Monday, October 31, 2005


Williams Mix

Tonight, it’s on to a few works that I happen to enjoy.  And one I don’t.  And one I’ve never heard!  I’ll add that it was late when I wrote much of this, and I was pretty punchy, so there may be a higher percentage of silliness in these reviews...

Williams Mix
This is pretty much the most depressing work in the entirety of Cage’s career, in my opinion.  This was one gigantic tape-splicing operation that took a year or so to complete, with a myriad of problems.  Cage apparently co-opted anyone who wandered by to do some splicing.  I say it’s depressing simply because a huge amount of effort (Cage apparently gave instructions on how to complete if he died working on it) went into something that could now be replicated in a tiny fraction of the time.  It’s essentially a mixture of several hundred recordings that fall into the category of city, country, electronic, manual, wind and amplified “small” sounds (as a side note, there is a Yahoo! group devoted to such amplified sounds).  The splicing and all operations were determined using the I Ching, the Chinese oracle and one of Cage’s favorite means of performing chance operations.  The version I listened to is a beautifully re-recorded copy of the original work from 1952 on the “Octo Mixes” CD, which also has a new realization.  I originally heard it on the 25th Anniversary recording, but it was full of chatter and laughter from the audience.

My experience in listening to it is pretty wild.  It’s almost like some sort of incredibly fast out-of-body experience, as if you are rushing through all of human civilization, with rapid blasts of highly distorted speech, rumbling noises of electronics, tiny snippets of music...All that and a seemingly omnipresent frog.  It feels like a compression of all of modern life into a few minutes of sound, and it’s exhilarating to listen to.  As a bit of trivia, the two speech fragments I can actually make out are “gonna find a winner” and “thing that sing.”

When I heard Revolution 9 from the Beatles, I thought it was a wild idea.  Then I heard this from well over a decade before and the poor Beatles just weren’t interesting anymore.

Living Room Music
I challenge anyone to listen to this and not enjoy hammering out the rhythm on whatever furniture is available.  Which is perfectly fine, since the 1940 work itself is to be played on household objects, window frames, and whatnot.  The second movement is hilarious to me, featuring several performers rhythmically hissing and singing some Gertrude Stein about the world being round.  I especially enjoy the male voice in this recording who says, “round and round and rooooound.”  The first and last movements feature pure percussion, and the solid, hard sound of the strikes are very appealing and easy to beat along to.  The melody section, the third movement, is a simple melody with percussion accompaniment.  It has something of a ritualistic feel, I think.

One of the reasons I find the second movement so hilarious is that it allowed the work to be included, somewhat absurdly in my opinion, on the Mode “Choral Works” release.

This was my first One, and my first number piece for percussion, in this case a solo drummer.  It was written in 1990.  Since the drums obviously don’t take on the same sort of extended sounds as strings or wind instruments, the feel is pretty significantly different.  Moe importantly, there is a wider variety of sounds, from the metallic drum rolls, to harsh bass hits, and so on.  Each of these loud events is surrounded by long bouts of silence.  Thus, my natural analog for this would be floating through space (even though mentally I am space out, I will admit that I’ve never physically been there).  Of course, you wouldn’t actually hear anything in space, but I think the various sounds are analogous to bumping into space debris.  I’m guessing most Ones, even for strings and other instruments, are pretty sparse affairs.  Sparseness highlights the unique characteristics of each sound, and in this case you hear certain rolls longer than you would ever hear them in other music, bringing out some of their peculiarities (such as, in one case, a curious ringing sound).  This was fun, although I think the more sparse the number piece, the more it needs to be approached like the mass of sparse piano works from the 50’s.

Music for Marcel Duchamp
Dedicated to the artist, this work from 1947 was originally written for Dreams that Money Can Buy.  The piano doesn’t have a massive number of preparations, although it is heavily muted.  To my ear, the effect is that it makes the keyboard sound more like a plucked instrument than it otherwise would.  The work has a fairly characteristic rhythm, and extensive repetitions towards the end (and other though less extensive repetitions of similar phrases towards the end.

