Sunday, May 18, 2008


Variations VII

So Experiments in Arts and Technology along with ARTPIX have begun releasing a series of documentaries on 9 Evenings, a series of artistic collaborations between dancers, musicians, visual artists and engineers from Bell Labs. One of them is some video and audio from a performance of John Cage's Variations VII. The basic premise is that lots of sounds are piped into a sound system, but with the limitation that all the sounds must be produced at the instance of performance.

I could go on and on, much like the documentary, and describe the multitude of sources of sounds. However, I don't see much point in that for reasons I'll mention later. The short story is that there are five broad classifications of sources:
1. David Tudor and his electronic control panel with assorted noise generators.
2. Various household with contact microphones (fans, blenders, etc.)
3. Telephone lines to locations including a press room, a water treatment plant, the New York SPCA, a restaurant, and other places around New York.
4. Alvin Lucier's brain
5. A big horn that produces air raid-like siren noises via some electronic device.

I'm uncertain about what's involved in the David Tudor source; it seems he had is own little area where he had a myriad of gadgets attached to generate sound.

The net result of all these sound sources is...well, lots of noises. But they all get collaged into a big barely-differentiated mass of swerving tones and loud ambient grinding noises. The documentary made a big deal of specifying the locations of the various telephone connections, but you can't make out any of them, so who cares?

What's more interesting are the electronics and the sirens, and the amplified items (I assume that's the source of much of the noise). Some of them sound like buzzing, some like intensely miserable grinding, almost like a piledriver being rammed against a steel wall or something. The best way to describe it is that it's similar to some of Einsterzende Neubauten's performances using industrial machines in the early 1980's, except that none of this sound is produced by anything so large, but just through the (shockingly massive) amplification of small sounds.

I'm not sure how much is the contact microphones and how much is under the control of David Tudor's booth. The siren is the most recognizable part of the performance, as it starts everything and you hear it throughout. The 69th Regiment Armory, the location of the performance, is intensely resonant so that everything seems louder and denser than it might have in another location.

The videos of the performance and the stories told by various participants in the documentary are interesting. However, I don't see much point in listening to the hour-and-a-half sound recording of the performance because it is largely undifferentiated.

If you do listen, I recommend using it as a background to something else. I, for example, cleaned my bathroom! As I write this, the performance just ended (very abruptly, during some applause).

Everything seems oddly silent now...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Sounds of Venice

Well, it's been more than a year since my last post here, and what a year it's been! Or something like that, anyway. I got a job, moved to Kentucky, and finished another yearlong blogging project on a video game series. But in the meantime I need to catch up on plenty of new Cage recordings. Or, at least a few. I was inspired to this blog by the copy of Variations VII I picked up (to my surprise) at the local music store. But I'll probably save that for a future entry. I also need to write about One11, the Cage film, which conveniently enough comes with a performance of 103, one which I hope is actually performed according to the score, unlike the Asphodel CD.

I also need to buy the Mode with the first performance of Three, as well as the upcoming Il Treno recording, which is hopefully far superior to the obscure cassette in some Italian library in Florence that I still haven't gotten hold of!

Sounds of Venice
This is the first and only recording, on the Antes label, of a Water Walk-like work performed by Cage on the Italian quiz show, Lascia O Radoppia, which based on my Google-infused knowledge of Italian is something akin to Nothing or Double.

I like listening to this recording more than I enjoyed listening to Water Walk, just because the emphasis here seems to be more heavily on miscellaneous sounds (of Venice, no less!)--including birds, gondolier recordings, occasional bursts of music from a radio, a telephone, and what is supposedly a cat meowing, but what I swear sounds like a human just saying "meow." It does a pretty good job of capturing the sensation of what I imagine being in Venice would be like, and I don't feel as much is lost by losing the visual aspect as I feel is lost in the case of Music Walk and other performance art.

Telephones and Birds
I confess I don't have any idea what inspired this recording, because I'm not German--unlike the entirety of the liner notes! In any case, Telephones and Birds is a mixture of recordings of bird calls and telephone calls to various numbers that provide automated responses not requiring a response from the dialer. Alternation between these occur based on decisions made using instructions in the score.

It's a pretty oddball work, but entertaining. I can't quite decide why Cage chose the combination of recorded birds with telephone recordings. Since this was made in Germany, obviously the phone numbers dialed were not the ones envisioned by Cage, which may not exist anymore anyway, and I am not sure what the messages are saying...though one is obviously a phone sex hotline! I suppose you could say that birds enjoy sitting on phone lines, and therefore the combination makes sense. Yet I think that's probably a stretch! The performers, Zeitkratzer, make a point of recording the sound of the phone being dialed, which is pretty need.

The disc itself is tilted, The Force of Negation but I don't see the negation involved in the Cage piece--Except maybe in that familiar three-tone sequence indicating a failed telephone call, one of my favorite sounds, which is heard frequently towards the end of the recording. Th liner notes don't prove helpful, and don't even seem to mention Cage.

My favorite part of the disc, though, has to be the cover of Throbbing Gristle's Hamburger Lady, but that's the subject for someone else's blog!

It's good to be back! I hope someone is still paying attention :-)

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