Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Experiences II

For those who might be interested, I have posted a link to a "CageMap" image that represents how I mentally associate various pieces by placing them in a 2D image. Of course, it's hard to show complex relationships with only two dimensions, so in the future I might try adding some color. This is my rough draft, anyway...

Tonight I chose mostly piano works, although at least one is only for piano in the broadest sense possible.  And the other is also for various honking noises.  

Standing for “As Slow As Possible,” ASLSP is a piano (or organ) work commissioned for a contest in 1985.  The work consists of eight parts; in performance, one is repeated, replacing a part.  In this case, part VIII replaced part IV.  I rather wish all the parts had been included so that I could create my own performance each time I listened, because now I can’t help asking myself, “I wonder what part IV sounds like!”  The answer is that it probably sounds a lot like the other parts—piano notes played slow enough that, if there were any relationship between them melodically, it is completely lost on me.  Similarly, I have no clue if there is a rhythmic structure.  Actually, the work suggests an interesting idea, one that someone has probably already done: take an existing piece of music, and play it so slowly that you can no longer listen to it in the same way as before.  

It has a feel similar to Winter Music in that you hear isolated tones, but there are fewer of them and more silence between.  About a quarter of the musical events are chords, and it is pretty fun to listen to them change shape and distort as they fade out into nothingness.  I also noted that some parts did not seem to be played quite as slow as, well, possible.  On the other hand, excessive slowness would probably be impractical, and Cage certainly considered the practicality of performances of his work important.

For Paul Taylor and Anita Dencks
Four sound events, notated so that space is equivalent to time, comprise this work from 1957.  At about three minutes long, it’s obviously very sparse!  In theory, it is for piano, but only two of the sounds involve the piano and even those use its interior construction.  To be honest, I only managed to hear three events.  Towards the beginning, I heard a barely audible fuzzy sound, like someone was adjusting a microphone.  A bit later, there was a (somewhat annoying) high pitched squeaking sound, probably feedback.  The next was a solitary wooden creak.  I guess I missed the last one somehow.  But, then again, all of this music is on my computer, and it may be the whirring of the fans drowned it out.  I spent the piece listening intently to hear something and hear everything except what I am listening for.

Oh, by the way:  never, ever listen to this on headphones.  Or at least never turn up the volume loud wondering if something is wrong, unless you like shattering your skull when the ear-piercing feedback arrives...I hope the next person to perform this picks a more pleasant auxiliary sound!

Experiences II
One of Cage’s rare vocal works, and the work which impressed me the most tonight.  It sets a poem by Cummings to music, and is much like Experiences I, which was for piano.  This style of singing is very beautiful to me; it has a slightly mournful feel to it.  I am absolutely certain that this music is very similar to some particular style, but I am having trouble putting my finger on it.  I want to say it is a bit like some of the field recordings I have heard by Alan Lomax from the 1930’s, but I may be wrong.

The voice has a strong accent, and I find it hard to hear the lyrics.  I do hear, “It is a moment after I dream of the rare entertainment of your eyes” and later, something about “the intolerable brightness of your charm.”  A rewarding listen.  I really like Cage’s vocal music.

Here’s a number piece, from 1991,  that’s quite different from the others I’ve talked about thus far.  It’s scored for two saxophones and three percussionists (Cage wrote more for the sax than I’d realized).  Whereas the last saxophone work I reviewed felt like a beating sun, this one is much less constant, but the sax parts still remind me of glaring light.  The percussion amounts primarily to smacking and thumping, though I am having trouble determining the exact instruments.  With a lot of silence between the appearances of the saxophones, which often play very brief tones, this has a cavernous feel to it.  I mean that literally; it feels as if I am exploring a cave: the percussion suggests movement in the darkness, dripping water, and so on, while the saxophones are the beams from my flashlight, occasionally reflecting off shiny surfaces but otherwise just fading into the blackness.  

Two Pastorales
Here we have another in Cage’s wide array of sparse, chance-determined piano works from the 50’s (1952, in this case).  What’s a bit unusual is that it’s actually for prepared piano.  At certain points, the strings are played by plucking, and there is an explosive tone cluster about three fifths of the way through the first of the Two Pastorales.  Cage seems to enjoy scaring me when I am at my most attentive!  The preparations are modest and only a few notes seem affected by them.

The second Pastorale is a little more surprising, because it features a variety of external sounds, mostly various types of whistles.  At one point I think I hear water being poured.  If the piano being played weren’t obviously a prepared one, I would think I was playing the wrong track.  I think in style this is pretty similar to Winter Music and Music of Changes (it was composed with the same chance operations as the latter), but it seems slower, and at a few points certain keys are played repeatedly and rapidly.  I think I like the other two more, though..

The first thing to strike me about ASLSP was that it wasn’t slow. The staccato attack on the notes as well as their abrupt release communicated nervous energy. The vigorous playing of the notes made for shrill dynamics that exuded a feeling of urgency. The chief entertainment of listening was predicting the arrival of the next chord. That would be paradoxical, considering that usually a slow piece takes the emphasis away from rhythm, but in this case the piece was in no way slow to begin with.

Listening brought to mind two broader Cage themes. First, he seems to repudiate emotion. In ASLSP as well as nearly every other Cage piece I’ve heard, emotional communication with the listener is not a priority if it’s even a consideration. Second, it can be difficult to pay attention during an extended period of Cage-listening. That’s not so much a critique as merely an observation, because Cage’s explicit intent in some of his works (4’33” for instance), was to lead the listener away from the performance to the environment.

For the sake of trivia, the slowest piece I’ve ever heard is the molto adagio from Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132.
I decided to check out just how slow ASLSP is by measuring the "sound event per minute" rate of several of the movements. The first is 21, and the third is 22. The second is quite slow at 12.5 but the seventh takes the prize at a mere 8 events per minute.

For comparison, a perfromance of the Beethoven adagio you mentioned came in about at 19 certainly very slow! An allegro from the same work was very difficult to guage but was in the 75 realm I'd guess.

So ASLSP is pretty darn slow, but yet not as slow as my expectation had been from the title!

Also, I'd add that many of the notes in ASLSP do often appear in breif bursts, so the averages are not as meaningful. Still, the time between the bursts tends to be long.
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