Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is once enough?

When a piece of new/experimental/avant-garde/contemporary (etc.) music gets its first performance, chances are high that it will also be the last performance. In itself, this is neither a good or bad thing; while in some cases, the lack of repeat performances is definitely regrettable, in other — perhaps most — cases, it is no great loss, and in still others, the ephemeral nature of the event is actually a design feature.

Accepting the single performance can be a practical and economic decision. The supply of new musical works is large and the time and resources for proper audition are severely limited. But there can be an aesthetic, even metaphysical dimension to a decision to consciously limit the realization of a musical idea to a one-off occasion. The legendary ONCE Festival (in at least one version of the legend) perhaps put this idea in the air first. I think Philip Corner's score ONE NOTE ONCE found the condensed, koanic, essence of the idea. (Jean Tinguely's self-destructing sculptures are extreme examples of the idea in another medium.)

I think, however, a decision to affirm the transitory in a piece is a natural extension of the ephemeral character of the materials of music, the sounds themselves, dissipating, or as Marx and Engels had it, melting into air.


A finished score is often only a single instance or realization of a musical idea or process, a one-off performance in the domain of composition. The decision to accept a single result over a plurality might be characterized in music-historical terms as a decision to avoid the creation of repertoire, or maybe it's just a sensible act in an age of mechanical (and electronic) reproduction. (As someone noted, the great lesson of mass reproduction is that we don't want everything to be the same, or you'd never find your own car in a parking lot.)

What interest might there be in taking a process-based piece like Steve Reich's Piano Phase, and using an alternative set of pitches to those Reich himself chose? How dependent on that diatonic-but-not-necessarily-tonal configuration chosen by Reich is the identity of that piece? Idea, instance, identity. Is it interesting or relevant that John Cage used the same methods and materials designed for Music of Changes to compose the miniatures of Seven Haiku, or (in at least one version of the story) the temporal structure of 4'33"? Are these new pieces or just left-overs? (Any composer who cooks knows the value of left-overs.)

A composer I admire very much, Andrew Culver, assisted John Cage for many years and part of his work involved writing small computer programs to answer, through chance operations (or, more precisely, effective simulations of the same) questions which Cage had assigned to such decision-making processes in his pieces. When Cage died, Culver had the tools require to generate an unlimited number of new works using Cage's own algorithms. But Culver did not do this, recognizing that Cage himself had the same possibility but had always accepted a single realization of a score. (This is not to discount the fact that Cage did, indeed, often use a lot of trial and error in adjusting his questions until they yielded the broad kinds of results which interested him. Walter Zimmermann's analysis of Quartets I-VIII in the Anarchic Harmony volume describes an example of this working process.)

Recently, when working with some young people, we spent some time with the score and realization of Cage's Williams Mix. An astonishing piece involving a plethora of source sound recordings and a hugely difficult-to-realize score requiring thousands of tape splices in wildly variable but breathtakingly precise dimensions and orientations. I don't know if there have been subsequent realizations of the piece to that made by Cage and colleagues in 1952/53, but Cage, with the publication of the score, explicitly suggests the possibility of new realizations. And now, it seems eminently realizable, in real time, as live computer music, with the computer randomly (or, more precisely, an approximation of randomly) selecting out and processing slices of sounds extracted from a stored library. An indefinite number of new realization could be made, but in doing so, are we learning or experiencing anything substantially different from that original realization?


Paul Beaudoin said...

The process is not the piece. While Cage did repeat the process (or procedure) quite often the end result is often quite different. Cage always started with questions. Culver just sped up the process for answering them (though it was revealed that the I Ching program had a programming error that limited it's 'randomness').

Reproducing Williams Mix with today's home computer would still render "Williams Mix" the piece (the score would determine how events would change over time). However, using Culver's I Ching to determine time frames and pitch would yield a different piece (hence 1, 64, 81, 1o1 or any of the "squared' pieces).

And for me, this is completely different from the birth/death of a piece occurring at the same performance. For most of us the second performance is the recorded performance (and that's a whole different can of worms).

Daniel Wolf said...

Steve, what error are you referring to? Cage sometimes used biased decision-making processes (which were also realized in IC) and he was also well-aware that a computational random number generator was pseudo-random, but accepted this as an imitation of nature in operation, i.e. an imitation of a physically random system.

The evolution of Cage's thought with regard to chance is interesting and shows him to be much more sophisticated about the nature of his work than is often given credit. For example, his turn in the 1970s to a "music of contingency", some years after switching to the use of computer-generated pseudo-I-Ching output, represents an engagement with natural systems in which the relationship between cause and effect is, for a human observer, unpredictable.

Ben.H said...

I recall the error being in the earlier computerised I Ching Cage used, the one made by Lejaren Hiller in the late 1960s when they composed HPSCHD. The error was noticed when writing Mureau and/or Empty Words, which used all 14 volumes of Thoreau's Journal as source material: certain sections of text kept reappearing. Cage accepted the error and the consequences of it, as the error wasn't a conscious, subjective decision.

I didn't think it would be possible to realize Williams Mix in other media, as the score explicitly demands tape to be spliced at odd angles, and cut into irregular shapes. I have wondered before, if there was any way this effect could be simulated digitally, either as a treatment of sound or as a process in itself.

Cage's use of chance is certainly a lot more complex than many people (even supportive critics) seem to think. This is probably largely because of Cage's own explanations and published rationales for his use of chance simplify it - to the point of misrepresenting it, in much of his earlier writing on the subject. It would be interesting to compare how his understanding of how to work with chance developed over time, to how he felt able to discuss it in increasingly sophisticated terms. Surely he couldn't have written Music Of Changes if his awareness of aesthetic considerations was as limitied as his essays and lectures of the time suggest, compared to the awareness evident in his working processes in the 1970s.