Thursday, July 05, 2007

Notes that don't stay put

In general, we can assume that the notes on a page, once placed, are going to stay more-or-less in place, but there are examples worth examining in which this is not necessarily the case.

It is my understanding that John Kirkpatrick, for many years the person with closest contact to the Charles Ives manuscripts and an authentic transcendentalist, was convinced that, between his visits to the archives, notes would be altered, subtle alterations in pitch or rhythm signaling perhaps that Mr. Ives -- from whatever plane he now occupied -- was not quite finished with his work. It is also my understanding that more recent Ives scholars have not registered such mobility in the manuscripts; I am not certain whether this is to be taken either as an indication of Ives' present satisfaction with the state of affairs, or of a less transcendental approach by more recent scholars.

But some more concrete examples, from this plane: There was once something of a fad for mobile scores (a term seized with the joy of recognition by the composer Earle Brown from the visual arts, a term invented by Marcel Duchamp, but associated most with the sculptor Alexander Calder, who distinguished among his own works between those that moved and those that didn't, the stabiles). Stockhausen's Refrain (1959) is the most visually elegant example, in which a plastic strip with notations is fastened to and superimposed over the center of a score for instrumental trio, the central part of which is similarly curved, so that as the strip rotates, the notes upon it, the work's "refrain", are interpolated into the principle score in variable timings.

A lighter genre of the score with mobile notes is one that I associate with the west coast experimental scene, and for which I have three related examples:

The core work is Ramon Sender's 1962 (and subsequently revised) Tropical Fish Opera, for four musicians and fish tank, upon which notations conveying musical instruction are drawn, allowing the players to determine, via the changing positions of the fish in the tank relative to the notation on the glass, what precisely (or imprecisely as the case may be) to play. There is an online recording of the work (here, the performance segues into Douglas Leedy's Octet Quaderno Rossiniano, a delightful piece composed entirely of quotations -- mostly inner instrumental parts -- from works by Rossini). Sender's own description is here:

"The Tropical Fish Opera was first performed on the Sonic 1962 series of concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the performers being Loren Rush, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick and myself. Certain areas on the sides of the tank were marked off and whenever a fish swam into that area he or she became a note or a dynamic indication. In this new version, I have prepared a musical staff grid and limited the performers to a mode derived from the I Ching. For enthusiasts of the hexagrams, I used the following correlations: yang=sharp, yin=flat and changing lines are 'naturals.' Thus each of the six lines of the hexagram represents a degree of the scale (excluding the tonic). Subsequent performances of the piece included one on the 1976 San Francisco Chamber Music Society concert series under the direction of Robert Hughes."

Robert Moran arranged or took part in several further performances of the Tropical Fish Opera, and composed a work of his own, which might well be thought of a companion piece to the Sender. Moran's DIVERTISSEMENT NUMBER ONE, for electric frying pan and any variable ensemble was premiered in San Francisco in October, 1967, by the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This, like the Sender score, involves mobile notes, which are interpreted against the grid of staves which are marked on large sunglasses worn by the players. Fish are not present in the Moran score, but their function is taken by popping corn, which add a percussive accompaniment also not present in the Sender.

The third work in this minor genre is by John Steinmetz, a composer and virtuoso bassoonist. Steinmetz's Fish Phase (1975) again required an aquarium with staves notated on the glass, but its subtle fixed orchestration for two contrabassoons distinguishes it clearly from the Sender, moreover the title suggests a connection -- also a west coast connection via Steinmetz's teacher Subotnick to the early sixties Bay area experimental music scene -- to the phase-based works of Steve Reich.

[Correction, July 8, 2007: John Steinmetz wrote to note that his piece doesn't fit. My memory was faulty: The score for contrabassoons is fully notated, a vintage tribute to and parody of of classic minimalism. The suggested obligato goldfish improvise movements in their bowl. Mr. Steinmetz did, however, suggest another work belonging to this genre, by John Bergamo, involving percussionists responding to the movements of handball players. Any more information on this would be appreciated!]

Nowadays, with computer technology and, in particular, game technology, it is relatively easy to create notational environments in which mobile notes are present. The motions of notes and the irinterpretations can be as loosely or tightly controlled as one wishes, and the possible strategies are manifold -- from games to contingent situations, like the three west coast pieces described above. My impression is that David Behrman is probably the pioneer in this field, but I have not followed it as closely as I might have, just too damn busy watching the fish go by, I guess.

1 comment:

Pauline Oliveros said...

Hi Daniel -

I am glad to see this post about the Tropical Fish Opera and the others.

We had in 2005 a San Francisco Tape Music Center "look back" at EMPAC - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where I am teaching.

We recreated Tropical Fish Opera and other SFTMC classics.

There will be a catalog of this 2 day festival with many essays and interviews plus photos, DVD and CDs coming out from UC Press.

It is good to know that you are around and remembering.

Best regards,