Sunday, December 04, 2005


Atlas Eclipticalis

I see no early Cage fans have given any shouts to let themselves be heard.  I suppose that’s not entirely surprising ;-)

Cage invariably makes me hungry.  But it might be that being awake at 4 AM is what makes me hungry.  My typical Cage listening experience is to sit on the couch, with a pot of noodles boiling in soup in the background.  I have a stereo setup with two nice front speakers and two crappy rear speakers; also, the ambient noise from my loud computer is going constantly (all music is stored on the PC, which channels through my receiver).  I will wait for the noodles to boil down to the point that they are slightly burnt and all the water from the soup is gone, and then I will let them sit to cool and I’ll eat, usually about halfway through the particular 45 minute block of works.  

Typically, I take some notes, unless I have heard the pieces several times before (tonight, for example).  I then write some skeleton reviews (date, brief description) to fill in later, especially if it happens to be very late.  I usually try NOT to do this while I listen, since it’s distracting, but some nights (like, again, tonight) I feel a little pressed for time.

Atlas Eclipticalis
In order to write about this 1961 work, I was going to break down and learn orchestra notation.  Fortunately, I don’t need to bother because it’s much clearer than usual.  Basically, the work is a collection of events for various instruments; I think the version I am listening to now uses all 86.  A star chart, from which the work gets its title, was used to compose the piece, with star brightness indicating the amplitude of notes.  The dedication is a who’s-who of people important to Cage at the time.  

This recording is a little hard to listen to due to the huge range of dynamics; I have my music player do some gain to make all my music have approximately uniform volume, but with Atlas the result ends up clipping on some of the really loud instruments if I don’t limit it.  I blame the optional amplification, which seems to have been done in this performance, especially on the percussion and the timpani (which is totally shocking when it arrives!).  

Mine is the Wergo recording.  Basically, what I hear is a low rumbling mix of strings and other instruments in the background, with occasional impositions of various instruments over the din.  I think the music is, in fact, a good analog for the universe from which it gets its title and notation: You have the omnipresent background radiation left over by the big bang, with singular points of light slicing out at you from assorted locations, often (when viewed from earth) seeming to twinkle.  Additionally, the brightness is sometimes amplified by viewing them through a telescope.  

The only questions I have about my ‘view’ of the piece is whether a) Cage would approve (the point of chance operations was, after all, to remove intention)?  and b) do I just think this because I know what the title is?   The answer to a) I think might actually be “no” because even if I view the whole music as evocative of the night sky, then I will listen to it as I watch the night sky, with the possibility of focusing on sounds as they are.  To use an analogy, even though Cage might suggest the sky as a whole, he doesn’t draw constellations.  As for the second question, well, even if I made up my interpretation based on the title, I am no worse off than I am with practically every tone poem ever written.

As an aside—There is much Greek mythology to explain how gods and animals and so forth ended up in the night sky.  Is there any mythology to explain as to why they look like a bunch of dots now?

This is a 1945 piano extract from Four Walls, which I have already heard.  I suppose I could probably figure out just which part this is...Hmm, it appears to be from part III of the dance.  I’m not sure if there are other extracts or not.  It doesn’t include the main theme.  Anyway, the music is mostly a faced spaced collection of rhythms that might sound good on a prepared piano as well!  There are pauses between each that most probably represent text in the dramatic dance that accompanied the music but which are not a part of it..

Which recording of "Atlas Eclipticalis" were you listening to?
This is the Wergo version. Very nice it is, too.
Eberhard Blum recorded a "minimal" version for 3 flutes (piccolo, flute & alto flute). It's less dense, features lots of silences and is very beautiful.
there are many versions of atlas. great piece. it is often played with winter music too. there is a really long version by SEM ensemble and petr kotik that i like. the best version ive ever heard was a live recording from cincinnati students that cage coached on the piece. this was on a cassette in the northwestern univ. cage archive.

as far as having your own 'view' or associations with cage's music. i think its perfectly ok. i dont think cage ever said it wasnt ok for the listener to have their own feelings or associations or images, etc with his music. thats why he wanted to remove himself or his intentions from his music because he knew that every listener will have their own unique experience with his music. so there was no need to try to force ideas or feelings on the listener.
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