Posts Tagged: John Cage

Sep 16

Ekmeles at Gettysburg College

3 Angels

Ekmeles travels to Gettysburg College for a residency, culminating in a concert performance featuring contemporary favorites for one to four voices.

  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (1988)
  • Kaija Saariaho – From the Grammar of Dreams (1988)
  • Milton Babbitt – Three Cultivated Choruses (1987)
  • Giacinto Scelsi – Le Grand Sanctuaire (1970)
  • Ben Johnston – Rose (1971)
  • Liza Lim – 3 Angels (2011)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Vykintas Baltakas – Instruktionen zur Durchführung… (2007) U.S. Premiere

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Sep 15

litany and panic

panic around deathThis intimate concert will feature two expansive American works for small forces. John Cage’s 1980 duo Litany for the Whale will be paired with the premiere of the full version of Timothy McCormack’s panic around death, for solo vocalist performing on various objects, with electronics. While Cage’s work is focused around five simple pitches, and McCormack’s creates a complex nest of noise that envelops the audience, both works conjure a rich and immersive atmosphere.

  • John Cage – Litany for the Whale
  • Timothy McCormack – panic around death (World Premiere)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Jan 15

Avant Music Festival – John Cage

Ekmeles performs what is, according to the John Cage Trust, the only known concert of the complete choral works of John Cage, on the 2015 Avant Music Festival.

  • John Cage – Ear for EAR (1983)
  • John Cage – Four2 (1990)
  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (93-96) (1988)
  • John Cage – Five (1988)
  • John Cage – Hymns and Variations (1979)

Ekmeles’s season is supported by New Music USA’s Cary Fund For New Music Performance Fund, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Amphion Foundation.

Personnel for concert

Dec 14

American Composers

Ekmeles performs works by U.S. and Canadian composers for four to eight singers

  • Ben Johnston – Sonnets of Desolation (1981)
  • John Cage – Five (1988)
  • Evan Johnson – vo mesurando (2012) U.S. Premiere
  • James Tenney – A Rose is a Rose is a Round (1970)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Matthew Ricketts – Women Well Met (2013)
  • Andrew Waggoner – … that human dream (2014) World Premiere
  • Aaron Cassidy – A Painter of Figures in Rooms (2011-2012)

Ekmeles’s season is supported by New Music USA’s Cary Fund For New Music Performance Fund, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Amphion Foundation.

Personnel for concert

Feb 14

JI Composers: Randy Gibson

This is the third in a series of conversations with composers who work in just intonation, and other microtonal systems. Questions from Ekmeles are bolded, the composer’s responses follow. This is another specially timed edition, since Randy Gibson’s Fifth Annual Avant Music Festival begins this Friday.

Composer Randy Gibson - photo by Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media

Composer Randy Gibson – photo by Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media

Why not 12-note equal temperament?

I stopped using equal temperament a long time ago. I always had a hard time in my ear training classes, and growing up playing a pitched instrument, but never really considering pitch (I played the Marimba for many many years), my relationship to pitch was always unusual. When I began studying with La Monte Young, my ears were really opened to the possibilities of Just Intonation, and what had been some simple experiments developed into a richer understanding of how pitch can function.

I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a “microtonal” composer. Rather, I’m interested in the harmonies that can be created through just intonation, these are often even more “tonal,” more consonant. I guess I feel like my goal is not one of microtonality, but one of harmony, although I get excited by some of the very small intervals that I use.

Why the systems and pitches you use?

I’ve been working in the same tuning system, refining and improving it, for the last 5 years, and everything I write is a part of it. It’s a simple system made up of very simple intervals, all over a unified fundamental. But there’s an incredible wealth of material that can be pulled from it, and the reason I keep returning to it is that there’s more and more to be discovered, and by keeping it the same from performance to performance allows us to continue to refine our understanding of the tuning and how to perform it.

In my most complete statements of the tuning we’re not even using all of the possible pitches. They’re all there in the drone, but we’re performing on a simple scale, creating harmony, exploring their resonance, and just this exploration of, say, the central chord, the lower half of the scale, the upper half of the scale, and the central chord again is taking us around three hours. This is the piece I’m presenting on March 1, Apparitions Of The Four Pillars In The Midwinter Starfield Under The Astral 789 Duet.

For something like Circular Trance Surrounding The Second Pillar (my piece for Ekmeles) or The First Pillar Appearing In Supernova (my new cassette for Cassauna), I’m just working with a single facet of the tuning, a single interval class and exploring all of the possibilities of that.

What was your first encounter with microtones?

I can put this into three parts that mirror my development as a composer.

The very first time I truly heard something microtonal, and I was aware enough to understand that it wasn’t “normal” pitches, was probably a recording of Cage’s Ryoanji that I credit as having been the inspiration for me to begin composing. Of course, the microtonality in this piece is completely abstract, there’s only a single pitch happening at once, so this doesn’t get to the harmony.

