Sunday, October 30, 2005



Tonight I tackle one of the least approachable and longest of all the pieces music of any kind that I own: 103 for a large orchestra.  One of the big advantages of having MP3s of this performance as opposed to the original disc is that I can hear it played continuously, exactly as I would have heard it in concert.  The size of this piece was the justification for skipping Thursday, since i am for about 45 minutes of Cage per day.  

103 is a number piece, the second largest of all of them, written in 1992, and uses time brackets and a series of single tones produced by each instrument.  This recording, the only recording, was for various reasons conducted even though the score calls for no such thing.  Obviously, with 103 instruments, there’s a pretty decent variety of sounds, but as I expected the strings are pretty dominant.  This is primarily, I suppose, because they can hold tones for much longer periods than the other instruments, although with circular breathing the winds manage it too.  

The first thing that comes to mind is that this work is extremely long; at 90 minutes it’s the longest orchestral music work I own.  That presents a pretty significant problem for those of us with attention spans that tend towards the 15-20 minute range with orchestral music.  The problem is accentuated in a Cage work like this, since the overall texture and large-scale structure of the piece is static, without development or ending.

I went through it in jaunts; listen for half an hour, then I cleaned with Cage in the background, then listened for awhile longer, then sent some email, and for the last half hour or so I entered a quasi-meditative state and came close to falling asleep.  I’m not sure how I would react to this in a concert hall; most probably I would doze off ;-)

As with pretty much every number piece I’ve heard, this one feels very organic; it grows and swells like a plant, with different wisps of sound suggesting different moods and emotions.  For example, passages where the timpani come rumbling in seem more dramatic and forceful than others.  Throughout much of the work, there is a sense of tension built up as more instruments add unrelated tones, and then relaxation as they withdrawal.  Depending on the tones and instruments, each tension takes on a different character.  Sometimes the sensation is pensive and nervous; other times, it is foreboding, and other times it’s what I might call a forceful relaxation, like a strong massage.  The silences are welcome after several minutes of being overwhelmed with slow moving sound.  Of course, there are also some quick sounds: fast horn blasts and quick string scrapes.  In some cases they seem like conversations over the rest of the music, sometimes having an eagerness about them that forces you to pay attention.  

In spite of the length and the difficulty this work would seem to impose upon a listener, it turns out to be pretty inviting.  The various chance-determined orchestral works seem almost angry or at least cold and uncaring by comparison with this.  My only criticism is the same basic criticism I have of orchestral music in general: I get really bored of hearing endless, endless strings.  There is a percussion performer, but apparently only one, and he is not especially active, only popping in with a bell or a triangle ding (or various unidentified but always resonant and metallic sounds)  now and again.  The score also calls for two pianos, but I never heard them.

All and all, it was an interesting experience.  I don’t know if I’ll repeat it because of the sheer length and the fact that, thanks to the total dominance of the strings, most of the work sounds the same as all the rest.  I wonder if a non-conducted version would sound different.

There is a very good chance the dynamics/balances on this recording contradict Cage's instructions and intent. I've come to the conclusion it is more effective to record the Number Pieces one instrument at a time, allowing dynamics to be heard within the exact range Cage specified. One problem with many of the thicker Number Piece recordings (and performances) is that Cage writes very clear dynamics, but within a small range (for instance, from pp to mf). If those very refined dynamic ranges are ignored, the effect is lost. With so many instruments on a full dynamic digital recording, the "dynamic compression" Cage specifies is almost impossible to achieve unless each part is recorded one at a time and then combined (with dynamic processing of each part) in post-production.

This technique allows one to hear all those "missing" percussion parts, etc.
i cant imagine how you'd feel about feldman's 2nd string quartet if you feel that 103 is too long. :) i was one of the fortunate to hear feldman's 2nd string quartet performed live in NYC by the flux quartet. it was one of the best live musical experiences of my life.

i really love 103 as i do all the number pieces. its such an excellent phase in cage's career. and really fitting for the end of his life.

103 does not need a conductor. so im not sure why kotik basically wrote out his own 'score' to the piece and then made the orchestra play the parts. the whole idea of the large ensemble number pieces is to have independent parts making up a whole. each player following their own time bracket notation etc. its easy to do as long as the players are all synced to the same stopwatch or timekeeping device.

i also agree with glenn's comment that itd be smart for a recording of the larger pieces to record all of the parts separately so that there can be more control over the final mix. because with a live recording of the whole orchestra, its probably harder to mix unless each played was individually mic'ed.

also id love to see mode do a DVD of this piece using the score to One(11). since that piece was written to go with 103.
Hey Zac,
methinks you MUST listen to 103 again. With a recording like this one, repeated listening is really recommended.

BTW, I've been reading Joan Retallack's "Musicage" - these are real revealing conversations with JC himself, especially about his last number pieces.

He admits that, in his compositions from '90-'92, he's been drawn more and more to sounds with lower dynamics, since they don't obscure each other.

And since it's very hard (impossible??) to hear every sound detail in a big orchestral recording anyway, IMO it doesn't make so much sense to use dubbing and compression techniques. Compression only "flattens" each players' part, and I'd rather prefer hearing the single players performing together, in the same room and at the same time.
When a violin player is playing what turns our to be ff on a recording and a percussion player is playing what turns out to be pppp on a recording ... yet they both believe they are playing p, then the piece will not work on recording as Cage intended. Recordings can be and should be quite different than live performances in this regard. Also, the late Number Pieces, their very narrow range of dynamics, and their very clear instructions, have been misunderstood by many performers due to preconceptions about Cage and the nature of his earlier music.
I do not have the liner notes handy, but perhaps Kotik felt that the performance of 103 would not be very good if the orchestra members didn't have a spcific score, and might fail to take it seriously (not that having a score helped very much with some performances of Atlas Eclipticalis).

If I had the opportunity to hear 103 live, I'm sure I'd attend, but I wouldn't guarantee the same thing for Feldman's quartet. The effect would be improved if it were performed with One11, sine those of us with poor attention spans would be able to alternate between viewing the film and listening. :-)
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