Friday, January 20, 2006



So in order to more fully enjoy my classical music (using the most broad possible definition of the word) collection, this past week I wrote a straightforward program that provides a shuffled playlist of music while keeping all the parts of a particular work together and in the correct order.  I don’t know why music programs don’t have this feature already, except that different people label their music differently so it might be challenging to make a solution that works for everyone.  Of course, this particular probably won’t work for people who don’t sort their music the same way I do, that is, people who sort it badly... ;-)

It’s been very helpful because I like the surprise of hearing music I would not have selected to listen to on my own; instead the ‘chance operation’ of the shuffler chooses for me.  As I was listening a while ago, an as-of-yet un-reviewed Cage work came up, so I figured I should make the best of the opportunity that has presented itself!

I’m cheating a little here.  Branches is just a bunch of repetitions of Child of Tree, but because the first performance is considered to be Child of Tree, I extracted it and reviewed it earlier!  The extended version, Branches, was composed in 1976.  There are basically two types of sounds in Branches: The rattling noises, made with various pod rattles.  These have very similar timbres but some sound higher and others lower.  The second sound source is plucked cactus needles, which I always seem to mistake for dripping water.  They are amplified to such a degree that they sound like loud popping or bouncing noises (other sounds, such as leaves tearing and movement of other plant materials may be involved here too).  The effect is a lot like Cartridge Music, but because the sounds are more specific, I find it more pleasing to hear.

The performers generally seem to play the rattles with some pretty steady rhythms.  One of the rhythms they chose was not especially pleasing to my ears.  If it had just a little bit more creakiness to it, the sound would be identical to the sound of the couple who live upstairs from me, and because of whom I bought earplugs last year.  Actually, this particular pod-rattle shaking went on for much longer than those overheard noises, too: another difference.  Anyway, my favorite rattle rhythms are where the performer seems to be moving it slowly back and forth across a surface, rather than just shaking it in the air.

There is no discernable rhythm to the cactus plucking, except a few cases where several sounds seem to come in sequence.  Each tone is a little bit different, and some are exceptionally loud and resonant.  These particular cacti must have a huge number of spines considering how many plucks I hear, and apparently the removal is done with toothpicks.  I’m not clear how that works exactly!  Since I don’t hear any grunts, I presume none of the performers accidentally jabbed themselves...Sometimes the sounds are like bubbling noises, and I don’t really understand where that came from.

The key to this particular recording of the work is the resonant environment they chose to perform in, since it really brings the amplified noises to life.  It sounds good at high volumes, and I actually find myself ridiculously tapping my foot to the rattle shaking.  

I think this work may also represent one of Cage’s first forays into the world of improvisation, something he normally disliked.  It is subtitled, after all, Improvisation I, and performers are instructed to “clarify the time structure” with their improvisations playing the instruments.

this is in the category of contingency improvisation for cage. he found that improvising with materials that dont have predicatable and repeatable results was good. also using materials that we arent familiar with and that maybe arent considered musical instruments. these were 2 solutions cage found for improvisations so that the players tastes and prejudices and technicality wouldnt enter in as much.

the cacti needles are just plucked or rubbed with a toothpick. its a really wonderful sound. its like a giant mbira thumb piano with lots of notes. try this with a pine cone too. i recently got a prickly pear cactus when i was home visiting my parents in AZ. they are nasty plants. the big needles are fine. but there are these small tiny needles that really do a number on your hands, even with gloves.
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