For that, I would look at my time playing in a Balinese gamelan in Colorado. The instruments themselves, of course, are not in equal temperament, they’re in their own pentatonic scale (I unfortunately don’t know the exact scale that the gamelan I played in was tuned to), but furthermore, the halves of the orchestra are tuned slightly apart to create beats, that shimmering quality of Balinese gamelan music. This experience led me to begin to explore how pitch and tuning could be used to create a feeling.

When I came to New York, I came to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Dream House and their performances with the Just Alap Raga Ensemble were the big influencers here, the otherworldly sine wave drone of Dream House was revolutionary. I had originally known mostly about Young’s more conceptual pieces of the 60’s, these elegant instruction pieces were incredibly influential on my thinking, but it was Dream House, and ultimately the raga performances that really opened my ears to the expressive possibilities of just intonation.

What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?

There are probably two pieces, both by La Monte Young, that I think are the most important to my development: The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119 and his solo cello composition Just Charles And Cello In The Romantic Chord.

The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry… is the music heard at Dream House, and is a breathtakingly beautiful example of vertical composition. Every spot in that room is vibrant and individual, you get the sense that no-one else is hearing the same thing as you. As big and imposing as the composition is, it’s still incredibly private and personal. With enough time in the drone, whole new sound worlds open up and your thinking is forever changed, the vibrations are that powerful.

Just Charles And Cello was very important to my development as well. Taking a single chord from The Well Tuned Piano, that chord being The Romantic Chord, La Monte crafts a piece of music that is beautifully expressive and powerful. The casual listener might think that a piece that is maybe four hours long on a single chord might be “boring,” but it’s not, it’s completely captivating. I was at every single performance in New York in 2005 and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced.

Apr 12

Some Recent Silences

As always, Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler comes through with the goods. Another example of his perceptive and brilliant writing on music is up at NewMusicBox: an essay on the continuing influence of Cage’s 4’33”, including discussion of Ekmeles favorites Aaron Cassidy and Peter Ablinger. He also touches on the Catskills setting of the seminal work’s premiere, critical—I think—to understanding what the piece is all about.

Read the full post over at NewMusicBox.

Apr 11

Extended Voices (1968)

The album cover of the LP Extended VoicesHere’s a lovely recording of some early music for voices and electronics (not Early Music) called Extended Voices by a motley assortment of 60s luminaries, all conducted by Alvin Lucier. Also included are some magnificent non-electronic works by Feldman for chorus that could stand to see the light of day more often! I might also point you to the links on the left of the page to access the rest of the fabulous resource that is UbuWeb.

Mar 11

Boring or meditative?

In the past few weeks I’ve attended several concerts with pieces of relatively extreme duration, and it got me thinking – is there a line between something being boring and meditative, or is it all perspective? I’m reminded of a story by Cage about playing a record of a Buddhist service for Henry Cowell’s Oriental music class, which had very different reactions to the same material. After 15 minutes of the same loud percussive sound with no perceptible variation, one woman screamed “Take it off, I can’t bear it any longer!”. He did so, and another man in the class said “Why’d you take it off? I was just getting interested.”

I sympathize with both of the characters in this story, though I suppose they function as rhetorical foils. In something either repetitive or very sparse that goes on for more than a half hour, I usually find my mind beginning to race around, thinking of what I could be doing rather than continuing to hear the same thing over and over. But if it’s a good piece, I’m usually converted to the second man’s camp by something. Maybe it’s a point of structural articulation that illuminates a proportion in the form that wasn’t perceptible until a large section was defined by a slight change.

Can something in fact be both boring and meditative? Those of you who compose and perform extremely long, repetitive, or sparse music – do you consider the boredom of your audience a desirable effect, or at least a part of the experience? Even at the recent performance of Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett – which I found incredibly beautiful – moments of frustration set in, full of awareness of my thoughts and surroundings, rather than the music. Sciarrino has said that he is seeking “The tension and the thoughts of the person who listens, made perceptible by the person who plays.” I think this is an apt description of the self-awareness we experience during extended-duration works.

Maybe we have to accept this boredom, these frustrations, as a part of the experience of listening to music. The experience of one’s self is often uncomfortable, and just as often illuminating. I’ve done some great composing in my mind during concert performances that started to bore me.

Feb 11

Complexity and failure

“How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives.” – Donald Barthelme ‘Nothing: A Preliminary Account’

The physical manifestation of the fear of failure is surely an element in the performative practice of complex music. Concentration on many levels of notation flying by at breakneck speed almost guarantees a slipup here and there. Is learning and performing a complex score really then a Sisyphean task? I would like to argue that complex scores require a redefinition of, or at least a reconsideration of the idea of failure in performance. A certain kind of failure is a necessary and aesthetically important part of all performance. The details of just how we fail and why are worth examining.

