Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Some comments re: Finnegans Wake

Time flies when you don't have recordings to review! However, over the course of this past May and June I did do something Cage-related...I read Finnegans Wake. I can see why he enjoyed it so much, and I feel the same way as Cage states in the introduction to "Alphabet," that I don't understand any of it. Even when I recognized phrases or puns or whatnot,, it was only as that--a reference, but devoid of useful context. Had I not bothered to read the introduction in the book, I wouldn't have likely even realized it was supposed to be about someone dreaming until the end when a motif of "Wake!" is seen over and over again.

I particularly enjoyed making notes of the points at which Cage-related words occur in the text, such as "Roaratorio." I also surprisingly recognized other musical names, including "Fadograph of a Yestern Scene" which I think was used for a piece by...Samuel Barber? I can't remember, but the net says I am right.

In terms of my Cage experience I think the experience of reading Joyce's book most reminded me of Cage's radio works--where incomprehensible static is punctuated by occasional fragmentary recognizable music and sounds and human voices.

I couldn't help, though, but note that almost all of the references I've seen elsewhere came from the very beginning or the end of the book! Not that I blame anyone...those are the most pleasing to read. There's a large section towards the middle of the book full of tight encyclopedia style text with meaningless footnotes that is far beyond anything else in the book in its impenetrable obscurity.

I was reminded when I read it of John Barton Wolgamot's In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoveen there were men and women, used in a composition by Robert Ashley. It features a large number of repetitions of the same sentence, changing only the names of historical persons in the sentence. The difference is that when I read through Wolgamot's text, there's the implication that I should be able to make the connections he makes, even though some are totally obtuse ("Hemingway" precedes "Keats" because "Earnest" sounds like "Urn") and impossible to decipher without a key. I also read David Jones' In Parenthesis shortly after finishing the Wake. It's an epic poem of World War I, and also features mountains of references, though from much more narrow sources, and I was upset because the author actually demanded that I read all his annoying footnotes!

By contrast, when I read Finnegans Wake, just reading it seemed sufficient; I did not feel like I needed to delve in to understand what, if any, connections there are between its words, and just hearing the words (I read a lot of it out loud) was sufficient.

So I'm glad I read it. Now I will understand Cage better when he discusses Joyce elsewhere in his interviews and writings and so on! One thing is very curious to me: Joyce mentions television all the time in the Wake. But it was written in the 30's. Wasn't it a pretty experimental device at the time? Surprising.

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 :-)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Song Books

I have often wondered why certain of Cage's Solos for Voice have been recorded while others have not. To answer that question I've authored a web page describing all of the Solos, based on the published score. I believe there are books and a thesis on the subject, but I don't think there are any other details about the piece on the web. Enjoy:

Guide to Cage's Song Books

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


By Request!

Someone in comments recently requested the cummings poem that Cage set in Forever and Sunsmell.  Here it is.  Words actually present in the music are bold; those not bold were omitted by Cage.

      wherelings whenlings
      (daughters of ifbut offspring of hopefear
      sons of unless and children of almost)
      never shall guess the dimension of
      him whose
      foot likes the
      here of this earth
      whose both
      this now of the sky
      --endlings of isn’t
      shall never
      to begin to
      imagine how (only are shall be were
      dawn dark rain snow rain
      -bow &
      ‘s whis-
      in sunset
      or thrushes toward dusk among whippoorwills or
      tree field rock hollyhock forest brook chickadee
      mountain.  Mountain)
      whycoloured worlds of because do
      not stand against yes which is built by
      forever & sunsmell
      (sometimes a wonder
      of wild roses
      with north
      the barn

The song also repeats several sections, particularly “foot likes the here of this earth.”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Postcard from Heaven

