Thursday, November 08, 2012


Christopher Shultis has a terrific post about interpreting John Cage's work for amplified plant materials, including a pod rattle and, typically, cacti, Child of Tree, here.  "Interpreting", in this context, means not (or, at least not in a conventional sense) following a score and eliciting some expressive content, but, on the basis of a set of verbal remarks, assembling the instrumentation and amplification, developing playing techniques, and devising a playing score, a project which begins with an apparently very open situation and develops, through practice, into a distinctive musical work with real constraints and recognizable features.  Above and beyond the attractive richness and gentleness of the piece for listeners I don't think that it can be emphasized enough how much Child of Tree is enhanced by the project-like character of its score, drawing players into discovery of its qualities, extents and limits.

The experimental tradition offers a wealth of pieces which invite or even require that players go beyond the usual level of commitment, research, discovery, development and lots of rehearsal.  Pieces which require that players find or build new instruments or significantly alter or adapt existing instruments (or voices.)  Pieces which require players to realize, within composer-defined processes or rules, scores for their own specific use.  (In my experience, this is also very much like the experience of playing early music from original notation and/or with instruments with historically interrupted performance practice traditions.)  Project-like pieces can be found in the catalogs of composers like Cage, Harrison or Cowell, or cued pieces of Wolff, the acoustic explorations begun with Lucier, and very many pieces in the verbal score tradition.  (Yes it can also be a project if one decides to read Kant alongside Beethoven, the transcendentalists for Ives or Mallarmé with Boulez, and yes, many of Stockhausen's mid-career pieces were so thickly distinctive as to require a similar level of attention.)  I guess the word that belongs here is "engagement", though which the player and piece become intimate. And while audience may not be party to that intimacy, it's been my experience that audiences can reliably recognize an engaged performance as a qualitatively better performance. And while many a Cage work will ultimately require a kind of detachment in playing (or listening, for that matter), I suspect that you can only reach that detachment through deep and sustained engagement.       

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