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

Jan 11


In drafting my last post on tuplets, which was mainly focused on ways to approach and decipher rhythmic difficulties, I got to thinking about the issue of notation in general. What are the purposes of notation? They are as manifold as the intentions of the composer, I suppose, but it might be interesting to start a discussion on what notation is and can be, especially in new music.

Why notate a certain passage a certain way? Some composers represent the sounds to be made or gestures to be enacted with mathematical precision; others might choose a graphical representation of the same event. Even if these two imaginary composers were presenting precisely the same musical event with the same intended result, the difference in notation will engage the performer differently, and result in a different performance, whether sonically, physically, or both. The form of the notation, not only its content, has a significant effect on the perception and performance of the music.

While it’s perhaps more easily seen in our imagined contrast between Mr. Nested Tuplets and Mr. Space=Time, it’s worth reflecting backward into the history of notation to see this as a more universally applicable idea. Anyone who performs Renaissance choral music from modern editions has to learn to ignore the implications of the modern addition of the barline when performing.  Similarly, performing Gregorian chant from neumatic notation and a 4-line staff is a completely different experience than reading modern notation of the same works.

Engagement with notation itself can be part of a method of constructing a work. Feldman’s manuscript scores which lack vertical synchronization, with differing time signatures occupying the same space on the page, are a lovely example.

What are your favorite examples of conscious and effective, creative, purposeful, obtuse, or ridiculous uses of notation? I’ve always loved Cage’s “Number Pieces” for the stark clarity of the single column of often single notes, and the way that the page reflects the same austerity as the music. Xenakis’s scores, (e.g. Pour Maurice) through their visual architectural rigor, manage to project a visceral humanity, thanks partially to an encounter with the impossible, the effect of which I’ll be addressing in an upcoming post on complex scores.

Jan 11

Tuplets and polyrhythms

A section of John Cage's "Living Room Music" which features quintuplets

How do I do this accurately at a slow tempo?

5 for 4 over a full bar of 4/4 at quarter=60? How do you do anything but fake that? All it takes is a little math! Slow tuplets can be a real killer, and if you try to perform them like you would an eighth note triplet (probably by feel), you’ll be all over the place. The least common multiple is your friend! In the case of our example (from John Cage’s Living Room Music, if you’re playing along at home), that would be 5×4 = 20. This number is the number of even pulses the bar is divided into that can accomodate both the quintuplet and the normal quarter note pulses. We could also have come to this from another angle: if the rules and standards of notation are preserved (tuplets over 3 beats need to have dots. Very few composers follow this standard; Carter does), tuplet notes will subdivide just like normal ones. This means a quintuplet quarter note split into 4 will yield 4 quintuplet sixteenth notes, just like its non-tupleted cousin will split into 4 normal sixteenths. Each normal quarter note in the bar could be divided into 5 quintuplet sixteenths. Either way we get there, 5×4 or 4×5 results in 20 quintuplet sixteenths, four of which add up to a quintuplet quarter. Knowing this, we can re-notate the rhythm as follows.

The quintuplets renotated

First the pulse, subdivided by accents, then written with ties

Now instead of a mysterious 5 floating somewhere in the bar we have attacks in relationship to the quarter note pulse, easily realized with a facility in subdivision. The purely mechanical accuracy of this method is, in many cases, only a first step; ideally, a tuplet like this should be realized without the syncopation accents implied by the re-notation. When you know exactly where each note lands in relation to the regular pulse of the piece, you can perform the tuplet smoothly, knowing proper points of reference throughout.

Any interaction of pulses can be rationalized in this manner – a more complicated example yielding a similar method: 5 for 3 over 3/32 in Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips. We can use our knowledge of the standards of tuplet notation to find how the pulses interact. First, we can imagine each iteration of the the 5 over 6 to have dots, which would make the first note of the quintuplet 9 pulses long, and the second note 6 pulses long. This 15 part division of the bar is in fact the LCM, allowing us to easily place the 32nd note every 5 pulses (15/3) and the 32nd note of the quintuplet on the 10th iteration of this pulse, leaving us with attacks on iterations 1, 6, 10 and 11 of a 3/32 measure hypothetically subdivided by 15 128th note quintuplets!

The same method can be used in the abstract to learn a polyrhythm. What does 5 over 3 in general sound like? Find the LCM (15), write out the digits 0 – 14 on a piece of paper, and circle every multiple of 3 and put a square around every multiple of 5. Following the numbers as a regular pulse, tap both hands at 0, the left at circled numbers and the right at numbers with a square. Voila, 5 over 3, mathematically done! Practice feeling each number as the ‘main pulse’, and each as the ‘cross rhythm’.

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Generally, feeling the higher prime as a pulse will be easier, as it will feel subdivided by a lower prime. Take the above example: the 5/4 measure requires accurate placement of only triplets, while the 3/4 measure would require quintuplet level accuracy. An ability to shift between the two feels can help with accurate performances of polyrhythms and tuplets.

Dec 10

John Cage – Song Books

Et tout cela m'est advenu par la faute de la musique.

An excerpt from Song Books

The 2011 Avant Music Festival presents an evening of John Cage featuring Ekmeles, pianist Vicky Chow, curator/pianist Randy Gibson, and trombonist William Lang.

Ekmeles performs Song Books, Cage’s inexhaustible grab bag of songs and theatre pieces, categorized by their relevance or irrelevance to the theme “We connect Satie to Thoreau.” Each singer freely chooses a program to fit the allotted time, and each performs independently of the another. Several of the programs will be chosen and organized entirely by chance operations.

ekmeles personnel for concert

Dec 10

EXAUDI – Song Books

Fabulous UK vocal ensemble EXAUDI finally has some video online, and it’s of some of their work with John Cage’s Song Books. I love these pieces, and am very excited to mention that we’ll be performing a program of Song Books on the Avant Music Festival this coming February!

Oct 10


Pairings is a four-concert series of new music in November and December 2010 in New York City at the Tank. Each concert features a young composer (or composers) and an established composer in a “pairing” chosen by the ensemble that will present them.

Ekmeles joins a meditative modal masterpiece by John Cage with two brand-new commissions by young composer friends.

  • John Cage – Litany for the Whale
  • Troy Herion – Um, So world premiere
  • Jude Traxler – When the Lights Change world premiere

personnel for concert