I have a definite feel for the style of music, but it’s hard to describe exactly.  It very much reminds me of some of the music from ancient Greece that I have heard when played on various types of lyres.  Similarly, when I see a movie about Egypt, there’s typically a soundtrack that reminds me of this.  So I’ll go out on a limb, risk some chastisement, and claim that this sounds west Asian to me.

The title isn’t kidding around.  Waiting is from 1952, and really doesn’t have much to it besides, well, a lot of waiting.  A little over a minute’s worth, followed by a few brief piano notes.  Then you wait awhile longer.  It’s sort of fun, actually.  You might even be able to scare someone by passing it off as a recording of 4’33”.

Variations II
In 1961, Cage wrote the second in his Variations series for any number of players and any means of producing sound.  I knew I was going to have to tackle these, possibly the absolutely hardest to approach of  anything Cage ever wrote, eventually.  Basically, the work is a series of transparencies with points and lines, which are superimposed on each other and used, after some manipulations, to determine readings for frequency, duration, etc.  I am not really sure what I can add to that.  My recording, one of several that I have, is from one of the “New York School” albums, and features what seems to be sandpaper, some percussion (wooden sticks, some kind of gun I think, and a rattle), along with a slide whistle.  Every single performance would sound completely different, and I’m not sure if there’s any general suggestion I can offer other than to listen to the sounds, as Cage might say, as just sounds, without any substantial relationship to the other sounds.

I personally feel that the performers, who effectively create the performance, are the ones who get the most out of this work.  I would actually rather like a copy of the score, because it might be attractive.

cComposed Improvisations
In 1990, Cage was commissioned for a work for Steinberg bass guitar.  He created this, which also includes parts for snare and “one sided drum with or without jangles.”  A snare drum solo version has been recorded, as has the guitar and snare, but the poor potentially-jangly drum has been ignored. :-(

Like most of the late works it includes time brackets, during which events may be played, their exact number, duration, etc. to be determined by chance operations.  I’m afraid that on this recording, by Robert Black (the same one who requested it), I do not get the feeling that chance operations were been used; instead it sounds basically like a very experimental jazz tune, with the drums playing some fairly recognizable beats at points.  On the other hand, it is not a continuous performance.  I’m not therefore convinced as to the authenticity of this performance.  I’ll have to refresh my memory of the liner notes.

Exactly one person known to read this blog will have any hope of understanding what I mean when I say that the sound reminds me of the experimental (and obscure) jazz group El Guapo, who not coincidentally are the only experimental jazz group I have any familiarity with whatsoever.    

"The more sparse the number piece, the more it needs to be approached like the mass of sparse piano works from the 50’s"

When one uses chance procedures to realize Number Pieces an "approach" is not possible. This is the case for every Number Piece we have recorded. No approach was taken at all. All parameters present in the music were determined using chance procedures.
I was referring to the approach one might take while listening to the work, not an approach to creating it. I find it nexessary to listen in a different way to the pieces that are very sparse versus those with a number of continuous and/or overlapping sounds.
This is very true. Thanks for the clarification.
The Williams Mix:
is it,
1) a collection of droid noises from Star Wars, 2) a soundtrack to a nightmare, 3) a data dump from a digital media library, or 4) an vigorating synthesis of all that is noble in Western Civilization?

As for Music for Marcel Duchamp, it reminds me a lot of Dream, except that it's even more explicitly pentatonic in its harmonies. A lonely samurai plucking his guitar on a hillside is an image that comes to mind.
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Well, let's see...I think I can discount #1 offhand since not many Star Wars robots croak like frogs. And since I am pretty sure I hear advertisement fragments, I think #4 can go as well.

The other 2 are more on the mark, perhaps. Certainly, I would be pretty scared if I had this playing in my mind while I was being stalked in a nightmare!

I think a speedy exploration through a media library might be an accurate assesment too, considering that the sounds are orginized into groups of different sorts. It would have to be a pretty broadly-ranging library to encompass all these sounds though.
im pretty sure that earle brown's 'octet', morton feldman's 'intersection (1953)' and christian wolff's 'for magnetic tape' were all made from these sounds / tapes that they collected for williams mix. its nice to know they got some mileage out of such an ambitious project. i love williams mix. i dont like it so much when its combined with aria though...
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