, away, something completely different", but once you  get the notion in your head, you start finding musical escapes everywhere, from the point of further tonal remove in a classical sonata to some shocking figures-in-clearings in Berlioz or Ives to Pauline Oliveros's sudden full-power amplified brainwave explosion in her performance of Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer.   Pieces of music, like Martian Princesses or hard-working musicians, sometimes just need to get away from it all.


Ben.H said...

For some time now I've been tossing up between whether to deliberately break the structures I set up for my music, or to let them roll out with no deviation whatsoever. The latter tendency usually wins out because I feel no need to disrupt the process I've set in motion, but that just makes it seem all the more reason to break it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Huh. I wonder if this is what Magnus Lindberg had in mind when he wrote the cello solo in Seht die Sonne.