Today I wrap up a few recordings that were left undone from last year—namely Eight and the items from “A Cage of Saxophones II.” Reportedly there will be another disc of saxophone music, but this seems surprising to me because I’m not sure what is left to perform for that instrument!  Also in this update is a review of ArpaViva’s first release, Postcard from Heaven, a work for harps that I had looked forward to hearing for a long time.
I also have the Cage movie One11 to review once I manage to go through it all.  I invited my mom to join me, but after a description of its content (changing patterns of light for 90 minutes) she refused and commented, “That sounds even worse that the one where he sits at a piano and doesn’t play anything for three minutes.”  Sigh.
     I now also have updated versions of the two unrecorded and unowned works lists, as well as a new index page featuring recent reviews and recording links.  I think the only 2006 releases I have yet to review at this point are two German releases—Telephones and Birds and Sounds of Venice which I have thus far been unable to buy.  Keep an eye out for them.
     In other news, I finally defended my Master’s thesis and am now once more hunting for a job, and in the meantime living at home.  I’m not sure what to do with these pages aside from continue the reviews as new releases emerge.   I had thoughts originally of compiling them into a more browse-able form.  One possibility is to use the idea of the “CageMap” and create a series of web pages of discussions of individual works, with each page linking to works of a similar nature; then, the index of pages and their links would be something like the CageMap I had initially envisioned.
Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon and Six Short Inventions on the Subject of the Solo
This piece from 1934 features one of Cage’s most longwinded titles, outdone only by But What About the Noise....  From the date, it’s clear it was written early in his career and shares many of the characteristics of the early music.  Specifically, it is plodding and pretty dull.  This performance is on saxophones, and in many of these early works I wonder if the instruments are left unspecified on purpose, or if the music was written primarily as an abstract exercise without much intention of performance.  The latter thought I reject because Cage always said his goal was performance, but these might predate that decision.
The music is melodic, of a sort, in that there are no sharp leaps from place to place, but very dissonant.  To my ear there is little sense of cooperation among the instruments, and frankly the “solo” section seems like an unending stair-step pattern that refuses to attract my attention.  The inventions have some degree of character.  The second is very brief and lively, while the third has a wistful, emotionally evocative character not normal in Cage’s music, as does the fifth to some degree.

Composition for Three Voices
     Musical titles do not come much more vague than this item from 1934.  According to’s sources, this is another abstract piece which focuses on keeping rows of notes as far apart as possible.  The use of three voices doesn’t add too much to the music, and it was evidently hard to choose three instruments which would not inhibit one another in performance, and there doesn’t seem to be much intentional interplay between them.  I would describe it as boring mid-century atonal chamber music.  This was performed on the unusual combination of saxophone, accordion and cello.

Eight it a winds-only piece from 1991 for trumpet, clarinet, flute, trombone, horn, clarinet and tuba.  The exclusive use of winds makes it interesting, and gives it the same “sunlight” feel that I have noted in other wind-heavy number pieces; it seems as if this could be used as music in a desert scene in a movie, or anything featuring a glaring sun.  It follows the conventions I am used to in number pieces—short but rare bursts of single instruments, long but quiet tones from one or more.  I find it interesting that the short bursts seem to occur in groups in Eight, almost as if one instrument is responding to another, though it would not amaze me if this is an illusion.  Also of interest are a few occurrences of non-isolated tones in which instruments play multiple instances of the same tone in succession.  Still, beyond that, this is not a very distinctive number piece.
     My reaction to the music itself has been positive overall.  I like dense number pieces, but paradoxically I also have thing for silence.  In this case, there are no long stretches without sound, but plenty of long stretches with multiple instruments interacting in slowly evolving patterns.  Wind instruments are especially interesting in such long stretches because I am amazed at the players’ ability to keep on going.  It’s also fun to hear how subtle changes in breath (or in a few cases what I am guessing was loss of breath) can effect the music.  In the end, Eight is an enjoyable listen, but it doesn’t really go beyond its many similar relatives in Cage’s late works.