Firstly I would propose that the moral character of the performer is engaged by complex scores. Acknowledging the inevitability of failure does not absolve the performer from the responsibility to realize the score as faithfully as possible, using all the tools at his disposal. Likewise, if the composer intended for his work to be realized graphically or approached from a quasi-improvised angle, one would hope he would be clever enough to use notation which suggests as much, rather than the extremely detailed instructions we find in many complex scores.

The information density of complex scores represents in some ways not an evolution and continuation of notational practice, but a break which implies important performative consequences. The performer is transformed from an imperfect conduit for the composer’s ideal vision, into an integral and indispensible contributor to the work.

I recently read an article in Perspectives of New Music entitled “Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the ‘New Complexity,’” written by Stuart Paul Duncan. My writing here is in many ways a response to that article. It got me thinking about what the article refers to as the “High-Modernist” model of musical performance, and the break from that tradition that many complex scores represent. Some people take the progressive-historicist view that music notation, beginning at first as mere mnemonics, moving to a two line, four line, five line staff, specifying instrumentation, dynamics etc., moves along a straight line towards its goal, which is the ultimate specification of all parametric information. Certainly scores have become more and more prescriptive as time has gone on, but, as Duncan argues, not always for the same reasons. The “High-Modernist” model of notation and performance might be defined as a direct and absolutely prescriptive communication from the composer to the performer. The score is the work in an ideal form, towards which each performer strives; what is desired above all is accuracy and fidelity. With the increasing density of information communicated by complex scores, it’s easy to see how this kind of accuracy becomes more and more difficult, or even beyond the capacity of the performer, if not the instrument itself.

What to make then, of this extreme density of information? After all, if the composer is after such a complicated web of musical ideas, he could just as easily program it into a computer, rather than spend the time communicating it to us fallible human performers. Paradoxically, the completely prescriptive nature of complex scores involves the performers in a deeper way than a more traditional “High-Modernist” score might. In addition to the hours and hours of engagement with the score required by complexities of notation, rhythm, pitch, or other parametric information, which deepen the performer’s relationship to the work, the conflict between the various physical performative demands requires that the performer function as a kind of filter. If something really is “impossible” as written, whether because of context, or simply the performer’s human limitations, in some cases the performer simply must make a choice of what to do, and what not to do. Conflicting and competing physiological demands in the score can also create unstable and unpredictable sounds. Is this a kind of fakery that proves the illegitimacy of complex notation? I think not. Any human performance contains some artifact of that performer’s humanity; complex music highlights these artifacts, and elevates them, elevating thereby the performance to stand with the score as more of an equal. The late great Milton Babbitt wrote that his scores are indeed intended to be precisely realized and perceived by some ideal performer and ideal listener. In terms of information density, his scores are simpler than say, Ferneyhough’s, but certainly not simple. Does this mean that any imperfect performance (read: at a high enough resolution, absolutely every performance) of his music is a failure? Anyone who has had the joy to hear great interpreters perform his music knows that it most certainly is not. Surely, something about the involvement of actual human performers is necessary for the success of the musical enterprise, despite the fact that an objectively perfect performance which reflects in every way the notation is, depending on your view, either exceedingly rare, or totally impossible. A fascination with this failure and its subtleties is at the core of what we find appealing in any musical performance; the notational practice of complex scores only brings our attention to that failure’s inevitability.

I’ll leave the last word here to Cage: “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third.”

Feb 11

Performing Cage

Performing the music of John Cage is always a liberating experience. Working towards our performance of Song Books tomorrow, February 12th, I’ve been looking forward to the surprises and the serendipitous moments of beauty that are sure to arise. The process of learning and rehearsing this music requires a removal of personal decisions and the gradual creation of boundaries and limits; this is a freeing and creatively inspiring undertaking.

The following were decided by chance operations: The length of the total program, the number of sectional divisions in the performance and their lengths, the selections I will be singing, in what order I will sing them, how much of them I will be singing, where I will be singing them and for how long, what styles of singing I will employ, and the electronic changes I will make during performance.

The score, like a 200 page block of marble, has been chiseled away, leaving a few heavily marked sheets that denote the performance specific to my time and place. Rigorous rehearsal on these specifics, and confidence in their validity (despite their randomness) is a lesson in working on any music. Certainly nobody would know if I just fudged it, and didn’t follow what the chance operations dictated, instead shaping the material in the moment. However, fidelity to the material and a deep reading of the score will yield a performance with the possibility of transcending my momentary whim, and presenting my humanity (and hopefully Cage’s) in an authentic way.

All this without even recalling the fact that four of my colleagues will be performing their own programs simultaneously, which we will hear for the first time in performance! We, like Cage’s beloved mushrooms, will put forth an overabundance, a generous artistic wastefulness.

“If you look at nature, for instance, it often seems to be wasteful, the number of spores produced by a mushroom in relation to the number that actually reproduce … I hope this shift from scarcity to abundance, from pinchpenny mental attitudes to courageous wastefulness, will continue to flourish.” – John Cage in conversation with Larry Austin 1968