A Postcard for Heaven
     Being a fan of the harp, I have been eager to hear a recording of this 1982 piece for harp for a long time.  Victoria Jordanova gives an excellent performance in its only recording (so far).  I am a little skeptical of some aspects of this performance, though.  Cage specified that the strings should be vibrated using a particular electronic device, but such devices apparently don’t work as required and the same effect was produced using other means.  Also, there is an option for vocal performance by the harpist, but in this recording the voices are provided by someone else.  There is also overdubbing of different sections—a reasonable strategy in Cage’s work, but one which seems to me to be used a bit too often.    
     Anyway, those concerns are pretty minor, and what is important is the sound, which I find very attractive.  After listening to the number pieces, I have always felt that the ethereal nature of the harp would make for a great instrument to use in that style.  This obviously predates the number pieces, but in its slow-moving, almost lonely texture it seems to have something in common with the ones for a few instruments.  In particular, I like the fact that I paired it with Eight in this review.  It can be distinguished from other number pieces by its use of repeated musical phrases in what seems to be an echoing pattern.  The vocal parts are simply slight “ahhh” sounds superimposed over the harp performance, and sound angelic, although I think they could be removed with no ill effects (they are optional in the score).  This music is quite beautiful and emphasize the facility with which Cage makes use of different resources to great effect.  It’s bizarre that no one had tackled it in the form of a recording until now.  

Friday, November 10, 2006



As I type, I am sitting outside my house in Alabama, enjoying this new OgreOgress recording Glenn was kind enough to send me recently.  I apologize for not updating lately—Reviewing the books was much more challenging than reviewing the music (with the music, I can listen and write immediate reactions; with the books I had to re-read multiple times to remember enough!).  

This blog is not exactly conducive to a CD review because I am organized by piece of music.  As a result, I will talk about everything but Two3 up here, and talk about Two3 below.  This recording of Inlets is a better listen than the previously recorded version by Hêlios, simply because the balancing makes every detail of the bubbling conch shells audible, as is that wonderful snapping and flaming noise associated with the burning pinecone.  The conch-shell horn seems to fit in much better this way.  I think Inlets is one of my favorite Cage works.  It seems just so very natural, or “imitative of nature in its manner of operation” as I think Cage said music ought to be.

Two4 has never been my favorite Cage work, as I think I have something against the solo strings (although I do like the near competition between the sho sound and the violin sound when they play simultaneously).  I should probably review the version for violin and piano sometime.  

This is the first solo recording of this music, which is for sho and conch shells.  The shells are filled with water, and in typical Cage fashion they are tipped to produce sound, or not, as they are indeterminate in their sound-producing ability.  The sho is the Japanese wind instrument featured previously in a discussion of Two4.  This is the first time Two3 has been recorded as such.  One9 is the same work, minus the conch sells, and has been recorded in combination with 108 and in a transcription(?) for accordion.  

The recording I am hearing is a complete performance of the entire work, and thus it continues for two full hours, with no particular change or drama or conclusion.  It just continues until it doesn’t continue anymore.  I prefer that phrase to saying it “stops,” simply because the latter word implies some sort of finality, whereas hear you feel the potential for the music to continue forever (especially if you have been listening for two hours already...) but it doesn’t.  

The sound of the sho is all in the treble range, but it is not especially loud.  The conch shells, well, they are barely there.  In the first half hour I heard about four different blurp noises.  This makes the conch sounds more surprising when they do occur, almost like a shock.  On the first one, I actually jumped.  However, an advantage of the low presence of shell noises is that I can load up my sound editor, delete all the conch shells, and save it as a new set of files called One9 :-) At least until someone records One9 on its own, anyway...  

The overall texture is not exactly sparse, because when sound events do occur they are not as  brief as the events in any of the time-bracket piano works.  The sho distinguishes itself from the strings and brass involved in number pieces by having little or no intensity or power—The horns and violins and whatnot seem to have a strength to them that demands your attention, whereas I find the sho to be more ethereal and not particularly concerned with whether I listen to it or not.  This ties in with my perception of the piece not ever seeming to have a stopping point.  

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